Monday, December 30, 2013

My First Time: Craig Lancaster

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 Craig Lancaster is the author of the novels 600 Hours of Edward, The Summer Son and Edward Adrift (one of The Quivering Pen's picks for Best Fiction of 2013).  He's also written the short-story collection Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure.  His work has won Montana Honor Book designation, a High Plains Book Award and an Independent Book Publishers Award gold medal.  He lives in Billings, Montana, with his family.

Take This Job and...Change It

On Aug. 2, 2013, I worked my final shift as a full-time, benefits-receiving, dinner-break-taking newspaper editor.  I finished up my work as the night city editor at The Billings Gazette in Montana, said goodbye to my colleagues, and hit the door.

Nearly twenty-five years as a full-time newspaperman ended that night.  I did a lot of things during that career, which I started at the callow age of 18, and I lived a lot of places.  General-assignment reporter, copy editor, layout man (which in my mid-twenties morphed into the much more important-sounding term “designer”), Oakland Raiders beat writer, middle-management hack.  Texas, Alaska, back to Texas, Kentucky, Ohio, back to Alaska, California, back to Texas, Washington, back to California and, finally, Montana.  In light of the years and the memories, I was strangely unsentimental about the change from full-time journalist to full-time author and freelancer.

The fact is, I was ready to make the break.  I’d managed to write three novels and a collection of short stories while still gainfully employed as a journalist, but the toll—on my sleep, on my health, on my family life—was wearing me down.  Where once I had written in the early-morning hours after a copy-editing shift, a move to night city editor—a job where all other nighttime work often converges—regularly sent me home exhausted, unable to concentrate on fiction.  My writing time, already thin, dried up.

And then there’s this: I just didn’t have the fuse for daily journalism anymore.  It’s a strange thing to acknowledge.  Twenty years ago, I invented reasons to be in the newsroom.  I took every extra assignment I could get, accepted any shift offered.  I was addicted to the pace, the work, the colleagues who were so smart and so wickedly twisted.  When my favorite band, R.E.M., called it quits, lead singer Michael Stipe said you have to know when to leave the party.  That was me at the end.  My edge was gone.  I still loved the work.  I loved working with a reporter to make a story better, designing a sweet page, the adrenaline rush of a big story.  But my patience for all the day-to-day in-betweens had worn thin.  I was a tired, frustrated journalist.

When my most recent novel, Edward Adrift, came out in April 2013, I began to see the signs that would lead me to the exit.  In March, I sold more books than I’d ever moved in a single month.  In April, the number shot up again.  In May, it leveled out but remained robust, and my wife Angie and I began to discuss the possibility of my stepping away.  It wasn’t a slam dunk.  My sales, I figured, had bought me about six months to make everything work, and that’s a thin margin.  But I reasoned that I had a lot more security than the journalists I’d seen turned out by the score over the past decade, and I had the necessary motivation to keep myself and our family afloat.  Survival is a powerful propellant.

I had a few tasks first: meeting with my financial guy and setting some thresholds (I always do better with a concrete goal), making sure I could jump over to my wife’s insurance (yes, but at a considerable cost, one that will be lowered early next year by my participation in a statewide exchange—thanks, Obama!), and, finally, waiting for the acceptance of a new manuscript by my publisher.

Then things got a little weird.

At the beginning of June, the man who brought me aboard at the Gazette, Steve Prosinski, shocked the newsroom by announcing his retirement.  When word came down, I was about a week away from making my own announcement, and now I feared I’d look like the asshole who jumps ship when times are bad.

Angie asked me what I wanted to do.

“I still want to go,” I said.

“That’s your answer,” she said.

So I put in my notice and offered to stay on until my replacement was found, which happened expeditiously.  My bosses at the Gazette proposed that I stay on as a part-timer, working shifts when they need help and I’m free to offer it.  That sounded good to me, and it’s been good in practice, too.  Every couple of weeks, I’ll come into the newsroom, see some old friends and colleagues, apply skills I’ve spent a career nurturing, and then go home.

Two other, balancing things occurred in June: First, my manuscript was turned down, and my editor and I talked extensively about a different idea for a new book (one I’m about to finish).  By then, I was committed to my decision even without this threshold being met.  A couple of weeks later, my buddy Scott McMillion brought me aboard as the design director of The Montana Quarterly, a fine regional magazine I’ve long admired.  It’s the perfect job for my new situation, with ten to twelve weeks of solid work a year.  Between issues, I write and I pick up freelance manuscript editing and design jobs.  Heading into the fifth month of this grand adventure, I’m very much on the course I’ve charted.

One of the jokes I like to make is that I’m semi-retired.  It’s not true, of course. I’m working as hard as I ever have, but the difference is I’m now calling the dance.  I’m writing the stories I want to write.  I’m working with the people I want to work with, and that includes the occasional sojourn with my old colleagues at the Gazette.  I’m leading workshops at the local university, serving on arts councils, spending time with my family, and taking the odd day off just because I want to.

I wonder sometimes how I ever had time for a job.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sunday Sentence: "The Uninnocent" by Bradford Morrow

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

The evening star was up, a tiny eye of foil, winking.

"The Uninnocent" by Bradford Morrow
from The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Second-Best Hat in the Room, and Other Memories from the Tony Hillerman Writing Conference

Mystery novelist J.E.S. Hays recently returned from the annual Tony Hillerman Writing Conference and filed this report and photos for The Quivering Pen.  Hays lives in South Carolina in a little house filled with books and photographs.  When not off in her own little world, she can usually be found outside with a camera in one hand, or online supervising the Creative Writing categories of WikiAnswers. Her Devon Day and the Sweetwater Kid stories are available in an anthology, Down the Owlhoot Trail, and she is working on a novel featuring the two likable rascals.  Click here to visit her website; you can also lasso her on Facebook, or on Twitter at @jes_hays

This year, I decided to save up my funds and attend a conference I've always wanted to be a part of: the Tony Hillerman Writing Conference.  Tony has always been one of my favorite mystery authors, and I like the fact that his daughter started the conference before he died, so he had a chance to participate.  I'd always talked myself out of attending for various reasons: cost, travel distance, time off from work, and of course, the fact that I wasn't actively writing Westerns until recently.

Publishing panel tete-a-tete
This year, though, my Western anthology Down the Owlhoot Trail was published, and I felt like a "real" Western writer at last.  This would only be the second writing conference I ever attended, so I was a little nervous seeing all those famous names on the roster.  Many of my favorite authors would be in attendance: Craig Johnson, Margaret Coel, David Morrell, and Steve Havill, to name just a few.  Would I get a chance to speak to them after their lectures?  Would I actually get up the nerve to speak?  Would they even be available in the off-hours of the conference, or would they remain in their rooms, appearing only long enough to to drop pearls of wisdom into our ears?

And what sort of atmosphere would the conference have?  Would it be the Lordly Authors graciously offering advice to the Lowly Apprentices, or would my favorite writers turn out to be ordinary folks who loved sharing their experience with fellow writers?  Would the other attendees be friendly, or stand-offish?  I packed up my courage, along with my books and author swag, and headed for Santa Fe.

Anne Hillerman
I needn't have worried.  The registration desk was manned by none other than Anne Hillerman herself.  After her warm welcome, I settled easily into the routine for the weekend: lecture or panel discussion, short break for some of the hotel's excellent coffee, then on to the next lecture or discussion.  By the end of the day, we were all tired, but oh-so-satisfied--and oh-so-challenged creatively.  Margaret Coel started things out with a really useful workshop on characters, giving out assignments and getting the audience to actually create new "story people," which we then shared and critiqued.  She said that the day she stops learning new things about her characters is the day they become boring.  Jamie McGrath Morris' workshop on story beginnings and endings was equally informative, with the class discussing the opening and closing lines of a wide variety of novels.  We had fun trying to guess the novel by the first sentence.

Craig Johnson
Craig Johnson schooled us on dialogue, urging us to become students of human nature.  He shared some great stories about the Longmire TV show, too.  We learned about managing our manuscripts from Steve Havill, who recommends keeping an old-fashioned loose-leaf notebook to hold everything related to your novel.  Kirk Ellis taught us all about telling a great story, and shared some of his experiences with the world of television as well.  And we talked about working our social media (and eating our veggies!) with Ashley Biggers.

I had just as much fun listening to the banter between panelists as I did learning their topics.  Everything from a sense of place to the changing world of publishing was on the plate, with plenty of asides and inside jokes.

And I took a deep breath and submitted the first page of my manuscript in progress to the Friday night critique session.  I wasn't sure if I was relieved or disappointed when it wasn't drawn from the huge stack on the table.  That was an interesting session, and I did learn a lot listening to the agents and editors explaining why they would or wouldn't ask for a second page to read.  It reinforced all those advice articles that told me things like "show, don't tell" and "avoid the flashback."  I'm still scanning my manuscript for passive voice and "weather reports," as David Morrell calls the boring descriptive passages that interrupt your action.

The conference also offered a breakfast for everyone who'd published a book in 2013, and a chance for us to hawk our wares and give out some of our swag.  It was heartening to see how many new books were on the market, especially in this world of e-publishing.  Even Anne Hillerman has a new book out.  It was fun passing out swag, too.  I even gave some of my pens to my favorite authors.

As it turned out, there were no Lofty Authors at the conference.  Everyone I talked to was friendly and open, even during the book signings (which so often can become just another long line with "next" being most of what you hear).  Anne Hillerman stopped to ask if I was enjoying myself.  A bunch of us "New Book" authors got together and traded books with each other.  It felt more like a school reunion than a conference.

As things wound down, nobody wanted to leave.  A bunch of us gathered in the hotel bar after the closing dinner, reluctant to say our good-byes.  I felt a large hand drop onto my shoulder, and my Stetson was plucked from my head.  "I reckon you've got the second-best hat in the room," said Craig Johnson, tipping his own to me.

I may never have that hat cleaned.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Friday Freebie: A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

Congratulations to Brett Kruger, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Best of Books by the Bed #1 and We Wanted to be Writers.

Are you a fan of Wuthering Heights?  Then this week's book giveaway will get your Brontë spidey-sense tingling.  Enter to win A True Novel by Minae Mizumura, which was released in the U.S. in November by Other Press.  I have a handsome copy of the novel, which comes in two softcover volumes in a slipcase, to give away to one lucky reader.

Here's more about the book from the publisher: A remaking of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights set in postwar Japan, A True Novel begins in New York in the 1960s, where we meet Taro, a relentlessly ambitious Japanese immigrant trying to make his fortune. Flashbacks and multilayered stories reveal his life: an impoverished upbringing as an orphan, his eventual rise to wealth and success—despite racial and class prejudice—and an obsession with a girl from an affluent family that has haunted him all his life.  A True Novel then widens into an examination of Japan’s westernization and the emergence of a middle class.  The winner of Japan’s prestigious Yomiuri Literature Prize, Mizumura has written a beautiful novel, with love at its core, that reveals, above all, the power of storytelling.

If you’d like a chance at winning A True Novel, 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 Jan. 2, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 3.  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.

Looking Ahead to 2014: 20 From the To-Be-Read Pile

Yesterday, I told you where I've been; today, it's a look ahead to books which will be published in the next twelve months.  Here are 20 books from the To-Be-Read pile which have my undivided interest.  Bear in mind the ever-towering, always-growing TBR stack also includes dozens of titles from 2013 which I haven't yet found time to read.  So, will I actually be able to read all of the following books in 2014?  Weatherman says, fair to partly cloudy.  Another note: I'm only including those books which I actually have in my possession (e-galleys and advance reading copies); there are plenty of other books on the horizon which will undoubtedly be added to the stack once I get my hands on them.

And now, without further ado, here are the 2014 books which have bubbled to the top of the TBR pile, in approximate order of their release:

Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor

The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes

The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

The Bear by Claire Cameron

Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn

Redeployment by Phil Klay

Byrd by Kim Church

Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman

Acts of God by Ellen Gilchrist

Updike by Adam Begley

The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

Between Wrecks by George Singleton

Wynne’s War by Aaron Gwyn

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Every Book I Read in 2013

Taking a cue from some of my fellow bookworms and authors (in particular, Matt Bell, who read an impressive 113 books this past year), I thought I'd share my entire book log from 2013.  I've already posted the statistics from my reading year, but here's the meat which belongs on those mathematical bones.  A couple of other notes: 28 of the 81 books were written by women, 35 were published in 2013, 11 were published before 2000, and four won't be published until 2014.  I've included novella-length stories and children's books because they also figured into the annual tally.

Mormon Boy by Seth Brady Tucker
The Third Son by Julie Wu
Why Unicorn Drinks by C. W. Moss
Fire and Forget, edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher
Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman
The Sensualist by Daniel Torday
I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro
Edward Adrift by Craig Lancaster
Red Moon by Benjamin Percy
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
National Treasures by Charles McLeod
Sparta by Roxana Robinson
Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel
The Coldest Night by Robert Olmstead
Death of an American Sniper by Anthony Swofford
Mister and Lady Day by Amy Novesky
The Sun Valley Story by Van Gordon Sauter
Love Slave by Jennifer Spiegel
All That Is by James Salter
Forgotten Dreams by Mark Gibbons
Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead
The Tenth of December by George Saunders
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Joyland by Stephen King
Storm by Christopher Cook
The Stick Soldiers by Hugh Martin
Shrapnel by William Wharton
James Fenimore Cooper, Leatherstocking Boy by Gertrude Hecker Winders
Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg
The Alienist by Machado De Assis
Death of an Angel by Frances and Richard Lockridge
Return to Oakpine by Ron Carlson
Falling to Earth by Kate Southwood
The Commandant of Lubizec by Patrick Hicks
The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling)
The Cineaste by A. Van Jordan
Romanticism by April Bernard
Familiar by J. Robert Lennon
Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
On Kingdom Mountain by Howard Frank Mosher
Mayakovsky’s Revolver by Matthew Dickman
Field Notes by Charles Butterfield
Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter
Lucky Bruce by Bruce Jay Friedman
The End of the Road by Tom Bodett
Pilgrim’s Wilderness by Tom Kizzia
Still Writing by Dani Shapiro
Pumpkin by Cindy Ott
London Snow by Paul Theroux
Christmas at High Rising by Angela Thirkell
Waking by Ron Rash
How to Shake the Other Man by Derek Palacio
The Martian by Andy Weir
The Dark by Lemony Snicket
Year of the Jungle by Suzanne Collins
The Anatomy of Edouard Beaupre by Sarah Kathryn York
The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate
The Boarding House by Marcia Melton
Western Taxidermy by Barb Howard
The Last Repatriate by Matthew Salesses
The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Trailer Park Tuesday: A Christmas Carol

Have you reached the saturation point of Seasonal Charles Dickens Syndrome?  No?  Okay then, this will put your SCDS into overdrive (don't blame me if you get the hives).  In the spirit of the Ghost of Christmas Presents, I thought I'd round up a few of the many different theatrical versions of Dickens' A Christmas Carol for this special Christmas Eve version of Trailer Park Tuesday.  Here's everything from one of the earliest Carol films (from 1901) to the Jim Carrey-ed A Christmas Carol of 2009--with a few interesting stops along the way--Scrooge & Marley ("make the Yultide gay!"), Barbie (apologies in advance).  I'm leaving out several noteworthy examples--among them, the Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, and Mr. Magoo versions--mainly because I couldn't find adequate trailers for them online.

So, sit back, raise a glass of wassail, and enjoy these clips.  God bless us, everyone.

Scrooge, or Marley's Ghost (1901)

A Christmas Carol (1910)

A Christmas Carol (1938)

Scrooge (1951)

Scrooge (1951)--Colorized Version

A Christmas Carol (1984)

Scrooged (1988)

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Barbie in A Christmas Carol (2008)

Scrooge & Marley (2012)

A Christmas Carol (2009)

Monday, December 23, 2013

Charles Dickens: "Ready made to the point of the pen"

While this Monday space is normally reserved for words of wisdom from present-day writers, I thought I'd take a week's break from the My First Time series and go farther into the past for some inspirational quotes from Mr. Charles Dickens.  I maintain a document on my computer hard drive full of snippets like this--aphorisms on the writing life, stanzas from poems, crystal-beautiful passages from novels and short stories, and so forth.  As anyone who knows about my obsessions with All Things Dickens can probably guess, a good percentage of that "quotes" document is taken up with words by and about "the Inimitable Boz."  Here are a few related to writing...

      He corresponded with the young and aspiring George Henry Lewes, telling him that “I suppose like most authors I look over what I write with exceeding pleasure,” that he felt each passage strongly while he wrote it, but that he had no idea how his ideas came to him—they came “ready made to the point of the pen.”
from Charles Dickens: a Life by Claire Tomalin

      Prowling about the rooms, sitting down, getting up, stirring the fire, looking out the window, teasing my hair, sitting down to write, writing nothing, writing something and tearing it up.
from a Feb. 19, 1856 letter
to Angela Burdett Coutts while working on Little Dorrit

      I didn’t stir out yesterday, but sat and thought all day; not writing a line; not so much as the cross of a t or the dot of an i. I imaged forth a good deal of Barnaby by keeping my mind steadily upon him; and am happy to say I have gone to work this morning in good twig, strong hope and cheerful spirits. Last night I was unutterably and impossible-to-form-an-idea-of-ably miserable.
from a Jan. 29, 1841 letter
to John Forster, lamenting writer’s block on Barnaby Rudge

      I need not tell you who are so well acquainted with “Art” in all its forms, that in the description of such scenes, a broad, bold, hurried effect must be produced, or the reader instead of being forced and driven along by imaginary crowds will find himself dawdling very uncomfortably through the town, and greatly wondering what may be the matter. In this kind of work the object is—not to tell everything, but to select the striking points and beat them into the page with a sledgehammer.
from a Nov. 5, 1841 letter
to John Landseer

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Western Taxidermy by Barb Howard

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

By the time he retired from teaching math and physics at Campbell Heights Senior High School, Simon had been heckled by obnoxious students, threatened by a father whose child's mark had dropped from 90 to 88 percent, stalked by a gang member who flunked Math 14, and tackled by a drunk student while chaperoning a school dance.  On the home front, after Simon's wife died from a cancer that took her voice before it stopped her life, he had raised their daughter Alicia mostly on his own, arranging after-school care and play dates, and carpooling and working casino nights for Alicia's hoity-toity gymnastics club.  None of this prepared him for the stress of dog classes.

First lines of "Basic Obedience" in Western Taxidermy by Barb Howard

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Publisher of the Year: Nouvella Books

It started with the antlers.

When I saw the deer staring at me, nose-level from the bottom of the cover for Panio Gianopoulos' A Familiar Beast, I was a goner.  There was something about that chandelier of a rack, curving like parentheses, which promised a hint of something great which I could not resist.

It was the beginning of a beautiful reader-relationship with Gianopoulos' publisher, Nouvella Books.  Like my favorite literary magazine, One Story, Nouvella is singularly focused in its mission: to produce high-quality, novella-length fiction wrapped in the kind of packaging which I can only describe as luxurious (in fact, Nouvella itself calls the finish on its covers "luxury matte").  Nouvella Books has been my happiest literary discovery this past year and it was an easy decision to pick it as my Publisher of the Year (past honorees include Graywolf Press and Tin House Books).

Getting back to that stag's head: it's the gateway to a first-rate story about a thirtysomething man named Marcus who is suddenly cut adrift from his marriage and job after he cheats on his pregnant wife.  "A lot of little things went wrong," he says.  "Then a big thing went wrong."

There is everything right with Gianopoulos' writing--it's spare, elegant and expert at describing a scene with small, concrete details.  I loved the end of this sentence which described a small-town bar near closing time: "...the patrons who remained had the weary steel of local unhappiness in their eyes."  Gianopoulos is also able to pack a lot of literary clothing into a tight suitcase when getting to the emotional heart of his characters.  Here, on the second page, is this passage:
Recently disgraced, Marcus found it hard not to catch a secret note of disdain in people's voices, an inevitable, humiliating discovery; wherever he turned, people leaked their derision like potted plants overfilled by amateur gardeners. It was the reason that Marcus had begun to spend more and more time online lately, the reason that he would agree to fly to North Carolina to visit a friend he had not seen in fifteen years and, when there, the reason he would consider, for the first time in his life, tramping out into the wilderness with a gun to kill anything that crossed his path.
That "friend" is Edgar, a man who is frightening in his lack of self-control and his overabundance of self-confidence which fuels that forward drive.  When, sitting in the dark of a room, he tells Marcus, "Women love to be hunted," I felt a chill run down my spine.  Uh-oh, I thought, nothing good can come of this.

The two men plan to go deer hunting, though Marcus is reluctant to kill anything--he feels he's already harmed enough things in his life.  The night before the hunt, there's this moment where Marcus, in the driveway of Edgar's home, catches movement in the corner of his eye:
....he turned to see the family of deer standing alert on the hilly banks of the road. The animals were well lit by the moon, exposed yet curious, and as Marcus watched, more and more climbed out of the safety of the bushes until they were ten, then twelve, then fifteen in number. These suburban pests were not the deer they would be hunting, Edgar had told him during dinner, and staring back at them, Marcus felt affronted by the slightness of their status. To him, they looked as vital and untouchable as stars and, mounting and descending the hill, they formed a luminous constellation whose greater shape was shifting and magnificent and all too brief.
This kind of beautiful, boiled-down description is characteristic of every novella which rolls off the Nouvella Books presses.

Most publishers don't know what to do with manuscripts of this length. The novella is like a teenager who lives awkwardly between childhood and adulthood--too big for the playground, too small for the jury box, the voting booth, the barstool.  It is too long for some readers, too brief for others.  It is, in short, fiction with an identity crisis.

Nouvella (and, I might add, the good folks at Melville House) knows exactly what to do with long-short stories: give them the respect they deserve.  Nouvella doesn't have a large catalogue; in fact, it's as slim as the volumes they produce.  Limiting themselves to just four titles per year, Nouvella treats each new release as if it was the shiny-new bronze statue in the town square which the mayor unveils with a grand, ceremonial flourish, the drapery falling away to the oohs and aahs of the gathered crowd.  A new book from Nouvella is an occasion to be feted with applause and the pop of camera flashbulbs.

Their most recent novella, How to Shake the Other Man by Derek Palacio, is the story of a street hustler named Javier who is taken under the wing of Marcel, a charismatic coffee vendor from Cuba who works the streets of New York as boldly and brashly as he does Javier in his bed.  Hoping to keep his new lover from leaving, Marcel convinces his brother Oscar, a former boxer turned trainer, to show Javier the ropes, so to speak.  When Marcel is murdered, Oscar and Javier form an uneasy, unlikely alliance as they prepare for the young boy's first fight.
      Bob and weave, duck and block, bob and weave—like a sinking ship that won’t make up its mind, Javi thinks, and he tries a left jab. But he doesn’t cover up, and his partner finds his ribcage, puts a hurt on his lung. Javi damn near spits out his mouth guard, but grits his teeth instead. He finds a rope and does his best not to fall over. It will throb tomorrow and probably Thursday as well. It will be hard to breathe without grabbing his side. The skin will bruise and he will see it in the mirror. He will come back to this moment in the morning.
      If Marcel could still talk, there would be a way to forget about it. There would be a cold pack next to Javi on the couch. There would be saucers waiting for shots of espresso on the coffee table in the living room. There would be Bebo Valdés on the tape player whipping along some ancient big band. There would be Marcel in the cocina mincing pork with spice and lard, rolling the mixture into silk-thin dough, and shoving the empanadas into the oven for twenty minutes, those minutes spent checking and touching Javi’s bruise, circling it with a cube of ice.
This is a boxing story, yes, but it is also a love story that is as tender as it is tough.

Speaking of tough, Nouvella's earlier release, The Last Repatriate by Matthew Salesses, can be a brutal, hard-to-swallow reading experience, but it's going to be one of the first books I recommend whenever anyone asks me "What's the best book to help me understand what it's like for traumatized war veterans?"  The Last Repatriate opens in 1950 with a soldier, Corporal Theodore Dickerson, sitting on a log at the edge of a forest in Korea.  In his hands is a Dear John letter from the girl to whom he'd been engaged before shipping out.  As Ted reads the letter, Salesses writes one of the finest, most concise descriptions of shock and grief I've ever read: "his face gives out like a torn spider web."  Ted runs into the forest, clutching the letter, determined to kill himself.  Before he can pull the trigger, however, he's struck in the back of the head with the butt of a rifle.  In a matter of sentences, he is taken prisoner by the enemy and for the next seven pages, we spend time with him in a prisoner-of-war camp.

Wait--was it really only seven pages?  I just had to go back and check.  It's a credit to Salesses' skill that I thought the harrowing POW scenes encompassed more of the 69 pages.  No, only seven pages.  Again, there's that narrative compression I was talking about.  Salesses describes Ted's physical condition like this: "bones like poles in a kite of skin."  Not a single word more is needed to sear that image into our imaginations.

The majority of the pages are devoted to Ted's difficulty in assimilating back into life in the United States after the war's end and his eventual release from prison camp.  He moves back to his hometown in Virginia where, yes, the girl who spurned him still lives (and has married Ted's best friend from childhood).  Ted falls in love with another girl named Kate, who carries an equally troubled past with her, and soon they're on the way to the altar.  I won't say anything more, not wanting to spoil the pleasures of Salesses' story.  Let's just say things reach a boil with the heat of a small-town love triangle.

All three of these pocket-sized books have as much depth and breadth of any novel five times their length.  Each of them adheres easily to the Nouvella philosophy stated at the publisher's website: "Conflicted characters. Good dialogue. Moral ambiguity. Make us laugh. Make us feel implicated."

And finally, I want to say a few words about Daniel Torday's masterful Nouvella novella, The Sensualist.  I've already sung its praises earlier this week, listing it among my picks for best books I read this year--and you should go read that review for a full description of what I loved about this short novel--but I thought I'd do just a little more to pique your curiosity.  Here are some of my favorite lines from The Sensualist, the story of 17-year-old Samuel Gerson's often-dangerous relationship with fellow student Dmitri Zilber, a Russian immigrant who is obsessed with the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Of course, there's the engaging, hard-to-resist opening:
The events leading to the beating Dmitri Abramovich Zilber and his friends would administer to Jeremy Goldstein at the end of my junior year of high school--an act that would make them the talk of every household in Pikesville for months after--started before Dmitri and I even met.
And then there's first meeting between narrator Samuel and Yelizaveta, Dmitri's alluring sister, during gym class:
      Dmitri walked along the fence, and he called out to Yelizaveta. She stopped and turned. Yelizaveta was five-feet-seven, and her straight black hair fell to the middle of her shoulder blades, tied up at the base of her head with green elastic. She looked at Dmitiri and shook her head. She said something that sounded firm but loving. Then she turned to me.
      My hands felt like something I'd stolen. My gym shorts had no pockets. I folded my arms across my chest, hands up under my armpits. Yelizaveta cocked her head with no small intimation of coquettishness.
      "Hello," she said. She turned to Dmitri. "Who is it you brings?"
      Dmitri looked at me as if he was as embarrassed by my hands as I was.
      "Samuel from gym class," he said.
I love that line: My hands felt like something I'd stolen.  Who among us, male and female, hasn't felt that same, what-do-I-do-with-myself awkwardness around members of the opposite sex?  This scene is not an isolated example, of course.  The Sensualist is full of gem-precision moments like this.

In browsing the Nouvella website, I came across this testimony from editor Deena Drewis about what attracted her to Torday's manuscript:
      Let it go on record that I do not believe in fate. But I am quick to attribute things to crazy coincidence and uncanny timing. This novella is a result of both of those things. I say this because as an editor (well, as a person) I err toward caution. I am slow to pull the trigger, so to speak, often to a fault. But this was not the case with Dan.
      This past fall, among various other publications, my staff read through the Five Chapters archives and flagged stories that caught their attention. Among them was “Bubi Grynszpan Dreams Assassination Dreams,” which was passed on to me for consideration. The story elicited a response in me that could be described in great length, but to put it simply, to distill it down its core, during the half hour it took me to finish the piece, it became quite clear that I was in the hands of a singular and effortless storyteller (and Dan will surely dispute this, for he is a writer of that endearing-yet-maddeningly-modest variety.) At the risk of exposing too much about my personal preferences, Dan’s writing seemed to me refreshingly unexperimental. Unself-conscious. The prose aimed to serve the task at hand, which was, through and through, to tell a story that would move its reader. To describe how two strangers connect and fail to connect—how they in turn, expose themselves and turn away from what is human.
      In the following days I read what I could of Dan’s work and was struck again and again by Dan’s unfettered approach, by his command of language. By his sense of humor and maybe above all, his empathy. I wrote to him to let him know how much I was enjoying his work and to see if he had, by chance, anything in the 10K-40K word range sitting around. I tried not to think about how unreasonable my disappointment would be if he did not.
      And what do you know.
      It was a few more weeks before he sent it over. The Sensualist (which went by a different title back then) had been a novel once, a manuscript he’d worked on during his MFA at Syracuse. But with this recent prompting, the novel was further shorn of scenes that he had questioned before. It was reconsidered and tightened and distilled down to—well, a novella. A narrative that is lucid and heartbreaking, that insists on being told.
And, I might add, it's a story that insists on being read.  The same goes for all of Nouvella's books.  Read them.  Now (or as soon as you can get your hands on a copy).  Each novella will take less than half-a-day to read, but they'll stick with you (like healthy oatmeal to the ribs) for much, much longer.


Associate Editor Emma Bushnell was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about Nouvella via email.  Our conversation follows....

In his essay "The Novella's Long Life," William Giraldi says a novella “combines the best of a short story with the best of a novel, the dynamic thighs of a sprinter with the long-distance lungs of a mountaineer.”  How do you define "novella"?  Is it strictly word length, or are there plot-construction, character development, and thematic issues at play, as well?  It seems to be a rather slippery term, but I'm sure you've given it plenty of thought.

For technical purposes, we define a novella as being between 10,000 and 40,000 words, though that is, of course, completely arbitrary.  In my personal definition, a novella has transcended the compact world of a short story, and has fewer rules or expectations of it than a short story does.  It is allowed to have subplots, more satisfying character development, and create a more fully realized world, just like any novel.  Unlike in a novel, however, every word in a novella is necessary.  The reader knows there’s no chatty sections or minor characters that could waste her time.  This definition is, of course, as similarly arbitrary as our word count one is.  I think a lot of the difficulty people have when defining the term “novella” comes from the fact that it is a literary form with a particular x-factor.  As Potter Stewart would say, I know it when I see it.

Are there any particular novella-ists who've provided inspiration for what you do?  I'm thinking maybe Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, Melville, or--more recently--the work of Josh Weil, Jim Harrison, or Joyce Carol Oates, for instance....

Many contemporary writers are able to sneak a novella into a short story collection without having to call it that--Claire Vaye Watkins’ “The Diggings” and many of Karen Russell’s stories spring immediately to mind.  Andre Dubus, Truman Capote, Denis Johnson, Joseph Conrad, J.D. Salinger, and Cynthia Ozick are also among the noteworthy novella-ists.  Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, our reigning Great American Novel, is arguably a novella.  As you pointed out, many of our most celebrated stories in the English and American literary canon are novella-length works that would have a hell of a time getting published as standalone pieces today.  That neglect in the publishing market provides the inspiration for what we do--to give a home to these diverse and excellent stories that happen to be on the wrong side of a word count.

What impact, if any, does electronic publishing have on the novella?  Are readers less cognizant that they're reading a novella if they can't feel and see the length/heft of a book?

Well, I don’t think we’re pulling a fast one on readers or fooling them into thinking they’re buying a longer book than they actually are when they buy digitally.  But I do think e-reading is a natural medium for shorter and cheaper stories.  A lot of readers are “hybrid readers,” who use both e-readers and physical books, and it’s been interesting to see that many prefer to use their e-readers to dabble in authors unproven to them, which is mostly what we publish.  That said, we’ve been surprised by how much of the reading community is resistant to giving up the real thing--our physical copies still do booming business, even at twice the price of the digital editions.  Truthfully, e-publishing is still largely a There Be Dragons area for all publishers, and while we certainly hope it will benefit us, only time will tell if it will.

You limit yourself to four books per year with a unique subscription/marketing strategy.  What's the reasoning behind that?

There’s a bit of boutique feel behind a small press like ours, and we like it that way.  A short frontlist allows us to have unanimous consent on whether or not we publish a novella.  In that way, we can be one hundred percent behind every author we select, but it also means we are a slow and deliberate body.

Each title we publish is kicked off by a “Launch Week,” wherein the reading public is invited to “invest” in a “share package” of the novella.  During Launch Week only, you can buy a limited first edition, signed copy, e-book version, and usually some bonus gift, and receive a personal letter of thanks from the author.  The idea behind Launch Week is to make it clear that we’re not only selecting manuscripts when we publish, but we’re also selecting authors whose future careers we believe in.  Instead of trying to compete with the talent pool for Big Six publishers, we take the medium-length manuscripts they would never touch and get top caliber writers’ work out in the world to be noticed.  Largely so we can have the satisfaction of saying “I told you so” when they publish big books down the line, which we’ve enjoyed doing very much so far.

Are you able to give us a hint as to upcoming Nouvella authors we can expect to read?

While the Launch series is still the meat and potatoes of what Nouvella is, we recently decided to expand and include one title a year in our new Enfant Terrible series.  We were finding we had to disqualify many worthy manuscripts because the author was already too successful for the Launch series, and that just seemed silly.  So we will now include novellas written by authors who have established careers already, but whose agents won’t take on their unruly, medium-length novella manuscripts.

The first novella in our Enfant Terrible series will be On an Island at the Center of the Center of the World, by the outrageously talented Elizabeth Kadetsky, to be released in the spring.  Kadetsky’s memoir, First There is a Mountain, was released by Little, Brown in 2004, and her short stories have been chosen for a Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and Best American Short Stories notable stories.  Reading her prose is like walking through a lucid dream--her people and places are vivid and exquisitely described, but she brings a chilling feeling of otherness, like Kafka or Bolaño does.

Also coming up, we’re re-releasing Edan Lepucki’s super-sharp If You’re Not Yet Like Me, with new material and a hilarious new cover.  Lepucki’s novel, California, is out in May 2014 from Little, Brown, so she’s one of our aforementioned I-told-you-so’s.

Out of personal, technical curiosity: what kind of finish is that on the material of the covers? It seems....soft, is the only word I can come up with.  You should know that not only do I hold the words between the covers in high regard, but I am also completely head-over-heels for the care you give each book with the small size, the French flaps, and that tactile perfectness of its packaging.

Thank you for saying so!  Our printer changes the name of that finish weekly, but right now it’s called “luxury matte.”  We’re pretty fond of it--whenever a new shipment comes in, the first thing you’ll find me doing is petting the books.

In an age where physical books have to compete with digital books, it really only made sense to make our physical copies as beautiful as they could possibly be.  For that, we are completely reliant on our designer, who is a wizard, and can take directives like “a cover that’s condemning about failed marriages and deer hunting” and make something beautiful and perfect every time.  The small, 4x6 size of the books was also just a natural fit with the novella form, and was done with people like me in mind who are often compromising the structural integrity of paperbacks in order to fit them into purses.


My Year of Books is the annual backward glance of my literary life.  All this week, I'll be posting lists of the best things I read in 2013.  Be sure to visit the rest of the series (links posted as they're published):

Monday:  By the Numbers
Tuesday:  Best First Lines
Wednesday:  Best Cover Designs
Thursday:  Best of the Backlist
Friday:  Best Fiction of 2013
Saturday:  Publisher of the Year

Friday, December 20, 2013

Friday Freebie: Best of Books by the Bed by Cheryl & Eric Olsen and We Wanted to Be Writers by Eric Olsen & Glenn Schaeffer

Congratulations to Will Evans, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: American Dream Machine by Matthew Specktor and The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner.

This week's book giveaway is for those of you who haven't been able to get enough of year-end list-o-mania.  Best of Books by the Bed #1 edited by Cheryl and Eric Olsen, is subtitled "What Writers Are Reading Before Lights Out" and it is guaranteed to add heaps of books to your wishlists or maybe it will prompt you to go to your own shelves and pull out half-forgotten books (to be read immediately or added to the always-towering TBR pile).  Based on the popular Books by the Bed blog, this handy guide provides a happy overload of reading recommendations from bookworms with exquisite good taste.  I had a chance to review the book earlier this year and offered this blurb to the editors (repeating it here because I think it sums up my feelings about the book):
Remember those nights when you use to read books under the bedcovers by flashlight after "lights out"? And remember that feeling like warm syrup spreading through your chest when you found a book you truly loved and couldn't wait to tell others about it in the morning? Books by the Bed re-kindles that happy glow of biblio-love through its lists of well-read books enthusiastically endorsed by readers and writers. Reading Books by the Bed is like being able to crawl under the covers with fellow book lovers and come away with a whole stack of new reading material. Flashlights not included.
The contributions from readers is warm and generous throughout.  And besides, it's always fun to peek at someone else's bookshelves, isn't it?  Here, for instance, is book reviewer Harvey Freedenberg listing the books which are within easy reach from his bed:
Ever since I began reviewing in 2005, my bedside table has become the resting place for an ever shifting array of titles that remind me of the deadline-driven reading that lies ahead in the next few weeks. Right now that space is occupied by Canada, the new novel from one of my favorite writers, Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ford, commentator E. J. Dionne’s Our Divided Political Heart, an analysis of our pervasive political gridlock, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, a novel by Christopher Beha, and new essay collections from two very smart people—Marilynne Robinson and Jonathan Franzen. I’m saddened to report that worthy volumes of short stories by Deborah Eisenberg, Max Apple and George Saunders have been relegated to a second stack, along with T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and the slim book, Slow Reading, by John Miedema, which seems like a rebuke to the whole notion of a TBR pile.
One more thing: the trim, slim Best of Books by the Bed #1 is perfectly-sized to fit inside a Christmas stocking.  I'm just sayin'....

Along with Best of Books by the Bed #1, you have a chance to win the book which started the website where you'll find BYTB blog posts: We Wanted to Be Writers, by Eric Olsen and Glenn Schaeffer.  Subtitled "Life, Love, and Literature at the Iowa Writers' Workshop" it's the kind of book that's catnip to authors.  Everyone loves to read other writers writing about writing, don't they?  Or is that just me?  Here's more about the book from the publisher:
We Wanted to be Writers is a rollicking and insightful blend of original interviews, commentary, advice, gossip, anecdotes, analyses, history, and asides with nearly thirty graduates and teachers at the now legendary Iowa Writers' Workshop between 1974 and 1978. Among the talents that emerged in those years--writing, criticizing, drinking, and debating in the classrooms and barrooms of Iowa City--were the younger versions of writers who became John Irving, Jane Smiley, T. C. Boyle, Michelle Huneven, Allan Gurganus, Sandra Cisneros, Jayne Anne Phillips, Jennie Fields, Joy Harjo, Joe Haldeman, and many others. It is chock full of insights and a treasure trove of inspiration for all writers, readers, history lovers, and anyone who ever "wanted to be a writer." Jane Smiley on the Iowa writers' workshop: "In that period, the teachers tended to be men of a certain age, with the idea that competition was somehow the key-the Norman Mailer period. The story was that if you disagreed with Norman, or gave him a bad review, he'd punch you in the nose. You were supposed to get in fights in restaurants." T.C. Boyle on his short story "Drowning": "I got $25 for it, which was wonderful . . . You know, getting $25 for the product of your own brain? You could buy a lot of beer in Iowa City back then for that."

If you’d like a chance at winning both Best of Books By the Bed #1 and We Wanted to be Writers, 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 Dec. 26, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 27.  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.

My Year of Books: Best Fiction of 2013

This was the year I went all Lewis & Clark on my shelves. Authors who'd been on my "gotta-read-someday" list for far too long came out with new books, providing me with an opportunity to "discover" them.  Writers like Fiona Maazel, Andrew Sean Greer, Jamie Ford, J. Robert Lennon and Neil Gaiman provided many hours of joy between the covers.  But for every author I checked off my bucket list, there are triple that number still waiting to be read for the first time: Jeffrey Eugenides, Donna Tartt, Marisha Pessl, Pete Fromm, Anthony Doerr, Bill Bryson, William T. Vollmann and Colson Whitehead to name a few--and don't even get me started on the classics!  (Hello, Hardy, Proust and Wodehouse...).

This year also gave me the pleasure of discovering some new writers and those who hadn't previously been on my radar--fictioneers like Ben Dolnick, Jamie Quatro, and Kate Southwood.  I look forward to reading more of their work in the future.

In compiling this year's "Best Books" list, I limited myself to fiction, but I'd like to give special mention to a couple of non-fiction books which would have made the cut if I'd widened the scope of the list: Still Writing by Dani Shapiro is an absolute must-read for anyone who practices the craft of writing (or who thinks that someday they might take up the pen and jot down a few lines of art); and Pilgrim's Wilderness by Tom Kizzia is a riveting account of one stone-cold crazy patriarch who homesteads in Alaska's wilderness then endangers his family and the entire community when he takes a stand against the federal government (Kizzia's writing is so, so very good--right down to the last shattering sentence which casts the previous 335 pages in a new light).  In poetry, I was bowled over by the stanzas coming from Hugh Martin (The Stick Soldiers) and A. Van Jordan (The Cineaste)--poems about war and movies, respectively.

Without further preamble, here are my Top 10 favorite books from 2013 (in no particular order):

At the Bottom of Everything
by Ben Dolnick
Ben Dolnick’s novel about two childhood friends trying, as adults, to reconcile past mistakes held me in its grip so hard that I found myself at 2 a.m. one night turning pages so quickly my fingers were cross-hatched with tiny paper cuts.  At that point in the novel, Adam had traveled to India in search of his old friend Thomas who was lost, both bodily and in the corridors of his mind.  Both men are in their twenties and are trying to deal with a terrible accident for which they were responsible as reckless teenagers.  Guilt has wracked them each in separate ways and they drifted apart over the years—Adam (the novel’s narrator) is now a tutor who’s having sex with the mother of one of his students, and Thomas seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth.  His worried parents reach out to Adam in hopes he can track him down.  Though Adam resists being pulled back into Thomas’ life, he also knows it’s inevitable.  He tells us on the first page: “I’d spent the last couple of years…ignoring the fact that Thomas needed me, as if his life were a flashing Check Engine light in the corner of my dashboard.”  Dolnick subtly asks big questions: What is our responsibility to the lives of others?  Should we take it upon ourselves to rescue lost souls?  How do we forgive ourselves for bad deeds?  Is it ever possible to move on from the errors of our past?  Another question he might have asked himself: “What is my responsibility to readers who end up bleeding from paper cuts?”  At the Bottom of Everything was probably the most compelling book I read all year.  I couldn't shake it from my system—nor did I want to.

I Want to Show You More
by Jamie Quatro
Jamie Quatro’s debut book, I Want to Show You More, is a profound, weird, funny, sad and wholly-original gathering of short fiction.  Nearly a year after reading it, I’m still thinking of highlights: a church that falls apart, sending its parishioners to live in the woods; an ultra-marathon in which runners carry totems—including a glass-blown penis—in backpacks; and several heartbreaking stories about a family coping with the loss of its matriarch as she battles cancer.  Set in the South—primarily on Lookout Mountain which straddles the border between Georgia and Tennessee—Quatro’s stories take on broad themes like adultery, spirituality, grief and parenting, but it’s the intimacy of the characters which drives the book forward.  There’s a quadriplegic mother at a pool party, a rotting lover’s corpse in a bed, a fair amount of phone sex and at least one frail character’s perilous journey up and down a hilly suburban street in her quest to mail a letter about the Iraq War to President Bush.  Quatro’s style has the terse, stabbing power of Raymond Carver in his finest hour, but at the same time there’s the fuller lyricism of something by Alice Munro, languorously stretching and humming below the surface of the words.  Each time I finished one of the stories, I thought, “Wow, that’s the best one in the book,” and then I’d go on to the next story and find it was the best one.  I ended up closing the book and sighing, “Okay, they’re all the best.”  I can’t wait for Jamie Quatro to show me more with her next book.

by Roxana Robinson
Conrad Farrell comes home from the war in Iraq, skin unbroken and all limbs still attached…and yet he is a damaged man, a wounded warrior struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder—like so many (too many) of our returning veterans.  PTSD is at the heart of Roxana Robinson's riveting novel which describes the condition in terms I've never before seen on the page.  Precise as a psychological case history, the book charts the painful journey of Conrad from gung-ho boy to disillusioned warrior to broken man.  Conrad comes from a family that's "bookish and liberal, not martial and authoritarian," with a mother and father who can't understand why their son would want to take up arms in defense of his country.   Conrad, a classics major in college, is drawn to the stories of the ancient world—particularly Sparta, the Peloponnesian War, and the Iliad.  "I want to do something big," he tells his family when announcing his decision to join the Marines.  "I want to do something that has consequences."  Little does he know, he'll be the one on the receiving end of those consequences.  No matter where you fall in the spectrum between hawk and dove, Robinson's novel is powerfully affecting and takes its place on the shelf of essential war literature.

All That Is
by James Salter
At the center of All That Is, James Salter’s first novel in 35 years, stands Phillip Bowman who we first see as a young naval officer in World War Two, then a Harvard student, and then on to a Mad Men life as a book editor in mid-century Manhattan.  He lives, he loves, he advances toward death—nothing too remarkable plot-wise, but the book's power is all in the telling.  Salter's language is beautiful and confident.  How many writers do you know who can carry off describing the span and breadth of one person's life in the space of just one paragraph?  Seemingly minor characters are given full, rich treatments in big, bold strokes.  Admittedly, there were times when I didn't want to like All That Is because it seemed tainted by a thin coating of mysogynism—and that's certainly there to a degree—but then I had to ask myself whether it was truly Salter's feelings toward women or if it was an accurate portrayal of 1960s America and I was just looking back at it through the bias of a more enlightened age.  Maybe it's a little of both (which still makes me uncomfortable), but in the end I was won over by the sheer quality of the writing.  James Salter is hardly a household name—even, sadly, in bookish households—but he's been quietly producing great works of literature since the late 1950s.  In his generous and spot-on review for the New York Times, Malcolm Jones wrote: “Salter is 87, with a reputation so secure he has nothing left to prove.  If there were a Mount Rushmore for writers, he’d be there already.  He could have published nothing, and no one would have thought less of him.”  And yet, here he is in the twilight of a career with what could arguably be his best book so far.  It is full of language distilled down to pure, true sentences.

Falling to Earth
by Kate Southwood
Pivoting off the real-life Tri-State Tornado of 1925, Kate Southwood’s debut novel is a riveting account of wealth, gossip, and ostracism.  The wind's devastation is described in vivid images like “a woman is frozen, screaming under a tree at a child’s body caught high in its branches” and “trees have been snatched out of the ground like hanks of hair.”  Paul Graves, owner of a successful lumberyard, miraculously survives the tornado as the rest of his small Illinois town is flattened.  While the tornado scene (which comes upon us quickly in the first chapter) is breathtaking in its fury, the most fascinating part of the story is how Paul is shunned by the rest of his town for his good fortune (none of his family members are hurt and his house and store are left standing in a landscape reduced to splinters and rubble).  It's a clever reversal of the Biblical story of Job.  Instead of being stripped of everything by God, Paul is divinely spared––and that's the worst thing which could have happened to him.  Kate Southwood's first novel is the start of a very promising career.

Edward Adrift
by Craig Lancaster
Like The Empire Strikes Back and The Godfather II, Edward Adrift is that rarest of things: a sequel that is actually better than its predecessor.  In the case of Montana writer Craig Lancaster's new book, that's saying a lot because I loved 600 Hours of Edward with all the passionate joy of a botanist discovering a new butterfly.  That first novel possessed a distinct voice told by a unique character who immediately endeared himself to the reader: Edward Stanton, a middle-aged man with Asperger syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder who lives alone in Billings, Montana and adheres to a rigid schedule, all of it noted in his logbook, including the day's temperature and his most common waking time (7:38 a.m.).  Edward refuses to start his therapy sessions even a minute before the appointed hour (10:00 a.m.), and he watches one episode of the 1960s cop show Dragnet every night (10:00 p.m. sharp).  In Edward Adrift, Lancaster deepens our understanding of 42-year-old Edward who is plowing through the world in spite of (or perhaps because of) his Asperger's.  As the novel opens, Edward is going through a period of upheaval: he's lost his job, his best friend, 12-year-old Kyle, has moved away, and his Dragnet schedule has been thrown all out of whack.  Edward is, as he would say, flummoxed.  When Kyle's mother calls from Boise to say the boy isn't adjusting very well to his new life, Edward makes the bold decision to leave his comfort zone and embark on a road trip that is both hilarious and touching, all of it delivered in Edward's distinct man-child voice:
I'm trying to see what's coming, but that is a silly pursuit. We never know. I don't, anyway. It's all a surprise, and I'm having to learn to live with surprises even though I prefer certainty. Certainty allows you to plan your life, and there are few things I like better than planning. Surprises make you adjust along the way, and I'm not very good at that.
My biggest surprise in reading this book is how much I loved it.  Don't get me wrong--I looked forward to spending some more time with one of my favorite literary characters, but I was, frankly, braced for a Jaws 2 experience.  Edward Adrift turned out to be richer, funnier, and even more moving than my first encounter with the man obsessed with time and temperature.

Woke Up Lonely
by Fiona Maazel
In his praise of Woke Up Lonely, novelist Wesley Stace warns, "Ignore Fiona Maazel at your peril."  It's true--Maazel is a force to be reckoned with....and a force to be read.  I'd ignored her first novel Last Last Chance when it was released (no, "ignored" is the wrong word--"allowed it to be buried in the avalanche of new books hitting me at the time" is more like it), and now I'm regretting that decision.  Woke Up Lonely is a clanging wake-up alarm for literature: "Rise and shine, all you lazy Words--today, we're going out there, and we're gonna be funny!  And smart!  And we'll take the brain by storm!  Let's go!"  How to describe the plot and characters of Maazel's new novel in this short space?  Woke Up Lonely is for those readers who wished George Saunders would write a novel.  It's for fans of filmmaker Wes Anderson who'd like to see his off-kilter brand of humor pinned down to the page.  Woke Up Lonely is for everyone who wished the siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas had been funnier.  Still not good enough for you?  Hmmm....well, try this: there's a cult leader who promises to cure loneliness, there's his ex-wife who's spying on him even though she really wants to protect him from those who've hired her, there's a hostage situation, there's Cincinnati, there's North Korea, there's Kim Jong Il (and his double, and his double's double), there's speed dating, there's a secret passageway, there's an explosion or two, and....there's more, much more.  Maazel throws a lot of spaghetti at the wall and, impressively, only one or two noodles fall off.  While the story and its people were interesting and engaging, I loved this book primarily at the sentence level.  Woke Up Lonely is one of the few books which made me laugh out loud this year.  It also made me cluck my tongue in amazement at what Maazel does with the English language.  A couple of examples:  "She settled under a lamp whose glow helped define the cut of her face.  Very narrow.  Unnaturally so.   A face between cymbals after the clap."  And this: "He had slept but three hours the night before--the couch was a muddle of lump and trough--and the sugar was romping about his blood like it owned the place."  Those two sentences happen by coincidence to be on the same page, but trust me when I say there are more like them throughout the book.  Fiona Maazel romps across all her pages like she owns the place.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
by Neil Gaiman
Childhood is a scary place, full of under-the-bed shadows, half-ajar closet doors, and--most frightening of all--the inscrutable motives of adults. Think of all those dark fairy tales which pressed their thumbprints into your young, malleable imagination.  Now multiply that darkness by two-hundred-thousand and you'll get the heart of Neil Gaiman's fable for adults.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane is populated with monsters--both the fantastical, many-tentacled creature kind and the human variety.  Most of the outright scary stuff comes in the second half of this slim novel, though there's a sense of unease from the very start as the unnamed narrator revisits his childhood home in rural Sussex, England.  Now in his fifties, he's there to deliver the eulogy at a funeral, but it's also an occasion for him to remember the time when he was seven years old and a series of traumatic events left a lasting mark.  By the same token, the novel will leave a lasting mark on anyone who is fortunate enough to pick it up and enter the world of Gaiman's magical, mystical, fertile imagination.  I began by saying this book is heavy with shadows, but it's really like that piece of dark chocolate you bite between your teeth.  There is, at first, the very adult, black-coffee taste; but let it sit on your tongue long enough and you'll start to taste the sweet notes.  As Gaiman writes in the opening pages, "Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good."  Now, think of the last time you dug around in your old toy chest (if, that is, your parents were kind enough to save it for you up in the attic).  Do you remember the rush of nostalgia and the nose-sting of unexpected tears?  That's exactly the kind of experience that waits for you in The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

Return to Oakpine
by Ron Carlson
Is there any pen Ron Carlson touches that doesn't turn to gold?  I've fallen headlong in love with every book he's written (with the exception of the best-forgotten Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, an early clunker from 1977).  His short story collection At the Jim Bridger is damn near perfect; The Signal is a harrowing story of wilderness survival; and you won't find a better novel about blue-collar work than in the pages of Five Skies.  In his newest novel, Carlson turns a sentimental eye (perhaps too sentimental for some readers) on life in a small town.  Thirty years after they graduated high school, four friends reunite in their hometown, the fictional Oakpine, Wyoming.  Frank, a hardware store owner, and Craig, a bartender, never left.  Mason, a freshly divorced lawyer, comes back to Oakpine from Denver looking for "a change, an end, some new chapter in this old life."  And then there's Jimmy, who left Oakpine for New York City after the tragic death of his brother.  A successful novelist, he's come back to live with his estranged parents because he's dying.  Carlson deftly captures the pull-and-resistance feeling of going back to your roots.  You can go home again, but it's never quite the same, it is?  (I speak as one who recently returned to his own hometown in Wyoming after a 15-year absence.)  As Carlson writes of Larry, Craig's ambitious track-star son who runs the length and breadth of Oakpine on a daily basis, "Anybody with any dignity got out of Oakpine....Larry had no idea where he was going, but he was going, that was for sure."  Somehow, I get the feeling that if you pay a visit to Craig's hardware store ten years down the line, you'll find Larry there behind the counter.  Return to Oakpine is full of sentences that I kept stopping to re-read, savoring Carlson's wordcraft.  For instance, I could practically taste the afternoon of a small town in these fine sentences:
The two men sat in the quiet bar. Suddenly the light dimmed again under a cloud, and it was a moment that went out on them, through the big plate-glass window across the gray street and up above the town in a moment, reaching past the last house and the few bad roads newly bladed into the prairie and the antelope in clusters on greengray hillsides beyond that and then hovering beyond and beyond, the world, their lives, the full gravid sense of afternoon. There was nothing to do or say except ride this part of the day together there, both men feeling the weight register; the men they'd become. It was a beery afternoon in their hometown.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
by Karen Joy Fowler
Starting with the wordy title itself, Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is like that hypertensive friend you meet for coffee and you realize, after a caffeinated hour, that you've never gotten a word in edgewise, but that doesn't really matter because you've been held in thrall by the conversation which has bounded along on a series of breathless loop-de-loops. As this funny, quirky novel begins, narrator Rosemary Cooke, a twenty-two-year-old "meandering" through college, admits she’s always been a “great talker.” As a child she chatters like a chimp in a zoo and really gets under the skin of her parents—a father who’s “a chain-smoking, hard-drinking, fly-fishing atheist from Indianapolis” and a mother who has retreated into near catatonic madness. As she's grown older, Rosemary has retreated into silence after her family experienced a traumatic upheaval. Two of her siblings go missing (at separate times) and the majority of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is about Rosemary’s quest to learn what happened to them. I won’t say much more because surprises abound in these pages and I don’t want to have angry readers come throw rocks at my house because I’ve spoiled things.  Let’s just say, things aren’t always what they appear to be.  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is thought-provoking, funny, and about as unforgettable as that friend who never stops to take a breath.


My Year of Books is the annual backward glance of my literary life.  All this week, I'll be posting lists of the best things I read in 2013.  Be sure to visit the rest of the series (links posted as they're published):

Monday:  By the Numbers
Tuesday:  Best First Lines
Wednesday:  Best Cover Designs
Thursday:  Best of the Backlist
Friday:  Best Fiction of 2013
Saturday:  Publisher of the Year