Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! I'm going Beyond the Margins

While the elves continue to toil away behind the scenes here at The Quivering Pen, industriously writing fresh content for the blog while I sleep (ha!), I thought I'd let you know about some things which have appeared in other places in recent days.  I interviewed Jennifer Spiegel, novelist and short story writer extraordinaire, for Mayday magazine--in an issue which also includes interviews with George Saunders and Alexis M. Smith.  And over at Beyond the Margins, novelist Ann Bauer (also extraordinaire) was kind enough to include me in an article about internet etiquette.  I'm excerpting the start of each article below, with links to read ALL THE WORDS at their respective sites.

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Sybil Weatherfield is a 30-year-old hot mess.  A temp worker in New York City flitting from job to job, Sybil is the riveting main character of Jennifer Spiegel’s debut novel Love Slave (Unbridled Books).  She has a boyfriend and is in love with another guy (the lead singer in the band Glass Half Empty), has issues with food, and writes a column called “Abscess” for the alternative weekly New York Shock.  Early in the novel, Sybil says, “I’d like something really, truly, completely unique to happen to me—something utterly unexpected.”  The same can be said of Love Slave.  Firmly planted in space and time (New York City in 1995), it’s funny, off-beat, 100-percent entrancing and unlike anything I’ve read in years.

Jennifer earned a BA in Creative Writing and Political Science from the University of Arizona, an MA in Politics (International Relations) from New York University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University.  In her long and varied career, she has worked as a movie theater concessionaire, resident assistant in a dorm, admin assistant, and a university professor.  According to her website, she also once set a microwave on fire with fish crackers.

I first “met” Jennifer online about a year ago.  We bonded as two kindred spirits whose first novels were being published in September and who were riddled with anxiety over this Big Event which was about to swallow our lives.  At least I was riddled—maybe Jennifer was only peppered.  She actually one-upped me (and a gabillion other writers) by having two books published in 2012: Love Slave and a collection of short stories, The Freak Chronicles (Dzanc Books).  Somehow, she has maintained her sanity and her sense of humor throughout the whole experience.  Jennifer and I recently had the following exchange over email.

David Abrams:  First of all, why 1995?  What's significant about that year for you?

Jennifer Spiegel:  I think I’m guilty of writing what I know.  I lived in Manhattan then, and the milieu was so very present for me when I was writing.  Love Slave is a novel about a moment in time, you know?  Sybil, a definite Gen X girl, will—we all know it—grow up soon, very soon, and begin worrying about other, maybe more important, things.  But in Love Slave, she’s in 1995, when things like the inundation of pop culture, the slap of feet on sidewalks, the sounds of city, the approach of bums, and the temptation of pigging out are in her face.  I chose 1995, because I knew 1995—and it’s after 1994, but before 1996.  I wanted to write about a woman of a particular generation whose post-childhood angst had not yet transformed into full-fledged adult anxiety.

DA:  There are also those very significant historical markers of 1995: the OJ Simpson trial, the Oklahoma City bombing, Superman (Christopher Reeve) falls off a horse and is paralyzed.  It was also the year Yahoo! was founded (I learned this while doing a Google search).  So, there is all this historical scenery in the background of your novel.  I imagine these events are as much a part of your life as they are Sybil’s, right?  Was there ever a point where you felt that too many historical events or pop culture figures would take over the book?  Was there anything which you cut so it wouldn’t be too distracting, this intersection between true history and imagined characters?

JS:  Not necessarily take over, per se, but distract.  I’ve heard all the rules for writing that require one to avoid references that date one’s work—and, in truth, I ignored these rules, opting for the belief that such details add to the novel’s authenticity.  My hope is that, like other novels, there’s something universal within the specifics, and the specifics make it richer.  Plus, I just really like cultural details in other people’s work.  That said, I did cut many, many, many rock ’n’ roll facts I originally sprinkled throughout the book at the start of every chapter.  I had used trivia to demarcate chapters, and I finally, thankfully, realized I was intruding upon the flow of my narrative, ultimately robbing my characters of their story.

Click here to read the rest of the interview

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Online Etiquette (Or The Case Against Literary Spam)
By Ann Bauer

Before my second novel came out, I received a Facebook request from a woman I’d never heard of or met.  We had several mutual friends and she looked like an interesting, likeminded person.  I had no idea how she’d found me or why, but I clicked “confirm.”

The following day I was carpet-bombed with messages, posts to my wall, links and invitations.  She wanted me to like her author page, buy her book, give her five stars on Amazon (oh, and Goodreads, too, if I wouldn’t mind), attend her reading 40 miles from my home and share her glorious NYT review.

Here’s the truth: She’s probably a spectacular writer I might like to know.  The review, which I skimmed, was glowing.  But I was so turned off by her methods, I defriended her immediately and never read her book.

Add to this the well-known writer who “reached out” to me because we had a hometown in common then assigned me a series of marketing tasks.  The midlist writer who asked me to blurb her book and sent me a three-sentence outline of exactly what to say.  The journalist I sent a friend request—because I admired her work—only to have her write back and say she would accept IF I would like her husband’s author page and buy his book.

By the time my novel came out I was sick of the writing chatter and jaded, which definitely showed.  I had a Facebook page, a Twitter presence and blog but I used each inconsistently, more afraid of offending than I was of low sales.  The results were pretty much what you’d expect.

I wished there were a way to market effectively online without being solipsistic.  Then I started reading David Abrams and discovered there is.

Abrams started his blog The Quivering Pen in 2010, two years before his novel Fobbit came out.

“In the beginning, this was my way of being there online in hopes that one day my novel would be published,” he says.  “I was making a home on the Internet.  But the other reason I started it rose out of my love for books and writing.”

When Fobbit appeared in ‘12 to critical acclaim, Abrams had to decide how to weave his own good publishing, award and review news into what had been, for two years, a blog mostly about other people’s books.

Abrams spoke to me from his home in Butte, Montana, where in addition to working on a new novel and hosting The Quivering Pen, he is a public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Land Management.  Here’s what he said:

You strike such balance on The Quivering Pen.  It feels more like valuable content than personal marketing.  How do you achieve that?

Thanks.  I do struggle with wondering sometimes if I’m shouting into a void.  A lot of the people I know on Facebook, for instance, are old friends from high school or people from Butte, so I don’t throw out too many insider-y publishing industry terms.  I try to use plain language.  And even the vast majority of my audience who are writers and editors, I figure they’re tired of being bombarded by news from a particular author.  I think we’ve all been on the receiving end of what I call “literary spam.”  Like you, I get really turned off by that.

Click here to read the rest of the interview

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Everything Old is New Again: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep
by Stephen King
Reviewed by Derek Harmening

“We never really end...I don’t know how that can be or what it means, I only know that it is.”

The words of Dan Torrance, once a boy outrunning his crazed father’s swinging roque mallet, now a man outrunning the demons he’s inherited.  And fitting words for Stephen King’s return to a world that’s haunted readers for more than thirty-five years.

I’m guessing more than a handful of Constant Readers—myself among them—were dubious about a sequel to one of King’s most terrifying, visceral masterworks, no less because the project came about at least partly as the result of a website poll.  But as King himself so often says, life is a wheel.  One way or another, everything comes back around to where it began.

Doctor Sleep has fans in its thrall from the first pages: we get a snapshot summary of the days and months following the events of The Shining, of young Danny and his mother Wendy drifting about the country, trying to settle down and begin again.  Easier said than done, since Danny is still visited nightly by The Overlook Hotel’s residual spirits.  But a conversation with good old Dick Hallorann (the Overlook’s head chef, who possesses more than a touch of the shining himself) reminds Danny that his mind is an object of extraordinary power, with the ability to confine undesired forces as well as to conjure benevolent ones.

For those first few pages, it feels as though we’ve never left The Shining at all.

But seasons change, and so do people.  The years have been unkind to Dan Torrance; he’s inherited his father’s proclivity for the drink and his life is one hell of a mess.  After hitting rock bottom, Dan takes to the dusty trail and ends up in the town of Frazier, New Hampshire, finding work as an orderly and using his clairvoyant powers to ease the dying elderly into the next world.  It’s only after making a comfortable existence for himself that Dan begins receiving mental transmissions from Abra Stone, a feisty wunderkind reminiscent of Firestarter’s Charlie McGee.  Abra’s shining has troubled her since infancy; she has a prescient sensitivity to impending tragedies, and it’s one of these—the murder of a young boy—that finally draws her and Dan together.

Of course, it’s usually not a true King novel without some sort of villain, and Doctor Sleep has them in droves.  They’re a delightfully quirky band of RV wanderers who call themselves the True Knot, and they survive by inhaling the “steam” produced by torturing children who shine.  Their ringleader, a gorgeous temptress called Rose the Hat, senses just how much sustenance the prodigious Abra can provide them and makes it her business to harvest the girl at any cost.  Like the best of King’s foes, there’s something strangely sympathetic about the True Knot.  They don’t see themselves as evil; they’re just doing what they gotta do to get by.  “You know nothing about us,” Rose scolds Abra in one particularly empathetic scene.  “What we are, or what we have to do in order to survive.”

The storylines all converge into a kind of psychic, cross-country battle royale, at which point I couldn’t help leaning back, throwing my feet up on the desk, and just enjoying the ride.  A decent chunk of this book takes place entirely in its characters’ minds, and King juggles them all with good humor and dexterity.  He is as compulsively readable as ever, and while the trajectory of his career has produced some shaky plots, it’s his yarn-spinning abilities that always keep us slavering for more.  It’s also why he’ll probably never stop writing—his pleasure at cooking up a good scare is still so strong it’s palpable.

But this feverish churning has its drawbacks.  In the past decade, Stephen King has written so emphatically that he’s sacrificed wholly unique characters in favor of plot.  I’d argue that the adult Dan Torrance is nearly indistinguishable from Jake Epping of 11/22/63 or Under the Dome’s Dale Barbara.  The trusty Equal-Parts-Righteous-Charming-Clever-and-Mysterious Protagonist Formula has become underwhelming.  And Rose the Hat will never induce the nightmares brought on by, say, the description of Randall Flagg’s dusty bootheels clicking on the pavement, or the raspy voice of Pennywise the Clown drifting up from a sewer drain.  Nonetheless, the characters are fun, and they populate a plot that chugs along at a perfectly serviceable clip.

Another of Doctor Sleep’s draws is how much of an homage it is to his past works: we’ve got a chessboard of characters with powers of telekinesis (think Carrie), mental persuasion (Firestarter), premonitions (The Dead Zone), mental offices stocked with files and lockboxes (Dreamcatcher), and minds manifest as weapons more lethal than any machine gun (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, Gerald’s Game, The Green Mile, The Dark Half, hell, just about anything King’s ever penned to paper, really).  The young and disenfranchised are of particular interest to King, especially those who possess powers beyond their control and understanding.  It gives them a stage upon which to exercise their morality, to place them squarely on par with the gods and force them to decide to what extent they’ll exact retribution.  You can be sure that neither Dan nor Abra get to the end of this novel without first having to confront themselves and their own great-power, great-responsibility quandaries.

Perhaps it’s just important judge this book on its own terms.  Part of the author’s note reads:
      There has been at least one brilliant sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (Mick Garris’ Psycho IV, with Anthony Perkins reprising his role as Norman Bates), but people who’ve seen that—or any of the others—will only shake their heads and say no, no, not as good.  They remember the first time they experienced Janet Leigh, and no remake or sequel can top that moment when the curtain is pulled back and the knife starts to do its work.
      And people change.  The man who wrote Doctor Sleep is very different from the well-meaning alcoholic who wrote The Shining, but both remain interested in the same thing: telling a kickass story.  I enjoyed finding Danny Torrance again and following his adventures.  I hope you did, too.  If that’s the case, Constant Reader, we’re all good.
This is the 53rd Stephen King book I’ve read.  Somehow I keep coming back for more.  So yeah, I’d say we’re all good.

Derek Harmening graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2011 with a degree in English, and then from the Denver Publishing Institute with a certificate in publishing.  He currently works at the Book Cellar in Chicago.  His work has appeared in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s undergraduate magazine Laurus and on the Chicago Artists Resource website.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Trailer Park Tuesday: Norman Mailer: A Double Life by J. Michael Lennon

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

This has been a season of big, juicy biographies of writers. We're getting the lowdown on Salinger and Roth, and now we get a 900-page exploration of Norman Mailer's life.  Thanks to J. Michael Lennon, we see the pugnacious pontificator in all his glory and warts.  The trailer is little more than clips from an interview with Lennon.  So if you don't like two minutes of talking-head chatter, then you might get restless.  But geez louise, it's fuggin' Mailer we're talking about here.  As a subject matter, he's anything but boring.  Click here for another, longer, trailer about Norman Mailer: A Double Life.  I'm intrigued by Lennon's biography and can't wait to read more about one of the most fascinating writers of the 20th century.  As he notes in the video, Lennon had access to Mailer's letters, unpublished manuscripts, and many family members who had not been interviewed in the past.  "He knew I was going to write the biography," Lennon says.  "He said, 'Put everything in.'"  At nearly 1,000 pages (a length Mailer would have approved of, I'm sure), it certainly seems like the kitchen-sink treatment.  I like this early praise for the book from Graydon Carter at The New York Times: ""[A] sweeping full-scale biography....There’s not a paragraph in this enormous book that doesn’t contain a nugget of something you should have known or wish you had known.  Lennon has it all, and he has it down.  And despite being his subject’s literary executor, he has not sanded the corners of a career and life, each of which has plenty of texture and lots of sharp edges."

Monday, October 28, 2013

My First Time: Susan McCallum-Smith

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Susan McCallum-Smith.  Her debut story collection, Slipping the Moorings, was published in early 2009 by Entasis Press.  James Srodes, writing in The Washington Times, called her “a tough and funny talent of the first order,” while Bob Shacochis described Slipping the Moorings as “perfection.”  Her essays and reviews have appeared in AGNI, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, the Scottish Review of Books, the Dublin Review of Books, and The Philadelphia Inquirer.  Born and raised in Scotland, Susan spent many years in the fashion industry before moving to the United States, where she received creative fellowships from Yaddo and the National Endowment for the Arts, and studied at the Bennington Writing Seminars.  She currently lives with her husband and two daughters in Ireland where she is—very slowly—writing more essays and a novel.  She regularly blogs about books at Swithering.

My First Pushcart

I found out I’d won a Pushcart for my first published essay while sitting in my car outside a grocery store.  I’d barely written a paragraph since completing it almost eighteen months before, and not a word since my children had been born.  Dressed like a cast-off from The Waltons, in clatty old dungarees and a faded plaid shirt, I paused amid the perpetual chore of buying milk to read the email, forced into communion with that other self, the one who had occasionally washed her hair and wanted to be a writer.  Her fire had tamped down to ashes, her identity dissipated over months of oscillating between euphoria and sleeplessness.  I put my head against the steering wheel and wept.  Then I called my husband.  “That’s fantastic,” he said, “but…remind me again…what exactly is a Pushcart?”

Fiction was my field, or so I thought, but during my MFA studies I’d snatched an opportunity to study with a terrific writer I admired, which necessitated a one-term switch into non-fiction.  Frankly I was out of my depth in his class, but I hoped he would goad me into new material.  And he did, beginning with the request that I draft a personal essay, with emphasis on the “personal,” knowing that I was wary of memoir (and I still am) and its tendency, when done badly, to slip into whiny self-absorption.  My fear of letting him down overruled my skepticism so I wrote about my father; or rather I avoided writing about my father by writing about my father’s primary passion—stamps.  After giving invaluable feedback he encouraged me to send it out and eventually I was fortunate to place it in The Gettysburg Review.

After the Pushcart nothing happened, or at least nothing of any worldly consequence.  I drove home with the milk.  My family is loyal yet unsentimental—birthday cards are a rarity—and, like the majority of readers, they are oblivious to the small cliquish world of literary journals, prizes, and fellowships.  My news was greeted with a shrug.  A few agents got in touch but their enthusiasm for short stories proved lukewarm, and as I didn’t have a newly-minted novel manuscript tucked in a sock drawer and had written to date only a single essay (and I sensed their shudders when I pitched a collection), they backed-off, sharpish.  An editor approached to ask if I’d consider doing a non-fiction book about philately.  We met on a snowy day in New York.  This, I thought, may be my Dorothy Parker moment.  I felt a bit giddy with the glamour of sitting in a trendy café around the corner from a famous New York publishing house.  We had a marvelous, roaming conversation, both aware this was a delightful waste of time as it was obvious I couldn’t give a flying fart about stamps.  While we dawdled over our hot chocolate I recalled my final meeting with my thesis advisor, another writer I admired (through a scrim of awe tinged with fear), who had put her hand on my arm and whispered, “Do you have it, Susan?  Do you have the fire in your guts?  You won’t keep going without it.”  I did have it, I realized that now, smiling sheepishly at the very nice editor whom I so wanted to please but knew that I couldn’t.  I felt it rekindle in my guts, sparking a fleeting naïve over-confidence that if I rolled up my sleeves and buckled down, as my mentors had often scolded me to, maybe I could write about anything—but that didn’t necessarily mean that I should.

Outwardly the Pushcart changed nothing; inwardly…well, inwardly something shifted, something too subtle to be defined as change, more like a whispered affirmation, as though a question had been answered with a yes.  It made me appreciate in retrospect the invaluable benefit of that one-term switch.  By stretching my craft muscles and embracing my fears—by being encouraged to attempt essay rather than fiction, memoir rather than reviews—I felt (though likely others registered nothing and neither did my rate of rejections) that my prose had become more malleable, complex, leaner, and I became passionately interested in form, and in the challenge of melding form, organically, with content.

The award also confirmed first hand what everyone and their dog knows, that getting published—never mind getting nominated—is not only bloody hard, it’s often a complete crap shoot; my essay had been rejected multiple times, boomeranging for ages before finding a home.  Fickle chance had called my number in what Julian Barnes has labeled (in reference to the Man Booker Prize) posh bingo; and posh bingo can distract from the nourishment of doing the work, making an artist fret over where his painting may hang before he’s even dipped a brush.  Although I’d been a little miffed by my family’s indifference, they’d been right.  I was thrilled to bits by the honor and touched by the kindness of those who had nominated me—and yes, I wish I’d taken the time to celebrate by getting tiddly and falling over—but a pat on the head is confetti not bread, and I couldn’t shake the suspicion it was unearned.

In the barren years between finishing my MFA and buying the milk, I realized I had been hungry, very hungry for the act of writing, and more specifically for re-writing—which is fortuitous given I’m nauseatingly slow and I spend around eighty percent of my time editing.  I hungered, and still hunger, to be awake before dawn when the house is quiet and the breath of the approaching day feels bated.  I hunger to be hammering and chiseling inside a big, messy draft, trying to build something which expresses exactly what it is that I don’t know, planing away excess words or shifting emphasis—like a stonemason removing walls or adding windows, daring a cantilever or a flying buttress—attempting to achieve the effect of a sublime weightlessness, so that the narrative curve will seem to float, cohesive yet without visible support, like the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

During that term switch back in college a teacher gave me the gift of faith.  He had handed it to me like a bat, then nudged me onto the plate, and after a corrie-fisted, gawky, uncoordinated swing the bat had somehow connected cleanly with the ball and thwacked it away, away over the outfield, up and into a blinding sun.  A long, long time later, the milk in the fridge, I finally returned to my desk and sat, stymied, not knowing how to put one sentence after another, enduring the agonizing, gaping reality between craft and luck.  I went back to the beginning, back to books, trying to fill in the enormous holes in my knowledge about the art of non-fiction by reading the best writers in the field, an apprenticeship still underway, because there are no shortcuts for hard graft, and trying to fathom the unique alchemy behind my rookie success was not only pointless and self-defeating but arrogant.  Writing the second essay was hard, writing the third essay harder still, taking almost eighteen months from conception to publication.  So it is possible that this Pushcart will be the pinnacle of my career, awarded before I knew what the heck I was doing.  I am no longer a rookie, yet I may never hit another home run, and experience again that delicious sun-blindness; but that’s okay, because you don’t become a writer because you want to win—you become a writer because you love playing the game, love spending your dawns chasing down thought, attempting to suspend the mind on a wire.

Author photo by Jason Okutake

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sunday Sentence: On Kingdom Mountain by Howard Frank Mosher

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I've read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

Live each day not as though it is your last, but as though it is the last day of the lives of the people you meet.

On Kingdom Mountain by Howard Frank Mosher

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Everything Happens In Bed: an interview with Jessica Keener

Interview by Joyce Norman

As I turned the last page of Women in Bed, Jessica Keener’s new collection of mesmerizing short stories, I realized I loved this book so much, I wanted to have a conversation with the author.  Her words are bold and brave and they moved meto the point that I began to write questions in the margins as I read.  Her book is chock-full of each character’s truth and intimate emotions.  I can’t remember when I’ve been so touched by an author’s words or her ability to “show me” these bold, brave women’s feelings and emotions.  These characters are everyday women, all looking for that other heartbeat that will synch with their own.  They look in different places and in different ways and that’s why this writing was so riveting for me.  It keeps the reader turning pages, with hope that love will win out.  As you read this collection of exceptional short stories, look closely.  You just may find yourself in these pages.

Jessica Keener has been listed in The Pushcart Prize under “Outstanding Writers.”  Her fiction has appeared in: The Southeast Review, Chariton Review, Night Train, Eclectica, The Nervous Breakdown, and Huffington Post.  She is the recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist’s Grant Program and she's won second prize in fiction from Redbook magazine.  Her feature articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, Design New England, Coastal Living, Poets & Writers, O, The Oprah Magazine and other national publications.  She earned her B.A. in English from Boston University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Brown University.  Her first novel, Night Swim, was published to critical acclaim and was a national bestseller. Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, said of that novel: “Jessica Keener steps boldly into the terrain of Eugene O'Neill, conjuring up the pathologies and quirks of a besieged Boston family in stark, quivering detail that never entirely distracts us from the looming sense of crisis.  This gripping first novel announces the arrival of a strong, distinct and fully evolved new voice.”

Joyce Norman:  Women in Bed.  What was your reasoning behind this title?

Jessica Keener:  I was looking for a connecting image, one that reflected something about all nine stories.  On a simple, concrete level, every story features a woman and a bed—her own bed, her boyfriend’s bed, a hospital bed, a hotel bed.  I also meant it to be provocative, to get readers wondering what it’s all about.  And, I like the symbol of a bed.  Everything happens there.  We sleep, dream, rest, make love, cry, read, suffer, take to our beds when we are sick, and, generally let ourselves be our most unclothed selves in our beds.

JN:  Describe this book in three words.

JK:  Raw.  Emotional.  Intimate.

JN:  The collection has an odd number of stories.  Why nine?

JK:  I’ve been assembling this collection over many years, selecting stories that I felt went together as a group.  Each story stands alone but I also intended the collection to be read as an organic whole, and for the reader to experience it as a whole, from the first story to the last.  I didn’t plan on having nine stories per se.  It worked out that way because the stories themselves dictated it.

JN:  What takeaway do you want readers to “get”?

JK:  I hope readers will react to my protagonists’ struggles and will subsequently be affected by the ways in which my characters succeed or don’t succeed in overcoming problems in relationships.  Whether it’s a love relationship as in “Boarders,” a relationship of unbalanced power and misuse as in “Papier Mache,” or a sibling coming to terms with parental abuse in “Forgiveness,” each story deals with entanglement, some kind of emotional puzzle that the protagonist desperately needs to solve in order to become more true to herself.  Obviously, I hope these stories linger in readers’ minds to ponder, return to and discuss with others.

JN:  Are these stories connected in any way?  If so, how?

JK:  Yes, they are very much connected.  Five of the nine stories feature the same woman at different emotional points in her life—from college dropout to working woman in her early thirties.  The other four stories feature women in their twenties, thirties and forties and deal with rejection, separation, mental and physical health problems.  Most of the stories take place around Boston and New England, but the final story takes place in a Paris hotel.  Thematically, these stories explore variations of love relationships; love broken, lost, mended and found.

JN:  What prompted you to write this book?

JK:  It’s been a long-time desire of mine to publish a story collection because I love the short form.  I’m drawn to its mythic quality in the sense that a short story has a feeling of timelessness to it, and, when it’s working, many possibilities for complexity and depth.  As a young reader, I grew up on short stories, particularly fairy tales.  I loved the intensity of them and their brevity, and the ease with which I was able to return to the same set of tales again and again to explore their layers and meanings.  I can’t count how many times I reread Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales.  As a young writer, I worked on story writing first and discovered many new writers because of it.  The South American writers are stupendous: Machado De Assis, Clarice Lispector.  Some of my favorite American short story writers include Flannery O’Connor, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Melanie Rae Thon, Ha Jin and many new voices coming out in today’s literary magazines online and in print.  Literary magazines are where it’s at for discovering new talent and perspectives.  It’s a kind of an underground world of creativity that has evolved and persisted and continues to expand the possibilities of fiction as a method for exploring the universe.

JN:  What is this book’s importance?

JK:  This is a tough question; one I’m guessing is better determined by others.  But, I’ll say what has been important to me in writing these stories: a need to dramatize emotional truths and all the behaviors and thoughts that lead to those moments of revelation.  Sometimes these turning points come out of anger.  Other times, sadness, or grief or joy.  Whatever the case, these stories are meant to be examinations of perception, a way to reveal how we think, feel, and interpret who we are within the context of an important relationship.  Do we shift our identities to accommodate this intimate other?  Do we hide who we are?  Can we be genuine?  True?  Why do we respond as we do?  How are our behaviors shaped by what we know or don’t know about ourselves?  I wanted this collection to voice things that we often feel ashamed to admit or acknowledge and especially to express, but exist nonetheless as a common human experience.  I wanted to dramatize who we are as lovers, family and friends and to reveal the underpinnings of these dramas, ultimately, without judgment.

Joyce Norman, a former journalist and foreign correspondent, is the author of eight books.  She is currently working on her latest book, PASSPORT: The Travels and Heart of a Journalist.  She has won many awards for her coverage and photographs from the Middle East.  Joyce is a graduate of Texas Wesleyan University and holds an M.A. from the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Front Porch Books: October 2013 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, Amazon and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon by Cindy Ott (University of Washington Press):  Though this isn't a new book (Pumpkin came out a year ago), it's new to me.  After picking up a copy from the King's English bookseller's table at last month's Utah Humanities Book Festival, I knew I'd be including it in this month's Front Porch Books feature.  I mean, really, the timing is just too perfect.  Cindy Ott's cultural history of the large orange squash has appeal far beyond jack-o-lanterns and pies.  Like recent food histories (see Salt by Mark Kurlansky and The Secret Life of Lobsters by Trevor Corson), Pumpkin smartly takes a common ingredient in our society and wraps an entire book around one author's curious investigation of its history.  I've put Pumpkin high atop my perpetually-teetering stack of books To Be Read.  With all the other books I'm (happily) obligated to read in the next month, I don't know if I'll be able to actually get to it before Thanksgiving--though that's my hope and prayer.  You, however, should dig in to this book with enthusiastic knives and forks.  Here are the Opening Lines to the Introduction:
      In the fall of 1995, I helped a friend, David Heisler, sell pumpkins in front of his farmhouse in Comus, Maryland—more a crossroads than a town—located about forty miles northwest of Washington, D.C.  Heisler was raised on a nearby dairy farm that had since been sold to developers and divided into large estates.  Intent on keeping his tractor a useful piece of equipment instead of merely a yard ornament, he raises fruits and vegetables on a couple of acres adjacent to his house and on fields near where he grew up just down the road.  While he drops off peppers, green beans and corn at the local Safeway grocery store for resale without any fanfare in the summer, the piles of pumpkins he sets around his yard amid crates of local apples, Indian corn and a variety of colorful squash are an autumn spectacle.  His pumpkin stand draws crowds of thousands every weekend in the month of October.  From about ten in the morning until sunset, carloads of visitors wander the pumpkin patch.  They playfully hold up specimens of several sizes and shapes for their companions’ inspection and take pictures in the middle of the patch before leaving with armloads, along with bags of the other fall produce.
      After my immersion in the pageantry of the pumpkin stand for five weekends in a row, I no longer just walked, drove, or turned magazine pages past pumpkins, but rather stopped, stared, and wondered what the fuss was all about.  There were not only the crowds flocking to the fall stands to consider, but also the time-honored pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving dinner.  Unlike most people around the world who eat pumpkin unceremoniously throughout the year, Americans hardly eat it at all except for at this one national holiday feast.  Instead of eating fresh pumpkin, they set them out in front of their houses as decorations every autumn and carve them into jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween night.  Small towns across the country hold annual festivals named in the pumpkin’s honor, though few have any real historic ties to the crop.  Suddenly, pumpkins, from farm-grown meaty orbs to hollow plastic jack-o’-lanterns, were fascinating objects.
Pumpkin tracks the vegetable's history from 10,000 BC (the planting of the first pumpkin seed in the Americas) to today's pumpkin festivals.  From pumpkin beer and pumpkin pie to the Headless Horseman in Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Linus' undying faith in the Great Pumpkin in the Peanuts comic strip, Cindy Ott cultivates the entire patch.  Brief aside: While browsing e-bookstores for more information about Pumpkin, I followed a rabbit trail to another book which caught my attention: Inventing the Christmas Tree by Bernd Brunner.  It looks like the perfect reading companion piece.

The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg (Farrar, Straus and Giroux):  Laura van den Berg's new collection of short stories begins with a plane crash and ends with a hurricane.  If that isn't enough to send you running to the nearest bookstore to pre-order The Isle of Youth, then I just don't know what it is you're looking for, my friend.  Van den Berg burst onto the literary scene with her debut collection of short stories What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us four years ago. And now, at last, she returns. I feel like going outside with a trumpet and announcing the news to everyone in my neighborhood.  Karen Russell (author of Swamplandia!) calls her "freakishly talented;" Victor LaValle (The Devil in Silver) says she is "ridiculously talented."  I just say she's a helluva lot of fun to read. Here are the Opening Lines to the first story ("I Looked For You, I Called Your Name"):
The first thing that went wrong was the emergency landing.  My husband and I were both reading In Flight Magazine and enjoying the complimentary wine in first class—I’d never flown first class before, but it was our honeymoon and we thought that was what we were supposed to do; drink in the daytime, luxuriate in our good fortune—when the plane lurched and oxygen masks fell from the ceiling and a passenger in the back screamed.  We didn’t know it then, but the pilot was already steering the plane toward an empty brown field, preparing for our descent.
(To hear van den Berg read from the beginning of this story, go to the Poets & Writers podcast webpage.)  In the press materials accompanying the book, this "Dear Reader" note described what I'd find in the pages ahead of me:
The stories in The Isle of Youth are linked by young female narrators, and they all have some element of crime to them—yet they're not traditional crime stories.  They are highly charged, and there is always something big at stake.  Van den Berg takes us inside the heads of these women, who are all mired in secrecy and deception, and tells their stories with hypnotic yet searing prose.  She writes with the most elegant urgency and rhythm, revealing the inner lives of these marginalized young women, all grappling with the choices they've made and searching for the clues that will unlock their lives.  One of the coolest things about these stories is that they always start in one place and end up somewhere entirely different.  Every time you think you know where a story is going, it takes a turn down a completely unexpected road.  Van den Berg's writing is so self-assured; while there's something deeply unsettling about the contents of the stories, the writing itself remains controlled and grounded.

You Only Get Letters From Jail by Jodi Angel (Tin House Books):  This month, my To-Be-Read pile had a growth spurt, thanks to not only Laura van den Berg, but also this compelling new collection of short stories by Jodi Angel.  It's Angel's second book (her first, The History of Vegas, came out in 2005), but she didn't really ping on my radar until You Only Get Letters From Jail came on the scene.  I think I first heard about her when "A Good Deuce" was featured at Electric Literature last year.  (And by the way, if you're not already subscribed to Electric Lit, then you need to mend the error of your ways posthaste.  See also: Saguaro by Carson Mell below)  Here's Tin House editor Rob Spillman's Angel-ic endorsement:
Two years ago, at the Tomales Bay Writers’ Workshop, north of San Francisco, I went to a reading with Tin House favorites Ron Carlson and Dorothy Allison, both of whom we’ve published multiple times, beginning with the very first issue of the magazine fourteen years ago.  Another author was sandwiched in between whom I had never heard of—Jodi Angel.  Carlson and Allison are both astonishing, captivating readers, yet Angel somehow upstaged them both with her reading of “A Good Deuce,” her story of a rural California teen dealing with the aftermath of a mother’s overdose.  She pulled us into a lower-class world of emotionally stunted teens, a bleak yet vibrant land a million miles away from the shiny, happy America of TV and advertising.  I was blown away.  But I wondered if it was only her delivery—deadpan, direct, through a veil of dark hair hanging over her face, her leather jacket adding to her overall vibe of “Why’d you drag me out of the biker bar to make me tell you this story?”  Afterward, I took the story out of Angel’s hands to see if it was as good on the page as it was in the ether.  It was.  And is.  Later, she told me she wrote the story in one sitting, only a few days before, because she needed something new to read.  Angel works stories over in her head, sometimes for months at a time, without writing down a single word, then, when she can’t take it anymore, gets it all down.  “A Good Deuce” needed hardly any edits or copy edits.  Her “first draft” was nearly flawless.
Want more?  Okay, just look at all the enthusiastic Blurbworthiness Jodi Angel has been getting:
"Jodi Angel writes like an angel—in the full sense of the designation--which is to say someone fallen out of the armpit of a restless deity—sharp-eyed, ruthless, and tender at the same time. I'd walk a long way to hear her read these stories, and plan to buy a half dozen copies just so I can give them away saying, 'Look at this. You have never before read anything like this.'" (Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina)

"Jodi Angel embodies this pack of low-rent, no-count, hard-luck, heart-tugging teenage boys so thoroughly that one can only conclude she was one, in this or some former lifetime. Plus, she really knows her way around a paragraph. In these stories, child support never gets paid and guns go off too often and deciding to love something almost guarantees its immediate departure or death. These are hard, wonderful, compassion-inducing stories, laced with surprising and surprisingly powerful grace notes, flashes of heat lightning in the dark." (Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted)

"You Only Get Letters From Jail is one of the finest and truest collections of 'American' short stories I have ever read. Set in small towns among muscle cars and grange halls and rock and roll and damaged vets and divorced parents, Jodi Angel's stories explore in sharp and often funny prose the lives of teenagers trying their best to make sense of things in this world that, more often than not, remain inexplicable." (Donald Ray Pollock, author of The Devil All the Time)
If you crack open You Only Get Letters From Jail to the first story, the aforementioned "A Good Deuce," you'll see why all these esteemed authors are waxing enthusiastic for Angel.  Here are the Opening Lines:
I was on my second bag of Doritos and my lips were stained emergency orange when my best friend, Phillip, said he knew a bar in Hallelujah Junction that didn’t card, and maybe we should go there.  We had been sitting in my living room for eighteen or nineteen hours watching Robert Redford movies, where Redford had gone from square-jawed, muscled, and rugged to looking like a blanched piece of beef jerky, and we had watched it go from dark to light to dark again through the break in the curtains.  The coroner had wheeled my mother out all those hours ago and my grandma Hannah had stalked down the sidewalk with her fists closed and locked at her side, insisting that a dead body had every right to stay in the house for as long as the family wanted it there.  My mother was no longer my mother; she had become Anna Schroeder, the deceased, and my grandma Hannah had been on the phone trying to track my father down.  The best we had was a number for the pay phone at the Deville Motel, and only one of two things happened when you dialed that number—either it rang and rang into lonely nothing or someone answered and asked if this was Joey and hung up when the answer was no.  My grandma called the number twenty-two times, and the only thing that changed was the quality of the light, and my mother went out, and Phillip came in, and my sister, Christy, packed her things so she could go, and I did not.

Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior by Brandon R. Schrand (University of Nebraska Press):  Like Pumpkin, Brandon Schrand's Works Cited is not minty-fresh new (it was released this past Spring), but it's new to me--and, I'm willing to bet, new to you.  I was late getting to the Humanities Montana Festival of the Book this year, so I slipped in quietly to the tail end of Schrand's reading in one of the ballrooms.  He was midstory--something about how a gift of the illustrated Children's Bible from his glassy-eyed, pot-smoking parents segued into an apocalyptic vision of Mount St. Helens exploding--but I knew right then and there in that hot, smoking-chest moment that I'd be heading right out to the festival's bookstore and buying a copy of Schrand's memoir.  His voice (both literally and on the page) was so commanding, so rapid-fire, so goddamn funny that I really had no choice.  In Works Cited, Schrand uses books to chart the growth of his life--sort of like progressive pencil marks on the wall to mark a child's height.  It's a fascinating angle at which to approach a memoir and I'm totally hooked.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
“Doing things by the book” acquires a whole new meaning in Brandon R. Schrand’s memoir of coming of age in spite of himself.  The “works cited” are those books that serve as Schrand’s signposts as he goes from life as a hormone-crazed, heavy-metal wannabe in the remotest parts of working-class Idaho to a reasonable facsimile of manhood (with a stop along the way to buy a five-dollar mustard-colored M. C. Hammer suit, so he’ll fit in at college).  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn informs his adolescent angst over the perceived injustice of society’s refusal to openly discuss boners.  The Great Gatsby serves as a metaphor for his indulgent and directionless college days spent in a drunken stupor (when he wasn’t feigning interest in Mormonism to attract women).  William Kittredge’s Hole in the Sky parallels his own dangerous adulthood slide into alcoholism and denial.  With a finely calibrated wit, a good dose of humility, and a strong supporting cast of literary characters, Schrand manages to chart his own story—about a dreamer thrown out of school as many times as he’s thrown into jail—until he finally sticks his landing.
Other "works cited" include Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway, The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, Beloved by Toni Morrison, A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff.  I can't wait to read about this particular boy's life via books.

Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail by Kelly Luce (A Strange Object):  For those of you who got a taste of Luce's collection of short stories via the earlier Trailer Park Tuesday post here at the blog, I thought I'd give you an even bigger mouthful of this relatively slim book.  As the publisher notes at their website, "Hana Sasaki will introduce you to many things—among them, an oracular toaster, a woman who grows a tail, and an extraordinary sex-change operation.  Set in Japan, these stories tip into the fantastical, plumb the power of memory, and measure the human capacity to love."  Here are some Opening Lines from the stories in the collection:
      Over the course of that interminable weekend after Jun died, Asian lady beetles overtook our place in shadowy Totsuka-cho.  Orange, winged bodies coated the ceiling and left yellow stains, carapaces crunched underfoot against the bathroom tile.  The air smelled like rancid walnuts. ("Reunion")

      Yumiko jiggled the handle and thought, break, broke, broken.
      "Toilet's broke," she called, testing him.  She waited, imagining the serrated tone he used to correct her English when he was upset.  BrokEN.  ("Pioneers")

      It is her thirtieth birthday.  She wakes alone.
      Her right hand reaches around to feel a soft length of hair that wasn’t there when she took her bath the night before.
      She shuffles to the full-length mirror, cranes her neck.  The tail is three inches long, and gleams silver with a lavender tinge, one end thin and flyaway, the other thick as rope.  It sprouts from the asymmetrical dark button at the base of her spine—what her mother used to call her Hydrangea Mole.  Her mother loved hydrangeas, but Hana found them a bit over-the-top.  Hana prefers tulips. ("Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail")
Lots of talented people have said some nice things about Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail.  Here is just some of the Blurbworthiness: “Let us all now append one more syllable to the list of the most acrobatic imaginations in contemporary American fiction: Saunders, Bender, Link, and Luce!  This book in an incantation, and I adore it.” (Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Battleborn)  “In Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, Kelly Luce manages the impossible: each story delicate and enormous, intricate, glitteringly beautiful, never less than strange, never less than profound, ten spiderwebs astonishingly spun.  Readers: here is your new favorite short story writer.” (Elizabeth McCracken, author of An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination)  “Kelly Luce writes rings around most writers, and this is only her first book.  Hana Sasaki is bold, strange, funny, and tender.  These stories are just such a pleasure to read—so forget this blurb and get to the damn book.”  (ubiquitous blurber Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine)

Saguaro by Carson Mell (Electric Literature):  Subscribers to Electric Literature received the following email from the lit fic site's editors earlier this month:
Many of you may remember Carson Mell from his story “The West,” which we published back in Electric Literature no. 5.  Right before publication, Carson came to our office and handed us a copy of Saguaro, his self-published novel about Bobby Bird, a degenerate rock legend seeking redemption.  That lone paperback circulated among our staff.  We praised it, we fought over it, and eventually we lost track of it.  Now we know we’re not the only ones trying to get our hands on a copy.  The book became almost as mythical and elusive as its protagonist: Carson sold-out a 1,000-copy print run on his own, and for a while the only place you could find Saguaro was on eBay (for sixty bucks a pop).  Until now.
Knowing a good thing when they read it, the smart folks at Electric Literature snatched up Saguaro and released Mell's weird, short novel as an ebook earlier this month.  "And since the epic of Bobby Bird cannot be contained in print alone, the digital edition of Saguaro will include illustrations and animations also created by Carson Mell," the publisher added.  I grabbed a copy of the novel, downloaded it, and started reading.  It took me .001 of a second to get sucked into that numbing vortex we call A Good Read.  Judge for yourself.  Here are the Opening Lines to Saguaro:
      When I was twelve years old I was best friends with a baby.  The upside to that kind of a situation is that the baby is always down to hang out, the downside being that you can’t take him anywhere but out in the yard.  We spent a lot of time out there though, fiddling around with the bugs and whatnot, maybe even eating one now and then, but I wanted to take him somewhere else; somewhere better.  I imagined having a black motorcycle with a breadbox sidecar, him bopping around in there all pink and goofy.  I can still see it—two boys a rocket down that long dusty road.  The little tiny helmet and racing goggles.  Us getting into adventures, sticky situations that he’d get us out of by squeezing through a hole the exact size of a baby.
      I made up my first songs for him too. His favorite went like this:
          What I call a shower don’t take too long
          I hop in the water and I sing me a song
          No soap or shampoo so I’m out like a whip
          Ain’t got a towel so I drip, drip, drip.
      I pushed him around his house in a stroller at top speeds and just about spilled him, soft spot and all, into the linoleum every time we rounded a corner.  His beautiful mom never stopped us though—just watched from the couch with her legs crossed, all soft smiles and sipping.  She told me she liked it because it left marks in the carpet that made her girlfriends think she vacuumed every day.

The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting by Philip Hensher (Faber and Faber):  Some time ago here at the blog, I was lamenting my handwriting, simultaneously complaining about the fact that it was bulbous and ugly while also praising it for the way in which it physically brought me closer to the act of creation.  And so, when Philip Hensher's new book about "the lost art of handwriting" arrived on my front porch, I knew I was born to read this book.  The Opening Lines to the introduction:
      About six months ago, I realized that I had no idea what the handwriting of a good friend of mine looked like.  I had known him for over a decade, but somehow we had never communicated using handwritten notes.  He had left messages for me, e-mailed me, sent text messages galore.  But I don't think I had ever had a letter from him written by hand, a postcard from his holidays, a reminder of something pushed through my letterbox.  I had no idea whether his handwriting was bold or crabbed, sloping or upright, italic or rounded, elegant or slapdash.
      The odd thing is this.  It had never struck me as strange before, and there was no particular reason why it had suddenly come to mind.  We could have gone on like this forever, hardly noticing that we had no need of handwriting any more.
      This book has been written at a moment when, it seems, handwriting is about to vanish from our lives altogether.  Is anything going to be lost apart from the habit of writing with pen on paper?  Will some part of our humanity, as we have always understood it, disappear as well?
It's a generously-illustrated book about an "endangered art."  Here's the Jacket Copy for more illumination:
Hensher introduces us to the nineteenth-century handwriting evangelists who traveled across America to convert the masses to the moral worth of copperplate script; he examines the role handwriting plays in the novels of Charles Dickens; he investigates the claims made by the practitioners of graphology that penmanship can reveal personality.  But this is also a celebration of the physical act of writing: the treasured fountain pens, chewable ballpoints, and personal embellishments that we stand to lose.  Hensher pays tribute to the warmth and personality of the handwritten love note, postcards sent home, and daily diary entries.  With the teaching of handwriting now required in only five states and many expert typists barely able to hold a pen, the future of handwriting is in jeopardy.  Or is it?  Hugely entertaining, witty, and thought-provoking, The Missing Ink will inspire readers to pick up a pen and write.

Friday Freebie: An Unbridled Giveaway

Congratulations to A. W. McKinnon, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Hunter and Other Stories by Dashiell Hammett.

This week's book giveaway is one of the most unique and personally gratifying Friday Freebies I've ever posted in The Quivering Pen's three-year history.  A couple of months ago, I was contacted by Greg Michalson, co-publisher (along with Fred Ramey) of Unbridled Books.  Greg said he was going through some old boxes of Unbridled books and came across some titles which he thought deserved more recognition.  Would I be interested in offering them up as Friday Freebie giveaways?

Would I?  I think I said "Yes" so fast, the "s" got there before the "y."  I've been a fan of Unbridled Books since its inception in 2003.  In fact, I was even a devotee of its precursor, BlueHen Books, the short-lived Putnam imprint which Ramey and Michalson also co-founded.  If I went out to my front porch and discovered a package with the Unbridled logo--the flying mane and galloping forelegs of a horse--then I knew there was an unqualified literary treat waiting for me inside.  I've never been disappointed by an Unbridled Books book.  That's not something I can say of every publisher.

When Greg's box of books arrived, it was like Christmas in September at my house.  Actually, I was celebrating your Christmas since these titles will be going out to a few lucky Quivering Pen readers.  It's my unbridled delight to pass these works of fiction on to other readers.  I asked Greg to talk a little bit about the books he sent:

One unexpected pleasure of recently going back through some boxes of books after I moved my office over the summer was the chance to revisit memories from some wonderful novels that have meant a great deal to me.  As I was doing this, it occurred to me, yet again, that over the years Fred Ramey and I have published a number of Western titles that deserve some further attention unless and before they’re forgotten.  I continue to think of them as some of the best books I ever published.  At least a few of them are or should be considered classics.  I wrote a couple of short blog posts a while back about the nature of Western fiction that also got me thinking about this group.

I’ve often said in describing what we do that Unbridled Books is a regional publisher, just not from any one region.  There are so many different ways that this statement is true, even though we’re a small press with a national footprint and aspirations to being a part of the national conversation—if there is such a thing anymore.  Our authors and their books certainly have universal appeal and deserve national recognition.

But one simple way this is true is with the books that grow from a particular landscape or culture and that help us understand our heritage and define who we’ve become today.  And in fact, the literature of the West of course has embodied the American spirit, identity and dream.

In the best fiction, cultural identity is often inseparably tied up in sense of place.  We’re shaped by where we come from and where we’re going as much as by what we want, and why, and what we’re willing to give up to get it.  That cultural identity is one of the main differences between, say, Garcia Marquez’s brand of real maravillosa and the decadence or decay of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.  And why the fresh promise of the New World and the rootlessness of Westward expansion gave rise to the oh so American penchant for continually reinventing oneself.

With all this in mind, I’ve invited David Abrams to give away copies from my personal stash of some of my favorite books and authors, hoping to bring them at least in some small way together with another appreciative audience of readers who might have missed them before.  Many are from Unbridled Books, but some go back to earlier times with BlueHen and MacMurray & Beck.

These novels are filled with the stories and people of the Western United States.  Each of them seems to take the reader on a ride to places he or she might never expect, connecting with characters who have helped define some part of what it means to be who we are as a culture today.  They’ll touch both your heart and your mind, offering the pleasure and intimate enrichment of the very best reading experiences.  Or at least, this is the effect they’ve had on me.

Here, then, is the list:

Rick Collignon’s classic The Journal of Antonio Montoya, the novel which begins his amazing Guadalupe saga, set in Guadalupe, New Mexico.  If you haven’t read the Guadalupe saga, you’re simply missing a group of novels that make up an important piece of America’s western literature, one that’s comic and tragic at once, delightful, surprising and revelatory.  The characters you’ll come to know through these novels will live with you for a long time to come.

Lloyd Zimpel’s A Season of Fire and Ice, from the heartlands of the harsh 1880s Dakota Territories, a morality tale of survival and destiny told in the convincing language of a patriarch’s journal.  This is a moving personal journey filled with humor and tenacity, family loyalty, defiance and despair, an almost biblical story of self-revelation with an over-arching spiritual reach.  It offers a portrait of who we have always been in America and what we’ve learned to value as a people.

Debra Earling’s Perma Red, set in the 1940s on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, in which a reckless and stubborn young girl sets her life down a desperate but unforgettable path.  This is a breathtaking, love-crossed saga of the West, about a young woman coming of age under perilous circumstances, against a classic, frightening clash of cultures.  I’ve never read anything quite like it.

If you haven’t read these, you must. And you’re in for a treat.  Right alongside them are:

M. Allen Cunningham’s The Green Age of Asher Witherow, which was a #1 Booksense pick back in the day, set in the coal mines north of San Francisco in the 1860s-70s.  It’s a rich, gothic tale of a young soul coming of age during the explosive boom and bust years of a little remembered immigrant coal mining town in 19th-century California.

Cathryn Alpert’s Rocket City, a classic road novel with one of the first great dwarf characters, with one of the all-time greatest opening lines ever.

And perhaps surprisingly (surprising only because she’s from Ohio), Nancy Zafris’ Lucky Strike, a novel full of heart that follows a young widow and her two children into the canyon country of Utah in 1954 where thousands of self-styled prospectors, encouraged or deluded by government pamphlets, have caught uranium fever and descended upon the desert landscape, determined to reinvent themselves.

Also William Cobb’s The Bird Saviors, set in Western Colorado in some very near future, it captures a haunting vision of the new West in which a young and remarkable unwed mother must find her way during a time of climate change, economic turmoil, virus fears, fundamentalist cults and illegal immigrant hardship.  Cobb’s is a story of defiance and anger mixed with compassion and unexpected love, of resilience and personal survival, and surprising hope.

John Addiego’s Tears of the Mountain chronicles a single day in one man’s life—July 4, 1876—along with a series of flashbacks that all lead up to an eventful Centennial Independence Day celebration in Sonoma, California.

David Allan Cates’ dark (sometimes darkly comic) and almost hallucinatory period masterpiece of re-invention and horrific manifest destiny, Freeman Walker.

Definitely Mattox Roesch’s Sometimes We’re Always Real Same-Same, if you count Alaska’s Eskimo community as the West, with a transplanted teenage gangbanger from LA.  This one was named by Library Journal as the best adult novel of its year for young adult readers.  Basically, a book for everyone of all ages.

And the stunningly lyrical epic tale by Michael Pritchett, The Melancholy Fate of Capt. Lewis, which delivers as intimately imagined a version of the grand adventure that was the Lewis & Clark expedition as you’ll ever read.

*     *     *

Here's how the giveaway will work: I have one copy of each of the books to give away to contestants.  I'll draw four names out of the hat.  One person will win four of the books, one person will win three books, and two people will win two books.  If you have a preference for which of the Unbridled titles you'd like to win, mention that in your email; I can't guarantee those will actually be the books I select for you, but I'll do my best to match demand with supply.  Otherwise, I'll just randomly select your prize-package books.  Trust me when I say there is not a bad apple in this bunch.

If you'd like a chance at winning the Unbridled Books prize package, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 31, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 1.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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Thursday, October 24, 2013

My Library: Roxana Robinson and Her Grandfather's Bookroom

Reader:  Roxana Robinson
Location:  This house is in northwestern Connecticut.
Collection size:  I have no idea.  Three storeys of books.
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf
Favorite book from childhood:  Silver Snaffles by Primrose Cummings
Guilty pleasure book:  P.G. Wodehouse, or any good English detective books.  Or anything by Tana French.

I now live in a house which was built by my grandparents.  They lived in Philadelphia, but spent the summers here in northwestern Connecticut, where my grandfather’s family had been for generations.  The house is set high on a thickly-wooded hillside, overlooking a lake.  It is right in the midst of nature, which is how my grandfather wanted it.  He was a lawyer by profession but a writer for fun.  His study was called the Bookroom.  It had a wall of floor-to-ceiling shelves, a big granite fireplace, and a private door, so he could slip out into the woods if he saw someone arrive whom he didn’t want to see.  “Oh, I’m so sorry, Sam’s not here.  He’s just stepped out,” my grandmother would say, and this would be true.  By then he would be padding down the trail, binoculars in hand, on the watch for whatever excitement nature was about to provide.

The Escape Route
Five years ago, my husband and I took over the house.  To make it habitable year-round, we had to clean it out, putting everything in storage for the renovation.  My grandfather’s writings were in the Bookroom, his nature books and adventure novels.  Also lots of other family stuffan unpublished manuscript of my grandfather’s, nestled in a red cardboard hatbox, rows of his father’s small black hand-written notebooks of journals (he was a minister) and shelves of theological tomes (my family was full of ministers).

Cleaning out the Bookroom was a challenge.  It was done during the winter, and the house had no heating then.  Dozens of old copies of Punch, which had no family connection, and stacks of St. Nicholas Magazine, where my grandfather often published stories.  Each object was opened, scanned for signatures or list of contributors, considered, and put into one of the piles: Town Jumble Sale, cousin so-and-so, ask someone, keep.  It gives me a headache to remember this, because those decisions were difficult.  Those things had been in the house since 1928, for nearly a hundred years.  Who was I to throw them out?  I still had my grandfather’s brown porkpie hat, that had hung on the hook in the hall closet my whole life.  He died in 1948.  No-one had ever moved it.  But if I didn’t move things, where was I to put my own life?  My own books?

It wasn’t only my grandfather’s books, though there were many of those: The Out-of-Doors Club, Boy Scouts in the Wilderness, The Inca Emerald, Lords of the Wild.  And there are other family members whose books stand beside his: we are writers on both sides of the family, and have been so for generations.  I haven’t read them all, though my mother had.  But I have them.  They’re on the shelves.

Since this is only a summer house, the Bookroom wasn’t my grandfather’s main library.  It’s relatively small, and even now there are only shelves on two-and-a-half sides.  Which meant that we had more books than we could fit into it.

My husband reads as much as I do, and together we have a mighty library.  So when we renovated we built new shelves all over the house: floor to ceiling in the front hall, for biography, art and gardening; floor to ceiling in my husband’s study, for opera, Wagner, Proust and watercolor artists; low shelves (under the eaves) in my study over the garage, for my own strange gathering: certain favorite novels, books I teach from, books on O’Keeffe and American art, and a conglomeration of war books, including the Marine Officer’s Handbook.

Alice Munro on display
But the Bookroom, the real library at the heart of the house, holds only fiction, which runs in strict alphabetical order up and down the two and a half sides of the room.  A desk lives against one wall, blocking access to certain shelves, and I became very unhappy when I realized that Alice Munro might have to disappear behind it.  I didn’t mind when I thought it would be Nabokov, because I’m long over Nabokov, but I will never be over Alice, and so I fudged it.  I shifted things around so that Alice stands serenely over the desk, unobstructed.  I like seeing big swathes of my favorite authors: the dark glossy backs of Trollope’s wonderful Palliser novels, and Updike’s long upright row of bright covers, near the doorway, upper right.  When my grandfather was alive, that wall had no bookshelves, only his desk, and a velvet-backed framed array of his running medals from Yale.  The bookshelves were on either end of the room.  The other walls were of a dark porous wallboard, water-stained, and riddled with ragged holes where snakes and mice and squirrels had gained illegal entry.  I remember all this, and I remember my grandfather’s rickety rustic desk, long legs and one shallow drawer, a couple of bookshelves on top of the desk.  The old soft brown blotter.

But now that earlier place has merged in my mind with the room as it is today.  It still holds much of my grandfather: the high shelf is lined with his books, about the natural world and the creatures who inhabit it, the adventures that await if you step out the back door and start down the path and into the woods.  It was my grandfather who found the deer antlers that still lie on top of the mantelpiece, cutting the air into smooth beautiful curves.  He’s still there, in many ways.  But the Bookroom also holds my own life now, and my husband’s.  His novels, dozens and dozens of them, are interspersed here with mine: it was he who introduced me to William Styron, Paul Scott, Evelyn Waugh and Proust.  It was he who gave me the big handsome dictionary that stands beneath the window.

All libraries hold the shifting, sifting contents of our minds, as we move through our lives.  The Bookroom holds a bit more than that; it seems to contain some fragmentary presence from each generation, each spouse, each year of this old house.

My grandfather’s hat rode around in the back of my car during the two years of the renovation.  Now it’s back in the hall closet.  It hangs on a hook over my husband’s tennis racket.

Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books: five novels, most recently Sparta, three collections of stories and the biography of Georgia O’Keeffe.  Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker and Harper’s, as well as many other publications.  She has received fellowships from the Macdowell Colony, the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundation.  She lives in New York and Connecticut.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-quality photos (minimum 150 dpi) of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

Author photo by David Ignaszewski