Saturday, September 20, 2014

Soup and Salad: Lin Enger's Closet, Hangovers & Fake-Reads, Experimental Novels, The Reel Catch-22, 50 Favorite Covers of 2013, Secret Bookcase Doors, Do Women Write Better Than Men?, The Care-and-Feeding Guide for Your Dictionary, Breathtaking Book Sculptures, Previously Unknown Chapters of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Subway Readers and Their Imagined Lives, Big Hair & Baseball, Bonnie ZoBell Finds Her Teacher's Pantyhose

On today's menu:

1.  At Amazon's Omnivoracious blog, Lin Enger describes the writing process for his latest novel, The High Divide (which is high in my TBR pile):
Not exactly by choice, I wrote most of this novel in a four-by-five closet, standing up. Sitting for any length of time wrecks my lower back, and so I resorted to using for my desk the top of a four-drawer file cabinet I kept in the closet of my study. Why didn’t I move the cabinet into the study itself? Because the isolation of standing in a small, windowless room helped me disappear into the northern plains of 1886. I also wrote in other places: coffee shops, libraries, hotel rooms, anywhere. Writing a novel is such an immersion experience--you have to take it with you; it refuses to be left at home. Since finishing the book, my wife and I have downsized into a smaller house, and I recently acquired a standing desk (salvaged from a library) that I’ve placed along the empty east wall of our bedroom. That’s where I’m writing the next book.
And boy, oh boy, can I relate to these words of Enger's: "I have this terrible inclination, as soon as the writing starts going well, to push away from the desk, notebook, or laptop, and go do something absolutely unnecessary--make something to eat or mow the lawn.  It’s like some part of my self doesn’t want the writer part to see the project through.  So I have to be constantly on guard against this urge."

2.  I'm a long-time reader of Shelf Awareness and the Book Brahmin feature in particular, in which writers list what's on their nightstand, what they'd most like to read again for the first time, favorite lines from book, etc.  Brian Hart's recent post might be the first time, however, that I've seen alcohol blamed on "fake-reading a book."

3.  Flavorwire has a good list of novels they label "experimental."  I'll cop to not having read any of them--though several are long-time residents of To-Be-Read-land....and once, as a teenager, I stood in the adult section of the Teton County Library in Jackson, Wyoming, and tried to read William Gaddis' JR.  I was on the library payroll at the time and I was supposed to be dusting the shelves, but, like Flavorwire says of JR, "This novel is brilliant and will suck you in and keep you forever."  And it did.  At least until the head librarian got suspicious and started looking for me.

4.  Reason #75 to Open My Email: my friend Lisa Peet sent me the link to a recently-published post at the National Archives blog about Joseph Heller's World War Two training as a bombardier.  In "The Reel Catch-22," Burton Blume, a brand consultant/creative strategist based in Tokyo, describes how he and archivists stumbled upon footage for a film called "Training in Combat" shot by his father, a cameraman with the Army Air Forces 9th Combat Camera Unit:
Earlier this year, the team at (National Archives and Records Administration) struck gold. They found nine reels of unedited footage from Training During Combat that was shot by my father. The combined running time of this footage is nearly 73 minutes. Of this, over eight minutes contain scenes showing Joseph Heller in uniform....The story follows the activities of a replacement crew that have just arrived at the forward base at Alesani and follows their progress as they go through the indoctrination and technical training needed to perform their missions. There are two protagonists in this film: a pilot named “Bob” and a bombardier named “Pete.” Photogenic young Joe Heller plays Pete."
As I wrote back to Lisa, "This is just the COOLEST!"  To see a skinny young Heller living the life of Catch-22's characters is extremely interesting.  I found myself staring at that forehead beneath the tipped-back cap, trying to see the words lining up in satiric formation.  Watch for yourself:

5.  The Design Observer Group has announced its 50 favorite covers of 2013.  I like many of them, but This might be my favorite:

6.  Calling Scooby-Doo!

7.  Grammar-checker website Grammarly conducted a study with more than 3,000 participants at its site to settle a question that has been plaguing mankind for centuries: “Which gender has the better writers?”  Here's the infographic they came up with:

If that's a little hard for you to read, you can also find the results at The Daily Beast.  By the way, I take no sides in this question.  I'm a bisexual reader.

8.  Check out this care-and-feeding guide for your unabridged Merriam-Webster dictionary, as found at The Strand bookstore's Tumblr.

9.  I still cringe a little inside when I see people taking chainsaws to perfectly good books.  However, there's no denying these book-sculptures, as highlighted at Book Riot, are true works of art.

10.  The reliably-funny Tom Gauld reveals "Previously Unknown Chapters of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

11.  Novelist Ben Dolnick (At the Bottom of Everything) spent a week of watching people on the NYC subway, casting surreptitious glances and pretending to tie his shoes just so he could document what commuters were reading.  He shares his results at The Awl, along with some fabricated "Assumptions" on the backstory to the subway books:
     Wednesday, 4:15PM, Church Avenue-bound G train, Hoyt-Schermerhorn:
     Facts: Thirty-something white man, talking to himself while holding a battered (and, for the moment, closed) Oxford World’s Classics edition of Middlemarch. A black backpack rests between his feet; he wears khaki shorts and a blue polo shirt, made of some athletic wicking material. He appears (hand-chopping motions, etc.) to be rehearsing a difficult conversation. When he resumes reading, his face assumes the grim expression of someone in the last seconds of a wall-sit.
     Assumptions: He, Keith, is from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where his girlfriend broke up with him six months ago after finding porn in his browser history. (It was “not normal stuff, but like real sick stuff, totally degrading. Who even thinks about whether girls have pigtails or not?”) Soon afterward, she moved to New York to take a nannying job. One night, in grief and bewilderment, he Googled “how to understand women better” and he came upon Middlemarch, which he has been reading now for five months. He plans to to show up at the door of his girlfriend’s apartment, lay the battered thing down before her and tell her just how much he’s changed, then burst into tears. He has a week’s worth of clothes in his backpack, just in case this works.

12.  Do you have a fondness for big hair, polyester, and 70's-era baseball?  Then you would do well to read Bill Morris' recent contribution to The Millions:
      You meet the strangest people on a book tour. One of the strangest – in the good sense – that I’ve met so far on my current tour was standing in a crowded Detroit bar sporting a 1970s Detroit Tigers jersey, a pair of bushy muttonchops and a cumulus cloud of curly hair that made him look like the drummer in a heavy metal band. I recognized the guy instantly. Our pictures were side-by-side in the front window of Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor, where we had just given readings from our new books on successive nights.
      “Excuse me,” I said. “Are you Dan Epstein?”
      “That’s me,” he said, smiling as he shook my hand. “And you’re Bill!”
      I admitted I was, and a writerly friendship was born.

13.  I loved this essay by Bonnie ZoBell at Bloom on the importance of writers' Day Jobs.  Here's how it begins:
      Explaining to a writing student who’s just said she’s going to be on the bestseller list next year that it’s a little tougher than that isn’t one of my favorite jobs. Do I tell her that, no matter how well-known she becomes, she will inevitably have many more jobs in her life, and that this isn’t a bad thing? That the internet quotes anywhere from 300 to 2,500 people who actually make a living at writing in the U.S.? Probably one of the most important points I could make is that the jobs writers have along the way are actually a goldmine of writing material.
      Even babysitting has its perks. Let us not forget Robert Coover’s exquisitely creepy “The Babysitter,” one of his most memorable stories. I was quite the voyeur as a babysitter. Even then, I wanted to know what made people tick. I looked through closets, under beds, trying to discover folks’ secrets, who they really were. Were other families more normal than mine? I was absolutely stunned the summer I lived with my middle school math teacher and took care of her children. My parents were splitting up, and my mom had already sold our house, but our new one wasn’t ready yet, so she planned to camp with us kids all summer. I wasn’t handling it well. Imagine my surprise when, looking through my teacher’s dresser, I found some sheer pink panties with a hole in them right there and colorful embroidered letters alongside: “19th Hole!” My math teacher had sex? She enjoyed it?
You know you want to keep reading the rest.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Friday Freebie: My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner

Congratulations to Jane Rainey, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill and Somebody Up There Hates You by Hollis Seamon.

This week's book giveaway is extra-special.  Brian Turner's new memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, is simply one of the best books I've read this year.  Here's my mini-review which was posted earlier at Book Riot:
Near the end of this gut-honest memoir about his time in Iraq, Brian Turner writes: “America, vast and laid out from one ocean to another, is not a large enough space to contain the war each soldier brings home.” Likewise, this book and its 224 pages probably cannot hold all the rampaging emotions of Turner’s war experience, but damn if he doesn’t spill a lot of emotional blood in the course of these 136 short chapters. As anyone who has read Turner’s two collections of poetry (Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise) will tell you, he’s able to turn even the most horrific topics–death, dismemberment, post-traumatic nightmares–into things of linguistic beauty. In My Life as a Foreign Country, he once again brings the war home to us. Are we bold enough to hold his words?
I'll try to have a longer review here at The Quivering Pen before too long.  In the meantime, I'm happy to announce I've got four copies of My Life as a Foreign Country to give away to four lucky readers.  Here's more about the memoir from the publisher's jacket copy:
In 2003, Sergeant Brian Turner crossed the line of departure with a convoy of soldiers headed into the Iraqi desert. Now he lies awake each night beside his sleeping wife, imagining himself as a drone aircraft, hovering over the terrains of Bosnia and Vietnam, Iraq and Northern Ireland, the killing fields of Cambodia and the death camps of Europe. In this breathtaking memoir, award-winning poet Brian Turner retraces his war experience pre-deployment to combat zone, homecoming to aftermath. Free of self-indulgence or self-glorification, his account combines recollection with the imagination's efforts to make reality comprehensible. Across time, he seeks parallels in the histories of others who have gone to war, especially his taciturn grandfather (World War II), father (Cold War), and uncle (Vietnam). Turner also offers something that is truly rare in a memoir of violent conflict he sees through the eyes of the enemy, imagining his way into the experience of the "other." Through it all, he paints a devastating portrait of what it means to be a soldier and a human being.
Here's more praise from others who have read early copies of this incredible book (which is currently a Barnes & Noble Discover New Writers pick):

Tim O'Brien:My Life as a Foreign Country is brilliant and beautiful.  It surely ranks with the best war memoirs I've ever encountered—a humane, heartbreaking, and expertly crafted work of literature.”

Nick Flynn: “Turner's voice is prophetic, an eerie calm in the midst of calamity…Achingly, disturbingly, shockingly beautiful.”

Benjamin Busch: “A brilliant fever dream of war's surreality, its lastingness, its place in families and in the fate of nations.  Each sentence has been carefully measured, weighed with loss and vitality, the hard-earned language of a survivor who has seen the world destroyed and written it back to life.  This is a profound and beautiful work of art.”

Kirkus Reviews: “In his surpassingly sad and disquieting memoir, poet Turner has rendered an unusual anomaly: cogent delirium.  Some have said a poet should join astronauts in space so we could know what it's really like.  In Turner, we have sent a poet to war, and we are much closer to knowing its kaleidoscopic face; as profound sympathy washes over the reader, so does the war's horror.  Alternately stark and surreal, Turner's chronicle is a textured confluence of the ages, connected by classic verse, history and arresting metaphor.  He surveys a landscape of ghosts from all of humanity's wars, wraiths who walk the streets and battlefields and rise like mist from the rivers.”

Click here to follow Brian Turner on Facebook.  Click here to visit his website.

If you’d like a chance at being one of four winners in this week's Friday Freebie, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Sept. 25, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 26.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your 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, September 18, 2014

My Library: Heather Corbally Bryant's Family Shelf

Heidi Lynn Photography
Reader:  Heather Corbally Bryant
Location:  1925 Craftsman Bungalow outside Boston
Collection size:  650 (and steadily growing).
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (a signed first-edition would be best)
Favorite book from childhood:  Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh
Guilty pleasure book:  Diana, Princess of Wales by Martin Gitlin

So I just did the math: since I began graduate school in Ann Arbor, I have moved thirteen times.  When I moved from Michigan to Massachusetts with my brand new PhD to begin teaching at Harvard, my book collection weighed more than my car.  I learned that fact because I also put my car on the moving truck.  With each move has brought new bookcases, new studies, new rooms of my own, or not, and a purging of books.  As an only child, I am now the keeper of all the books my parents and children collected as well.  I think my own estimate of the collection size tends toward the conservative.  My moves have shared some commonalities, always a review of the collection, trying to pare it down to the essentials.  This last move from Pennsylvania back to Massachusetts brought the largest pruning and, having just reviewed my entire contents of my collection, I now know where all my books are located--something I had not known for years.  Some I have lost, some I have given away, and some have disappeared.  For the first time in my life, I have organized my collection in a less than haphazard manner.  As the daughter of a librarian, I have resisted doing that for many years.  But for this most recent move, I decided to gather all the books written by or about members of my family, including Assigned to Adventure, a book about women foreign correspondents with a section on my grandmother, Irene Corbally Kuhn.  My books have become a metaphor for my life.

Rene Kuhn Bryant
I am the only remaining member of "my family of origin."  Hence, I have bookended my own books with those by or about my parents and my grandmother.  My father, Douglas Wallace Bryant, was chief librarian at Harvard University.  When he retired, the University presented him with a keepsake, a Hollis book on libraries.  I was proud of how many libraries he built, grateful for how many books he gave me, and I always looked him up in Who's Who.  For someone who loved the printed word, he did not like to write himself.  Consequently, the books here are about him, but not by him.  Then I begin with my first work, a collection of early poems I presented him for his birthday one June.  He worried about my career path as a poet, yet he professed to love the works I gave him.  After that, in chronological order came my undergraduate thesis about John's Ruskin's autobiography, Praeterita, which won the Boston Ruskin Prize (who knew there was such a thing?).  It was a substantial amount of money because the prize had not been awarded for several years.  I bought a lapis lazuli necklace in honor of my love of Yeats.  Then I put my academic articles together--Yeats, Eliot, (included in the Southam book on Eliot), poems published in the literary journals of the prep schools where I first taught.  Towards the middle I placed my dissertation, and the following book version, which won the Donald R. Murphy prize for best first book (I bought my only pair of real gold earrings).  Not in keeping with chronology, I put my creative writing works together: In Other Words, the first journal which accepted my second published poem; my novel; my two poetry chapbooks; the Yeats' manuscripts I worked on at Michigan, published by the Cornell University Press; the article I published on the creative arts response to war in Review; and the several book reviews I wrote for the Harvard Review while I was teaching there.

Then I moved on to my maternal ancestors.  I cherish the two novels my own mother wrote before she married under the name Rene Kuhn: 34 Charleton (which won the Hopwood Prize at Michigan) and Cornelia.  Although she edited many more books, and worked as a reporter in the early days of Life magazine, those were her only two published novels, both finished before she turned 30.  This shelf anchors me, reminds me of my place in the world.  At my mother's memorial service last year, someone asked me what I intended to leave as my legacy, being lucky to have the parents I did.  I have to confess the question startled me, gave me pause.  While I know my children are my most important legacy, I am proudest to be a mother than any other title I have been called in my life, I now realize that my writing is an important piece of what I will leave behind.

The shelf below represents a more eclectic group of writers, either my favorite writers, or gifts from my favorite people.  First, Rumer Godden, China Court, given to me the summer after college by my friend, Marguerite; several collections of my favorite poets, given to me by my mom and other close friends: Mary Oliver; Edward Taylor; The Piano Tuner from my friends Bill and Anna Marie; Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things; Caramelo written by Sandra Cisneros; My Sky Blue Trades by Sven Birkerts who I was lucky enough to teach with; a book on Ruskin which my dad gave me; The Hours; a history of Shanghai during the years my grandparents lived there (where they met and married); Yeats' Collected Poems (when pressed to pick one poet, he's my favorite); The Pain Chronicles, a book I admire by Melanie Thernstrom; a collection of Elizabeth Spires; Louise Erdrich's The Blue Jay's Dance; an Elizabeth Bowen novel; a fascinating book of literary criticism, perhaps my favorite, by Robert Coles: Irony in the Mind's Life; and Joyce's Finnegan's Wake to sate my fascination with the inexplicable.  As far as favorite novelists, F. Scott Fitzgerald always comes to the top of my list, as far as my obsession with Princess Diana, there is really nothing to say.  Through all the births, deaths, moves, and names, here are the words of my life, unchanged.

Heather Corbally Bryant received her A.B. from Harvard College and her PhD from the University of Michigan.  She has taught at Michigan, Harvard, Penn State, and is now teaching in the Writing Program at Wellesley College.  She has published a wide range of books from her academic work on Elizabeth Bowen, How Will the Heart Endure: Elizabeth Bowen and the Landscape of War; many articles on Yeats, Eliot, and Sean O'Faolain; a novel, Through Your Hands; and two poetry chapbooks, Cheap Grace and Lottery Ticket.  She is currently at work on a work of creative non-fiction, What Our Mothers Never Told Us.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-quality photos (minimum 150 dpi) 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.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper

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

For the past three months I've driven along Harrison Avenue here in Butte, Montana and scowled at the marquee for Carmike Cinema in the Butte Plaza Mall.  Even though I'm a die-hard movie fanatic, nothing I've seen advertised on that marquee has even so much as raised a blip on my pulse.  This has certainly been a lackluster blockbuster summer, hasn't it?  In fact, I don't think Jean and I have even been in a darkened theater since Memorial Day--which is pretty unusual for us.  This is Where I Leave You is the first movie to catch our mutual interest and make us pause-and-rewind as we skim through commercials on our TiVo.  Based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper and starring Jason Bateman, Tina Fey and Jane Fonda, the movie (or at least the trailer) looks like a whip-smart middle-age-crisis romantic comedy.  Sure, it has an overabundance of boob, masturbation and impotence jokes--but I'm hoping the movie marketers just crowded all that junk into the trailer in order to sell it and that the rest of the movie is a little more reasonable and balanced.  Still, what we see in the preview is pretty damn funny.  Here's the plot description of Tropper's 2009 novel:
The death of Judd Foxman's father marks the first time that the entire Foxman clan has congregated in years. There is, however, one conspicuous absence: Judd's wife, Jen, whose affair with his radio shock-jock boss has recently become painfully public. Simultaneously mourning the demise of his father and his marriage, Judd joins his dysfunctional family as they reluctantly sit shiva and spend seven days and nights under the same roof. The week quickly spins out of control as longstanding grudges resurface, secrets are revealed and old passions are reawakened.
From all appearances, the movie hews pretty close to the book.  I think it helps that Tropper himself wrote the screenplay and serves as one of the producers.  Here's how the novel opens:
      "Dad's dead," Wendy says offhandedly, like it's happened before, like it happens every day. It can be grating, this act of hers, to be utterly unfazed at all times, even in the face of tragedy. "He died two hours ago."
      "How's Mom doing?"
      "She's Mom, you know? She wanted to know how much to tip the coroner."
Finally, it looks like I have a reason to go back into the movie theater!

Monday, September 15, 2014

My First Time: John Warner

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is John Warner, the author of, most recently, the story collection Tough Day for the Army, which I previously blogged about here.  Roxane Gay praised the book by saying, “John Warner is an uncanny writer, bringing both heart and humor to his stories in the most winning of ways.”  John's previous novel is called The Funny Man.  He writes a column for the Chicago Tribune book supplement, Printers Row (which I, for one, read religiously every Sunday), and also regularly blogs for Inside Higher Ed.  He’s been editorially involved with McSweeney’s Internet Tendency since 2003 and currently teaches at the College of Charleston.  You can find him on Twitter, where he tweets as biblioracle.

The First Time I Quit Writing

The first time I quit writing was at the end of graduate school, McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana MA, MFA ’97.

I’d sold my possessions down to a lamp, a bedroll, a copy of Infinite Jest and my dog Sam, a collie mix.  I’d successfully turned in and “defended” my thesis, which felt like something, but it also laid bare the fact that I was not nearly as good at writing as I wanted or needed to be.

This felt strange, because back in college I seemed to have few doubts about my abilities.  I would workshop a story in class, polish it up and mail it to the New Yorker and wait for my ticket to be punched.  This was the late 80’s, early 90’s, when it was still possible to live with the delusion that placing a story in one of the biggies (Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Playboy, Esquire) was the route to an eventual stable career as a writer.

It was the path all of my professors had followed, so why not me?

Why not me became clear when I started graduate school following two years of make-do work back home in Chicago.  My cohort was larded with talent, many of whom were already publishing stories in better-than-reputable outlets, and included Adam Johnson who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize.  The gap between my work and that of my new colleagues was apparent.  I felt deeply embarrassed for my college self.  If I owned a time machine, I would’ve used it to go back and punch myself in the face and also to have one less drink during that sorority semi-formal that I’m not going to go into.

I mostly used my colleagues’ talent as inspiration to get better, only occasionally letting despair take control.  I was not as good as I wanted to be, but I was getting better.  I was no longer sending my stories to the New Yorker, but began taking my shots at the many excellent “little” magazines.  Still, despite improving and setting my sights on more reasonable targets, after three years, I hadn’t managed to find a home for a single story.

It’s painful to remember how important this was for me.  Partly it was ego, wanting to be able to come to class and let it casually slip that my story would be in the Mid-American Review or the Cimarron Review or Carolina Quarterly, but mostly it was that after three years of writing 100,000 words of fiction a year, I needed to know I was getting better.

I told myself that if I didn’t publish a story before I left Louisiana I would try to quit writing.

I went home, twenty-seven years old, broke, owner of a dog and a big-ass novel.  I spent three months in my parents’ basement in the Chicago ’burbs until I found a job at a marketing research firm in Chicago and started making my plan for moving out.  Nights, I kept reading Infinite Jest and then re-reading it, finding it amazing and inspiring.  It kept the flames burning.

The marketing research firm’s offices were in the North Pier area, near Lake Michigan.  A gothic-level fog often crept in, blanketing the spaces between the buildings.  One of those foggy evenings as I walked toward the train home, a woman holding an umbrella disappeared into an especially thick patch in front of me.  As I crossed through the patch, she was no longer visible ahead.

I had the sense that she had been lifted away, transported by a gust under her umbrella, Mary Poppins-style.

I went home and wrote the scene.  Then I added another based on a very bizarre experience I had with a career counselor, and still another from when I woke up one morning during grad school and half a dozen of the books on my top shelf were strewn across the floor as though they had leapt free of their own volition.

The story was strange, very different from what I’d been working on, but it also really pleased me.

At around the same time, Dave Eggers was producing the first issues of McSweeney’s Quarterly and was reportedly looking for material.  As only a clueless asshole can do, I titled the story “Stillness” and sent it to him.

I don’t know how many weeks later, but not that long, he called me and said he’d like to publish the story in the upcoming (3rd) edition of the quarterly.  His only caveat was that I had to change the title because only a clueless asshole calls his story “Stillness.”  (He was actually much nicer than that about the stupid title.)

I ended up titling the story “The Circus Elephants Look Sad Because They Are” and the story did indeed appear in the 3rd edition of McSweeney’s Quarterly, and if you’ve seen the care McSweeney’s takes with their printed items, you can imagine my excitement when I held the physical copy in my hands.

In short order, I wrote another story that found a home, and then I went back to my graduate thesis and picked the most promising pieces and reworked them and they found homes and I realized that my previous self-imposed deadline was arbitrary, that the things I wished for myself and my writing were never going to arrive on a schedule under my control.  Two of those once-disappointing stories from the thesis wound up in my collection, Tough Day for the Army.

I’ve stopped writing fiction a couple of other times over the years, but I now look at these stretches as periods where it’s time to let the fields lie fallow.  So now, when I’m not writing, I call it a sabbatical.

I’ll quit when I’m dead.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Sunday Sentence: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.  Note: I'm breaking my own no-commentary rule this week.  The Sympathizer won't be released until next Spring, but I urge you to pre-order it once it becomes available.  The novel begins in 1975 just as Saigon is about to fall.  As Viet Thanh Nguyen describes it at his website: "Black comedy, historical novel, and literary thriller, The Sympathizer follows a nameless spy who has infiltrated the South Vietnamese army and flees with its remnants to America.  His mission: report on their efforts to continue their lost war.  As the aide to a general who refuses to admit defeat, he observes the struggles of the Vietnamese refugees to survive in a melancholic Los Angeles."  I was privileged to read an advance copy of the novel.  Here's part of what I said about it in the blurb I provided to the publisher: "Who would have thought the fall of Saigon could be so hilarious?  The Sympathizer is like a neon-pink whoopee cushion snuck into a high-level State Department briefing.  Go ahead, laugh.  Viet Thanh Nguyen has given us permission to see both the light and dark sides of a regretful chapter in the histories of both the United States and Vietnam in a tale told by a court jester."  Read below for this week's dazzling, Faulknerian sentence.

We could not forget the caramel flavor of iced coffee with coarse sugar; the bowls of noodle soup eaten while squatting on the sidewalk; the strumming of a friend’s guitar while we swayed on hammocks under coconut trees; the football matches played barefoot and shirtless in alleys, squares, parks, and meadows; the pearl chokers of morning mist draped around the mountains; the labial moistness of oysters shucked on a gritty beach; the whisper of a dewy lover saying the most seductive words in our language, anh oi; the rattle of rice being threshed; the workingmen who slept in their cyclos on the streets, kept warm only by the memories of their families; the refugees who slept on every sidewalk of every city; the slow burning of patient mosquito coils; the sweetness and firmness of a mango plucked fresh from its tree; the girls who refused to talk to us and who we only pined for more; the men who had died or disappeared; the streets and homes blown away by bombshells; the streams where we swam naked and laughing; the secret grove where we spied on the nymphs who bathed and splashed with the innocence of the birds; the shadows cast by candlelight on the walls of wattled huts; the atonal tinkle of cowbells on mud roads and country paths; the barking of a hungry dog in an abandoned village; the appetizing reek of the fresh durian one wept to eat; the sight and sound of orphans howling by the dead bodies of their mothers and fathers; the stickiness of one’s shirt by afternoon, the stickiness of one’s lover by the end of lovemaking, the stickiness of our situations; the frantic squealing of pigs running for their lives as villagers gave chase; the hills afire with sunset; the crowned head of dawn rising from the sheets of the sea; the hot grasp of our mother’s hand; and while the list could go on and on and on, the point was simply this: the most important thing we could never forget was that we could never forget.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Friday, September 12, 2014

Front Porch Books: September 2014 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, Amazon and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

The Infernal by Mark Doten (Graywolf Press):  I'll begin and end this discussion of Mark Doten's debut novel with some ripe Blurbworthiness; first from Ben Marcus (author of The Flame Alphabet): “The Infernal is insane.  Mark Doten turns his war criminals into the lecherous cartoons they might really be, as if the Warren Report were a drugged-out musical.  From now on I want all of my novels this brilliant, this crazily pitched, this original.”  Insane and original--those were just two of the words swooping through my head like dark bird-like shadows as I leafed through the pages of my advance reader's copy of The Infernal.  Some pages are straightforward text, some are transcripts of military reports, others are reproductions of computer screens using Memex [Wikipedia: The memex (a portmanteau of "memory" and "index" or "memory" and "extender") is the name of the hypothetical proto-hypertext system that Vannevar Bush described in his 1945 Atlantic Monthly article "As We May Think."  Bush envisioned the memex as a device in which individuals would compress and store all of their books, records, and communications, "mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility."  The memex would provide an "enlarged intimate supplement to one's memory."  The concept of the memex influenced the development of early hypertext systems (eventually leading to the creation of the World Wide Web) and personal knowledge base software.  However, the memex system used a form of document bookmark list, of static microfilm pages, rather than a true hypertext system where parts of pages would have internal structure beyond the common textual format.]  I don't know what to make of Doten's book, but I guarantee that I'm intrigued.   Here's the Jacket Copy:
In the early years of the Iraq War, a severely burned boy appears on a remote rock formation in the Akkad Valley. A shadowy, powerful group within the U.S. government speculates: Who is he? Where did he come from? And, crucially, what does he know? In pursuit of that information, an interrogator is summoned from his prison cell, and a hideous and forgotten apparatus of torture, which extracts “perfect confessions,” is retrieved from the vaults. Over the course of four days, a cavalcade of voices rises up from the Akkad boy, each one striving to tell his or her own story. Some of these voices are familiar: Osama bin Laden, L. Paul Bremer, Condoleezza Rice, Mark Zuckerberg. Others are less so. But each one has a role in the world shaped by the war on terror. Each wants to tell us: This is the world as it exists in our innermost selves. This is what has been and what might be. This is The Infernal.
Here are some final words of praise from Dale Peck (author of Martin and John):  “From the first page to the last, [The Infernal] explodes like a roll of Black Cats in a dazzling, deafening, brilliant display of linguistic and intellectual energy.  It will thrill you, confound you, and ultimately force you to submit to its perspective, and in the end it will change the way you think about the world you live in.”

The High Divide by Lin Enger (Algonquin Books):  Montana is all the rage in my home library this year, with novels like Painted Horses by Malcolm Brooks, The Home Place by Carrie La Seur and High and Inside by Russell Rowland on the Read It! Loved It! shelf; and The Ploughmen by Kim Zupan and Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson on the Can't Wait to Read It, Pretty Sure I'll Love It shelf.  Add Lin Enger's new novel The High Divide to that second list.  His first novel, Undiscovered Country (set in Minnesota) is still impatiently waiting for me on that To-Be-Read shelf, but I may end up discovering The High Divide first.  Because, you know, Montana.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In 1886, Gretta Pope wakes one morning to discover that her husband is gone. Ulysses Pope has left his family behind on the far edge of Minnesota's western prairie with only the briefest of notes and no explanation for why he left or where he's headed. It doesn't take long for Gretta's young sons, Eli and Danny, to set off after him, following the scant clues they can find, jumping trains to get where they need to go, and ending up in the rugged badlands of Montana. Gretta has no choice but to search for her sons and her husband, leading her to the doorstep of a woman who seems intent on making Ulysses her own. Meanwhile, the boys find that the closer they come to Ulysses' trail, the greater the perils that confront them, until each is faced with a choice about whom he will defend, and who he will become. Enger's breathtaking portrait of the vast plains landscape is matched by the rich expanse of his characters' emotional terrain, as pivotal historical events--the bloody turmoil of expansionism, the near total demise of the bison herds, and the subjugation of the Plains Indians--blend seamlessly with the intimate story of a family's sacrifice and devotion.
Blurbworthiness:  “Set against a backdrop of beauty and danger, this is the moving story of a man coming to terms with his past.  In its narrative simplicity and emotional directness, it is reminiscent of John Ford’s classic The Searchers.” (Publishers Weekly)

The Deep by Nick Cutter (Simon & Schuster):  The Jacket Copy for this new novel coming in January from the author of The Troop doesn't waste any time in ratcheting up the tension:
From the acclaimed author of The Troop—which Stephen King raved “scared the hell out of me and I couldn’t put it down.…old-school horror at its best”—comes this utterly terrifying novel where The Abyss meets The Shining. A strange plague called the ’Gets is decimating humanity on a global scale. It causes people to forget—small things at first, like where they left their keys…then the not-so-small things like how to drive, or the letters of the alphabet. Then their bodies forget how to function involuntarily…and there is no cure. But now, far below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, deep in the Marianas Trench, an heretofore unknown substance hailed as “ambrosia” has been discovered—a universal healer, from initial reports. It may just be the key to a universal cure. In order to study this phenomenon, a special research lab, the Trieste, has been built eight miles under the sea’s surface. But now the station is incommunicado, and it’s up to a brave few to descend through the lightless fathoms in hopes of unraveling the mysteries lurking at those crushing depths…and perhaps to encounter an evil blacker than anything one could possibly imagine. Part horror, part psychological nightmare, The Deep is a novel that fans of Stephen King and Clive Barker won’t want to miss—especially if you’re afraid of the dark.
And how about that hand reaching out to grab us from the cover design?  File under: Irresistible Literature.

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner):  I was honored to share the stage at last year's Brattleboro Literary Festival with Megan Mayhew Bergman as we (along with several other writers) read short short stories.  I read two pieces--one about a cross-country trip that ends in a breakup, and one about a son realizing his father has succumbed to Alzheimer's--but when Megan took the microphone--man, oh, man.  It's like she'd gone out into the audience with a hammer and--tap tap tap--nailed each of us to our seat.  "Expression Theory" is a short piece about James Joyce's daughter, Lucia, who--as Bergman makes explicitly clear in about 750 words--is emotionally troubled but, like her father, possesses a vivid imagination ("Her thoughts were the color of moss and her head was teeming with them.").  Lucia's story is just one of the many about "almost famous women" in Bergman's followup to her promising debut, Birds of a Lesser Paradise.  Here's the Jacket Copy to give you an idea of why I'm already head over heels for this collection, even before I've read all of it:
From “a top-notch emerging writer with a crisp and often poetic voice and wily, intelligent humor” (The Boston Globe): a collection of stories that explores the lives of talented, gutsy women throughout history. The fascinating lives of the characters in Almost Famous Women have mostly been forgotten, but their stories are burning to be told. Now Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise, resurrects these women, lets them live in the reader’s imagination, so we can explore their difficult choices. Nearly every story in this dazzling collection is based on a woman who attained some celebrity—she raced speed boats or was a conjoined twin in show business; a reclusive painter of renown; a member of the first all-female, integrated swing band. We see Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Allegra; Oscar Wilde’s troubled niece, Dolly; West With the Night author Beryl Markham; and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, Norma. These extraordinary stories travel the world, explore the past (and delve into the future), and portray fiercely independent women defined by their acts of bravery, creative impulses, and sometimes reckless decisions. The world hasn’t always been kind to unusual women, but through Megan Mayhew Bergman’s alluring depictions they finally receive the attention they deserve. Almost Famous Women is a gorgeous collection from an “accomplished writer of short fiction” (Booklist).
I love the way the first story, "The Pretty Grown-Together Children," begins.  It's about Violet and Daisy Hilton, a pair of conjoined twins who toured the U.S. sideshow and vaudeville circuit in the 1930s.  Here are the Opening Lines:
      Let me tell it, I said.
      No, you’re a liar and a drunk, I said. Or she said.
      Our voices could be like one. I could feel hers in my bones, especially when she sang—a strong quicksilver soprano.
      One of us has to tell it, I said, and it’s going to be me.
Like I said, pinned to my seat with nails.

Sins of Our Fathers by Shawn Lawrence Otto (Milkweed Editions):  This debut novel by the award-winning writer and co-producer of the Oscar-nominated film House of Sand and Fog, takes us to a specialized world of banking, casinos and Native American reservations in the "northern heartland" of America.  It's not a world I often encounter in contemporary literature (or, maybe I just need to get out more).  Here's the Jacket Copy to further pique your interest:
JW is a small-town banker. His specialty: teaching other bankers in towns near Indian reservations how to profit from casino deposits without exposing themselves to risk. His problem: having lost his son in a car accident a year ago, JW is depressed, his wife is leaving him, and he can't stop gambling. When he is caught embezzling funds to support his addiction, JW's boss offers him a choice. He can either accept responsibility and go to prison, or use his talents to sabotage a competing Native American banker named Johnny Eagle. With the clock ticking, JW moves into a trailer on the reservation within sight of his prey. But as he befriends Eagle and his son, JW finds that his plan to reclaim his freedom will be more dangerous than he ever could have imagined.

The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies (Torrey House Press):  The subtitle of this edition of Jefferies' 1883 autobiography bears mentioning: "As Rediscovered by Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams."  When I saw one of our most respected nature writers (When Women Were Birds) and her husband were bringing a 131-year-old book to my attention, I sat up a little straighter and peered a little closer.  Here's the Jacket Copy with the backstory:
While browsing a Stonington, Maine, bookstore, Brooke Williams and Terry Tempest Williams discovered a rare copy of an exquisite autobiography by nineteenth-century British nature writer Richard Jefferies, who develops his understanding of a "soul-life" while wandering the wild countryside of Wiltshire, England. Brooke and Terry, like John Fowles, Henry Miller, and Rachel Carson before, were inspired by the prescient words of this visionary writer, who describes ineffable feelings of being at one with nature. In an introduction and essays set alongside Jefferies' writing, the Williams share their personal pilgrimage to Wiltshire to understand this man of "cosmic consciousness" and how their exploration of Jefferies deepened their own relationship while illuminating dilemmas of modernity, the intrinsic need for wildness, and what it means to be human in the twenty-first century.
Here are the Opening Lines, as published by Jefferies in 1883:
The story of my heart commences seventeen years ago. In the glow of youth, there were times every now and then when I felt the necessity of a strong inspiration of soul-thought. My heart was dusty, parched for want of the rain of deep feeling; my mind arid and dry, for there is a dust which settles on the heart as well as that which falls on a ledge. It is injurious to the mind as well as to the body to be always in one place and always surrounded by the same circumstances. A species of thick clothing slowly grows about the mind, the pores are choked, little habits become a part of existence, and by degrees the mind is inclosed in a husk. When this began to form I felt eager to escape from it, to throw off the heavy clothing, to drink deeply once more at the fresh foundations of life. An inspiration--a long deep breath of the pure air of thought--could alone give health to the heart.
Chapters of Jefferies' 19th-century book are interspersed with Brooke's writing about his relationship with Terry and how his reading of the book impacts him in the deepest, most spiritual ways.  This looks like it will be the perfect kind of book to read this winter, what I've always consider a contemplative season.

Straight White Male by John Niven (Grove/Atlantic):  Oh, Opening Lines, how I love you so!  Let me pull you close, press the flesh of my eyes against the curve of your vowels, and ravish you all night long!
      He recrossed his legs, comfortable in the club chair, and gazed out through the floor-to-ceiling windows, pretending to consider the question. From where he sat, nicely chilled by the AC, high in Century City (the shark tank of CAA just down the street), Kennedy Marr could look east and see downtown Los Angeles broiling in the July heat. ‘Broiling’. Ach – these Americans. He’d been here eight years and he still didn’t really know what ‘broiling’ was. Somewhere between frying and boiling? Wouldn’t ‘froiling’ be better? Whatever – it was just after 11 a.m. and it was already froiling. This demented city, this insult to nature: a garden carved out of desert basin. Like maintaining a 20,000-hectare greenhouse in the Arctic. He became aware that Dr Brendle – one of this demented city’s more demented creations, Kennedy thought – was looking at him expectantly, his pinched, serious face demanding an answer. Kennedy now realised he had completely forgotten what the question had been. Not a listener.
      ‘Could you, ah, could you rephrase that please?’ he said, smoothing down the leg of his linen suit, feeling the sluggish tug of the enormous screwdriver he’d guzzled at a bar off Santa Monica Boulevard on the way here, to fortify himself for this hellish, weekly appointment.
      ‘Well, another way of putting it,’ Brendle said, clicking his pen on and off, ‘would be to ask why, as an intelligent man whose working life must involve a good degree of self-analysis, do you continue to indulge in behaviour that you know is hurtful to those around you?’
It's going to be pretty easy to indulge, binge and engorge on John Niven's tasty new novel, Straight White Male.  Here's the Jacket Copy for your ogling pleasure:
Irish novelist Kennedy Marr is a first rate bad boy. When he is not earning a fortune as one of Hollywood's most sought after script writers, he is drinking, insulting and philandering his way through LA, 'successfully debunking the myth that men are unable to multitask'. He is loved by many women, but loathed by even more including ex-wives on both sides of the pond. Kennedy's appetite for trouble is insatiable, but when he discovers that he owes 1.4 million dollars in back taxes, it seems his outrageous, hedonistic lifestyle may not be as sustainable as he thought. Forced to accept a teaching position at sleepy Deeping University, where his ex-wife and teenaged daughter now reside, Kennedy returns to England with a paper trail of tabloid headlines and scorned starlets hot on his bespoke heels. However, as he acclimatizes to the quaint campus Kennedy is forced to reconsider his laddish lifestyle. Incredible as it may seem, there might actually be a father and a teacher lurking inside this 'preening, narcissistic, priapic sociopath'. Straight White Male is a wildly funny and whip smart tale of Kennedy's transatlantic misadventures. It's an uninhibited and heartfelt look at the mid-life crisis of a lovable rogue.
Ooo, and la, and la!

Jackaby by William Ritter (Algonquin Books):  R. F. Jackaby, "an enigmatic detective of all things supernatural," has a staff whose members include a duck and a frog.  Oh man, you had me at "enigmatic"; the animal assistants just sealed the deal.  The first in a planned series for Algonquin's Young Readers imprint, Jackaby captured my attention well before its publication date.  I welcomed its arrival on my front porch.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
"Miss Rook, I am not an occultist," Jackaby said. "I have a gift that allows me to see truth where others see the illusion--and there are many illusions. All the world's a stage, as they say, and I seem to have the only seat in the house with a view behind the curtain." Newly arrived in New Fiddleham, New England, 1892, and in need of a job, Abigail Rook meets R. F. Jackaby, an investigator of the unexplained with a keen eye for the extraordinary--including the ability to see supernatural beings. Abigail has a gift for noticing ordinary but important details, which makes her perfect for the position of Jackaby's assistant. On her first day, Abigail finds herself in the midst of a thrilling case: A serial killer is on the loose. The police are convinced it's an ordinary villain, but Jackaby is certain it's a nonhuman creature, whose existence the police--with the exception of a handsome young detective named Charlie Cane--deny. Doctor Who meets Sherlock in a debut novel, the first in a series, brimming with cheeky humor and a dose of the macabre.
Blurbworthiness: “Toss together an alternate 19th-century New England city, a strong tradition of Sherlockian pastiche, and one seriously ugly hat, and this lighthearted and assured debut emerges, all action and quirk.”  (Publishers Weekly)

McGlue by Ottessa Moshfegh (Fence Books):  Winner of the 2014 Fence Modern Prize in Prose, Moshfegh's novel opens with an epigraph from Emerson: "The young men were born with knives in their brain."  From what I've read so far, that's the perfect tone to set for this electrifying short novel.  As prize judge Rivka Galchen noted, "A sextant of the psyche, McGlue works its grand knowing through the mouthfeel of language; it's a sharply intelligent, beautiful, and singular novel.  A scion of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Raymond Carver at once, Moshfegh transforms a poison into an intoxicant."  The proof is in the poison--here are the Opening Lines:
      I wake up.
      My shirtfront is stiff and bibbed brown. I take it to be dried blood and I'm a dead man. The ocean air persuades me to doubt, to reel my head in double-, triple-takes towards my feet. My feet are on the ground. It may be that I fell face first in mud. Anyway, I'm still too drunk to care.
The Jacket Copy hints at how McGlue got in this sorry state of affairs:
      Salem, Massachusetts, 1851: McGlue is in the hold, still too drunk to be sure of name or situation or orientation--he may have killed a man. That man may have been his best friend. Intolerable memory accompanies sobriety. A-sail on the high seas of literary tradition, Ottessa Moshfegh gives us a nasty heartless blackguard on a knife-sharp voyage through the fogs of recollection.
      "They said I've done something wrong?...And they've just left me down here to starve. They'll see this inanition and be so damned they'll fall to my feet and pass up hot cross buns slathered in fresh butter and beg I forgive them. All of them...the entire world one by one. Like a good priest I'll pat their heads and nod. I'll dunk my skull into a barrel of gin."
Blurbworthiness: "Short-fiction genius Ottessa Moshfegh's first novel is a gorgeously sordid story of love and murder on the high seas and in reeky corners of mid-nineteenth-century New York and points North.  McGlue is a wonderwork of virtuoso prose and truths that will make you squirm and concur."  (Gary Lutz)

Friday Freebie: The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill and Somebody Up There Hates You by Hollis Seamon

Congratulations to Josh Mahler and Deborah Henry, winners of last week's Friday Freebie giveaway.  Josh and Deb will soon be enjoying Emily St. John's backlist: Last Night in Montreal, The Singer's Gun and The Lola Quartet.

Up for grabs in this week's contest, I've got two novels from Algonquin Books: The Witch's Boy by Kelly Barnhill and Somebody Up There Hates You by Hollis Seamon.  I suppose they could be classified as "Young Adult," but really these books are for readers both young(ish) and old.  I know they're in my To-Be-Read pile, and they should be in yours, too.  One lucky reader will win a hardback edition of both books.  By the way, in case you missed Kelly's contribution to the "My First Time" series here at the blog, you should check it out.  Read on for more information on the novels....

Here's what I had to say about The Witch's Boy in a previous Front Porch Books here at the blog: Kelly Barnhill's fairy tale (the first four words are "Once upon a time") is tinted with tones of Disney elements: enchanted kingdoms, meek heroes finding inner strength, the everlasting bonds of friendship, etc.  That's why it's a little surprising to see the death of a major character on page 2 of this novel for young readers.  Then again, I have to remind myself, even Bambi's mother died and Old Yeller had to be put down.  In The Witch's Boy, Ned and his identical twin Tam secretly build a raft and, once they feel the vessel is seaworthy, slide into the Great River, hoping to make it to the sea.  The raft is a failure, both boys tumble into the river's current, and their agonized father dives in, knowing he can save only one of his children.  People call from the shore: "If you can only save one, make sure you save the right one."  That's quite a moral dilemma to present to young readers right off the bat, isn't it?  But I think it helps us sympathize all the more with Ned, the one who was saved, the one the villagers say was the wrong one.  In just three pages, Barnhill has already set the hook and grabbed my attention.  But wait, it gets even better.  Ned's mother, it turns out, is a witch, "the keeper of a small store of magic--one so ancient and so powerful that everyone knew it would kill a man if he touched it--but it did her no good.  Her magic could only be used in the service of others."  All the spells in the world cannot revive Sister Witch's drowned son.  Anne Ursu, author of Breadcrumbs, had this to say about the novel: "The Witch’s Boy is equal parts enchanting and haunting.  Kelly Barnhill is master of truly potent and unruly magic."

I was drawn into Hollis Seamon's 2013 novel Somebody Up There Hates You from the opening paragraphs:
      I shit you not. Hey, I'm totally reliable, sweartogod. I, Richard Casey--aka the Incredible Dying Boy--actually do live, temporarily, in the very hospice unit I'm going to tell you about. Third floor, Hilltop Hospital, in the city of Hudson, the great state of New York.
      Let me tell you just one thing about this particular hospice. Picture this: right in front of the elevator that spits people into our little hospice home there is a harpist. No joke. Right there in our lobby, every damn day, this old lady with white hair and weird long skirts sits by a honking huge harp and strums her heart out. Or plucks, whatever. The harp makes all these sappy sweet notes that stick in your throat.
Here's the publisher's synopsis of the novel: "Chemo, radiation, a zillion surgeries, watching my mom age twenty years in twenty months...if that's part of the Big Dude's plan, then it's pretty obvious, isn't it?  Enough said."  Smart-mouthed and funny, sometimes raunchy, Richard Casey is in most ways a typical seventeen-year-old boy.  Except Richie has cancer, and he's spending his final days in a hospice unit.  His mother, his doctors, and the hospice staff are determined to keep Richie alive as long as possible.  But in this place where people go to die, Richie has plans to make the most of the life he has left.  Sylvie, the only other hospice inmate under sixty, then tells Richie she has a few plans of her own.  What begins as camaraderie quickly blossoms into real love, and this star-crossed pair is determined to live on their own terms, in whatever time they have left.

If you’d like a chance at winning both books, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Sept. 18, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 19.  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, September 11, 2014

Full-Frontal Fiction: Naked Me by Christian Winn

What does a wife's skin feel like under bathtub water?  Like rubber or hard-boiled eggs.

What does Puget Sound smell like in the summer?  Coppertone and grease.

How does it feel to be a single thirty-year-old woman in 1997, the year all the celebrities died?  Broken and haunted and lonely and mortal.

These may seem like random, insignificant things, but as any lover of short fiction can tell you, these small pointillistic details add up to make a deep, large portrait in a tiny frame.  Short story writers only have a reader's attention for a limited time and space, so they better make sure those stippled dots of paint are vivid and indelible.

In his debut collection, Naked Me, Christian Winn does a superb job of making sure we remember his people and places--not only in the examples I cited above, but in stories that show us what it's like to have sex with a desirable women while a balcony full of your friends voyeurs your intimacy from across the street (further complicating matters: you used to be one of those balcony-oglers and you're in the woman's apartment on a bet); or what it's like to be on the losing end of a fistfight with a Mormon; or what it's like to be a teenager whose best friend's mother is going cuckoo.

This latter story, "The Dirtiest Hamburger in the World," captures the world of a teenager in a way that would make John Green (or S. E. Hinton or Judy Blume) jealous.  Here's how it begins:
It was the first week of July when Drew came over at 9 a.m., told me his mother was hunched in her bedroom closet pretending she was a rabbit.  He said she was eating a Pop-Tart with tiny buck-toothed bites.  He wanted it to be funny, but I know he was scared.  We were fourteen.
Set in 1980, the story absolutely nails adolescence to the wall, reminding the adult me what it was like to be a teenager just starting to come into his own as a person--caught without a map in the twilight world between child and adult.  The boys in "The Dirtiest Hamburger in the World" have a lot of time on their hands since Drew, a star pitcher, quit the summer league baseball team in solidarity with Bradley (the story's narrator) who'd just been kicked off by their temperamental coach.  The two roam "the hidden folds" of their mid-sized California town, scavenging a switchblade, a bag of dope and a box of old Playboys.  They also find the titular hamburger, a ten-foot plastic thing with a "giant yellow bun," charred-black patty, and "unreal bright green" lettuce.  In a parking lot behind Ling's Chinese Restaurant and the Tip Top Tavern, the burger is "just sitting there dusty and covered with leaves."  They hang out on the burger, smoke stolen cigarettes and try to defend their territory from older bullies.  The story is sweet, tough-as-nails, and ultimately very sad.  I loved it.

I'm also extremely fond of "Where He's Living Now," in which a thirty-year-old son tries to reconnect with his distant, widowed father.  They try to get past their strained banter and bond over golf, club sandwiches and a Padres game.  But it isn't until they play a game of Scrabble with a friend and his wheelchair-bound son that they really connect.  "Where He's Living Now" might just put a lump in your throat.

In "Mr. Formal," twenty-one-year-old Stephen is trying to sort out his life in the wake of his parents' messy breakup.  Stephen works at a tuxedo shop in Boise, Idaho, where he's moved to be with his father.  At the tux store, he suffers from ennui ("fallout-shelter-type bored"), but hey, "at least I worked at the Broadway store, and not at the mall where horny high school dudes with their wispy mustaches and stringy, mullety hair--endlessly lining up to pay good money for a rented outfit they assumed, along with dinner at Johnny Carino's, would get them laid."  Like "Where He's Living Now," "Mr. Formal" ends on a sweet note of paternal love.  At a party, Stephen picks up a one-night stand--a redhead named Shasta.  They break in to Mr. Formal, make love in the back room, then dress themselves in tuxedos and go to Stephen's house to drunkenly show off their duds.  When they get there, though, they spy Stephen's father through the dining room picture window.  He's ballroom dancing with himself:
      As Dad reached for the wine glass and brought it to his lips he saw us, and froze--maybe scared? embarrassed? sweetly elated?
      "He's had a couple."  I quietly waved to my father.
      "So have we," Shasta said, and a tingle sped through me.
      In a round, muffled tone I heard him through the window: "Stephen!  My boy!  I'm dancing, dancing!"  He foxtrotted toward the window, spun again, tiptoed, twirled, wine glass still in hand.
      "Who is this?!" he said, pointing.
      "Dad," I yelled, pointing back at him, then at the pretty girl on my arm.  "This is Shasta."
      "Yes it is!"
      "You're a great dancer," Shasta said.  "You really are!"
      He shuffled slowly, gracefully to the window.  "So be it," my father said, leaning his forehead against the glass, rattling the still night air.  He looked peaceful, content to be seeing me like that, and I was happier for him than I had been in years, maybe happier than I would ever be again, as he pulled away, rubbed his dark chin-stubble, studying us.
      "You're looking pretty good there, Dad!"
There are so many fine moments like this throughout the book.  The stories are emotionally uncompromising in their approach and paint vivid worlds in which we may, on occasion, see ourselves staring back from the page.  This is full-frontal fiction: Christian Winn strips away all the layers that form a barrier between words and our hearts.