Monday, July 16, 2018

My First Time: Milana Marsenich

My First Return to the Homeland

My father was a great storyteller and, although he had never been there, I grew up listening to his stories about Montenegro, his parents’ homeland. He seemed to know the country, the people, and the stories. My great grandmother had seen the white wolf following her. She could stop a snake with a whistle. She had once crossed a mountain haunted by unburied soldiers to save a child’s life. Montenegrins were great warriors. They were a rugged people, who fought for land, family and God. Through the years, my father’s stories worked their way into my psyche and into my memory. I lived as if I had been there. Montenegro was as real to me as my hometown of Butte, Montana. My ancestors visited me in my dreams. They told me their secrets. The ghost of my great grandmother, in particular, found her way into my first novel, Copper Sky.

Marika, one of the main characters in Copper Sky, crossed the Atlantic with her family, and made her way to Butte. She longed to be like her Baba (my great grandmother) who she’d left behind. From my father’s stories I deduced that my great grandmother must have known how to use herbs, beauty, and natural energies to heal and mend wounds. She must have known the mysteries of prayer, gratitude, and faith. She was a special kind of doctor, the kind that Marika aspired to be. Marika’s Baba taught her to heal, taught her the remedies, taught her “love ignites the cure.” Marika grew, lived, and breathed Montenegro. She had been there. But I hadn’t.

In 2006 my brother, Bob, and his wife, Karen, went to Montenegro. Speaking very little Serbian, they hired an interpreter who traveled with them. Having lost contact with our family years before, we weren’t sure if we still had close relatives there. Bob was determined to find out. They went to the Village Marsenich, a small village of hundreds of distant relatives. After asking around, they found Thomas, an elderly gentleman who knew our uncles. He drove Bob, Karen, and their interpreter cross-country to a small shack.

Milorad Marsenich stepped out of that shack looking just like our Uncle Bob. Through the interpreter, they learned that his grandfather was our grandfather’s brother. At one point, Bob heard him say “Butte, Montana.” Milorad then disappeared into the shack and, as if they had been sitting there on the kitchen table all these years, he returned with a stack of letters. Our grandmother’s handwriting crawled across the envelopes—return address “Silver Bow Homes, Butte, Montana.”

The last known contact was in 1967, the year that our grandfather passed on. At the bottom of the last letter our grandmother, Jovanka, wrote, “Milosav is sick and they don’t expect him to make it. How is your Latin?” Our grandmother had come to America when she was just two years old. She married our grandfather when she was fifteen. We believe he dictated the letters to her, but she didn’t feel confident writing in Serbian without his help. She was trying to find a way to continue communication.

Bob and Karen went back to Montenegro in 2007 and I tagged along, my first time actually setting foot in my “homeland,” a land I had heard about, dreamed about, and written about my entire life. We flew into Podgorica where our uncle Mojsije and his son, Nikola, picked us up. We drove to Danilovgrad where they lived.

My Uncle Mojsije and my Aunt Dushanka had prepared a room for us in their small home that they had built themselves. They fed us elaborate meals, with vegetables from their garden and “yogurt” made fresh from their goat’s milk. They were generous, kind, and funny. They were family. Even though I’d just met them, we all felt it.

Although their grown children, Nikola and Jelena, spoke some English, my aunt and uncle spoke only Serbian. With my English/Serbian dictionary in hand, I tried really hard to communicate. At one point, as we walked to the store, I explained in Serbian to my aunt that I once had a cat named Machka, the Serbian word for cat, because my mother always wanted a cat named Machka and she couldn’t have one. When we got back to the house, I asked Nikola to see what she understood. She replied in Serbian, “Your cat doesn’t have a husband.” Once I begged, “please may I help”—or so I thought. I was actually asking, “please may I go to sleep.” We made lots of mistakes and we laughed a lot.

I felt a sense of peace there, a sense of home. Talking with Jelena, my cousin—or as she would say moya sestra, my sister, having no word for cousin—I felt a deep connection to my grandparents, having done something they could not: return to their homeland.

There was much to see and the first night we went to Ostrog, a monastery built into the side of a mountain. St. Basil lay in repose inside. He cried holy tears that the monks collected and gave to visitors. We arrived at dusk, just in time for Vespers. I’d been to Vespers with my family at the Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church in Butte many times. But this was different. This was ancient and I could feel the spirit of that mountain, the monastery, and the saint. Although no one collected them, I cried my own tears, to be standing on the side of the mountain in Montenegro, at dusk during Vespers. I wished my father could have been there, that my grandparents could have been there.

A few days later, we went to another monastery. My uncle insisted that I walk with him behind the stone fence into a building of artifacts. There inside of a wooden box with a glass top was a piece of wood. My uncle told me its significance. Since he didn’t speak English, he told me this in Serbian. I could tell from his tone that it was important, but even with my Serbian/English dictionary in hand I couldn’t understand. Finally, he called a monk over. The man stood near in his white robe, his essence soft and peaceful, and explained to me that the small piece of wood that my uncle pointed to was a piece of the original cross that Jesus had been crucified upon.

We drove for an hour through the mountains, across the river, over narrow roads to a small village that seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. The celebration was for the Vasavichi Clan. Two hundred members, all related to me, stood among the tombstones outside of the small church. The church held only about twenty people. Inside, a bishop who I had met in Butte conducted the service. The service was in Serbian and, having been raised in Butte’s Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church with Church Slavonic, I understood small parts of it. I felt the presence of our ancestors there, the ghosts rising up out of the graves singing. These were Marika’s people. They were my people. My family.

After the service, we drove for another hour into seemingly the middle of another nowhere, past donkeys pulling carts, and small cars on a narrow road. We drove past little huts and kiosks selling candy. Finally, we arrived at a large field set up with tents and tables. Beef and lamb smoked in a pit. 200 people ate lunch as the musicians sang the traditional songs. They dedicated one song to us. It was the song that they sang for those who had left Montenegro and never returned, our grandparents.

Several days later, we visited my great-grandparents’ house in Berane, or more accurately, we visited the leftover stones of the foundation to their house. The stones were weathered and shrunken, barely small rocks by the time we arrived. The land inside of and around the stones looked out over the fields toward Komovi, Holy Mountain, the mountain I imagined my great grandmother crossing in the cold, in the night to minister a dying child.

A pear tree grew majestically at the edge of the land. My uncle had made Kruska from the pears, a brandy that we drank that morning. It was cold and rainy and I was sick. In that rain, our uncles gave us the property, for our grandfather. We drank the Kruska and spilled it on the land and said a prayer for those who had passed before.

Later, when we visited their graves. I stood before my great grandmother’s grave and I hoped that I had done her justice, that somehow through the years, through the stories, across the continent I had sensed her sweet spirit and brought it to life again through Marika in Copper Sky.

Milana Marsenich lives in Northwest Montana near Flathead Lake at the base of the beautiful Mission Mountains. For the past 20 years she has worked as a mental health therapist in a variety of settings. She grew up in Butte, Montana, a mining town with a rich history and the setting for Copper Sky, her first novel. Copper Sky was chosen as a Spur Award finalist for Best Western Historical Novel. Her latest novel, The Swan Keeper, is set in 1920s Montana. Her other work has appeared in Montana Quarterly, Big Sky Journal, BookGlow, and Feminist Studies. She has a short story included in The Montana Quarterly book: Montana, Warts and All.

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.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Adultery and Other Choices by Andre Dubus

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

Larry Guidry was a short wiry boy with biceps like baseballs, thin curly hair, a small head, and a face the color of housedust.

“The Bully” from Adultery and Other Choices by Andre Dubus

Friday, July 13, 2018

Friday Freebie: Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin, Shadow of the Lions by Christopher Swann, and When the English Fall by David Williams

Congratulations to Renata Birkenbuel, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon.

This week, one lucky reader will win three new paperbacks from Algonquin Books: Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin, Shadow of the Lions by Christopher Swann, and When the English Fall by David Williams. Keep scrolling for more information about the books, their opening lines, and how to enter the contest...

My dear friend Roz Horowitz met her new husband online dating, and Roz is three years older and fifty pounds heavier than I am, and people have said that she is generally not as well preserved, and so I thought I would try it even though I avoid going online too much.

Aviva Grossman, an ambitious congressional intern in Florida, makes the mistake of having an affair with her (married) boss. When the affair comes to light, the popular congressman doesn’t take the fall. But Aviva does, and her life is over before it hardly begins: slut-shamed, she becomes a late-night talk show punch line, anathema to politics. She sees no way out but to change her name and move to a remote town in Maine. This time, she tries to be smarter about her life and strives to raise her daughter, Ruby, to be strong and confident. But when, at the urging of others, Aviva decides to run for public office, that long-ago mistake trails her via the Internet and catches up—an inescapable scarlet A. In the digital age, the past is never, ever, truly past. And it’s only a matter of time until Ruby finds out who her mother was and is forced to reconcile that person with the one she knows. Young Jane Young is a smart, funny, serious, and moving novel about the myriad ways in which roles are still circumscribed for women, whether they are young and ambitious interns; mothers attempting to steer their daughters through a male-dominated world; political wives facing an age-old knowledge that fidelity isn’t always honored; or young girls feeling bold about their many choices before they realize the gender restrictions all around them. Gabrielle Zevin captures not only the double standards alive and well in every aspect of life for women but also the mood of our recent highly charged political season.

The two lions crouched on top of their pedestals, frozen in preparation to leap. One was snarling, its stone teeth menacing in the late-afternoon shadows, while the other stared out with disdain at the broad sweep of empty soybean fields that lay just across the state highway, a disdain made all the more pointed because the lion was missing its left eye.

How long must we pay for the crimes of our youth? That is just one question Christopher Swann explores in his compulsively readable debut, Shadow of the Lions, a literary thriller set in the elite—and sometimes dark—environs of Blackburne, a prep school in Virginia. When Matthias Glass’s best friend, Fritz, vanishes without a trace in the middle of an argument during their senior year, Matthias tries to move on with his life, only to realize that until he discovers what happened to his missing friend, he will be stuck in the past, guilty, responsible, alone. Almost ten years after Fritz’s disappearance, Matthias gets his chance. Offered a job teaching English at Blackburne, he gets swiftly drawn into the mystery. In the shadowy woods of his alma mater, he stumbles into a web of surveillance, dangerous lies, and buried secrets—and discovers the troubled underbelly of a school where the future had once always seemed bright. A sharp tale full of false leads and surprise turns, Shadow of the Lions is also wise and moving. Christopher Swann has given us a gripping debut about friendship, redemption, and what it means to lay the past to rest.

I hold her, tight in my arms, and she screams.

When a catastrophic solar storm brings about the collapse of modern civilization, an Amish community is caught up in the devastating aftermath in When the English Fall. With their stocked larders and stores of supplies, the Amish are unaffected at first. But as the English (the Amish name for all non-Amish people) in the cities become increasingly desperate, they begin to invade nearby farms, taking whatever they want and unleashing unthinkable violence on the gentle communities. Written as the diary of an Amish farmer named Jacob who tries to protect his family and his way of life, When the English Fall examines the idea of peace in the face of deadly chaos. Should members of a nonviolent society defy their beliefs and take up arms to defend themselves? And if they do, can they survive? David Williams’s debut novel is a thoroughly engrossing look into the closed world of the Amish, as well as a thought-provoking examination of how we live today and what remains if the center cannot hold.

If you’d like a chance at winning all three books, 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 remains open to entries until midnight on July 19, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 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.

Front Porch Books: July 2018 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.

by Stephanie Land
(Hachette Books)

Jacket Copy:  While the gap between upper middle-class Americans and the working poor widens, grueling low-wage domestic and service work—primarily done by women—fuels the economic success of the wealthy. Stephanie Land worked for years as a maid, pulling long hours while struggling as a single mom to keep a roof over her daughter’s head. In Maid, she reveals the dark truth of what it takes to survive and thrive in today’s inequitable society. While she worked hard to scratch her way out of poverty as a single parent, scrubbing the toilets of the wealthy, navigating domestic labor jobs, higher education, assisted housing, and a tangled web of government assistance, Stephanie wrote. She wrote the true stories that weren’t being told. The stories of overworked and underpaid Americans. Written in honest, heart-rending prose and with great insight, Maid explores the underbelly of upper-middle class America and the reality of what it’s like to be in service to them. “I’d become a nameless ghost,” Stephanie writes. With this book, she gives voice to the “servant” worker, those who fight daily to scramble and scrape by for their own lives and the lives of their children.

Opening Lines:  My daughter learned to walk in a homeless shelter.

Blurbworthiness:  “We need more books like Maid, with the view from behind the fridge and under the couch. Stephanie Land has something to teach us about both sides of the inequality divide. Neither is what you are expecting.” (Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed)

A Key to Treehouse Living
by Elliot Reed
(Tin House Books)

Jacket Copy:  A Key to Treehouse Living is the adventure of William Tyce, a boy without parents, who grows up near a river in the rural Midwest. In a glossary-style list, he imparts his particular wisdom on subjects ranging from ASPHALT PATHS, BETTA FISH, and MULLET to MORTAL BETRAYAL, NIHILISM, and REVELATION. His improbable quest―to create a reference volume specific to his existence―takes him on a journey down the river by raft (see MYSTICAL VISION, see NAVIGATING BIG RIVERS BY NIGHT). He seeks to discover how his mother died (see ABSENCE) and find reasons for his father’s disappearance (see UNCERTAINTY, see VANITY). But as he goes about defining his changing world, all kinds of extraordinary and wonderful things happen to him. Unlocking an earnest, clear-eyed way of thinking that might change your own, A Key to Treehouse Living is a story about keeping your own record straight and living life by a different code.

Opening Lines:  ABSENCE
       A woman becomes a mother when a baby comes out of her body. From then on, she can never stop being a mother. No matter how much or how little mothering she does, she will still be a mother. If a bird lays an egg in a nest, flies off, and never returns, the bird will still be a mother if the egg she laid hatches. Not all mothers want to be with their children.

Blurbworthiness:  “Disorienting, weirdly wise, indescribably transparent, impossibly recognizable. Fun, too.” (Joy Williams, author of The Quick and the Dead)

The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta
by John Rollin Ridge
(Penguin Classics)

Jacket Copy:  The first novel to feature a Mexican-American hero, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta is an adventure tale about Mexicans rising up against U.S. rule in California, based on the real-life bandit who inspired the creation of Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and Batman. An action-packed blend of folk tale, romance, epic, and myth, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta tells the story of the Gold Rush-era Mexican immigrant whose efforts to find fortune and happiness are thwarted by white settlers who murder his family and drive him off his land. In retaliation, Murieta organizes a band of more than 2,000 outlaws—including the sadistic “Three-Fingered Jack”—who take revenge by murdering, stealing horses, and robbing miners, all with the ultimate goal of reconquering California. The first novel written by a Native American and the first novel published in California, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta speaks to the ways in which ethical questions of national security and racialized police violence have long been a part of U.S. history. This edition features excerpts from popular rewritings of the novel, including Johnston McCulley’s first novel about Zorro, The Curse of Capistrano (also known as The Mark of Zorro). The Penguin Classics edition includes a new foreword by Diana Gabaldon, bestselling author of the Outlander series.

Opening Lines:  I sit down to write somewhat concerning the life and character of Joaquín Murieta, a man as remarkable in the annals of crime as any of the renowned robbers of the Old or New World, who have preceded him; and I do this, not for the purpose of ministering to any depraved taste for the dark and horrible in human action, but rather to contribute my mite to those materials out of which the early history of California shall one day be composed. The character of this truly wonderful man was nothing more than a natural production of the social and moral condition of the country in which he lived, acting upon certain peculiar circumstances favorable to such a result, and, consequently, his individual history is a part of the most valuable history of the State.

Blurbworthiness:  “One of the most influential and one of the most invisible novels in the history of American literature...It remains a vital novel today as racial profiling, deportations, criminalization, police violence, and racialized dispossession continue to devastate American communities in spite of putatively ‘colorblind’ laws [and] offers a bracing rejoinder to racially disproportionate rates of incarceration, the systemic nature of antiblack police brutality, and the intensified militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border fueled by racial stereotypes such as President Trump’s invocation of ‘bad hombres.’” (from the Introduction by Hsuan L. Hsu)

Jell-O Girls
by Allie Rowbottom
(Little, Brown)

Jacket Copy:  In 1899, Allie Rowbottom’s great-great-great-uncle bought the patent to Jell-O from its inventor for $450. The sale would turn out to be one of the most profitable business deals in American history, and the generations that followed enjoyed immense privilege—but they were also haunted by suicides, cancer, alcoholism, and mysterious ailments. More than 100 years after that deal was struck, Allie’s mother Mary was diagnosed with the same incurable cancer, a disease that had also claimed her own mother’s life. Determined to combat what she had come to consider the “Jell-O curse” and her looming mortality, Mary began obsessively researching her family’s past, determined to understand the origins of her illness and the impact on her life of Jell-O and the traditional American values the company championed. Before she died in 2015, Mary began to send Allie boxes of her research and notes, in the hope that her daughter might write what she could not. Jell-O Girls is the liberation of that story. A gripping examination of the dark side of an iconic American product and a moving portrait of the women who lived in the shadow of its fractured fortune,  Jell-O Girls is a family history, a feminist history, and a story of motherhood, love and loss. In crystalline prose Rowbottom considers the roots of trauma not only in her own family, but in the American psyche as well, ultimately weaving a story that is deeply personal, as well as deeply connected to the collective female experience.

Opening Lines:  She leaned forward, mouth opened for the wobbling pink Jell-O I steered toward her. “Here comes the Jell-O train,” I sing-songed, as if she were a child and I her mother, piloting a spoon into my baby’s mouth. She kept her lips closed over a laugh, focused on swallowing, and said nothing.
       Across the room the TV flashed images of a Main Street somewhere in America, a dilapidated factory. Faded red brick, a smokestack, and a plaque: The Jell-O Company, 1900-1964. My mother gestured, mouth still full, pointing at the screen, suddenly frantic.

Blurbworthiness:  “We all come from somewhere, yet I never imagined that someone could come from Jell-O. From these beginnings, Allie Rowbottom has molded this generous book of intuition, connection, and grace. This is a work of wild insights and deep music.” (Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City)

The Novel of Ferrara
by Giorgio Bassani
(W. W. Norton)

Jacket Copy:  Giorgio Bassani’s six classic books are collected for the first time in English as the epic masterwork they were intended to be. Among the masters of twentieth-century literature, Giorgio Bassani and his Northern Italian hometown of Ferrara “are as inseparable as James Joyce and Dublin or Italo Svevo and Trieste” (from the Introduction). Now published in English for the first time as the unified masterwork Bassani intended, The Novel of Ferrara brings together Bassani’s six classics, fully revised by the author at the end of his life: Within the Walls, The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, Behind the Door, The Heron, and The Smell of Hay. Set in the northern Italian town of Ferrara before, during, and after the Second World War, these interlocking stories present a fully rounded world of unforgettable characters: the respected doctor whose homosexuality is tolerated until he is humiliatingly exposed by an exploitative youth; a survivor of the Nazi death camps whose neighbors’ celebration of his return gradually turns to ostracism; a young man discovering the ugly, treacherous price that people will pay for a sense of belonging; the Jewish aristocrat whose social position has been erased; the indomitable schoolteacher, Celia Trotti, whose Communist idealism disturbs and challenges a postwar generation. The Novel of Ferrara memorializes not only the Ferrarese people, but the city itself, which assumes a character and a voice deeply inflected by the Jewish community to which the narrator belongs. Suffused with new life by acclaimed translator and poet Jamie McKendrick, this seminal work seals Bassani’s reputation as “a quietly insistent chronicler of our age’s various menaces to liberty” (Jonathan Keates).

Opening Lines:  Turning back to the distant years of her youth, always, for as long as she lived, Lida Mantovani remembered the birth with emotion, and especially the days just before it. Whenever she thought about it, she was deeply moved.

Blurbworthiness:  “Powerful new translations...Bassani began as a poet, and McKendrick’s redelivery of this taut uncompromising fiction reveals resonance and generosity.” (Ali Smith, author of Winter)

No Exit
by Taylor Adams
(William Morrow)

Jacket Copy:  On her way to Utah to see her dying mother, college student Darby Thorne gets caught in a fierce blizzard in the mountains of Colorado. With the roads impassable, she’s forced to wait out the storm at a remote highway rest stop. Inside are some vending machines, a coffee maker, and four complete strangers. Desperate to find a signal to call home, Darby goes back out into the storm....and makes a horrifying discovery. In the back of the van parked next to her car, a little girl is locked in an animal crate. Who is the child? Why has she been taken? And how can Darby save her? There is no cell phone reception, no telephone, and no way out. One of her fellow travelers is a kidnapper. But which one? Trapped in an increasingly dangerous situation, with a child’s life and her own on the line, Darby must find a way to break the girl out of the van and escape. But who can she trust? With exquisitely controlled pacing, Taylor Adams diabolically ratchets up the tension with every page. Full of terrifying twists and hairpin turns, No Exit will have you on the edge of your seat and leave you breathless.

Opening Lines:  “Screw you, Bing Crosby.”
       Darby Thorne was six miles up Backbone Pass when her windshield wiper broke, and that bass-baritone voice was just kicking into the second chorus. It was official: he’d be getting his white Christmas. He could shut up about it now.

by Edward Carey

Jacket Copy:  Little, the new novel by Edward Carey, is the wry, macabre, unforgettable tale of an ambitious orphan in Revolutionary Paris, befriended by royalty and radicals, who transforms herself into the legendary Madame Tussaud. In 1761, a tiny, odd-looking girl named Marie is born in a village in Switzerland. After the death of her parents, she is apprenticed to an eccentric wax sculptor and whisked off to the seamy streets of Paris, where they meet a domineering widow and her quiet, pale son. Together, they convert an abandoned monkey house into an exhibition hall for wax heads, and the spectacle becomes a sensation. As word of her artistic talent spreads, Marie is called to Versailles, where she tutors a princess and saves Marie Antoinette in childbirth. But outside the palace walls, Paris is roiling: The revolutionary mob is demanding heads, and at the wax museum, heads are what they do. In the tradition of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Edward Carey’s Little is a darkly endearing cavalcade of a novel—a story of art, class, determination, and how we hold on to what we love.

Opening Lines:  In the same year that the five-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Minuet for Harpsichord, in the precise year when the British captured Pondicherry in India from the French, in the exact same year in which the melody for “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” was first published, in that very year, which is to say 1761, whilst in the city of Paris people at their salons told tales of beasts in castles and men with blue beards and beauties that would not wake and cats in boots and slippers made of glass and youngest children with tufts in their hair and daughters wrapped in donkey skin, and whilst in London people at their clubs discussed the coronation of King George III and Queen Charlotte: many miles away from all this activity, in a small village in Alsace, in the presence of a ruddy midwife, two village maids, and a terrified mother, was born a certain undersized baby.

Blurbworthiness:  “Blessed are they who have their own copy of Edward Carey’s new and not so little novel, Little. As with everything by Carey that I’ve ever read (and I’ve read everything), Little is exquisitely sensitive to all the warmth, vigor, humor, woe, and peculiarities of human nature, as if the writer had a dowsing rod capable of divining what hides within the human heart. Carey is without peer.”  (Kelly Link, author of Get in Trouble)

Past Tense
by Lee Child

Jacket Copy:  Jack Reacher hits the pavement and sticks out his thumb. He plans to follow the sun on an epic trip across America, from Maine to California. He doesn’t get far. On a country road deep in the New England woods, he sees a sign to a place he has never been: the town where his father was born. He thinks, What’s one extra day? He takes the detour. At the same moment, in the same isolated area, a car breaks down. Two young Canadians had been on their way to New York City to sell a treasure. Now they’re stranded at a lonely motel in the middle of nowhere. The owners seem almost too friendly. It’s a strange place, but it’s all there is. The next morning, in the city clerk’s office, Reacher asks about the old family home. He’s told no one named Reacher ever lived in town. He’s always known his father left and never returned, but now Reacher wonders, Was he ever there in the first place? As Reacher explores his father’s life, and as the Canadians face lethal dangers, strands of different stories begin to merge. Then Reacher makes a shocking discovery: The present can be tough, but the past can be tense...and deadly.

Opening Lines:  Jack Reacher caught the last of the summer sun in a small town on the coast of Maine, and then, like the birds in the sky above him, he began his long migration south. But not, he thought, straight down the coast. Not like the orioles and the buntings and the phoebes and the warblers and the ruby-throated hummingbirds. Instead he decided on a diagonal route, south and west, from the top right-hand corner of the country to the bottom left, maybe through Syracuse, and Cincinnati, and St Louis, and Oklahoma City, and Albuquerque, and onward all the way to San Diego. Which for an Army guy like Reacher was a little too full of Navy people, but which was otherwise a fine spot to start the winter.
       It would be an epic road trip, and one he hadn’t made in years.
       He was looking forward to it.
       He didn’t get far.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon

Two women, a city boiling with heat and hate, and a simple misunderstanding: these are the driving forces at work in Siobhan Fallon’s novel The Confusion of Languages. The story follows two military spouses, Cassie and Margaret, who join their husbands in their new duty location: Amman, Jordan. As anyone who has traveled to Countries Other Than America can tell you, foreign culture can sometimes be a shock. Fallon (an American living in the Middle East with her Army officer husband) plunges us into that unfamiliar way of life with the ease and authority of someone who has walked in her characters’ shoes. The sights, sounds and smells of Jordanian streets rise off these pages like they were loaded with special effects for our senses. Beyond those rich, sensual details, The Confusion of Languages moves forward at a waste-no-time pace, sparked by a traffic fender bender that quickly spirals into a grave situation involving both Cassie and Margaret and tests the limits of their new friendship. The book’s trailer, created by Fallon herself, gives a sense of that frenetic, jangling, jarring pace of life in a foreign country. The video basically consists of three elements: a jazzy Middle Eastern song, a slide show of images taken around Jordan, and excerpts from praise for the book (including a blurb from yours truly). That’s really all Confusion needs for this short video. Those three pieces—song, pictures, words—work together to make this a terrific trailer for an outstanding book.

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

Monday, July 9, 2018

My First Time: Vanessa Blakeslee

My First Time Saying No

When my first book, Train Shots, was published, I wrote a guest post for a literary magazine’s blog advising writers to say yes to opportunities. As with many such interviews and panel discussions, I encouraged my young audience to start a reading series in their local community, review books, interview authors, and participate in the literary community. And I don’t retract or regret that advice. Consider this an addendum, if you will, or a Part B. Why this addendum, why now? Because at a certain point—maybe mid-career, or mid-life—a shift happens, where a writer realizes she must say no.

The subject of “saying no” has been well-trod territory in mainstream magazines such as O, where writers have lamented the difficulty of the polite but firm decline. For some, having a child forces the priority shifts and time constraints. But what about saying no when one doesn’t have the constraints of, say, children or aging parents to care for (yet)? Shouldn’t one be more obligated to say yes, to fulfill duty to community? What precipitates such a shift?

The shift happened for me after my second book was published, a novel called Juventud, which I pushed out with troop-rallying gusto. I contacted MFA alumni, conference chums and literary magazine editors, arranged for interviews and kept a massive spreadsheet. I invented a playlist for the site Largehearted Boy, an appropriately-themed menu for another site, and wrote numerous guest blog posts giving advice, research notes, “Top Ten Tips,” etc. A massive effort, and yet even this felt like not enough—after all, authors are told we have a “brief window” when a book is new to get it noticed, before our work is cast off into spinster territory.

Crucially, did all this effort and writing-about-writing succeed in selling more copies of the book? Looking back, I am left with the distinct impression that all this accomplished was to add to the information glut we’re bombarded with—too much content, all the time. I sold the bulk of the first print run at events, and continue to do so, face-to-face with readers. Just a few years ago, I recall somewhat making light of two older professors of mine with books coming out, who weren’t planning on undertaking much promotion aside from a local launch party and a couple of readings. Are they crazy? I thought, it’s the Internet Age. You have to market. Be an indie entrepreneur.

Now, I conclude, not so much. Swiftly, too, the times did change. Just a couple of years later, and the promotional climate has changed, I sense, with the steady onslaught of terrible daily news. As our republic disintegrates toward inevitable totalitarianism in tandem with the decline of cheap oil, as the biosphere rapidly unravels, as mass shooters wipe out dozens in crowds, where does promoting one’s art fit in? Not so much that doing so is seemingly distasteful or insensitive, but is this truly the best use of a creative writer’s energy and time?

Diverting my efforts for those six months prior to the novel release away from writing fiction and toward promotion not only placed me in a headspace I found exhausting, but caused me to lose more steam with the other fiction projects I had underway than I ever would have guessed. This loss of focus and momentum is what ultimately caused me to sit back and assess how to go forward—and to start saying no. I stopped taking on book review assignments; while I’ve enjoyed reviewing, doing so detracts from my own work too much, for now. I don’t blurb, but I will write letters of recommendation, as I consider those a more worthwhile endeavor. My attending AWP Tampa earlier this year, I decided, would probably be my last. I find writing residencies (where I am writing this), a far more productive and enjoyable use of away-time.

What I’ve found is that you can pick and choose, and not feel guilty about declining yet another interview, conference panel proposal, or advance reading copy to review. And if what I’ve uncovered in my last eighteen months of diving deep into climate research is correct, the remainder of our collective lives is likely far shorter than we’d like to think. Once, as a 19-year-old undergrad, I decided to study abroad in Australia because I mistakenly (amusingly) believed I was dying; now, we’re faced with a planet that we’ll soon have made uninhabitable. My advice, not so much as a mid-career writer to other writers, but as a human to fellow humans, is to practice weighing what you truly value, to separate the wheat from the chaff. Decide to say no and do so often, to make room for what matters.

Vanessa Blakeslee’s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily, Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere. Her novel Juventud won the 2015 IPPY Bronze Medal in Literary Fiction, was a finalist for Foreword Review’s Book of the Year, and a runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award. Her debut story collection Train Shots won the 2014 IPPY Gold Medal in Short Fiction. Her new short story collection, Perfect Conditions, is now out from Curbside Splendor. Find her online at

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.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer

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

No, not even a movie set, you realize. More like a seaside carnival in the winter, in the off-season, when even the beach is a poem about loneliness.

Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sunday Sentence: These Truths by Jill Lepore

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

To write something down is to make a fossil record of a mind.

These Truths by Jill Lepore

Friday, June 22, 2018

Friday Freebie: The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon

Congratulations to LuAnn Ritsema, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton.

This week, I’m thrilled to be giving away one of my favorite novels of recent years: The Confusion of Languages by Siobhan Fallon. I was an early reader of this novel set in contemporary Jordan and said it has “the irresistible force of a whirlpool: it sucks you in, pulling you ever closer to the mystery at the heart of the vortex. As the two narratives of friends Margaret and Cassie overlap and begin to merge, the pages turn faster and faster. The Confusion of Languages is intricately plotted, perfectly paced, and impossible to put down.” This week, one lucky reader who doesn’t mind getting paper cuts from a page-turning novel will win a new paperback copy of The Confusion of Languages. Keep scrolling for more information about the book and how to enter the contest...

The Confusion of Languages is a searing debut novel from the award-winning author of You Know When the Men are Gone, about jealousy, the unpredictable path of friendship, and the secrets kept in marriage, all set within the U.S. expat community of the Middle East during the rise of the Arab Spring. Both Cassie Hugo and Margaret Brickshaw dutifully followed their soldier husbands to the U.S. embassy in Jordan, but that’s about all the women have in common. After two years, Cassie has become an expert on the rules, but newly arrived Margaret sees only her chance to explore. So when a automobile fender-bender sends Margaret to the local police station, Cassie reluctantly agrees to watch Margaret’s toddler son. But as the hours pass, Cassie’s boredom and frustration turn to fear: Why isn’t Margaret answering her phone, and why is it taking so long to sort out a routine accident? Snooping around Margaret’s apartment, Cassie begins to question not only her friend’s whereabouts but also her own role in Margaret’s disappearance. With achingly honest prose and riveting characters, The Confusion of Languages plunges readers into a shattering collision between two women and two worlds, affirming Siobhan Fallon as a powerful voice in American fiction and a storyteller not to be missed.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Confusion of Languages, 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 remains open to entries until midnight on July 5 at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 6. 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.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Mad Boy by Nick Arvin

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

A command is shouted. The thousands of British bayonets lift, and a flash of light travels down the length of the column, like an enormous animal rising to hunt.

Mad Boy by Nick Arvin

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Front Porch Books: June 2018 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 Strange Case of Dr. Couney
by Dawn Raffel
(Blue Rider Press)

Jacket Copy:  The Strange Case of Dr. Couney is the extraordinary tale of how a mysterious immigrant “doctor” became the revolutionary innovator of saving premature babies—by placing them in incubators in World’s Fair side shows and on Coney Island and Atlantic City. What kind of doctor puts his patients on display? As Dawn Raffel artfully recounts, Dr. Couney figured out he could use incubators and careful nursing to keep previously doomed infants alive, and at the same time make good money displaying these babies alongside sword swallowers, bearded ladies, and burlesque shows. How this turn-of-the-twentieth-century émigré became the savior to families with premature infants, known then as “weaklings”—while ignoring the scorn of the medical establishment and fighting the climate of eugenics—is one of the most astounding stories of modern medicine. And as readers will find, Dr. Couney, for all his opportunistic entrepreneurial gusto, is a surprisingly appealing character, someone who genuinely cared for the well-being of his tiny patients. But he had something to hide. Drawing on historical documents, original reportage, and interviews with surviving patients, acclaimed journalist and magazine editor Dawn Raffel tells the marvelously eccentric story of Couney’s mysterious carnival career, his larger-than-life personality, and his unprecedented success as the savior of tiny babies.

Opening Lines:  The pains came too early. The cramping of the womb. The ragged breaths. The life demanding release. The woman, Marion Conlin, was carrying twins, and on an otherwise gentle Thursday in May, her labor had commenced. Too soon. Not now. Not yet. Each contraction a blow.
       Only the year before, she and her husband, Woolsey, had celebrated their wedding. Summer of 1919. Atlantic City honeymoon, where, in that golden pocket—the Great War over, Prohibition not begun—a newlywed couple might sip champagne and hear their beautiful fortunes told and stroll in their bloomers into the sea, laughing.
       Now they were in a hospital in Brooklyn. Marion’s labor could not be stopped. One daughter entered the world, drew breath for twenty minutes, and lay still. The second was so tiny, it was painful to look, her skin near translucent.

Blurbworthiness:  “In carnival midways in the early decades of the 20th century—amid carousels, elephants, fire-eaters, and pie-eating contests—a gentleman of indeterminate origin, of unspecified medical background, displayed premature human babies in incubators that looked like arcade games. They were real babies, not wax; struggling to live; at home among the “Human Oddities!” of the side-shows only because preemies weighing two or three pounds at birth didn’t ever survive, had rarely been seen. Fair-goers bought tickets and lined up to gawk at them, and were asked to refrain from trying to reach in and poke the infants. Though Dr. Couney (both the prefix and the name were inventions) was more showman than doctor, he saved the babies’ lives by the thousands and pioneered American neonatology. His story is richly told in a book that savors every honk of John Philip Sousa from a marching band, every salty crunch of carnival popcorn, every sparkle of a Ferris wheel turning in a night sky, and the desperate hopes of parents traveling from their lying-in hospitals by bus or subway to the carnivals, carrying their premature newborns in shoe boxes and hat boxes or inside their coats.” (Melissa Fay Greene, author of Praying for Sheetrock)

The New Inheritors
by Kent Wascom
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy:  In 1914, with the world on the brink of war, Isaac, a nature-loving artist whose past is mysterious to all, including himself, meets Kemper, a defiant heiress caught in the rivalry between her brothers. Kemper’s older brother Angel is hiding a terrible secret about his sexuality, and her younger brother Red possesses a capacity for violence that frightens even the members of his own brutal family. Together Isaac and Kemper build a refuge on their beloved, wild, Gulf Coast. But their paradise is short-lived; as the coast is rocked by the storms of summer, the country is gripped by the furor preceding World War I, and the Woolsack family’s rivalries come to a bloody head. From the breathtaking beauty of the Gulf to the bloody havoc wreaked by the United States in Latin America, The New Inheritors explores the beauty and burden of what is handed down to us all. At once a love story and a family drama, a novel of nature and a novel of war, The New Inheritors traces a family whose life is intimately tied to the Gulf, that most disputed, threatened, and haunted part of this country we call America.

Opening Lines:  He was born filled with animals.
       Before he could see and before the gift of speech, before his hand could grasp the tools to channel them, to let them leap out onto canvas or page, the animals were there. They owned his proportions and made themselves known in his cries and movements and they prowled in the wet, dark Eden of his heart.

Blurbworthiness:  “Unfurling one fine sentence after another, The New Inheritors is like some magnificent dream ship from the past set to churn the waves of the present, bound for blood and beauty, and for the breaking of heads and hearts.” (Laird Hunt, author of Neverhome)

Children of God
by Lars Petter Sveen
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  Lars Petter Sveen’s Children of God recounts the lives of people on the margins of the New Testament; thieves, Roman soldiers, prostitutes, lepers, healers, and the occasional disciple all get a chance to speak. With language free of judgment or moralizing, Sveen covers familiar ground in unusual ways. In the opening story, a group of soldiers are tasked with carrying out King Herod’s edict to slaughter the young male children in Bethlehem but waver in their resolve. These interwoven stories harbor surprises at every turn, as the characters reappear. A group of thieves on the road to Jericho encounters no good Samaritan but themselves. A boy healed of his stutter will later regress. A woman searching for her lover from beyond the grave cannot find solace. At crucial moments an old blind man appears, urging the characters to give in to their darker impulses. Children of God was a bestseller in Norway, where it won the Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize and gathered ecstatic reviews. Sveen’s subtle elevation of the conflict between light and dark focuses on the varied struggles these often-ignored individuals face. Yet despite the dark tone, Sveen’s stories retain a buoyancy, thanks to Guy Puzey’s supple and fleet-footed translation. This deeply original and moving book, in Sveen’s restrained and gritty telling, brings to light stories that reflect our own time, from a setting everyone knows.

Opening Lines:  It was in the days of Herod the Great, in Bethlehem, and we were on the lookout for a little king of the Jews who’d been born. The stars were out, and we’d come to kill him.

Blurbworthiness:  “Children of God reads like Biblical fan fiction written by a genius.” (Darcey Steinke, author of Sister Golden Hair)

Virgil Wander
by Leif Enger
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy:  Midwestern movie house owner Virgil Wander is “cruising along at medium altitude” when his car flies off the road into icy Lake Superior. Virgil survives but his language and memory are altered and he emerges into a world no longer familiar to him. Awakening in this new life, Virgil begins to piece together his personal history and the lore of his broken town, with the help of a cast of affable and curious locals—from Rune, a twinkling, pipe-smoking, kite-flying stranger investigating the mystery of his disappeared son; to Nadine, the reserved, enchanting wife of the vanished man, to Tom, a journalist and Virgil’s oldest friend; and various members of the Pea family who must confront tragedies of their own. Into this community returns a shimmering prodigal son who may hold the key to reviving their town. With intelligent humor and captivating whimsy, Leif Enger conjures a remarkable portrait of a region and its residents, who, for reasons of choice or circumstance, never made it out of their defunct industrial district. Carried aloft by quotidian pleasures including movies, fishing, necking in parked cars, playing baseball and falling in love, Virgil Wander is a swift, full journey into the heart and heartache of an often overlooked American Upper Midwest by a “formidably gifted” (Chicago Tribune) master storyteller.

Opening Lines:  Now I think the picture was unspooling all along and I just failed to notice. The obvious really isn’t so—at least it wasn’t to me, a Midwestern male cruising at medium altitude, aspiring vaguely to decency, contributing to PBS, moderate in all things including romantic forays, and doing unto others more or less reciprocally.
       If I were to pinpoint when the world began reorganizing itself—that is, when my seeing of it began to shift—it would be the day a stranger named Rune blew into our bad luck town of Greenstone, Minnesota, like a spark from the boreal gloom. It was also the day of my release from St. Luke’s Hospital down in Duluth, so I was concussed and more than a little adrift.

A Family History of Illness
by Brett L. Walker
(University of Washington Press)

Jacket Copy:  While in the ICU with a near-fatal case of pneumonia, Brett Walker was asked, “Do you have a family history of illness?”―a standard and deceptively simple question that for Walker, a professional historian, took on additional meaning and spurred him to investigate his family’s medical past. In this deeply personal narrative, he constructs a history of his body to understand his diagnosis with a serious immunological disorder, weaving together his dying grandfather’s sneaking a cigarette in a shed on the family’s Montana farm, blood fractionation experiments in Europe during World War II, and nineteenth-century cholera outbreaks that ravaged small American towns as his ancestors were making their way west. A Family History of Illness is a gritty historical memoir that examines the body’s immune system and microbial composition as well as the biological and cultural origins of memory and history, offering a startling, fresh way to view the role of history in understanding our physical selves. In his own search, Walker soon realizes that this broader scope is more valuable than a strictly medical family history. He finds that family legacies shape us both physically and symbolically, forming the root of our identity and values, and he urges us to renew our interest in the past or risk misunderstanding ourselves and the world around us.

Opening Lines:  I awoke startled and feverish. “Where am I?” I thought. The back of my head pounded. I was thirsty and drenched in sweat. When I coughed, the pounding intensified and ripped along the center of my scalp toward my forehead, piercing a point between my eyes. A white hospital gown clung to my shivering body. The vision in my right eye became blurrier the more I hacked. My neck and shoulders tensed as I turned my head to look out a window near the bed—I saw only the inky black of the night sky.
       I lifted myself upright to get a better view, and the sweaty hospital gown tightened around my shoulders, the fabric constraining me and chafing against my skin. I could feel tape tugging at the hairs on my arms and face, tying me to clear plastic hoses. I vaguely remembered that these tubes were important: they tethered me to rhythmic pumps and spherical tanks that kept me alive.

Blurbworthiness:  “This book is terrific in five ways I can barely list here. Fascinating, literate, profound, wondrously variegated, harrowingly personal. Brett Walker, a historian with an eye for science and an ear for language, knows that he and his near-death experience are a synecdoche for the broader issues of disease, memory, selfhood, and history among us all.” (David Quammen, author of Spillover)

The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, Surgeon Dentist
by Michael Downs
(Acre Books)

Jacket Copy:  In 1844, Horace Wells, a Connecticut dentist, encountered nitrous oxide, or laughing gas—then an entertainment for performers in carnival-like theatrical acts—and began administering the gas as the first true anesthetic. His discovery would change the world, reshaping medicine and humanity’s relationship with pain. But that discovery would also thrust Wells into scandals that threatened his reputation, his family, and his sanity—hardships and triumphs that resonate in today’s struggles with what hurts us and what we take to stop the hurt. In this novel, Michael Downs mines the gaps in the historical record and imagines the motivations and mysteries behind Wells’ morbid fascination with pain, as well as the price he and his wife, Elizabeth, paid—first through his obsession, then his addiction. The book is a love story, but also a story of what love can’t redeem; of narcotic dreams and waking insanity; of humbug and miracle; of pain’s destruction and what pains can never be eased. Following Wells throughout New England and across the ocean to Paris, the novel immerses the reader in the nineteenth century, conveying through rich physical description and telling dialogue the tragic life of a dentist who gave everything to rid the world of suffering.

Opening Lines:  On another of those melancholy nights, a doctor came to the sick man’s bedside and with the boy’s help turned the man onto his belly. The boy lifted the damp shirt and in the lamplight saw his father’s back, skin grayer than the sweat-dark sheets. Boils clustered, livid along the spine. The backbone cast shadows. From the mattress rose a sour smell, an expression of disease.
       “Bind the arms and legs to the posts,” the doctor said. He held a green-glass bottle by its neck, shaking the liquid inside to a froth.
       “He’s too weak to kick.”
       “Do as I say.”

Blurbworthiness:  “An exhilarating tale from the annals of medical history, a provocative study of pain in all its forms, and a brilliant rendering of the kind of obsessiveness that leads to invention—all delivered in sumptuous prose with sly, surprising humor and perfect timing.” (Kim Church, author of Byrd)

French Exit
by Patrick DeWitt

Jacket Copy:  Frances Price–tart widow, possessive mother, and Upper East Side force of nature–is in dire straits, beset by scandal and impending bankruptcy. Her adult son Malcolm is no help, mired in a permanent state of arrested development. And then there’s the Price’s aging cat, Small Frank, who Frances believes houses the spirit of her late husband, an infamously immoral litigator and world-class cad whose gruesome tabloid death rendered Frances and Malcolm social outcasts. Putting penury and pariahdom behind them, the family decides to cut their losses and head for the exit. One ocean voyage later, the curious trio land in their beloved Paris, the City of Light serving as a backdrop not for love or romance, but self destruction and economical ruin–to riotous effect. A number of singular characters serve to round out the cast: a bashful private investigator, an aimless psychic proposing a seance, and a doctor who makes house calls with his wine merchant in tow, to name a few. Brimming with pathos, French Exit is a one-of-a-kind send-up of high society, as well as a moving mother-son caper which only Patrick deWitt could conceive and execute.

Opening Lines:  “All good things must end,” said Frances Price.
       She was a moneyed, striking woman of sixty-five years, easing her hands into black calfskin gloves on the steps of a brownstone in New York City’s Upper East Side. Her son, Malcolm, thirty-two, stood nearby looking his usual broody and unkempt self. It was late autumn, dusk; the windows of the brownstone were lit, a piano sounded on the air—a tasteful party was occurring. Frances was explaining her early departure to a similarly wealthy though less lovely individual, this the hostess. Her name doesn’t matter. She was aggrieved.

Blurbworthiness:  “French Exit made me so happy—I feel as if I have downed a third martini, stayed up past sunrise, and still woken up refreshed. Brilliant, addictive, funny and wise, DeWitt’s latest has enough charm to last you long after you’ve put it down.” (Andrew Sean Greer, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Less )

The Third Hotel
by Laura van den Berg
(Farrar Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  In Havana, Cuba, a widow tries to come to terms with her husband’s death―and the truth about their marriage―in Laura van den Berg’s surreal, mystifying story of psychological reflection and metaphysical mystery. Shortly after Clare arrives in Havana, Cuba, to attend the annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema, she finds her husband, Richard, standing outside a museum. He’s wearing a white linen suit she’s never seen before, and he’s supposed to be dead. Grief-stricken and baffled, Clare tails Richard, a horror film scholar, through the newly tourist-filled streets of Havana, clocking his every move. As the distinction between reality and fantasy blurs, Clare finds grounding in memories of her childhood in Florida and of her marriage to Richard, revealing her role in his death and reappearance along the way. The Third Hotel is a propulsive, brilliantly shape-shifting novel from an inventive author at the height of her narrative powers.

Opening Lines:  What was she doing in Havana?
       A simple question and yet she could not find a simple answer. She imagined bumping into someone she had known in upstate New York, in her former life. She would see this person taking photos in the Plaza de la Catedral or on the Paseo del Prado. They would look up from their cameras. They would call her name and wave. They would make remarks about coincidences, about the world being a very small place, and when the inevitable question came–What was she doing in Havana?–she would have no idea how to explain herself.
       She might have said,
       I am not who you think I am.
       She might have said,
       I am experiencing a dislocation of reality.

Blurbworthiness:  “In this gorgeous, frighteningly smart novel, a woman deranged by grief becomes an imposter in her own life. As inventive and inexorable as a dream, The Third Hotel is a devastating excavation of the unconscionable demands we place on those we love, and a profound portrait of the uncanny composite creature that is a marriage. Laura van den Berg is one of our best writers, an absolute marvel.”  (Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You)

The Widower’s Notebook
by Jonathan Santlofer
(Penguin Books)

Jacket Copy:  On a summer day in New York Jonathan Santlofer discovers his wife, Joy, gasping for breath on their living room couch. After a frenzied 911 call, an ambulance race across Manhattan, and hours pacing in a hospital waiting room, a doctor finally delivers the fateful news. Consumed by grief, Jonathan desperately tries to pursue life as he always had–writing, social engagements, and working on his art–but finds it nearly impossible to admit his deep feelings of loss to anyone, not even his to beloved daughter, Doria, or to himself. As Jonathan grieves and heals, he tries to unravel what happened to Joy, a journey that will take him nearly two years.

Opening Lines:  Do I start with the part where I am paralyzed, back pressed hard against the living room wall, shrinking into it but watching as if through a lens zooming in and out of the action, near then far, all of it taking place no more than five, six feet in front of me, firemen pushing the coffee table aside, books toppling, paramedics rolling my wife onto the floor, one tearing open her blouse and searching for a heartbeat, another pressing her chest up and down as a second team races in and a woman takes over, flips open a black bag and inserts a tube down my wife’s throat, everything happening in hyperspeed, while I stare at my wife’s face gone pale and the room going gray and grainy as an old photograph?
       Or do I start ten, twenty minutes earlier, impossible to track the time, when I come into the living room and even from twenty feet away, I can see that something is terribly wrong, my wife, Joy, on the couch, beckoning to me, mouth open but unable to speak, her eyes large and terrified, and I rush to her side and she grips my arm and I pull her to me and frantically attempt to dial 911, trying to punch in three simple numbers but can’t get them right, as my wife gasps for breath and I say over and over, “Take it easy, honeybreathehangonyou’llbeokay,” trying to sound comforting and rational, as a voice comes on the phone and I say, “My wife, she’s not breathing–” and the woman on the other end, speaking calmly–How is that possible?–asks my name and address and I am shouting now “Hurry!Please!” and minutes later–I think it’s minutes–time is spiraling, collapsing–firemen and paramedics burst on the scene, push the coffee table aside, and roll my wife onto the floor and tear open her blouse, while I am backed up against the living room wall, watching the unwatchable: watching my wife die.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Widower’s Notebook is an intimate, honest, heart-wrenching, and at times even funny account of grieving as well as the memoir of long, satisfying, loving marriage. This is an important and welcome addition to the literature of loss and grief from the male point of view. I will be giving this Notebook to friends reeling from loss but also to old and new couples who need models of how to weather the many little deaths and losses that occur as they journey a life together. Santlofer has given us a brave, beautiful gift, heartfelt and invaluable.” (Julia Alvarez, author of How the García Girls Lost Their Accents)