Johns Hopkins University

Fall 2008
Vol. 6, No.1


Student Research from the Field

Worth A Surf


Expert Opinion

Research Briefs

Classroom Encounters

Techno Roots of Urban Edens

Student Playwright Finds Success in Failure

Music from the Material World

Research Rewarded

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Debut Novel Makes a Splash

Just write one good sentence.

The assignment came to Jessica Anya Blau four years ago during a writer's workshop in Vermont. In response, Blau MA '95 wrote two sentences inspired by a childhood memory of the swim parties her family attended in Santa Barbara in the '70s: "Leon jumps naked on the diving board. His hairy grown-up body looks slightly melted as he goes up and down, up and down, his penis and balls flying in unison like a long bird attached to its eggs."

When Blau read the sentence aloud to her workshop group, they laughed. She began wondering why she had never before written about that period in her life, the '70s in Southern California, growing up with eccentric parents who swam naked and grew marijuana in the backyard. Maybe there was something there, she thought.

A few days later, the writer was talking to a well-known book editor who told her that her first book needed to be a novel, not a collection of short stories as Blau had planned. Did she have a novel in progress? Thinking about the sentences she had written earlier in the week, Blau said she did. When the editor asked the name of the novel, Blau blurted out the first title that came to mind: "The Summer of Naked Swim Parties."

It took a year before Blau started writing the book, and then two years to complete it. And since the book's debut last May (Harper Perennial, 2008), it has been showered with praise by critics who have called The Summer of Naked Swim Parties "charming," "witty," and "shimmering." One month after its release, it went into its third printing.

Fresh off the California leg of her book tour, the author seemed giddy and a little stunned by her debut novel's success. "I'm like knocking on wood and thanking every god there is," says Blau, who has been a lecturer in the Writing Seminars since 1995.

Set in the summer of 1976, the book is the semi-autobiographical story of Jamie, a 14-year-old Southern California girl looking to find her place in the world as she gets her first boyfriend, loses her virginity, finds out what it means to be popular, and comes to terms with her family and friends.

It's not a memoir, it's fiction. But much of the story is Blau's. As a teen, the author shared Jamie's predilection for surfers, her flat brown wannabe Farrah Fawcett hair, and dark tan. And the part-time nudist adults in the book are all composites of grown-ups she grew up with. "Basically it's all me," she says, laughing.

What rings true for readers of her novel is that even if they didn't share Blau's background, she accurately, often hilariously, depicts what it feels like to be a teenager. "Being 14 is the same for everyone," she says. "You're thinking about sex—you don't know if you should have it. You're thinking about drugs—you don't know if you should do them. You're thinking about your parents—you don't know if you should hang out with them. And you're thinking about your friends—you don't know if you should trust them."

The author, who lives in Roland Park with her husband, David Grossbach, and two daughters, is currently at work on her second novel. It is also semi-autobiographical and has a catchy title: Home for the Heart Attack.

More Faculty Books

Capitalism and Christianity, American Style By William E. Connolly
Duke University Press
In Connolly's latest work, the Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science charts the path of the "evangelical-capitalist resonance machine" and how he says it infiltrates numerous aspects of American life.

Catastrophic Consequences: Civil Wars and American Interests By Steven David
Johns Hopkins University Press
Examining the prospects for, and potential after-effects of, instability in four nations vital to U.S. national interests—Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China, and Mexico—David makes a powerful case that civil wars, rather than traditional international conflicts, are now the most likely source of serious threats to American interest.

Complexity, Multi-Disciplinarity, and Beyond By Michael Finkenthal
Peter Lang Publishing
Finkenthal focuses on the issue of complexity as it relates to the humanities and social sciences, here providing basic definitions for complexity, and describing a test case for complexity analysis and the epistemological aspects of thinking complexity.

The Civility Solution: What to Do When People are Rude By P.M. Forni
St. Martin's Press
In his follow-up to the best-selling Choosing Civility: The Twenty-Five Rules of Considerate Conduct, Forni delivers a handbook for dealing with life's everyday rudeness (see p. 24 for more).

Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before By Michael Fried
Yale University Press
James R. Herbert Boone Professor of Humanities Michael Fried argues in his latest work that the photographic "ghetto" no longer exists, and that instead photography is at the cutting edge of contemporary art.

Secrets of the Hoary Deep By Riccardo Giacconi
Johns Hopkins University Press
Part history, part memoir, and part cutting-edge science, Secrets of the Hoary Deep is the tale of x-ray astronomy from its infancy through what can only be called its early adulthood.

The Economy of Renaissance Florence By Richard Goldthwaite
Johns Hopkins University Press
In this authoritative work, Goldthwaite explains the complex workings of Florence's commercial, banking, and artisan sectors from the late Middle Ages to 1600.

Games, Strategies, and Decision Making By Joseph E. Harrington, Jr.
Worth Publishers
This new text on game theory introduces and develops the key concepts using empirical evidence, anecdotes, and strategic situations to help apply theory and gain a genuine insight into human behavior.

Beaches, Ruins, Resorts: The Politics of Tourism in the Arab World By Waleed Hazbun
University of Minnesota Press
Hazbun shows how tourism is shaping the economic development and international relations of the Middle East in dramatic ways.

Atlantic Diasporas: Jews and Crypto-Jews in the Age of Mercantilism, 15001800 By Richard Kagan and Philip Morgan
Johns Hopkins University Press
This wide-ranging narrative explores the role that Jews, conversos, and crypto-Jews played in settling and building the Atlantic world between 1500 and 1800.

Invented Edens: Techno-Cities in the Twentieth Century By Robert Kargon and Arthur P. Molella
MIT Press
Kargon, a history of science professor, and Molella explore the evolution of 20th-century planned cities designed in conjunction with large technological projects around the world (see p. 38 for more).

Gilles Deleuze, Cinema, and Philosophy By Paola Marrati
Johns Hopkins University Press
Marrati offers a concise introduction to the work of Gilles Deleuze, who has come to be recognized as one of the major philosophers of the 20th century.