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 Drawing on historical documents, original reportage, and interviews with surviving patients, acclaimed journalist and magazine editor Dawn Raffel tells the marvelously eccentric story of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)

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Separate Flights by Andre Dubus

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

He lives in a small town, so already he is out in the country; he runs past farmhouses, country homes, service stations. There are not many cars and most of the time he has the privacy of his own sounds—his steady breathing, his feet on the wet plowed and sanded blacktop—and, more than that, the absolute privacy of his body staking its claim on a country road past white hills and dark green trees, gray barns, and naked elms and maples and oaks waiting for spring: his body insisting upon itself, pumping blood and pounding up hills.

“Going Under” from Separate Flights by Andre Dubus

Friday, June 8, 2018

Friday Freebie: The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

Congratulations to Nancy Bekofske, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: We Are Gathered by Jamie Weisman.

This week’s contest is for The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. Here’s what Ron Rash, author of Serena, had to say about the book: “Landscape and destiny are inextricable in Tim Winton’s latest novel, and the result is a gritty realism that ultimately propels the story into the timelessness of a parable. All that I love about Winton’s work is here: the poetry of the colloquial, fully realized characters, and the fearlessness to enter the deepest mysteries of being. The Shepherd’s Hut is a brilliant reminder that Winton is one of the world’s great living novelists.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book and how to enter the contest...

From Tim Winton, Australia’s most decorated and beloved novelist and the author of Cloudstreet, comes The Shepherd’s Hut, the story of a young man on a thrilling journey of self-discovery in one of the most harshest, near-uninhabitable climates on Earth. Winton crafts the story of Jaxie Clackton, a brutalized rural youth who flees from the scene of his father’s violent death and strikes out for the vast wilds of Western Australia. All he carries with him is a rifle and a waterjug. All he wants is peace and freedom. But surviving in the harsh saltlands alone is a savage business. And once he discovers he’s not alone out there, all Jaxie’s plans go awry. He meets a fellow exile, the ruined priest Fintan MacGillis, a man he’s never certain he can trust, but on whom his life will soon depend. The Shepherd’s Hut is a thrilling tale of unlikely friendship and yearning, at once brutal and lyrical, from one of our finest storytellers.

To give you a taste of the novel’s distinctive voice, here are the opening lines:
When I hit the bitumen and get that smooth grey rumble going under me everything’s hell different. Like I’m in a fresh new world all slick and flat and easy. Even with the engine working up a howl and the wind flogging in the window the sounds are real soft and pillowy. Civilized I mean. Like you’re still on the earth but you don’t hardly notice it anymore. And that’s hectic. You’d think I never got in a car before. But when you’ve hoofed it like a dirty goat all these weeks and months, when you’ve had the stony slow prickle-up hard country right in your face that long it’s bloody sudden. Some crazy shit, I tell you. Brings on this angel feeling. Like you’re just one arrow of light.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Shepherd’s Hut, 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 June 21 at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 22. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Monday, June 4, 2018

My First Time: Siobhan Fallon

The First Time I Made It Through

The first time I set foot in the Middle East, I knew I would write about it.

I remember it so clearly right now, sitting at my computer, seven years later. I got off the plane at Amman amid chaos, confusion and noise. I entered the vast lines of Immigration with my three-year old daughter, the smells and the people crushing me on all sides. I knew my husband was waiting for me on the other side of Customs, but how to get there?

A man in a suit spotted the American passport in my fist and came up to me, told me in passable English that he would do all of my “very difficult” paperwork, and get me in the “fast” line for about $100 American. I smiled, clutched my passport and my daughter even tighter, and got in line with everyone else.

I made it through.

That seems to sum up just about everything for me when it comes to living abroad. I made it through. And it also seems to sum up everything to me when I think of my writing. There is the total confusion of facing this wild, unknown place. There is the total confusion of facing this wild, blank page. But somehow the writing can save me.

I’m terrible about keeping a journal in my ordinary, American life. Why bother? I think to myself, I mean, this is just ordinary American life, right? But when I travel, I take notes, lots of notes, because I know my life in this place is transitory, and, in having an expiration date, it is somehow more valuable. Perhaps this is not a good way to live a life, but fortunately I have spent a lot of my life living abroad. In the little notebook I kept in my purse while living in Jordan, my first entries are about that first airport arrival. How the men who helped with baggage all wore blue jumpsuits with numbers on their backs and looked like jailed prisoners, how the young man who helped me with my suitcases was #38 and, though polite, never once looked me in the eye. How the policemen outside who tried to direct traffic wore little pointy metal hats and too-tight uniforms, and for all of their dramatic gesticulating and whistling, cars were braking, honking, pulling up on the sidewalk, parking any way they liked.

I depended on this little journal while writing my novel, The Confusion of Languages. When I was frustrated with plot and structure and wanted to taste Jordan again, I’d flip through those stained pages and images would come at me, seconds, minutes, days, all so vivid; some wonderful, some painful. And I’d start writing, rejuvenated, starting small, with a random recipe I’d found, or a description of a fruit stand at the corner of a busy Amman city street, or how a lamb carcass hung from a hook in a window of a decidedly un-airconditioned butcher shop.

I lived in Jordan for less than one year, and it took me nearly five years to write a novel set there. Readers, life abroad can be difficult. And writing a book, well, it can really suck. So start small. You will fuck up. You will get lost. You will get almost every single word wrong. You’ll hit dead end after dead end but, trust me, you’ll turn around, retrace your steps, and slowly, painstakingly, happen upon a place that is more beautiful than you could have ever imagined. And it wasn’t even in the guidebook.

You’ll lose faith in yourself. But you’ll find it again.

You’ll make it through.

Siobhan Fallon’s novel, The Confusion of Languages, will be released in paperback Summer, 2018. She is the author of the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction winning You Know When the Men Are Gone. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, The Huffington Post, and Prairie Schooner, among others. She and her family moved to Jordan in 2011, and they currently live in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

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, June 3, 2018

Sunday Sentence: We Don’t Live Here Anymore by Andre Dubus

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

I am surrounded by painful marriages that no one understands.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Friday Freebie: We Are Gathered by Jamie Weisman

Congratulations to Kimberly Lehman, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The War Bride’s Scrapbook by Caroline Preston.

This week’s contest is for We Are Gathered by Jamie Weisman. Here’s what Caroline Leavitt, author of Pictures of You, had to say about the book: “As sparkling as a glass of champagne, and as moving as a wedding kiss, Weisman deconstructs the novel—and the nuptial—to tell a story about the guests, all of whom are bound to their pasts, created by their pain and elevated by their passions, set against the blazing hope of happily ever after. You can’t know who you are until the end of the story, says one character, but in this novel, it’s clear who Weisman is from the first sentence: a writer to watch.” Keep scrolling for more information about the books and how to enter the contest...

One afternoon in Atlanta, Georgia. Two people heading to the altar. One hundred fifty guests. The bride, Elizabeth Gottlieb, proud graduate of the University of Virginia and of Emory University School of Law, member of Atlanta’s wealthy Jewish elite. The groom, Hank Jackson, not a member. Not a Jew. The couple of the hour, however, is beside the point, because We Are Gathered belongs to the guests. Among them, Carla, Elizabeth’s quick-witted, ugly duckling childhood best friend turned Hollywood film scout, whose jaundiced view of the drama that is an American wedding provides a lens of humor and its corollary, deep compassion for the supporting actors who steal the show; Elizabeth’s great-aunt Rachel, a Holocaust survivor from Germany who is still navigating a no-man’s-land between cultures and identities decades after escaping from the forests of Europe; Elizabeth’s wheelchair-bound grandfather Albert, who considers his legacy as a man, both in the boardroom and the bedroom; and Annette, the mother of the bride herself, reminded now of her youthful indiscretions in love and motherhood. Balancing razor-sharp humor with a blunt vision of the fragility of our mortal bonds, Jamie Weisman skillfully constructs a world—and family—that pulls you in and carries you along with its refreshing, jagged beauty.

If you’d like a chance at winning We Are Gathered, 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 June 7 at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 8. 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, May 27, 2018

Sunday Sentence: The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene

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

She was very young and blond and unnecessarily arrogant: she looked like a child who has got nothing she really wants and so is determined to obtain anything, whether she likes it or not.

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene

Friday, May 25, 2018

Friday Freebie: The War Bride’s Scrapbook by Caroline Preston

Congratulations to Sylvia Danforth, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie, a bundle of books by and about Montanans: Come West and See by Maxim Loskutoff, Arbuckle by Russell Rowland, The Weight of an Infinite Sky by Carrie La Seur, and The Bluebird Run by Greg Keeler.

In honor of Memorial Day, this week’s contest is for the latest in the “scrapbook novels” by Caroline Preston: The War Bride’s Scrapbook. As long-time readers of the blog may remember, I am a big fan of Caroline's previous book, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt. Those pages burst into life with postcards, sheet music, wine labels, playing cards, charm bracelets, gum wrappers, swatches of fabric, photographs and ads for freckle cream to tell the story of a Jazz Age ingenue. As I wrote then, “The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is subtitled A Novel in Pictures, but it really should be called A Novel of Ephemera.” The same holds true for The War Bride’s Scrapbook. Keep scrolling for more information about the books and how to enter the contest...

Lila Jerome has never been very lucky in love, and has always been more interested in studying architecture and, more recently, supporting the war bond effort on the home front. But in the fall of 1943, a chance spark with a boarder in her apartment sets Lila on a course that shakes up all of her ideas about romance. Lila is intoxicated by Perry Weld, the charismatic army engineer who’s about to ship out to the European front, and it isn’t long before she discovers that the feeling is mutual. After just a few weeks together, caught up in the dramatic spirit of the times and with Perry’s departure date fast approaching, the two decide to elope. In a stunning kaleidoscope of vibrant ephemera, Lila boldly attempts to redefine her life in America as she navigates the heartache and longing of a marriage separated by ocean and war. In her second scrapbook novel after the lauded Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, Caroline Preston has once again pulled from her own extraordinary collection of vintage memorabilia, transporting us back to the lively, tumultuous 1940s and introducing us to an unforgettable, ambitious heroine who must learn to reconcile a wartime marriage with a newfound self-confidence.

If you’d like a chance at winning The War Bride’s Scrapbook, 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 May 31 at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 1. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Michael A. Ferro’s Library: A Love-Hate Story

Reader:  Michael A. Ferro
Location:  Rural Ann Arbor, Michigan
Collection Size:  About 1,000
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  The first advance readers copy that I received of my debut novel, Title 13. And I’d probably push a smoldering old lady out of my way to get to it, too.
Favorite book from childhood:  Any of the Calvin and Hobbes collections (I proudly had them all) or the novelization of Star Wars. I wrote a really lousy essay comparing the film and the book back in the 4th grade and had to read it in front of the class. I can still recall the horrible playground beating I took soon after.
Guilty pleasure book:  Jack Handey’s The Stench of Honolulu. I so often go back to it when I need to feel good. Also, any of the novels by former The Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder. There’s no literary merit to them like with other humor writers such as Ian Frazier, but damn, they’re about as funny as any book can be.

Libraries: a Love-Hate Story

The only thing I hate about libraries is how they are not inside my house or right next door, so I decided to change that. When I fancy reading a particular book, I want to crack it open the moment the urge strikes me—not long after I’ve checked if it’s available at my local library and I put it on hold and go drive through a massive thunderstorm to pick it up and I get a flat tire so I have to get out to fix it only to have some goofy driver hugging the curb drive right through a massive ocean of standing water creating a small tsunami that sweeps me up and plunges me down into the sewer ditch below.

No thanks. I’ll just buy all my books and make my own library at home, thank you very much.

I should also admit here that I’ve had a bit of a contentious relationship with each of the libraries in every city I’ve lived in. And by that, I mean that I am horrible at returning books on time. I have accumulated an embarrassing amount of late charges in my life, usually to the point of those threatening letters arriving in the mail demanding money. You’re probably asking yourself: How does one person amass so many charges through mere minuscule late-return fines? Well, you see, that’s my other problem: I can never just get one book.

I’ve lived in various places across the Midwest and everywhere I go, I always used to scope out the local library soon after settling in. I would try to start by just checking out one or two books, but that quickly turned into the max limit of twenty or so at one time. Now, multiply the ten cents or so per day late charge for twenty books, then factor in weeks on end of being reluctant to return said books, and you’ve got yourself a modern-day literary extortion scheme. I’ve had my kneecaps threatened by bookish loan sharks more times than I care to admit. In fact, that’s usually how I know when it’s time to pack my wares and skip town. Some folks lose their jobs or destroy their marriages—I look out my window and see an angry mob of librarians waving letters of overdue payments, shouting blasphemes about credit scores and collection agencies.

Yes, I am an idiot.

Obviously I’m exaggerating a bit, but let’s just say it’s best for all parties considered if I own my own books. With that in mind, I turned the first floor of my house into a library. When I moved in, I only had a few bookshelves and roughly 500 books, but since then, I’ve loosened my belt quite a bit. Having all that empty space down there was just too tempting, so I had to build more bookshelves. And, of course, once I had more bookshelves, I needed more books. Today the count stands somewhere around 1,000 books. Now, I can do this because I don’t have a wife or children, you see; there’s no need to have a playroom for my goopy kid and no wife who needs a room of her own for a personal yoga studio—it’s all mine, and with this pigheaded attitude, it will be all mine for many, many years to come.

As is the case with anyone who has their own personal library, there are a few books that stand out to me as being some of the most important. I’ve included a photo here of a stack of books that have rewired my brain in some way or another. These are the books that changed my life and made me want to become a writer. As you’ll be able to tell from this selection, it’s quite an odd grouping of titles.

My own debut novel, Title 13, is an eclectic mishmash of satire and emotional realism that follows the oft-absurd story of a young alcoholic named Heald Brown who lives in downtown Chicago and works for the federal government. And while there’s plenty of postmodern, literary tragicomedy within the pages, much of the novel also centers around the brutal realities of addiction and the divisive nature that has consumed our society and poisoned our culture in a broken modern America. Keeping that sense of dichotomy in mind, perhaps it’s not so surprising when I study this stack of books and note the clear line between literary, postmodern fiction, and absurd humor stories and essays.

Oh, and there’s also a photo of some of my old New Yorker magazines from my 15-plus years of subscribing that I just can’t throw away because I’m a pretentious dweeb who’s convinced I will be able to read them cover-to-cover someday.

Michael A. Ferro's debut novel, Title 13, was published earlier this year. He has received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train for their New Writers Award, won the Jim Cash Creative Writing Award for Fiction, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Michael’s writing has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. Born and bred in Detroit, Michael has lived, worked, and written throughout the Midwest. He currently resides in rural Ann Arbor, Michigan. Click here to visit his website.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Articles of War by Nick Arvin

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

It was a curious thing, that in the time between the shots and the echo of the shots a man could die, that so monumental an event could occur in so trivial a passage.

Articles of War by Nick Arvin