Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter Sunday in Iraq: 2005

Every now and thenbut not too oftenI will look back at the journal I kept while I was deployed as an active-duty soldier with the 3rd Infantry Division to Baghdad for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Today, I turn the page to Easter Sunday. On my browser screen are also news reports of the bombings in Sri Lanka, reminding us that violence and conflict never rest, even on the holiest of days...

March 27, 2005:  Easter Sunday. The day dawned pink, clear, and hot. No rolled away stones, no miraculous resurrections. The morning was mercifully quiet and free from the thud of mortar detonations. The only excitement came around noon when there was a grass fire over near the Baghdad International Airport and thick, black smoke rose in a violent churning plume. For a moment, it looked like it was headed our way.

As always, though, there was the threat of man-made, man-propelled violence and it was enough to keep us on our toes, our eyes darting back and forth, scanning our own sectors of fire. The day began with a sunrise worship service on the shores of the 30-acre artificial lake which Saddam had built so he’d have a place to relax while hunting on the palace grounds (our headquarters area used to be a game preserve). About 250 of us gathered around the chaplain to listen to the sermons and sing the hymns. I was there to take photos for a press release (which my boss later decided NOT to release because of “cultural sensitivities”). In between snapping the shutter, I joined in singing the chorus of “Christ the Lord is Ris’n Today,” my memory juices stirring from all those Easter Sundays in my Dad’s church back in Wyoming.

Originally, we’d planned to film the service and broadcast it live back to the Department of Defense’s video hub in Atlanta so the local TV stations could air it (at 10:30 p.m. Saturday their time). Fortunately, my boss—in a good moment—nixed that idea. “You know,” he said yesterday, “the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a bad idea. It would be just my luck that ol’ Haji would get lucky that day and drop a mortar smack dab in the middle of the church service and blow up the chaplain on live television.”

Lunch at the dining facility was also something of a religious experience today. The whole place was decorated with cardboard chicks and three-foot eggs like you buy at Wal-mart. On the tables, the centerpieces were these odd, tacky foil trees—shimmering purple, green and yellow. It’s like the Iraqis wanted to make it nice and homey for us, but they just didn’t know how. A couple of specialists who work at the dining facility greeted us at the door, thrusting chocolate bunnies into our hands and chirping in saccharine voices, “Happy Easter! Happy Easter!” The lines were long during lunch, but the wait was worth it. Fresh-carved turkey and ham, yams (as always, lay off the allspice, Mr. Contractor Chef!), corn on the cob, cornbread stuffing, mashed potatoes, fresh-baked jalapeno-cheese rolls with a special herb-butter spread, sparkling grape cider, and desserts out the wazoo. I took a slice of coconut cream pie, but by the time I reached that course I was already at the bursting point. I took one, polite bite and pushed it aside. Easter dinner: done.

The afternoon at work was rather melancholy and I wasn’t sure why until Sergeant First Class Flores turned around in her chair and said, “You know, I think this is the first Easter I’ve ever had to work in my life.” She’s right—I thought back over my past 41 Easters and I can’t remember a time when I had to toil away on the Lord’s (Risen) Day. It wasn’t just the hard-work part that had me down, though; I was blue because I was really missing Jean and the kids. I missed the excitement of the traditional Easter morning basket hunt. Though it was always over in five minutes, it’s one of the traditions I enjoyed.

I swiveled back to my computer screen and scrolled through the latest reports from the brigades. I sighed. The kids, in their late teens but not too cool for old-school Easter tradition, would be hunting through the living room of our house in Georgia right about now, in each search of their basket with its nests of candy. But me, I have to spend my Easter Sunday here in Iraq trying not to be a basket case.

Sunday Sentence: November 22, 1963 by Adam Braver

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

Jackie only looked up once, but when she did, she found herself on the back of the limo, and she doesn’t know what she was thinking, only that she might have believed herself dead. That her soul was climbing out of her body.

November 22, 1963 by Adam Braver

Friday, April 19, 2019

Friday Freebie: Four for Young Readers

Congratulations to Beverly Sizemore, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold.

This week’s giveaway is a quartet of new novels for young readers (and those readers who are still young at heart): The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, A Possibility of Whales by Karen Rivers, The Becket List by Adele Griffin, and The End of the World and Beyond by Avi. The first two are paperbacks, the others are hardcovers. One lucky reader will win all four books from our friends at Algonquin Books. Keep scrolling for more information on the books and how to enter the contest...

In the Newbery-Medal-winning The Girl Who Drank the Moon, the people of the Protectorate leave a baby as an annual offering to the witch who lives in the forest. They hope this sacrifice will keep her from terrorizing their town. But the witch in the Forest, Xan, is kind. She shares her home with a wise Swamp Monster and a Perfectly Tiny Dragon. Xan rescues the children and delivers them to welcoming families on the other side of the forest, nourishing the babies with starlight on the journey. One year, Xan accidentally feeds a baby moonlight instead of starlight, filling the ordinary child with extraordinary magic. Xan decides she must raise this girl, whom she calls Luna, as her own. As Luna’s thirteenth birthday approaches, her magic begins to emerge—with dangerous consequences. Meanwhile, a young man from the Protectorate is determined to free his people by killing the witch. Deadly birds with uncertain intentions flock nearby. A volcano, quiet for centuries, rumbles just beneath the earth’s surface. And the woman with the Tiger’s heart is on the prowl...

A Possibility of Whales is the story of a girl who learns the true meaning of family—thanks to her best friends near and far, a loving and quirky single dad, and an unexpected encounter with a whale. Twelve-year-old Natalia Rose Baleine Gallagher loves possibilities: the possibility that she’ll see whales on the beach near her new home, that the boy she just met will be her new best friend, that the photographers chasing her actor father won’t force Nat and her dad to move again. Most of all, Nat dreams of the possibility that her faraway mother misses and loves Nat—and is waiting for Nat to find her. The thing is, Nat doesn’t even know who her mother is. She left Nat as a baby, and Nat’s dad refuses to talk about it. Nat knows she shouldn’t need a mom, but she still feels like something is missing. In this heartfelt story about family, friendship, and growing up, Nat’s questions lead her on a journey of self-discovery that will change her life forever.

In The Becket List, everything is changing for Becket Branch. From subways to sidewalks to safety rules, she is a city kid born and raised. Now the Branch family is trading urban bustle for big green fields and moving to help their gran on Blackberry Farm, where Becket has to make sense of new routines, from feeding animals to baling hay. But Becket is ready! She even makes her own “Becket List” for How to Be a Country Kid. Things don’t always work out the way she planned, but whether it’s selling mouth-puckering lemonade, feeding hostile hens, or trying to make a new best friend, Becket is determined to use her city smarts to get a grip on country living. Get ready to yell “Beautiful Alert!” along with Becket as she mucks through the messy, exuberant experience of change she didn’t ask for, in a story that sparkles with quirky characters, cheerful humor, and unexpected adventures.

In The End of the World and Beyond, Oliver Cromwell Pitts is convicted of thievery and transported from England to America. He is shackled to his fellow prisoners, endures inedible food, filthy conditions, and deadly storms on his voyage across the Atlantic. But the hazardous shipboard journey is nothing compared to the peril that waits for him on the colonial shores. In Annapolis, Oliver’s indentured servitude is purchased by the foul, miserly Fitzhugh, who may have murdered another servant. On Fitzhugh’s isolated tobacco farm, Oliver’s only companion is an enslaved boy named Bara. Oliver and Bara become fast friends with one powerful goal: to escape Fitzhugh. Oliver hopes he can find his sister, Charity, brought somewhere in the colonies on a different ship. Bara dreams of reaching a community of free black people in the cypress swamp who may help him gain his liberty. But first the boys must flee Fitzhugh’s plantation and outrun their brutal pursuer and the dangers that lurk in the swamp.

If you’d like a chance at winning all four books, simply e-mail 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 remains open to entries until midnight on April 25, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on April 26. 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 e-mail 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, April 18, 2019

Grub Street Manuscript Editor

Have you written a novel that needs a final, professional polish and edit before it goes to market? Or maybe you’re in the early revision stages of a short story and you’d like someone to read it and give a detailed critique on what is and isn’t working in the narrative? Or perhaps you need a second set of unbiased eyes to go over your memoir?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, then I’m here to help! I now offer manuscript consulting services through Grub Street and am eager to start working with new clients. As Grub Street notes on its website: “Whether you want to polish your work before an agent sees it, get one-on-one feedback on your first draft, or seek advice on furthering your writing career—or even if you just need a motivating kick in the butt!—our consultants are here to help.”

Indeed, I am. I specialize in short fiction, novels, memoirs, and personal essays, but really the sky’s the limit when it comes to the types of manuscripts I will work on. If you wrote it, I’ll edit it.

Here’s more from my profile on the Consultants page:

As a reader, I am drawn to vivid imagery, tight sentences, snappy dialogue (think Elmore Leonard), and quirky characters who stand out from the scenery. As your writing coach and editor, I will give you the tools to help you pare down your sentences to just the right length and rhythm (I excel at line-editing!). I will show you how to take a step back from the pages and look at the overall narrative and how each of its pieces fit into the bigger picture: we’ll cut what is weak and flabby, and we’ll dissect and rearrange the various parts, if necessary—all with the goal of making your creative work the strongest it can be.

What I bring to the table: more than 30 years of professional editing at newspapers and magazines, detailed track changing and margin comments on your work, and availability for a video chat after you’ve had a chance to read through my notes and edits.

Though I read widely across all genres, I am particularly drawn to literary fiction, mystery, memoir, Young Adult, narrative non-fiction, history, and biography. (On a side note: as someone who served in the military for 20 years, I also work with writers who need a little insider knowledge in that regard.)

If you’re ready to get to work on your manuscript, I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and uncap the red pen. Go to the Consultants page and click on my name (David Abrams) for more information about what I offer and my hourly rate. If it all sounds good to you, drop me an email with the subject line Grub Street Consultation (and then the name of your manuscript), include a brief synopsis of your work (2-3 sentences for short stories, 1 paragraph for a full-length book), number of pages, and if you are on any sort of editorial deadline. I look forward to reading your work!

Monday, April 8, 2019

My First Time: David Hallock Sanders

The First Time I Lost My Novel

I’m a responsible person. Truly I am. I budget. I floss. I honor my promises and help my neighbors. I avoid risks when the downsides outweigh the ups. Sky diving, for example. Drag racing. Eating pufferfish. Not for me.

So it surprises me that, for years, I neglected to back up my computer. A computer that held the only complete draft of my novel.

Yet neglect I did, and my irresponsibility led to a horrible, if predictable, result: I lost my novel to a hard-drive crash.

That novel, Busara Road, is about a young American boy living at a Quaker mission in Kenya just after independence. It holds special significance for two very personal reasons. One, it was inspired by my own childhood living in Kenya. And two, I’d been working on it for more than a decade.

So the day I lost the novel, I nearly lost my mind.

There was nothing unusual about that particular day. It was October of 2011, and I was simply working at my computer when the hard drive made an odd sound. The screen flashed some odd symbols, then went blank. That was it. My computer was dead. Nothing was accessible. The novel was gone.

I tried everything I could to bring the computer back to life. Nothing. As realization set in I went into a kind of shock. I staggered downstairs to the kitchen where my wife was cooking. She immediately realized something was wrong–perhaps because I dropped to the floor and curled into a ball, weeping and repeating, “I fucked up! I fucked up! I fucked up!”

My wife had never seen me so out of control. She took immediate action. She grabbed a bottle of whiskey and poured me shot after shot until I stopped hyperventilating.

Looking back, I have to admit that my computer gave me fair warning. It had begun to refuse some simple commands and it had started whirring now and then with painful, laboring breaths. But I ignored all of the signs.

That’s why I accept that losing my novel was my own fault.

But what I didn’t realize then was that losing my novel was also, oddly, a gift.

Pico Ayer has famously written about losing his home and everything in it–including 15 years of notes and manuscripts–to a devastating fire. He ultimately described the experience as liberating, one that left him with a strange sense of freedom.

Although I strive for Mr. Ayer’s Zen presence of mind, I have not attained it. Still, I understand some of what he means.

I belong to a writer’s group that is supportive, challenging, and closely attuned to its members as both writers and people. When I shared the news that my novel, which they’d worked on with me for years, was gone, they reacted as though a close family member had died. In a way, that wasn’t far off.

I took the computer to a repair shop, and learned that the term “hard-drive crash” is a literal description. My hard drive had two motors, one that spun a platter at 7,200 revolutions per minute, and one that moved the read/write head about five nanometers, or less than 0.0000002 of an inch, above the spinning platter.

When the head happened to touch the platter, it was like a jet crashing into a runway and ripping up the surface. Whatever data was coded on the platter was gone.

My drive was so damaged that the technician was unable to salvage anything. He told me that, in its current state, the computer was less useful than a doorstop. My options were limited. He could send it to a sterile lab where they would examine the drive byte-by-byte to see if they could pull any particles of data from it. That would cost me a few thousand dollars and might not produce anything useful. Alternately, I could install a new drive into the old shell, which would cost me a few hundred dollars but would do nothing to recover the lost data. Or I could just give up and leave him the dead computer. In that case, he’d recondition it with a used drive he had on hand and donate it to a Philadelphia public school.

Easy decision. I left him the dead computer and went out to buy a new one. Learning from my mistakes, I also bought a stand-alone backup drive and established a regular backup schedule. In addition, I signed up for a perpetual cloud-based backup service.

And the novel?

I began a painful, lengthy process of reconstructive surgery. I asked my writer’s group to send any old chapters they may have saved. I dug through cardboard boxes for old printouts. I thumbed through file cabinets for old notes, and searched through old thumb drives for anything I’d saved during retreats and residencies. I reassembled all of this material the best I could, and took a cold-eyed look at what I had.

The whole thing was a mess. The novel’s narrative voice was all over the place. Scenes meandered with little focus. Characters behaved in inconsistent, unconvincing ways. Story arcs conflicted. Tenses battled–present in some drafts, past in others.

And these weren’t just the fault of the disjointed drafts. I now realized that the completed novel, the one that I’d loved and lost, had suffered from many of the same shortcomings.

That realization was my version of Mr. Ayer’s liberation.

So I started over, once again from the beginning. This time I plotted the book out in detail, chapter by chapter. This time I wrote out character bios and thematic threads in advance. This time I dispensed with the wandering prose that had diluted early drafts and focused on simply telling the story.

It took me two years to complete a new draft. The new version was much better than the old, but it still went through more drafts as I exposed it to more eyes. I sent the manuscript out in round after round to potential agents and publishers, then waited for months on each round just to get rejections that boiled down to variations on, as one agent wrote, “I love it, but not enough.”

Months turned into years. And more years. During one of those years I was diagnosed with nodular lymphocyte predominant Hodgins lymphoma, and during six months of chemotherapy, when I was often unable to sit upright for more than an hour at a time, I struggled through another rewrite and round of submissions. And still the rejections piled up.

But then, one day, the book finally got accepted.

With an April release from New Door Books, Busara Road now has a home.

This has been a long and trying journey. Losing my novel showed me how quickly and dramatically things can go wrong. Since then I’ve observed myself taking extra care to protect against other disasters. Religiously changing my smoke-alarm batteries, for example. Regularly reviewing my credit reports. Even buying a fire-escape ladder for my bedroom, which is only on the second floor.

In fact, I bought one of those little glass-cutting, window-smashing tools for my car. You know, just in case I happen to drive off the Ben Franklin Bridge, sink to the bottom of the Delaware River, and need to break a window to escape.

As I said, I’m a responsible person. Perhaps even a little paranoid. But with my novel finally published, a happy one as well.

David Hallock Sanders is the author of the novel Busara Road, which was shortlisted as a finalist for the William Faulkner–William Wisdom Prize for a novel-in-progress. He has published a range of short fiction and nonfiction, some of which has won awards. He lives in Philadelphia. Click here to visit his website.

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. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

Painting: At Eternity’s Gate, Vincent van Gogh (1890)

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Sunday Sentence: “Children Are Magic” by Natalie Serber

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

Barrett held her wineglass against her lips, quietly closed her teeth, bit on its thin danger.

“Children Are Magic” by Natalie Serber

Friday, April 5, 2019

Friday Freebie: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Congratulations to Asalia Arauz, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: three novels by Julia Alvarez: In the Time of the Butterflies, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and ¡Yo!.

This week’s giveaway is for The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper by Hallie Rubenhold. Here is some early praise for the book: “Meticulously researched and beautifully executed, The Five is a powerful and timely retelling of a story you think you already know. Rubenhold strips away decades of myths and misconceptions so that the women who were ruthlessly murdered by Jack the Ripper are no longer one-dimensional characters in a Penny Dreadful, but real human beings with very real struggles, hopes, and fears. With this important book, Rubenhold proves she is a master of narrative nonfiction: a historian with a novelist’s soul.” (Lindsey Fitzharris, author of The Butchering Art)

Keep scrolling for more information on the novels and how to enter the contest...

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine and Mary-Jane are famous for the same thing, though they never met. They came from Fleet Street, Knightsbridge, Wolverhampton, Sweden, and Wales. They wrote ballads, ran coffee houses, lived on country estates, they breathed ink-dust from printing presses and escaped people-traffickers. What they had in common was the year of their murders: 1888. The person responsible was never identified, but the character created by the press to fill that gap has become far more famous than any of these five women. For more than a century, newspapers have been keen to tell us that "the Ripper" preyed on prostitutes. Not only is this untrue, as historian Hallie Rubenhold has discovered, it has prevented the real stories of these fascinating women from being told. Now, in this devastating narrative of five lives, Rubenhold finally sets the record straight, revealing a world not just of Dickens and Queen Victoria, but of poverty, homelessness and rampant misogyny. They died because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time—but their greatest misfortune was to be born a woman.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Five, simply e-mail 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 remains open to entries until midnight on April 11, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on April 12. 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 e-mail 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.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Sunday Sentence: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

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

The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationery and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope. Who even knew they still made such things? This single sheet had traveled from Brazil to Minnesota to mark the passing of a man, a breath of tissue so insubstantial that only the stamp seemed to anchor it to this world.

Opening lines of State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Monday, March 25, 2019

Day Jobs and All-the-Time Writers

For nearly all my working life, I’ve held jobs that were not, shall we say, dedicated to the study or creation of art. And so, I constantly felt a disconnect between what I do with my hands and what’s going on in my head. That’s the beauty of the so-called day job: you can turn a wrench, or flip a burger, or type a mundane report with those hands while your novel’s plot churns and thickens in your head. William Faulkner, after all, wrote As I Lay Dying in between shoveling loads of coal at the University of Mississippi power plant.

Since graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Oregon, I have worked various jobs—some of them simultaneously—while also making time to write (and publish) a long parade of short stories, poems, essays, and two novels (Fobbit and Brave Deeds). A sampling of my resume: cook, soldier, newspaper editor, manager of a boat-and-RV storage yard, public affairs specialist, school janitor, journalist, video store clerk, tutor in a remedial writing program at a community college, and pizza-delivery driver.

I know a thing or three about day jobs.

And so, when Wendy J. Fox (If the Ice Had Held) invited me to be on a panel called Don’t Quit Your Day Job at this year’s annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), I immediately knew what I needed to do: put in for leave from my day job.

I embark on the road trip tomorrow, armed with a few good audiobooks. I’m looking forward to this year’s conference in Portland and three days of intense focus on the creative writing arts: not something I normally get back in my windowless, fluorescent-lit office.

To hear more about day jobs and creativity, please come to the AWP panel Don’t Quit Your Day Job – Writers Outside of Academia, where I’ll be joined by these fine, fellow laboring writers: Wendy J. Fox, Daniel Olivas, Yuvi Zalkow, and Teow Lim Goh. Our panel is first thing on the first day—9 a.m., Thursday, March 28 in Room A106 of the Oregon Convention Center.

Can’t make it to AWP, but still want to talk about Writers With Day Jobs? Feel free to leave a comment below!

Front Porch Books: March 2019 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of new and forthcoming booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. 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, but they’re definitely going in the to-be-read pile.

The World Doesn’t Require You
by Rion Amilcar Scott

Jacket Copy:  Deftly spinning genres of his feverish literary invention, Rion Amilcar Scott creates his very own Yoknapatawpha County with fictional Cross River, Maryland. Established by the leaders of America’s only successful slave revolt, the town still evokes the fierce rhythms of its founding. Among its residents are David Sherman, a struggling musician who just happens to be God’s last son; Tyrone, a ruthless PhD candidate, whose dissertation about a childhood game ignites mayhem in the neighboring, once-segregated town of Port Yooga; and Jim, an all-too-obedient robot who serves his Master. Culminating with an explosive novella, these haunting stories of the denizens of Cross River serve to explore larger themes of religion, violence, and love―all told with sly humor and a dash of magical realism. Shattering rigid literary boundaries, Scott is “a necessary voice in American literature” (PEN Award citation), a writer whose storytelling gifts the world very much requires.

Opening Lines:  God is from Cross River, everyone knows that. He was tall, lanky; wore dirty brown clothes and walked with a limp he tried to disguise as a bop. His chin held a messy salt-and-pepper beard that extended to his Adam’s apple. Always clutching a mango in His hand. Used to live on the Southside, down under the bridge, near the water. Now there is a nice little sidewalk and flowers and a bike trail that leads into Port Yooga. Back then there was just mud and weeds, and He’d sit there barefooted, speaking softly, preaching His word. At one time He had one hundred, maybe two hundred—some say up to five hundred or even a thousand—people listening to Him. But the time I’m talking about, He’d sit with only one or two folks. Always with a mango, except during Easter time, when He’d pass out jellybeans to get people to stop and listen.
       He lived on the banks of the Cross River until one day, He filled His pockets with stones and walked into the water and sank like a crazy poet. He wasn’t insane. It was all part of God’s plan. Last time He was crucified, this time drowned.

Blurbworthiness:  “In the midst of a renaissance of African American fiction, Rion Amilcar Scott’s stories stand at the forefront of what’s possible in this vanguard. Funny, sad, and always moving, these stories explore what it means to call a place like America home when it treats you with indifference or terror. The people in these stories are unforgettable, their lives recognizable, their voices, as written by Scott, wholly original.”  (Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman)

White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination
by Jess Row
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  White Flights is a meditation on whiteness in American fiction and culture from the end of the civil rights movement to the present. At the heart of the book, Jess Row ties “white flight”—the movement of white Americans into segregated communities, whether in suburbs or newly gentrified downtowns—to white writers setting their stories in isolated or emotionally insulated landscapes, from the mountains of Idaho in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping to the claustrophobic households in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Row uses brilliant close readings of work from well-known writers such as Don DeLillo, Annie Dillard, Richard Ford, and David Foster Wallace to examine the ways these and other writers have sought imaginative space for themselves at the expense of engaging with race. White Flights aims to move fiction to a more inclusive place, and Row looks beyond criticism to consider writing as a reparative act. What would it mean, he asks, if writers used fiction “to approach each other again”? Row turns to the work of James Baldwin, Dorothy Allison, and James Alan McPherson to discuss interracial love in fiction, while also examining his own family heritage as a way to interrogate his position. A moving and provocative book that includes music, film, and literature in its arguments, White Flights is an essential work of cultural and literary criticism.

Opening Lines:  These essays are about race in the imaginative life of Americans from the end of the civil rights era to the present. They’re about fiction in the proper sense of the wordnovels, short stories, film, playsand also the larger, boundaryless, improper sense, in which our collective life is a series of overlapping fictions, fantasies, dream states. They’re about the ways fiction in the first sense reflects and sustains the fictions of the second.
       Because it couldn’t be otherwisebecause I couldn’t write it any other waythis is also a book about the dimensions and complications of my own racial identity, and particularly about my life as a white writer, and how I learned, without consciously learning it, to represent whiteness and identify with whiteness, while at the same time believing I was practicing something called “imaginative freedom.” I’m trying to undertake what Wayne Koestenbaum calls autoethnographya way of writing that should never take itself entirely seriously. Because whiteness is a category that is both laughable and lethal. Writing about race as a white man means I have to move beyond the understanding of what words like “sincerity,” “earnestness,” and “dignity” mean. The worst thing a book like this could be is polite.

Blurbworthiness:  “These are brilliant, sweeping, intimate delights―and afterward, you may never read the same way again.” (Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel)

What the Women Do
by Adam Braver

Jacket Copy:  In What The Women Do, three trailblazing women face private decisions that redirect their lives—and also shape history. In these powerful novellas, Adam Braver imagines life-changing encounters away from the spotlight, hidden inflection points that capture how these remarkable groundbreakers engaged the world around them. When Eleanor Roosevelt rushes to her son’s hospital bedside, she’s stopped short by Miss Ethel duPont, his fiancĂ©e and the embodiment of everything she’s always resisted. In the crush of World War II, Kay Summersby lives and works alongside General Eisenhower, building a loving domestic sanctuary that’s dismantled in victory and that shadows the life she later builds for and by herself. And in a small shop in Reykjavik, Bobbie Gentry, the reclusive 70’s pop star, fights to preserve her anonymity. Or maybe it’s her doppelgänger: her refusal to engage with an ambitious reporter recasts the entire prospect of knowing these women’s lives at all.

Opening Lines:  Outside of the private hospital room in Phillips House, before she’s even seen her son, Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady of the United States, listens to Dr. Tobey, an Ear, Nose, & Throat man, try to explain what he believes is happening inside her son’s body. Because she’s hardly had any sleep, having just arrived in Boston on the 12:45 AM Owl out of Grand Central Station, it takes all her will to focus on the details.

Blurbworthiness:  “I’ve loved Adam Braver’s work for many years. What The Women Do is one of his finest books yet. These novellas offer radically different takes on the lives of three women about whom we know much less than we sometimes like to think. Braver’s bravura narration—stealthy and startling—confirms my long-held opinion that he’s one of the best fiction writers in the country. One of the best artists, period.”  (Steve Yarbrough, author of The Unmade World)

We Were Killers Once
by Becky Masterman

Jacket Copy:  In 1959, a family of four were brutally murdered in Holcomb, Kansas. Perry Smith and Dick Hickok were convicted and executed for the crime, and the murders and their investigation and solution became the subject of Truman Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood. But what if there was a third killer, who remained unknown? What if there was another family, also murdered, who crossed paths with this band of killers, though their murder remains unsolved? And what if Dick Hickok left a written confession, explaining everything? Retired FBI agent Brigid Quinn and her husband Carlo, a former priest and university professor, are trying to enjoy each other in this new stage in their lives. But a memento from Carlo’s days as a prison chaplain—a handwritten document hidden away undetected in a box of Carlo’s old things—has become a target for a man on the run from his past. Jerry Beaufort has just been released from prison after decades behind bars, and though he’d like to get on with living the rest of his life, he knows that somewhere there is a written record of the time he spent with two killers in 1959. Following the path of this letter will bring Jerry into contact with the last person he’ll see as a threat: Brigid Quinn.

Opening Lines:  Little Brigid Theresa Quinn, with a Band-Aid on my knobby knee from jumping out of a banyan tree on a dare, and a ponytail of red hair that should have been washed four days ago—I’m only six years old when I first hear about the murder of the Walker family on December 19, 1959. Though the decades pass, and I have witnessed even greater horrors than were described that night, I still can’t see a Christmas tree without feeling the crime scene, the tree with its ornaments, the glittery packages, the bodies in the living room.

All the Water in the World
by Karen Raney

Jacket Copy:  Maddy is sixteen. Smart, funny, and profound, she has loyal friends, a mother with whom she’s unusually close, a father she’s never met, devoted grandparents, and a crush on a boy named Jack. Maddy also has cancer. Living in the shadow of uncertainty, she is forced to grow up fast. All the Water in the World is the story of a family doing its best when faced with the worst. Told in the alternating voices of Maddy and her mother, Eve, the narrative moves between the family’s lake house in Pennsylvania; their home in Washington, DC; and London, where Maddy’s father, Antonio, lives. Hungry for experience, Maddy seeks out her first romantic relationship, finds solace in music and art, and tracks down Antonio. She continually tests the depths and limits of her closeness with her mother, while Eve has to come to terms with the daughter she only partly knows, in a world she can’t control.

Opening Lines:  A lake is a black hole for sound. The wind, the crack of a hammer, the cries of birds and children weave a rim of noise around the water, making its silence more profound. When a turtle or fish breaks the surface, the sound appears to come from within. Maddy, who is a natural philosopher, would want to know whether it really is sound, or just the possibility of sound, that issues from such breaches. I mention Maddy because to have a child is to have a twofold mind. No thought or action belongs to me alone. This holds true more than ever now.

Blurbworthiness:  “An extraordinary achievement for a first novel: tender, heartfelt and heart-breaking.”  (Francis Spufford, author of Golden Hill)

Ducks, Newburyport
by Lucy Ellmann

Jacket Copy:  Peeling apple after apple for the tartes tatin she bakes for local restaurants, an Ohio mother wonders how to exist in a world of distraction and fake facts, besieged by a tweet-happy president and trigger-happy neighbors, and all of them oblivious to what Dupont has dumped into the rivers and what’s happening at the factory farm down the interstate―not to mention what was done to the land’s first inhabitants. A torrent of consciousness, narrated in a single sentence by a woman whose wandering thoughts are as comfortably familiar as they are heart-rending in their honesty, Ducks, Newburyport is a fearless indictment of our contemporary moment.

Opening Lines: When you are all sinew, struggle and solitude, your young – being soft, plump, vulnerable – may remind you of prey. The damp furry closeness in the crowded den sometimes gave her an over-warm sensation akin to nausea, or boredom. Snaking her long limbs as far as space permitted, she longed to be out on her winding path, ranging wide in search of deer. In her dreams she slaughtered whole herds. She sought that first firm clasp on a stag’s neck, the swift parting of its hide, her mouth filling at last with what was hot and wet and necessary.

(To read the start of that book-length sentence, which begins “The fact that the raccoons are now banging an empty yoghurt carton around on the driveway...,” visit this page at Biblioasis)

Blurbworthiness:  “Perhaps the most ambitious novel of 2019, a contemporary Molly Bloom soliloquy, a paginated lioness, a corrective, a challenge, a ‘Moby-dick of the kitchen’ in weird but sorta true ways.” (Josh Cook, Porter Square Books)

The Turn of the Key
by Ruth Ware
(Scout Press)

Jacket Copy:  When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family. What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder. Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant. It was everything. She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is. Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, The Turn of the Key is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

Opening Lines:
                                                                                      3rd September 2017
Dear Mr. Wrexham,
I know you don’t know me but please please, please you have to help me

Three Flames
by Alan Lightman

Jacket Copy:  The stories of one Cambodian family are intricately braided together in Alan Lightman’s haunting Three Flames, his first work of fiction in six years. Three Flames portrays the struggles of a Cambodian farming family against the extreme patriarchal attitudes of their society and the cruel and dictatorial father, set against a rural community that is slowly being exposed to the modern world and its values. A mother must fight against memories of her father’s death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, and her powerful desire for revenge. A daughter is married off at sixteen to a wandering husband and his domineering aunt; another daughter is sent to the city to work in the factories to settle her father’s gambling debt. A son dreams of marrying the most beautiful girl of the village and escaping the life of a farmer. And the youngest daughter bravely challenges her father so she can stay in school and strive for a better future. A vivid story of revenge and forgiveness, of a culture smothering the dreams of freedom, and of tradition against courage, Three Flames grows directly from Lightman’s work as the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to advance a new generation of female leaders in Cambodia and all of Southeast Asia.

Opening Lines:  Ryna had just finished putting a quarter kilo of pork and a half dozen rambutan into her burlap shopping bag, wondering if her husband would scold her for spending too much, when she saw the man who had murdered her father.

Blurbworthiness:  “Lyrical and poignant, Three Flames weaves the stories of three generations of a poor, Cambodian farming family as they struggle to survive and hold on to their humanity. Each family member, like a flickering flame, lights the hopes and dreams of the others, offering courage in the face of shattering heartbreaks and tragedies. Beautifully written and told with great compassion, Alan Lightman's novel gives readers a family that is rich in stories, history, and heart, proving in the end that love shines even in the midst of great darkness.”  (Loung Ung, author of First They Killed My Father)

by Susan Steinberg
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  Susan Steinberg’s first novel, Machine, is a dazzling and innovative leap forward for a writer whose most recent collection of short stories, Spectacle, gained her a rapturous following. Machine revolves around a group of teenagers―both locals and wealthy out-of-towners―during a single summer at the shore. Steinberg captures the pressures and demands of this world in a voice that effortlessly slides from collective to singular, as one girl recounts a night on which another girl drowned. Hoping to assuage her guilt and evade a similar fate, she pieces together the details of this tragedy, as well as the breakdown of her own family, and learns that no one, not even she, is blameless. A daring stylist, Steinberg contrasts semicolon-studded sentences with short lines that race down the page. This restless approach gains focus and power through a sharply drawn narrative that ferociously interrogates gender, class, privilege, and the disintegration of identity in the shadow of trauma. Machine is the kind of novel―relentless and bold―that only Susan Steinberg could have written.

Opening Lines:  the water is deeper than it looks; and we’re not the worst swimmers, but it’s dark; we tend not to swim at night; no, we tend not to swim at night with guys; we all knew of the girl who drowned; she sank like a stone, they said; she was showing off that night, they said;

Blurbworthiness:  “Otherworldly, and every-other-line sublime, Machine reads like the text messages Laura Palmer might send back from the Black Lodge. It’s a timely reminder of why our culture remains haunted by dead girls, and of the different ways we find to drown them.”  (Bennett Sims, author of A Questionable Shape)

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sunday Sentence: The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

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

A sermon is not to tell you what you are, but what you ought to be; and a good novel should tell you not what you are to get, but what you’d like to get.

The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope