Friday, January 31, 2014

Friday Freebie: Kids These Days by Drew Perry

Congratulations to Carol Wong, winner of last week's Friday Freebie book bundle: The In-Between Hour by Barbara Claypole White, Outerborough Blues by Andrew Cotto, Reunion at Red Paint Bay by George Harrar and Lighthouse Island by Paulette Jiles.

This week's book giveaway is Kids These Days by Drew Perry which comes to us courtesy of the good folks at Algonquin Books.  A wild and wacky novel set in Florida, Kids These Days has drawn comparisons to Tim Dorsey, Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, and Jonathan Tropper.  None other than Dave Barry himself calls the book “sweet, soulful, smart, and funny as hell.”  But I think my favorite blurb comes from Tom Franklin (Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter) who said: “This book is so funny and engaging that I was reading it and forgot to pick up my kids”--which is all the more telling when you know what the novel is about:
Walter and Alice are expecting their first baby, but their timing is a bit off: Walter, once a successful loan officer, has been unexpectedly downsized. They’ve had to relocate to Florida so that they can live rent-free--in Alice’s deceased aunt’s condo. When Alice’s brother-in-law Mid offers Walter a job, he literally can’t refuse. But what he doesn’t know--about the nature of the job, about the depth of Mid’s shady dealings, about what he’s really supposed to be doing--far outweighs what he does know. And soon enough, things escalate so out of control that Walter is riding shotgun with Mid in a bright yellow Camaro--chased by the police. Drew Perry paints a landscape of weird and beautiful Florida and its inhabitants--all wholly original and hilarious, and utterly believable. And at the center is a portrait of a father-to-be who is paralyzed by the idea of taking responsibility for another human life when he can’t seem to manage his own. Kids These Days takes perfect aim at the two sides of impending fatherhood--abject terror and unconditional love.
Opening Lines: “I’d agreed to it—the baby—because I’d decided that was what was owed. That if your wife, whom you loved beyond measure, wanted a child, you were supposed to think it was a fine and perfect plan.”

If you’d like a chance at winning a trade paperback copy of Kids These Days, 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 Feb. 6, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 7.  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).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Monday, January 27, 2014

My First Time: Jennifer Tress

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 Jennifer Tress, the author of You’re Not Pretty Enough: Extraordinary Stories from an (Un)ordinary Life and founder of the You’re Not Pretty Enough movement. She currently resides in Washington, DC, with her husband Dave. Tress performs stories live in both Washington and New York and produces a monthly show. Find more information at  Jennifer also hangs out on Facebook and Twitter.

My first query to an agent

Nearly every writer, at some point, believes his or her work is the stuff of genius. Or at the very least, believes his or her work deserves attention from an agent or an editor. Just peruse the hilariously morose SlushPileFromHell (in which an agent anonymously shares portions of his correspondence) and you’ll get a sense:
Have you ever wished you had represented the author of the Holy Bible and placed it with a publisher? While I don’t have a religious manuscript, I do have one I believe is as important as the Bible, [and] which has the sales potential of the Bible.
Or one like this:
Dear agent, it’s xxxx here, the guy who sent you seven manuscripts recently. Listen I just finished another one. GET READY TO BE BLOWN AWAY BY THIS WORK!
I relate to this type of magical thinking. I need to believe my work is meaningful and worthy of readership (I especially needed to believe that when I was working on my first book, a collection of essays) because writing does not come easy for me. Even though I love it, it is work. But goal achievement drives me, so I push on. A couple of years ago, when I felt I had a few solid chapters, I contacted other authors in my genre to get advice on the appropriate time to contact agents. Their input varied, but one theme emerged: it must be your best work.

So I sought feedback on the matter. I joined a writing group, took workshops, had friends review, did live readings and storytelling, published pieces and finally, when I felt like I had my first solid manuscript draft, hired editors. My last was a former in-house editor for one of the “big 5” who works freelance.

She edited the book over a three-week period and then scheduled a call with me to relay her thoughts, which were quite positive and enthusiastic but also vaguely unsatisfied. I ignored that last part. I was cocky, and urgently so, for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on. That’s where magical thinking screwed me. I heard only the good and then made it GREAT.

What my editor said: This is a fun and compelling read and you are an engaging, accessible writer. But story X is too long – you give too much weight to it – and I feel like you have more, maybe different stories to tell.

What I heard: This is great, you are great. Time to find an agent!

And there was only one agency I had in mind: Don Congdon Associates (DGA), humorist David Sedaris’ agency. Sedaris had always been my model. His nonfiction collections – especially Me Talk Pretty One Day – were everything I hoped I could achieve in my own work. I daydreamed about opening up for him on a book tour where we’d become fast friends who emailed each other snarky, movie-related comments forevermore.

Ignoring the advice make sure it’s your best work and the editor who reinforced my feeling that it wasn’t, I sent my first query to DGA in early May 2011.
June 2, 2011
Dear Ms. Tress: I am an agent at Don Congdon Associates. Your query was addressed to Katie here, but since your project wasn’t quite right for her she shared your letter with me, rightly thinking it would be up my alley. Your description and sample essay appeal to me very much and I’d love to consider YOU’RE NOT PRETTY ENOUGH for possible representation. Please send the complete manuscript and I will respond within about a month of my receipt of it. Also, please let me know if this can be an exclusive submission, or if other agents are considering the material simultaneously. I look forward to the reading. Thanks.
I was floored. And when I looked up the agent who did respond to me, I was double-floored. It was Susan Ramer, the agent behind the mega hit, The Help. I sent her the manuscript that night and got her reply 12 days later.
Dear Jennifer: I had a chance to read your manuscript over the weekend. You have an engaging voice and I thought the first several essays were excellent, but I’m afraid I was less enthusiastic about those that followed. Maybe I just didn’t find them as compelling or distinctive in comparison to the strength of the earlier ones, but given the high bar for selling any essay collection, I’m afraid I have decided to pass. I very much appreciate the chance to consider the project, however. Tastes vary widely among agents and I’m sure others will respond differently; I wish you the best of luck in finding the right home for your work.
Of course I wanted a different outcome. But I had to admit it. It wasn’t my best work. Ms. Ramer was gracious enough to answer my follow-up questions thoughtfully and I appreciate her input to this day. I think ignoring the feedback from my editor stemmed from what felt like a desperate desire to escape the life I was living: one of 65+ hours a week in the corporate world managing complex projects and people. I wanted a new life and I wanted it now. Plus, I didn’t want to go back to the writing. I barely had time for my marriage, let alone my writing. But back to the writing I went...for two more years.

And I continued querying along the way. The feedback came back in three phases, the first set being similar feedback to Ms. Ramer’s. And so I re-wrote and then went on to Phase 2: you need more of a marketing platform. So I built that up significantly; and finally, Phase 3: all of this is great, but you're not famous enough yet. Contact me when you are! I was ready to share my book with readers, and realized I could through self-publishing.

In August 2013 I did so through Amazon (and subsequently with Smashwords). Marie Claire and The Washington Post did profiles on me and from there I got a lot more media attention, which gave me sales and put me on Amazon best seller lists and promotional emails. Then studios and talent agencies contacted me about film and TV rights. So now I have two agents, one literary and one in TV/film.

I have no idea what’s going to happen, but I know one thing for sure: persistence pays. That first response from Ms. Ramer, though disappointing, gave me a real confidence boost. It validated that I had something good. It just wasn’t ready. And though David Sedaris hasn’t called me yet, what has happened up to this point is wonderfully surreal. It feels like it’s “enough.”

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sunday Sentence: A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True, 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson

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

"Forget it, Harry," said Capra.  "She's not an actress, she's a porcupine."

Director Frank Capra to Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures, after Stanwyck refused to do a screen test
A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True, 1907-1940 by Victoria Wilson

Friday, January 24, 2014

Friday Freebie: The In-Between Hour by Barbara Claypole White, Outerborough Blues by Andrew Cotto, Reunion at Red Paint Bay by George Harrar, and Lighthouse Island by Paulette Jiles

Congratulations to Kirsten Murchison, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei.

This week, The Quivering Pen is giving away a bundle of books. One lucky reader will win a copy of each of the following: The In-Between Hour by Barbara Claypole White, Outerborough Blues by Andrew Cotto, Reunion at Red Paint Bay by George Harrar, and Lighthouse Island by Paulette Jiles.  Lighthouse Island is a hardcover, the others are trade paperbacks.  Because each of these four novels have great opening lines, I'm going to include their excerpts to give you a taste of what you'll find in their pages.

The In-Between Hour, Barbara Claypole White's second novel (after 2012's The Unfinished Garden), tells the story of a grieving father and the lengths to which he'll go in order to keep the memory of his dead child alive.  Here's the publisher's synopsis:
What could be worse than losing your child? Having to pretend he's still alive.... Bestselling author Will Shepard is caught in the twilight of grief, after his young son dies in a car accident. But when his father's aging mind erases the memory, Will rewrites the truth. The story he spins brings unexpected relief…until he's forced to return to rural North Carolina, trapping himself in a lie. Holistic veterinarian Hannah Linden is a healer who opens her heart to strays but can only watch, powerless, as her grown son struggles with inner demons. When she rents her guest cottage to Will and his dad, she finds solace in trying to mend their broken world, even while her own shatters. As their lives connect and collide, Will and Hannah become each other's only hope—if they can find their way into a new story, one that begins with love.
Opening lines:
Will imagined silence. The silence of snowfall in the forest. The silence at the top of a crag. But eighty floors below his roof garden, another siren screeched along Central Park West.

Outerborough Blues, subtitled "A Brooklyn Mystery," reminds me of a classic film noir from the 1940s....even though it's set in the 1990s.  Nonetheless, dark bars, dangerous dames, and acrid cigarette smoke remain just as potent no matter what the era.  Here's the publisher's synopsis:
A beautiful young French girl walks into a bar, nervously lights a cigarette, and begs the bartender for help in finding her missing artist brother. In a moment of weakness, the bartender--a drifter named Caesar Stiles with a damaged past and a Sicilian family curse hanging over him--agrees. What follows is a stylish literary mystery set in Brooklyn on the dawn of gentrification. While Caesar is initially trying to earn an honest living at the neighborhood watering hole, his world quickly unravels. In addition to being haunted by his past, including a brother who is intent on settling an old family score, Caesar is being hunted down by a mysterious nemesis known as The Orange Man. Adding to this combustible mix, Caesar is a white man living in a deep-rooted African American community with decidedly mixed feelings about his presence. In the course of his search for the French girl's missing brother, Caesar tumbles headlong into the shadowy depths of his newly adopted neighborhood, where he ultimately uncovers some of its most sinister secrets. Taking place over the course of a single week, Outerborough Blues is a tightly paced and gritty urban noir saturated with the rough and tumble atmosphere of early 1990s Brooklyn.
The opening lines:
My mother's mother came to this country in the usual way--she got on a boat with other immigrants and sailed from Sicily. She wasn't one of them, however: neither tired nor poor or part of any huddled mass. Instead, she traveled alone, with her money in one sock and a knife in the other, coming to the new world with an old world motive--to murder the man that had left her for America.

Reunion at Red Paint Bay also has a current of tension running through it (though no sock-knives, as far as I can tell).  Behold, the publisher's synopsis:
Red Paint calls itself "the friendliest town in Maine," a place where everyone knows one another and nothing too disturbing ever happens. Native son Simon Howe is a sturdy family man--a good father and husband--and owner-editor of the town's newspaper. Because there's rarely any real news, he runs stories about Virgin Mary sightings, high school reunions, and petty criminals. One day Simon's predictable and peaceful life is disrupted by the arrival of an anonymous postcard, the first in a series of increasingly menacing messages. He tries to ignore them, but the implied danger becomes more real, threatening to engulf his wife and son as well. The Howe family becomes engaged in a full-scale psychological battle with their unidentified stalker--without even knowing it. Secrets from Simon's past are uncovered, escalating toward a tense and unexpected climax. More than a conventional mystery or thriller, Reunion at Red Paint Bay is an exploration of the consequences of guilt, denial, and moral absolutism. Harrar weaves a dramatic and suspenseful tale sure to spur readers into examining the limits of responsibility for one's actions.
The opening lines:
Simon Howe, editor of the Red Paint Register, drove south toward home, into the fading light. Beyond the rusting sign, as far as one could see into the scrub pine woods, there was no other imprint on the land to suggest what lay ahead. The town sign wasn’t really necessary. People didn’t just happen upon Red Paint. If you took the spur road off the interstate, you probably already lived there and knew where you were going. Simon reached over the gearshift and let his hand fall on the knee of his wife, Amy. She had been quiet for miles, unusual for her, all the way from their dinner at the Bayswater Inn. Maybe she was worrying about their son, home alone for the first time. If there was separation anxiety, he figured it was more on her part than Davey’s.

Lighthouse Island is a bit of a departure from the author of historical novels grounded in the Great Depression (Stormy Weather), the Civil War (Enemy Women) and the Old West (The Color of Lightning). It's set in a dystopian future--which comes across as real as anything you'd find in our nation's past. Here's how the publisher describes it:
In the coming centuries, the world's population has exploded and covered the earth with endless cities. Animals are nearly all gone. Drought plagues the land and cloudy water is issued by the quart. There are no maps, no borders, no numbered years. On this urban planet the only relief from the overcrowding, the petty informers, and the harsh rule of the big Agencies is the television in every living space, offering dreams of vanished waterfalls and the promise of virtual vacations in green spaces for the lucky few. It is an unwelcoming world for an orphan like Nadia Stepan, abandoned by her parents on a crowded street when she was four with only a drawing of the constellations of the Big Dipper--Cassiopeia's Chair and the North Star--and her mother's parting words: "Look to the North Star, and we will always be there." Shuttled from orphanage to orphanage, foster family to foster family, Nadia grows up dreaming of the vacation spot called Lighthouse Island, in a place called the Pacific Northwest where she believes her long-lost parents must be. As her obsession grows, so too does her determination to find her way there. In the meantime, this bright and witty orphan falls into the refuge of old and neglected books; the lost world of the imagination filled with characters who can't disappear, or be arrested, or hurt her. And there is the voice, bounced from an abandoned satellite, that patiently reads, over and over, the great classical books of the world--Big Radio, a sound in the night that lifts Nadia above the relentless television noise and the dull and perpetual Present. Despite deprivation, uncertainty, and the deceptions she must use to survive, Nadia's dream never waivers. "It will get better, life will get better." When an opportunity for escape appears, Nadia takes it, abandoning everything to strike out for Lighthouse Island in a dangerous and sometimes comic adventure. She faces every contingency with bottomless inventiveness and meets the man who changes the course of her life: James Orotov, a mapmaker and demolition expert. Together, they evade arrest and head north toward a place of wild beauty that lies beyond the megalopolis: Lighthouse Island and its all-seeing eye.
The opening lines:
The winds carried dust to every part of the great cities; left it on roofs and windowsills and uneven streets. It scoured glass to an iridescent glaze. The city covered the entire earth, if people think of the earth as "where I live." At night, the wind sang through the abandoned upper floors of buildings with a noise like oboes and this erratic music could be heard at street level where people walked in the heat to their work in offices and in the recycling dumps and the cement works, to work on the pumps that kept the water, contaminated with gypsum from Silurian seas, flowing through the pipes. In the interstadial spaces between the borders of gerrymanders, prisoners painfully attended the cactus fields and soybean fields.

If you’d like a chance at winning The In-Between Hour, Outerborough Blues, Reunion at Red Paint Bay, and Lighthouse Island, 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 Jan. 30, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 31.  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).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Front Porch Books: January 2014 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.

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan (Scribner):  This debut collection of essays and short stories might almost be too sad to read--not necessarily from the content itself (though it might be laced with melancholy), but for the story behind the story.  Marina Keegan's star was on the rise when she graduated magna cum laude from Yale in May 2012. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at The New Yorker.  She wrote an impassioned essay for The Yale Daily News in which she urged her classmates to embrace life and not let competition and anxiety hold them back.  Marina Keegan, by all appearances, was in love with life.  And then, five days after graduation, she died in a car crash. As her grieving family, friends, and classmates held a memorial service for Marina, that last essay for The Yale Daily News, "The Opposite of Loneliness," went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits.  It's always hard to lose a promising writer at so young an age (like Amanda Davis, for instance).  And so, reading this book will undoubtedly be a sad experience.  I mean, it's impossible to read this paragraph from the title essay and not feel moved:
But let us get one thing straight: the best years of our lives are not behind us. They’re part of us and they are set for repetition as we grow up and move to New York and away from New York and wish we did or didn’t live in New York. I plan on having parties when I’m 30. I plan on having fun when I’m old. Any notion of THE BEST years comes from clichéd “should haves…” “if I’d…” “wish I’d…”
From the little I've read so far, The Opposite of Loneliness also promises to be rewarding.  Blurbworthiness: "Illuminates the optimism and neurosis felt by new grads everywhere....Like every millennial who's seen irony elevated to an art form, Keegan brings self-awareness to the collective insecurity of her peers even as she captures it with a precision that only comes from someone who feels it too. How unfortunate that she will never know the value readers will find in her work." (Publishers Weekly)

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (The Penguin Press):  There's a Lovely Bones vibe to Everything I Never Told You right from the get-go: "Lydia is dead.  But they don't know this yet."  Dead girl, grieving family, questions without answers--sure, we've seen this before, but I am looking forward to Ng's debut novel with undisguised hope and glee.  There's an attention to detail to be found even in the Opening Lines:
      Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May third, six-thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with a small tick. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial towards WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, Lydia’s taking a long time today.
      Upstairs, Marilyn opens her daughter’s door and sees the bed unslept in: neat hospital corners still pleated beneath the comforter, pillow still fluffed and convex. Nothing seems out of place. Mustard-colored corduroys tangled on the floor, a single rainbow-striped sock. A row of science fair ribbons on the wall, a postcard of Einstein. Lydia’s duffel bag crumpled on the floor of the closet. Lydia’s green bookbag slouched against her desk. Lydia’s bottle of Baby Love atop the dresser, Lydia’s faint sweet smell still in the air, powdery and soft, a little-girl, loved-baby scent. But no Lydia.
Just look at how much we already know about the girl after only two paragraphs: a neatly-made bed contrasted with the mess of the clothes, a science nerd, a hard-working student. I'm really drawn to Ng's authority over her characters.  Here's more about the book from the Jacket Copy:
[In] this exquisite debut novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio, Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party. When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family—Hannah—who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened. A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family, and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash (William Morrow):  This new novel by Wiley Cash (who also wrote A Land More Kind Than Home) opens with an epigraph from Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood:
Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to was never there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place...Nothing outside you can give you any place...In yourself right now is all the place you've got.
That's about as spot-on perfect an epigraph as I've read in a long time because Cash's novel focuses on both a sense of displacement and self-reliance on the part of two young girls, sisters Easter and Ruby Quillby.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
When their mother dies unexpectedly, twelve-year-old Easter Quillby and her six-year-old sister, Ruby, are shuffled into the foster care system in Gastonia, North Carolina, a little town not far from the Appalachian Mountains. But just as they settle into their new life, their errant father, Wade, an ex-minor league baseball player whom they haven't seen in years, suddenly reappears and steals them away in the middle of the night. Brady Weller, the girls' court-appointed guardian, begins looking for Wade, and quickly turns up unsettling information linking him to a multimillion-dollar robbery. But Brady isn't the only one hunting him. Also on the trail is Robert Pruitt, a mercurial man nursing a years-old vendetta, a man determined to find Wade and claim what he believes he is owed.
In addition to having a crackerjack corker of a plot, This Dark Road to Mercy is shot through with a strong sense of character and voice, which is apparent from the Opening Lines narrated by Easter:
Wade disappeared on us when I was six years old, and then he showed up out of nowhere the year I turned twelve. By then I’d spent half my life listening to Mom blame him for everything from the lights getting turned off to me and Ruby not having new shoes to wear to school, and by the time he came back I’d already decided that he was the loser she’d always said he was. But it turns out he was much more than that. He was also a thief, and if I’d known what kind of people were looking for him I never would’ve let him take me and my little sister out of Gastonia, North Carolina, in the first place.

Redeployment by Phil Klay (The Penguin Press):  It feels like I've been waiting a decade for this book to arrive.  In fact, it's been a couple of years--shortly after I first read Klay's short story "Redeployment" in the anthology Fire and Forget (full disclosure: one of my stories, "Roll Call" is also in that collection).  When I read the Opening Lines, it was as if a bomb had gone off in my chest:
      We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose and we called it "Operation Scooby." I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.
      First time was instinct. I hear O’Leary go, "Jesus," and there’s a skinny brown dog lapping up blood the same way he’d lap up water from a bowl. It wasn’t American blood, but still, there’s that dog, lapping it up. And that’s the last straw, I guess, and then it’s open season on dogs.
By the time I reached the end of that story--a powerfully affecting narrative about a soldier's readjustment (or lack thereof) to domestic life--I knew I'd just witnessed the start of a great writing career.  I immediately set about e-stalking Phil Klay, hoping against all hope that "Redeployment" wasn't just a one-off affair and that he would be coming out with a book of his own which would get wide recognition.  Ladies and gentlemen, that day is here (or will be when the book is released in March).  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Phil Klay's Redeployment takes readers to the frontlines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking us to understand what happened there, and what happened to the soldiers who returned. Interwoven with themes of brutality and faith, guilt and fear, helplessness and survival, the characters in these stories struggle to make meaning out of chaos. In "Redeployment", a soldier who has had to shoot dogs because they were eating human corpses must learn what it is like to return to domestic life in suburbia, surrounded by people "who have no idea where Fallujah is, where three members of your platoon died." In "After Action Report," a Lance Corporal seeks expiation for a killing he didn't commit, in order that his best friend will be unburdened. A Mortuary Affairs Marine tells about his experiences collecting remains—of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers both. A chaplain sees his understanding of Christianity, and his ability to provide solace through religion, tested by the actions of a ferocious Colonel. And in the darkly comic "Money as a Weapons System", a young Foreign Service Officer is given the absurd task of helping Iraqis improve their lives by teaching them to play baseball. These stories reveal the intricate combination of monotony, bureaucracy, comradeship and violence that make up a soldier's daily life at war, and the isolation, remorse, and despair that can accompany a soldier's homecoming.
Blurbworthiness: "Redeployment is a stunning, upsetting, urgently necessary book about the impact of the Iraq war on both soldiers and civilians. Klay's writing is searing and powerful, unsparing of its characters and its readers, art made from a soldier's fearless commitment to confront those losses that can't be tallied in statistics. 'Be honest with me,' a college student asks a returning veteran in one story, and Phil Klay's answer is a challenge of its own: these stories demand and deserve our attention." (Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!)

The Wind Is Not a River by Brian Payton (Ecco):  Here's another promising book of war fiction, set in another time and a place far from Iraq (though emotionally quite close, I imagine): World War Two on the western-most fringe of Alaska.  The Aleutian Islands were the scene for some pretty intense, though short-lived, hand-to-hand combat.  In his new novel, Payton plunks his protagonist down right in the middle of the action.  Here's the Jacket Copy to explain:
A gripping tale of survival and an epic love story in which a husband and wife-separated by the only battle of World War II to take place on American soil-fight to reunite in Alaska's starkly beautiful Aleutian Islands. Following the death of his younger brother in Europe, journalist John Easley is determined to find meaning in his loss, to document some part of the growing war that claimed his own flesh and blood. Leaving behind his beloved wife, Helen, after an argument they both regret, he heads north from Seattle to investigate the Japanese invasion of Alaska's Aleutian Islands, a story censored by the U.S. government. While John is accompanying a crew on a bombing run, his plane is shot down over the island of Attu. He survives only to find himself exposed to a harsh and unforgiving wilderness, known as "the Birthplace of Winds." There, John must battle the elements, starvation, and his own remorse while evading discovery by the Japanese. Alone in their home three thousand miles to the south, Helen struggles with the burden of her husband's disappearance. Caught in extraordinary circumstances, in this new world of the missing, she is forced to reimagine who she is-and what she is capable of doing. Somehow, she must find John and bring him home, a quest that takes her into the farthest reaches of the war, beyond the safety of everything she knows.
Love and war always make a potent combination, but then you throw in the harsh environment of Alaska's Aleutian Islands and the literary stakes are raised considerably. The book begins in the middle of that plot synopsis, after John has crash-landed on the island. You've gotta admit, these are some pretty gripping Opening Lines:
      When John Easley opens his eyes to the midday sky his life does not pass before him. He sees instead a seamless sheet of sky gone gray from far too many washings. He blinks twice, then focuses on the tiny black specks drifting across the clouds. They pass through his field of vision wherever he turns to look. Last winter, the doctor pronounced them floaters. Said that by Easley's age, thirty-eight, plenty of people had them. Little bits of the eyeball's interior lining had come free and were swimming inside the jelly. What Easley actually sees are not the specks themselves, but the shadows they cast as they pass over his retina. To avoid their distraction, the doctor advised him to refrain from staring at a blank page, the sky, or snow. These are his first conscious thoughts on the island of Attu.
      He sits up straight. When he does, it feels as if his head has a momentum all its own, as if it wants to continue its upward trajectory. A dull pain jabs his ribs. He places bare hands in the snow to keep from keeling over. The parachute luffs out behind him--a jaundiced violation against the otherwise perfect white. Fog so thick he can't see the end of the silk. For a moment, he is anxious it might catch a breeze and drag him farther upslope.

Above the East China Sea by Sarah Bird (Knopf):  Continue to travel west of Attu and you'll land in the geography of Sarah Bird's new novel.  Above the East China Sea is set on Okinawa and spans two generations--from World War Two to the present day.  The Opening Lines are a nice companion to those of Payton's novel:
      The choking black smoke from the fires raging below rises up, trying to claim me and my child. I climb higher. I must hurry. I must do what has to be done before the sun rises. The black stone tears at my skin. I ignore the cuts and drag us up and onto the top of the cliff.
      At the summit, I rise on trembling legs. The hundred thousand spirits who've gone before greet us with cries of joy, happy as a flock of crows at sunset hailing the returned. I see them. I see the women, the young girls, their kimonos fluttering above their heads like tattered banners as they plummet through the air. I see the emperor's soldiers, emaciated young men, caps flying straight up off their heads as they hurtle down, toward the sea.
      They had no choice but to jump. And, now, we have none.
I dare you stop reading after that.  I double-dog dare you.  Here's more about what you'll find on the rest of the pages from the Jacket Copy:
Set on the island of Okinawa today and during World War II, this deeply moving and evocative novel tells the entwined stories of two teenage girls--an American and an Okinawan--whose lives are connected across 70 years by the shared experience of both profound loss and renewal. Luz, a contemporary U.S. Air Force brat, lives with her no-nonsense sergeant mother at Kadena Air Base. Luz's older sister, her best friend and emotional center, has died in the Afghan war. Unmoored by her death, unable to lean on her mother, Luz contemplates taking her own life. In l945, Tamiko has lost everyone--the older sister she idolized and her entire family--and finds herself trapped between the occupying Japanese and the invading Americans whom she has been taught are demons that live to rape. On an island where the spirits of the dead are part of life and the afterworld reunites you with your family, suicide offers Tamiko the promise of peace. As Luz tracks down the story of her own Okinawan grandmother, she discovers that the ancestral spirits work as readily to save her as they do to help Tamiko find a resting place. And as these two stories unfold and intertwine, we see how war and American occupation have shaped and reshaped the lives of Okinawans.

The Fever by Megan Abbott (Little, Brown):  Megan Abbott continues to produce novels which prick, prod and provoke.  Dare Me was what Gillian Flynn called "Lord of the Flies set in a high school cheerleading squad;" The End of Everything centered around the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl in a small town; and Queenpin plunged readers into a noir-dark world of casinos, racetracks and seedy characters.  And now comes The Fever which is full of plague, family secrets and Abbott's trademark sharp writing.  Exhibit A: the Jacket Copy:
The Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hockey star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie's best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community. As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town's fragile idea of security.
Exhibit B: the Opening Lines, which playfully tease us with what could be double entendres...or perhaps something more sinister:
      "The first time, you can't believe how much it hurts."
      Deenie's legs are shaking, but she tries to hide it, pushing her knees together, her hand hot on her thigh.
      Six other girls are waiting. A few have done it before, but most are like Deenie.
      "I heard you might want to throw up even," one says. "I knew a girl who passed out. They had to stop in the middle."
      "It just kind of burns," says another. "You're sore for a few days. I heard by the third time, you don't even feel it."
       I'm next, Deenie thinks, a few minutes and it'll be me.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Rough, Dark, Shaggy....and Beautiful: a review of Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

Butcher’s Crossing
by John Williams
Reviewed by Derek Harmening

Just try to imagine: You’re fetally curled, knees knocking your chin, fingers so cold you can’t move them of your own volition.  A thick, rancid stench fills the air and a shroud of darkness envelops you.  Why?  Because you’re wrapped up in the bloody hide of a freshly killed buffalo.  Burrowing lice and fleas crawl over your arms and neck and face, probing, biting, but you can’t move lest your small shelter open, letting in furiously billowing winds and whorls of snow.  The temperature is well below zero degrees; you’re trapped beneath five feet of snow, and you’ve been so for three days, with no food, no water, no indication of when nature’s fury will finally desist.  It’s the early 1870s.  There is no help for miles.

These are the stakes set in Butcher’s Crossing, the 1960 revisionist western by John Williams (Stoner) written in defiance of genre convention.  It is a caustic examination of the classic romantic western, the notion of manifest destiny, and the Emersonian presumption of man’s oneness with nature.  While populated with a cast of archetypes, Butcher’s Crossing places them in an unforgiving, disinterested world where their prescribed characteristics are of no practical use (as stereotypes, at least).

Heading this cast is Will Andrews, doe-eyed son of a Unitarian minister, who’s just dropped out of Harvard and headed west with an inheritance to “find himself.”  His journey leads him to the nascent hunting town of Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas, where he meets Miller, a seasoned hunter who claims to know about a secret valley deep in the Rocky Mountains teeming with thousands of buffalo.  After convincing Andrews to put up $600—half of his inheritance—for the venture, Miller assembles a ragged crew, including Charley Hoge, a God-fearing carriage operator and Miller’s right-hand man, and Fred Schneider, a sensible, cautious hide skinner.

The milieu is undoubtedly enticing: Andrews can see it in the grooves set into these men’s faces, their skin darkened by sun and hardened by weather.  They are the true demigods, for they have encountered first hand that wild, unnameable phenomenon Andrews so craves:
Sometimes after listening to the droning voices in the chapel and in the classrooms, he had fled the confines of Cambridge to the fields and woods that lay southwestward to it. There in some small solitude, standing on bare ground, he felt his head bathed by the clean air and uplifted into infinite space; the meanness and the constriction he had felt were dissipated in the wildness about him. A phrase from a lecture by Mr. Emerson that he had attended came to him: I become a transparent eyeball. Gathered in by field and wood, he was nothing; he saw all; the current of some nameless force circulated through him. And in a way that he could not feel in King’s Chapel, in the college rooms, or on the Cambridge streets, he was a part and parcel of God, free and uncontained.
What Williams spends the majority of the novel exploring, however, is just how erroneous this blind affection toward nature really is.

Once the expedition alights, the stark realities of life begin to creep in.  Miller hasn’t been to this alleged buffalo trove in years, and his unclear directions nearly kill his men before they’ve begun.  It doesn’t help that his Captain-Ahab-grade obsession blinds him to anything but finding and slaughtering his bounty, even at the cost of his team and supplies.  And Will Andrews, so hopeful at the outset, grows appalled and discouraged by his experiences; it’s clear that the profound internal changes he seeks won’t occur until he recognizes the volatility of nature.

And that’s all before the vicious snowstorm rolls in.

Williams gives readers a trail map for these insights.  There are plenty of compact, beautifully rendered passages touching on such themes as Imperialism, manifest destiny, perils of the free market, the enduring contempt of Native Americans (and anything else that existed on American soil before Europeans did, really), and—perhaps most importantly—man’s eternal judgment.  Line for line, Williams crafts deceivingly simple, straightforward sentences; it’s when we step back that we see the fractal beauty of entire passages, resplendent with character and setting.  The following is long, but bear with me—it’s breathtaking:
He came to accept the silence he lived in, and tried to find a meaning in it. One by one he viewed the men who shared that silence with him. He saw Charley Hoge sipping his hot thin mixture of coffee and watered whiskey, warding off the bitter edge of cold that pressed against him at all times, even as he hunched over a blazing fire, and saw his blurred, rheumy eyes fixed upon ruined pages of his Bible, as if desperately to keep those eyes from looking beyond into the white waste of snow that diminished him. He saw Fred Schneider withdraw into himself, away from his fellows, as if his lone sullen presence were the only defense he had against the great cold whiteness all around. Schneider tramped brutally through the snow, throwing as wide and rough a swath as his feet could make; through the thin slits in the narrow buffaloskin that he wore almost constantly tied over his eyes, he looked at the snow, Andrews thought, as if it were something alive, as if it were something against which he was waiting to spring, biding his time…As for Miller—Andrews always paused when he thought of the shape that he wished Miller to take. He saw Miller rough and dark and shaggy against the whiteness of the snow; like a distant fir tree, he was distinct from the landscape, and yet an inevitable part of it.
Butcher’s Crossing is rife with these contemplations, snippets like Bev Doolittle paintings, rendering man and nature indistinguishable—in spite of man’s ignorance of what compels him to nature in the first place.  These passages are among the many reasons this book is well worth your time.  Plus it has one of the most kick-ass, satisfying endings I’ve read in months.

The winter snows are upon us; the cold is bone-deep; the wind is a scythe.  Pour yourself two fingers of whiskey, grab a blanket, curl up next to the fireplace, read this book, and be awed.

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, January 21, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

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

I weep with pity for those of you who missed Wiley Cash's debut novel, A Land More Kind Than Home.  A thunderbolt of a novel about faith and family, it garnered critical praise, readerly love, and cannonballed onto the New York Times bestseller list.  If you didn't discover Wiley C. last year, now is your hour of redemption.  His new novel, This Dark Road to Mercy, lands in bookstores this month and, from the little I've read of it, Wiley has proved that lightning does strike twice in the same place.  Set in Cash's own hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina, This Dark Road to Mercy is about two young sisters, Easter and Ruby Quillby, who are placed in foster care after their mother dies.  Then along comes their ne'er-do-well father Wade, an ex-minor league baseball player, who steals the girls away and takes them on the road with him.  Brady Weller, the girls' court-appointed guardian, sets off to look for them.  Also in pursuit: Robert Pruitt who, as Cash explains in the book's trailer, was blinded by one of Wade's wild pitches.  He's now out for revenge and you just know he's not going to settle for a simple "I'm sorry."  Jess Walter (Beautiful Ruins) calls This Dark Road to Mercy, "Harper Lee by way of Elmore Leonard."  Watching the trailer, you get a good sense of the emotional conflict at stake in these pages.  As Cash admits, putting children in peril is "exciting, but also worrisome."  To me, the only thing more worrisome is the thought that you don't buy and read Wiley's novels.  So please set my mind at ease; go out and get your hands on some Cash.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sunday Sentence: The Secret History by Donna Tartt

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

It never occurred to me that half the population of Vermont wasn't experiencing pretty much what I put myself through every night--bone-cracking cold that made my joints ache, cold so relentless I felt it in my dreams: ice floes, lost expeditions, the lights of search planes swinging over whitecaps as I floundered alone in black Arctic seas.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Friday, January 17, 2014

Friday Freebie: The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei

Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Heart of Everything That Is by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin.

This week's book giveaway is The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei. Here's the whatfor from the whozit publishers: The Deep Whatsis follows a brilliant antihero staggering into madness as he navigates among Brooklyn hipsters, advertising tyrants, corporate hypocrisy, and the ghosts of his past.  Meet Eric Nye: player, philosopher, drunk, sociopath.  A ruthless young Chief Idea Officer at a New York City ad agency, Eric downsizes his department, guzzles only the finest Sancerre, pops pills, and chases women.  Then one day he meets Intern, whose name he can’t remember.  Will she be the cause of his downfall, or his unlikely awakening?  A gripping and hilarious satire of the inherent absurdity of advertising and the flippant cruelty of corporate behavior, The Deep Whatsis shows the devastating effects of a world where civility and respect have been fired.  Here's what Kate Christensen, author of The Astral, had to say about the novel: "With zingy, hilarious glee, Peter Mattei takes a sharp stick and pokes it at many deserving underbellies: the puffery of corporate America; hipsters, yoga dudes, and the general pretentiousness of north Brooklyn; and many more.  The Deep Whatsis is a provocative, darkly subversive, deeply satisfying novel."

If you’d like a chance at winning The Deep Whatsis, 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 Jan. 23, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 24.  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).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

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

There's nothing particularly ominous about a man chopping wood.  Unless, that is, you are Red 14 Films and you're making a trailer for Matt Bell's novel In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods.  Then it's creepy as Jack Nicholson chopping a hole in a door and scaring the shit out of Shelly Duvall.  The In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods trailer begins with a flannel-jacketed man walking out of his house (which, yes, is on the dirt, among trees, and next to a lake).  He picks up an axe and starts cutting firewood.  That's it.  That's the entire "plot" of the trailer.  And yet, by the time we reach the two-minute mark, our nerves are as splintered as that kindling.  You just know there's something hot and dark simmering beneath the surface of this guy.  The same could be said about Bell's debut novel, a meditation on love and parenthood which comes to us in the form of a modern fairy tale--a twisted, often grotesque fable which is probably not something you want to read to the kiddos as a bedtime story.  You'll get an idea of the novel's intensity from the critical praise which is expertly injected into the trailer (I can't remember the last time blurbs were used to such good effect in a trailer): "a gripping, grisly tale of a husband’s descent into and ultimate emergence from some kind of personal hell" (The New York Times).  This trailer does for cabin life what Alfred Hitchcock did for showers in Psycho.

Monday, January 13, 2014

My First Time: James Scott

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 James Scott whose just-published debut novel, The Kept, is earning lots of praise fresh out of the gate with many critics comparing it to the works of Cormac McCarthy.  Set in 1897, the book takes readers on a harrowing journey across a wintry landscape as Elspeth Howell and her 12-year-old son Caleb search for the men who murdered the rest of their family.  “The Kept is a deeply moving, disconcerting novel…Scott manages something quite difficult here, balancing both terror and tenderness with apparent ease. By the end of the book, you’ll be convinced that he can do just about anything” (Kevin Wilson, author of The Family Fang). Scott was born in Boston and grew up in upstate New York.  He holds a BA from Middlebury College and an MFA from Emerson College.  His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, One Story, American Short Fiction, and other publications.  He lives in western Massachusetts with his wife and dog.  Click here to visit his website.

My First Time Saying Goodbye

The original idea for The Kept came to me in 2000.  It may have been 1999.  I wrote a few pages, excited by the imagery and the familiar winter landscape of upstate New York.  Something didn’t click, however, and I knew I wasn’t ready, and I put it away.

Only I couldn’t shake it, and I started again in my early days in the master’s program at Emerson College.  I’ve lived with Caleb and Elspeth Howell for fourteen years.  During that time, I’ve moved nine times, met my wife, lost too many friends, gained many others, and married my wife.  The only constant was my bleak story of a quiet child, his flawed mother, and their murdered family.  At times, I hated them and wanted them to go away.  But this was no more serious than a child’s tantrum, and the next day we’d all pretend nothing had happened, because I loved them more than I could say and much more than I could undo with a day or week or year of frustration.

I took the book as far as I could on my own.  I got an agent and he and I worked on the manuscript for three more years.  Trusted friends read drafts.  But still, it was very much my own.  Good readers—and I mean readers in the sense of workshoppers, I guess, those that are trying to help make the book better—understand that ownership and are sensitive to it.  The book went out to editors and it surprised the hell out me that a number of them liked it.  My weird little book? I thought, My story that an agent had told me was unpublishable?  But the book sold, and I edited with my editor, and proofread with the proofreader.  Even her notes, which were fantastic, were filled with statements like This is fine, but… and Did you mean this?  The book still belonged to me.  Caleb and Elspeth were on loan, but I could put them back in their box at any time.  Maybe some part of me needed to believe this in order to keep working.  I don’t know.

The manuscript went to the printers (I suppose.  I mean, clearly someone printed it, but a lot of the details are cloudy to me.) and a beautiful galley came back.  I flipped through the pages and read something at random.  There they were, Caleb and Elspeth, my—friends?  That doesn’t seem to quite cover it, but “family” sounds ridiculous.  Anyway, they were still mine, bound as they were.

I was lucky enough to go to the fall conference for the New England Independent Booksellers Association in Providence, Rhode Island.  This is nice, I thought.  I felt special.  I went to dinner with sales reps and booksellers and other Harper authors.  Some of them had been kind enough to read my book, and they asked me questions and they talked to me about my characters.  It felt strange.  One woman said, “I have a theory about your book I’d like to discuss with you.”  I said I’d love to hear it.  She relayed a very well thought out, plausible alternate reason why a certain twist in the plot had happened.  I stared at her blankly.  I remember telling myself, Say something, you moron.  I gawked for a while.  Somehow, I stammered something out, but I can’t recall what it was.  As a table, we talked about what it felt like to have your book out in the world for the first time.  My book had been out in the world, to me, for about twenty-five minutes.  Twenty-five very surreal minutes.  For people to talk about it, I said, is kind of like someone telling me about a dream that I’ve never mentioned to them.

It got more surreal for me.  The next morning, I signed books at the Harper table.  I tried to make my signatures the same, but sometimes they’d be loopier and sometimes they’d be flatter.  Several of the booksellers had read galleys already, and I answered more questions.  It felt even more dreamlike.  At times, I’d lose track and wonder, How do they know all this?

When I was done signing, I wandered the hall, checking out the other publishers and their books.  A woman with short black hair stopped me and apologized for bothering me.  She held a copy of The Kept under her arm.  She saw me noticing it and said, Oh, I’ve already read it.  I wish I could remember what she said.  Something about Elspeth.  Something sweet and flattering.  What I do remember is it was personal to her.  It’s strange to say, but somewhere in there, in a hotel conference room in Providence, Rhode Island, I understood for the first time that the people who would be reading my book would be bringing their own experiences and personalities with them.  How did I not understand this sooner?

In the days leading up to the release of The Kept, I have been fortunate to do several interviews with very smart people.  They ask great questions and proffer opinions of their own, and again, they are all intelligent and sweet and flattering.  I love it.  I really do.  I worked in the dark for so long that for someone to gather the energy to ask me about what I did with all of that time is an honor.  The sensation I can’t lose, however, is one I’ve been experiencing for a while now: I miss Caleb and Elspeth.  I know this is corny and melodramatic.  I do.  But I picture a copy of The Kept draped over the arm of a chair, a comfortable chair, a reading chair, and there are pages left to be read, and I know that the quiet boy and his flawed mother have been trudging through the snow, huddling around a fire, pulling ice from a desolate lake, sweeping the floors of a brothel, loading their guns with shaking hands, and they’re doing it all without me.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday Sentence: When Did You See Her Last? by Lemony Snicket

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

I reminded myself of a lesson I'd learned in my training: Do the scary thing first, and get scared later.

When Did You See Her Last? by Lemony Snicket

Friday, January 10, 2014

Friday Freebie: The Heart of Everything That Is by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin

Congratulations to Jim Mastro, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti and Raw: a Love Story by Mark Haskell Smith.

This week's book giveaway is The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, an American Legend by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin.  One lucky reader will win a hardback copy of this history of the American West, published by Simon & Schuster last November.  Here's more about the book from the publisher:
In the bestselling tradition of Empire of the Summer Moon, this is the untold story of Red Cloud, the most powerful Indian commander of the Plains who witnessed the opening of the West. The great Oglala Sioux chief Red Cloud was the only Plains Indian to defeat the United States Army in a war, forcing the American government to sue for peace in a conflict named for him. At the peak of their chief’s powers, the Sioux could claim control of one-fifth of the contiguous United States. But unlike Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, or Geronimo, the fog of history has left Red Cloud strangely obscured. Now, thanks to painstaking research by two award-winning authors, his incredible story can finally be told. Born in 1821 in what is now Nebraska, Red Cloud grew up an orphan who overcame myriad social disadvantages to advance in Sioux culture. Through fearless raids against neighboring tribes, like the Crow and Pawnee, he acquired a reputation as the best leader of his fellow warriors, catapulting him into the Sioux elite—and preparing him for the epic struggle his nation would face with an expanding United States. Drawing on a wealth of evidence that includes Red Cloud’s 134-page autobiography, lost for nearly a hundred years, Bob Drury and Tom Clavin bring their subject to life again in a narrative that climaxes with Red Cloud’s War—a conflict whose massacres presaged the Little Bighorn and ensured Red Cloud’s place in the pantheon of Native American legends. A story as big as the West, with portraits of General William Tecumsah Sherman, explorer John Bozeman, mountain man Jim Bridger, Red Cloud protégé Crazy Horse, and many others, The Heart of Everything That Is not only places you at the center of the conflict over western expansion, but finally gives our nation’s greatest Indian war leader the modern-day recognition he deserves.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Heart of Everything That Is, 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 Jan. 16, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 17.  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).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Welcome to the Teeny-Tiny, Unlimited-Access Future of the Book: Marion Winik and Suzanne Antonetta Paola Chat About Shebooks

Small "boutique" publishers seem to be popping up everywhere these days (and by "these days," I mean something like, oh, the last 100 hundred years).  Scrappy, boisterous, and innovative, these companies scoff at the notion "books are dead" and plunge forward with a firm belief in literature's survival.  Though small presses come and go, the good ones hang on despite the odds (anyone else remember when Algonquin Books was a small press which specialized in Southern lit?).  I'm always happy to give some blog space to what Writer's Market used to call "literary and little," so when author Marion Winik approached me with news about a New Press on the Block, Shebooks, I said I'd be happy to help spread the word.  Here's Marion with some backstory and her conversation with fellow Shebooker Suzanne Antonetta Paola....

Marion Winik
Not long ago, the idea of a book publisher operating on a Netflix model sounded like a graduate program in philosophy operating on a McDonald's model. Well, perhaps the latter is not far away because the former is here. Shebooks, a publisher of short e-books by women, soft-launched with a list of eight books on December 19.  Shebooks is the brainchild of Peggy Northrop (former editor-in-chief of More and Reader’s Digest) and bestselling memoirist Laura Fraser; the latter has a collection of travel essays called The Risotto Guru in the soft launch. Their list includes fiction, essays, memoir, and long-form journalism; each runs 8-10,000 words, the length one might read before bed or on a short plane flight. They are available individually for $2.99; by this March, there will be an inaugural list of 30 titles, a subscription plan allowing unlimited access, and three new Shebooks coming each week. Subscriptions will run $7.99/month, and include book club guides, author Q&As, and other extras.

I'll take the Soren Kierkegaard Happy Meal with a medium drink, please.

My own Shebook is called Guesswork: Essays on Remembering and Forgetting Who We Are; it includes eight pieces on the theme of memory and identity. Below, I chatted with Suzanne Antonetta Paola, a poet and prose writer who lives in Washington state (though we are both from New Jersey.) Suzanne's Shebook, Stolen Moments, is a trilogy of short stories about women who end up, one way or another, with possessions that used to belong to others, and examines how that affects their behavior and experiences. Here's our conversation:

MW: The three stories in Stolen Moments seem perfectly fitted together. Were they conceived as a group? Did you write them especially for the Shebooks length?

Suzanne Antonetta Paola
SAP: Hey, Marion, lovely to be chatting with you like this! The genesis of these three stories is unusual: my first character buys a purse at a consignment store with lipstick tucked away in a zipped pocket, and she accidentally uses it. Though her story begins with lipstick, the series of small changes it brings about rock her entire sense of self, her life. I had read that frustrating interview with V. S. Naipaul, where he dismissed women’s writing as “feminine tosh,” and I wanted to see how far into the deepest levels of who we are I could get from a lipstick! But that incident happened to me—I bought a purse at a consignment store that had lipstick in the pocket, and I used it by accident. It didn’t change anything for me, but I wondered what would happen if it did.
      I realized quickly I wanted to write a series of interlocking stories, each woman making seemingly casual choices that affect the others. Another woman leaves shoes behind in a hotel room; a maid finds them, and the fact that she’s wearing those shoes changes her life.
      Actually, this is an episodic novel, which I’m still working on. There are four women’s stories; they wind up, then each begins again in a new place. They encounter each other and make choices that have huge effects—kind of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in fiction!
      Now for you: Guesswork is so full of formal experimentation: the Tim O’Brien style of “The Things They Googled,” the quiz format of “The Book of Job: A Quiz,” which I know was modeled after a children’s Bible. And it feels to me as if you engage not just with questions of remembering and forgetting, but how we sometimes make choices to do both. How does form follow function in this collection? How is forgetting not just something that happens, but an act of survival?

MW: Thanks for noticing the formal stuff. While I love the kind of memoir I think of as a "porch story"—a relatively simple narrative from life, with nothing more fancy than a flashback or two—I also enjoy the veer towards poetry, letting pre-defined structures and the rhythms of language shape the thoughts. I'm also a big fan of shorter essays, ones you can hold in your mind all at once.
      As I say in the final essay in the book, “Newfoundland,” I have the worst memory of any memoirist you could ever imagine. This is part of why I'm so obsessed with writing things down. I also sort of love the process of losing pieces of the past and re-finding them eventually, realizing that there's all this buried treasure in your brain if you can only get to it. I had been thinking for a long time about the way I tended to reshape past events in my head in ways that were flattering to me, or made more sense logically than the actual events, so I was really excited to read the book about memory I tell about in that essay that confirmed all that. So, I'll tell you something funny and don't take this the wrong way. I had the sense that the protagonists in your stories had smoked a little weed or something (and believe me, I liked this about them) because of the way they seemed just a little confused by or hyper-aware of certain basic, taken-for-granted things about life. "M often wondered if people around you shouldn’t know more or less what you were thinking, and she spent an enormous amount of mental energy trying to puzzle this out." "F thought: this is how people develop lives that work. They have good clothes and stand at elevators at nice hotels..." "There were always things to do, weren’t there? No matter what happened to people, they did things."
      Do you see what I mean? Feel free to tell me what drug I seem to be on in my writing.

SAP: First of all, your weed question cracked me up! I read it aloud to my husband and teenage son, who found it hilarious (my son because of course, like all teens, he thinks his mom’s a dork). I didn’t think about my characters smoking, though I suspect M would. I wrote these stories in the year my state legalized recreational marijuana. So it’s, er, in the air here, so to speak (often literally!). That obsessive awareness of things that are part of what we might call the human condition—how does it feel to be the embodied person you are? What is relationship? What are the implications of fully realizing others are as human as we are?—is something I share with my characters. Maybe that’s why, though I supported legalization, I don’t smoke!
      Though for my characters, unlike for tokers, this awareness becomes an anxiety, a part of the crisis of their lives. I loved the idea of getting to these deep places through things as simple as lipstick and shoes.
      Marion, whatever drug you’re on in your writing, I want some! I am fascinated by the nuance you, a memoirist, bring to memory itself, acknowledging its uncertainty but drawing out the implications of that uncertainty, as if memory becomes each of our self-narrations, even our art: “what we misremember is part of who we are, the gaps filled in artfully by a web of guesswork.” I love how, as you reminisce with your sister, you note “this is one of those brand-new, never-before-remembered memories I so enjoy.” There is a real accumulation to these essays, funny and individual as they are. Can you give us any composition stories? Did you write these pieces to be a sequence?

MW: Sounds like I'm tripping, seeing all those patterns! Anyway, most of the pieces were written for my column in the online publication, Baltimore Fishbowl. I've been writing a couple times a month for two and a half years now, something I never would have dreamed possible before I took it on. Around the time I wrote the pair of essays "What If You Were Right" and "What If You Were Wrong," I got the idea of doing a collection on the theme of memory. A couple of years earlier, I had heard the great writer Joseph Bathanti talk about the book The Seven Sins of Memory, by psychologist Daniel Schacter, and finally followed through on tracking it down and reading it. So much of what I had been musing about was scientifically explained there, and I put a summary of Schacter's taxonomy of misremembering into the essay "Newfoundland," which is where the lines you quoted come from. Then I saw that others fit in as well. When Shebooks came along, I was thrilled about the short length because while I loved the idea of a Guesswork collection, I already started to doubt that I could get 50,000-plus words out of it.
      My next collection for them is called The End of the World as We Know It, and it's about being a mother. Then I'm thinking of doing one with a travel theme. Do you have other Shebooks in the works?

SAP: I really look forward to working with Shebooks again, but I don’t have anything in the works for them at the moment. I have a memoir and research book on adoption, Make Me A Mother, forthcoming in February from Norton, with attendant publicity to do, and I am working on making these stories into a novel. I love this publishing form, though, and I’ll be imagining new works in this length when I have some time to think!


Here are all the Shebooks available at this time, with synopses from the publisher:

Boys Like That: Two Cautionary Tales of Love:  A memoir by best-selling author Hope Edelman (Motherless Daughters, Motherless Mothers) of finding solace in unexpected places when her mother is stricken with cancer.

Guesswork:  A collection of essays on love, memory, and things that last, by popular author and NPR commentator Marion Winik (author of Highs in the Low Fifties: How I Stumbled Through Single Life, and many other books).

His Eye Is on the Sparrow: An Engagement in Black and White:  Anne Pearlman’s memoir of the traumatic beginnings of her interracial marriage, set in 1962. Pearlman is the author of Infidelity, which was nominated for a National Book Award and made into a Lifetime movie.

Lady Problems: A Nigerian-Nordic Girl’s Guide:  Faith Adiele’s insightful and hilarious account of a clash of health care cultures. Adiele is author of the PEN award-winning memoir Meeting Faith, about becoming the first black Buddhist nun in Thailand.

Alone in the Woods: Cheryl Strayed, My Daughter, and Me:  Micah Perks writes beautifully about mothering a wild child after growing up as one herself. Perks is a novelist (We Are Gathered Here) and memoirist (Pagan Time) and co-directs the creative writing program at University of California, Santa Cruz.

The Risotto Guru: Adventures in Eating Italian:  Laura Fraser journeys from the SpaghettiOs of her childhood to savor the best of Italian cuisine and the culture that cooked it up. Fraser is a magazine journalist and the author of the international best-selling memoir, An Italian Affair.

Owl in Darkness:  This hypnotic novella by Zoe Rosenfeld, about a writer on a retreat who cannot write a word, confronts us with our own cravings for change and movement. Rosenfeld is a poet, writer and editor and the recipient of a MacDowell fellowship for fiction.

Stolen Moments:  Interconnected short stories by Suzanne Paola about how found objects—from a forgotten tube of lipstick to a pair of shoes left in a hotel room—transform three women’s lives. Paola, a poet and essayist, is a Pushcart Prize and American Book Award winner.

Mating Calls by Jessica Anya Blau: Could a little yellow pill be responsible for landing Lexie James in the bed of her lover—and her lover’s wife? Whatever the reason for this charmingly reckless school counselor’s bad behavior, you’ve never been on a bender like this one. In No. Seven, Zandra runs into her seventh love—of 48—in a department store.