Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday Sentence: “I Need, I Need” by Theodore Roethke

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

          I wish I was a pifflebob
          I wish I was a funny
          I wish I had ten thousand hats
          And made a lot of money.

“I Need, I Need” from Theodore Roethke: Selected Poems 

Friday, January 29, 2016

Friday Freebie: Winter by Christopher Nicholson

Congratulations to Beverly Sizemore, Bart Zimmer, and Abby DeBenedittis, winners of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Longest Night by Andria Williams.

This week’s book giveaway is Winter by Christopher Nicholson, a novel that has made its way onto my To-Be-Read list, if for nothing else than that gorgeous cover alone. But Nicholson’s novel is worth a peek for what’s behind the cover, too. Read on for more information...

A November morning in the 1920s finds an elderly man in his eighties walking the grounds of his Dorchester home, pondering his past and future with deep despondence. That man is the revered novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, and Christopher Nicholson's fictionalized account of the final years of the accomplished writer's life is as engrossing as it is heartbreaking. The novel focuses on the true events that occurred around the London theater dramatization of Hardy's acclaimed novel Tess of the D'Urbervilles, including Hardy's hand-picked casting of the young, alluring Gertrude "Gertie" Bugler of The Hardy Players to play Tess. As plans for the play become more concrete, Hardy's interest in Gertie becomes a voyeuristic infatuation, causing him to write some of the best poems of his career. However, when Hardy's reclusive wife, Florence, catches wind of Hardy's desire for Gertie to take the London stage, a tangled web of jealously and missed opportunity ensnares all three characters-with devastating results. Told from the perspectives of Hardy, Gertie, and Florence, Nicholson's novel perfectly captures the often-difficult juxtaposition of fledgling hopes and the unfulfilled life. With expert insight into the struggles of both Hardy and Florence, coupled with poetic yet unassuming prose, Winter is certainly on par with the novels of its central character. Praise: “Winter is quietly intelligent and compassionate, but what stands out most is that it is gorgeously, gorgeously written in prose so elegantly crafted that it becomes, paradoxically, almost invisible. it never shouts, never startles, just moves lithely along with an almost miraculous sense of rightness.” (The Minneapolis Star Tribune)

If you’d like a chance at winning Winter, 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. 4, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 5. 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 28, 2016

Soup and Salad: Larry Levis peels the wallpaper, Story Prize finalists announced, Andria Williams pays attention to her characters, The Proust Book Club, Katey Schultz teaches you how to flash

On today’s menu:

photo by George R. Janecek
1.  Before this year’s publication of The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems, I wasn’t familiar with the works of the late poet Larry Levis. Shame on me, I guess, because Levis—who died of a heart attack in 1996—appears to have had many admirers: among them, Pam Houston, who was getting her doctorate degree at the University of Utah while Levis was teaching fiction writing there in the 90s. Over at the Graywolf Press blog, Pam has a wonderful story to tell about Levis’ appearance at the 1990 AWP conference in Denver:
      The Utah contingent sat near the front of the ballroom, feeling cool by association. In a few minutes Larry was going to peel the fleur-de-lis off the wallpaper with his poetry, and with the misguided smugness of grad students, we considered him ours.
      Except then it was fifteen minutes after the scheduled time of the reading, and there was no sign of Larry. This did not surprise us. He’d be there, we assured each other; time wasn’t really his best thing. But then another fifteen minutes went by.
      We looked around the room nervously. Nobody seemed to want to go to the podium and call the reading off.
      Just when the din of chatter seemed to have reached maximum volume, the doors to the ballroom crashed open and Larry stepped in. As distinctive as everything else about him, his walk was a little like a cartoon dog’s—think Pluto, or Marmaduke—he took big strides during which his feet never seemed to quite touch the ground. He float-loped to the podium in this fashion, and everyone fell quiet. He was wearing his uniform of a black motorcycle jacket, black jeans, and boots. He tucked the half cigarette he’d been holding behind his ear and looked down at his hands, as if a book might appear there. He felt around in all of his pockets, and came away with nothing.
      In the second row we stole glances at each other. No one in the room seemed to be breathing. Then he put one hand on either side of the podium, bore down on us, and recited Caravaggio: Swirl and Vortex—all 4 glorious long-lined pages of it-- from memory. The room burst into applause. Our little cadre of grad students swooned. It was one of those moments—there are a few in every young writer’s life—that let you see exactly what you have signed up for.

2.  The three finalists for The Story Prize were announced earlier this month: There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter, Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson, and Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann. The winner will be announced on March 2.

3.  At the Time Now blog, Peter Molin appears to have loved Andria Williams’ debut novel, The Longest Night, as much as I did:
Williams notices what her characters notice, but also much that they don’t understand or only half-intuit; this close attention to their interiority as much as the period detail makes The Longest Night come alive. In many ways, though, the strictures of military service and culture portrayed in The Longest Night might be said to be timeless, for Williams casts a net around military families and military duty and pulls in many fine fish in the way of still relevant insights about life in uniform. Readers who never served or veterans who served only a tour or two can make of Williams’ portrait of military domesticity what they will, but readers who have tried to keep a marriage together over the long haul of a military career will marvel at her acuity at describing the rewards and pleasures, such as they are, while also conveying a more pervasive feeling of disappointment and perhaps even of life wasted.

4.  File under: In Search of Lost Reading Time.
While in college, I promised myself that one day I would read the entirety of In Search of Lost Time after graduation. I made this vow, as all 21-year-olds must, knowing very little of the realities of full-time employment, commuting, and Sunday brunch plans. I also made this resolution at a time when my daily Internet activity consisted of checking my email and maybe, if I was really hungry, the dining hall menu. I had no idea that reading would one day become an activity that I would have to plan....And so, here I am, 10 years (!) later, trying again to finish one of the best novels I’ve ever read, possibly the best novel I’ve ever read. (I’ll know for sure when I finish.) The world (i.e. the Internet) has only gotten more distracting and, having become the mother of a three-year-old, my daily responsibilities have increased and become less negotiable. At the same time, one thing I’ve learned over the past decade is that you can accomplish a lot by doing a little of something every day. You can raise a child, write a book, make a life with another person. Almost everyone I know who has completed In Search of Lost Time (and to be clear, most of these “known” people are those who have written about the experience, not anyone I’ve met personally) did it slowly, reading just 10 to 20 pages a day, usually in the morning. At a pace of 10 pages a day, it will take me about a year and two months to finish, a period of time that doesn’t seem as long as it did 10 years ago.
Over at The Millions, staff writer Hannah Gersen is knuckling down, buckling up and saying “To hell with the distracting internet!” as she embarks on a plan to read Proust. Will you join her journey? I see you’ve bought a box of madeleines, so you’re already halfway there.

5.  The 49 Writers Center in Alaska always has a good lineup of classes, but if you can't afford to travel all the way to Anchorage, I have good news for you: you can get your schooling from the comfort of your lawn chair in Boca Raton. The Center has a series of online courses, including one on flash fiction taught by Katey Schultz (Flashes of War). Here are the details:
This four-week online course will focus on flash fiction—short stories that range from 250-750 words—often described as “stories of the moment” or “a work of art carved on a grain of sand.” Writers who are unfamiliar with the genre will find enough challenge and support to come away with new knowledge and guided practice, as well as a very clear understanding of scene. More experienced writers will enjoy the intellectual challenges of the lectures and discussions, as well as in-depth prompts from the instructor. Each week includes guided discussion forums, assigned readings, a brief lecture, and prompts. Participants should plan on 2-3 hours of work with the materials per week (or more depending on personal engagement), in addition to writing time. At the end of the month, turn in 1 polished flash fiction to the instructor for feedback (and participate in the optional peer-review process, if desired). The course concludes with an optional livestream Video Chat.
The first class bell rings on Feb. 29. Go here to see the syllabus.

Monday, January 25, 2016

My First Time: Rachel Cantor

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 Rachel Cantor, author of Good on Paper, a new novel published by Melville House. Rachel’s stories have appeared in such magazines as The Paris Review, One Story, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Fence, and Volume 1 Brooklyn. They have been anthologized, nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, short-listed by both the O. Henry Awards and Best American Short Stories, and awarded runner-up Bridport and Graywolf/SLS Prizes. Rachel is also the author of A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World. She currently lives in Brooklyn. Click here to visit her website.

My First Artists’ Colony

It was February 1999. I had finished my creative writing MA at Johns Hopkins nine months earlier, but hadn’t decided what to do next. I’d been a summer intern at a Jewish retreat center, I’d stayed on a friend’s couch in her studio apartment in D.C., I’m sure I spent time visiting my sister and her young family, and I was, by January, staying on the couch of yet another friend, this time in Philly. I was anything but settled. Probably I hadn’t written in months. But I was a writer—I was sure about that, and it wasn’t just my degree that told me so. Still, I hadn’t published even one short story—publication was all but unimaginable! But the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an artists’ colony located in Amherst, Virginia, didn’t care about that. They invited me for a five-week residency—five weeks! Five weeks during which time—could it be?—I was to do nothing but write. I’d have my own room, with a door! I could unpack a suitcase, finally. Good people would cook me meals. I could meditate, pretend to do yoga. The clicking of my laptop would disturb no one, nor would I be disturbed by toddlers, curious cats, the daily lives of my most generous friends.

As I arrived, according to my diary, I was even more unsettled. I was organizing a work trip to Rwanda to start just days after the residency. I’d just had emergency dental work—my cheek the night before I traveled was, I wrote, “swole like a pumpkin.” Maybe my back hurt: I was concerned about managing my suitcases through two commuter rail legs and two flights.

I was soothed, though, by the affable Robert Johnson, longtime driver for VCCA (and fried-chicken chef and poker player and VCCA institution), who picked me up at the airport, and welcomed me with his hard-for-this-Yankee-to-always-understand Virginia accent. And I was charmed by my studio—more specifically, the presence within it of the “La-Z-Boy of my dreams.” Before I’d had five minutes to sit in it, I was coming up with plans: I would be “up at 6, washed by 6:30, stretched and sat by 7:30, breakfasted and off to work by 8,” though I’d never voluntarily gotten up at 6 for any reason, ever. I had so many plans! I would write new work in the morning, revise in the afternoon, and read all night. I named something like a dozen short stories I could rework. According to one plan I mapped out that first night, in addition to all this new work, and this revision, and this reading, I would reread and revise a novel I’d written some years before—easy if I broke it up into pieces, right? Thirty-nine days seemed an endless expanse. Probably I cried at the thought of it. I know I marveled at the gift.

By lunchtime my first day, I had spent three straight hours revising a story. Still, I wrote that I needed to “resist this feeling (already!) that I'm not being productive.” Again and again in the days to come, I would berate myself for not working hard enough. But I did work hard—harder than I’d ever worked before—and I was productive. One afternoon, I wrote: “The hours just slip away. Have I ever spent so many hours in one day working on a single story (must count: nearly five hours)? Probably not. I want to write all day.” There were dead ends, of course, mostly involving attempts to revive old work, like that early novel. But sitting on my beloved La-Z-Boy, listening to Nirvana on my cassette Walkman (yes!), I drafted or revised five stories I would later publish.

More than that, however, I set the course for the work I would do for the next decade. “I’d so much like to start a new series,” I wrote that first night after rereading some drafts, “give my writing over the next few weeks some structure, some direction, but of course I can't imagine what that series might be, esp. now that I’m so disillusioned by Shira … To follow a single character through vastly different moments in her life—that would be a good structure …” From this germ came the first “Shira” stories, eight of which I since published in magazines like the Kenyon Review, One Story, New England Review, and Fence. From this germ (and I guess despite my “disillusion”!) also came Good on Paper, a “Shira” story that became my just-now-published second novel.

My first colony was not just about writing—doing good work and discovering how hard I could work, how much I could write. It was about artistic community. I met composers, I met the accordionist for the Pogues, I met sculptors, and book artists, and a 98-year-old painter. I lit Shabbat candles with an Israeli and a former rebbetzin. I played nickel-ante poker, I heard other writers read, I went to open studios, and, yes, a dance party or two. People asked to read my work! They wanted me to read for them—me! The unpublished writer! How I admired them, those accomplished, dedicated people, those professionals, with their agents and galleries and recordings! How I wanted to be like them. And for five beautiful weeks I was.

“Write this down,” I wrote during one of those first days, “in case I ever forget it: writing is the best thing. Even revising is wonderful. I can’t believe it’s after 10 already. That’s all I needed to say.” I have since had the incredible good fortune to be a fellow at nearly 30 residencies in four countries. Every time, I hope to approach this gift with the wonder and excitement of my first time.

Author photo: Bennett Beckenstein; VCCA photo: Katey Schultz

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Wilderness by Lance Weller

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

A Union man loses both eyes to a spray of hot shrapnel and staggers forward. Rebel soldiers part before him, do not touch him or allow him to be touched, as though he has become beloved of God.
Wilderness by Lance Weller

Friday, January 22, 2016

Friday Freebie: The Longest Night by Andria Williams

Congratulations to Jacinda Power, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Nothing But the Dead and Dying by Ryan W. Bradley.

This week, I’m giving away three copies of The Longest Night, the debut novel by Andria Williams. Several months ago, I received an advance reading copy of the novel and provided these words of endorsement:
It's hard to believe The Longest Night is Andria Williams' debut novel. Her command of language, character and plotthe three essential ingredients for a riveting readis extraordinary. The Longest Night is about the fragility of a marriage, a Cold War nuclear accident on the plains of Idaho, and the stresses on a military family during deployment, and it takes on each of those things with all the robust storytelling energy of the great Russian novelists of the 19th century. This is the book I will be pressing into my friends' hands this year when they ask me what they should be reading.
Read on for more information about The Longest Night...

In 1959, Nat Collier moves with her husband, Paul, and their two young daughters to Idaho Falls, a remote military town. An Army Specialist, Paul is stationed there to help oversee one of the country’s first nuclear reactors—an assignment that seems full of opportunity. Then, on his rounds, Paul discovers that the reactor is compromised, placing his family and the entire community in danger. Worse, his superiors set out to cover up the problem rather than fix it. Paul can’t bring himself to tell Nat the truth, but his lies only widen a growing gulf between them. Lonely and restless, Nat is having trouble adjusting to their new life. She struggles to fit into her role as a housewife and longs for a real friend. When she meets a rancher, Esrom, she finds herself drawn to him, comforted by his kindness and company. But as rumors spread, the secrets between Nat and Paul build and threaten to reach a breaking point. Based on a true story of the only fatal nuclear accident to occur in America, The Longest Night is a deeply moving novel that explores the intricate makeup of a marriage, the shifting nature of trust, and the ways we try to protect the ones we love.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Longest Night, 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. 28, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 29. 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 21, 2016

Front Porch Books: January 2016 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, independent bookstores, 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: many of these books won’t be released for another 2-6 months; I’m here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists.  Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.  I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books. 

Not all Bastards are from Vienna
by Andrea Molesini
(Grove Press)

I’ll confess, I am so in love with this cover design, if I was a cheating man, I’d be making it my mistress. Those colors pop and glow, the beauty making a sharp contrast to the word “bastards” in the title. Beyond the pretty wrapping paper, though, there’s an intriguing story about wartime horror and heroism to be had here in these pages.

Jacket Copy:  In the autumn of 1917, Refrontolo—a small community north of Venice—is invaded by Austrian soldiers as the Italian army is pushed to the Piave river. The Spada family owns the largest estate in the area, where orphaned seventeen-year-old Paolo lives with his eccentric grandparents, headstrong aunt, and a loyal staff. With the battlefront nearby, the Spada home become a bastion of resistance, both clashing and cooperating with the military members imposing on their household. When Paolo is recruited to help with a covert operation, his life is put in irrevocable jeopardy. As he bears witness to violence and hostility between enemies, he grows to understand the value of courage, dignity, family bonds, and patriotism during wartime.

Opening Lines:  He loomed up out of the night. And for an instant there was nothing to distinguish him from it. Then a glint, a reflection from the lantern the woman was holding up close to the horse’s nose, attested to a monocle. The man addressed the woman in impeccable Italian, flawed only by certain gutturals that revealed his German mother tongue. There was something fierce and splendid in that face bathed in the swaying lamplight, as if the stars and the dust were met there together.

Blurbworthiness:  “Take Hemingway’s masterpiece A Farewell to Arms and Erich Maria Remarque’s classic All Quiet on the Western Front, and cross these two war depictions with the portrait of Italian aristocracy in Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard....[Not all Bastards are from Vienna] is a powerful and effective blend of Bildungsroman, armchair travel, historical document, and war drama, with touches of a thriller.”  (Kultur)

Joe Gould’s Teeth
by Jill Lepore

I’ve been fascinated by the strange, homeless, possibly-genius Joe Gould ever since I saw the 2000 movie based on his life, starring Ian Holm and Stanley Tucci. I’ve had Joseph Mitchell’s My Ears Are Bent on my shelf ever since—but, like too many of its neighbors, have yet to read it. Perhaps I could pair it with Jill Lepore’s new book, which looks fascinating in its own right. My eyes are peeled.

Jacket Copy:  When Joseph Mitchell published his profile of Joseph Gould in the December 1942 issue of The New Yorker, he deemed Gould’s purportedly masterful but rarely seen Oral History project, which allegedly consisted of nine million words detailing everything anyone ever said to him, “the longest unpublished work in existence.” But Mitchell, in fact, hadn’t read more than a few pages of the Oral History. The manuscript seemed to have gone missing, along with other of Gould’s possessions—his hair, his sight, his teeth—as he began to sink deeper into poverty, drink, and destitution. And as Gould neared the end of his life, lying pathologically, begging for money from friends and strangers alike, and deflecting publishers’ requests to read his work, Mitchell couldn’t help but wonder: Had the Oral History ever existed? After Gould’s death in 1957, Mitchell wrote a second profile in which he insisted that it did not. Was Mitchell wrong? Joe Gould’s Teeth is a literary investigation of this enigmatic figure of the early twentieth century, who, despite doubts surrounding his sanity, captured the imaginations of the most prominent writers and artists of the time. Renowned master of historical storytelling Jill Lepore carefully unravels the riddle of Joe Gould and his missing manuscript, probing deeply into our collective self-conscious, the nature of art, and how we define our reality for the future. Complete with appearances from the likes of E. E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, and Augusta Savage and set against the backdrop of inter-war and post-war New York’s glamour and grime, Joe Gould’s Teeth is not only the portrait of one man’s mind, but also a profound meditation on the limits of how well one ever knows another person.

Opening Lines:  For a long time, Joe Gould thought he was going blind. This was before he lost his teeth and years before he lost the history of the world he’d been writing in hundreds of dime-store composition notebooks, their black covers mottled like the pelt of a speckled goat, their white pages lined with thin blue veins.

Among the Dead and Dreaming
by Samuel Ligon
(Leapfrog Press)

I know two things: 1) Samuel Ligon’s new novel opens with a motorcycle crash that draws me in like nobody’s business; 2) I loved Ligon’s debut novel, Safe in Heaven Dead (which also began with a killer sentence—literally: “Robert Elgin died on the street, knocked down and run over by a Second Avenue bus while pursuing a woman he thought he could not live without.”). Okay, maybe I also know a third thing: I’m going to read Among the Dead and Dreaming just as soon as I can.

Jacket Copy:  Nikki has spent her life running from her abusive mother and the violent boyfriend she killed years ago, and now from his brother, Burke, just released from prison. Burke doesn’t know yet how his brother died, but he’s obsessed with finding Nikki and claiming her—and her daughter—as his own. Now she’s run out of room to run.

Opening Lines:  The rain was more like mist, soft against your skin the way the air is down by the ocean, so beautiful and calm, even from the back of Kyle’s motorcycle. I wanted to go faster and faster through it, my eyes closed tight and the water running off my face. It was just me and Kyle, or me and the ocean, me and the rain, or not me at all, just Kyle, the ocean, the rain, until we hit something and I was weightless, flying, the anticipation of landing lifting me into this bright, raw awareness. Nothing had been settled. Nothing ever would be settled. Nothing was supposed to be settled. And nothing was supposed to be accomplished, either, except the baby in my belly, the beautiful baby I wrapped myself around as we flew. Mark didn’t know about her—I’d only been certain a few weeks myself—but I sometimes thought she might save us. I didn’t know her name yet, not for sure. I just thought, baby, baby, baby, the one good thing I was going to do with myself, the one good thing I’d have. And then I did know her name for sure—Isabelle. My sweet baby Isabelle. Those moments we were in the air seemed like they might go on forever.

Blurbworthiness:  “Part meditation on modern love’s dark and often unexamined underbelly; part can’t-put-it-down-even-for-a-dinner-break-thriller, this novel contains one of the most convincingly and complicatedly terrifying fictional characters I have run into.”  (Pam Houston, author of Contents May Have Shifted)

Marrow Island
by Alexis M. Smith
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The wait is over. For the legions of Alexis M. Smith fans (and I like to imagine there are legions), the promise of her debut novel, Glaciers, has been fulfilled. In June, our patience will be rewarded with what looks like another terrific, soulful, unforgettable novel that burrows deep under the reader’s skin. “Most Anticipated” doesn’t even begin to cover my feelings for Marrow Island.

Jacket Copy:  Twenty years ago Lucie Bowen left Marrow Island; along with her mother, she fled the aftermath of an earthquake that compromised the local refinery, killing her father and ravaging the island’s environment. Now, Lucie’s childhood friend Kate is living within a mysterious group called Marrow Colony—a community that claims to be “ministering to the Earth.” There have been remarkable changes to the land at the colony’s homestead. Lucie’s experience as a journalist tells her there’s more to Marrow Colony—and their charismatic leader—than they want her to know, and that the astonishing success of their environmental remediation has come at great cost to the colonists themselves. As she uncovers their secrets and methods, will Lucie endanger more than their mission? What price will she pay for the truth?

Opening Lines:  This was my last glimpse of Marrow Island before the boat pulled away: brown and green uniforms clustered on the beach, tramping up the hill to the chapel on the beach, tramping up the hill to the chapel and through the trees to the cottages of Marrow Colony. The boat wasn’t moving yet, but the uniforms already seemed to be getting smaller, receding from my sight, shrinking into a diorama, a miniature scene of the crime.

Blurbworthiness:  “Conjuring a lush and mysterious landscape, Marrow Island investigates the impact of the losses of the past—be they loved ones, failed quests, or the environmental calamities brought on by our collective blindness. By turns elegiac, compelling, and timely, it seeks real answers and finds the possibility of miracles. This is a beautiful novel.”  (Edan Lepucki, author of California)

All the Winters After
by Seré Prince Halverson

As a fan of Seré Prince Halverson’s debut novel, The Underside of Joy, this new one—set in Alaska—is another one that’s been on my most-anticipated list for a long time. Given the subject matter and the opening lines, I’m primed to love this one, too.

Jacket Copy:  Alaska doesn’t forgive mistakes. That’s what Kachemak Winkel’s mother used to tell him. A lot of mistakes were made that awful day twenty years ago, when she died in a plane crash with Kache’s father and brother—and Kache still feels responsible. He fled Alaska for good, but now his aunt Snag insists on his return. She admits she couldn’t bring herself to check on his family’s house in the woods—not even once since he’s been gone. Kache is sure the cabin has decayed into a pile of logs, but he finds smoke rising from the chimney and a mysterious Russian woman hiding from her own troubled past. Nadia has kept the house exactly the same—a haunting museum of life before the crash. And she’s stayed there, afraid and utterly isolated, for ten years. Set in the majestic, dangerous beauty of Alaska, All the Winters After is the story of two bound souls trying to free themselves, searching for family and forgiveness.

Opening Lines:  Evening crept its way into the cabin, and she went to get the knife. Always this, the need to proclaim: I was here today, alive on this Earth.

Blurbworthiness:  “Seré Prince Halverson delivers another riveting story about the bonds of family. All The Winters After is a beautiful and compelling tale set in the wilds of Alaska. A young woman broken by love sets a collision course with a family torn apart by grief and guilt. The secrets are deep. The winter is long. And the characters are unforgettable. I loved this book.”  (Amy Franklin-Willis, author of The Lost Saints of Tennessee)

by Peter Geye

The other “winter book” I hope to read before the snow melts here in Butte, Montana is this new one by Peter Geye. I thoroughly enjoyed his 2012 novel The Lighthouse Road, and I’m expecting similar great things from Wintering, which will take me deep into the Minnesota wilderness.

Jacket Copy:  An exceptional and acclaimed writer joins Knopf with his third novel, far and away his most masterful book yet. There are two stories in play here, bound together when the elderly, demented Harry Eide escapes his sickbed and vanishes into the forbidding northernmost Minnesota wilderness that surrounds the town of Gunflint—instantly changing the Eide family, and many other lives, forever. He’d done this once before, thirty-some years earlier, in 1963, fleeing a crumbling marriage and bringing along Gustav, his eighteen-year-old son, pitching this audacious, potentially fatal scheme to him—winter already coming on, in these woods, on these waters—as a reenactment of the ancient voyageurs’ journeys of discovery. It’s certainly a journey Gus has never forgotten. Now—with his father pronounced dead—he relates its every detail to Berit Lovig, who’d waited nearly thirty years for Harry, her passionate conviction finally fulfilled for the last two decades. So, a middle-aged man rectifying his personal history, an aging lady wrestling with her own, and with the entire history of Gunflint.

Opening Lines:  Our winters are faithful and unfailing and we take what they bring, but this season has tested even the most devout among us. The thermometer hanging outside my window reads thirty-two degrees below zero. Five degrees warmer than yesterday, which itself was warmer than the day before. I can hear the pines exploding, heartwood turned to splinter and pulp all up and down the Burnt Wood River.

Blurbworthiness:  “An elegant, quietly profound, and harrowing novel. I loved this book.”  (Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven)

Monday, January 18, 2016

My First Time: Keith Lee Morris

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 Keith Lee Morris, author of the new novel Travelers Rest, now out from Little, Brown. Benjamin Percy, author of The Dead Lands, had this to say about the novel: “It won’t take long—a page, maybe two—before you feel wondrously disquieted by Keith Lee Morris’s Travelers Rest. The novel traps its characters in the town of Good Night, Idaho, and the reader in its shaken snow globe of a world. The language dazzles and the circumstances chill and put this story in the good company of Stephen King’s The Shining, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.” Morris is a professor in the English Department at Clemson University. His four other books of fiction include the novels The Dart League King and The Greyhound God. He was born a Southerner, but he grew up in the Northwest, which probably explains his state of existential confusion. He has a wife, two sons, and three cats.

My First Published Story

I wanted to start off with the sentence, “It started off normally enough,” but then I realized that wasn’t true. Nothing was normal about it from the outset. I published my first story in 1994, but I have to go back at least three years before that in order for any of it to make sense.

In 1991, I had recently graduated at the ripe old age of 27 with a B.A. in English from the University of Idaho, and in trying to figure out what to do with myself for the rest of my life, I had returned to my hometown and taken a job bartending. That wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of my life, except that it did, because the waitress that I had started dating from that same bar turned out later to be my wife. I was pretending to be a writer at the time. This involved going to bars and pulling out tattered sheets of paper filled with squiggly handwriting and frowning at them mysteriously while I drank beer, occasionally adding a few more lines of squiggly handwriting and then sighing deeply. My wife made sure to let me know, later, that she was not at all impressed with this performance, but that she found something about me to like well enough in order to at least put up with me at the time.

I had one story that I recognized might not entirely be a piece of crap. I had started working on it a few years before, when I was living in New Orleans, and I sensed that the main character and his situation and the voice in which I was relating his situation might be moderately interesting to a person other than myself. For that reason, I was proceeding very cautiously, and the story kept getting longer, and there was no end in sight, in either space or time. One fine summer day (there is still nothing, in my experience, as fine as a fine summer day in Idaho), I was at my girlfriend/future wife’s house, where I had been frowning mysteriously at pages of squiggly handwriting while she took a nap. Her mother lived along a winding highway and kept a menagerie of domestic animals—dogs, cats, chickens—that would often wander out into the road and get squashed by 18-wheelers. It was a scary road, and you had to be prepared for it. On that day, I looked both ways several times before pulling out in my girlfriend/future wife’s Honda Civic (my Pontiac Sunbird wasn’t running, which was usually the case), and then looked in the rearview mirror several times, too, once I was on the road, just to make sure I wasn’t going to be squashed like the cats and the chickens, and what I saw was 20 or 30 sheets of paper filled with squiggly handwriting floating in the north Idaho breeze, spreading themselves out along a 100-yard stretch of treacherous asphalt—I had left the only copy of my one decent story on the roof of the car.

I’ve lived with my wife for almost 25 years now, and although we’ve raised two sons together and traveled all over the place and gone through all the various emotional experiences that people who’ve been together for 25 years have inevitably gone through, it’s still possible that the nicest thing she ever did for me was help me retrieve those flying sheets of paper from the shoulder of that dangerous road, and that she never looked more beautiful than she did right at that moment, dodging cars to grab the skittering scraps that would make up my future endeavor, frowning at me not-so-mysteriously (she was, justifiably, pretty angry) all the while.

Fast forward two-and-a-half or so years. Now I’m in grad school at the University of Idaho (again) with a wife and young son along for the ride. I am still, inexplicably, at work on the same old story. By this time, I’ve learned to use a computer, so the squiggly handwriting has been translated into a neat electronic file that mystifies and worries me. I am beginning to think that my dream of being accepted to an MFA program is highly unrealistic, having applied without success before I began the MA program and having made no significant progress since then. When I finish my one and only not so terrible halfway decent story, which is now 60 pages, I take it to one of my professors, who happens to be a novelist, and who, against all odds, says he likes it and thinks I should try to get it published.

To celebrate, I go, for reasons I still can’t quite completely fathom even in retrospect, to a local bar and write a strange, meditative poem about the Donner Party, who ate each other almost alive.

On my professor’s recommendation, I submitted the 60-page story to Quarterly West out of the University of Utah. He told me a publication there would be a feather in my cap when I applied for MFA programs. So I waited anxiously...actually, “anxiously” doesn’t adequately express it, since your whole life and the life of your new family hangs in the balance—it’s amazing, when I think of it, that all of us, we aspiring writers, subject ourselves to this particular form of torture, the waiting, the willingness to let other people arbitrarily decide our fate while we go doggedly about our usual business in the meantime—it almost makes me think we’re rather brave. Anyway, I waited anxiously, and then the weeks and months went by and I waited more anxiously, and then I became more anxiously anxious thinking that something had gone wrong, and I consulted my professor, who told me to be patient. So I did that. I waited patiently on the phone while I called Quarterly West and asked to speak to the Executive Editor. To my surprise, the Executive Editor came on the line. I asked him about my story. Again, to my surprise, he remembered it. Oh yeah, he said, I remember that one. We had a reading party and there was some interest in it and someone took it home and I don’t know what happened to it after that. Let me get back to you.

To this day, I have no idea what a “reading party” is. There was some interest in it. This was the only thing that stood out to me. I floated around on a cloud of possibilities for several days. The Executive Editor called me back. I’m sorry, he said, we lost your manuscript. There was some interest in it. Maybe you could resubmit it to us, and, to make up for the inconvenience, you could send something else along as well.

I was banking on that 60-page story, which by that time had acquired the unwieldy title of “The Often Unrecognized Similarity Between Astronauts, Hardware Salesmen, and Tropical Fish,” to make my future for me. I really didn’t even have anything else...other than that weird poem I’d written about the Donner Party recently. I hauled it out and looked at it. It was a narrative poem. Wow. Huh. If you took out the line breaks, it kind of told a story. Huh. Wow. I put it in the manila envelope with the 60-page epic and sent it to the Executive Editor at Quarterly West.

He called me. The 60-page story was, well, a little long, and a little long-winded, but hey!—what a great short-short that was about the Donner Party. They were pleased to say that they’d like to publish it in their next issue.

It was two pages long, and it was titled “Patty Reed, the Last Surviving Member of the Donner Party, Recollects at Age Ninety-Three,” and it was my first published story, an accident, the product of a lost submission, a poem without the line breaks. The other story, reduced to 40 pages and the one-word title “Astronauts,” was eventually published as well, in Puerto Del Sol out of New Mexico State. The next year I was in the MFA program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. I was on my way, for better or worse, the way all of us are, scribbled sheets of paper tossed to the wind.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Wilderness by Lance Weller

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

A stray bullet whizzed overhead, clipping through the greenery to send leaves spiraling through the blue air and sounding for all the world on this fine spring day like a fat bee or horsefly off about its business..

Wilderness by Lance Weller

Friday, January 15, 2016

Friday Freebie: Nothing But the Dead and Dying by Ryan W. Bradley

Congratulations to Tisa Houck, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee.

This week’s book giveaway is a signed copy of Nothing But the Dead and Dying by Ryan W. Bradley. If you’ve been paying even the tiniest bit of attention to the blog lately, you’ll know how much I love this short story collection. I’m very excited to be putting a copy into one lucky reader’s hands this week.

On the back cover of the book, you’ll see my words of endorsement: “Just like the State of Alaska itself, in which they’re set, the stories in Ryan Bradley’s Nothing But the Dead and Dying are beautiful, dangerous, hardcore, and strong enough to break your ice-brittled bones. Here are the losers and the strivers, the broken and the just-fixed, the down-but-not-out and the ones crawling back for forgiveness on hands and knees. These are the people of Alaska, yes, but they are also all the citizens of the world. They are you and me in our best and worst hours. Ryan W. Bradley goes full throttle down an icy road with these stories. GodDAMN, can he ever drive a story!”

It was one of my picks for Best Books of 2015. And earlier in the week, Ryan talked about his “first time.”

If you’d like a chance at winning a copy of Nothing But the Dead and Dying, 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. 21, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 22. 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 14, 2016

A Year of Reading: Best Books of 2015

Headlines-wise, 2015 was a disheartening year, one I’m glad is now in our rear-view mirror. I don’t have to list all the horrors here–you know them, you lived them–but I think we can all agree it was the kind of year that made you want to pull the covers over your head and stay in bed. Or go out and march in the street, trying to yell the political stupidity and incomprehensible violence back into silence. Whatever your method for dealing with the last twelve months, I think we can all agree that every now and then we needed the solace and escape provided by literature. In 2015, I vowed to read more novels than I did headlines. The very best books did more than just “take me away from reality,” they reminded me that words are stronger than bullets, sentences are sharper than knives, and books are almost always smarter than blow-dried politicians. Here are my very favorite books published in 2015, listed by the order in which I read them and prefaced by some choice cuts from their pages.

The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac
by Sharma Shields

It was a dreary Wednesday in early October when Eli informed Gladys that he planned to give up his flourishing podiatry practice and pursue, full-time, the region’s elusive Sasquatch.

I’m cheating a little with this one because I read an advance copy in late 2014, but since Sharma Shield’s debut novel came out in January 2015, I’m going to include it–if nothing else, because I don’t want it to get lost in the year-end rush of books released after Labor Day, and because I’ve been telling everyone I know they’ve got to read this utterly charming, magical, and weird novel about a man’s lifelong quest to find a man he believes is Bigfoot. The novel opens when the man, Eli, is a boy and watches his mother walk out the front door with the big, hairy “Mr. Krantz,” never to be seen again. The book gets even better from there as it explores the issues of abandonment, obsession and the need for revenge.

The Valley
by John Renehan

In the dream he climbed a narrow foot-trail alone in the sun, on a bare mountainside littered with metal corpses.

John Renehan’s debut novel is about an Army lieutenant who leaves the comfort of his forward operating base to travel deep into the heart of darkness in Afghanistan where he’s assigned to investigate a maverick platoon of soldiers who fired a warning shot into a crowd of villagers. The situation disintegrates into violence almost as soon as the aptly-named Lt. Black sets foot at the remote outpost. The Valley has all the best hallucinatory qualities of Apocalypse Now, combined with the taut moral suspense of a writer like Graham Greene. It’s been nearly a year since I read the novel, but I can still recall the fear it generated in me. It tasted like copper pennies.

Recipes for a Beautiful Life: A Memoir in Stories
by Rebecca Barry

According to my horoscope this past weekend was supposed to be a great one for romance. Well. Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Meet Rebecca Barry: mother, writer, wife, self-distracting procrastinator who makes clay cats and mermaids instead of working on her novel. Meet Rebecca and Tommy, a charming, witty couple who love, fight, kiss-and-make-up, and then start yelling at their toddler sons to stop peeing on each other. Meet Rebecca Barry–she’ll make you laugh on one page and maybe get a little misty-eyed on the next with her “memoir in stories” which is full of hilarious dialogue, recipes for things like “Angry Mommy Tea,” and tips on how to fool your kids into picking up their toys (scare them with stories about a green-toothed fairy named Gladys who steals un-picked-up toys at night). I laughed, I cried, I twisted readers’ arms, insisting they drop everything and read these Recipes right goddamn NOW. This book holds many rewards, and they’re all delicious.

West of Sunset
by Stewart O’Nan

The moon was a thin white sickle, and he thought of that last summer in Antibes, before the Crash, when Zelda was still his and everything was possible.

Stewart O’Nan’s terrific biographical novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald led me down a rabbit trail to reading more of the Jazz Age genius’ short stories. Though I’ve always liked Fitzgerald for his novels, I felt like I rediscovered him in 2015 thanks to O’Nan. West of Sunset chronicles the last years of Fitzgerald’s life–his Hollywood years–as he struggles to develop screenplays for the big movie studios, while trying to write his own work (including, as we know now, that final unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon). I’ve always been a fan of O’Nan’s work, but he nearly outdoes himself in these pages which are permeated with sadness, soaked in whiskey, and full of near-perfect sentences–like this one of Fitzgerald’s final moments: “He lost his grip and felt himself falling, flailing blindly, and with his last helpless thought before the darkness swallowed him, protested: But I’m not done.”

The Dead Lands
by Benjamin Percy

They rode through forests that had burned down to blackened lances and others electric with the yellow-and-red music of fall. They rode across glinting fields of obsidian that looked as though the night froze and fell and shattered.

This past year’s reading was dominated by the apocalypse (I was going to say “plagued,” but refrained from that cheap pun; besides, the doomsday lit I read was, for the most part, pleasant, not plague-y). Of all the end-of-the-world novels I read in 2015, Benjamin Percy’s The Dead Lands was without a doubt the most inventive. For starters, it has a great set-up: the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition is recast as a post-SuperFlu/post-nuclear holocaust odyssey of a brave and desperate group, led by Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark (see what he did there?). Like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, the America-to-come is a frightening and devastated wasteland with the survivors’ belief there’s still some untainted green world out there. Percy writes with gusto and has a keen knack of timing, so the pages flew through my fingers. But most importantly, he made me care about his characters so that when sudden and unexpected death strikes the bunch (which it does frequently), I was genuinely moved and mourned for the loss of these made-up people.

Bad Sex
by Clancy Martin

      I went to the bar and asked the bartender to pour me a club soda. Then I said, “You know what, add a couple of fingers of vodka to that. Just float it on top. There, yes, a little more, thanks.”
      I drank it standing there and got a second. “Easy on the soda,” I told him.

Sure, there’s sex in this short novel–some of it is even bad (as in, harmful to the participants’ emotional well-being)–but what you’ll find more frequently is good writing. And heaps of it. Told in terse chapters, as if the story is being extracted from the narrator’s mouth by a dentist using minimal amounts of novocaine, Bad Sex chronicles the downward spiral of an alcoholic writer struggling to maintain her slippery grip on respectability. The novel opens with our anti-heroine Brett in Central America, away from her husband, and we watch (shaking our heads in judgment) as she begins a love affair with her husband’s friend Eduard. Her actions may lead to no good for all characters involved, but they also make for a great book.

American Copper
by Shann Ray

A single butterfly moved toward her as if climbing poorly made stairs.

If I compared a book to a twilit mountain range washed in purples and oranges and reds, the sight of it causing you, the reader who has trudged through a dull landscape of ordinary novels, to stumble in your sojourn and fall to one knee in reverence for the toothy horizon; and if I said reading this particular novel was as bracing and invigorating as drinking from a cold, clear alpine stream; and if I said it was gorgeous as a coffee-table book and deeply meditative as the Book of Psalms; and if I said just one book can, however briefly, change the way you look at both the natural world and human nature–if I said all that, you’d want to read this book, wouldn’t you? Good, glad to hear it, because American Copper by Shann Ray is all this, and more. And if you think I’m overstating the qualities of this novel set in Montana, well then my dear friend, it’s obvious you haven’t read it. Ray's debut novel has a huge, panoramic timesweep, from the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 to the years just before World War II, but it is, at heart, an intimate novel. You may have overlooked American Copper in the year-end crush of new literary fiction hitting bookstores; don’t commit that same crime in 2016. Put this beautifully-written, spiritually-grounded novel at the top of your must-read list.

City on Fire
by Garth Risk Hallberg

Then they crested the ridge of Weehawken, and there it was, New York City, thrust from the dull miles of water like a clutch of steely lilies.

Garth Risk Hallberg’s big, bold debut novel invites comparison to blockbuster novelists like Charles Dickens and Tom Wolfe–and it certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those literary giants–but it more than holds its own as a fresh, inventive narrative that paints on a big canvas and never loses sight of its characters in all that vast page-length. The shooting of a girl in Central Park is at the heart of City on Fire, but around her swirl a cast of characters which include a fireworks manufacturer, a reporter (who may care too much for his own good), anarchists, estranged heirs to a family fortune, a pimply-faced teenager, and a self-doubting novelist named Mercer Goodman who writes what I can only guess is a Hallbergian self-reflection on page 867 (of 944):
In his head, the book kept growing and growing in length and complexity, almost as if it had taken on the burden of supplanting real life, rather than evoking it. But how was it possible for a book to be as big as life? Such a book would have to allocate 30-odd pages for each hour spent living (because this was how much Mercer could read in an hour, before the marijuana)—which was like 800 pages a day. Times 365 equaled roughly 280,000 pages each year: call it 3 million per decade, or 24 million in an average human lifespan. A 24-million page book, when it had taken Mercer four months to draft his 40 pages—wildly imperfect ones! At this rate, it would take him 2.4 million months to finish. 2,500 lifetimes, all consumed by writing. Or the lifetimes of 2,500 writers. That was probably—2,500—as many good writers as had ever existed, from Homer on. And clearly, he was no Homer. Was not even an Erica Jong.
No, but he is Garth Risk Hallberg and that’s good enough for me.

Nothing But the Dead and Dying
by Ryan W. Bradley

Frank leaned his head against the window. The glass was still plenty cold. If he were to cry, Frank thought, his face might actually freeze to the window.

Raymond Carver once wrote a story called “What’s in Alaska?” In the course of the story about two couples who get together, smoke some marijuana, and dance around the question of adultery, one of the characters answers the titular question: “There’s nothing in Alaska.” With all due respect to Mr. Carver, there is something in Alaska and it’s hot enough to finally and fully melt all the state’s glaciers. That something is a someone: a writer named Ryan W. Bradley and he writes some of the best bare-knuckled, roll-up-the-sleeves fiction I’ve come across in years. I bring up Raymond Carver because his ghost lingers in Bradley’s sentences, running his cold, bleak fingers across the words. This is not the Alaska of majestic mountains or Last Frontier homesteaders who have to trap their own food and pee into a bucket; it’s not even the wacky Palinesque side of the state. This is a grimmer, more realistic portrait of Alaska, one where collars are blue, the meth is sweet as candy, and life is taken one day at a time. As someone who lived in Fairbanks and Anchorage for nearly a decade, I can tell you this is about as spot-on true as I’ve seen Alaskan fiction get. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of the short story collection and gave it a blurb, which I’ll just repeat here by way of a review:
Just like the State of Alaska itself, in which they’re set, the stories in Ryan Bradley’s Nothing But the Dead and Dying are beautiful, dangerous, hardcore, and strong enough to break your ice-brittled bones. Here are the losers and the strivers, the broken and the just-fixed, the down-but-not-out and the ones crawling back for forgiveness on hands and knees. These are the people of Alaska, yes, but they are also all the citizens of the world. They are you and me in our best and worst hours. Ryan W. Bradley goes full throttle down an icy road with these stories. GodDAMN, can he ever drive a story!

Fates and Furies
by Lauren Groff

Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband. What she did not tell him balanced neatly with what she did. Still, there are untruths made of words and untruths made of silences, and Mathilde had only ever lied to Lotto in what she never said.

Lauren Groff’s justly-acclaimed novel is a masterclass in writing sentences that are cut like jewels and fitted together like a cogs in a clockwork. Tick-tock gems, one and all. I won’t say too much about the structure of Fates and Furies, for fear of spoiling the first-time reader, except to say that the narrative division which lops the book into two pieces is vital and intrinsic and comes at just the right time. By mid-book, I was completely tangled in the decades-spanning marriage of Lotto (Lancelot) and Mathilde; it made me think about my own marriage and how many times all of us–married or not–say things without ever saying them.

People Like You
by Margaret Malone

Gladys smokes like it was just invented, brand new and full of possibility.

Margaret Malone’s debut collection of stories marches straight to the top of the hill and plants a flag: Here is an important writer to watch. This book embodies everything I love about short fiction: it dances on boxer’s feet, moves in quick, punches hard, and then leaves my head ringing. Malone writes about people who are sometimes distraught, sometimes depressed, often anxious, and occasionally misguided; but one thing they are—always, always, always—is real. Take the titular story, for instance, where average American married couple Cheryl and Bert attend a surprise birthday party for a “friend” they don’t particularly like. They get lost en route, drink too much once there, and leave with some stolen balloons. On the surface, it’s an ordinary evening; but what sets this story apart, what gives it an electric buzz that tastes like you just licked a lamp socket, is what doesn’t happen. With remarkable restraint, Malone takes us on a tour of the tip of the iceberg without feeling the need to state the obvious: there’s a massive, continent-sized chunk of ice right below our feet. A current of tension between Cheryl and Bert hums throughout the story. Their marriage is in free fall when we begin our 13-page eavesdrop and they’re both (or at least Cheryl is) frantically scrabbling their hands across their bodies, trying to find the ripcord that will open the marriage-saving parachute. It may or may not happen. That’s not the point. The point is the ride: the wry, jolting, cynical, sweet, hilarious ride Malone takes us on with her sentences. Sentences like: “We drive in silence for minutes, the inside-car hush of our motion, all the best-times feelings dissolving, the thick familiar air starts up between us. Me, driving. Him, sitting there.” Bottom line, readers like you need to read People Like You.

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
by Sarah Manguso

I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.

At one time or another, many of us have kept a diary. I started mine in 1984, but it’s sporadic: I water its garden erratically. I’ve given it the wholly-pretentious title “My Life (and How I Lived It)” and it currently stands at 350,000 words. That’s nothing compared to the diary Sarah Manguso kept for twenty-five years: it eventually ballooned to 800,000 words. She felt compelled to write down, in detail, every single thing that happened to her every single day. “Imagining life without the diary, even one week without it, spurred a panic that I might as well be dead,“ she writes in Ongoingness. “The trouble was that I failed to record so much...From the beginning, I knew the diary wasn’t working, but I couldn’t stop writing. I couldn’t think of any other way to avoid getting lost in time.” Time–the tick-tock of pendulums, the silent flicker of numerals on a digital clock, the rustle of calendar pages–time is the main character in Ongoingness. Time, you ugly, teasing, despicable beast! I hate you, but I must come to terms with you. And that’s what Manguso tries to do in this stunning meditation (compressed into 104 pages) on how to live for the present moment. Of all the books I read in 2015, Ongoingness is the one that halted me in my tracks, made me stop what I was doing (suspended in time!) and read slowly, and repetitively, its words of wisdom. I’ll leave you with just a few sentences–pearls in a long string of them:
I tried to record each moment, but time isn’t made of moments, it contains moments. There is more to it than moments.

Lives stop, but life keeps going.

Left alone in time, memories harden into summaries. The originals become almost irretrievable.

Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments–an inability to accept life as ongoing.

Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.

Related posts:
A Year of Reading: Best Novellas of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best Books From Other Years
A Year of Reading: Best Poetry of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best Gift Book of 2015 for Bookworms
A Year of Reading: Best Short Stories of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best Book Cover Designs of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best First Lines of 2015

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Trailer Park Tuesday: Wilderness by Lance Weller

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

I normally reserve this space for trailers highlighting new and forthcoming books, but today I make an exception by reaching into the near-distant past to look at a novel which came out in 2012 (on the same day as my own Fobbit, as it turns out). Wilderness by Lance Weller is well worth a backwards glance. It’s been on my To-Be-Read list for a shameful amount of time. As this new year is now underway and my reading resolutions are still sharp and gleaming, I finally got around to cracking it openpartly because next week I’ll be driving my daughter to her new home in Washington state (Weller’s home turf and the setting for part of the novel), but mostly because I was in the mood for some writing that would sit on my tongue rich and delicious as a chocolate truffle. Wilderness, which moves effortlessly from the rugged Pacific Northwest coast in 1899 to a gore-spattered Civil War battlefield three decades earlier, is indeed dense with evocative language. I am moving slowly through the pages because there is so much to savor here. Take this paragraph, for instance, describing the reaction of a Confederate soldiercold and weary on the battlefieldto a shirt he’s just received from his mother:
The thin cotton kept within its fiber and its weave something of the handmade smells of home and home life. Old cooking smells of buttered corn and boiled cabbage, of great bleeding flank steaks and potatoes, carrots, onions, all smothered in gravy and served on thick platters engraved with blue Chinese scenes of cherry blossoms, fog-wrapped pagodas, strange, umbrella’d maidens. He could smell fresh blueberries and cold milk. And there was, also, his mother’s smell: matronly, womanish, and as distinct as her florid signature or her sharp, cool whisper at prayertimes and candlelighting. Her scent was as though woven into the shirt and now a part of it and never to be separate from it ever.
That’s just one passage, plucked at random. There are plenty more like it in this gorgeous Wilderness. The trailer itself shows Weller at his desk and out walking along the rocky coast of Washington, along with some graphic illustrations from the Battle of the Wilderness, which is the setting for the unforgettable trauma suffered by the main character, Abel Truman. The video does a good job of telling us what the novel is about, without giving away too many details. It’s the kind of trailer that would make me want to pick up the book and start reading it. If only I’d seen it four years ago.