Monday, February 29, 2016

My First Time: Andrew Roe

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 Andrew Roe, author of the novel The Miracle Girl, which is now out in paperback from Algonquin Books. It was recently named a finalist for a Los Angeles Times Book Award (the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction). Andrew’s fiction has appeared in Tin House, One Story, Glimmer Train, The Sun, and other publications. He lives in Oceanside, California, with his wife and three children. Click here to visit his website.

My First Short Story Acceptance

I got a phone call—not an email, not a letter, but an actual phone call.

It was 2001, and I was living in Arcata, in Humboldt County, the far northern reaches of California. I was working on a novel (eventually, many years later, in 2015, published as The Miracle Girl), swimming in a sea of writerly doubt.

After a morning of writing and then a bike ride to clear my head, I came home. There was a message on my answering machine. It was from Linda Swanson-Davies, one of the editors of Glimmer Train. She said she loved my story, “Rough,” which I’d submitted a few months ago. They wanted to publish it.

I remember collapsing on the floor in disbelief. Then, after listening to the message a few more times, I remember jumping up in the air, then collapsing back down to the floor. Why did I do this? I don’t know. I was alone. I was shocked and stunned (to quote a line from The Rutles). But it’s one of the most vivid memories in my writing career.

The acceptance was such a huge validation. I’d sent the story through the slush and somehow it had gotten noticed and accepted (someone once quipped that it’s easier to get into Harvard than Glimmer Train). In addition to appearing in the magazine, the story also got published in the anthology Where Love Is Found: 24 Tales of Connection.

I’ve been lucky enough to have two more short stories appear in Glimmer Train, and each time I’ve found out via a phone call from Linda (and that first time, by the way, I did call Linda back and talk to her). This has never happened with any other publication. I think it says a lot about Linda and her style and the magazine, which she co-edits with her sister, Susan Burmeister-Brown.

That story, “Rough,” ends with the word hope. And it’s always struck me as fitting for my first published short story. Hope is so important to a writer, especially because there’s so much rejection and doubt to contend with. But hope keeps us going; hope pushes us to get better and persevere and expand; and hope is what’s carried me forward all these years.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sunday Sentence: The Darkening Trapeze by Larry Levis

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

The only surviving son of Jesus Christ was Karl Marx.
You can tell by the last letter of his name,
Which has the shape & frail balance of an overturned cross

On a windswept hillside.

“Elegy With a Darkening Trapeze Inside It”
from The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems by Larry Levis

Friday, February 26, 2016

Friday Freebie: Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

Congratulations to Carl Scott, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson.

This week’s giveaway is Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume. Mary Costello, author of Academy Street, had this to say about Baume’s debut novel: “Powerful, heartbreaking, told with great control. The writing is superb....I had an image of all language standing to attention, eager to serve this writer.” I had more to say about Spill Simmer Falter Wither earlier here at the blog, including the astounding Prologue which blew me away with its stand-at-attention language. Here’s more about the book from the publisher’s jacket copy:

A debut novel already praised as “unbearably poignant and beautifully told” (Eimear McBride, author of A Girl is a Half-formed Thing) this captivating story follows—over the course of four seasons—a misfit man who adopts a misfit dog. It is springtime, and two outcasts—a man ignored, even shunned by his village, and the one-eyed dog he takes into his quiet, tightly shuttered life—find each other, by accident or fate, and forge an unlikely connection. As their friendship grows, their small, seaside town suddenly takes note of them, falsely perceiving menace where there is only mishap; the unlikely duo must take to the road. Gorgeously written in poetic and mesmerizing prose, Spill Simmer Falter Wither has already garnered wild support in its native Ireland, where the Irish Times pointed to Baume’s “astonishing power with language” and praised it as “a novel bursting with brio, braggadocio and bite.” It is also a moving depiction of how—over the four seasons echoed in the title—a relationship between fellow damaged creatures can bring them both comfort. One of those rare stories that utterly, completely imagines its way into a life most of us would never see, it transforms us not only in our understanding of the world, but also of ourselves.

If you’d like a chance at winning Spill Simmer Falter Wither, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on March 3, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 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.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Soup and Salad: Negotiating a writer’s worth, Where are all the patrons?, Alexander Chee’s 13-year journey, Max Ophuls at The Lincoln, Punctuation kills words, Great cover designs, Lee Boudreaux’s careful reading, “I wanted to publish a book before I died,” Paul Giamatti channels Balzac

On today's menu:

1.  Manjula Martin, editor of the anthology SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, which will be published later this year by Simon & Schuster, on how to negotiate ways to be paid for your art:
The one super-strict rule I hold myself to is: Always ask for more. Every time. No matter what. Because no one is going to give you more money unless you ask for it. And if you ask for more and the person instantly agrees without even blinking... then you should probably ask for even more next time. When I negotiate, I sometimes don’t get more. And I sometimes get more than more. But I never get less, I can tell you that!
Manjula’s occasional tiny letter newsletter is well worth subscribing to. (Also, it’s free!)

2.  $peaking of $upport for writer$: “No longer supported by the state, today’s writers must meet market demands. Those who succeed often do so by innovating no more than is necessary.”

3.  Listen, my children, and you shall hear...of the rollercoaster ride of Alexander Chee. His novel The Queen of the Night tops my To-Be-Read stack and after reading this interview at The Millions, it’s almost a wonder the book is in our hands at all. As Claire Cameron (author of The Bear) describes it,
The Queen of the Night is Chee’s first novel hardcover release since Edinburgh in 2001 and its reissue in 2003. While he has hardly been idle, I wondered how that felt. As novelists often talk of the pressure to publish, were the intervening 13 to 15 years productive or full of angst? What I found was a story filled with all the twists and turns of the greatest writing careers, a publisher bankruptcy, bouts of teaching yoga, the consequences of missing a deadline by 10 years, the advance money running out, an Amtrak residency, surviving through four changes of editor, and whether it’s all worth it in the end.
Chee says when he thought about working on the manuscript for The Queen of the Night,
It was like wandering blind into a storm. I moved to Los Angeles, where I really just sort of rested for a few months, read things, and went to parties and libraries and tried to put my head together again. When I ran out of money, I moved to my Mom’s in Maine....writing in her basement every morning starting at 5 a.m., taking a break for Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns at 11 a.m. and making an early lunch before working more. It was like the weirdest saddest colony stay, about three months.
And then these comments, of course, spoke directly to my heart (which is often torn between writing this blog and doing some “real writing”):
My friend Maud Newton and I were talking about our history with blogs recently, and we agreed to think of them respectively as the sort of minor books that you publish in between the books that matter, an experiment done in a way that eventually helps the sale of the next book — people read it, treat it like a blog and not a book — and which allows to sustain a readership without suffering the damage of a tragic sales track record.

4.  If you’re in the New York City area, you might want to drop by The Lincoln Center on March 2. That’s when Chee will be on hand to help bring Max Ophul’s 1953 classic The Earrings of Madame de... to the screen. The Print Screen series “invites our favorite authors to present films that complement and have inspired their work, with discussions and book signings to follow screenings.” Click here for more information on the recurring series.

5.  Punctuation posters. Who needs words anyway?

6.  I can always count on The Casual Optimist to drop some delicious eye-candy into my inbox. The blog’s February Book Covers of Note includes some stunners, including one of my favorites: Jamie Keenan’s design for My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir by Chris Offut.

7.  Over at Lit Hub, Lee Boudreaux takes us into the mind (and heart) of an editor:
The editing process is asking every question that occurs to you and reading the manuscript as carefully as anyone is ever going to read it. This is the time to ask those questions and it is always the author’s…well, they have permission to reject anything, it’s just that you’re raising the question. I believe the author always has a better idea on how to solve the problem than anything I would suggest.

8.  If you can read this and not be moved, you’re a stonier person than I am: I wanted to publish a book before I died.

9.  I leave you with Paul Giamatti channeling Balzac and his 50-cups-of-day habit:

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Jumbled Pile of Books: Alyson Foster’s Library

Reader:  Alyson Foster
Location:  Silver Spring, Maryland

Collection Size:  Somewhere in the vicinity of 300 books.

I used to have a lot more, but after several back-breaking moves, I vowed to be much more stringent about which books I hang on to. If the book is something I know I’ll want to read again, if it has passages in it that stop me in my tracks, sentences that I underline and want to remember, then I add it to my collection. If not, then it goes on the book giveaway shelf of the library where I work.

I also used to be very systematic about how I organized my books – I had a poetry section, a short story collection section, a Great Works of Literature section, a modernist section, and so on, but that’s sort of gone to the wayside. I had a baby last year, so often the books I’m reading get jumbled into piles of Goodnight Moon, and Blueberries for Sal and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It seems like a metaphor for the chaos of life in general these days.

The one book I’d run back into a burning building to rescue:  My copy of Moby-Dick. The book itself is nothing special – it’s a beat-up 1956 Riverside edition that’s held together with packing tape – but it has a lot of sentimental value. It belonged to my grandfather, and then my dad inherited it, before I somehow wound up with it. It has my grandfather’s notes in the margins, as well as the ones I added as I’ve read and re-read it in the years since college. I would have loved to discuss Melville with my grandfather – he died before I got around to reading it. He was a minister in his younger years and I know he would have had a lot of interesting things to say about it.

Favorite book from childhood:  This is a hard one to pick. There were so many books that made such a searing impression on me as a kid. That’s actually one of the things I miss most about childhood. I read lots of great books now, of course, but most of them don’t affect me in quite the same overpowering way.

I was obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Little House on the Prairie books for several years. When I was in 5th or 6th grade, I got into The Dark is Rising. My son was really sick last summer and was on a ventilator for a week. I spent a number of hours with him in the ICU reading him that book, so it’s fresh in my mind now.

When I got a little older I really loved Katherine Patterson’s Jacob Have I Loved. I still think of that book sometimes and how it does such a phenomenal job of capturing the conflicted feelings and loneliness of adolescence.

Guilty pleasure book:  Hmm… I don’t think many of the books I read these days would really fall into the “guilty pleasure” category. Which isn’t to say that I don’t read self-indulgent stuff – most of it is just time-killing articles online. I’m actually sort of addicted to advice columns. I think the writer in me is drawn to mulling over other people’s strange situations and self-inflicted predicaments. One of these days I’m going to write a short story about an advice columnist.

Alyson Foster is the author of the forthcoming short story collection, Heart Attack Watch and the novel, God is an Astronaut. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Kenyon Review, and The Iowa Review. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area with her husband and her son. You can find out more about Alyson on her website.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Trailer Park Tuesday: Welcome Thieves by Sean Beaudoin

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

Chuck Norris poetry, John Cheever lunchboxes, and...FRANZEN BRAN® cereal. They’re all part of the trailer for Welcome Thieves, the new short story collection by Sean Beaudoin, a founder of The Weeklings website. With a double-eye wink* to Zach Galifianakis’ celebrated Between Two Ferns, the Welcome Thieves trailer gives us “Between Two Franzens” as host Jimmy Goodwin interviews Beaudoin with lightning-quick repartee:

     “Where do you get the ideas for your short stories?”
     “Who is your earliest influence?”

And so on and so forth. Sponsored by Franzen Bran (a company which, I assume, also makes Freedom Flakes), the trailer zips along with some very funny moments (and only a couple that don’t quite stick the landing). If Beaudoin’s stories have this kind of panache and wit, then we’re in for a very delicious treat indeed. Milk, bowl and spoon not included.

*aka, a blink

Monday, February 22, 2016

My First Time: Anthony Schneider

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 Anthony Schneider, the author of the novel Repercussions, now out from Permanent Press. Daniel Wallace (Big Fish) had this to say about the book: “Engrossing... Anthony Schneider does what all good war novelists do: he writes about the sacrifice one man makes contributing to a cause bigger than he is, and the causalities that happen off the battlefield.” Born in South Africa and educated in the U.S., Anthony has been published in McSweeneys, Conjunctions, Bold Type, Details, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), two fiction anthologies and other magazines. He and his wife and son divide their time between London and New York, with frequent trips to South Africa. Click here to visit his website.

My First Eureka Moment

A man stands alone on Prince’s Dock, Liverpool. He’s dressed in a dark suit and faces away from you, hands in his pockets, looking at the water. A tram rattles down Castle Street, passing men in hats, a department store window, a horse-drawn cart. Repercussions begins there, in Liverpool in 1934.

I didn’t know it at the time but I’d started a novel, writing about a character I didn’t know in a city I’d never visited. I had a book, Liverpool and the North West, a collection of old photographs with an introduction and commentary by George Chandler (London: B.T. Batsford, 1972 , long out of print). There’s a photograph of boys on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal—“bathing” is the word the book uses, though they are in fact simply standing there. When I did some research I learned there had been a heatwave in Liverpool that year, the year my man would have been standing beside a canal trying to decide whether or not to jump in.

You can go there, stand on the mossy cobblestones beside the canal. A ripe rotty smell rises from the swirling water, and the sun feels like a warm blanket on your back, just before you jump.

I wasn’t trying to write a novel. I thought it might be liberating to write a day in the life, a character sketch, not even a story. So I wrote about Liverpool and a boy who dreams of flying. After twenty or so pages, I moved on. A few months later I found myself writing about a grumpy grandfather in New York City, and at some point it struck me that they may be the same person. Just write, I told myself. If it interested me, I would keep going. I filled a lot of pages, and new characters popped up (and sometimes vanished as quickly as they’d appeared). The individual pieces didn’t cohere, nor were they all related to the same places, events or ideas. But I kept going. I wondered whose story it was, and what it was all about, and then I stopped worrying and wrote a bit more. And that’s the funny thing about writing. You delve, you scratch, you explore. You have an idea where you are going but you are also a passenger. You rush to find meaning, discover what it is you’re writing about, or what it is that’s stopping you from writing, but you also have to be patient. You have to play, and be comfortable in the half-light of your nascent creation. And maybe it goes somewhere and maybe it doesn’t. Rinse, lather, repeat. It’s half fun and half frustration, half search and half serendipity.

The first draft took a long time. I struggled to make it all cohere, to figure out what story I was telling—and why. First drafts are difficult, lonely endeavors, full of doubt and desperation, fueled by a dream and too much caffeine. But you can’t take a second step until you’ve taken your first.

Many drafts later, I took my book apart and put it back together. This happened while I was on holiday in Isla Mujeres, a beautiful Mexican island. Palm trees, warm Caribbean Sea, abundant light. I was there with a woman. Does it sound romantic? It wasn’t. We’d just broken up and while I’d offered to buy her out, pay for her part of the trip and get a week by myself to write and walk and swim, she said no, and I was stubborn and she was stubborn, and so there we were: two stubborn unhappy people side by side in bed, with matching Netflix envelopes, watching different movies. Actually we had an okay time. But she didn’t want to go to the little town for breakfast, and because she could order room service and breakfast was one more meal to get through without bickering, I walked the roads—sandy and mostly empty— from the beachside hotel to town each morning. There I ate excellent granola and yogurt or scrambled eggs and drank strong coffee and went through the book and played with structure. I ripped it apart and put it back together, moved sections and figured out a structure that could hold my jigsaw puzzle of a novel together. It was the closest I came to a eureka moment with this book.

Another beach, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The year is 1948. Freshly laundered towels, white sand, green sea. Two men sit together, idly watching a group of young women nearby. They watch as two of the women step into the frothy water, giggling and waving their arms in the hazy sunshine. The men, who work together, are talking about their boss and the boss’ son. Someone is shouting. It’s one of the girls nearby, and she’s running across the beach, pointing at a flailing figure far in the bobbing surf. You can go there too, run across the hot sand and dive into the cold water. You can save her.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink

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

It was a loud dawn. Sid had never seen or heard anything quite like it, the sun breaking the horizon line with a sound like a dull knife ripping a sheet.

Dog Run Moon: Stories by Callan Wink

Friday, February 19, 2016

Friday Freebie: The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson

Congratulations to Cosmo Langsfeld, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Tightrope by Simon Mawer, Broken Sleep by Bruce Bauman, Lay Down Your Weary Tune by W. B. Belcher, and The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt by Julian Borger.

This week’s giveaway is the new novel by Joshilyn Jackson: The Opposite of Everyone. Among other things, The Opposite of Everyone has one of my favorite first sentences of 2016: I was born blue. Read on for more details about the book...

A fiercely independent divorce lawyer learns the power of family and connection when she receives a cryptic message from her estranged mother in this bittersweet, witty novel from the nationally bestselling author of Someone Else’s Love Story and Gods in Alabama—an emotionally resonant tale about the endurance of love and the power of stories to shape and transform our lives. Born in Alabama, Paula Vauss spent the first decade of her life on the road with her free-spirited young mother, Kai, an itinerant storyteller who blended Hindu mythology with southern oral tradition to re-invent their history as they roved. But everything, including Paula’s birth name Kali Jai, changed when she told a story of her own—one that landed Kai in prison and Paula in foster care. Separated, each holding secrets of her own, the intense bond they once shared was fractured. These days, Paula has reincarnated herself as a tough-as-nails divorce attorney with a successful practice in Atlanta. While she hasn’t seen Kai in fifteen years, she’s still making payments on that Karmic debt—until the day her last check is returned in the mail, along with a mysterious note: “I am going on a journey, Kali. I am going back to my beginning; death is not the end. You will be the end. We will meet again, and there will be new stories. You know how Karma works.” Then Kai’s most treasured secret literally lands on Paula’s doorstep, throwing her life into chaos and transforming her from only child to older sister. Desperate to find her mother before it’s too late, Paula sets off on a journey of discovery that will take her back to the past and into the deepest recesses of her heart. With the help of her ex-lover Birdwine, an intrepid and emotionally volatile private eye who still carries a torch for her, this brilliant woman, an expert at wrecking families, now has to figure out how to put one back together—her own. The Opposite of Everyone is a story about story itself, how the tales we tell connect us, break us, and define us, and how the endings and beginnings we choose can destroy us...and make us whole. Laced with sharp humor and poignant insight, it is beloved New York Times bestselling author Joshilyn Jackson at her very best.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Opposite of Everyone, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Feb. 25, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 26.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Front Porch Books: February 2016 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, independent bookstores, 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: many of these books won’t be released for another 2-6 months; I’m here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists.  Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.  I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books. 

The Mirror Thief
by Martin Seay
(Melville House)

Just as I’m recovering from the beautiful brainburst effects of City on Fire, along comes another big and bold novel. The Mirror Thief has been getting a lot of attention for a 600-page book about mirrors (and, judging from what I’ve read so far, justifiably so). I’ll never look at the one above my bathroom sink in quite the same way again.

Jacket Copy:  Set in three cities in three eras, The Mirror Thief calls to mind David Mitchell and Umberto Eco in its mix of entertainment and literary bravado. The core story is set in Venice in the sixteenth century, when the famed makers of Venetian glass were perfecting one of the old world’s most wondrous inventions: the mirror. An object of glittering yet fearful fascination—was it reflecting simple reality, or something more spiritually revealing?—the Venetian mirrors were state of the art technology, and subject to industrial espionage by desirous sultans and royals world-wide. But for any of the development team to leave the island was a crime punishable by death. One man, however—a world-weary war hero with nothing to lose—has a scheme he thinks will allow him to outwit the city’s terrifying enforcers of the edict, the ominous Council of Ten. Meanwhile, in two other Venices—Venice Beach, California, circa 1958, and the Venice casino in Las Vegas, circa today—two other schemers launch similarly dangerous plans to get away with a secret. All three stories will weave together into a spell-binding tour-de-force that is impossible to put down—an old-fashioned, stay-up-all-night novel that, in the end, returns the reader to a stunning conclusion in the original Venice...and the bedazzled sense of having read a truly original and thrilling work of art.

Blurbworthiness:  “A true delight, a big, beautiful cabinet of wonders that is by turns an ominous modern thriller, a supernatural mystery, and an enchanting historical adventure story....A splendid masterpiece, to be loved like a long-lost friend, an epic with near-universal appeal.”  (Publishers Weekly)

The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan
by J. Kael Weston

The second “mirror” book which arrived at my house this past month has an undeniable, can’t-look-away first sentence. The remainder of the book seems like it will be just as compelling and—more importantly—vital reading.

Jacket Copy:  A powerfully written firsthand account of the human costs of conflict, The Mirror Test asks that we as a nation look in the mirror and address hard questions about America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. J. Kael Weston spent seven years on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan working for the State Department. The U.S. government sent him to some of the most dangerous frontline locations. Upon his return home, traveling the country to pay respect to the killed and wounded, he asked himself: How and when will these wars end? How will they be remembered and memorialized? What lessons can we learn from them? Questions with no quick answers, but perhaps ones that might lead to a shared reckoning worthy of the sacrifices of those, troops and civilians alike, whose lives have been changed by more than a decade and a half of war. With a novelist’s eye, Weston takes us from Twenty Nine Palms in California to Fallujah in Iraq, Khost to Helmand in Afghanistan, Maryland to Colorado, Wyoming to New York City, as well as to out-of-the-way places in Iowa and Texas. We meet generals, corporals and captains, senators and ambassadors, NATO allies, Iraqi truck drivers, city councils, imams and mullahs, Afghan schoolteachers, madrassa and college students, former Taliban fighters and ex-Guantanamo Prison detainees, a torture victim, SEAL and Delta Force teams, and many Marines. The overall frame for the book, from which the title is taken, centers on soldiers who have received a grievous wound to the face. There is a moment during their recovery when they must look upon their reconstructed appearance for the first time. This is known as “the mirror test.” Here, like grains of sand, Weston gathers these voices and stories—Iraqi, Afghan, and American—and polishes them into a sheet of glass, one he offers to us as a national mirror. What Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie did for Vietnam, The Mirror Test does for Iraq and Afghanistan. An unflinching and deep examination of the interplay between warfare and diplomacy, it is an essential book—a crucial look at America now, how it is viewed in the world, and how the nation views itself.

Opening Lines:  I first met Marine Corporal Aaron Mankin in Fallujah in early 2005, just before he lost most of his face in the Iraq War.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Mirror Test is an elegy, and a love story, and like all elegies and love stories it involves equal parts ardor and heartbreak. It is also an assignment to Americans: look at yourselves, look at these wars. It’s not only Weston’s experience at State which place him in a position to deliver this assignment; it’s his humanity, humility, and literary grace. These qualities bleed through the pages of this book, and reflect the humanity, humility, and grace of its subjects—Marines in Fallujah, Iraqis and Afghans in Anbar and Khost, leaders who tried to do right. And eventually, essentially, of civilians who mourn their children among the war dead.”  (Lea Carpenter, author of Eleven Days)

by Michelle Hoover

Maybe it’s because I’m currently reading Main Street, Sinclair Lewis’ withering satire of the prejudices of a small town in the American Midwest in the early 1900s, or maybe I’m just drawn to great writing—whatever the case, Michelle Hoover’s newest novel appeals to me for its setting (the Iowa prairie just after World War Two) and its characters (a German family faced with small-town prejudice). Granted, Bottomland seems to have a more serious tone than Main Street, but the idea of being ostracized due to race, class or gender is still the same old sad song.

Jacket Copy:  At once intimate and sweeping, Bottomland—the anticipated second novel from Michelle Hoover—follows the Hess family in the years after World War I as they attempt to rid themselves of the Anti-German sentiment that left a stain on their name. But when the youngest two daughters vanish in the middle of the night, the family must piece together what happened while struggling to maintain their life on the unforgiving Iowa plains. In the weeks after Esther and Myrle’s disappearance, their siblings desperately search for the sisters, combing the stark farmlands, their neighbors’ houses, and the unfamiliar world of far-off Chicago. Have the girls run away to another farm? Have they gone to the city to seek a new life? Or were they abducted? Ostracized, misunderstood, and increasingly isolated in their tightly-knit small town in the wake of the war, the Hesses fear the worst. Told in the voices of the family patriarch and his children, this is a haunting literary mystery that spans decades before its resolution. Hoover deftly examines the intrepid ways a person can forge a life of their own despite the dangerous obstacles of prejudice and oppression.

Opening Lines:  It was little more than a month before winter shut us in when I last saw the youngest of my sisters. Our little Myrle.

Blurbworthiness:  “Comparisons to Theodore Dreiser and Willa Cather are inevitable when you read Michelle Hoover’s classic heartland novels because Hoover knows rural life, its unforgiving reality and its people so well; in Bottomland, she makes this landscape her own with new vivid lyricism. This post-WWI novel about an ostracized German-American family searching Iowa and Chicago for their missing teenaged girls is poignant, powerful, and hypnotically readable.”  (Jenna Blum, author of Those Who Save Us)

Sweet Lamb of Heaven
By Lydia Millet
(W. W. Norton)

Though there’s a sly humor found in the opening lines of Lydia Millet’s latest novel (see below), the subject matter of domestic violence is deadly serious. Like Sleeping with the Enemy serious. This might be the literary thriller to beat this season.

Jacket Copy:  Lydia Millet’s chilling new novel is the first-person account of a young mother, Anna, escaping her cold and unfaithful husband, a businessman who’s just launched his first campaign for political office. When Ned chases Anna and their six-year-old daughter from Alaska to Maine, the two go into hiding in a run-down motel on the coast. But the longer they stay, the less the guests in the dingy motel look like typical tourists―and the less Ned resembles a typical candidate. As his pursuit of Anna and their child moves from threatening to criminal, Ned begins to alter his wife’s world in ways she never could have imagined. A double-edged and satisfying story with a strong female protagonist, a thrilling plot, and a creeping sense of the apocalyptic, Sweet Lamb of Heaven builds to a shattering ending with profound implications for its characters―and for all of us.

Opening Lines:  When I insisted on keeping the baby, Ned threw his hands into the air palms-forward. He looked like a mime climbing a wall—one of the few times I’ve ever seen him look clumsy.

by Matthew Griffin

On the domestic flip side of Sweet Lamb of Heaven is this tender love story set in North Carolina just after World War Two between two men who are forced by society to literally hide their affection for each other. This novel slipped quietly onto my front porch, but I heard it and I’m paying attention when it whispers, “Read me.” Hide goes to the top of the stack.

Jacket Copy:  Set in a declining textile town in North Carolina, Hide is the love story of Wendell Wilson, a taxidermist, and Frank Clifton, a veteran of World War II. They meet after the war, in a time when such love holds real danger. But, severing nearly all ties with the rest of the world, they carve out a home for themselves on the outskirts of town and for decades the routine of self-reliant domesticity—Wendell’s cooking, Frank’s care for a yard no one sees, and the vicarious drama of courtroom TV—seems to protect them. But when Wendell finds Frank lying motionless outside at the age of eighty-three, their carefully crafted life together begins to unravel. As Frank’s physical strength deteriorates and his memory dissolves, Wendell struggles in vain to keep him healthy and to hold onto the man he once knew until, faced with giving care beyond his capacity, he must come to terms with the consequences of half a century in seclusion, the sacrifices they made for each other, and the different lives they might have lived—and most especially the impending, inexorable loss of the one they had. Impossibly tender, gently funny, and gorgeously rendered, Hide is a singularly powerful debut.

Opening Lines:  Lord knows how long he’s been lying out there: flat on his back in the middle of the vegetable garden. I see him through the smudged window over the kitchen sink as I’m carrying the groceries to the counter, the day burning bright all over him. I wasn’t gone but an hour. I set down my bags and hurry out the back door. I’ve got two more waiting in the car.
     “Frank,” I yell. “Are you all right?”
     He doesn’t say a word, not until I’m looming right over him, my shadow draped across his chest and following the wrinkles in his plaid shirt before falling flat onto the dirt. He looks up at me, not even squinting against the sun. Three or four of his tomato plants are crushed underneath him, their silver furred vines curled about his arms and knees like something that wants to pull him into the earth.

Blurbworthiness:  “Tough but compassionate and beautifully observed, Matthew Griffin’s debut novel is an unflinching look at the cost of isolation in an intolerant society and a moving story about the persistence of love.”  (Maggie Shipstead, author of Seating Arrangements)

Zero K
by Don DeLillo

Need I say any more than this: DeLillo, cryogenics, and “the mingled astonishments of our time, here, on earth”? Nope, I think that’s all I need to say.

Jacket Copy:  The wisest, richest, funniest, and most moving novel in years from Don DeLillo, one of the great American novelists of our time—an ode to language, at the heart of our humanity, a meditation on death, and an embrace of life. Jeffrey Lockhart’s father, Ross, is a billionaire in his sixties, with a younger wife, Artis Martineau, whose health is failing. Ross is the primary investor in a remote and secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise. Jeff joins Ross and Artis at the compound to say “an uncertain farewell” to her as she surrenders her body. “We are born without choosing to be. Should we have to die in the same manner? Isn’t it a human glory to refuse to accept a certain fate?” These are the questions that haunt the novel and its memorable characters, and it is Ross Lockhart, most particularly, who feels a deep need to enter another dimension and awake to a new world. For his son, this is indefensible. Jeff, the book’s narrator, is committed to living, to experiencing “the mingled astonishments of our time, here, on earth.” Don DeLillo’s seductive, spectacularly observed and brilliant new novel weighs the darkness of the world—terrorism, floods, fires, famine, plague—against the beauty and humanity of everyday life; love, awe, “the intimate touch of earth and sun.” Zero K is glorious.

Opening Lines:  Everybody wants to own the end of the world.
     This is what my father said, standing by the contoured windows in his New York office—private wealth management, dynasty trusts, emerging markets. We were sharing a rare point in time, contemplative, and the moment was made complete by his vintage sunglasses, bringing the night indoors. I studied the art in the room, variously abstract, and began to understand that the extended silence following his remark belonged to neither one of us. I thought of his wife, the second, the archaeologist, the one whose mind and failing body would soon begin to drift, on schedule, into the void.

Blurbworthiness:  “Lush in thought and feeling...Intently observant and obsessively concerned with language and meaning, Jeffery is a mesmerizing and disquieting narrator as he describes the “eerie and disembodying” ambiance of the Convergence and its ritualized, morally murky amalgam of mysticism and science, from the “post-mortem décor,” punctuated by unnerving sculptures and violent cinematic montages, to the sarcophagus-pods containing naked, cryopreserved voyagers to the unknown...DeLillo infuses the drama with metaphysical riddles: What of ourselves can actually be preserved? What will resurrection pilgrims experience in their cold limbo? With immortality reserved for the elite, what will become of the rest of humanity on our pillaged, bloodied, extinction-plagued planet? In this magnificently edgy and profoundly inquisitive tale, DeLillo reflects on what we remember and forget, what we treasure and destroy, and what we fail to do for each other and for life itself.”  (Booklist)

The Lost Time Accidents
by John Wray
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

John Wray might be one of the most unpredictable and, thus, most exciting novelists of our time. His debut, The Right Hand of Sleep, was set in Austria during a complex time between the two world wars; Canaan’s Tongue took a minor character from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (the “Redeemer”) and made him into a ferocious hell-fire preacher roaming the American South on the eve of the Civil War; and Lowboy (which I reviewed here) takes place almost entirely in the mind of a 16-year-old schizophrenic named Will who rides the subway and believes if he has sex often enough he’ll solve the problem of global warming. So, it’s with great curiosity and anticipation that I turn to The Lost Time Accidents, wondering what Wray will do next. There’s no telling.

Jacket Copy:  In his ambitious and fiercely inventive new novel, The Lost Time Accidents, John Wray takes us from turn-of-the-century Viennese salons buzzing with rumors about Einstein’s radical new theory to the death camps of World War Two, from the golden age of postwar pulp science fiction to a startling discovery in a Manhattan apartment packed to the ceiling with artifacts of modern life. Haunted by a failed love affair and the darkest of family secrets, Waldemar (Waldy) Tolliver wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from the flow of time. The world continues to turn, and Waldy is desperate to find his way back-a journey that forces him to reckon not only with the betrayal at the heart of his doomed romance but also the legacy of his great-grandfather’s fatal pursuit of the hidden nature of time itself. Part madcap adventure, part harrowing family drama, part scientific mystery--and never less than wildly entertaining—The Lost Time Accidents is a bold and epic saga set against the greatest upheavals of the twentieth century.

Opening Lines:  Dear Mrs. Haven—
     This morning, at 08:47 EST, I woke up to find myself excused from time.

Blurbworthiness:  “For a while now, John Wray has been writing as if let in on the secret history of the world, paying attention to moments we all know, but at the point where we’ve stopped looking. So of course only he would find the crazy quilt universe of sci-fi, war, mystery, doomed love and eerie foresight that was always lurking deep in the grand old novel in letters. This is literature as high wire act without the net; epic in scale, even bigger in heart.”  (Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings)

The Trouble with Lexie
by Jessica Anya Blau

Jessica Anya Blau doesn’t tiptoe into her novels, she smashes through the door with a battering ram, not even bothering to warn, “Police! Open up!” I mean, just look at the opening of Wonder Bread Summer. She does it again here in The Trouble With Lexie—those first lines are a startling door-kick—they shove the reader right into the flow of action. I want to read the next paragraph and the next and the next...

Jacket Copy:  From the beloved author of The Summer of Naked Swim Parties and The Wonder Bread Summer comes the jaw-dropping story of Lexie James, a counselor at an exclusive New England prep school, whose search for happiness lands her in unexpectedly wild trouble. Lexie James escaped: after being abandoned by her alcoholic father, and kicked out of the apartment to make room for her mother’s boyfriend, Lexie made it on her own. She earned a Masters degree, conquered terrifying panic attacks, got engaged to the nicest guy she’d ever met, and landed a counseling job at the prestigious Ruxton Academy, a prep school for the moneyed children of the elite. But as her wedding date nears, Lexie has doubts. Yes, she’s created the stable life she craved as a child, but is stability really what she wants? In her moment of indecision, Lexie strikes up a friendship with a Ruxton alumnus, the father of her favorite student. It’s a relationship that blows open Lexie’s carefully constructed life, and then dunks her into shocking situations with headline-worthy trouble. The perfect cocktail of naughtiness, heart, adventure and humor, The Trouble with Lexie is a wild and poignant story of the choices we make to outrun our childhoods—and the choices we have to make to outrun our entangled adult lives.

Opening Lines:  The problem wasn’t so much that Lexie had taken the Klonopin. And it wasn’t even that she had stolen them. At thirty generic pills for ten dollars, the theft of a handful (two down the gullet, the rest down her bra) had to be less bucks? The problem, as Lexie saw it, was that she had fallen asleep in the bed of the owner of the Klonopin. And the owner of the Klonopin was the wife of her lover.

Monday, February 15, 2016

My First Time: Travis Mulhauser

photo by Viki Redding
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 Travis Mulhauser, author of Sweetgirl, a novel that has been praised by Nickolas Butler (author of Shotgun Lovesongs) as an “upper-Midwestern homage to great American quest novels like True Grit and Winter’s Bone. It is a truly memorable and remarkable read.” Travis was born and raised in Northern Michigan, the insular and remote setting of the fictional Cutler County of the novel. He currently lives in Durham, North Carolina with his wife and two children, where he teaches at North Carolina State University. He earned his MFA from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.

My First Fiction Teacher

On the day of my high school graduation I sat on the curb outside my mom’s house, chain-smoking cigarettes and waiting for the school to call and tell me if I could walk that night and get my diploma. I can’t remember what class, specifically, was in question, but I was facing the horrifying prospect of summer school until my mom finally walked out onto the front porch late that afternoon.

“That was them,” she said. “You graduated.”

As you may have guessed, I wasn’t a particularly good high school student. I don’t know what my GPA was or what I scored on the ACT. I do remember riding the end of a mild mushroom trip while I took Michigan’s preferred college entrance exam, which may or may not have helped my score—but either way, I wasn’t being recruited for my academics—or anything else. I didn’t care because I didn’t want to go to college.

I moved out of my parent’s house and into an apartment—it was all of three blocks away—and got a job. I worked as a camp counselor in the summer, then worked retail, then quit retail, ran out of money, and had to move home by Christmas. My mom said fine, as long as I took at least two classes at the community college. The community college had to take anybody that applied, literally, and because she taught there I would receive my books and tuition for free.

Thus, I became a Fighting Ferret of North Central Michigan College. Over the course of four years at NCMC I would earn my two-year degree—I was working too, lest you judge too harshly—and, more importantly, I would discover that I wanted to be a writer. That discovery came, in no small part, because of James McCullough.

James was a fantastic writing teacher, which we’ll get to, but we should probably start with his psychology course, and how terribly I bombed it. I showed up late, or not at all, and was disengaged when I was there. I received a D for my final grade and when we met to discuss my performance in the exit exam I sighed, lamenting the fact that I had not lived up to my potential.

“Yeah, you did,” he said.

“I got a D,” I said.

“That’s because you’re a D student,” he said. “If you could have gotten a C, you would have.”

“No,” I said. “You know what I mean. I could have tried harder.”

“No, you couldn’t have.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Obviously, I could have.”

“Look,” he said. “If you were capable of putting in more effort, you would have.”

“That’s not true,” I said. “I totally slacked off.”

“I don’t even know what that means,” he said.

“It means I didn’t try my hardest.”

“I believe that you think that’s true,” he said. “But you put everything you had into this class, trust me.”

In my own personal mythology, that exit conference is my Dagobah. It’s some real bubbling swamp, Luke and Yoda shit. I would wager James doesn’t remember that particular talk, certainly not in such detail, but I’ll never forget how flattened I was when I realized that he was absolutely right. We are what we do, and there is no bigger, more damaging lie than potential. Talk about the white whale.

I still remember my first day in his English 101 course, largely because it was my first day of college. I sat in the back along a window that faced the parking lot and completed my first assignment on a piece of notebook paper. I handed it in to James and when he handed it back the next class with a nice comment or two I got the feeling that he genuinely liked what I wrote. As the semester wore on, I started to realize that I genuinely liked to write.

I went on to take all of James’s writing courses, and when I cashed those out I badgered him into giving me an independent study. It was extra work for him, but he did it, and it changed my life forever. Over the course of that semester I decided I wanted to be a fiction writer, a decision I announced to James with great fanfare and blustery pride—think blaring trumpets and banners unfurling—and he did the right thing and told me to slow my roll.

James always made me want to write more, and better—the only real measure of a writing teacher’s value—but this was not achieved through effusive praise, or an excess of kind notes in the margins. James was sharp and he was honest and sometimes his critiques stung a little bit. Like the story that came back with a single line scrawled across the top. I don’t know what the hell this is, it said.

He was right, of course. It was a terrible story and I knew better than to argue on its behalf.

James never blew smoke when it came to the prospects of a professional writing life. From the outset he told me that it was next to impossible to earn your living writing fiction, and that it certainly wouldn’t happen any time soon—that I would have to work other jobs, have other careers, and spend most of my free time slaving away at stories that there was no guarantee anybody would ever read, yet alone pay me for.

“Which isn’t to mention if you want to get married,” he would say. “Or have kids, for Christ’s sake.”

Sometimes I’d stagger out of his office feeling like I’d just been on an episode of “Scared Straight”—but for writers. You think you really want this, kid? Well, here’s what it’s going to look like!

He read my portfolio from our independent study closely and with far more attention and care than the work merited. When we met to discuss it—it was countless pages of computer-paper, hole-punched and clipped in a blue folder—he told me that a good portion of it was bullshit.

“Which is to be expected,” he said. “They’re early drafts. But I will say that in almost everything you write there’s at least one sentence that makes me stop. That jumps out because it’s your own, and because it says something.”

I lived on that compliment for a long time. I still go back to it.

My last semester at NCMC I sent him a story I’d been working on. There were no more classes of his that I could take and I was about to graduate and move on to Central Michigan University—and more incredible writing teachers. He read the story and then called me on the phone.

I was living in the upstairs flat of a townhouse apartment and it was sometime in the spring. There was snow piled along the curb and it was a bright morning and I was in the living room looking out on the street when James told me that I had written a very good story.

“I mean, it’s like an actual story,” he said. “Its something you would read in a magazine, or a journal. I gave it to Richard Hruska, he agrees.”

Richard Hruska was another English teacher at the college. I’d never had him for a teacher, had never even spoken to him, which granted his opinion significant weight.

“Really?” I said.

I ended up entering the story in a contest, won the small cash prize, got my picture in the newspaper, and when I published my first book a few years later, a heavily revised version of that same story wound up as part of the collection.

But that’s not the important part. The important part is the jubilation I felt after I hung up the phone. The racing heart and the euphoria. The truth is, I yelled “fuck yes” and pounded my chest. I threw a pillow across the room, then spiked it violently to the floor—Gronkowski style. I called out my haters by name. I made a series of inappropriate gestures. I did my touchdown dance—one that would demand to be flagged for its excessive and unsportsmanlike nature.

It’s the same dance I do every time something big happens. Like when I got my fantastic agent, Susan Ramer, or landed Sweetgirl with Megan Lynch and Ecco/Harper Collins—a literal dream come true.

I celebrate those victories, every one of them. These days, the kids join in, too—we all run around screaming and beating our chests and I try not to swear too much. But I always do. I go on and on until my wife, my significantly better half, yells my name. Shouts, “Honey, the kids!”

I’ll slow down then, but still have a fist pump or two left in me. The thing is, James told me exactly how hard those moments would be to come by. Lucky for me, I believed every word he said.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

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

      Of the love-making of Carol and Will Kennicott there is nothing to be told which may not be heard on every summer evening, on every shadowy block.
      They were biology and mystery.

Main Street by Sinclair Lewis

Friday, February 12, 2016

Friday Freebie: Tightrope by Simon Mawer, Broken Sleep by Bruce Bauman, Lay Down Your Weary Tune by W. B. Belcher, and The Butcher’s Trail by Julian Borger

Congratulations to Jane Rainey and James Brundage, winners of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Casualties by Elizabeth Marro.

This week, I’m giving away a quartet of recent releases published by Other Press: Tightrope by Simon Mawer, Broken Sleep by Bruce Bauman, Lay Down Your Weary Tune by W. B. Belcher, and The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt by Julian Borger. The Butcher’s Trail is a hardcover, the other three are trade paperbacks. Read on for more information about the books...

Tightrope is an historical thriller that brings back Marian Sutro, ex-Special Operations agent, and traces her romantic and political exploits in post-World War II London, where the Cold War is about to reshape old loyalties. As Allied forces close in on Berlin in spring 1945, a solitary figure emerges from the wreckage that is Germany. It is Marian Sutro, whose existence was last known to her British controllers in autumn 1943 in Paris. One of a handful of surviving agents of the Special Operations Executive, she has withstood arrest, interrogation, incarceration, and the horrors of Ravensbrück concentration camp, but at what cost? Returned to an England she barely knows and a postwar world she doesn’t understand, Marian searches for something on which to ground the rest of her life. Family and friends surround her, but she is haunted by her experiences and by the guilt of knowing that her contribution to the war effort helped lead to the monstrosities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When the mysterious Major Fawley, the man who hijacked her wartime mission to Paris, emerges from the shadows to draw her into the ambiguities and uncertainties of the Cold War, she sees a way to make amends for the past and at the same time to find the identity that has never been hers. A novel of divided loyalties and mixed motives, Tightrope is the complex and enigmatic story of a woman whose search for personal identity and fulfillment leads her to shocking choices.

Spanning 1940s to 2020s America, Broken Sleep is a Pynchon-esque saga about rock music, art, politics, and the elusive nature of love. Meet everyman Moses Teumer, whose recent diagnosis of an aggressive form of leukemia has sent him in search of a donor. When he discovers that the woman who raised him is not his biological mother, he must hunt down his birth parents and unspool the intertwined destinies of the Teumer and Savant families. Salome Savant, Moses’s birth mother, is an avant-garde artist who has spent her life in and out of a mental health facility. Her son and Moses’s half-brother, Alchemy Savant, the mercurial front man of the world-renowned rock band The Insatiables, abandons music to launch a political campaign to revolutionize 2020s America. And then there’s Ambitious Mindswallow, aka Ricky McFinn, who journeys from juvenile delinquency in Queens to being The Insatiables’ bassist and Alchemy’s Sancho Panza. Author Bruce Bauman skillfully weaves the threads that intertwine these characters and the histories that divide them, creating a postmodern vision of America that is at once sweeping, irreverent, and heartbreaking.

In the novel Lay Down Your Weary Tune, a ghostwriter of the memoirs of a reclusive folk music icon—part Woody Guthrie, part Bob Dylan—attempts to glean fact from fiction, only to discover the deeper he digs into the musician’s past, the more his own past rises to the surface. Despite his fame, Eli Page is a riddle wrapped in a myth, inside decades of mask-making. His past is so shrouded in gossip and half-truths that no one knows who he is behind the act. Jack Wyeth, a budding writer, joins Eli in Galesville, a small town on the border of New York and Vermont, only to learn that the musician’s mind is failing. As he scrambles to uncover the truth, Jack is forced to confront his own past, his own hang-ups, and his own fears. At the same time, he falls for a local artist who has secrets of her own, he becomes linked to a town controversy, and he struggles to let go of his childhood idols and bridge the divide between myth and reality. Set against a folk Americana aesthetic, Lay Down Your Weary Tune is an emotionally charged exploration of myth-making, desire, and regret, and the inescapable bond between the past and present.

Written with a thrilling narrative pull, The Butcher’s Trail chronicles the pursuit and capture of the Balkan war criminals indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. Borger recounts how Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić were finally tracked down, and describes the intrigue behind the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president who became the first head of state to stand before an international tribunal for crimes perpetrated in a time of war. Based on interviews with former special forces soldiers, intelligence officials, and investigators from a dozen countries—most speaking about their involvement for the first time—this book reconstructs a fourteen-year manhunt carried out almost entirely in secret. Indicting the worst war criminals that Europe had known since the Nazi era, the ICTY ultimately accounted for all 161 suspects on its wanted list, a feat never before achieved in political and military history.

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

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Feb. 18, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 19.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ditch-Digging and Bricklaying: Sinclair Lewis on Main Street

Last night, as part of my five-year plan to read the Essentials, I started Main Street, Sinclair Lewis’ 1920 satire of small-town life in the Midwest. I didn’t get too far before I bonded with the author’s irascibility.

In 1937, his publisher asked him to write a new introduction to the book and Lewis reluctantly complied:
I must, says the publisher of this edition of Main Street, write an introduction; and what, he suggests, with the blandness characteristic of all publishers urging slothful writers to their task, would I like to say about the opus? What would I like to say? Nothing whatever! To me (and I think to most writers) there is no conceivable subject so uninteresting as one’s own book, after you have finished the year of ditch-digging and bricklaying, read the proofs with the incessant irritation of realizing how much better you might have said this or that if you had had another year, then fretted over the reviewsequally over those in which you are hoisted to the elevation of world master, and those in which you are disclosed as a hypocritical illiterate.
So true, so true. We write our books, we wish them well, but then we give them only occasional glances in the rear-view mirror as they shrink to the size of dots in the terrain behind us. We press our foot to the accelerator, speeding toward the next thing, hoping to outrun the books behind us.

Or maybe that’s just me.