Open Book with Joan Cohen
When Stockbridge resident Joan Cohen was searching for works that were similar to "Land of Last Chances," her debut novel about a female executive negotiating personal turmoil, she couldn't find much about fictional corporate women.
"All you come up with is nonfiction. Everybody wants to tell you how to lean in, and, well, thanks, but a lot of us figured that out a long time ago," Cohen told The Eagle during a Tuesday phone interview.
After receiving an MBA from New York University, Cohen had a long career in sales, marketing and other functions at computer hardware and software firms. But when her parents' health diminished, she stopped working and decided to pursue a lifelong passion of hers: writing. She subsequently earned an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and penned "Land of Last Chances." The novel's protagonist, Jeanne Bridgeton, is weighing the risks of a promotion and a pregnancy. Genetic history and the father's (there are multiple candidates) ties to her professional life complicate Jeanne's decision about whether to give birth in her late 40s. The book represents Cohen's interest in moral dilemmas, Alzheimer's disease and business.
"Having worked in business for so long, I felt that people — well, women especially, and I don't want to generalize about the younger generation — but I saw women as more risk-averse than men, more worried about whether they could do that next job they were being promoted to, even if they kept their fears to themselves," Cohen said.
She also wanted to demonstrate that personal and professional lives can get tangled in multiple ways.
"It's not as simple as the 'work-life balance,' and, 'How do you balance kids with your job?' Those are oversimplifications," she said.
A Kirkus review praised the book's complexity.
"Cohen offers an adeptly written genetic detective story in this novel. In Jeanne, she creates a sympathetic and multidimensional character that avoids outdated stereotypes that one often sees in portrayals of women executives," the review reads.
On Thursday, Cohen will take part in a meet-and-greet at The Bookloft in Great Barrington from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and on Friday, Sept. 6, she'll read at The Bookstore in Lenox (5:30 p.m.). In advance of those events, Cohen answered some questions about her favorite books. The interview has been edited for length.
Q. What are a few of your favorite novels?
A. Totally unrelated to what I'm writing, I love Philip Roth even though it's fashionable to hate him, especially since he was a terrible misogynist. I mean, the writing — as a writer, you read that and you say to yourself, "Never. I could never do this." ... When I was looking for business books, I found "Opening Belle" by Maureen Sherry, and I liked that. I found Joshua Ferris' book, "Then We Came to the End," [and] Jillian Medoff's book, ["This Could Hurt"], but very little else. Of course, for Alzheimer's fiction there was more.
Q. What were some of those books?
A. Stefan Merrill Block, who was kind enough to write me an amazingly complimentary blurb, ... [wrote] "The Story of Forgetting."
Q. What are some of your favorite nonfiction works about the business world?
A. I can't think of any. I think the last one I read was when I was in 20s, and it was "Dress for Success" [by John T. Molloy]. ... I don't think, after that, I had the time. I mean, once you're in your career and you have a family — I don't think I read much for, I don't know how long. I can tell you what isn't: Ivanka Trump telling me how to manage my life. That wouldn't be on my list.
Q. Where is your favorite place to get lost in a book in the Berkshires?
A. I read at home. I've always read at home, and part of the reason is because when I hike the trails in the Berkshires, I'm always with my dog. And he doesn't take kindly to my stopping to read under a tree. I have a porch, and I love it.
Q. What books are on your nightstand?
A. I just finished two books that I didn't like that were highly rated, so I don't know if you want those. One was called "The Power" [by Naomi Alderman], which apparently Margaret Atwood loved, and the other was by Tommy Orange ["There There"]. I didn't love those. Right now, I just started a book by Roxana Robinson ["Dawson's Fall"] because I went to a reading [a June 6 event at The Mount during which Robinson was in conversation with Amy Bloom]. ... It's about her family, and she did a huge amount of research. Her family goes back generations, and she was particularly interested in how her family, which apparently had a reputation for righteousness, how they dealt with slavery. But I'm only at the very beginning of it. And I also have on my nightstand Amy Bloom's book ["White Houses"] about the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and her friend who had adjoining bedrooms with her, so I'm looking forward to getting to that one.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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