Monday, March 31, 2014

My First Time: Jeffrey Shaffer


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 Jeffrey Shaffer.  He's been writing fiction, essays, and commentaries about American culture for more than 25 years.  His work has appeared in a wide range of publications including The New Yorker, BARK, The Wall Street Journal, the Christian Science Monitor and Year's Best Fantasy & Horror.  A recent collection entitled Humor Without Borders: Opinions, Half-Truths and Complete Fabrications is available as a Kindle or paperback edition from Amazon.  Two earlier humor collections, I'm Right Here, Fish-Cake (1995) and It Came with the House: Conversation Pieces (1997), are available from Catbird Press.  Shaffer also spent many years as a news writer for radio and TV stations on the west coast.  He currently contributes regularly to Huffington Post and NWBooklovers.org.  His personal blog is called The Trailing Edge because "I don't want to be on the cutting edge—I like to be following right behind it."  Shaffer lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, children's author Susan Blackaby and an always-shedding yellow Labrador named Lottie.


My First “I Can Do This” Moment

I got serious about writing in the fourth grade and enjoyed seeing my byline appear in student newspapers during high school and college.  Not surprisingly, I also developed a false notion that getting published wasn’t terribly difficult.  Then, inevitably, I hit a wall.   Welcome to the free market.  Competition for editorial space is fierce in the real world.  My manuscripts were returned steadily year after year through the late 1970s and into the new decade.

As the rejection slips piled up, I tried to maintain a positive attitude and always kept one thought front and center in my mind: “I can do this.”  I read The Writer’s Market diligently and carefully considered the suggestions offered by established authors.  I’m not a believer in Fate but I do think good timing is a factor in many success stories.  Much of my work is in the form of short personal commentaries.  Occasionally I have experiences that seem interesting enough to write about, and often my approach is humorous.  Toward the end of 1983 I was reading a newspaper and realized I had an idea that would make a good submission.  The paper was The Wall Street Journal.

My dad had given me a gift subscription and I found the Journal tremendously informative about commercial trends and other aspects of American culture.   The Op-Ed page was particularly interesting.  The main focus was on politics and economics and the authors of the major pieces were usually high-level policy makers or think tank experts.  But often there was a smaller entry on the bottom of the page that was oriented toward some aspect of everyday life, or a recollection from the writer’s past.   I began to look for those little essays before glancing at anything else on the Op-Ed page.  Each time a new one appeared, I would read it immediately and think: “I can do this.”

A number of factors seemed to be in my favor.  Standard advice for all aspiring writers is to look for publications that use a lot of material.  Back then the Journal came out five days a week (now it has a weekend edition), which meant they needed a steady flow of those slice of life essays.  I knew the paper was politically conservative but not humorless, and that having some link to economics would help the chances of any submission.  That’s when the good timing came into play.  An incident took place that matched up well with all the editorial considerations.  It combined popular culture and business in a setting that would connect with many of the readers.  The premise was simple: I needed a haircut, made a spontaneous decision, and the results were excellent.

There was a newly-opened barbershop in a small shopping center near my house and the owner looked like a nice person.  I went in one day and ended up becoming a regular customer.  This was at a time when the hair-cutting business in America had seen a huge shift toward fancy styling salons for men as well as women.  My impulse visit to the new guy in town saved me some time because there was no shampoo or blow-drying involved; I also saved money because he only charged $5.


I definitely had enough material to write 700 words, which is the about the length of a typical assignment in a high school English class.  And I was fortunate in high school to have an absolutely top-notch English teacher.  Mr. Thompson made sure we learned and understood basic rules for writing a compelling essay.  The rule he emphasized relentlessly was to state your thesis in the opening sentence and then support it with each following paragraph.  In the publishing world that first sentence is also crucial for grabbing an editor’s attention.  I wanted mine to be clear, concise, and engaging.  The final result was this: “Taking a big step toward managing my budget, I have rediscovered an American institution: the neighborhood barber.”

I had an economic theme linked with support for a traditional occupation.  It seemed like a solid combination and the rest of the piece fell into place with very little revising.  I joked about asserting my independence from the high-priced salon trend and the convenience of not having to make an appointment several days ahead of time.  The humor was cheerful not sarcastic.  I liked helping a small business and making a new friend.  The overall tone of the piece was upbeat.

I sent it off and wondered how long the response time would be.  In fact, I had never queried the Journal to confirm that it was okay to send in unsolicited submissions.  Both questions were answered a few days later when I came home and heard a message on my answering machine.  “This is ----- from The Wall Street Journal” the voice began, and he went on to say the piece had been accepted and to please call back.  A lot of writers talk about the feeling of that moment being indescribable and I agree.  I played the tape back a couple of times just to prolong the enjoyment.  The feeling returned with even greater intensity when I opened to the Op-Ed page on January 3, 1984 and saw my name underneath the headline “It’s A Shear Delight Not Getting Clipped.”

I took a copy to the barber and he quickly framed it for display in the front window.  I hope it brought him some additional customers.   A couple of friends in other parts of the country told me it was re-printed in their local papers.  To a writer, being published is validation that your self-confidence in the work is justified.  You’re not completely self-delusional after all.  And about 18 months later I received an extremely satisfying form of validation in the mail.  It was a request from an editor at Holt, Rinehart and Winston to include “Shear Delight” in a college textbook entitled Writing With A Thesis (5th edition by David and Sarah E. Skwire).  Thank you again, Mr. Thompson, for teaching me how to do it.  I said yes to the request, but then heard nothing back, and later found out the editor who contacted me passed away.  If anyone reading this owns a copy of that college textbook, feel free to take a look and see if I’m in there.

Debuting in the Journal was great but making that first breakthrough is no free pass to universal acceptance.  The rejections still come regularly.  But every time I look at a copy of that little barbershop essay I remember all the effort that came before it.  It’s impossible to count all the times I said to myself, “I can do this.”  And one day it turned out I was right.


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Red Army Red by Jehanne Dubrow


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


          We dreamed of glowing children,
          their throats alive and cancerous,
          their eyes like lightning in the dark.

"Chernobyl Year" from Red Army Red by Jehanne Dubrow


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Immigrant Lit: Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart


Little Failure
by Gary Shteyngart
Review by Henry Gonshak

There’s a rich literary genre that sews together the patches of the endless, multifaceted quilt that is the immigrant experience in America. It unfolds at least as far as Willa Cather’s brilliant novels, such as O Pioneers and My Antonia, published in the early 20th century, which describe the struggles of immigrant Scandinavians to scratch a living from the harsh soil of the western frontier. The genre continues with Henry Roth’s Depression-era masterpiece, Call it Sleep, about a sensitive immigrant boy enduring life with abusive parents in a teeming, impoverished Jewish ghetto in Manhattan. It goes on with more contemporary immigrant fiction, like Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior and Chang-rae Lee’s Native Speaker, depicting the experiences of Asian families in America, whose parents obey the dictates of Asian culture by pressuring their children to strive in school as a first step to advancing into lucrative white collar professions.

Now we can add to the school of Immigrant Lit. a wonderful memoir, Little Failure, by Gary Shteyngart. Born in the Soviet Union a few decades before the empire’s collapse, Shteyngart emigrated with his family to New York City in the late 1970s, when he was seven years old. His exodus was one wave in a sea of Soviet Jews allowed to leave the USSR in exchange for a hefty shipment of American grain.

I confess that I’ve always had a soft spot for immigrants, primarily because three of my four grandparents emigrated to America from elsewhere. My paternal grandparents were Polish Jews (though at the time they left, at the turn of the 20th century, eastern Poland was part of the Czarist empire). Coming to New York as children, my grandparents hauled themselves, in one generation, into the middle class. My grandfather started out pushing a hot dog stand in Manhattan, and then progressively climbed the economic ladder until by the time he retired, in late middle age, he was the proud owner of two clothing stores. My maternal grandmother was Cuban. Her family owned a hotel in Havana, and my American grandfather installed their plumbing. Clearly, had my immigrant grandparents remained in their native lands, the consequences would have been dire. My paternal grandparents would almost surely have perished in the Holocaust, the fate of most of my more distant relations. And, following the Communist revolution, my Cuban grandmother would have suffered under Castro’s dictatorship. Not surprisingly, all three were some of the most patriotic Americans I’ve ever known.

Shteyngart’s previous work was the best-selling novel, Super Sad True Love Story--an even better book than Little Failure, since, not bound by the memoir format to stick to the facts of his life, the author can let his vivid imagination run wild. Super Sad True Love Story envisions an America, a few decades hence, on the verge of ruin. The U.S. economy is so indebted to China that the Chinese yen is America’s official currency. Nearly all Americans carry with them constantly computers so shrunk in size they could fit around a wrist. Books, on the other hand, are virtually obsolete, and those few decrepit volumes that still survive are commonly reviled as malodorous. In this society, illiteracy has become so epidemic that even street signs are misspelled. Meanwhile, American sexuality has reached such a fever pitch that all citizens are assigned a government “fuckability rating,” while young women don transparent “onionskin jeans.” The novel intersperses a traditional diary kept by a Russian Jewish immigrant much like the author, with the emails and text messages sent by the woman with whom he’s madly in love, a much younger, somewhat vapid but genial Korean girl who, unfortunately, doesn’t reciprocate the intensity of his feelings. Super Sad True Love Story augurs a direction much contemporary American fiction should follow, because the novel explores in a highly imaginative way the radical changes in American society wrought by the computer revolution.

The opening chapters of Little Failure relate Shteyngart’s childhood experiences in the Soviet Union during the sclerotic Brezhnev era. Unsurprisingly, the empire was sunk in deprivation. Shteyngart’s mother had to wait in line for hours to buy a rotting eggplant or a lump of moldy cheese. The standard Russian television set had a tendency to explode, which made TV viewing a lot more exciting than it would have been otherwise, given the mind-numbing nature of Soviet programming. Young Igor (his parents later changed his name to “Gary,” deeming it more American) suffered from severe asthma. The ailment could have been easily treated with a steroid inhaler, but in Russia the standard prescription was to heat a glass to a red-hot temperature, and then affix the glass to the patient’s naked back–a “remedy” that caused tremendous pain without in any way curing the asthma. Shteyngart’s ancestors experienced even worse tales of woe. His paternal grandfather was killed in combat defending the Soviet Union against the Germans during the brutal siege of Leningrad. (A mind-boggling twenty-six million Russians died during World War II.) Another relation spent a decade toiling in the Soviet Gulag because, while in the army, he’d made a mildly disparaging joke about a commanding officer. Nonetheless, Shteyngart doesn’t portray his Soviet boyhood as uniformly grim. A staunch Russian patriot, the author penned his first novel at five years of age--a xenophobic fantasy memorably titled Lenin and His Magical Goose. For every page he wrote, Shteyngart’s maternal grandmother–a Soviet journalist and loyal Communist–rewarded him with a slice of cheese. Shteyngart was inspired in his precocious literary endeavors by an enormous statue of Vladimir Ilyich standing near his Leningrad apartment, showing Lenin with his arms outflung and his long, iron coat billowing behind him as he led the proletariat into the golden dawn of the Socialist utopia.

The Artist as a Young Typist
When Shteyngart’s family arrived in America, like a lot of immigrants they carried the scars of the old world with them. Even amidst the plenitude of the United States, Shteyngart’s parents clung to the deprivation model they’d developed in Russia, a trait most notably evinced by their pathological cheapness. Gary wore tattered old tee-shirts donated to the family by philanthropic New York Jews--clothing that made him the butt of endless teasing by his peers. When Shteyngart outgrew the clothes, his petite father wore them. After the author became an adult, his mother sold him butter-slathered chicken cutlets, and at a fairly exorbitant price, never considering that some might deem her actions rather unmaternal. Like the Asian parents in Woman Warrior and Native Speaker, Shteyngart’s mother and father pinned their hopes for the future on their son’s academic success, which they believed would lead to a big-money career. Even after he won fame as an author, Shteyngart’s parents continued to bemoan the fact that he’d chosen such a traditionally unremunerative profession, as opposed to his becoming a corporate lawyer or Wall Street broker.

Seeking to recover their Jewish roots (all religious observance was officially repressed in the atheistic Soviet Union), Shteyngart’s parents enrolled him in a Hebrew day school. It was a miserable experience. Although one might expect students at a religious school to act respectfully, Shteyngart’s classmates, especially the boys, were just as fond of bullying their perceived inferiors as children everywhere. With the Cold War raging, Shteyngart’s fellow students were convinced he was a Communist, a “red,” even though his family had fled their former home, and his parents openly reviled the Soviet Union. As a result, Shteyngart was beaten up regularly. As for his Jewish education, the author found that mindlessly memorizing the Hebrew alphabet, and reciting Hebrew prayers he didn’t understand, left him with no connection to Judaism at all.

After surviving Hebrew school, Shteyngart disregarded his parents’ demand that he attend an Ivy League university, and chose instead to enroll in the ultra-left-wing liberal arts school, Oberlin College in Ohio. (No matter that the main reason Shteyngart decided to attend Oberlin was that a high school girl he lusted after had also chosen to enroll there.) At Oberlin, Shteyngart indulged in that favorite Russian pastime, heavy drinking. He also delved into drugs, primarily marijuana, which he inhaled through a three-foot bong owned by his roommate–a device so towering it took two people to operate. He also met his first girlfriend, a genial Southern belle of Armenian descent, whose maternal nature fed Shteyngart’s insatiable sexual and emotional needs. Most importantly, at Oberlin Shteyngart began to write seriously, producing work that signaled a marked advance on Lenin and His Magical Goose. Perceiving a wealth of literary material inherent in the immigrant’s limbo existence, poised between the old and new worlds, Shteyngart, aided by a supportive creative writing teacher, began the work that, after years of revision, would become the author’s first novel, the critically acclaimed The Russian Debutante’s Handbook.

Many authors of memoirs adopt poses of endless self-deprecation. After all, the last thing a memoirist wants to look like is a braggart. However, when a writer does the opposite, painting himself as a total loser, the approach can appear calculating and insincere. A classic example of such self-laceration can be found throughout St. Augustine’s Confessions. The pre-conversion Augustine’s worst crime was to conceive an out-of-wedlock child with a woman he deeply loved, yet Augustine portrays his early self as the vilest of sinners, consumed by lust and a heretical attachment to paganism. Of course, the more darkly Augustine can paint his past, the brighter he seems when he finally embraces the light of Christianity. There is something of this Augustinian quality of programmatic self-loathing in Shteyngart’s memoir. “Little Failure” is a nickname given Shteyngart in childhood by his mother, more or less affectionately. But Shteyngart seems to embrace the notion that he actually was an utter “failure” prior to his literary success. For example, he portrays himself as despicable in his post-collegiate friendship with an older man in New York, a successful writer of soap operas, who not only tolerated Shteyngart’s consistently vindictive behavior, but also astutely critiqued Shteyngart’s apprentice writing, while lending the impoverished author thousands of dollars. It’s hard to see how the self-obsessed Shteyngart depicted in this relationship transformed into the amiable author of Little Failure. One suspects that, in reality, Shteyngart wasn’t that rotten.

I hope I haven’t made Little Failure sound too solemn, because in fact the memoir, like all of Shteyngart’s writing, is often hilarious. Like most immigrants of his generation, Shteyngart was introduced as a child to American culture in good part by watching hours of TV, but his perception of American television, shaped by his immigrant status, was often comically skewed. Take his interpretation of that icon of Baby Boomer culture, Gilligan’s Island: “Is it really possible that a country as powerful as the United States would not be able to locate two of its best citizens lost at sea, to wit, the millionaire and his wife? Also, Gilligan is comical and bumbling like an immigrant, but people seem to like him. Make notes for further study? Emulate?” Typical of Shteyngart’s brand of humor, this passage is funny and heartbreaking at the same time.

As my grandparents and Gary Shteyngart both exemplify, immigrants permeate America’s lifeblood. They are, as noted earlier, usually more patriotic than native-born Americans, because, having known a degree of hardship that Americans can scarcely imagine. They don’t take this country’s political and economic opportunities for granted. They tend to work harder, and for wages many American-born citizens won’t accept. Moreover, as Gary Shteyngart demonstrates, immigrants are making an invaluable contribution to American literature, shedding light on a tableau of American life of which we might otherwise remain unaware.

Henry Gonshak is the Rose and Anna Busch Endowed Professor of English at Montana Tech.  His writings have appeared in three book collections and a variety of publications, including The Journal of American Culture, Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice, Response: A Contemporary Jewish Review and Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies.  He also writes a monthly books column, “The Reading Life,” for The Montana Standard.


Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday Freebie: Golden State by Michelle Richmond and Up at Butternut Lake by Mary McNear


Congratulations to Nina Lehman, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Visible City by Tova Mirvis.

This week's book giveaway is another terrific two-fer.  One reader will enjoy a copy of both Golden State by Michelle Richmond and Up at Butternut Lake by Mary McNear.  Both novels have recently been released in trade paperback.  Here's a little more about the books from their publishers:

Perfect for fans of Jodi Picoult, Jacquelyn Mitchard, and Anna Quindlen, Golden State is a powerful, mesmerizing new novel that explores the intricacies of marriage, family, and the profound moments that shape our lives.  Doctor Julie Walker has just signed her divorce papers when she receives news that her younger sister, Heather, has gone into labor.  Though theirs is a strained relationship, Julie sets out for the hospital to be at her sister’s side—no easy task since the streets of San Francisco are filled with tension and strife.  Today is also the day that Julie will find herself at the epicenter of a violent standoff in which she is forced to examine both the promising and the painful parts of her past—her Southern childhood; her romance with her husband, Tom; her estrangement from Heather; and the shattering incident that led to her greatest heartbreak.  Infused with emotional depth and poignancy, Golden State takes readers on a journey over the course of a single, unforgettable day—through an extraordinary landscape of love, loss, and hope.

In the tradition of Kristin Hannah and Susan Wiggs, Mary McNear introduces readers to the town of Butternut Lake and to the unforgettable people who call it home.  It's summer, and after ten years away, Allie Beckett has returned to her family's cabin beside tranquil Butternut Lake, where as a teenager she spent so many carefree days.  She's promised her five-year-old son, Wyatt, they will be happy there.  She's promised herself this is the place to begin again after her husband's death in Afghanistan.  The cabin holds so many wonderful memories, but from the moment she crosses its threshold Allie is seized with doubts.  Has she done the right thing uprooting her little boy from the only home he's ever known?   Allie and her son are embraced by the townsfolk, and her reunions with old acquaintances—her friend Jax, now a young mother of three with one more on the way, and Caroline, the owner of the local coffee shop—are joyous ones.  And then there are newcomers like Walker Ford, who mostly keeps to himself—until he takes a shine to Wyatt...and to Allie.  Everyone knows that moving forward is never easy, and as the long, lazy days of summer take hold, Allie must learn to unlock the hidden longings of her heart, and to accept that in order to face the future she must also confront—and understand—what has come before.

If you’d like a chance at winning a copy of both Golden State and Up at Butternut Lake, 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 April 3, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on April 4.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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


Monday, March 24, 2014

My First Time: Michael Parker


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 Michael Parker.  His new novel, All I Have in This World, has just been released to great acclaim.  His previous novels include Towns Without Rivers, Virginia Lovers, If You Want Me To Stay, and The Watery Part of the World.  His short stories have appeared in two collections: The Geographical Cure and Don’t Make Me Stop Now.  His work has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and many other magazines.  He is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, an O. Henry Award, a Pushcart Prize, and three lifetime achievement awards, including the North Carolina Award for Literature.  He teaches in the MFA writing program at UNC-Greensboro and lives in North Carolina and Texas.  Click here to visit his website.  (On a personal note: like Michael describes in the following essay, my first major story publication was in The Greensboro Review; I remain forever in their debt for publishing "Eating the Albino" back in 1993.)


My First Story Publication

I was in my second year of graduate school at the University of Virginia when a copy of my story in The Greensboro Review arrived in the mail.  Actually, I’d had two more acceptances a couple weeks before I got the letter from the Review—one from Limestone, a magazine associated with the University of Kentucky and edited by my old college roommate, which didn’t really count; and another in a now-defunct magazine called Quarry West, which was started by Raymond Carver when he was teaching at UC Santa Cruz.  Old college roommate aside (he wasn’t the sole editor, and he told me later he’d mostly stayed out of the process), Limestone published writers I had both heard of and respected, and anything associated with Raymond Carver—this being the mid 80s—was golden back in the day.  These were both significant publications for which I was, and am still, thirty years later, grateful.  But The Greensboro Review happened to show up at my post office first, and so it felt—and still feels—like my first.

In those days, my wife (now ex-wife) and I lived ten miles out in the beautiful countryside surrounding Charlottesville, in an early 19th-century restored church.  There wasn’t a mailbox—we collected our mail at a post office across the divided highway to which I made several trips a day.  I was in that first flush of submitting stories, and a trip across the highway to stoop to see if a letter lay slanted behind the glass (our box was near the bottom row and so small all correspondence was curled inside) was the pinnacle of my day.

I realize I may sound like a dinosaur here, but these days of online submissions and acceptances, while certainly more efficient than the old system of stories printed in block dot matrix and enclosed SASEs, feel so much less exciting than the old way.  I, like you, am so besieged by emails, half of which requiring some sort of response, that clicking on my inbox is not something I look forward to with the anticipation I felt dodging tractor trailers to check to see if anyone wanted to make public the stories I had sat with so long in private.

I knew exactly when the mail arrived and I knew exactly when the postmistress, whose grandchildren and arthritis and newly added family room were all familiar and daily topics of conversation, would have put up the mail.  But that did not stop me from making several trips.  Maybe she got to my box earlier?  And if she was late, no matter how hard I tried to seem nonchalant, I am sure she sensed my irritation, especially if one of my neighbors was standing at the window engaging her in an extended chinwag about the weather.

But one day it came.  Because it was too big to fit in the box, there was a pick-up slip.  Writing fiction calls for equal parts faith and doubt, and we so often protect ourselves from bad news—rejection, word from your editor that the novel needs yet another draft, a nasty review—by leaning on the doubt.  Probably something my wife ordered, I thought.  Or another catalog from Land’s End, J. Crew, L.L Bean.  But the postmistress was smiling when she handed me the package, as if she knew that I had been waiting for weeks to hold it in my hands.

”Is that it?” the postmistress asked.

“Yep.”

“Well open it up and let’s look,” she said.

A part of me thought I ought to wait until my wife got home and share the moment with her, but the larger, more anxious part of me knew I could not wait.  Plus, the postmistress had had to endure my multiple and anxious trips to the box.  I felt like I owed her at least this moment, if not a copy of the magazine itself.


I ripped open the package and pulled out my two complimentary copies.  The magazine was not glossy or slick, its design simple: ordinary card stock cover, an eggshell color, the name of the magazine printed across the top, a list of its contributors at the bottom.

“There you are, “said the postmistress, pointing to my name.

I could tell she was not terribly impressed by the look of the thing.  I mean, it wasn’t Reader’s Digest or Field and Stream.  But it didn’t matter to me.  I loved the way it looked, and three years later, when I got my first tenure track teaching job at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, home of the Review (where I have taught for the last 22 years) I learned that the magazine had been designed by Betty Watson, the wife of Robert Watson, one of the co-founders of the third oldest MFA program in the country.  They’ve kept the cover simple and minimalist all these years for two reasons: to honor Betty’s vision and to emphasize the contents of the magazine, not the cover.

My getting hired at UNCG had nothing to do with my having published my first story there, though it is a happy accident that I ended up an advisory editor for that magazine I was so proud to hold in my hand twenty-six years ago.  Publishing anything at all, then and now, seems to require an alignment of the stars—someone has to love your story enough to print it, you have to submit at the right time, there has to be room in the magazine—and so it could be said that everything that has to do with publishing is, in a sense, a happy accident.  But I don’t remember the accidental part.  I just remember the happiness I felt when I saw my name printed on the front of that magazine, and how sweet the postmistress was in humoring me as I acted as though I had won a Pulitzer.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman


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


She had a three-octave range, comfortably extending beyond high C.  Her voice was clear, smooth and sweet and rich.  It was bell-like.  Drinkable.  About to spill over the rim.  Filled with a natural exuberant power, untrained, wavering between release and restraint.

Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman


Saturday, March 22, 2014

An Ode to the OED


Friend of the Blog (FOB) James Bennett submitted this wonderful essay on the Oxford English Dictionary and I'm happy to share it with readers (especially those with keen eyesight who can still see the microbial words on the OED page).  James is a retired National Guard Chief Warrant Officer, who currently masquerades as a software engineer in Seattle, while indulging in a little reading and writing on the side.  He's the author of two (unpublished) novels: The Team and The Interrogator.  A version of this review originally appeared at The Chief Brief blog.


I was a young undergrad in Russian and East European studies at the University of Washington when I first discovered the Oxford English Dictionary, in the hallowed stacks of the reference section of Suzzallo Library.  Suzzallo, for those of you unfamiliar with it, is an absolutely massive library even by the standards of major universities.  There are over half a million items in its Russian collection alone.  Although I had no academic use for it, the OED always held some sort of fascination for me.  Whenever I passed by its score of volumes I would always grab one at random, turn to an arbitrary entry, and read through its remarkably detailed and descriptive histories of words, marveling at the ridiculous effort it must have taken to compile it, (its OED OCD, if you may).

Years later my interest only became stronger when I read Simon Winchester's fascinating history of the writing of the OED, The Professor and the Madman, a rather entertaining recitation of the eight-decade development of the first edition.  It was then I truly understood the depths of the obsessive personalities, and the sheer love of language that had gone into creating this remarkable history of the English language.

The OED, for those who have never spent much time reading it, is not a conventional dictionary, with a pronunciation guide, a list of definitions, and an entry for its etymological origins.  It is, rather, a history book of the English language, with citations for words going back a thousand years, covering the development of the word and all its meanings, connotations and subtleties.

So it was with this in mind, that I stumbled upon a 1973 compact edition of the OED in a used bookstore in Seattle the other day.  Naively, I didn't even realize that this existed.  How could you shrink a telephone-booth-sized collection of massive tomes costing as much as a mortgage payment into just two volumes and keep even a fraction of the content?  I pulled it from its cardboard sheath and discovered how: they had shrunk the typeface so that each compact-edition page was four original-OED pages.  They'd even included a cheap plastic magnifying glass, to aid those without superhuman vision.

Years removed from my OED experiences, I didn't purchase it immediately, despite the discount price, but it nagged me for weeks, so the next time I was in the neighborhood, I dropped by the used bookstore, ostensibly to look around, but really with only one target in mind.

I snatched it up and returned home, only to discover the cheap plastic glass, was in fact too cheap and too plastic.  Only with difficulty was I able to make out the text.  A venture the next day to Cost Plus World Market, though, and I was set.  I returned with an old-fashioned-style magnifier.  An item perfect in both presence and practicality.

It was now that I could pore over the text.  A discussion with my significant other led to looking up the first word, panache.  Original meaning: not flair or flamboyance, but feathers, then became plumage in military caps.  Who knew?

Is the OED practical?  Probably not.  I could look up just about anything I wanted on the Internet, and wouldn't have to strain my eyes or my arms, lifting 10-pound volumes and balancing it on the edge of my desk peering through a magnifying glass, but that isn't really the point.  Sometimes you just have to do something for the love of it, and because it represents something that is important to you--in this case, the beautiful history of the English language, as represented in the hallowed tomes of the Oxford English Dictionary.


Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Freebie: Visible City by Tova Mirvis


Congratulations to Patricia Mariani, winner of last week's Friday Freebie contest: the book bundle of Knitting Yarns edited by Ann Hood, Last Friends by Jane Gardam, Hand Me Down by Melanie Thorne, North of Hope by Shannon Huffman Polson, and The Promise by Ann Weisgarber.

This week's book giveaway is Visible City by Tova Mirvis (if you haven't already done so, you should check out Tova's "My First Time" account of how she stared-down the naysayers in her hometown when she returned to Memphis for a reading from her first novel).  As a fan of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, I'm especially intrigued by Tova's new novel.  Here's more about it from the publisher:
For fans of Meg Wolitzer and Allegra Goodman, an intimate and provocative novel about three couples whose paths intersect in their New York City neighborhood, forcing them all to weigh the comfort of stability against the costs of change. Nina is a harried young mother who spends her evenings spying on the older couple across the street through her son’s Fisher-Price binoculars. She is drawn to their quiet contentment—reading on the couch, massaging each other’s feet—so unlike her own lonely, chaotic world of nursing and soothing and simply getting by. One night, through that same window, she spies a young couple in the throes of passion. Who are these people, and what happened to her symbol of domestic bliss? In the coming weeks, Nina encounters the older couple, Leon and Claudia, their daughter Emma and her fiancĂ©, and many others on the streets of her Upper West Side neighborhood, eroding the safe distance of her secret vigils. Soon anonymity gives way to different—and sometimes dangerous—forms of intimacy, and Nina and her neighbors each begin to question their own paths. With enormous empathy and a keen observational eye, Tova Mirvis introduces a constellation of characters we all know: twenty-somethings unsure about commitments they haven’t yet made; thirty-somethings unsure about the ones they have; and sixty-somethings whose empty nest causes all sorts of doubt. Visible City invites us to examine those all-important forks in the road, and the conflict between desire and loyalty.

If you’d like a chance at winning a copy of Visible City, 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 March 20, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 21.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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


Thursday, March 20, 2014

Front Porch Books: March 2014 edition


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


Hyde by Daniel Levine (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):  Contemporary novels told from the viewpoint of classic literary characters have long been in vogue (Wide Sargasso Sea, Ahab's Wife, Wicked, anyone?), but Levine's debut novel narrated by Robert Louis Stevenson's "monster" is especially intriguing and, thanks to some wickedly cool packaging by HMH, feels fresh as the drops of blood spattered around the cover.  Jacket Copy:
"What happens when a villain becomes a hero?" Mr. Hyde is trapped, locked in Dr. Jekyll's surgical cabinet, counting the hours until his inevitable capture. As four days pass, he has the chance, finally, to tell his story--the story of his brief, marvelous life. Summoned to life by strange potions, Hyde knows not when or how long he will have control of "the body." When dormant, he watches Dr. Jekyll from a remove, conscious of this other, high-class life but without influence. As the experiment continues, their mutual existence is threatened, not only by the uncertainties of untested science, but also by a mysterious stalker. Hyde is being taunted--possibly framed. Girls have gone missing; someone has been killed. Who stands, watching, from the shadows? In the blur of this shared consciousness, can Hyde ever be confident these crimes were not committed by his hand? 
Blurbworthiness: "Prepare to be seduced by literary devilry.  Go back to Victorian times to find a very postmodern whodunit.  Visceral prose, atmosphere you could choke on, characters who seem to be at your very shoulder." (Ronald Frame, author of Havisham)  Opening Lines:
      Henry Jekyll is dead.
      I whisper the words and then listen, as if I’ve dropped a stone into a well and await the plunk and splash . . . But inside my head there is only silence. All around me a chorus of celebratory noises fills the void: the simmering pop of the coals in the stove, the nautical creak of the whole wooden cabinet, and a faint, high-pitched cheeping from beyond the windows that sounds almost like baby birds. Here I sit in Jekyll’s chair by these three encrusted casement windows, with his mildewed overcoat draped about my shoulders like a travelling cloak. My journey’s end. The transformation has never felt so smooth before. No spinning sickness, no pain. Just a gentle dissolution: Jekyll evaporating like atomic particles into the air and leaving me behind in the body. This time for good.
As a bonus, the publisher has also included the complete text of Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde--nicely positioned in the book after Levine's re-imagined tale.  Never having read the classic, I'm torn as to which one I'll read first.  You might even say I'm of two minds...


Congo: The Epic History of a People by David van Reybrouck (Ecco):  I grew up in a time (the 1960s) when parts of Africa were still referred to as "deepest, darkest" and there was still an aura of exoticism surrounding the continent--remnants of the Age of Exploration (which, in some cases, was also the Age of Colonialism and Racism).  My pop culture was peopled by everyone from Abbot and Costello to Stanley and Livingstone.  And so, when I received this big, meaty book of the Congo's history, my mind immediately flashed to British men in safari hats and white apes yodeling along jungle vines.  I am sure, however,  that author David van Reybrouck will set me straight on the true history of this nation.  Jacket Copy:
Hailed as "a monumental history . . . more exciting than any novel" (NRC Handelsblad), David van Reybrouck's rich and gripping epic, in the tradition of Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore, tells the extraordinary story of one of the world's most devastated countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Epic in scope yet eminently readable, penetrating and deeply moving, David van Reybrouck's Congo: The Epic History of a People traces the fate of one of the world's most critical, failed nation-states, second only to war-torn Somalia: the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Van Reybrouck takes us through several hundred years of history, bringing some of the most dramatic episodes in Congolese history.  Here are the people and events that have impinged the Congo's development--from the slave trade to the ivory and rubber booms; from the arrival of Henry Morton Stanley to the tragic regime of King Leopold II; from global indignation to Belgian colonialism; from the struggle for independence to Mobutu's brutal rule; and from the world famous Rumble in the Jungle to the civil war over natural resources that began in 1996 and still rages today.  Van Reybrouck interweaves his own family's history with the voices of a diverse range of individuals--charismatic dictators, feuding warlords, child-soldiers, the elderly, female merchant smugglers, and many in the African diaspora of Europe and China--to offer a deeply humane approach to political history, focusing squarely on the Congolese perspective and returning a nation's history to its people.


The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (Algonquin Books):  Imagine a mousetrap baited with the most pungent, flavorful cheese: golden-orange, rich with milk and smokey spices, shimmering waves of aroma practically visible to the eye.  Something impossible for even the most iron-willed mouse to resist.  Now, in place of the cheese, imagine a novel about a bookstore, an abandoned baby, and a curmudgeonly bookseller ...and, SNAP!, you've got an instant bestseller--at least among the passionate society of book vendors and readers.  Gabrielle Zevin's new novel is already a #1 Indie Next Pick and will no doubt enjoy a flurry of handselling when it's released on April 1.  From the little I've read in its pages, it deserves every chime of the cash-register bell.  Only a few pages in, and I felt the snap of the mousetrap bar across my neck.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In the spirit of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Gabrielle Zevin’s enchanting novel is a love letter to the world of books--and booksellers--that changes our lives by giving us the stories that open our hearts and enlighten our minds.  On the faded Island Books sign hanging over the porch of the Victorian cottage is the motto "No Man Is an Island; Every Book Is a World."  A. J. Fikry, the irascible owner, is about to discover just what that truly means.  A. J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be.  His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen.  Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island--from Lambiase, the well-intentioned police officer who’s always felt kindly toward Fikry; from Ismay, his sister-in-law who is hell-bent on saving him from his dreary self; from Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude.  Even the books in his store have stopped holding pleasure for him.  These days, A.J. can only see them as a sign of a world that is changing too rapidly.  And then a mysterious package appears at the bookstore.  It’s a small package, but large in weight.  It’s that unexpected arrival that gives A. J. Fikry the opportunity to make his life over, the ability to see everything anew.  It doesn’t take long for the locals to notice the change overcoming A.J.; or for that determined sales rep, Amelia, to see her curmudgeonly client in a new light; or for the wisdom of all those books to become again the lifeblood of A.J.’s world; or for everything to twist again into a version of his life that he didn’t see coming.  As surprising as it is moving, The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is an unforgettable tale of transformation and second chances, an irresistible affirmation of why we read, and why we love.
Here are those click-bait Opening Lines:
On the ferry from Hyannis to Alice Island, Amelia Loman paints her nails yellow and, while waiting for them to dry, skims her predecessor's notes. "Island Books, approximately $350,000.00 per annum in sales, the better portion of that in the summer months to folks on holiday," Harvey Rhodes reports. "Six hundred square feet of selling space. No full-time employees other than owner. Very small children's section. Fledgling online presence. Poor community outreach. Inventory emphasizes the literary, which is good for us, but Fikry's tastes are very specific, and without Nic, he can't be counted on to hand-sell. Luckily for him, Island's the only game in town." Amelia yawns--she's nursing a slight hangover--and wonders if one persnickety little bookstore will be worth such a long trip. By the time her nails have hardened, her relentlessly bright-sided nature has kicked in. Of course it's worth it! Her specialty is persnickety little bookstores and the particular breed that runs them. Her talents also include multitasking, selecting the right wine at dinner (and the coordinating skill, tending friends who've had too much to drink), houseplants, strays, and other lost causes.
Blurbworthiness: “The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is a breezy, big-hearted treat, especially if you've ever wondered about the inner workings of America's national treasures--neighborhood bookstores.”  (Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins)


Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Knopf):  Earlier this year, Emily St. John Mandel Tumbled about her next novel:
Station Eleven went into production yesterday. The final draft was labeled v26. There weren’t actually 26 successive versions of the book, probably there were only about ten complete drafts in total—every draft gets a new version number, but also I copy the Word file and give it a new version number every time I make a major change—but still, the point is we spent a lot of time together, the book and I. Both exciting and a little sad to let it out of my hands.
It may be sad for Emily to relinquish the book, but her melancholy is our gain.  Station Eleven looks like it will be every bit as good as The Singer's Gun, The Lola Quartet and Last Night in Montreal.  It also marks the first book of Mandel's which won't be published by Unbridled Books here in the U.S.--it will be published by Knopf in the U.S., HarperCollins in Canada and Picador in the UK.  Emily also Tumbled about that trinity of editors: "I wondered how this arrangement would work at the outset, but they confer amongst themselves and get their stories straight before they email me so that their notes don’t conflict, and the result—three sets of excellent and thoughtful notes from three very talented editors—is extraordinary. The final draft of this book will be vastly better than the draft that went out on submission, and it will be because of them."  Here's the novel's Jacket Copy:
One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time-from the actor's early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains-this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes tender, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
Station Eleven also has a great Opening Line: "The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored." From there, we go right into 51-year-old Arthur Leander's on-stage collapse in a scene so vivid I could practically hear the squeak of unoiled seats in the theater and the sweet perfume of pancake makeup on the actors' faces. Mandel always creates the most interesting worlds for us to live in for the space of the time it takes to read her pages.  I for one can't wait to explore more of Arthur's universe.


Tigerman by Nick Harkaway (Knopf):  Speaking of great Opening Lines, Nick Harkaway's new novel has one of the best I've come across this year: "On the steps of the old mission house, the sergeant sat with the boy who called himself Robin, and watched a pigeon being swallowed by a pelican."  There are so many captivating hooks in that one sentence, I don't even know where to begin.  And that's before I even get to the Jacket Copy:
Lester Ferris, sergeant of the British Army, is a good man in need of a rest. He's spent a lot of his life being shot at, and Afghanistan was the last stop on his road to exhaustion. He has no family, he's nearly forty, burned out and about to be retired. The island of Mancreu is the ideal place for Lester to serve out his time. It's a former British colony in legal limbo, soon to be destroyed because of its very special version of toxic pollution - a down-at-heel, mildly larcenous backwater. Of course, that also makes Mancreu perfect for shady business, hence the Black Fleet of illicit ships lurking in the bay: listening stations, offshore hospitals, money laundering operations, drug factories and deniable torture centres. None of which should be a problem, because Lester's brief is to sit tight and turn a blind eye. But Lester Ferris has made a friend: a brilliant, internet-addled street kid with a comic book fixation who will need a home when the island dies - who might, Lester hopes, become an adopted son. Now, as Mancreu's small society tumbles into violence, the boy needs Lester to be more than just an observer. In the name of paternal love, Lester Ferris will do almost anything. And he's a soldier with a knack for bad places: 'almost anything' could be a very great deal - even becoming some sort of hero. But this is Mancreu, and everything here is upside down. Just exactly what sort of hero will the boy need?
Looks like Knopf has another winner on their hands here.  Roar!


The Vacationers by Emma Straub (Riverhead):  Despite the breezy title and the cover design of a couple floating in a turquoise-blue swimming pool, this might not be the most ideal book to pack in your suitcase for that Caribbean getaway.  The dark undertones of a seemingly happy family might hit a little too close to home for some readers who just want to escape "real life."  On the other hand, maybe The Vacationers is the perfect novel for that seven-day cruise.  Based on how well Straub brought a complicated Hollywood actress to life in Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, I'm guessing she'll hold up a sharp-edged mirror in these pages--one which we should all stand in front of for a good, long self-examination.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
For the Posts, a two-week trip to the Balearic island of Mallorca with their extended family and friends is a celebration: Franny and Jim are observing their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, and their daughter, Sylvia, has graduated from high school. The sunlit island, its mountains and beaches, its tapas and tennis courts, also promise an escape from the tensions simmering at home in Manhattan. But all does not go according to plan: over the course of the vacation, secrets come to light, old and new humiliations are experienced, childhood rivalries resurface, and ancient wounds are exacerbated. This is a story of the sides of ourselves that we choose to show and those we try to conceal, of the ways we tear each other down and build each other up again, and the bonds that ultimately hold us together. With wry humor and tremendous heart, Emma Straub delivers a richly satisfying story of a family in the midst of a maelstrom of change, emerging irrevocably altered yet whole.
As a frequent-flyer reader, I can totally relate to these Opening Lines:
Leaving always came as a surprise, no matter how long the dates had been looming on the calendar. Jim had packed his suitcase the night before, but now, moments before their scheduled departure, he was wavering. Had he packed enough books? He walked back and forth in front of the bookshelf in his office, pulling novels out by their spines and then sliding them back into place. Had he packed his running shoes? Had he packed his shaving cream? Elsewhere in the house, Jim could hear his wife and their daughter in similar last-minute throes of panic, running up and down the stairs with one last item that had been forgotten in a heap by the door.
Blurbworthiness: "The Vacationers is a beautifully told story that walks the tightrope of family angst and connection with hilarity and truth. Get ready for the Post family drama, where the near empty nest collides with the dreams of the new generation. Emma Straub's writing is deft, clear and wise in ways that will surprise and delight you. It's a beyond the beach read. It's Ms. Straub at her dazzling best." (Adriana Trigiani, author of The Shoemaker’s Wife)


Us Conductors by Sean Michaels (Tin House Books):  From the sound of this Blurbworthiness, Sean Michaels' Us Conductors is one of those admirably ambitious novels that take big bites which always have me worried the author will be able to swallow the whole mouthful: "Us Conductors stretches its arms to encompass nearly everything— it is an immigrant tale, an epic, a spy intrigue, a prison confession, an inventor's manual, a creation myth, and an obituary—but the electric current humming through its heart is an achingly resonant love story. Sean Michaels orchestrates his first novel like a virtuoso." (Anthony Marra, author of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena).  I like big novels that take chances, and so I'm looking forward to heaping my plate with Michaels' words. Here's the Jacket Copy:
In a finely woven series of flashbacks and correspondence, Lev Termen, the Russian scientist, inventor, and spy, tells the story of his life to his “one true love,” Clara Rockmore, the finest theremin player in the world. In the first half of the book, we learn of Termen’s early days as a scientist in Leningrad during the Bolshevik Revolution, the acclaim he receives as the inventor of the theremin, and his arrival in 1930s New York under the aegis of the Russian state. In the United States he makes a name for himself teaching the theremin to eager music students and marketing his inventions to American companies. In the second half, the novel builds to a crescendo as Termen returns to Russia, where he is imprisoned in a Siberian gulag and later brought to Moscow, tasked with eavesdropping on Stalin himself. Throughout all this, his love for Clara remains constant and unflagging, traveling through the ether much like a theremin’s notes. Us Conductors is steeped in beauty, wonder, and looping heartbreak, a sublime debut that inhabits the idea of invention on every level.
And here are those virtuoso Opening Lines:
      I was Leon Termen before I was Dr Theremin, and before I was Leon, I was Lev Sergeyvich. The instrument that is now known as a theremin could as easily have been called a leon, a lyova, a sergeyvich. It could have been called a clara, after its greatest player. Pash liked termenvox. He liked its connotations of science and authority. But this name always made me laugh. Termenvox--the voice of Termen. As if this device replicated my own voice. As if the theremin’s trembling soprano were the song of this scientist from Leningrad.
      I laughed at this notion, and yet in a way I think I also believed it. Not that the theremin emulated my voice, but that with it I gave voice to something. To the invisible. To the ether. I, Lev Sergeyvich Termen, mouthpiece of the universe.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

When Will I See You Again? or, The Flighty Adventures of a Traveling Novelist


Here is the novelist pulling a stack of clean underwear from his dresser and loading it into a suitcase.

Here is the novelist running over a well-worn checklist in his mind: Toothbrush?  Contour memory-foam pillow?  Phone charger?  Reading copy of Fobbit?  Breath mints?

Here is the novelist kissing his wife farewell, sucking a week's worth of love through their lips.  Here is the novelist reminding his wife to empty the cat's litter box; her sardonic reply, "Okay, if I must."  Here is the wife asking if he remembered his beloved contour memory-foam pillow (subtext in her voice: "which you obviously love more than me at this point").  Here is the novelist returning for One More Kiss and Lingering Hug and a lame joke about her breasts being the only pillows he'll ever need.

Here is the novelist punching his frequent-flyer mileage number into the airport's check-in kiosk.  Here is the novelist doing the mundane security-line shuffle.  Here is the novelist heaving his bag into the overhead bin compartment.  Here is the novelist nodding to his seat companion, opening his book, and closing himself into a make-believe world for the remainder of the flight.  Here is the plane losing altitude, the landing gear coming down and locking into place, the wheels kissing the runway.

Here is the novelist arriving in your town.

Am I?  Am I coming to your locale?  Read on....

Here is my touring schedule for the next couple of months.  New events are added all the time, so please check the website for updates.

BROOKINGS, SD
March 24
1 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Great Plains Writers' Conference
I'm especially excited about this event since I get to meet four powerhouses of contemporary war literature: poet Brian Turner (Here, Bullet), novelist Patrick Hicks (The Commandant of Lubizec), short story writer Katey Schultz (Flashes of War) and memoirist Ron Capps (Seriously Not All Right).  I'll be giving a talk on Monday afternoon called "Inside/Out and Outside/In: Distilling the Personal in the Military Experience," and then that evening, I have the privilege of sharing the stage with Dr. Hicks as we read from our novels--which couldn't be lighter and darker in contrast.  Fobbit is about the circus of military bureaucracy, The Commandant of Lubizec is about the Holocaust.  Patrick and I plan to leave 'em laughing and crying in the aisles.


SPOKANE, WA
April 7-13
Get Lit! Festival
Get Lit! has a great reputation and I'm honored to be part of this year's line-up.  Here's what I'll be doing during the course of the week-long festival:

PANEL DISCUSSION: Strangers in a Strange Land with David Abrams, Adrianne Harun, and Nathan Oates
Friday, April 11, noon
Venue: North Idaho College, Meyer Health & Sciences Bldg., Room 102
Fiction allows us to see the world from another person's perspective, through their experiences in strange landscapes, new cultures, or bizarre situations­—to follow them down the rabbit-hole, as it were.  In David Abrams' novel Fobbit, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr. finds himself in a combat zone for the first time, headquartered in a marble palace in Baghdad and sifting through reports of bombings, sniper kills, and dismemberments in order to draft patriotic press releases about the war.  Adrianne Harun's novel A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain centers on a group of young people in an isolated logging town, who must reckon with enigmatic strangers appearing just as Native girls are vanishing from their midst.  In The Empty House by Nathan Oates, characters often travel to far-off places in an effort to escape themselves, seeking comfort in the foreign but finding themselves strangers in their own lives.  These authors will discuss ways of exploring "strangeness" in fiction, and how they each use it as a tool for evoking larger truths.  Moderated by fiction writer and NIC faculty member Jonathan Frey.

READING: David Abrams and Nathan Oates
Saturday, April 12, 1-2 p.m.
Most of us have a hunger for newness: An urge to see new places.  A desire to walk on new ground.  There’s something about being somewhere we’ve never been that makes us look at people a bit closer, and to look inward with a brand new intensity.  It’s perhaps no stretch to assume that this is one of the reasons David Abrams spent 20 years as a journalist in the active-duty army.  His newest book, Fobbit, comes from a journal he kept during a year-long tour in Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom.  The effect of this novel is somewhat surprising: It’s hilarious.  Abrams lets us into the dirty little secrets of military subculture and the humor his protagonist must find in order to make it home.  Nathan Oates’ characters also are on a quest for newness.  They are constantly on the move, have a bad habit of trying to escape, and an even worse habit of finding a truer version of themselves before the end.  Oates’ short story collection, The Empty House, was the winner of the 2012 Spokane Prize.  These authors show us characters outside of their elements, wading through new places and experiences, and new ways of looking inward.
Room: Conference Theater, Main Level
Venue: Spokane Convention Center
Cost: Free and open to the public

WRITING WORKSHOP: Sense of Place and Setting in Fiction
Saturday, April 12, 3:30-5:30 p.m., at The Spokane Convention Center
Ever finish reading a story and find the setting indelibly marked on your imagination?  Think: Hemingway, Cather, O’Connor, and Joyce.  Not only do you visualize the landscape, hear the sounds, and smell the atmosphere, but you are also left with the emotional impact that the sense of place renders on the characters.  You feel as though you’ve traveled.  Whether your story is set in a bungalow or a high-rise, on the sea or the prairie, or perhaps takes place in alternate universe, learn how to craft place to add strength and dimension to your work.  Practice how to show the heart of environment without falling prey to overwrought sentiments and empty description.
Room: 202A, Spokane Convention Center, 2nd level.  The cost for any student with a current ID is $20 each.  Student ID must be presented to the registration desk at the event.  For all others, the cost is $30 each.  Registration will open starting March 21st. Space is limited to 25 people per session, so pre-registration is recommended.  (However, we will also allow day-of registration, as space allows.)


NEW YORK CITY
April 29
7 p.m.
The Strand
I'm very excited about returning to La Grosse Pomme (this will be my second trip there, so I still feel like I'm a Manhattan virgin).  This time, I'll be helping Adrian Bonenberger celebrate the release of his new memoir, Afghan Post.  Here's more about the event from the bookstore's website:
Join us for an evening honoring the release of Adrian Bonenberger’s new release Afghan Post, where great contemporary writers will discuss what it means to write about war. Adrian Bonenberger is a contributor to The New York Times blog, "At War," and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. His book is an epistolary memoir of his time serving in the military. Also speaking will be fellow veterans David Abrams, author of Fobbit, and Matt Gallagher author of the memoir Kaboom and an editor of the short story collection Fire and Forget. Lastly, they’ll be joined by the novelist Roxana Robinson, whose latest book, Sparta tells a story of returning from war. These remarkable authors will examine the challenges and importance of writing about war, and its place in contemporary American culture. Active-duty United States Army officer Peter Molin will moderate the evening. Peter is an English professor at West Point, and writes the blog Time Now, which tracks artistic and literary works related to America’s contemporary wars.


GREAT FALLS, MT
May 2
Great Falls Festival of the Book
I'm looking forward to my first Fobbit-related event in this beautiful high-plains city.  I don't have details on time or place just yet, but stay tuned....


HELENA, MT
May 15
7 p.m.
Lewis and Clark Public Library
At this second Helena appearance I'll be reading from Fobbit, possibly a short excerpt from my work-in-progress, and answering any questions the audience wants to toss my way.



Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: Joe (from the novel by Larry Brown)


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



Larry Brown, the late, great chronicler of the South's darker corners, gets another big-screen treatment (after 2001's Big Bad Love).  This time, Brown's 1991 novel Joe fills the screen with heavy drinking, domestic abuse and ornery men yelling, "The hell you lookin' at?"  Nicolas Cage (who physically looks like Brown--perhaps intentionally?) plays the titular role of an alcoholic ex-con forester who hires a boy (Tye Sheridan, last seen with Matthew McConaughey in Mud) to work with him on his crew.  When Joe discovers the 15-year-old boy is nothing but a punching bag for his alcoholic father, that ole ex-con rage starts to build inside him and you just know somebody's gonna get his ass whupped--or worse--before the end credits (a fact highlighted by a lawman coming across our anti-hero slumped against a wall and saying, "What have you done, Joe?").  All ingredients are in place for this to be a decent-to-good (possibly bordering on great) movie.  I'm especially intrigued by the fact that David Gordon Green is the director.  I'm a big fan of his films George Washington and Prince Avalanche and think his quiet, resonant style will serve Joe well.  Now, will somebody please, please, please make a movie out of Larry Brown's final, posthumous novel, A Miracle of Catfish?  I think it was one of his best.

A sad coda to this story: The actor cast as the abusive father did not live to see his work on screen.  Two months after filming ended, Gary Poulter, a homeless man plucked from obscurity when Green cast him in the movie, was found dead....submerged in three feet of water after a night of heavy drinking near Austin’s Lady Bird Lake.


Monday, March 17, 2014

My First Time: Tova Mirvis


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 Tova Mirvis, the author of Visible City, The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller.  Her essays have appeared in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, The Boston Globe Magazine, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on National Public Radio.  She has been a Visiting Scholar at The Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center and is a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fiction Fellowship.  She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her three children. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.  Click here to visit her website.

My First Hometown Reading

My first reading for my first novel was in Memphis, Tennessee, the first stop on what was scheduled to be a long book tour.  Though it was the city where I’d grown up and where my family still lived, this was no easy hometown crowd.  The book I’d written, The Ladies Auxiliary, was about the tightly knit Orthodox Jewish community there, and much of the audience was made up of members of that community–my family, my parents’ friends, my former teachers–and they had come to hear what I had to say for myself.

In the months before my novel came out, there had been much talk.  “Is the book nice or not nice?” people asked.  The word on the street was that it was decidedly not nice.  Before people had read it, the allegations were lined up: I had aired the dirty laundry, I had ensured that no one would move to this community, I had dished people’s lives.  People were both afraid they were in the book and afraid that they weren’t.  One of my grandmother’s friends called her and said, “I heard I’m in Tova’s novel.”  “No,” my grandmother was quick to reply.  “You’re not in it.  But I am in it.”

All this, I heard in the months and then days leading up to the book’s release, from my parents who still lived in Memphis.  At the time, I was in New York, living far from the epicenter of the talk.  I tried to shrug it off but I had imbibed all too well the lessons of my upbringing, a good-girl politeness that was the lovechild of Orthodox Jewish laws and Southern gentility.  I had lived by the edicts to please others, to squelch what you really thought.

But to be a writer, you have to be willing to say not what you were supposed to think but what you actually did think.  For me, the release of this book was my first time giving voice to the suffocation I felt growing up in this tight-knit community where everyone knew you and knew everything about you.  For the years in which I wrote the book, coming home to Memphis was like being able to visit the movie set of the novel which lived only inside my own head.  But with the book’s publication, coming to Memphis felt far more fraught.  The book was no longer in my private domain.

In the local TCBY that my mother and I went to on the day before my first reading, we ran into a woman who looked at me coolly over the top of her chocolate and vanilla swirl.  “Well if it isn’t Little Miss Famous,” she said.  Another woman in the grocery store pursed her lips into something that was supposed to resemble a smile.  “Heard you wrote a book,” she drawled in a voice dripping with a cocktail of Southern charm and venom.

By the night of my first bookstore event, I was anxious, my hands shaking as I started reading from the book.  I tried to gauge what people were thinking.  Could you stand by what you’d written, face down not an imaginary crowd of naysayers but actual people that you knew and say I think this, I wrote this?  I felt like I was on trial–was fiction an admissible defense in this court?  Before I stopped for questions, I made a pre-emptive strike and launched into a monologue about what fiction was, about how life gets translated and reinvented.  There is no one to one relationship between fiction and life; it’s not about expose but recreation.  Yes we are sitting in this place I described, yes, you think it’s you, or him or her, but can we depart here for one moment and enter a fictional universe?

This was what fiction was for me, a chance to reshape and recreate.  The world I’d grown up felt too small; on the page, it stretched, expanded.  I grew up feeling fenced in by the restraining words of who you were supposed to be, what you were supposed to think.  I’d lived with the tight knot that comes from reshaping the inner self to match the outer expectations.  Here on the page, I was starting to see how you could break free.

At the end of the reading, a family friend whom I’d heard was angry at the book came up to me and patted me on the arm.  “You acquitted yourself beautifully,” she said.

I appreciated her words though I knew not everyone agreed with her, though I knew that this so-called acquittal mattered less than the knowledge that I could be accused of trespassing upon communal norms and still stand by my words.  I could face the wagging tongues and angry feeling, I could stand there and say, this is what I have said.  This is what I think.