Thursday, May 26, 2016

Soup and Salad: Hilary Mantel’s Writing Day, Write Your Way to Jackson Hole, George Saunders’ Debut Novel, How Books Can Help Us Survive A War, Charles Dickens Names Names, 12 Things Kelly Luce Noticed While Reading Every Short Story Published in 2014-15, Friends in Books


On today's menu:

1.  This piece by Hilary Mantel at The Guardian about how she spends her writing day went viral when it was published last month, but for those of you who missed it the first time around, here’s how it begins:
     Some writers claim to extrude a book at an even rate like toothpaste from a tube, or to build a story like a wall, so many feet per day. They sit at their desk and knock off their word quota, then frisk into their leisured evening, preening themselves.
     This is so alien to me that it might be another trade entirely. Writing lectures or reviews–any kind of non-fiction–seems to me a job like any job: allocate your time, marshall your resources, just get on with it. But fiction makes me the servant of a process that has no clear beginning and end or method of measuring achievement. I don’t write in sequence. I may have a dozen versions of a single scene. I might spend a week threading an image through a story, but moving the narrative not an inch. A book grows according to a subtle and deep-laid plan. At the end, I see what the plan was.
Can I get an “Amen!”?



2.  From the Department of Having a Great Time, Wish You Were Here comes two writing opportunities in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (the granite-peaked paradise where I grew up).
     The first, a Nonfiction Book Writing Retreat, is led by Laura Bush and features two days of intensive writing (including a session called “Getting Down and Drafty”) in the historic Moulton Ranch cabins which lie in the shadow of the Grand Tetons. Space is limited, so you need to sign up now. (Full disclosure: Laura is a friend and former classmate of mine, but I wouldn’t be telling you about this retreat if I didn’t think she had the energy and smarts to get you kickstarted on a draft of your book).
     The second event coming up next month is the renowned Jackson Hole Writers Conference, led by Tim Sandlin. As a past attendee, I can vouch for the value of this three-day conference: it’s inspiring, entertaining, and full of creative energy. In fact, I loved my time there so much, I even wrote two essays (actually one essay broken in half) for a new anthology about the conference called Writing It Right. This year’s conference features authors Gretel Ehrlich, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Brian Doyle and many others across a wide spectrum of genre. Go here to get registered.


3.  Four words: George Saunders’ debut novel.

Okay, here are a few more words about the inspiration behind Lincoln in the Bardo from an interview with Saunders at Vulture: A really long time ago, in the Bill Clinton era, my wife and I and my wife’s cousin were driving by Oak Hill Cemetery in D.C., and she just said casually, “Did you know that when Lincoln was president, his son died and he was buried right out there?” And she pointed up to the exact crypt where Willie Lincoln was. Several of the newspaper accounts said that Lincoln had been back to visit the crypt. And wow, this image came to mind of the Lincoln Memorial plus the Pietà. It just stuck with me for many, many years. I knew I couldn’t possibly do it justice, but after a while I thought, if it’s this insistent, it would be kind of dishonorable to not try.




4.  Over at Literary Hub, novelist Emily Gray Tedrowe (Blue Stars) has a beautiful essay called How Books Can Help Us Survive A War. Subtitled “A Sister Tries To Read Along With A Brother On The Front Lines,” it’s a good way to start your Memorial Day weekend, reflecting on the powerlessness military families feel when loved ones are deployed. Here’s how it starts:
     In the photo, my Marine brother is unshaven, wearing cammies, leaning wearily against the rough outer wall of a building. Around the corner you can see foothills of the Korengal Valley mountains, a remote and dangerous area in Kunar Province, rife with Taliban when Malcolm deployed there. A month ago as I was unpacking boxes in our new apartment, I found this picture that he’d mailed me. What my daughters noticed—with fearful delight—when I called them over to see it: Uncle Malcolm is smoking! He is. With a cigarette clamped in the middle of his mouth, my former track star brother is, like his fellow squadmate resting on the bench alongside, clearly taking a smoke break. What I immediately noticed, and the reason this photo is so precious to me: Malcolm is reading. His gaze isn’t fixed on the terrifying mountain behind him, where he’d just spent a sleepless rain-filled night at the Ops post, hearing the enemy all around him, and where he would be heading back shortly. Nor is he talking or joking around with the other guys in battle gear nearby. He’s focused only on the book he holds on his lap, in a moment of private concentration that I would recognize anywhere.
     What can reading do for us when we’re under the gun? When we are in the throes of an extreme experience, when we’re lost or grieving or sick? Or when we are deeply, deeply afraid, as I was during the seven months Malcolm spent in Afghanistan. As a writer, teacher, and life-long reader, I have built my life around books, and so I reached instinctively for novels and stories myself when my younger brother was deployed to war. But for the first time, reading failed me. Fear for his safety had torn my attention into jagged pieces, and suddenly I couldn’t find the mental energy to connect one part of a page, or even a sentence, with whatever followed.


5.  “Allow me to introduce Mr Plornishmaroontigoonter. Lord Podsnap, Count Smorltork, and Sir Clupkins Clogwog. Not to mention the dowager Lady Snuphanuph. As for Serjeant Buzfuz, Miss Snevellicci, Mrs. Wrymug, and the Porkenhams.” That’s how Chi Luu opens the essay Charles Dickens and the Linguistic Art of the Minor Character at JSTOR Daily. You don’t have to scratch deep below the surface of my own novel Fobbit to see how Chuck Dick influenced the christening of that book’s characters: Eustace Harkleroad, Chance Gooding Jr., Abe Shrinkle, et al. But my character names pale in comparison to those of the Great Baptizer. As Luu points out: “Even for minor characters who are but briefly mentioned, in the Dickensian world, knowing just their names is sometimes enough to know the most important features about them. What might you think of a Mr. Murdstone or a Mr. Pecksniff if you knew nothing else about them? Dickens was adept at linguistically manipulating a name in different memorable ways to persuade readers in one direction or another.”


6.  As we close out Short Story Month, Kelly Luce has a few things to say about reading compact fiction over at Electric Literature. The list, 12 Things I Noticed While Reading Every Short Story Published in 2014-15 (or, Extremely Long Titles That Are Complete Sentences Are Still Very Much a Thing), includes such gems like this: “There was a disconcerting number of stories by white male writers set at family lake houses, in which someone, usually a young girl, drowns. The surviving characters spend the remaining 2-3 pages feeling sad and fighting, usually with Dad.”


7.  At his blog, bookseller and author Gary D. Robson (Who Pooped in Central Park?) describes the joy of turning your friends into characters in a book: “Watching Dominique’s face when she saw herself in this book was a wonderful thing.”


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Truth About Raymond Carver


Raymond Carver (left) with his brother James

James Carver would like to set the record straight.

Over the years, his brother Raymond’s life has been distorted by those who’d like to hitch a ride on the famous writer’s coattails. “Everyone seems to have an agenda when writing about my brother,” James writes in a personal remembrance published at Electric Literature today, on what would have been Raymond Carver’s 78th birthday had he not died (much too early) in 1988. The essay, which has the Carveresque boiled-down title of “Reflections on Raymond Carver and My Family,” is an earnest, simply-told collection of family memories and includes several never-published photos of the Carver family (which Electric Literature has allowed me to reprint here, along with a brief excerpt below).

Though it’s unclear why younger brother James feels the sudden urge to purge the record of myths and lies, he casts a wide net when it comes to finding the source of rumors, including pointing a finger at Ray himself: “Ray embellished his childhood in interviews as well as in writings. He misrepresented facts, making our home life seem worse than it was. Perhaps he wanted to make his climb to fame appear more remarkable, or perhaps alcohol abuse clouded his memory.” James also blames John Updike for helping to taint the legacy by saying (at Carver’s memorial service, of all places) that Raymond grew up in a house of abuse and alcoholism. “Updike innocently picked that information up from others,” James writes. “This is how incorrect information perpetuates itself. If a lie is told often enough, it becomes the truth.”

He would probably be the first to admit he regrets the way he treated his sibling at times. In Carol Sklenicka’s biography (which James says is “the only serious and credible one written so far”), she describes the time when, shortly after Ray’s first wife Maryann kicked him out of their house, he turned to his younger brother for help:
Ray tried to live in an apartment by himself and hated it. Then he asked his brother, James, if he could stay in his Santa Clara apartment while James and his wife were on vacation. Concerned that Ray’s drinking, smoking, and partying might lead to damage at their home, James and Norma declined Ray’s request. Ray took it hard. He told his friends, “My brother forsook me, he forsook me”—lingering over the biblical phrase as much as he did over the wound. From their mother, James later learned that Ray never forgave him. He would come to regret putting “material possessions before my love for my brother.”

The Electric Literature essay seeks to mend some of those broken bridges and it can be quite moving at times, serving as a sort of eulogy—one which James perhaps wishes he could have delivered at his brother’s funeral. Instead, we can be grateful to Electric Literature for allowing us all to share in these small, good moments from a family’s history.

Here is just one of those memories from the time the Carvers lived in Washington state. To read the rest at Electric Literature, click the link at the end...


In Yakima, we had the best years of our family’s life. Our decline began in 1956, the year our father quit the Cascade Lumber Company in Yakima. He had been there for fifteen years or more, never missing a day’s work. Up until that moment, dad always paid his bills on time and provided his family with a good living. He was responsible, working since he was fourteen or fifteen years old and supporting his parents when they needed his help. Our family was living in a nice bungalow on Summitview Avenue, the better side of Yakima. We were settled, happy and doing well. Then dad’s brother Fred, who had been an institution at Cascade, was fired.

Our father quit Cascade and accepted a job as a saw filer with his brother, Fred, in Chester, California. That move started the decline of the Carver family, a slow insidious unraveling that cost all of us almost everything. Dad’s health began to deteriorate when he got blood poisoning from a saw while working for the Collins Pines Lumber Company in Chester. It caused our mother grief and hardship, forcing her to work full time to support the family when my father became too ill to work. It greatly affected my life, as I was in and out of many schools, with no roots, no friends and no permanency. I had wanted to attend the University of Washington, in Seattle and had taken all necessary preparatory courses in high school. If we hadn’t moved to California, I most likely would have graduated from the University of Washington, with my father’s help, and lived in Seattle. The move also affected Ray and Maryann’s life together for many years into the future. If Dad had not left Yakima, he might have been able to have helped them financially; maybe their lives wouldn’t have been such a painful financial struggle for all those years; it may even have averted Ray’s alcoholism.

Ray and I lost our beloved father in Crescent City, California, in June of 1967. Dad was working as a saw filer for Simpson Timber Company. The night of his death, he ate a big dinner and went to bed early. He didn’t wake up the next morning. Mom found him cold and blue. The doctor was called. Dad’s heart had failed; he was pronounced dead and taken to the local morgue. Fortunately, I was with my mother, between college semesters. We were both in a state of shock. We immediately called Maryann in Sacramento. She called Ray, who was in Iowa, enrolled in the university to work on his master’s degree. He withdrew from school and came to Crescent City. After arrangements were made, we all followed the hearse back to Yakima. It was our father’s last journey.

Click here to read the rest at Electric Literature


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Trailer Park Tuesday: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (and Ang Lee)


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


Movie trailers lie to us all the time. They promise one thing, but then sometimes deliver something altogether different by the time we’re settled into our seat with our half-gallon of Mountain Dew and tub of popcorn drenched in butter substitute. Remember the preview for Sweeney Todd? The unsuspecting moviegoer would have no idea that what looked like a Tim Burton and Johnny Depp Victorian slasher film would turn out to be a wall-to-wall musical. Or how about that Liam Neeson vs. wolves flick The Grey? Anyone watching that trailer would have thought they were in for a thriller rather than a disappointing borefest. But I can hardly fault movie trailers for all the lies they’ve spun over the years—after all, that’s the nature of their job: to tease us into the theater with smoke, mirrors and romantic montages set to Adele pop songs. Once we’ve shelled out our money, movie trailers can laugh all the way to the bank, deaf to our cries of disappointment. Which brings me to the trailer for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on the novel by Ben Fountain and directed by Ang Lee, which will hit theaters in November on Veterans Day. It is a very, very good movie preview, full of uniformed men marching across a football stadium to the cheers of thousands. There are fireworks, All-American cheerleaders, breeze-rippled flags, and the shiny tracks of tears flowing down the cheek of Billy Lynn (played by Joe Alwyn, who embodies everything I’d imagined Billy would be—at least looks-wise). With a new version of David Bowie’s song “Heroes” by Scala and Kolacny Brothers playing underneath the images, the trailer is chest-bursting with patriotism, vivid battle scenes, and Vin Diesel tenderly laying a hand on Billy’s shoulder. It’s enough to make a battle-hardened warrior cry. The only problem is, based on this trailer alone, the movie will not bear even the slightest resemblance to Ben Fountain’s 2012 novel. That book left me bleeding from a thousand cuts from its satire. In pithy, witty, withering sentences, Fountain captured everything wrong with the war and America’s reaction to it. By comparison, the trailer for Billy Lynn the movie is like a vat of syrup poured over a plate of knives. I just pray to God the preview is lying to us with sleight of hand and misdirection and that Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk turns out to be the kind of smart, witty movie that bites the hand of the too-sentimental public that’s feeding it. Given Ang Lee’s track record of stellar films (particularly literary adaptations), I’m betting there will be plenty of people walking out of the theater saying, “Well, that wasn’t nothin’ like the preview. It’s like he was criticizing ’Murica or somethin’.” One can only hope this is a bait-and-switch kind of trailer.


Monday, May 23, 2016

My First Time: Margo Orlando Littell


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 Margo Orlando Littell, author of Each Vagabond by Name, a debut novel set in Pennsylvania and published by the University of New Orleans Press. Each Vagabond by Name was the winner of the press’s UNO Publishing Lab Prize. In the email accompanying her “first time” submission to me, Margo wrote: “This was the press’s first-ever contest, intended to give a group of UNO grad students first-hand experience selecting, editing, and promoting a novel. As a first-time author, I’ve found this arrangement incredibly valuable. I’ve Skyped with the class and even joined them via FaceTime as they toasted me and my final edited manuscript. I’ve loved my indie experience—nontraditional, and just right for my dark little story.” Margo grew up in a coal-mining town in southwestern Pennsylvania. She earned an MFA from Columbia and has spent the past fifteen years in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Barcelona, Sacramento, and, now, northern New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. You can learn more about Margo on her website and blog, www.margoorlandolittell.com.


The First Time I Let My Mother Read My Novel

I’m not sure how it happened, but in the ten-plus years since graduate school, I never let my parents read my fiction. When I finished my MFA, I brought home my bound thesis so my parents could read my three novellas. They enjoyed them, but the presentation was somewhat anticlimactic: though I’d finished my coursework, I’d been matriculating for over a year just to keep my subsidized university apartment in Manhattan while working as an editor. These novellas seemed a bit beside the point since my “real” adult life was well underway.

And then life just kept happening, with the kind of concrete achievements that are easy to celebrate and share on Facebook. Engagement, marriage, new jobs, moves abroad and cross-country. Baby #1. Baby #2. All this time, I was writing: working on one novel, and then another, trying to find an agent, trying to snag a contest win. But along the way it became a kind of secret. It wasn’t intentional; I simply never talked about it. I was the only one who knew the intensity of my efforts, squeezed into the nooks and crannies of my exhausting young-child-rearing responsibilities. Without a measurable success like publication to talk about, I wound up keeping my entire writing life as clandestine as an extramarital affair.

It wasn’t shame or a feeling of failure that kept me from talking about writing. Instead, I lacked the language for communicating the ephemeral, intangible accomplishments that accompany the act of creating a novel. It’s one thing to chat on the phone about breastfeeding challenges and sleeplessness. These need no translation; easy comforts and reassurances can be offered in response. Not so with the daily trials of deleting nine hundred of every thousand words; of hastily axing beloved scenes only to frantically retrieve them; of writing and writing and cutting and cutting and only then—at the end of so very, very many pages—catching a glimpse of what the story is meant to be. Unless your mother is herself a writer, there is no clear way to explain the soul-crushing–slash–exhilarating work that happens during the babies’ naptime. It’s easier to keep it quiet, let it slide into the dark recesses of those very long days.

When my novel Each Vagabond By Name was chosen as the winner of the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize, which included publication, everything changed. My secret love-child, born of stolen time and neglected housework, had finally found legitimacy. And when my mother came to visit and saw my advance reading copy, she promptly picked it up, carried it to the couch, and proceeded to read it right then and there—ignoring her two granddaughters for the first time ever.

So, I realized, it would happen like this. There would be no grand unveiling on pub day, no ceremonial raising of the curtain. I’d have no time to prepare myself or anyone else. I knew every word of this novel as well as my own nails and knuckles, but still I wondered—what would she see?

Familiar things. That was certain. My hometown in southwestern Pennsylvania, where my parents still live, inspired the setting of my novel. A run of home invasions over a decade ago by outsiders whom the locals called “gypsies” loosely inspired the plot. I thought of all the people and places I’d uprooted from reality and shape-shifted to fit my tale—rendering them unrecognizable from what and who they’d been. I’d worked on this novel for more than ten years. The origins of many of the oldest strands were lost even to me.

But those origins were what my mother saw first. Every few pages, she’d look up. “Oh, Margo, I know that place,” she’d say; or, “Is that a bar you’ve gone to?” Alarmed, she remarked on some characters’ names and pointed to the real-life people who shared them. With time to make final changes to the galley, I was grateful: along these many years I’d forgotten to replace a few of my placeholder names. Still, I tried to emphasize that my book was partly inspired by life, but was not an imitation of it. Things may seem familiar, but they’ve been slanted and mirror-warped in the telling.

I think she believed me. Mostly.

I watched her all that day and the next, as she worked through the novel in spare moments. Of course, I wanted her to like it. I may be pushing forty, but I felt my desire for approval as keenly as I feel my young daughters’ when they present me with tiny pinecones and other found treasures. And after the initial reality/fiction forensics, I got it. A few chapters in, the story of my novel replaced the novelty of my having written it; and my mother’s reactions shifted from investigative to appreciative. “I really like it,” she finally remarked. “You say things in such a clever way.”

I can’t blame my mother for searching my book for shards of my life. For a decade I’d scribbled in secret. I could have been writing about anything—even about her. Perhaps, as she turned the pages and read of thieves and lost children and hunters, she felt a measure of relief. Perhaps that’s why she took up the book so swiftly. Curiosity, and dread. And then, only then, pride and pleasure in the story I told.

Author photo by Kathryn Huang


Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong


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


          O father, O foreshadow, press
          into her—as the field shreds itself

          with cricket cries.


“A Little Closer to the Edge”
from Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong


Friday, May 20, 2016

Friday Freebie: Safe From the Sea and The Lighthouse Road by Peter Geye


Congratulations to Julia Brown, Michael Cooper, Shaundelle Moore, Martha Gifford, and Ginger Heatwole, winners of last week’s Friday Freebie giveaway: Heart Attack Watch by Alyson Foster

This week’s book contest features two novels by Peter Geye: Safe From the Sea and The Lighthouse Road, both published by Unbridled Books. Peter’s newest novel, Wintering, will be released next month, so if you haven’t already read his backlist, the Friday Freebie is here to help. Unbridled Books will send copies of both Safe From the Sea and The Lighthouse Road to two lucky readers. Once you’ve read these two novels, I’m confident you’ll be eager to buy a copy of Wintering. For a preview of the new book, check out this Front Porch Books.

Safe From the Sea
Set against the powerful lakeshore landscape of northern Minnesota, Safe from the Sea is a heartfelt novel in which a son returns home to reconnect with his estranged and dying father thirty-five years after the tragic wreck of a Great Lakes ore boat that the father only partially survived and that has divided them emotionally ever since. When his father for the first time finally tells the story of the horrific disaster he has carried with him so long, it leads the two men to reconsider each other. Meanwhile, Noah’s own struggle to make a life with an absent father has found its real reward in his relationship with his sagacious wife, Natalie, whose complications with infertility issues have marked her husband’s life in ways he only fully realizes as the reconciliation with his father takes shape. Peter Geye has delivered an archetypal story of a father and son, of the tug and pull of family bonds, of Norwegian immigrant culture, of dramatic shipwrecks and the business and adventure of Great Lakes shipping in a setting that simply casts a spell over the characters as well as the reader.

The Lighthouse Road
Against the wilds of sea and wood, a young immigrant woman settles into life outside Duluth in the 1890s, still shocked at finding herself alone in a new country, abandoned and adrift; in the early 1920s, her orphan son, now grown, falls in love with the one woman he shouldn’t and uses his best skills to build them their own small ark to escape. But their pasts travel with them, threatening to capsize even their fragile hope. In this triumphant novel, Peter Geye has crafted another deeply moving tale of a misbegotten family shaped by the rough landscape in which they live--often at the mercy of wildlife and weather--and by the rough edges of their own breaking hearts. Leif Enger (author of Peace Like a River) had this to say about the book: “The Lighthouse Road is a cinematic thundercloud gusting across the northern landscape Peter Geye so clearly loves. With its conflicted heroes and their seafaring, bootlegging, lumber-camp agonies, this book understands hard work and heartbreak--it takes no shortcuts but delivers its cargo in generous style, a tale wrapped in blizzards and viewed through the glass eye of history.”

If you’d like a chance at winning both novels by Peter Geye, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on May 26, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky readers on May 27. 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, May 19, 2016

Finding My Novel: Jack Fuller, the Vietnam War, and the Fragments of a Book



My problem as a novelist had never been writer’s block. Mine had been finding a story worth the weight of a novel. When I got drafted and sent to Vietnam, solving my literary problem was nowhere near the top of my mind. In fact the problem did not even surface again until I was long out of the Army.

When I got to Vietnam, I somehow found my way to the odd institution that was then Pacific Stars and Stripes. Virtually all of Stripes’ journalists had had some professional experience before ending up there. They were not your normal group of Pfcs and Spec. 4s. To put it gently, they were not a spit-and-polish military outfit.


Our offices were in a ramshackle French colonial building, not far from the gates of Tan Son Nhut airbase but very distant from military ways. This was made clear to me within days of my arrival: A bunch of us had gathered in one of the rooms. With us were some off-duty doctors from the field hospital down the road and a number of USO women. We were all enjoying a drink and conversation. It was well past curfew and I am sure we were violating at least a half-pound of military regulations. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. I opened it, and there was the sergeant major (the highest-ranking enlisted man at Stars and Stripes in Vietnam). I thought we were done for. But the sergeant major actually seemed embarrassed and said, “I don’t have anything important. It can wait ’til tomorrow.” And he left.

This sense of being an island of civilian life in the middle of the military extended to the professional work of the Bureau. Though it was not easy getting controversial stories into the paper, the success rate was remarkably high. As correspondents we behaved like our civilian colleagues: We did not carry weapons in the field. We wore civilian clothes (until a martinet in Tokyo ordered us to wear army fatigues). We hitchhiked by airplane, helicopter, jeeps, sampans, busses, and any other vehicle we could find heading our way (or that we could persuade to go that way). We went where the news took us. Once in the field we were, as we said in those days, “under our own command.” This allowed me free reign, exposing me to the geography of the country: from the rocky, dangerous northernmost parts near the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) to the rugged mountains of the central highlands, and from the jungles of the lowlands that surround Saigon to the seemingly endless rice paddies of the Mekong Delta. It also exposed me to combat at various levels—from small-unit engagements that lasted only minutes to a huge, division-sized battle south of Dak To in the central highlands, where North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns firing from the ridgelines were bringing down helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.

What I did not see was the war I expected. Yes, there were men who had been hardened beyond anyone I had known. But for the most part the soldiers were just like people I grew up with. I recognized them. There was an array of officers ranging from the petty and bureaucratic to the fierce. The latter group included some of the most admirable people I had encountered in my life: strong, competent, carefully guarding the life of every man under their command. They were aggressive when they needed to be and humane when the time for aggression passed. These were men who I would be willing to trust with my life, and in fact did.


My fellow enlisted men, known proudly as grunts, looked like pirates as they stormed off helicopters in a combat assault. Their floppy boonie hats may have been festooned with anti-war symbols and slogans, but when the shooting started there was no ambiguity. The grunts were there to protect their brothers. It was straightforward.

Much more difficult were the decisions of what to do when confronting brutal realities on the ground: A platoon approaches a small village. Children are playing on the outskirts. Suddenly automatic weapons begin raking the American position, killing and wounding several men, pinning others down. The enemy pulls back into protective positions in the village. It is a standoff and grunts are being picked off one by one. There is no way out of this but to bring heavy-weapons fire in on the village—artillery, high-explosive bombs, napalm.

The right answer for the American commander is a terrible one. But he takes it. The village is quickly flattened, leaving behind the dead and wounded, children and women whom the grunts had seen just before the fighting broke out. Eventually soldiers get hardened—increasingly ready for such situations. That readiness itself leaves a wound.

An example I will never put behind me occurred during the invasion of Cambodia. I went in with a platoon of grunts sent to recon a position where the North Vietnamese had destroyed a bridge, which could have slowed down the advance of a large American armor unit. The Americans expected an ambush. The grunts attacked in a classic combat assault—infantry inserted by helicopters, combat riding on a wave of noise, commotion, confusion, and chaos. We did not know where the incoming fire originated, or even how much of it there was.

The grunts and I all ran to find any small place to get cover. I flopped down behind a small berm. Right next to me came a grunt laden with bandoliers of machine gun bullets over his shoulders, a mustache that seemed as long as Pancho Villa’s. This was not a man new to the firefights. When the incoming fire seemed to be subsiding, he brought his face up out of the dirt, looked at the vibrant forest around us—neatly kept thatched hooches on stilts, small gardens planted around them—and said in genuine awe at the splendor of the surroundings, “Boy, this is a beautiful place! We’re really going to fuck it up.”

Destruction was not the objective of these men. Getting everyone home safely was. The closeness that bound together the small grunt units fighting in the field also bound those of us at Stars and Stripes scattered across the countryside. The bond was so strong that I was not sure I wanted to break it by going home.

I was more fortunate than many returning veterans. I had a place in law school waiting for me. I thought I knew what to expect because I already had completed a semester before being drafted. But like most other soldiers coming home, I found the experience isolating. It was as if I had arrived back at the ivy-covered walls from some other universe.

The questions people asked me were often insulting. “Why the hell did you go?” It was a reasonable question. I was one of only four men from my entering law school class who was drafted and actually went. “Did you have to kill anybody?”

And yet I had flung away my army field jacket to celebrate my return to civilian life, only to find myself surrounded by students who were all wearing them. This costume of war had obviously become the fashion of those who stayed home.

Perhaps a year passed. I did not have a story in mind, just a faint, restless, buzzing in my head, something that wanted out. Then one night, while I was studying in an underground library, all of a sudden the story came to me. Every movement of every soldier in it was clear in my mind. The geography of the village was so sharp that somewhere in my papers there is still the map I drew that night, which did not change over the years I wrote and rewrote and rewrote the novel.

When I started writing that night, I had no idea who these men were, moving through the village. I did not know where they came from, what else they had done in the Army, anything about them. And so I started with whatever I could with each of them, and worked from there.

Many things remained unclear to me even as I worked deep in the story. But the importance of this story itself never failed me. It was at least a decade before I saw the book in print. It was actually my second book to be published. But it was the one that I would never let go.

The picture of those grunts in the village is still as vivid to me as it was that night, underground, in the library, reflected from my experiences at Stars and Stripes.


*     *     *

Born in Chicago, in 1946, to a newspaperman father and a mother whose father had gone to prison during the Great Depression charged with fraud after the failure of his small-town bank, Jack Fuller graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He worked for Chicago’s City New Bureau, the Chicago Daily News, and Pacific Stars and Stripes, before completing Yale Law School, and thereafter for a time, worked at The Washington Post. During the administration of President Gerald Ford, Fuller worked as a special assistant to U.S. Attorney General Edward Levi, disentangling responsibilities and relationships between the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency that had been aggravated by the Watergate affair. In 1976, he joined the Chicago Tribune, rising steadily to become editorial page editor, editor, publisher, and, eventually, the executive who negotiated Tribune Company’s acquisition of Times-Mirror Co., which published the Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun, Newsday and the Hartford Courant. Along the way he won a Pulitzer Prize, published two books on journalism and edited Restoring Justice, a volume of Edward Levi’s speeches as Attorney General. Today he is a trustee of the University of Chicago and a member of the board of directors of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. From early on in his career, Fuller has also been a novelist. Convergence appeared in 1982; Fragments, about two veterans whose friendship is shattered by their service in Vietnam, in 1984; Mass, an intergenerational story of the origins of the Cold War (and prequel of sorts to a trilogy he had begun) in 1985; Our Fathers’ Shadows, a meditation on marriage and adoption, in 1987; The Best of Jackson Payne, an ingenious account of the civil rights revolution seen through the prism of an African-American jazz musician and his white biographer, in 2000; and Abbeville, a re-telling of the experiences of his maternal grandfather, and various familial consequences cascading down through the years, seemingly all the way to 2008, the year in which the book appeared. His newest novel is One From Without.
     (Excerpted from A Parallax View by David Warsh)


One from Without
by Jack Fuller
(Unbridled Books)

A major breach in the database of a Chicago financial firm, Day and Domes, occurring while the company is embroiled in critical negotiations to acquire a Silicon Valley firm, has dire consequences in this thrilling topical mystery from Fuller (Abbeville). When the breach is discovered, the members of Day and Domes’s acquisition team set out to determine the identity of the hackers and devise a damage control plan. Top executives—including ruthless CEO Brian Brady Joyce, who supports his musician wife in lavish fashion, and CFO Tom Rosten, a lonely former CIA agent who’s smarting from mistakes he made in the past—must choose whether to cover up or announce the breach and perhaps arrive at a consensus on where to pin responsibility. What follows is an eye-opening portrayal of the fascinating lives and personalities of the key players and of the machinations corporate personnel employ to protect themselves and ensure the completion of the pending acquisition. The sophisticated depictions of human greed and frailty lead to a surprising, yet believable, ending.
     (Publishers Weekly)


Monday, May 16, 2016

My First Time: Patrick Dacey


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 Patrick Dacey, author of We’ve Already Gone This Far. George Saunders had this to say about the short story collection and its author: “Patrick Dacey is one of my favorite young American writers. The stories in We've Already Gone This Far are dangerous, funny, sometimes savage (the phrase lyrical hammers comes to mind), but underneath it all beats a strangely kind and hopeful heart.” Patrick holds an MFA from Syracuse University. He has taught English at several universities, and has worked as a reporter, landscaper, door-to-door salesman, and most recently on the overnight staff at a homeless shelter and detox center. His stories have been featured in The Paris Review, Zoetrope All-Story, Guernica, Bomb magazine, and Salt Hill among other publications. We’ve Already Gone This Far is his first book. His novel, The Outer Cape, is slated for publication in May 2017. Originally from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, he currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.


My First Fears

My greatest fear as a child, and for many years after, was that there was nothing beyond space. I could not grasp that space was infinite; I saw it as solid and defined. There was a moon landing before I was born, there were shuttles rolling on Mars, stars were named, movies were made, books were written, the news showed every launch, every landing, and so, I thought, if we have already done all this, and we can explore that place of so-called infinity, then what is left?

The thought isn’t so pressing now, but the fear is still recognizable; I know what it feels like to tremble, to scratch, to tear, to sweat, to weep, with the knowledge that what surrounds us is what we’re born into and we cannot change or go beyond it, even in our imaginations. I wondered if anyone else had received this terrifying message. I wanted to know how to erase it from my mind.

It was that I had nothing to hold onto, nothing to pursue. I had dreamed of playing in the NFL all my life. I was 17, six feet tall, 270 pounds. I was not big enough to play, not fast enough, not strong enough.

The Northfield Mount Hermon Hoggers scouted our football squad in the fall of 1997 and offered me a scholarship and a year of study before college. At Northfield, my English teacher was a gray-haired man who wore flannel shirts and smelled of pipe smoke. His enthusiasm for teaching meant, to me, that the books he was teaching were important and excited him and filled him with love. Why else would a man that old, with so much of his life behind him, endure clichés dropped like gum wrappers in stacks of papers he needed three pots of coffee to get through?

I look back on my teachers now and those special ones, the ones who often looked clueless walking down the hallways or across campus, the ones who forgot to comb their hair or shave for two weeks, the ones who dressed sloppily one day and sharp the next, the ones who spoke with uncertainty and passion, as if discovering the truth or core of what they were teaching for the first time, those were the real living teachers, the ones who expose us to a new world but do not try to explain it. They are guides into the unknown, and this man, a man whose name I’ve forgotten, whose name is not what’s important here, was that guide for me.

The first novel he gave us to read was Russell Banks’ Rule of the Bone. For me, at the time, it was the most amazing piece of writing I had ever read. I’ve read better books since, but have always appreciated the way he plays with text, shifts narrators and implements the novelist’s voice, his voice, or the voice of a second narrator, into his work. In this way, he is an innovator, an original. The narrator of Rule of the Bone is a teenage boy. He writes about smoking pot and listening to Pearl Jam and breaking into houses. I had done all of this. He writes about an absent father. My father was absent. He writes about searching, about leaving home, and I had been both searching and wanting to leave home. It was the first book I had truly read, because it was the first book that I had reread, and I had reread that book because I wanted to see how he was able to take me from place to place, both real and imagined, without my getting lost.

I played three months for the Hoggers. We won two games. Our star running back was knocked out for the season with a knee injury. During that fall, I snuck in and out of the girls’ dormitory, mashed apples with my bare feet and washed dishes at 5:30 in the morning as punishment for abandoning my school chores. I smoked, drank, drugged, and was eventually kicked out.

But something had changed in me then. I had a new fear. I wanted to be an artist. And if I was to approach any aspect of art, I would have to listen, read and feel the very best, over and over, first with enjoyment, then with study, breaking down each section, phrase, word, note, until the entire structure was laid out like bones I would have to make a skeleton from. But then there has to be heart. The fear came with those rare opuses, the ones that fill entire bookshelves with criticism. They are indefinable and unknowable. They are, to me, what is beyond the universe. They allow for the idea of the unattainable, excite and horrify, reveal the essence of love and then snatch it away and more.

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Renoir’s “Bal du Moulin de la Galette,” Marlon Brando’s Vito Corrleone, Grant Green’s “Am I Blue?”

They are those perfect moments of creation that we respect but never understand. More often than not, the artist has no idea where their creations come from. Sometimes they only come once, and this in itself is a miracle, something delivered from beyond the universe, where, if what I fear is correct, all great art lives, and makes itself available to a select few who keep themselves open to receive it.


Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sunday Sentence: On the Occasion of My Daughter’s Wedding


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

This week’s sentence is one I heard twice yesterday: during a wedding ceremony and at the reception that followed. My beautiful, purple-haired daughter Kylie was united in marriage to a prince of a man, Dave Liddick, in front of a small gathering of family and friends in a pristine clearing on Homestake Pass, just a few minutes from our home in Butte, Montana, and not far from where Kylie and Dave first met several years ago. The day, like the verse from Corinthians, was perfect; and so, I thought I’d share our family’s joy with the rest of you and honor their love with this special Sunday Sentence.



Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8

Photo by Robyn Regan


Friday, May 13, 2016

Friday Freebie: Heart Attack Watch by Alyson Foster


Congratulations to Christine Neuman, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie giveaway: They Could Live With Themselves by Jodi Paloni.

This week’s book contest features Heart Attack Watch by Alyson Foster. The publisher is generously offering five copies of the short story collection to give away to five lucky readers. Earlier here at the blog, you may recall reading about Alyson’s “first time” experience; if your curiosity was piqued by that blog post, now is your chance to read her work and become a fan yourself. Here’s more about the book from the jacket copy...

Heart Attack Watch is built around disasters large and small--those we know enough to fear but for which we can never prepare. The blackout. The car crash. The diagnosis. In these moments of reckoning, Alyson Foster’s characters grow achingly alive. There is Julia, the dreamy school-bus driver of “The Theory of Clouds” whose cohabitation with her partner, Danae, long unremarked-on in their factory town, becomes an issue when a group of environmental scientists arrive, galvanizing the community’s hatred and suspicion. There is Nina, the scrappy, home-schooled girl in “The Place of the Holy,” who helps her mother care for the battered women who arrive at their door--and for whom the arrival of a new male helper is the greatest threat. Jane, the recent college dropout in the titular story, ponders the reaches of outer space and the limits of her own brain from atop a lifeguard chair during the eerie, early-morning hours at the swimming pool, trying to ward off the moment she might need to act.

If you’d like a chance at winning a signed copy of Heart Attack Watch, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on May 19, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky readers on May 20. 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, May 12, 2016

Front Porch Books: May 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.


Champion of the World
by Chad Dundas
(G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

The clowns came to get him when it was time for the hanging. I can’t remember the last time I came across an odder, more intriguing first sentence of a novel. Fellow Montanan Chad Dundas sure knows how to get a story cranking right from the get-go. And if you read the plot description which sums up all the sentences to follow, you’ll see Champion of the World has plenty more hooks—in fact, the novel is a veritable fishing tacklebox full of lures.

Jacket Copy:  In this stunning historical fiction debut set in the world of wrestling in the 1920s, a husband and wife are set adrift in a place where everyone has something to hide and not even the fights can be taken at face value. Late summer, 1921: Disgraced former lightweight champion Pepper Van Dean has spent the past two years on the carnival circuit performing the dangerous “hangman’s drop” and taking on all comers in nightly challenge bouts. But when he and his cardsharp wife, Moira, are marooned in the wilds of Oregon, Pepper accepts an offer to return to the world of wrestling as a trainer for Garfield Taft, a down-and-out African American heavyweight contender in search of a comeback and a shot at the world title. At the training camp in rural Montana, Pepper and Moira soon realize that nothing is what it seems: not Taft, the upcoming match, or the training facility itself. With nowhere to go and no options left, Pepper and Moira must carefully navigate the world of gangsters, bootlegging, and fixed competitions, in the hope that they can carve out a viable future. A story of second chances and a sport at the cusp of major change, Champion of the World is a wonderful historical debut from a new talent in fiction.

Opening Lines:  The clowns came to get him when it was time for the hanging.
     He met them outside his trailer; a half dozen of them all dressed like cops, looking soiled and road-weary in their baggy blue uniforms, soda siphons hanging from their belts instead of guns and cuffs. No one spoke as they walked him down to the gallows, moving through the narrow alleys between the powerhouse trucks, costume tents and animal cages, heading for the spot on the infield grass where the white tops of the carnival’s seven performance pavilions lifted like billowing clouds. With ten minutes left before intermission a few of the candy butchers had already returned their covered pushcarts to the backyard area. They stood leaning against them, smoking cigarettes in orange and white coveralls, bored expressions on their faces. At the back door of the big tent he stopped to bounce a minute on his toes, a light dappling of rain blowing in off the bay, pricking up goose pimples on his bare arms and legs.
     One of the clowns made a sour face. “You all right?” His lipstick smile almost touching the corners of his eyes. “You’re looking a little chunky.”
     He ignored it but the truth was, he was overweight. The night before, the ache in his bad leg had kept him up, and after the two-and-a-half-hour jump from Monterey to San Francisco, he snuck down to the pie car and ate three pickles wrapped in ham. The pickles tasted good but didn’t fill him up, so he’d had a square of apple cobbler for dessert. He shouldn’t have done that, and in the morning forced himself to vomit before spending an hour jogging around the backyard area in a heavy overcoat. Now, as he stood there surrounded by the clowns, his belly was empty, and cold fear gripped his heart. He hoped he wasn’t about to go out there and break his goddamn neck.

Blurbworthiness:  “Here’s one of the finest first novels in years, a gritty tale involving professional wrestling, bootlegging, and the byzantine strategies of cold-blooded conmen and desperate grifters. If the subject matter strikes you as too quirky, think again. My advice to anyone who loves brilliant storytelling is this: read Chad Dundas’ Champion of the World.”  (Jeff Guinn, author of The Last Gunfight)


The Mathews Men
by William Geroux
(Viking)

Growing up, I frequently heard the term “Merchant Marine,” but I don’t think it was until I received a copy of William Geroux’s new book the other day that I fully realized what it meant: sailors who risked their lives to deliver supplies to combat troops, fighting off everything from torpedoes to sharks. The Mathews Men opens with a Cuban fisherman cutting open a shark to discover human remains, and ends with this quote from a Merchant Marine looking back on why he did what he did: “Men all over Mathews County kept going to sea like they always had. They didn’t do anything different during the war. The torpedoes just got in the way.”

Jacket Copy:  Mathews County, Virginia, is a remote outpost on the Chesapeake Bay with little to offer except unspoiled scenery—but it sent an unusually large concentration of sea captains to fight in World War II. The Mathews Men tells that heroic story through the experiences of one extraordinary family whose seven sons (and their neighbors), U.S. merchant mariners all, suddenly found themselves squarely in the cross-hairs of the U-boats bearing down on the coastal United States in 1942. From the late 1930s to 1945, virtually all the fuel, food and munitions that sustained the Allies in Europe traveled not via the Navy but in merchant ships. After Pearl Harbor, those unprotected ships instantly became the U-boats’ prime targets. And they were easy targets—the Navy lacked the inclination or resources to defend them until the beginning of 1943. Hitler was determined that his U-boats should sink every American ship they could find, sometimes within sight of tourist beaches, and to kill as many mariners as possible, in order to frighten their shipmates into staying ashore. As the war progressed, men from Mathews sailed the North and South Atlantic, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and even the icy Barents Sea in the Arctic Circle, where they braved the dreaded Murmansk Run. Through their experiences we have eyewitnesses to every danger zone, in every kind of ship. Some died horrific deaths. Others fought to survive torpedo explosions, flaming oil slicks, storms, shark attacks, mine blasts, and harrowing lifeboat odysseys—only to ship out again on the next boat as soon as they'd returned to safety. The Mathews Men shows us the war far beyond traditional battlefields—often the U.S. merchant mariners’ life-and-death struggles took place just off the U.S. coast—but also takes us to the landing beaches at D-Day and to the Pacific. “When final victory is ours,” General Dwight D. Eisenhower had predicted, “there is no organization that will share its credit more deservedly than the Merchant Marine.” Here, finally, is the heroic story of those merchant seamen, recast as the human story of the men from Mathews.

Opening Lines:  One night in late July 1942, a hardscrabble Cuban fisherman hauled in a hulking shark from the Nicholas Channel off Cuba’s northern coast. He gutted it and tore open its stomach with a knife. Out into the humid air spilled a mass of human remains. The fisherman, whose last name was Carillo, would have been surprised but not shocked.

Blurbworthiness:  “Vividly drawn and emotionally gripping, The Mathews Men shines a light on the mostly forgotten but astonishing role the U.S. Merchant Marine played in winning World War II. It brings back to life a breed of men who repeatedly risk all for their country. It chronicles the sagas of families that stoically endured heartrending losses. It honors a community that pulled together to support its sons as they set out—again and again—on deadly seas. And it reminds us how much we owe to the legions of ordinary Americans who quite literally saved the civilized world in the 1940s.”  (Daniel James Brown, author of The Boys in the Boat)


Commonwealth
by Ann Patchett
(Harper)

Rejoice, all ye with ears to hear and eyes to read! Ann Patchett has a new novel and, from the first sentence onward, it looks to be a great one. In an interview last December, Patchett said Commonwealth is one of her most personal novels to date: “It’s a book that has a lot to do with my family. I’ve always written books that are very far removed from my own life. This book, it’s not true, but it’s close to me. I’m very happy with it, and I think it’s much better than my other books. It’s the one I’ve always wanted to write. My father died in February, and though I wrote it while he was ill, it’s the book I couldn’t have published when he was alive.” Commonwealth arrives in bookstores in September—at which time, there will be great rejoicing throughout the land.

Jacket Copy:  One Sunday afternoon in Southern California, Bert Cousins shows up at Franny Keating’s christening party uninvited. Before evening falls, he has kissed Franny’s mother, Beverly—thus setting in motion the dissolution of their marriages and the joining of two families. Spanning five decades, Commonwealth explores how this chance encounter reverberates through the lives of the four parents and six children involved. Spending summers together in Virginia, the Keating and Cousins children forge a lasting bond that is based on a shared disillusionment with their parents and the strange and genuine affection that grows up between them. When, in her twenties, Franny begins an affair with the legendary author Leon Posen and tells him about her family, the story of her siblings is no longer hers to control. Their childhood becomes the basis for his wildly successful book, ultimately forcing them to come to terms with their losses, their guilt, and the deeply loyal connection they feel for one another. Told with equal measures of humor and heartbreak, Commonwealth is a meditation on inspiration, interpretation, and the ownership of stories. It is a brilliant and tender tale of the far-reaching ties of love and responsibility that bind us together.

Opening Lines:  The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.


The North Water
by Ian McGuire
(Henry Holt)

I came for the story (a murderer roams the decks of a nineteenth-century whaling ship), but I stayed for the language. Check out the Opening Lines below and see if you don’t agree that Ian McGuire immerses the readers into the vibrant grit and grime of the 1800s with sharply-focused details. These first paragraphs alone make me want to set everything else aside and plunge headfirst into these icy, bloody pages.

Jacket Copy:  A nineteenth-century whaling ship sets sail for the Arctic with a killer aboard in this dark, sharp, and highly original tale that grips like a thriller. Behold the man: stinking, drunk, and brutal. Henry Drax is a harpooner on the Volunteer, a Yorkshire whaler bound for the rich hunting waters of the arctic circle. Also aboard for the first time is Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon with a shattered reputation, no money, and no better option than to sail as the ship’s medic on this violent, filthy, and ill-fated voyage. In India, during the Siege of Delhi, Sumner thought he had experienced the depths to which man can stoop. He had hoped to find temporary respite on the Volunteer, but rest proves impossible with Drax on board. The discovery of something evil in the hold rouses Sumner to action. And as the confrontation between the two men plays out amid the freezing darkness of an arctic winter, the fateful question arises: who will survive until spring. With savage, unstoppable momentum and the blackest wit, Ian McGuire’s The North Water weaves a superlative story of humanity under the most extreme conditions.

Opening Lines:  Behold the man.
     He shuffles out of Clappison’s courtyard onto Sykes Street and snuffs the complex air—turpentine, fishmeal, mustard, black lead, the usual grave, morning-piss stink of just-emptied night jars. He snorts once, rubs his bristled head, and readjusts his crotch. He sniffs his fingers, then slowly sucks each one in turn, drawing off the last remnants, getting his final money’s worth. At the end of Charterhouse Lane he turns north onto Wincolmlee, past the De La Pole Tavern, past the sperm candle manufactory and the oil-seed mill. Above the warehouse roofs, he can see the swaying tops of main- and mizzenmasts, hear the shouts of the stevedores and the thump of mallets from the cooperage nearby. his shoulder rubs against the smoothed red brick, a dog runs past, a cart piled high with rough-cut timber. He breathes in again and runs his tongue along the haphazard ramparts of his teeth. He senses a fresh need, small but insistent, arising inside him, a new requirement aching to be met. His ship leaves at first light, but before then there is something that must be done.

Blurbworthiness:  “Riveting and darkly brilliant...The North Water feels like the result of an encounter between Joseph Conrad and Cormac McCarthy in some run-down port as they offer each other a long, sour nod of recognition.”  (Colm Toibin, author of Brooklyn)


Every Man a Menace
by Patrick Hoffman
(Atlantic Monthly Press)

Here’s another case where a first sentence lured me, like a trail of breadcrumbs, into its dark forest of words. Just as he did with his debut novel The White Van, Patrick Hoffman enticed me with the opening page of his new novel about ex-cons, duplicitous women, and drug running. I’ll gladly get lost in these pages.

Jacket Copy:  Patrick Hoffman burst onto the crime fiction scene with The White Van, a bank heist thriller set in the back streets of San Francisco and a finalist for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award. Now he returns with his second novel, Every Man a Menace, the inside story of a ruthless ecstasy-smuggling ring. San Francisco is about to receive the biggest delivery of MDMA to hit the West Coast in years. Raymond Gaspar, just out of prison, is sent to the city to check in on the increasingly erratic dealer expected to take care of distribution. In Miami, the man responsible for getting the drugs across the Pacific has just met the girl of his dreams—a woman who can’t seem to keep her story straight. And thousands of miles away in Bangkok, someone farther up the supply chain is about to make a phone call that will put all their lives at risk. Stretching from the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia to the Golden Gate of San Francisco, Every Man a Menace offers an unflinching account of the making, moving, and selling of the drug known as Molly—pure happiness sold by the brick, brought to market by bloodshed and betrayal.

Opening Lines:  Getting out of prison is like having a rotten tooth pulled from your mouth: it feels good to have it gone, but it’s hard not to keep touching at that hole.

Blurbworthiness:  “Every Man a Menace is everything you could want in a thriller—lightning pace, dead-on dialogue, and a twisting, high-torque plot. But, most of all, this novel is smart and authentic, a welcome jolt at a time when so much fiction reads like it rolled off an assembly line.”  (Carl Hiaasen)


Anatomy of a Soldier
by Harry Parker
(Knopf)

There are books that tell stories. And then there are books that tell stories in such fresh and startling ways that make the reader in me sit silent, stunned and dazzled, and the jealous writer in me wish I’d thought of this idea before. In the case of Harry Parker’s debut novel, though, I’ll let the reader take over so I can sit back and let the book wash over me. Anatomy of a Soldier is a book about war which is narrated not by a flesh-and-blood warrior, but by all the material objects surrounding him, starting with a tourniquet in the novel’s opening lines (with your indulgence, I’ve quoted the entire first chapter below). Parker never lets the objects of war remove us too far from turbulent human emotion; I mean, just look at those three words that pierce our hearts with their economy: he was incomplete. It’s a clever stylistic trick, sure, but it’s backed by some headstrong language that rushes full force into the question of how to dress an old story in new clothes.

Jacket Copy:  Let’s imagine a man called Captain Tom Barnes, aka BA5799, who’s leading British troops in the war zone. And two boys growing up together there, sharing a prized bicycle and flying kites before finding themselves estranged once foreign soldiers appear in their countryside. And then there’s the man who trains one of them to fight against the other’s father and all these infidel invaders. Then imagine the family and friends who radiate out from these lives, people on all sides of this conflict where virtually everyone is caught up in the middle of something unthinkable. But then regard them not as they see themselves but as all the objects surrounding them do: shoes and boots, a helmet, a bag of fertilizer, a medal, a beer glass, a snowflake, dog tags, and a horrific improvised explosive device that binds them all together by blowing one of them apart—forty-five different narrators in all, including the multiple medical implements subsequently required to keep Captain Barnes alive. The result is a novel that reveals not only an author with a striking literary talent and intelligence but also the lives of people—whether husband or wife, father or mother, son or daughter—who are part of this same heart-stopping journey. A work of extraordinary humanity and hope, created out of something hopeless and dehumanizing, it makes art out of pain and suffering and takes its place in a long and rich line of novels that articulate the lives that soldiers lead. In the boom of an instant, and in decades of very different lives and experiences, we see things we’ve never understood so clearly before.

Opening Lines:  My serial number is 6545-01-522. I was unpacked from a plastic case, pulled open, checked and reassembled. A black marker wrote BA5799 O POS on me and I was placed in the left thigh pocket of BA5799’s combat trousers. I stayed there; the pocket was rarely unfastened.
     I spent eight weeks, two days and four hours in the pocket. I wasn’t needed yet. I slid against BA5799’s thigh, back and forth, back and forth, mostly slowly but sometimes quickly, bouncing around. And there was noise: bangs and cracks, high-pitched whines, shouts of excitement and anger.
     One day I was submerged in stagnant water for an hour.
     I went in vehicles, tracked and wheeled, winged and rotored. I was soaked in soapy water then hung out to dry on a clothesline and did nothing for a day.
     At 0618 on 15 August, when I was sliding alongside BA5799’s thigh, I was lifted into the sky and turned over. And suddenly I was in the light. There was dust and confusion and shouting. I was on the ground beside him. He was face down; he was incomplete. I was beside him as rocks and mud fell around us.
     I was in the dust as a dark red liquid zigzagged towards me over the cracked mud. I was there when no one came and he was alone and couldn’t move. I was still there as fear and pathetic hopelessness gripped BA5799, as he was turned over and two fingers reached into his mouth, as his chest was pumped up and down and they forced air into his lungs.
     I was picked up by a slippery hand, fumbled back to the ground, then picked up again. I was pulled open by panicked fingers and covered in the thick liquid. I was placed on BA5799. I was turned. I tightened. I closed around his leg until his pulse pushed up against me. And he grimaced and whimpered through gritted teeth. I was wound tighter, gripping his thigh; stopping him bleed out into the dust.
     I clung to him while he was lifted onto a stretcher and he bit deeply into the arm of a man who carried him, when he no longer made any noise. I clung to him as we boarded the helicopter. I was wound again then, and gripped him harder.
     I clung to him as we flew low across the fields and glinting irrigation ditches and the wind rushed around the helicopter, when he pleaded with God to save him and metal pads were placed on his chest and his body jolted. And I clung to him when the machine read no output, when there was no pulse against me.
     I was there when they ran across to the helicopter and took us into the cool of the hospital.
     I was there when the doctors looked worried. I clung to him when he came back, when he had output and his faltering heart pulsed again. I was still there when they hung the bag of blood above BA5799 and they cut the remains of his leg away.
     And then I was unwound and loosened and I was no longer there; BA5799 no longer needed me.
     My serial number is 6545-01-522. I was at the bottom of a surgical bin and then I was burnt.

Blurbworthiness:  “This debut novel chronicles a soldier’s maiming and recovery with an inventiveness that in no way mitigates war’s searing heartbreak—or the spirit’s indomitability... Parker’s storytelling device of using objects as his narrators intensifies the reader's focus on the human emotions.”  (Kirkus Reviews)


The Woman in Cabin 10
by Ruth Ware
(Scout Press)

If merely reading the plot description is enough to knot my nerves, then I have a feeling the actual words on the page will send me into suspense overdrive. In The Woman in Cabin 10, Ruth Ware sets her latest twisted thriller in the tight confines of a cruise ship where things are not always what they seem to be. Reader overboard!

Jacket Copy:  From New York Times bestselling author of the “twisty-mystery” (Vulture) novel In a Dark, Dark Wood, comes The Woman in Cabin 10, an equally suspenseful and haunting novel from Ruth Ware—this time, set at sea. In this tightly wound, enthralling story reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s works, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. The sky is clear, the waters calm, and the veneered, select guests jovial as the exclusive cruise ship, the Aurora, begins her voyage in the picturesque North Sea. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a dark and terrifying nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong...With surprising twists, spine-tingling turns, and a setting that proves as uncomfortably claustrophobic as it is eerily beautiful, Ruth Ware offers up another taut and intense read in The Woman in Cabin 10—one that will leave even the most sure-footed reader restlessly uneasy long after the last page is turned.

Opening Lines:  In my dream, the girl was drifting, far, far below the crashing waves and the cries of the gulls in the cold, sunless depths of the North Sea. Her laughing eyes were white and bloated with salt water; her pale skin was wrinkled; her clothes ripped by jagged rocks and disintegrating into rags.

Blurbworthiness:  “A classic “paranoid woman” story with a modern twist in this tense, claustrophobic mystery...The cast of characters, their conversations, and the luxurious but confining setting all echo classic Agatha Christie; in fact, the structure of the mystery itself is an old one: a woman insists murder has occurred,everyone else says she's crazy. But Lo is no wallflower; she is a strong and determined modern heroine who refuses to doubt the evidence of her own instincts.”  (Kirkus Reviews)


This Must Be the Place
by Maggie O’Farrell
(Knopf)

Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel combines several ingredients that are promisingly tasty: sex, celebrity culture, secrets, a crumbling marriage (and its rebirth), a sympathetic husband, and a wife who is crazy (“not in a requiring-medication-and-wards-and-men-in-white-coats sense....but in a subtle, more socially acceptable, less ostentatious way”). I think I found the place I want to be this summer.

Jacket Copy:  An irresistible love story for fans of The Beautiful Ruins and Where’d You Go, Bernadette: Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be the Place is a smart, sophisticated, spellbinding summer read that captures the collapse—and reawakening—of an extraordinary marriage. Daniel Sullivan, a young American professor reeling from a failed marriage and a brutal custody battle, is on holiday in Ireland when he falls in love with Claudette, a world-famous sexual icon and actress who fled fame for a reclusive life in a rural village. Together, they make an idyllic life in the country, raising two more children in blissful seclusion—until a secret from Daniel’s past threatens to destroy their meticulously constructed and fiercely protected home. What follows is a journey through Daniel’s many lives told in his voice and the voices of those who have made him the man he is: the American son and daughter he has not seen for many years; the family he has made with Claudette; and irrepressible, irreverent Claudette herself. Shot through with humor and wisdom, This Must Be the Place is a powerful rumination on the nature of identity, and the complexities of loyalty and devotion—a gripping story of an extraordinary family and an extraordinary love.

Opening Lines:  There is a man.
     He’s standing on the back step, rolling a cigarette. The day is typically unstable, the garden lush and shining, the branches weighty with still-falling rain. There is a man and the man is me.