Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sunday Sentence: Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall


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


Poems are image-bursts from brain-depths, words flavored by buttery long vowels.

Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall


Friday, January 24, 2020

Friday Freebie: The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison


Congratulations to Julie Geisler, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Everywhere You Don’t Belong by Gabriel Bump.

This week’s contest is for The Source of Self-Regard by Toni Morrison. I have one trade paperback copy of the book to put in the hands of one lucky reader. It’s impossible to argue with the New York Times when it writes: “Morrison is more than the standard bearer of American literature. She is our greatest singer. And this book is perhaps her most important song.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...


Here is Toni Morrison in her own words: a rich gathering of her most important essays and speeches, spanning four decades. These pages give us her searing prayer for the dead of 9/11, her Nobel lecture on the power of language, her searching meditation on Martin Luther King Jr., her heart-wrenching eulogy for James Baldwin. She looks deeply into the fault lines of culture and freedom: the foreigner, female empowerment, the press, money, “black matter(s),” human rights, the artist in society, the Afro-American presence in American literature. And she turns her incisive critical eye to her own work (The Bluest Eye, Sula, Tar Baby, Jazz, Beloved, Paradise) and that of others. An essential collection from an essential writer, The Source of Self-Regard shines with the literary elegance, intellectual prowess, spiritual depth, and moral compass that have made Toni Morrison our most cherished and enduring voice.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Source of Self-Regard, simply e-mail your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please (or, two if you share the post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 30 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 31. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your e-mail address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book). P.S. Since I’m downsizing my own book collection, I’ll occasionally toss an extra book into package. If you aren’t interested in reading the extra “Freebie,” please consider donating it to your local little free library.

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, January 19, 2020

Sunday Sentence: The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon


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


       God does not leave us
       comfortless, so let evening come.


from “Let Evening Come” in The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon


New Year, New City, New Apartment, New Writing Space



“Oh, wow,” I said as we took our seats at the large table in the back room of the title company.

“What?” Jean said.

“This is the same table and the same chairs we sat in eleven years ago.”

My wife took stock of the room. “You’re right. That is weird.”

“Full circle,” I said as I reached for a pen to start signing the papers.

It was the end of a decade-long chapter in our lives, a long chapter full of ups and too many downs for the both of us. It was the longest either of us had lived in one place in our entire lives, but now it was time to leave Butte, Montana and put it in our rear-view mirror as we drove an hour north along the interstate to Helena. I held the pen lightly in my fingers and swirled my signature across a couple dozen papers, closing the sale of the house we’d bought in February 2009. In California, a gentleman we’d never met would be doing the same thing at roughly the same time. And then, our separate inks drying, the deed was done. The house was out of our hands.

Oh, Argyle Street House, I have loved you so over the years and my throat is soggy with tears at the thought of leaving you, but I think you and I both knew it was time to go. We made a lot of memories together, you and I.

This 4,000-square-foot Craftsman home, built in 1920 has housed many families over the years: the Martins, the Duttons, the Archibalds, the Casebeers. The hardwood floors and the narrow winding staircases creak with the voices of ghosts; the huge, immovable safe in the basement holds its own secrets; the hardwood bar has been polished by generations of drinkers’ elbows. Over the years of our ownership, the whole house shone with beauty, particularly after Jean finished adding her own beautiful design touches to each room—a vintage-white look that was prominently featured in the nationally-circulated magazine Cottages and Bungalows (you can see the sexy-gorgeous photo shoot here).

This was the house where I finished the final draft of my first novel, Fobbit, and wrote the entirety of my second novel, Brave Deeds. There, in the upstairs bedroom I converted into my writing space, is where this very blog was born. Many writer friends have stayed overnight in the spare bedrooms, and polished the basement bar with their elbows (along with a few tipsy slops of gin and tonics). This is the house where I have read more than a thousand books and which, until recently, I kept ten times that number on the tall white bookcases lining the basement. This was the house of Thanksgivings and Christmases and birthdays and anniversaries and epic video-game tournaments. It has been home to five cats and the occasional visiting dog (whose departure was always greeted with wary feline stretches and sniffings). It has ridden unharmed through several earthquakes, been battered by wind and snow, and has seen its walls drenched more than once by burst pipes. But it was always kind to us and never said a word during our multiple interior renovations (“Mrs. Abrams,” I said, trying to sound Reagan-esque as we re-did the kitchen several years ago, “tear down these walls!”). And during two Christmases, and two Christmases only, Argyle Street House endured in silent suffering the ignominy of my talentless attempts to string lights around the front porch.

Goodbye, good house. We will always hold you in our hearts with love and appreciation.

Not so much with Butte itself. I have feelings about the city and they’re....complicated. Soon after we moved there, Jean and I were full of hope and optimism for Butte, a once-great mining town whose glory days are crumbling in the past but whose renewal seems to always be on the menu of conversation at the local coffee shops. “It’s on the cusp of revitalization,” we told ourselves. “Any day now, it’s gonna turn the corner and really be something.” The city’s motto is “The Richest Hill on Earth,” and we hoped we could help the place cash in on that promise. But our payday never came and we eventually realized we were fools for waiting on the town to turn a corner.

Butte has been punched to the ground time and time again by the economy (and the occasional corrupt city leadership), but it’s always managed to stagger woozily to its feet and continue the fight. Over the years, we’ve heard it all. Butte is quirky, Butte is a hard nut to crack, Butte is beautiful, Butte is fugly, Butte is Butte and don’t, by God, try to change it. About two years ago, Jean and I realized that the town was starting to drag us down emotionally and physically. And so, eighteen months ago, we started to plot our escape.

At first, we thought we would literally escape in an RV, roaming the country like nomads in our 26-foot Thor Vegas; but one evening of sober math and writing a list of pros and cons made us realize that wouldn’t be financially feasible. And so we started planning for other options. Around this time, I got a new boss at work and I screwed my courage to the sticking point by going in to ask her if she thought telecommuting would be a viable possibility. To my surprise and overwhelming gratitude, she said yes. And so, starting this week, I am officially telecommuting from Helena, driving the hour south to Butte to my office just one or two days a week. The rest of the time, I’ll be working from our apartment in the state’s capital city.

The Blackstone in the 1930s

Ah yes, the apartment. Let me tell you about this place we found: we have fallen in love with it as surely as any high school geek fell in love with Molly Ringwald by the final reel of an 80s movie. The Blackstone is an old-school apartment building, built in 1915 (yes, we like to date older men—what of it?) and still going strong today with twenty-eight units for rent among its four floors. It has the atmosphere, as someone said on my Facebook page, of an apartment building from an 80s sitcom. I tend to liken it to apartments from noir films from the 1940s and 50s. I mean, it even has an old timey-time manual cage elevator.


Our apartment is also less than one-quarter the size of the living space than what we had at Argyle Street House.

We are not complaining, we are adjusting.

The Blackstone is located just off of Last Chance Gulch, Helena’s historic district, and we’re within easy striding distance of a dozen good (and gluten-free-friendly!) restaurants, two movie theaters, several banks, the post office, two yoga studios, art galleries, antique stores, the civic center, and not one but two independent bookstores. There is even a community theater kitty-corner from the Blackstone for goodness sake! The public library is less than half a mile away. It’s a tread-worn cliche, but I’ll say it anyway: Life is good.

We’re in a two-bedroom, one-bath on the fourth floor—the entire east side of the building—and, to our joy, we still have hardwood floors (with a whole new playlist of creaks). Here are a few photos of the decorating magic Jean has already performed in our new small space (with many more tweaks and changes to come, she assures me), complete with the typical feline photobombs....

The Entryway

The Living Room

The Dining Room

The Bedroom

The spare bedroom is taken up with a bed (go figure), so I have settled on a different location for my writing space: a sun porch near the back of the apartment which looks out onto the backside of the Blackstone and the opposite sun porches and neighbors’ windows. There is a strong Rear Window vibe going on here. I expect to gather new stories every time I glance out the window. A plastic owl perches on the top railing of my fire escape and I still do a startled double-take when I walk into the office. It’s not a huge writing space, but why should that matter much when all I need is a laptop and a place to set my coffee mug? I managed to get a metal shelf loaded with about two hundred of the books that are on my immediate to-be-read list (it’s only the tip of the TBR iceberg—the real list goes on for fifty single-spaced pages on my computer).


But even in this cold and drafty room, I find pleasure and comfort. I have my reading chair, I have a large folding table that works well as a desk, I have some companionable books smiling at me, I have my three cats that take turns curling like soft fuzzy heaters on my lap, I have the sound of my wife listening to YouTube videos in the next room, and, by walking a few short steps out to the dining room, I have a beautiful view of dawn breaking behind the spires of the Cathedral of Saint Helena a few blocks away. I’ll say it again: Life is damn good and I’m glad I’m here in this moment in this new town in this new life at the dawn of a new decade. Turn the page, begin a new chapter.



Friday, January 17, 2020

Friday Freebie: Everywhere You Don’t Belong by Gabriel Bump


Congratulations to JT O’Neill, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Horizon by Barry Lopez.

This week’s contest is for Everywhere You Don’t Belong by Gabriel Bump. I have one hardcover copy of the book to put in the hands of one lucky reader. Here’s what Peter Orner, author of Maggie Brown and Others, had to say about the novel: “Sometimes you open a book and you know from the very first page, this thing’s alive. You know what I mean? (How often does this not happen? You open a book and it’s just a book?) Gabriel Bump’s Everywhere You Don’t Belong’s got a racing pulse, and a beautiful propulsion, a ton of humor, wonderful dialogue, deep characterization, and cold-eyed-truth.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...


In this alternately witty and heartbreaking debut novel, Gabriel Bump gives us an unforgettable protagonist, Claude McKay Love. Claude isn’t dangerous or brilliant—he’s an average kid coping with abandonment, violence, riots, failed love, and societal pressures as he steers his way past the signposts of youth: childhood friendships, basketball tryouts, first love, first heartbreak, picking a college, moving away from home. Claude just wants a place where he can fit. As a young black man born on the South Side of Chicago, he is raised by his civil rights–era grandmother, who tries to shape him into a principled actor for change; yet when riots consume his neighborhood, he hesitates to take sides, unwilling to let race define his life. He decides to escape Chicago for another place, to go to college, to find a new identity, to leave the pressure cooker of his hometown behind. But as he discovers, he cannot; there is no safe haven for a young black man in this time and place called America. Percolating with fierceness and originality, attuned to the ironies inherent in our twenty-first-century landscape, Everywhere You Don’t Belong marks the arrival of a brilliant young talent.

If you’d like a chance at winning Everywhere You Don’t Belong, simply e-mail your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please (or, two if you share the post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 23 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 24. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your e-mail address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book). P.S. Since I’m downsizing my own book collection, I’ll occasionally toss an extra book into package. If you aren’t interested in reading the extra “Freebie,” please consider donating it to your local little free library.

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, January 16, 2020

Fresh Ink: January 2020 edition


Fresh Ink* 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.

[*Since I have recently moved into a new apartment, sans an actual front porch, I decided to rename this monthly feature formerly known as Front Porch Books.]



Morningside Heights
by Joshua Henkin
(Pantheon)

Jacket Copy:  When Ohio-born Pru Steiner arrives in New York in 1976 after graduating from Yale, she follows in a long tradition of young people determined to take the city by storm. But when she falls in love with Spence Robin, her hotshot young Shakespeare professor, her life takes a turn she couldn’t have anticipated. Thirty years later, something is wrong with Spence. The Great Man can’t concentrate; he falls asleep reading The New York Review of Books. With their daughter Sarah away at medical school, Pru must struggle on her own. One day, feeling particularly isolated, Pru meets a man, and the possibility of new romance blooms. Meanwhile, Spence’s estranged son from his first marriage has come back into their lives. Arlo, a wealthy entrepreneur who invests in biotech, may be his father’s last, best hope. Morningside Heights is a sweeping and compassionate novel about a marriage surviving hardship. It’s about the love between women and men and children and parents, about the things we give up in the face of adversity, about what endures when life turns out differently from what we thought we signed up for.

Opening Lines:  Growing up in Bexley, in the suburbs of Columbus, Pru had been drawn to the older boys, thinking they could take her far from home. Her father was from Brooklyn, her mother from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, but they met in the middle of the country, in Ann Arbor, at a freshman mixer in 1944. Pru’s father was studying engineering, and when he graduated he went to work for GM. But he wasn’t cut out for the auto industry, for its assembly lines and economies of scale, and Pru’s mother didn’t like Detroit, where there was Ten Mile Road and Eleven Mile Road and Twelve Mile Road, everything measured in a car. But Pru’s father liked the Midwest, and when an opportunity arose in Columbus, he settled on it.

Blurbworthiness:  “Few American novelists, living or dead, have ever been as good as Henkin at drawing people.” (D. G. Myers, Commentary Magazine)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Well, that cover design is killer, for starters. But it’s the focus on marriage and how things don’t always turn out as its partners hope for that really draws me closer.



Universe of Two
by Stephen P. Kiernan
(HarperCollins)

Jacket Copy:  From the critically acclaimed author of The Baker’s Secret and The Curiosity comes a novel of conscience, love, and redemption—a fascinating fictionalized account of the life of Charlie Fisk, a gifted mathematician who was drafted into Manhattan Project and ordered against his morals to build the detonator for the atomic bomb. With his musician wife, he spends his postwar life seeking redemption—and they find it together. Graduating from Harvard at the height of World War II, brilliant mathematician Charlie Fish is assigned to the Manhattan Project. Working with some of the age’s greatest scientific minds, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard, Charlie is assigned the task of designing and building the detonator of the atomic bomb. As he performs that work Charlie suffers a crisis of conscience, which his wife, Brenda—unaware of the true nature of Charlie’s top-secret task—mistakes as self-doubt. She urges him to set aside his qualms and continue. Once the bombs strike Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the feelings of culpability devastate him and Brenda. At the war’s end, Charlie receives a scholarship to pursue a PhD in physics at Stanford—an opportunity he and Brenda hope will allow them a fresh start. But the past proves inescapable. All any of his new colleagues can talk about is the bomb, and what greater atomic weapons might be on the horizon. Haunted by guilt, Charlie and Brenda leave Stanford and decide to dedicate the rest of their lives to making amends for the evil he helped to birth into the world. Based on the life of the actual mathematician Charles B. Fisk, Universe of Two combines riveting historical drama with a poignant love story. Stephen Kiernan has conjured a remarkable account of two people struggling to heal their consciences and find peace in a world forever changed.

Opening Lines:  I met Charlie Fish in Chicago in the fall of 1943. First I dismissed him, then I liked him, then I ruined him, then I saved him.

Blurbworthiness:  “Stephen Kiernan has pulled off the nearly impossible, reminding us by wrapping a war story in a love story that although we hold the power for our own extinction, we also have the power to redeem, heal, and save. The most tender, terrifying, relevant book you’ll read this year.” (Jenna Blum, author of Those Who Save Us)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Thoughtful novels about war and conscience will always find a place on my shelves.



Fishing!
by Sarah Stonich
(University of Minnesota Press)

Jacket Copy:  Having fled the testosterone-soaked world of professional sport fishing, thirty-something RayAnne Dahl is navigating a new job as a consultant for the first all-women talk show about fishing on public television (or, as one viewer’s husband puts it, “Oprah in a boat”). After the host bails, RayAnne lands in front of the camera and out of her depth at the helm of the show. Is she up for the challenge? Meanwhile, her family proves as high-maintenance as her fixer-upper house and her clingy rescue dog. Her dad, star of the one-season Big Rick’s Bass Bonanza, is on his sixth wife and falling off the wagon and into RayAnne’s career path; her mother, a new-age aging coach for the menopausal rich, provides endless unwanted advice; and her beloved grandmother Dot—whose advice RayAnne needs—is far away and far from well. But as RayAnne says, “I’m a woman, I fish. Deal with it.” And just when things seem to be coming together—the show is an unlikely hit; she receives the admiration of a handsome sponsor (out of bounds as he is, but definitely in the wings); ungainly house and dog are finally in hand—RayAnne’s world suddenly threatens to capsize, and she’s faced with a gut-wrenching situation and a heartbreaking decision. First published in 2015 under a pseudonym, this first installment in a trilogy filled with hilarity and heartbreak unspools with the gentle wit and irresistible charm that readers of Sarah Stonich have come to expect. Fishing! eases us into unsuspected depths as it approaches the essential question: when should life be steered by the heart, not the rules?

Opening Lines:  When the conference room lights dim unexpectedly, RayAnne blinks in mild alarm, thinking of the scene in Dark Victory when Bette Davis goes so enchantingly blind. But it’s only someone fiddling with the dimmer—she’s forgotten the meeting agenda includes a screening of the new intro for the show. The rear screen projector descends and strains of accordion and steel guitar swell from nowhere. Under the table, she dribbles an orange Croc back and forth between bare feet until Cassi’s studded leather boot gently pins her instep. Of course she’s nervous—who wants to watch their own flawed self fumble around on-screen in high-def digital?

Blurbworthiness:  “A lighthearted, comedic novel for women that isn’t all about landing a man (fishing pun intended).”  (Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Three reasons: an unusual subject matter (at least, not one I've come across very often in literary novels), a writer who really knows how to reel in her readers, and characters that leap out of the water and land in my lap (all the puns intended).



The Night Watchman
by Louise Erdrich
(Harper Collins)

Jacket Copy:  Based on the extraordinary life of National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich’s grandfather who worked as a night watchman and carried the fight against Native dispossession from rural North Dakota all the way to Washington, D.C., this powerful novel explores themes of love and death with lightness and gravity and unfolds with the elegant prose, sly humor, and depth of feeling of a master craftsman. Thomas Wazhushk is the night watchman at the jewel bearing plant, the first factory located near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. He is also a Chippewa Council member who is trying to understand the consequences of a new “emancipation” bill on its way to the floor of the United States Congress. It is 1953 and he and the other council members know the bill isn’t about freedom; Congress is fed up with Indians. The bill is a “termination” that threatens the rights of Native Americans to their land and their very identity. How can the government abandon treaties made in good faith with Native Americans “for as long as the grasses shall grow, and the rivers run”? Since graduating high school, Pixie Paranteau has insisted that everyone call her Patrice. Unlike most of the girls on the reservation, Patrice, the class valedictorian, has no desire to wear herself down with a husband and kids. She makes jewel bearings at the plant, a job that barely pays her enough to support her mother and brother. Patrice’s shameful alcoholic father returns home sporadically to terrorize his wife and children and bully her for money. But Patrice needs every penny to follow her beloved older sister, Vera, who moved to the big city of Minneapolis. Vera may have disappeared; she hasn’t been in touch in months, and is rumored to have had a baby. Determined to find Vera and her child, Patrice makes a fateful trip to Minnesota that introduces her to unexpected forms of exploitation and violence, and endangers her life. Thomas and Patrice live in this impoverished reservation community along with young Chippewa boxer Wood Mountain and his mother Juggie Blue, her niece and Patrice’s best friend Valentine, and Stack Barnes, the white high school math teacher and boxing coach who is hopelessly in love with Patrice. In The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich creates a fictional world populated with memorable characters who are forced to grapple with the worst and best impulses of human nature. Illuminating the loves and lives, the desires and ambitions of these characters with compassion, wit, and intelligence, The Night Watchman is a majestic work of fiction from this revered cultural treasure.

Opening Lines:  Thomas Wazhushk removed his thermos from his armpit and set it on the steel desk alongside his scuffed briefcase. His canvas work jacket went on the chair, his lunch box on the cold windowsill. When he took off his padded tractor hat, a crab apple fell from the earflap. A gift from his daughter Fee. He put it out on the desktop to admire. Then punched his time card. Midnight. he picked up the key ring, a company flashlight, and walked the perimeter of the main floor.

Blurbworthiness:  “Erdrich’s inspired portrait of her own tribe’s resilient heritage masterfully encompasses an array of characters and historical events. Erdrich remains an essential voice.” (Publishers Weekly)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Over the years, my reading of Erdrich has been, frankly and ashamedly, scant (I’ve read Love Medicine and Shadow Tag, but none of her other books). Isn’t it about time I dove deeper into her body of work?



Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom
by Chera Hammons
(Torrey House Press)

Jacket Copy:  Anna and John, a master saddle maker, have created a quiet existence for themselves in rural Vermont, a rugged landscape where coyotes roam, bears threaten the livestock, and poachers trespass. When John is murdered in the woods near their home, chronically ill Anna hides his death in a desperate effort to ensure her own survival and suppress long–buried secrets.

Opening Lines:  The first thing John says when he comes inside is that he has seen blood in the new snow.

Blurbworthiness:  “Ominous from its opening image—blood marring cozy domesticity—Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom is a haunting beauty. Hammons’ prose is tight as a tripwire.” (Kelly Sokol, author of The Unprotected)

Why It’s In My Stack:  That opening scene with a husband and wife discussing blood on fresh snow is like a fish-hook in my eyes, tugging me deeper and deeper into this debut novel.



So We Can Glow
by Leesa Cross-Smith
(Grand Central Publishing)

Jacket Copy:  From Kentucky to the California desert, these forty-two short stories expose the hearts of girls and women in moments of obsessive desire and fantasy, wildness and bad behavior, brokenness and fearlessness, and more. On a hot July night, teenage girls sneak out of the house to meet their boyfriends by the train tracks. Members of a cult form an unsettling chorus as they proclaim their adoration for the same man. A woman luxuriates in a fantasy getaway to escape her past. A love story begins over cabbages in a grocery store, and a laundress’s life is consumed by her obsession with a baseball star. After the death of a sister, two high school friends kiss all night and binge-watch Winona Ryder movies. Leesa Cross-Smith’s sensuous stories—some long, some gone in a flash, some told over text and emails—drench readers in nostalgia for summer nights and sultry days. They recall the intense friendships of teenage girls and the innate bonds between mothers, the first heady rush of desire, and the pure exhilaration of womanhood, all while holding up the wild souls of women so they can catch the light.

Opening Lines:  We’re not depressed all the time, some of us aren’t even depressed sometimes. We’re okay, our hearts, dusted with pink. When we cry in bathrooms together it’s about men or our mothers or our fathers or our bodies.

Blurbworthiness:  “The magic of So We Can Glow is that no matter who you are, no matter your circumstances, no matter your gender identity, when reading this book you become the girls and women in these pages. You hope their hopes, dream their dreams, fantasize and love alongside them. Leesa Cross-Smith is some sort of sorceress.”  (Rion Amilcar Scott, author of The World Doesn’t Require You)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’m hoping to up my short-story game in 2020—I slacked off by only reading nine volumes of short prose last year. So We Glow is first up in the stack after a quick, delicious skim through some of its contents.



A Good Man
by Ani Katz
(Penguin Books)

Jacket Copy:  Thomas Martin was a devoted family man who had all the trappings of an enviable life: a beautiful wife and daughter, a well-appointed home on Long Island’s north shore, a job at a prestigious Manhattan advertising firm. He was also a devoted son and brother, shielding the women in his orbit from the everyday brutalities of the world. But what happens when Thomas’ fragile ego is rocked? After committing a horrific deed—that he can never undo—Thomas grapples with his sense of self. Sometimes he casts himself as a victim and, at other times, a monster. All he ever did was try to be a good man, but maybe if he tells his version of the story, he might uncover how and why things unraveled so horribly.

Opening Lines:  The billy club arrived with the first shipment of Christmas presents that year, one package among several stacked on the front porch.

Blurbworthiness:  “Ani Katz is a brilliant writer. I sat down to read A Good Man and didn’t move until I’d finished it. This is a spellbinding work of psychologically potent art. I can’t wait to read what she does next. I loved this book.”  (Caroline Kepnes, author of You)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I am on the prowl for a good thriller right now. Maybe it’s the unrest of national politics, maybe it’s the upheaval in my own personal life (starting a new phase of my work life in a new city in a new dwelling in the new year), but I want to read something in which horrible people get their comeuppance. I don’t know if the narrator in A Good Man gets what he deserves in the end, but I’ll be along for every step of the unravel. Not to mention the fact that the first sentence of this book has a shout-out to (the former name of) this monthly books column itself!



Pax Americana
by Kurt Baumeister
(Stalking Horse Press)

Jacket Copy:  2034: Evangelical secret agents, fast food moguls, the voice of God in computer software, violence in the Bermuda Triangle! George W. Bush’s foreign policy vindicated by a quick victory in Iraq, lucrative invasions of Egypt and Syria followed, bringing unparalleled prosperity to America and setting off thirty years of right-wing rule. But when a war in Iran goes bad—and the resulting cover-up goes worse—the Democrats reclaim the presidency. This is the time of Pax Americana and its zealous anti-hero, government agent Tuck Squires. Reading the ironic silences between the lines of the thriller, and roaring like a jet engine, Pax Americana is a sacrilegious, conspiratorial monster; like a literary dogfight between Ian Fleming and Robert Anton Wilson, loaded with prophecy, Baumeister’s debut is an exorcism and an antidote for our era.

Blurbworthiness:  “Like an episode of Archer written by Kurt Vonnegut, Baumeister takes us into a hilarious and high-velocity world of espionage and global politics in this send-up of god, country, and the possibility of doing good in a world gone bad. It’s fast-paced fun, watch out for paper cuts as the pages fly by.” (Shya Scanlon, author of The Guild of Saint Cooper)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Though Pax Americana was first published several years ago, it recently landed on my desk with a surprising and comedic sort of sproing! sound. I love a good comedic futuristic thriller. This fits the bill. It sproings right into my to-be-read pile with a gleefully nasty giggle.



Bonnie
by Christina Schwarz
(Atria Books)

Jacket Copy:  Born in a small town in the desolate reaches of western Texas and shaped by her girlhood in an industrial wasteland on the outskirts of Dallas, Bonnie Parker was a natural performer and a star student. She dreamed of being a movie star or a singer or a poet. But her dramatic nature, contorted by her limited opportunities and her overwhelming love for Clyde Barrow, pushed her into a course from which there was no escape but death. Infusing the psychological acuity of literary fiction with the relentless pacing of a thriller, Bonnie follows Bonnie from her bright, promising youth to her final month of shoot-outs, kidnappings, and desperate car chases through America’s hinterland in the grip of the Great Depression, as the noose of the law tightened around her. Enriched by Christina Schwarz’s extensive research in the footsteps of Bonnie and Clyde and written with her powerful sense of place and time, Bonnie is a plaintive and page-turning account of a woman destroyed by a lethal combination of longing and love.

Opening Lines:  In the end, they still have the driving, her scar-shortened leg tucked under her bottom, his stocking feet caressing the pedals, the warm, moist air, like a swift current of dry water, rushing into the car. The cordoba gray V-8 remains a decent machine; the paint is dusty, but they haven’t wrecked any essential parts yet. Its big engine luxuriates in the gas he feeds it. Tires entrenched in well-worn ruts, the car whips around the bends, causing her stomach to rise and fall with the hills. Dallas is comfortingly within reach, but this piney pocket of northwestern Louisiana is softer, sweeter smelling, more often dappled with lacy shade, than any place she’s been in Texas.
       They’ve bought bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches and two bottles of Orange Crush for breakfast at the cafe in Gibsland. She struggles to unwrap a sandwich and keep an open bottle of soda-pop upright with the Remington in her lap and the Colt strapped around her good leg, but he won’t let her transfer the guns to the floor, even for half an hour. He doesn’t trust this place, with its narrow, rutted, curving roads, the way he does the squared-off farm roads of the middle states, where he can push the accelerator to the floor and leave any of the law’s four cylinder machines far behind.
       She, however, feels safe enough—the thick trees hide them from view and, if they’re spotted, plenty of crossroads offer getaways. She’s wearing a pair of spectacles, round with wire frames, that she found in the Ford's glove compartment and that happen to have just the right prescription to correct her nearsightedness. The sharpened, brightened view they offer is still new enough to amaze and delight her, and she is enjoying the illusion that she can see distinctly what lies ahead.

Blurbworthiness:  “Bodies fall, blood flies, Bonnie and Clyde sleep in stolen cars and can’t eat in restaurants but so long as they are in the headlines all is well. In Bonnie, Schwarz has created a mesmerizing portrait of a young woman who longs to live a larger life and who almost always acts in her own worst interests. A stunning novel.”  (Margot Livesey, author of Mercury )

Why It’s In My Stack:  Of course I loved the 1967 movie which forever cemented the outlaw pair’s slow-motion death in our imaginations; but I’m also a fan of Jeff Guinn’s terrific account of B & C’s Depression-era crime spree, Go Down Together. More to the point, I loved Schwarz’s earlier novel Drowning Ruth and, just based on the excerpt I posted here (the entire prologue to Bonnie), I’m looking forward to more of her excellent writing in these pages as she draws me in with sinuously-described details which tighten like a noose and hold me captive to the next page and the next.



Winter Counts
by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
(Ecco)

Jacket Copy:  Virgil Wounded Horse is the local enforcer on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. When justice is denied by the American legal system or the tribal council, Virgil is hired to deliver his own punishment, the kind that’s hard to forget. But when heroin makes its way into the reservation and finds Virgil’s own nephew, his vigilantism suddenly becomes personal. He enlists the help of his ex-girlfriend and sets out to learn where the drugs are coming from, and how to make them stop. They follow a lead to Denver and find that drug cartels are rapidly expanding and forming new and terrifying alliances. And back on the reservation, a new tribal council initiative raises uncomfortable questions about money and power. As Virgil starts to link the pieces together, he must face his own demons and reclaim his Native identity. He realizes that being a Native American in the twenty-first century comes at an incredible cost. Winter Counts is a tour-de-force of crime fiction, a bracingly honest look at a long-ignored part of American life, and a twisting, turning story that’s as deeply rendered as it is thrilling.

Opening Lines:  I leaned back in the seat of my old Ford Pinto, listening to the sounds coming from the Depot, the reservation’s only tavern. There was a stream of Indians and white ranchers going inside. I knew Guv Yellowhawk was there with his buddies, pounding beers and drinking shots. Guv taught gym at the local school—football, basketball, soccer. But, word was, he sometimes got a little too involved with his students, both boys and girls. I was going to let him get good and drunk, then the real party would start. I had brass knuckles and a baseball bat stowed in my trunk, but those wouldn’t be necessary, Guv was a fat-ass piece of shit, with a frybread gut as big as a buffalo’s ass.

Blurbworthiness:  “Winter Counts is a gripping, richly textured thriller and an urgent dispatch from Indian Country. Crimes are solved, violence happens, and Virgil Wounded Horse, a hard-fisted, big-hearted, irresistible Lakota enforcer, guides us through the complicated realities of contemporary Native life on and off the reservation. Weiden writes with impressive authority and insight in this entirely original, enlightening, cliché-destroying novel.”  (James A. McLaughlin, author of Bearskin)

Why It’s In My Stack:  This one looks relevant, timely, gritty, and as in-your-face as a guy who shows up at your door wearing brass knuckles and hefting a baseball bat. Honestly, what choice do I really have but to submit and read?


Sunday, January 12, 2020

Sunday Sentence: Bad Kansas by Becky Mandelbaum


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


I held my tongue, pressed my fingernails into my palms, where they left little frowns of pain.

from “The Golden State” in Bad Kansas by Becky Mandelbaum


Friday, January 10, 2020

Friday Freebie: Horizon by Barry Lopez


Congratulations to Carl Scott, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Story of a Goat by Perumal Murugan.

This week’s contest is for Horizon by Barry Lopez (author of Arctic Dreams and Winter Count). Here’s what Colum McCann had to say about the book: “Nobody journeys like Barry Lopez. He’s humble, he’s ethical, he’s honest, he’s curious, he’s doubtful, he’s properly sad and he’s wild. He wakes us up to the worth and the mystery of the world. His great affection for humanity comes up from every patch of earth he visits. This is an epic book.” I have one paperback copy of Horizon to give away to one lucky reader. Will it be you? Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...


From pole to pole and across decades of lived experience, National Book Award-winning author Barry Lopez delivers his most far-ranging, yet personal, work to date. Horizon moves indelibly, immersively, through the author’s travels to six regions of the world: from Western Oregon to the High Arctic; from the Galápagos to the Kenyan desert; from Botany Bay in Australia to finally, unforgettably, the ice shelves of Antarctica. Along the way, Lopez probes the long history of humanity’s thirst for exploration, including the prehistoric peoples who trekked across Skraeling Island in northern Canada, the colonialists who plundered Central Africa, an enlightenment-era Englishman who sailed the Pacific, a Native American emissary who found his way into isolationist Japan, and today’s ecotourists in the tropics. And always, throughout his journeys to some of the hottest, coldest, and most desolate places on the globe, Lopez searches for meaning and purpose in a broken world.

If you’d like a chance at winning Horizon, simply e-mail your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please (or, two if you share the post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 16 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 17. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your e-mail address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book). P.S. Since I’m downsizing my own book collection, I’ll occasionally toss an extra book into package. If you aren’t interested in reading the extra “Freebie,” please consider donating it to your local little free library.

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.


Friday, January 3, 2020

My Year of Reading: Every Book I Read in 2019



111.

Three slashes, like a prisoner scratching the number of days in his prison cell; in my case, however, I was liberated by the one-hundred-and-eleven books I read in 2019. Not all of them were great, or even good; but the vast majority of the classic and contemporary literature I read was enough to tip the scales on the side of brilliant rather than blasé.

And how do I know exactly how many books I read over the course of the past year? Like many diehard readers, I obsessively track everything in a book log which I have kept since 2005, noting author, title, the number of pages, and—lately—indicating if it’s a library book or an audiobook. I also log everything into my Library Thing account as a way of keeping my shelves sane and orderly (though, with the Great Book Purge of 2019, I no longer own the bulk of that list; nonetheless, I’m not deleting anything on my LT page, partly out of sentimental reasons).

For the statisticians in the group, here’s a breakdown, by the numbers, of my decade of reading (with links back to some previous by-the-numbers blog posts:

2010:  54
2011:  55
2012:  56
2013:  81
2014:  105
2015:  114
2016:  130
2017:  119
2018:  93
2019:  111

The longest book on my 2019 reading log clocked in at 1,144 pages (The Complete Poems of e. e. cummings); the shortest were two children’s books by Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight, Moon and Little Fur Family) at 30 pages each. I didn’t read as many classic books as I’d hoped: only two on the list (three short novels by Gustave Flaubert and one long novel by Anthony Trollope) were published prior to 1900. Most of my reading this year was released in the twenty-first century. As someone who is especially fond of older books, that surprised me somewhat. I hope to do more literary time traveling in 2020.

You can see the picks for my favorite books published in 2019 here, but that only represents a small slice of the whole pie of my reading year.

[A Personal Interlude with some Big Breaking News: Things got kuh-razy busy for my wife Jean and me, starting in mid-summer and continuing until this very minute. After living in Butte, Montana for eleven years, we decided this 4,000-square-foot Craftsman house was just too big for these empty-nesters, so we put it on the market. I’ll spare you the details of all the ups and downs we suffered while riding the real estate rollercoaster—and I eventually stopped sharing the blow-by-blow account on Facebook because things never turned out the way we’d hoped—but at last I can pull the sheet off the Big Reveal: at 11 a.m. yesterday in the Year of Our Lord 2020 we signed the documents (for the fifth offer on the house!) at the title company, thus ending our mostly-happy era of living on Argyle Street. That afternoon, we signed a lease on an apartment (considerably less than 4,000-square feet, yo!) in Helena, an hour north along the interstate. One U-Haul, two days, and many sore muscles later, we are settling in to our fresh new life in a fresh new city.  I’ll still keep my day job with the federal government since my boss has graciously allowed me to telecommute, so little will change in that regard. As for the three cats...? Well, I’m sure they’ll be stressed at first, but Jean and I are pretty sure they’ll love the new place on the fourth floor of the apartment building since it has plenty of windows where they can watch “Bird TV.”]

Back to the books and my year of reading: Until I sold the bulk of my 10,000-volume collection this year (which you can read about here), I was keeping steady pace in 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, James Mustich’s excellent list of must-reads. Once I no longer had the physical books in my hands, I stopped posting “1,000 Books photos” to social media; and, regrettably, I halted on my journey through Mr. Mustich’s book. I plan (resolve!) to re-embark on that voyage in this new year, starting with the E section of the book. I hope to make 1,000 Books posts a regular feature of this blog in the coming days. You can see me reading the Jennifer Egan entry (A Visit From the Goon Squad) in the photo above; Goon Squad was the last of the 1,000 Books books I read this year. That photo, taken yesterday morning, is also the last time I’ll be sitting in that breakfast nook in the Argyle Street house, seated at the table my son-in-law built for us many years ago. I will miss that table, that lamp, that cushioned bench seat. I have spent so many happy reading hours there, drenched in lamplight and sunlight. I’ll miss it, but I look forward to finding a new reading space in the Helena apartment.

Looking back over the list below, I note a number of good books I read for the first time, based on Mustich’s 1,000 Books recommendations, among them: Watership Down, Fun Home, The Outermost House, How Buildings Learn (perhaps the most delightfully-surprising one on the list because I didn’t expect to love a book about architecture as much as I did), The Worst Journey in the World, and Rebecca.

Were there disappointments along the way? Of course. No big, eclectic list like this could be all-perfect all-the-time. The ones that let me down included the following: Flaubert’s Parrot (just meh-kay for me), The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody (probably knee-slapping funny when it was published in 1950, but not so much today), and My Family and Other Animals (maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind at the time, but I found it less endearing and more tedious to get through).

I made it through a good chunk of my unread Stephen King shelf this year, prompted by the downsizing of the collection which brought these previously-unread early books of his bubbling to the surface. I read all the ones published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym (save for The Running Man, which I’ll get to soon in 2020), as well as the collection of short stories The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. I also, regrettably, read Cycle of the Werewolf. It was terrible and I should have shot my copy with a silver bullet to put it out of our collective misery.

I also read a few really good books about dying, starting with Cory Taylor’s beautiful, intimate account of her last days on earth. Near the end of the year, I picked up Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal which gives good insight into how we treat the elderly and the dying. And, finally, I want to make special note of a book—a chapbook, really—which none of you have heard of: The Comfort Pathway by O. Alan Weltzien, which describes the final days of his mother and how the family gathered in her hospital room handles their individual and collective grief. I strongly urge you, in the loudest and most insistent of voices, to get a copy of The Comfort Pathway. It’s very short—less than 40 pages—but it will stay with you forever. As Weltzien writes in the opening pages: “I’ve always believed, and often taught, that when we try and write about the dead whom we loved, they come back in some ways and leave lasting traces. They don’t stay as far away.”

Other random highlights of the reading year:
*  Mary & Lou & Rhoda & Ted by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong took me back to the nights I sat in front of the TV in the 1970s watching Mary Tyler Moore and the WJM-TV crew;
*  several of Alan Bradley’s Falvia de Luce mysteries put an infectious smile on my face as I drove the highways and byways of Montana listening to the audiobooks narrated by Jayne Entwistle;
*  I finally got around to reading one of Ann Patchett’s novels, State of Wonder, and boy was I blown away by her storytelling prowess;
*  ditto with Elizabeth Gilbert (City of Girls);
*  a dreamy week spent on the crew of Wim Wenders’ short film about Edward Hopper, shot here in Butte, led me to explore more books about the American artist (Wenders’ film was for a museum installation of Hopper’s works opening this month in Switzerland);
*  I did a deep dive into the works of Adam Braver and re-confirmed my opinion that he is simply one of our greatest contemporary writers who doesn’t get as much attention as he deserves; if you have never read one of his novels, I highly recommend you start with Misfit or November 22, 1963;
*  I don’t normally read self-help books, but You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero filled me with superpowers and helped give me confidence for this life-changing move to Helena;
*  and, finally, I ventured back into the works of Virginia Woolf and found she wasn’t as dreadful as I’d thought during my grad school days.

And now on to the list, which I’ve arranged in alphabetical by author’s last name, rather than in chronological reading order:

Adams, Richard: Watership Down
Alexievich, Svetlana: Voices From Chernobyl
Armstrong, Jennifer Keishin: Mary & Lou & Rhoda & Ted
Atwood, Margaret: Cat’s Eye
Atwood, Margaret: The Handmaid’s Tale
Baldwin, James: Notes of a Native Son
Barnes, Julian: Flaubert’s Parrot
Barnes, Kate: Where the Deer Were
Barrett, William E.: Lilies of the Field
Bashaw, Molly: The Whole Field Still Moving Inside It
Bechdel, Alison: Fun Home
Beckerman, Ilene: Love, Loss and What I Wore
Beston, Henry: The Outermost House
Blake, Sarah: The Guest Book
Bradley, Alan: A Red Herring Without Mustard
Bradley, Alan: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Bradley, Alan: The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag
Bradley, Ryan W.: The Memory of Planets
Brand, Stewart: How Buildings Learn
Braver, Adam: Crows Over the Wheatfield
Braver, Adam: Divine Sarah
Braver, Adam: November 22, 1963
Braver, Adam: The Disappeared
Braver, Adam: What the Women Do
Brown, Margaret Wise: Goodnight Moon
Brown, Margaret Wise: Little Fur Family
Brunhoff, Jean de: Babar and His Children
Burns, Charles: Sugar Skull
Carey, John: Eyewitness to History
Carr, J. L.: A Month in the Country
Chast, Roz: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?
Chauvet, Jean-Marie: Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave
Cherry-Garrard, Aspley: The Worst Journey in the World
Christie, Agatha: Ordeal by Innocence
Christie, Agatha: Thirteen at Dinner
Clarke, Brock: Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?
Collins, Billy: Sailing Alone Around the Room
cummings, e. e.: Complete Poems
Cunningham, Michael: The Hours
Cuppy, Will: The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody
Dahl, Roald: Matilda
Delaney, Edward J.: The Big Impossible
Denby, David: Great Books
Desai, Anita: Clear Light of Day
Du Maurier, Daphne: Rebecca
Du Maurier, Daphne: The Apple Tree
Durrell, Gerald: My Family and Other Animals
Egan, Jennifer: A Visit From the Goon Squad
Farres, Ernest: Edward Hopper
Fish, Kathy: Wild Life: Collected Works
Flaubert, Gustave: Three Short Works
Fox, Wendy J.: If the Ice Had Held
French, Tana: The Witch Elm
Gaskell, Elizabeth: The Old Nurse’s Story
Gawande, Atul: Being Mortal
Gilbert, Elizabeth: City of Girls
Hall, Donald, editor: New Poets of England and America
Healy, Luke: How to Survive in the North
Hernandez, Gilbert: The Troublemakers
Hughes, Anita: Christmas in Vermont
Hughes, Dorothy B.: In a Lonely Place
Jason: Low Moon
Jason: What I Did
Kaminsky, Ilya: Deaf Republic
King, Stephen: Cycle of the Werewolf
King, Stephen: Rage
King, Stephen: Roadwork
King, Stephen: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams
King, Stephen: The Long Walk
Klinger, Leslie S. and Lisa Morton, editors: Ghost Stories
Kusnetz, Ilyse: Angel Bones
MacLeod, Charlotte: Rest You Merry
Maizes, R. L.: We Love Anderson Cooper
Malden, R. H.: The Sundial
McCullough, David: The Pioneers
McMahon, Tyler: Kilometer 99
Michener, James: Hawaii
Nicolson, Nigel: Virginia Woolf
O’Brien, Tim: Dad’s Maybe Book
Obama, Barack: Dreams From My Father
Obama, Michelle: Becoming
Obreht, Tea: Inland
Olivas, Daniel: Crossing the Border
Oliver, Mary: Felicity
Olsen, Tillie: Tell Me a Riddle, Requa I, and Other Works
Olson, Justin: Earth to Charlie
Patchett, Ann: State of Wonder
Ray, Shann: Sweetclover
Reid, Taylor Jenkins: Daisy Jones and the Six
Rowland, Russell: Cold Country
Seth: Clyde Fans
Shapiro, Dani: Devotion
Shapiro, Dani: Inheritance
Sincero, Jen: You Are a Badass
Singleton, George: Staff Picks
Spawforth, Tony: Versailles: A Biography of a Palace
Strand, Mark: Hopper
Taylor, Cory: Dying
Taylor, Patrick: An Irish Country Christmas
Telgemeier, Raina: Guts
Tesdell, Diana Secker, editor: Christmas Stories
Trollope, Anthony: The Small House at Allington
Urza, Gabriel: The White Death: An Illusion
Weltzien, O. Alan: The Comfort Pathway
Wharton, Edith: The Age of Innocence
Wilder, Thornton: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Williams, Diane: The Collected Stories of Diane Williams
Woolf, Virginia: Jacob’s Room
Woolf, Virginia: Mrs. Dalloway
Zalkow, Yuvi: A Brilliant Novel in the Works
Zindell, Deborah T.: National Parks History of the WPA Poster Art


Wednesday, January 1, 2020

My Year of Reading: Best Books of 2019


In the final year of this decade, I read my ass off. It’s true; I model a new pair of jeans for my wife (who is also named Jean, go figure) and she goes, “I don’t know....they look kinda baggy on you. What happened to that cute, tight ass I’ve come to know and love?”

“The books ate it,” I say.

Reader, it was all pleasure, little pain. Well, save for that overlong bildungsroman about a tribe of lemmings struggling for survival in nineteenth-century Lapland. That one was pure Spanish Inquisition pain. That one I tore in two and flung the various pieces across the room in disgust, after reaching page 450 and realizing I had many more lemming-cliffs to go; I returned the book, patched with duct tape, to the library with a grimace and a warning. That novel will never make any lists in any year.

In the coming days, I’ll have more to report about my big, butt-chomping 2019 reading list, but to start things off, I want to say a few words about the crème de la crème. Here then, is a list, in no particular order, of the best books published in 2019 which passed before my ever-hungry eyes. (Though, by saying “in no particular order” I will admit that the first two on the list could be considered the Best Fiction and Best Non-Fiction of my reading year, thus they get a little more ink here.) This is a very personal, particular, and possibly peculiar list with many books you might not find on other Best of 2019 lists now making their way onto the web; you’ll note some of the usual suspects aren’t on here (books like The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, or Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann, or On Earth, We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong): in those three cases, and in many others, it’s because they’re still waiting to be read by yours truly, the always-overbooked gentleman who is constantly seeking ways to make his reading days longer.

But yeah, back to the 2019 books. These are the best ones to bite my ass (in a good way) this year:

Inland
by Tea Obreht

I can unequivocally state that Inland was my most anticipated book of 2019. As a fever-addled fan of Obreht’s first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, I had built skyscraper-high expectations that this new novel, eight years after that brilliant debut, would be lyrical and engaging and as beautifully-structured as a perfect snowflake. I was not disappointed. In fact, I loved Inland so much, I went through it twice: once in hardback and once in audiobook (I’m a little less than halfway through the narration by Anna Chlumsky and Edoardo Ballerini right now and am discovering fresh gems along the way). Obreht weaves together two story strands in the novel set in the late 1800s in the Southwestern United States: that of ghost-haunted Lurie and his camel Burke (also an erstwhile member of the famed, real-life Camel Corps); and Nora, a scrappy pioneer wife and mother trying to make it through one day on her drought-dry homestead. To say more about the plot would be to destroy the joy of discovery that abounds in these pages. Rest assured, everything comes together marvelously in the end. What most impressed me about Inland was Obreht’s fine-tuned ear for dialogue and writing style of late nineteenth-century American literature. If I didn’t know any better, I could swear Obreht owned a time machine and traveled back to 1883 armed with a tape recorder. A couple of fine examples of her style from two different places in the book:
Two breads, left to rise overnight, had burst out of their pans like dancehall girls leaning over the rail. 
It struck her at some point that all life must necessarily feed on willful delusion. What else could explain the existence―and still more surprisingly, the persistence―of a place like Morton Hole, this huddle of journeyed lives strung along a thoroughfare obdurately referred to as Main Street? Would it not have been more earnest to call it Only Street?
Inland bursts its binding with great writing: the dough overflows its pan in this, my favorite fiction of 2019.


Dad’s Maybe Book
by Tim O’Brien

I hated the first Tim O’Brien book I ever read. In a review, I called his 2002 novel July, July “banal, banal.” At the time, O’Brien’s other work―most particularly The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato―still waited for me in the near-distant future, and I did look forward to reading them despite my disappointment with July, July. None of us knew that novel about a class reunion would be the last book O’Brien would publish for 17 years. Seventeen years! In the publishing world, that even out-Tartts Donna Tartt who has spaced her three novels with “only” a decade in between publication dates. So what was Tim O’Brien doing all this time he was on hiatus from his legion of fans (myself included once I got to the Vietnam fiction)? He was busy being a father. And he was noodling around on his computer, dashing off paternal words of advice to his firstborn Timmy and then his second son Tad, neither of whom he thought he’d have much time to spend with here on earth. You see, he was 56 in 2003 when Timmy was born―right around the time I was dipping my pen in poison ink to write my review of July, July. Tad, came two years later. And so, facing the ticking clock of mortality, O’Brien set out to write a book not for us but for his sons. Maybe it will be a book, maybe it won’t, he muses. His wife Meredith assures him, “You don’t have to commit to an actual book. Just a maybe book.” And aren’t we all glad he did? The nearly two-decade wait was well worth it. Dad’s Maybe Book is one of the most delightful, inspiring, and entertaining books I read all year. At first, this new book feels like a bit of a departure for the man who wrote, in The Things They Carried, of a soldier who ties a puppy to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezes the firing device. There are some of those gruesome echoes of war here, yes, but O’Brien leaves most of the grim stuff off the page and concentrates on the messages of love he wants to leave his two sons. “There was no literary impulse involved,” he writes. “There were no thoughts about making a book. My audience―if there would ever be an audience―was two little boys and no one else.” The depth of feeling in Dad’s Maybe Book is intensely intimate and we should count ourselves blessed to be able to read these notes between father and sons:
We are all locked up on death row, to be sure, but now, at age sixty-five, I've found myself trying to squeeze all I can into a rapidly shrinking allotment of days and hours. Where a younger father might tell his children he loves them sixty thousand times over a lifetime, I feel the pressure to cram those sixty thousand I-love-yous into a decade or so, just to reach my quota.
There are equally poignant observations about O’Brien’s lifelong admiration of Hemingway’s writing, coming to grips with the immorality of war, the homemade fun of family magic shows (Tim and his wife are both amateur prestidigitators) and, especially, lessons on writing....of which I’ll leave you one last gem from this book: “I write so slowly—how can I tell my kids all I want to tell them? Each of the scraps of paper on my desk seems to whisper, Tell me, put me in, don’t forget me, and yet this is only a maybe book, and I am only a maybe-writer, just as every writer was once a maybe-writer and just as every book was once a maybe book.”


Sun River
by Ben Nickol

This collection of short stories set in Idaho and Montana unfairly slipped off the radar after it was released in May of this year. I was lucky to read an advance copy of Sun River and provided the following words of praise to the publisher: Sun River is an impressive debut, driven by Nickol’s earnest concern for his characters and their well-being. It’s a good thing, too, because the people in these stories are often on the knife-edge of peril: they’re in transition, embarking on journeys, at breaking points, on icy marital roads careening toward divorce. Everywhere you turn in Sun River, hearts have skidmarks. As a reader, I found myself leaning forward in the seat, peering ahead, pressing down on the accelerator, whisking me through the pages. As the very last line of the very last story tells us, Nickol’s unforgettable characters are always “racing ahead of the storm.” I loved these stories and their heartbreaking lives.


We Love Anderson Cooper
by R. L. Maizes

Here’s another fresh collection of short stories that gripped me, hard, with its opening titular story and never let go. We Love Anderson Cooper begins with young Markus sitting on his bed thinking about his boyfriend Gavin and their first kiss (“behind the 7-Eleven six months ago, Gavin’s lips cold and tasting like raspberry Slurpee”) as he prepares for his bar mitzvah. The ensuing ceremony will be a disaster for middle-schooler Markus as he melts down in front of his family and friends, but it sets the tone for the rest Maizes’ terrific stories full of characters torn between the pangs of longing and the strictures of society.


Guts
by Raina Telgemeier

This is the fourth graphic memoir of Telgemeier’s I’ve read (after Drama, Smile and Sisters) and I once again find myself asking, “How in the world did Raina get ahold of the diary I kept in junior high and bring it to life with all its acne-riddled, headgear-binding pain and glory?” Like the author, I was a brace-faced, pathologically-shy teenager and here, in Guts, she taps into another little-discussed feature of my adolescence: my like-clockwork stomachaches (later diagnosed as a migraine stomach) which plagued me with puke for years. As I read, I was taken back to all those late nights when I hunched over the cold porcelain of the bathroom in our family home in Jackson, Wyoming. It was like I was reading my own fate and fortune in the swirl of the toilet. Telgemeier’s colorful illustrations (including Vomit Yellow-Green) perfectly complement the equally-vibrant lives of teenagers at a time when they’re so desperately trying to find their niche at school, with family, and in society at large. I can relate.


Inheritance
by Dani Shapiro

Already a fan of Shapiro’s previous books Still Writing and Hourglass, I started listening to her latest memoir, Inheritance, on audiobook soon after its release earlier this year. I was expecting a beautifully-written and intimately-personal account of the latest chapter of her life. I got that, yes, but what I wasn’t expecting was a trip full of shock and awe as Shapiro, almost on a whim, sends away for a DNA test to explore her genealogy. To say the results come as a surprise would be like saying someone shined a flashlight in the apostle Paul’s face on the road to Damascus. That one DNA test completely rocks Shapiro’s life down to its very foundation, making her question everything she knows about herself, including what she’s written in previous memoirs like Devotion and Slow Motion. Inheritance unfolds almost in real-time as we follow one of our best contemporary writers into a forensic investigation of the self.


Staff Picks
by George Singleton

That booming, crashing sound you heard coming from western Montana last February? That was me, laughing (once again) at the riotously-funny words of George Singleton. Humor on the page is a tough trick to pull off―unless the rabbit has pooped inside the hat before you pull him out; now, that is funny―but Singleton, like his spiritual god Lewis Nordan before him, knows the magic of laughter. Staff Picks is further proof that George Singleton needs to be enshrined in the National Comedy Hall of Fame...or, at the very least, given a statue in a town square somewhere, one where pigeons can alight and chuckle at all they’re planning to do to his embronzed image. All the stories in this collection are terrific, but if you only read one (and if you stop at just one story, I’ll be so mad I’ll personally come to your house and pull out your dog’s toenails with pliers) then make it the first, titular one about a “hands-on” contest to win an RV. Your laughter will echo off the hills.


Deaf Republic
by Ilya Kaminsky

The majority of my poetry reading in 2019 was devoted to the Complete Poems of e. e. cummings (begun in July and finished on the second-to-last day of the year), so I didn’t have a chance to explore many new releases. But I’m glad I made time to discover Deaf Republic, easily one of the best books of any genre to come out this year. As described at the publisher’s (Graywolf) website: “Deaf Republic opens in an occupied country in a time of political unrest. When soldiers breaking up a protest kill a deaf boy, Petya, the gunshot becomes the last thing the citizens hear—all have gone deaf, and their dissent becomes coordinated by sign language.” What follows is a remarkable fable of repression and resistance. Here are a few lines that showcase Kaminsky’s incredible talent:
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.
Deaf Republic is one of the most unforgettable and important books I read all year.


Daisy Jones and the Six
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Here’s what I posted to Facebook in March:
Only 30 min into Daisy Jones and the Six and I can already tell this is going to be THE audiobook of the year. Admittedly, the novel by Taylor Jenkins Reid is clickbait for me, a boy who grew up bedroom-singing to Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt, Rickie Lee Jones, Carole King, Thelma Houston, Nicolette Larson, Joan Jett, Blondie, and-and―should I go on for another two single-spaced pages? You get the idea: 70s and 80s female pop/rock/folk singers were my major jam (still are). So a novel about a rock band, led by the eponymous Daisy, told like an oral history from those who knew the once-great-now-flamed-out rockers is tailor-made for me....But the audiobook! My God, the audiobook! It has a cast of more than 20 readers (much like George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo), and so far, they’re all great. But the real standout is Jennifer Beals who reads the part of Daisy. No, scratch that―she doesn’t just read the words, she BECOMES Daisy, with her burnt-out voice that sounds like she just went around licking all the ashtrays in a bar at closing time. And that’s a compliment.
I’m happy to report the remaining eight-and-a-half hours of the audiobook more than fulfilled this early promise of greatness.


The Big Impossible
by Edward J. Delaney

The Big Impossible, a collection of short stories and one novella, showcases all the qualities that make Edward J. Delaney’s writing so great: depth of feeling, a sneaky punch of wit, and beautiful sentences that soar to great heights. Delaney had me in his spell throughout the pages of this book, which took me from the chilly interior of a school shooter’s mind, to a man reviewing past lives via Google Street View, to a family in 1968 torn apart by, among other things, the sartorial choice of bellbottom pants. And if you’re someone who likes to puncture pretentious behavior at cocktail parties―especially those literary in nature―you’ll want to read the scathing and witty “Writer Party” (sample lines: Billy Collins’s success confounds them. “Billy Collins!” one shrieks, as one might shriek, “aerosol meatloaf!”).


Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?
by Brock Clarke

This latest novel by Brock Clarke (An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, Exley, et al) unspools in crazy, happy fashion like a great Wes Anderson movie. It’s funny, it’s quirky, it’s laced with poignancy, and it put me under a spell for the space of 300 delicious pages. Here are the opening lines:
My mother, Nola Bledsoe, was a minister, and she named me Calvin after her favorite theologian, John Calvin. She was very serious about John Calvin, had written a famous book about him―his enduring relevance, his misunderstood legacy. My mother was highly thought of by a lot of people who thought a lot about John Calvin.
It just gets even better from there as we follow Calvin B. and his aunt Beatrice (who could also very well be named Mame) on their rollicking adventures around the globe in search of, as the title indicates, their very selves.


City of Girls
by Elizabeth Gilbert

Just as Daisy Jones and the Six transported me to the sunny vibes of the 1970s California music scene, City of Girls took me time traveling back to World War Two-era New York City and the marquee-lit theater scene. The novel follows nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris who, after being kicked out of Vassar College, is sent by her parents to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg (another flamboyant auntie character who brightened my reading year) who owns a midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. Gilbert’s canvas is large (but not too large) and full of colorful character-types who feel like they tap-danced directly off the screen from movies like Stage Door and Gold Diggers of 1937 and right into our laps. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by the pitch-perfect Blair Brown, a smile on my face the whole time.