Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

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

If I wasn't already maniacally interested in reading Lauren Beukes' new novel Broken Monsters, this book trailer would have sunk a rusty hook into my flesh and reeled me in.  I'm a fan of The Shining Girls, Beukes' previous novel about a time-traveling serial killer; so I was already standing in line for Broken Monsters.  In a series of images that look like the love child of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, the book trailer is as unsettling as the book's premise (and the dark, gnarled half of my brain loves it!):
Detective Gabriella Versado has seen a lot of bodies. But this one is unique even by Detroit's standards: half boy, half deer, somehow fused together. As stranger and more disturbing bodies are discovered, how can the city hold on to a reality that is already tearing at its seams? If you're Detective Versado's geeky teenage daughter, Layla, you commence a dangerous flirtation with a potential predator online. If you're desperate freelance journalist Jonno, you do whatever it takes to get the exclusive on a horrific story. If you're Thomas Keen, known on the street as TK, you'll do what you can to keep your homeless family safe--and find the monster who is possessed by the dream of violently remaking the world.
Broken Monsters is probably not for the faint-of-heart or timid-of-page.  But for those who lean closer to the screen when a man whispers, "I dreamed about a boy with springs on his feet," I think this will be the perfect book to put a chill in your October air.

Monday, September 29, 2014

My First Time: Mary Vensel White

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 Mary Vensel White, author of The Qualities of Wood.  Mary lives and writes in Orange County, California, with her husband and four children.  Her short fiction has appeared in The Wisconsin Review and Foothills Literary Magazine.  Her first novel, The Qualities of Wood, was called “a haunting and provocative debut” by Christina Baker Kline (author of Orphan Train).  Mary blogs about writing and life at www.maryvenselwhite.com and is a contributing editor at www.litchat.com.  You can also follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

My Last First Time

A warm summer night, an Air Force cadet, and a showing of Gremlins at the local drive-in movie theater.  Or was it The Goonies?  I always get that mixed up.  Wait.  That’s not what you’re talking about, is it?  You want something about a more solitary endeavor.  All right, my first time was atypical.  It required concentration, lots of patience, and the determination to get through moments where I had no idea what to do.

—What?  I am!  This is about my first published book.  It’s also about my second first time, and the next, and this last first time.  Let me explain.

In 2010, I posted a portion of my novel, The Qualities of Wood, on HarperCollins’ site for unpublished writers, Authonomy.com.  I had written the book quite a while before that, prior to the arrival of the four children who kept me happily and otherwise engaged for several years.  I had gone through my stacks of manuscripts and had decided TQOW was the most likely to succeed.  And eventually, it did.  I devoted a good amount of time to the site, while dropping fishing lines into other ponds.  Interacting with the community of writers on Authonomy was a godsend, as were receiving and offering critiques, both of which improved my writing.  And when TQOW rose in the ranks to the site’s Editor’s Desk in early 2011, it was plucked with the promise of a review from a genuine HarperCollins editor.  The review came and was quite complimentary, even implied that the book was under serious consideration.  In the meantime, I had received an offer from a small publisher, which I turned down when HarperCollins offered to publish TQOW as the first release under its new Authonomy imprint.

The ebook came out in January of 2012.  The only tactile objects, I suppose, were the stand-up posters my husband surprised me with for my launch party.  But it felt like a publication in every other sense.  Up to that point, everything about my writing career had been online anyway.  It was exciting to see the book on Amazon, to read reviews and connect with readers.  I wrote guest blogs and articles, gave interviews, and reveled in my “first time” as a published author.

Then I ventured out.  I sat on panels at writers conferences and gave workshops.  I was invited to book clubs, another first.  Each experience expanded the gratification I already felt; each foray into this brave, new world was exciting.  And when my publisher announced in December that the book would be released in print in the summer of 2013, I was thrilled.

In April of 2013, a box of proofs arrived.  The moment was surreal and yet it also blurred in with my day-to-day life in ways I never expected.  I always thought it would happen with champagne and orchestra music; I think the box actually sat on our porch unnoticed half the day, as I rushed around, dropping kids here and there.  But the books were lovely—the vibrant blue of the first cover was beautiful, the feel of pages flipped under my fingertips divine.  First cover, you ask?  You see, shortly after receiving the books, the book’s publication date was postponed.  Because the novel was published by a UK-based imprint, they wanted to get it into the Harper360 system for broader distribution and a better chance.  Good news, but it meant more waiting.  In this case, another full year.

Fast forward to June 17, 2014.  I have received yet another box of even lovelier books, have answered more interview questions, talked to more book clubs and writers, and geared up for another release.  I am standing in our local Barnes & Noble, looking at my novel on the shelf.  Later that evening, I’ll have another launch in this very store, this time with a tactile object in my hands and a large group seated before me.  This was one of the best firsts in a prolonged series of firsts.  But it wasn’t the end.

I’m looking forward to more bookstores, conferences and book clubs.  I’m anxiously waiting for The Qualities of Wood to be included in our local Orange County libraries—this is the “first” I’m currently anticipating most.  And I think the best I can hope for out of this writing life is that there will always be another first, just around the next corner or over the next hill.  It’s like writing itself, which feels like the first time, each and every time you start Page One.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sunday Sentence: An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

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

Once upon a time, in a far-off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Chocolate Wars, Mr. Pucker, and Banned Books

I was a teenage guinea pig.

Sometime around 1976, I was used by the Teton County School Board in what would later look like a banned books lab experiment.  My mother, who worked for the school at the time, had been approached by a member of the school board who’d heard through the grapevine that her son was “a bit of a reader” (an understatement even back then).  Maybe young Mr. Abrams could take a look at a book that had come to their attention recently and tell the school board if it was suitable for pubescent audiences in Jackson, Wyoming?

This was the same school board who successfully banned a sex education class that same year—but only after we young, delicate students had already been taught five of the seven weeks of the birds and the bees course.  We were just getting ready to study the two M’s—Menstruation and Masturbation—when the Puritans on the school board put a kibosh on the whole thing. It didn’t matter anyway—I already had a Master’s degree in one of the two subjects.  (rimshot)

This person who cut a deal with my mother was probably a decent guy overall, but when it came to ultra-conservatism, he was the champ.  Names are not important—it’s all water under the bridge now, but for the sake of identification, let’s say his first name was Ass.  Last name, Pucker.

Anyway, word had reached my mother that Mr. Pucker was looking for a kid to read a book that, according to certain members of the school board, might not be suitable for the curriculum, a book which might be too rough for young, delicate eyes.

And so, my mother approached me with the proposition: “Read this and tell me if it’s okay to be taught in your English class.”

Imagine that!  Me, the perpetually skinny, stuttering, anxiety-ridden, least-popular boy in Jackson Hole Junior High was being asked to render an opinion which could potentially have cataclysmic, life-altering impacts.

I said, “Okay.”

My mother reached into a brown-paper sack, looked around to make sure we were alone, then handed me the book: The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.

By the time it was published in 1974, Cormier’s novel had been rejected by seven other publishers who undoubtedly felt it fell into that foggy netherworld between Encyclopedia Brown and The Catcher in the Rye: too cynical for young readers, too teenager-y for adults.  Though it got mixed reviews when it was released, The Chocolate War won a place in young readers’ hearts over the years, alongside Cormier’s other classic novel I Am the Cheese.  It has also earned a place as one of the American Library Association’s top 10 challenged books between 2000 and 2009, summiting the list in 2004.

When I took the paperback copy from my mother’s hands in 1976, I wasn’t thinking about censorship or morality or school board politics; I was just interested in digging into a good book.  I turned to the first page and started reading: They murdered him.

Well, okay, that was a pretty good beginning.

I went on:
As he turned to take the ball, a dam burst against the side of his head and a hand grenade shattered his stomach. Engulfed by nausea, he pitched toward the grass. His mouth encountered gravel, and he spat frantically, afraid that some of his teeth had been knocked out. Rising to his feet, he saw the field through drifting gauze but held on until everything settled into place, like a lens focusing, making the world sharp again, with edges.
Not bad. Not bad at all.

As it turns out, The Chocolate War was not only not bad, it was damn good.

That guy getting figuratively murdered on the football field in the opening paragraphs was Jerry Renault, a freshman at an all-boys Catholic prep school who does one very important thing during a school fundraiser: he says “no.”  Despite peer pressure, taunts from a particularly unpleasant teacher named Brother Leon, and bullying at the hands of a secret society of upperclassman called The Vigils, Jerry Renault stands firm in his refusal to sell boxes of chocolates to raise money for his school.  It’s a novel about the solitary David facing down the institutional Goliath.  What’s not to love?  Why the concern?  Why the rush to ban this smart, provocative book?

I got my answer when I hit page 17:
Why did he always feel so guilty whenever he looked at Playboy and the other magazines? A lot of guys bought them, passed them around at school, hid them in the covers of notebooks, even resold them.
Ah!  There’s the rub.  So to speak.  It goes on:
He sometimes saw copies scattered casually on coffee tables in the homes of his friends. He had once bought a girlie magazine, paying for it with trembling fingers—a dollar and a quarter, his finances shot down in flames until his next allowance. And he didn’t know what to do with the damn thing once it was in his possession. Sneaking it home on the bus, hiding it in the bottom drawer of his room, he was terrified of discovery. Finally, tired of smuggling it into the bathroom for swift perusals, and weary of his deceit, and haunted by the fear that his mother would find the magazine, Jerry had sneaked it out of the house and dropped it into a catchbasin. He listened to it splash dismally below, bidding a wistful farewell to the squandered buck and a quarter. A longing filled him. Would a girl ever love him? The one devastating sorrow he carried within him was the fear that he would die before holding a girl’s breast in his hand.
In all fairness, I could see the reason for Mr. Pucker’s sweaty-palmed worry (I almost said “rosy-palmed”—Freudian slip); but, let's face it, the Teton County School Board’s efforts to ban teenage boys from thinking of such matters was about as effective as telling the wind to stop blowing.  What teenage boy didn’t hide a Playboy under his mattress (or, today, find ways to cleverly conceal his Internet browser history)?  What teenage girl didn’t wear out the pages with the “dirty parts” in Judy Blume’s novel Forever?  What young boy didn’t silently weep into his pillow each night at the thought of dying before he was able to cup a naked breast in his hand?

And what young reader—boy or girl—couldn’t relate to this passage about another character in The Chocolate War, Roland “The Goober” Goubert?
The Goober was beautiful when he ran. His long arms and legs moved flowingly and flawlessly, his body floating as if his feet weren’t touching the ground. When he ran, he forgot about his acne and his awkwardness and the shyness that paralyzed him when a girl looked his way. Even his thoughts became sharper, and things were simple and uncomplicated—he could solve math problems when he ran or memorize football play patterns. Often he rose early in the morning, before anyone else, and poured himself liquid through sunrise streets, and everything seemed beautiful, everything in its proper orbit, nothing impossible, the entire world attainable.
When I first read that back in 1976, my heart soared and I thought, “Yeah, man, all things are possible.”

All things, that is, except—and I think you know what I’m about to say—allowing a student like me to study Robert Cormier’s novel in my seventh-grade classroom.

I finished the book, feeling like a boy on a man’s mission.  I would show those school board members I was capable of rendering a very mature, well-reasoned opinion.  I would raise my squeaky voice (still in that embarrassing transition of puberty) in praise of a good novel that deserved attention.  I would be a reverse Jerry Renault: I’d say “Yes!” in the face of the frowning school board’s “No.”

Still, I had to question myself, Do I dare disturb the universe?  This is the motto found on a poster in Jerry's school locker.  He spends a lot of time staring at that picture of a solitary man walking along a beach, pondering one of Life's Big Questions.  And me?  Did I dare ruffle the feathers of my community leaders, risking my parents' reputations?  Yes, in the name of good literature, I dared.

I wrote a positively glowing endorsement and gave it to my mother to deliver to the school board.  But even as I wrote my Chocolate War book report, I swallowed a realistic dose of despair.  I knew my words would probably end up like poor Jerry at the end of the novel: battered, bloodied, bruised and on his way to the hospital in the back of an ambulance.  Goliath would win, David would whimper.

Nothing more was ever said to me about The Chocolate War.  I never received a letter of thanks from the Teton County School Board, never got so much as a “Hey there, pal” wink from Mr. Pucker when I saw him in the grocery store, never even saw a mention of the book on a school board meeting agenda.  I was an anonymous lab rat on a fool’s mission.  My school never intended to study The Chocolate War, opting instead to assign us something “safer” that year.  It’s very telling that I cannot now remember what that classroom text was—maybe Island of the Blue Dolphins or My Friend Flicka?

That’s why I was honored to be invited by the Montana State University Library, Country Bookshelf, and the Bozeman Public Library to speak at a Banned Books Week event this year.  I joined seven other local authors as we read from our favorite banned and challenged books, including Persepolis, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Captain Underpants.  Finally, I could stand up for Mr. Cormier and The Chocolate War in front of a receptive audience and reveal the secret I’d carried for nearly forty years.

I concluded my remarks by saying, “To all the Mr. Puckers of the world, I just have one thing to say: Let our children read and decide for themselves.  Let them run free through pages where everything seems beautiful, everything is in its proper orbit, nothing is impossible, and the entire world is attainable.”

There.  I'd dared to disturb the universe.

The room burst into applause as I walked back to my chair and sat next to my mother who was clapping the loudest of all.

A version of this essay previously appeared at Book Riot.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Friday Freebie: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott; Auto Biography by Earl Swift; This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett; A Case for Solomon by Tal McThenia; An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins; A Curious Man by Neal Thompson; and Karl Marx by Jonathan Sperber

Congratulations to Marjorie Rommel, Carl Scott, Frank McGeough and Edie Rylander--winners of last week's Friday Freebie: My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner.

This week's book giveaway is sure to put a smile on the face of any lover of history, biography, true crime and--oh heck, just damned good writing.  There's something here for just about everybody.  Up for grabs: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott; Auto Biography: A Classic Car, an Outlaw Motorhead, and 57 Years of the American Dream by Earl Swift; This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett; A Case for Solomon: Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping That Haunted a Nation by Tal McThenia; An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist by Richard Dawkins; A Curious Man: The Strange and Brilliant Life of Robert "Believe It or Not!" Ripley by Neal Thompson; and Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber.  Auto Biography and Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy are hardcovers, the rest are trade paperbacks.  One happy reader will win a copy of ALL THE BOOKS.  Here's more about what you'll find between the covers:

In Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, bestselling author Karen Abbott tells the spellbinding true story of four women who risked everything--their homes, their families, and their very lives--during the Civil War.  Seventeen-year-old Belle Boyd, an avowed rebel with a dangerous temper, shot a Union soldier in her home and became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her considerable charms to seduce men on both sides.  Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a man to enlist as a Union private named Frank Thompson, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the war and infiltrating enemy lines, all the while fearing that her past would catch up with her.  The beautiful widow Rose O'Neal Greenhow engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians, used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals, and sailed abroad to lobby for the Confederacy, a journey that cost her more than she ever imagined.  Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring--even placing a former slave inside the Confederate White House--right under the noses of increasingly suspicious rebel detectives.  Abbott's pulse-quickening narrative weaves the adventures of these four forgotten daredevils into the tumultuous landscape of a broken America, evoking a secret world that will surprise even the most avid enthusiasts of Civil War-era history.  With a cast of real-life characters, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, Detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy shines a dramatic new light on these daring--and, until now, unsung--heroines.

A brilliant blend of Shop Class as Soulcraft and The Orchid Thief, Earl Swift's wise, funny, and captivating Auto Biography follows an outlaw-genius auto mechanic as he painstakingly attempts to restores a classic 1957 Chevy to its former glory--all while the FBI and local law enforcement close in.  To Tommy Arney, the old cars at Moyock Muscle are archaeological artifacts, twentieth-century fossils that represent a place and a people utterly devoted to the automobile and transformed by it.  But to his rural North Carolina town, they're not history; they're junk.  When Tommy acquires a rusted out wreck of an old Chevy and promises to return it to a shiny, chromed work of American art, he sees one last chance to salvage his respect, keep himself out of jail, and save his business.  But for this folk hero who is often on the wrong side of the law, the odds of success are long, especially when the FBI, local authorities, and the bank are closing in.  Written for motor heads and automotive novices alike, Auto Biography interweaves this improbable hero's journey with the story of one iconic car to chart the rise, fall, and rebirth of the American Dream.  Told in words and eight pages of photos, this wise, charming, and heartbreaking true story is an indelible portrait of a man, a machine, and a nation on the road from a glorious past into an unknown future.

"The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living."  So begins This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, an examination of the things Ann Patchett is fully committed to--the art and craft of writing, the depths of friendship, an elderly dog, and one spectacular nun.  Writing nonfiction, which started off as a means of keeping her insufficiently lucrative fiction afloat, evolved over time to be its own kind of art, the art of telling the truth as opposed to the art of making things up.  Bringing her narrative gifts to bear on her own life, Patchett uses insight and compassion to turn very personal experiences into stories that will resonate with every reader.  These essays twine to create both a portrait of life and a philosophy of life.  Obstacles that at first appear insurmountable--scaling a six-foot wall in order to join the Los Angeles Police Department, opening an independent bookstore, and sitting down to write a novel--are eventually mastered with quiet tenacity and a sheer force of will.  The actual happy marriage, which was the one thing she felt she wasn't capable of, ultimately proves to be a metaphor as well as a fact: Patchett has devoted her life to the people and ideals she loves the most.  An irresistible blend of literature and memoir, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a unique examination of the heart, mind, and soul of one of our most revered and gifted writers.

A Case for Solomon chronicles one of the most celebrated—and most misunderstood—kidnapping cases in American history.  In 1912, four-year-old Bobby Dunbar, the son of an upper-middle-class Louisiana family, went missing in the swamps.  After an eight-month search that electrified the country and destroyed Bobby’s parents, the boy was found, filthy and hardly recognizable, in the pinewoods of southern Mississippi.  A wandering piano tuner who had been shuttling the child throughout the region by wagon for months was arrested and charged with kidnapping—a crime that was punishable by death at the time.  But when a destitute single mother came forward from North Carolina to claim the boy as her son, not Bobby Dunbar, the case became a high-pitched battle over custody—and identity—that divided the South.  Amid an ever-thickening tangle of suspicion and doubt, two mothers and a father struggled to assert their rightful parenthood over the child, both to the public and to themselves.  For two years, lawyers dissected and newspapers sensationalized every aspect of the story.  Psychiatrists, physicians, criminologists, and private detectives debated the piano tuner’s guilt and the boy’s identity.  And all the while the boy himself remained peculiarly guarded on the question of who he was.  It took nearly a century, a curiosity that had been passed down through generations, and the science of DNA to discover the truth.  A Case for Solomon is a gripping historical mystery, distilled from a trove of personal and archival research.  The story of Bobby Dunbar, fought over by competing New Orleans tabloids, the courts, and the citizenry of two states, offers a case study in yellow journalism, emergent forensic science, and criminal justice in the turn-of-the-century American South.  It is a drama of raw poverty and power and an exposé of how that era defined and defended motherhood, childhood, and community.  First told in a stunning episode of National Public Radio’s This American Life, A Case for Solomon chronicles the epic struggle to determine one child’s identity, along the way probing unsettling questions about the formation of memory, family, and self.

With the 2006 publication of The God Delusion, the name Richard Dawkins became a byword for ruthless skepticism and "brilliant, impassioned, articulate, impolite" debate (San Francisco Chronicle).   His first memoir offers a more personal view.  His first book, The Selfish Gene, caused a seismic shift in the study of biology by proffering the gene-centered view of evolution.  It was also in this book that Dawkins coined the term meme, a unit of cultural evolution, which has itself become a mainstay in contemporary culture.  In An Appetite for Wonder, Richard Dawkins shares a rare view into his early life, his intellectual awakening at Oxford, and his path to writing The Selfish Gene.  He paints a vivid picture of his idyllic childhood in colonial Africa, peppered with sketches of his colorful ancestors, charming parents, and the peculiarities of colonial life right after World War II.  At boarding school, despite a near-religious encounter with an Elvis record, he began his career as a skeptic by refusing to kneel for prayer in chapel.  Despite some inspired teaching throughout primary and secondary school, it was only when he got to Oxford that his intellectual curiosity took full flight.  Arriving at Oxford in 1959, when undergraduates "left Elvis behind" for Bach or the Modern Jazz Quartet, Dawkins began to study zoology and was introduced to some of the university's legendary mentors as well as its tutorial system.  It's to this unique educational system that Dawkins credits his awakening, as it invited young people to become scholars by encouraging them to pose rigorous questions and scour the library for the latest research rather than textbook "teaching to" any kind of test.  His career as a fellow and lecturer at Oxford took an unexpected turn when, in 1973, a serious strike in Britain caused prolonged electricity cuts, and he was forced to pause his computer-based research.  Provoked by the then widespread misunderstanding of natural selection known as "group selection" and inspired by the work of William Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and John Maynard Smith, he began to write a book he called, jokingly, "my bestseller."  It was, of course, The Selfish Gene.  Here, for the first time, is an intimate memoir of the childhood and intellectual development of the evolutionary biologist and world-famous atheist, and the story of how he came to write what is widely held to be one of the most important books of the twentieth century.

A Curious Man is the marvelously compelling biography of Robert “Believe It or Not” Ripley, the enigmatic cartoonist turned globetrotting millionaire who won international fame by celebrating the world's strangest oddities, and whose outrageous showmanship taught us to believe in the unbelievable.  As portrayed by acclaimed biographer Neal Thompson, Ripley’s life is the stuff of a classic American fairy tale.  Buck-toothed and cursed by shyness, Ripley turned his sense of being an outsider into an appreciation for the strangeness of the world.  After selling his first cartoon to Time magazine at age eighteen, more cartooning triumphs followed, but it was his “Believe It or Not” conceit and the wildly popular radio shows it birthed that would make him one of the most successful entertainment figures of his time and spur him to search the globe’s farthest corners for bizarre facts, exotic human curiosities, and shocking phenomena.  Ripley delighted in making outrageous declarations that somehow always turned out to be true—such as that Charles Lindbergh was only the sixty-seventh man to fly across the Atlantic or that “The Star Spangled Banner” was not the national anthem.  Assisted by an exotic harem of female admirers and by ex-banker Norbert Pearlroth, a devoted researcher who spoke eleven languages, Ripley simultaneously embodied the spirit of Peter Pan, the fearlessness of Marco Polo and the marketing savvy of P. T. Barnum.  In a very real sense, Ripley sought to remake the world’s aesthetic.  He demanded respect for those who were labeled “eccentrics” or “freaks”—whether it be E. L. Blystone, who wrote 1,615 alphabet letters on a grain of rice, or the man who could swallow his own nose.  By the 1930s Ripley possessed a vast fortune, a private yacht, and a twenty-eight room mansion stocked with such “oddities” as shrunken heads and medieval torture devices, and his pioneering firsts in print, radio, and television were tapping into something deep in the American consciousness—a taste for the titillating and exotic, and a fascination with the fastest, biggest, dumbest and most weird.  Today, that legacy continues and can be seen in reality TV, YouTube, America’s Funniest Home Videos, Jackass, MythBusters and a host of other pop-culture phenomena.  In the end Robert L. Ripley changed everything.  The supreme irony of his life, which was dedicated to exalting the strange and unusual, is that he may have been the most amazing oddity of all.

Between his birth in 1818 and his death sixty-five years later, Karl Marx became one of Western civilization's most influential political philosophers.  Two centuries on, he is still revered as a prophet of the modern world, yet he is also blamed for the darkest atrocities of modern times.  But no matter in what light he is cast, the short, but broad-shouldered, bearded Marx remains as a human being distorted on a Procrustean bed of political isms, perceived through the partially distorting lens of his chief disciple, Friedrich Engels, or understood as a figure of twentieth-century totalitarian Marxist regimes.  Returning Marx to the Victorian confines of the nineteenth century, Jonathan Sperber, one of the United States leading European historians, challenges many of our misconceptions of this political firebrand turned London emigre journalist.  In this deeply humanizing portrait, Marx no longer is the Olympian soothsayer, divining the dialectical imperatives of human history, but a scholar-activist whose revolutionary Weltanschauung was closer to Robespierre's than to those of twentieth-century Marxists.  With unlimited access to the MEGA (the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe, the total edition of Marx's and Engels' writings), only recently available, Sperber juxtaposes the private man, the public agitator, and the philosopher-economist.  We first see Marx as a young boy in the city of Trier, influenced by his father, Heinrich, for whom the French Revolution and its aftermath offered an opportunity to escape the narrowly circumscribed social and political position of Jews in the society.  For Heinrich's generation, this worldview meant no longer being a member of the so-called Jewish nation, but for his son, the reverberations were infinitely greater namely a life inspired by the doctrines of the Enlightenment and an implacable belief in human equality.  Contextualizing Marx's personal story his rambunctious university years, his loving marriage to the devoted Jenny von Westphalen (despite an illegitimate child with the family maid), his children's tragic deaths, the catastrophic financial problems within a larger historical stage, Sperber examines Marx's public actions and theoretical publications against the backdrop of a European continent roiling with political and social unrest.  Guided by newly translated notes, drafts, and correspondence, he highlights Marx's often overlooked work as a journalist; his political activities in Berlin, Paris, and London; and his crucial role in both creating and destroying the International Working Men's Association.  With Napoleon III, Bismarck, Adam Smith, and Charles Darwin, among others, as supporting players, Karl Marx becomes not just a biography of a man but a vibrant portrait of an infinitely complex time.  Hailed by Publishers Weekly as a major work . . . likely to be the standard biography of Marx for many years, Karl Marx promises to become the defining portrait of a towering historical figure.

If you’d like a chance at winning all the books in this week's Friday Freebie, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 2, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 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).

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Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ice Picks in the Brain: The Rag and Bone Shop by Robert Cormier

As part of Banned Books Week, I thought I'd take a look at the works of Robert Cormier, a frequent resident of banned/challenged lists compiled by the American Library Association.  The following review was written 12 years ago for a now-defunct website, so I thought I'd resurrect it for Quivering Pen readers.  I'll have another essay about The Chocolate War here at the blog later this week.

In their best moments—when the words are firing on all cylinders—Robert Cormier’s stories are like ice picks to the brain.  In novels like The Chocolate War and I Am the Cheese, Cormier creates worlds just slightly off-kilter to ours—as if we’re reading something which is upside down and reflected in a mirror—then, after a couple hundred pages, he suddenly slams the ice pick into the skull.  Skin, bone, brain, perception—all shatter with a single, revelatory paragraph.

You’ll usually find Cormier’s books in the young adult section of your local library, though—like fellow YA writers Lois Duncan, Judy Blume and Gary Paulsen—he really belongs to that netherworld of readers straddling both sides of the pubescent fence.  Adults will find plenty to engage them in Cormier’s characters, and tweenagers will think themselves daring to be reading books which feature a promiscuous young girl’s fixation with a serial killer (Tenderness) or the terminally ill teenage inmates of an experimental medical institution (The Bumblebee Flies Anyway).  Cormier dares to tell teenagers that the world is a dangerous, sometimes unhappy place.  You won’t find too many lip-glossed, blow-dried, poster-pretty TV teens in his pages.  For this unflinching adherence to the Way Things Are, Cormier often found his books banned by local school boards.

When I was in junior high, the school board was considering adding The Chocolate War to the school library's shelves, but it had “heard things” about it—rumors that it contained scenes of youth rebellion, anti-adult sentiment and (gasp!) actual four-letter words.  They asked my mother, who worked in the school’s administration office, to ask me to read it and render my opinion.  I guess none of the adults ever took it upon themselves to read The Chocolate War.  Pity.  It was one of those books which raises your teenage neck hairs in an electric tingle.  The kids in that Catholic prep school who refuse to sell chocolate bars for the annual fund-raiser are the kind of kids anti-establishment youths like me could relate to.  I loved the book and was frankly surprised at the level of adult writing in a “young adult” novel.  Here, I thought, was a writer who trusted young readers to grasp mature themes and did it without a whiff of condescension.  My mother was surprised that I’d liked it, too.  I think she and the school board had hoped I’d want to join them in a community book burning.

Cormier’s other teen classic I Am the Cheese was an even more skillful piece of brain-stabbing literature.  It, along with the decidedly adult novels of early-career Stephen King, formed an important part of my growth as a reader and writer.  I owe Robert Cormier a debt of gratitude for setting me on a dark and slippery course before I’d even graduated high school.  He, in his way, helped prepare me (and, undoubtedly thousands of other kids) for the sobering realities of adulthood.

And so, it was with a measure of sadness that I opened up Cormier’s latest novel, The Rag and Bone Shop, and saw it would be his last.  The author died in November 2000—somehow, I’d missed the news.  The author was 75 when the grim reaper showed up with his scythe.

The Rag and Bone Shop (the title is taken from a Yeats poem) is a nice way to close out a career.  It’s a slim book—more novella than novel—but it packs plenty of ice picks.

“I take real people and put them in extraordinary situations,” Cormier once said in an interview with School Library Journal.  “I’m very much interested in intimidation.  And the way people manipulate other people and the obvious abuse of authority.”

Nowhere is that more evident than in The Rag and Bone Shop, the bulk of which centers around an interrogation in a police station.  Jason Dorrant, enjoying his summer between the seventh and eighth grades, is accused of a horrible crime: the murder of a seven-year-old girl in his neighborhood.  A professional interrogator named Trent, with the reputation for getting blood out of a stone, is called in to shine the light in Jason’s eyes and pummel him with questions (though, actually, Trent’s methods are more along the lines of withholding water from the parched boy).  There are also political forces at work in the background, putting pressure on Trent to extract a confession from the stony Jason.

At only 176 pages, The Rag and Bone Shop moves quickly, never meandering from its ever-tightening course toward denouement.  Along the way, there are several trademark Cormier moments where he juxtaposes the sunny with the dark.  Here, for instance, is the jarring transition from one chapter (where Jason is happily contemplating his summer) to the next:
      The day loomed ahead, free, no classes, no demands, not even any household chores that he knew about, and he lay there feasting on the thought of the long summer days ahead.

[chapter break]

      The body of seven-year-old Alicia Bartlett was found between the trunks of two overlapping maple trees in dense woods only five hundred yards from her home.
In an interview published on Amazon shortly before his death, Cormier said, “I like to leave the reader with a sense that there are things still going on, that they don’t walk off into the sunset.  Or even if they walk off into the sunset, there’s probably a cliff waiting right around the corner.”

Just as Trent coils around Jason, Cormier twists the rubber tourniquet around the reader.  It’s a shorter, less fully-developed story than something like The Chocolate War, but The Rag and Bone Shop is relentlessly suspenseful—right down to the very last sentence where Cormier literally stabs the reader with a jolt.

As always, his strength lies in creating protagonists teenagers can relate to—characters who aren’t sugar-coated or fluffed with Hollywood meringue.  Jason is the kind of outsider who I, for one, could see every time I look in the mirror:
Not that they [other kids at school] were cruel or mean or made him the object of pranks or tortured him or anything like that. Mostly, they ignored him. He was rarely asked to join in their games or activities. He usually sat alone in the cafeteria and felt alone even when others were at the table. The other students seldom talked to him or asked him his opinion about anything. When they did encounter him in situations where he couldn’t be avoided, they addressed him in an absentminded way, didn’t seem interested in what he had to say, quickly turned their attention elsewhere.
Even at 75, Cormier was still connecting with readers six decades his junior.  This identification with teen angst, more than anything, is what made him such a popular author with “young adults” (and a few of us old adults, too).  He is, after all, the same author who once put his own home phone number in one of his books (I Am the Cheese) and graciously accepted calls from curious readers over the years.

And so, goodbye, Mr. Cormier and fare thee well on the journey through the darkness of death.  You’ll be missed by generations of readers.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Trout Fishing in Livingston: Staging Richard Brautigan

As I chose my seat in the second row, Richard Brautigan sat on a stool at the front of the room and read to us from “The Hunchback Trout,” a chapter from Trout Fishing in America: “I had that hunchback trout for dinner.  Wrapped in cornmeal and fried in butter, its hump tasted sweet as the kisses of Esmeralda.”

It wasn't really Richard Brautigan in the flesh, of course.  Thirty years ago, his flesh had been scattered around the bedroom of his Bolinas, California house by the blast of a revolver.  No, this was R. B. shrunk down to the size and shape of a cassette tape.  Now his voice, tinny and full of static, rose from a tape recorder sitting on the stool which itself sat in the front of the room where we'd gathered upstairs at Elk River Books in Livingston, Montana on a warm, Indian summer afternoon.  The two or three dozen of us had come to the bookstore for “Trout Fishing in Livingston: A Theatrical Homage to the Writings of Richard Brautigan,” as presented by the Caldera Theatre Company and Elk River Arts & Lectures program.

The mood was set as soon as we entered the upstairs room.  Just inside the door, red-white-and-blue cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon sweated on ice and multi-colored Goldfish crackers swam in a glass bowl.  The piscine joke was not lost on us as we snicked open our beers and tossed handfuls of fish into our mouths.

We took our seats.  We were ready for Richard.   We had our creel, our pole, our line.  We were ready to cast onto the waters and see what we could hook.  We wanted to taste words sweet as Esmeralda's kisses.

An hour later, when we left the bookstore, we were not--and I think I speak for the whole of our group when I say this--we were not disappointed.

*    *    *

Act 1, Scene 1

RICHARD BRAUTIGAN, a forty-nine-year-old writer dressed in a white robe and a battered, misshapen hat enters an empty stage lit by a spotlight.  In one hand, he carries a thick book about the size of a small briefcase.  He stops center stage, in the glaring eye of the spotlight, and stares out into the darkness.  He pushes his granny glasses up the bridge of his nose, grins, and waggles his eyebrows at the audience.  He holds up a copy of the book: Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan by William Hjortsberg.  He turns to page 1 and starts to read.

“Richard Brautigan never heard his final gunshot.  Traveling three times the speed of sound, the Winchester Western Super X .44 magnum hollow point exploded up through the poet’s head, destroying his face, dislodging his wire-rimed eyeglasses, blasting off the back of his skull.  Continuing on, the bullet tore a hole in the molding above a corner window, struck a 1x4 nailed inside, and fell back into the space within the wall.  At the same instant, all dreams, fears, hopes and ambition erased forever, brain disintegrated, the nerves of his spinal cord disconnected, Brautigan’s knees buckled and his body dropped straight down, as the weapon, a nickel-plated Smith & Wesson Model 28 revolver, flew from his lifeless hand.  He was dead before he hit the floor.”  (He stops reading and looks at the audience.)  Well, I’ll be damned.

At the word “damned,” two DEMONS enter—one from Stage Left, one from Stage Right—and rush up to BRAUTIGAN.  Each grabbing an arm, they rip him in half and run back off stage the way they came, dragging the bloody pieces with them.  Jubilee Hitchhiker falls to the floor.  Its pages flutter in the breeze from the running demons.

*    *    *

NOTE: That scene boiled up out of this blogger’s own imagination.  It is not how Marc Beaudin's “Trout Fishing in Livingston” begins.

*    *    *

Beaudin, co-owner of Elk River Books and director of that afternoon’s entertainment, walks to the stool at the front of the room and turns off the tape recorder.  Brautigan’s voice disappears.  In its place, we hear a train whistle moan three blocks away as an engine pulls a line of cars through Livingston.  Beaudin welcomes us and gives a short introduction to what we’re about to see: an hour of theatricalities culled from the fiction and poetry of Richard Brautigan, the late-blooming counterculture writer who lived, off and on, in the Livingston area from the beginning of the 1970s until his death in 1984.

Marc Beaudin opens the show
Behind Beaudin, three actors take their places in the cleared-away space between the bookstore’s shelves.  They each play a trout: Gabriel Clark as “Brown,” Bret Kinslow as “Cutthroat” and Sherry Pikul as “Rainbow.”  They are joined by William Hjortsberg (“Gatz” to you and me), Brautigan’s biographer and close friend during his Livingston years.

Beaudin raises his PBR in a toast to Brautigan, then turns the stage over to his actors.

*    *    *

SCENE 1 (Scarlatti Tilt)

Black stage.  In the darkness, violin music is heard.  It stops abruptly.  Lights up.

It’s very hard to live in a studio apartment in San Jose with a man who’s learning to play the violin.

BROWN (as she hands him a gun)
That’s what she told the police when she handed them the empty revolver.

*    *    *

And on it goes, riffing through Brautigan’s Greatest Hits.  Rainbow, Brown and Cutthroat stand on chairs, throttle each other, and pirouette in a series of hilarious ballet moves.  The action dips and swerves and sips from selected pieces of Trout Fishing in America and Brautigan's other works.  Every now and then, Gatz Hjortsberg moves to the podium and reads portions from his biography, including a scene in which Brautigan—after a night of heavy drinking with friends—walked through a Livingston café, sticking his index finger in customers’ food:
Brautigan wove between the tables, serene as a drunken angel, dipping his finger dispassionately into the cheese omelets and sunny-side-ups on his way to oblivion. There were perhaps thirty other customers, railroad workers and ranch hands, the usual late-night crowd, and nothing like this had ever happened to any of them before. Not looking back, Richard made his way to the cash register by the door. He picked up the tab for everyone in the place. Three dozen free breakfasts anointed by the touch of the poet.
A train whistle blew again and maybe it was just my imagination, but I swear I heard the clatter of silverware on a Formica-topped table coming from a restaurant a block west of us there in Livingston.

Sherry Pikul and Gabriel Clark listen to Brautigan biographer William Hjortsberg

Cutthroat steps forward and, channeling Brautigan, says, “My typewriter is fast enough as if it were a horse that’s just escaped from the ether, plunging through silence, and the words gallop in order while outside the sun is shining....Perhaps the words remember me.”

*    *    *

I will never forget the first time I met Richard Brautigan on the page.  I was twelve years old.  My head was filled with the gentle literature of writers like Laura Ingalls Wilder, C. S. Lewis, and Beverly Cleary.  I was not prepared for Willard and His Bowling Trophies.

But there I was, browsing the New Books section in the Teton County Library.  Clarification: the Adult New Books section.  I was feeling my oats, stretching my muscles, pushing my literary boundaries.  I wanted adventure, danger, something scandalous.  I was, after all, a preacher’s kid living in a small Wyoming town.  I was ready to borrow a book that would raise eyebrows, blow the wigs off the heads of those nice old ladies in my father’s church.

Boy oh boy oh boy.  With Willard, Brautigan’s 1975 novel, I got more than I’d bargained for.  It seemed like such an interesting book, judging by the cover of a toucan-beaked bird standing in the middle of a bunch of trophies.  The inside flap of the dust jacket teased and tantalized:
The novel takes place in an apartment house on Chestnut Street in San Francisco. The principals are Constance and Bob, the couple upstairs who read the Greek Anthology and play the Story of O game, a strange mixture of offbeat sexual fantasies; Pat and John, the couple downstairs who eat turkey sandwiches naked and watch Johnny Carson; the three Logan brothers, whose bowling trophies have been stolen; and Willard, a three-foot-high papier-mâché bird. The Logan brothers have vowed to recover their bowling trophies at any cost and seek vengeance on those who stole them.
Hmmm, I thought, I like Johnny Carson and turkey sandwiches. This might even be better than Ramona the Pest.  At the time, I had no idea what the Story of O was about.

I went to the front desk to check out the book, trying to hide it in a stack of Nancy Drew mysteries and a couple of books about boys who romped through fields with their dogs.  The librarian knew I was a dog lover and so we chit-chatted about Labrador Retrievers while she stamped the due dates in the books.  Nary a word was said about bowling trophies or sexual fantasies.

That night, my parents paid a visit to one of the church members and I was brought along because it was going to be a late evening of conversation and card games (my parents were renowned champs of what was known as “Jackson Hole Rummy”).  As was my custom, I brought along a book to read while they shuffled and dealt cards, exchanged church gossip and sipped ginger ale.

This evening, they were visiting the home of Jim and Pud Case, a couple in their fifties who’d blown a few wigs off heads themselves about a year earlier when Pud got pregnant.  Pud—which, though I never knew for certain, was probably short for “Puddin’”—was a bright-eyed woman with short dark hair.  She seemed to take her late-in-life pregnancy in stride and never hesitated to explain it by saying, “Apparently, Jim’s vasectomy was a failure.”  Jim, a stooped, bald-headed man, always stood by her side, looking suitably embarrassed.

I was twelve years old and had no idea what a vasectomy was; but before the night was out, I’d have a clear understanding of genital warts, sado-masochism, the Story of O and what, exactly, a penis did when it was introduced to a vagina.

As my parents sat down at the kitchen table with Pud and Jim, the room already filled with laughter and the rippling tear of shuffled cards, I excused myself.  “Do you mind if I go somewhere to read my book?”

“Oh, sure,” Pud waved vaguely to the back of the house, “you can use our bedroom.  It should be pretty quiet back there.”  She winked at Jim.  Jim looked suitably embarrassed.

Clutching Willard and His Bowling Trophies in one hand and a glass of room-temperature Pepsi in the other, I walked down the night-dark hallway, trying to find the bedroom.  Along the way, I passed the nursery, recently and hastily converted from the spare room where they'd been storing Jim’s taxidermied big-game mounts.  Elk and antelope heads now lay in a jumble in one corner of the room.  There was a crib in the other corner.  It smelled like diapers and made soft, wet bubbling noises, like a tiny airplane taking off from an even tinier runway.   I said, “Hey, there.”  Getting no response, I moved on down the hallway until I found Pud and Jim’s bedroom.

The only pieces of furniture in the room were the king-sized bed and an oak dresser whose surface held a scatter of coins and half a roll of breath mints.  No chairs, no window seats, not even a pile of firm pillows—no place to sit but the pregnancy-making bed.  I didn’t dare disturb the mattress, so I knelt beside the bed, as if I was praying.  I opened Willard at random and got my first blast of Brautigan.
      So she went to bed with the lawyer and got warts on her vagina.
      They looked like a hideous clump of nightmare mushrooms. They had to be burned off with an electric needle: one painful treatment following on the claws of another painful treatment.
I sucked in my breath and held myself quiet until I could hear my parents safely down the hall, bidding on cards and chuckling at one of my father’s jokes.  Two thoughts ran simultaneously through my head:

I shouldn’t be reading this.

I can’t stop reading this.

I got up, closed the door with the softest of clicks, then returned to the bed.  I picked up the book, found my place, and hunkered down on the floor beside the bed, out of sight just in case anyone wandered back to the bedroom to see what I was up to.
      They used to make jokes about erotic plumbing. They were both kind of traditional sex fiends.
      One day somebody loaned Bob a copy of the Story of O, which he read. It is a gothic sadomasochist novel that sort of turned him on because he thought that it was so strange. He would get a partial erection when he read it.
By the time I got to the bowling trophies, many pages later, my body felt like a burning coal, a volcano about to erupt.

I had come of age on the page.

*    *    *

As I sat in the warm upper room of Elk River Books nearly forty years later, I thought back to the night I lost my virginity to Richard Brautigan.  It was all there: my parents' chuckles, my thundering heart, the slippery feel of the protective mylar cover of that library book.  If I concentrated really hard, I could probably recall the smell of Pud and Jim’s quilt, an inter-generational mix of man-sweat and baby powder.  And though I couldn’t remember the exact words of Willard or why the bowling trophies were stolen, I do remember the way the book made me feel: dangerous and excited and powerful and alive to the possibilities of everything waiting for me in the adult world.

What I didn’t remember was how Richard Brautigan could make me laugh with the most oddball phrase.  Shift one vowel to the left and the sentence slips on a banana peel.

Bret Kinslow, Gabriel Clark and Sherry Pikul bring Brautigan to life
Gatz and the three actors in front of me were doing a remarkably good job at reminding me just how playful the sad, suicidal author could be.  As we sipped our PBRs and crowded our mouths with Goldfish crackers, we laughed in sprays of crumbs and, after tucking the beer cans between our legs, applauded until our palms stung.

Though it's easy to slip into melancholy when thinking about Brautigan and the way he abruptly ended his life with a .44 Magnum, that afternoon's presentation put us all in a good mood.  Brautigan, the twinkle-eyed jester, tickled our ribs for an hour.

Here’s how Beaudin ends “Trout Fishing in Livingston”:

Expressing a human need, I always wanted to write a play that ended with the word Mayonnaise.



Applause, applause.

Cast joins hands, bows, nods thanks.


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: Revival by Stephen King

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

Does Stephen King need more than a 16-second trailer for his books?  Or, more to the point, are book trailers completely superfluous when it comes to the Number-One-Bestselling King of Horror?  I mean, people are gonna buy King's semi-annual novel, or they're gonna bypass it on the shelves, and no amount of promotional video will sway them one way or another, right?  This goes right to the heart of the argument for book trailers themselves: what are they good for?  Well, duh, the same thing movie previews and toilet-paper commercials are good for: to plant marketing seeds in the soil of our ever-shrinking attention span.  So, in that light, I'd say, "Yes, the world needs another Stephen King book trailer."  Does the world need something longer than 16 seconds, though?  Again, I'd have to say "Yes."  While the video for Revival (coming November 11 from Simon & Schuster) is well-made, I found myself wanting a little more than the tease of a lightning bolt and the tagline "Not even your faith can save you."  And so, I turn to the publisher's plot synopsis for full satisfaction:
In a small New England town, over half a century ago, a shadow falls over a small boy playing with his toy soldiers. Jamie Morton looks up to see a striking man, the new minister. Charles Jacobs, along with his beautiful wife, will transform the local church. The men and boys are all a bit in love with Mrs. Jacobs; the women and girls feel the same about Reverend Jacobs—including Jamie’s mother and beloved sister, Claire. With Jamie, the Reverend shares a deeper bond based on a secret obsession. When tragedy strikes the Jacobs family, this charismatic preacher curses God, mocks all religious belief, and is banished from the shocked town. Jamie has demons of his own. Wed to his guitar from the age of thirteen, he plays in bands across the country, living the nomadic lifestyle of bar-band rock and roll while fleeing from his family’s horrific loss. In his mid-thirties—addicted to heroin, stranded, desperate—Jamie meets Charles Jacobs again, with profound consequences for both men. Their bond becomes a pact beyond even the Devil’s devising, and Jamie discovers that revival has many meanings. This rich and disturbing novel spans five decades on its way to the most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written. It’s a masterpiece from King, in the great American tradition of Frank Norris, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Edgar Allan Poe.
There.  That may have taken me more than 16 seconds to read, but at least now my appetite is sated with this hors d'oeuvre of horror.  Either way, as a long-time King fan, I won't be bypassing Revival on November 11.

Monday, September 22, 2014

My First Time: Sarah Yaw

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 Sarah Yaw.  Sarah’s novel You Are Free To Go (Engine Books, 2014) was selected by Robin Black as the winner of the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize.  Michelle Wildgen, author of Bread and Butter, had this to say about You Are Free To Go: “A trio of faltering young women, each still tethered to the local prison, an inmate rapidly approaching his end—all live inside these pages with haunting, visceral persuasiveness.  Dreamlike and startling, You Are Free to Go is poised between the imagined ether and bloody reality, but Sarah Yaw never flinches.”  Sarah received an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College, and is an assistant professor at Cayuga Community College.  She lives and writes in central New York.  Click here to visit her website.  You can also find Sarah and her novel on Facebook and Twitter.

The First Time I Declared My Novel Finished

When I tell my husband, Doug, “I’m done” with whatever I’m working on, he looks at me with suspicion.  He’s fallen for that before.  He has learned that while “done” sounds final, sounds like time to celebrate, it is really a fluid concept for writers.

The first time I finished my novel, You Are Free To Go, I shouted from the rooftops that my six-year process was over; I had conquered a beast of a book.  I sent it out to my first round of agents, and then (you know where this is going), I got some of those nice “the writing is really good” courtesy rejections and knew I had brought the book out too soon.

Here’s what I had finished: a narrative that clung tightly to an idea.  I think back now and I really should have known better, but I had tried so hard to make the conceit work.  Nevertheless, it wasn’t going anywhere and something inside me (the part that always knows the truth) got that it was fatally flawed.  A friend of mine hooked me up with a terrific editor, Natalie Danford.  Instead of sending the book out to more agents, I did an about-face and sent it to her instead.

Natalie got the book completely and cared about the prison scenes, having taught in a woman’s prison for years.  She also understood the structure and was equally interested in narratives with shifting points of view with minimal connective tissue, so I trusted her take on the book.  Then, she laid this on me: Take out the central conceit.  Actually, I think her exact words were, “Take the training wheels off.”  It took me about two hours to see that I had spent six years creating worlds and characters and plot that were authentic and organic to the world of the book, but they lay submerged and undiscovered under a blinding idea that I had forced everything else to serve.

Yes, removing it was scary as hell.

I took it out and lost twenty or so pages, which says a lot.  Without doing anything else to it (did I mention I also had two-year-old twins and was working full time?), I sent the book to two excellent writer friends, who, for good reason, were both really annoyed with me for having made them read such garbage.  The book was just body with no bones.  One lovingly suggested I start working on another book.  The other asked me a series of simple questions.  I’m sharing them here, in brief, so you can see just how lost I was seven years into the writing of this book:
       I’d love to have some hook, some unanswered question or problem that makes me wonder what happens next.  What secrets remain to be looked at and resolved?
       Maybe some defining moment in the friendship that they all have to forgive and/or atone for?
       Beyond an education, what does he want?

An unanswered question, a defining moment, and a basic want.  Good grief!  This was Fiction 101.  Yet, these back-to-basics questions were exactly what I needed.  I answered each one and turned on the drama that lay hidden inside the book.  It was ridiculously simple and so much fun.  Removing the initial conceit got me, my giant authorial intent, out of the way and let me see the real story.  You Are Free To Go ended up much closer, thematically, to the original story I set out to tell.

I declared the book finished, once again, and sent it out.  Doug was ready to party.  It won the 2013 Engine Books Novel Prize, so we did!  But there was more work to do.  “You’re kidding.  It’s still not done?” he asked.  “Nope,” I said.  I had won the great privilege of continuing to work on it with Engine Books’ Victoria Barrett, who is such a brilliant editor.  So now, nine years later, despite Doug’s nervous, sideways glances when I say it, that book is finished!  The next time I see it, it will be bound, covered in beautiful blurbs, and ready for a bookstore.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Sentence: The Home Place by Carrie La Seur

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

Only a day after touching down, Alma already has that Billings feeling, like no matter how far she goes, this town will always know her business.  As high and mighty as she might get, here they will always remember her braces, her unfortunate junior high mullet, her air guitar band, or the church ski trip where she got busted for drinking wine coolers and skiing the double black diamond summit bowl at Big Sky, both of which were strictly off limits.

The Home Place by Carrie La Seur

Saturday, September 20, 2014

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

On today's menu:

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

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

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

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

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

6.  Calling Scooby-Doo!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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