Sunday, March 27, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Daredevils by Shawn Vestal

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

At Wembley, every moment of the crash announces itself. Every altered atom in our body, each as it altered, a cracking network of breakage running through us, and every instant palpable. We land on our right shoulder, pulverizing the humerus and clavicle and driving one large crack through the scapula and two vertebrae, and then all the way down the right side of us by degree, crushing and chipping and fracturing, ribs, sternum, pelvis, femur, tibia, fibula, rolling over onto our back and sliding, sliding across the ramp and then the earth, chipping the spinous process here, the transverse process there, finely cracking the facet joints and the vertebral body but somehow not breaching the spinal canal, America, the magic of the thing, our majesty and life, protected. We roll, grinding across the asphalt covered with turf that buckles and bundles under us, and the breakage spreads to the other side of us, and the bike, that heavy fucker, the Harley XR750, lands on us, breaking our legs in seven places, our old friends fibula, tibia, femur, and when we grind to a stop, we feel like a receptacle of glittering, broken glass, like a deerskin bag full of coins.

Evel Knievel Addresses an Adoring Nation
from Daredevils by Shawn Vestal

Friday, March 25, 2016

Friday Freebie: Perfect Days by Raphael Montes

Congratulations to Martha Gifford, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo by Boris Fishman.

This week’s book giveaway is Perfect Days by Raphael Montes. You can see a trailer for the book here. Keep reading for more information about Perfect Days...

A twisted young medical student kidnaps the girl of his dreams and embarks on a dark and delirious road trip across Brazil in the English-language debut of Brazil’s most celebrated young crime writer. Teo Avelar is a loner. He lives with his paraplegic mother and her dog in Rio de Janeiro, he doesn’t have many friends, and the only time he feels honest human emotion is in the presence of his medical school cadaver—that is, until he meets Clarice. She’s almost his exact opposite: exotic, spontaneous, unafraid to speak her mind. An aspiring screenwriter, she’s working on a screenplay called Perfect Days about three friends who go on a road trip across Brazil in search of romance. Teo is obsessed. He begins to stalk her, first following her to her university, then to her home, and when she ultimately rejects him, he kidnaps her and they embark upon their very own twisted odyssey across Brazil, tracing the same route outlined in her screenplay. Through it all, Teo is certain that time is all he needs to prove to Clarice that they are made for each other, that time is all he needs to make her fall in love with him. But as the journey progresses, he digs himself deeper and deeper into a pit that he can’t get out of, stopping at nothing to ensure that no one gets in the way of their life together. Both tense and lurid, and brimming with suspense from the very first page, Perfect Days is a psychological thriller in the vein of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley—a chilling journey in the passenger seat with a psychopath, and the English language debut of one of Brazil’s most deliciously dark young writers.

If you’d like a chance at winning a hardcover copy of Perfect Days, 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 31, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on April 1.  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 21, 2016

My First Time: Chris Bachelder

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 Chris Bachelder, author of the novels Abbot Awaits, U.S.!, Bear v. Shark, and most recently The Throwback Special. He is also the winner of The Paris Review’s Terry Southern Prize for Humor. His short fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s, The Believer, Harper’s, and The Paris Review. He teaches at the University of Cincinnati.

My First Lesson in Conviction

In the fall of 2001, during my second and final year in the MFA program at the University of Florida, I took a fiction workshop with Padgett Powell. This was a big deal, submitting my work to a writer who was so significant to me. Powell was not just the reason I was in Florida, he was also, more than any other person, the reason I was writing fiction at all.

Five years earlier, I had been a PhD student in English (but not in writing) in North Carolina. At that point, I had written very little fiction, and while I had vague yearnings to make something, something maybe bright and durable, I had no conscious or sustained ambition of being a writer. I was, perhaps without even realizing it, on the brink of disaffection—both with the degree and with the drift of my life more generally. At the beginning of the semester, a strange dude in the MFA program forced a copy of Powell’s Typical on me and said Powell was coming to read later in the fall.

I can’t imagine why I read the book—I certainly had plenty of other things to read—but I did read it, and I was astonished and exhilarated by the energy, the excess, the wit, the precision, the syntactic control, and the hilarious combination of a high, formal, literary register with gloriously low people, diction, and premise.

I had never seen someone wield language like this, with such a profound respect for the liberating and generative constraints of syntax, with such disdain for conventional phrasing, with such solemn skylarking. I began to see how style becomes a subject. Mostly, though, I was just excited, and post-adolescent excitement is a gift of some value.

Then, in October, Powell read on campus. He read from the story “All Along the Watchtower” in his new collection Aliens of Affection. In that very funny and urgent story about love and longing there is, yes, a “giant spoilbank of broken hearts.” (I see now that a 1996 reviewer for Library Journal, unfortunately reinforcing cruel librarian stereotypes, warns that Powell “is at times excessive.”) And Powell knew how to read his own work—with a restraint that accentuated both the humor and the pathos. My head, my plans, got rearranged. I began, at this very point, modestly at first but then with increasing urgency, to harbor literary aspirations, if only to try to do what Powell was doing, to get in on the excitement. That night I bought his books, got them signed. Beneath his name he wrote “October 1996 Greensboro” so I’ll always remember when and where this occurred.

It took me a couple more years to detonate my life and start over. I quit the graduate program, picked up odd jobs, and called my own bluff about my ambition to write. All during this time, I hoped eventually to go to a writing program, and I knew exactly where I wanted to go.

* * * * *

Padgett Powell
The first story I submitted in Powell’s workshop was called “Clemency.” The title was the best part of the draft. I wrote it the week after we read, out loud in class, Barry Hannah’s “Constant Pain in Tuscaloosa.” I still have my story somewhere but I refuse to look for it. As far as I remember, it was about a guy who was looking for another guy named Monroe so he could, I think, inflict some harm on him. There was, almost certainly, a lady in there too, with all the concomitant troubles that a lady will cause. Antic is, I believe, a way to describe the proceedings. Zany another. Glib would fit. There was not, in this story, a root system, a depth of commitment. Powell’s end comments on my story were written in pencil and they were numbered one to ten, as follows:

1. Hmmm.
2. Well.
3. Pretty good.
4. I don’t know.

(I’ll pause here to say that major pedagogical work had already been done at this point, and in just seven words.)

5. I’m getting a “Tuscaloosa” vibe here, big time.
6. Is it possible you got half of something here, but not yet the original other half?
7. That reservation might just be me.
8. Has hero actually beat Monroe up?

(By now it had been communicated to me that the story feels like an imitation, that the action of the story is not clear, and that, most troublingly, something is just not quite right. As a teacher of writing for the past fifteen years, I’ve learned that you almost always begin with this vague sense, then you grope inelegantly toward diagnosis. “Is it possible you got . . . ?” )

9. This thing does what this kind of thing is supposed to do, and I suppose that is what is preventing my applauding it.

(I have come to love this formulation, which seems at first glance so counterintuitive. One might think that a writer’s job is to get the piece to do what the piece is supposed to do, but that is wrong. That is exactly wrong. In class, Powell would occasionally say of a piece that it was “executed to conception.” This was not a compliment.)

10. Are you applauding it?

I offer this up as remarkable teaching disguised as careless teaching. You won’t find more effective “creative writing pedagogy,” even in expensive textbooks or at conference panels. I’ve written a lot of lengthy workshop letters, and it pains me to consider that in all likelihood not one has done for a student what this tidy list did for me. All his early hemming and hawing was a setup for a final blunt turn toward the writer: Are you applauding it?

The truth, of course, is that I wasn’t applauding it. And Powell’s point is not simply that one should applaud one’s one work, or that approving of one’s own work is linked to its quality. Self-applause is certainly not the lesson here. The lesson is about conviction, investment, ambition. His final question means, “Do you stand behind this?” And, “Does this story adequately represent the aims of fiction?” And, “Does this story matter to you?” My eight-year-old daughter has school assignments for which she must check a box – or not – that says, “I tried my best.” Powell was giving me the grad school version of that box, and I could not in all honesty check it.

A sense of whimsy and exploration and even imitation is particularly important during an apprenticeship, and playfulness in writing is vital. In fact, I’m sure Powell would say, as I would, that a sense of play is essential to good writing. But playful is not synonymous with wacky or frivolous. Johan Huizinga, a Dutch cultural historian and the author of Homo Ludens, spent a lot of time thinking about human play. He concluded that it is a grave and holy and sober business. “We are accustomed to think of play and seriousness as an absolute antithesis,” he wrote. “It would seem, however, that this does not go to the heart of the matter.”

Powell, though, went to the heart of the matter. It’s a lesson I carry around. If you don’t mean it, if you’re only trying to get the piece to do what it’s supposed to do, then you’re only writing for workshop, for deadline. You’re only trying to impress someone, maybe a teacher or a handsome classmate. You’re only writing for publication or adulation. You’re only writing for your cv, for a job, for tenure, for promotion, for money. You’re only writing tautologically, because you’re a writer. You’re only typing, and that’s not good enough.

Chris Bachelder photo by Jennifer Habel

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Sunday Sentence: By the Iowa Sea by Joe Blair

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

To the question, “If you had (you name an amount of time) left on this earth, what would you do?” I would answer, “It doesn’t matter. In the end, it will be too late for this question.”

Friday, March 18, 2016

Friday Freebie: Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo by Boris Fishman

Congratulations to Melissa Seng, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Liar: A Memoir by Rob Roberge, UnSlut: A Diary and a Memoir by Emily Lindin, Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre by James F. Brooks, Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation by Dean Jobb, Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson, and Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World by Laura Barcella.

This week’s book giveaway is the new novel by Boris Fishman, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo. Read on for more information about the book...

The author of the critically admired, award-winning A Replacement Life turns to a different kind of story—an evocative, nuanced portrait of marriage and family, a woman reckoning with what she’s given up to make both work, and the universal question of how we reconcile who we are and whom the world wants us to be. Maya Shulman and Alex Rubin met in 1992, when she was a Ukrainian exchange student with “a devil in [her] head” about becoming a chef instead of a medical worker and Alex was the coddled son of Russian immigrants wanting to toe the water of a less predictable life. Twenty years later, Maya Rubin is a medical worker in suburban New Jersey, and Alex is his father’s second in the family business. The great dislocation of their lives is their eight-year-old son Max—adopted from two teenagers in Montana despite Alex’s view that “adopted children are second-class.” At once a salvation and a mystery to his parents—with whom Max’s biological mother left the child with the cryptic exhortation “don’t let my baby do rodeo”—Max suddenly turns feral, consorting with wild animals, eating grass, and running away to sit face down in a river. Searching for answers, Maya convinces Alex to embark on a cross-country trip to Montana to track down Max’s birth parents—the first drive west of New Jersey of their American lives. But it’s Maya who’s illuminated by the journey, her own erstwhile wildness summoned for a reckoning by the unsparing landscape, with seismic consequences for herself and her family. Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo is a novel about the mystery of inheritance and what exactly it means to belong.

If you’d like a chance at winning a hardcover copy of Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo, 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 24, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 25.  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.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

14 Notes to Myself Prior to Entering the Cave of Rewrite

1.  You are about to enter a hole in your imagination. It is cold and it is very dark. Do not be frightened. Take a moment to let your eyes adjust, then walk forward into the black unknown.

2.  There is only one way in (starting the rewrite) and one way out (the finished draft). Do not stop until you’ve groped your way back to the light.

3.  Your manuscript currently stands at 52,000 words. You must read each and every one of those words, weigh their merits, and decide their fate: go free or bow before the guillotine.

4.  Kill your darlings. Feel no guilt.

5.  You can do this. You have planned for this time. You have worked on the manuscript, this novel and these characters for nearly three years. You have created, you have destroyed, you have molded, you have smashed, you have plumped and fluffed, you have gouged. It is about time you were done with this book. You cannot wait to send this book out into the world. But you must wait. This book of yours is not quite ready. In this ink-black cave, you must locate its heart and squeeze…squeeze…squeeze until it beats to your rhythm. Then and only then, it might be ready. Might, maybe, perhaps.

6.  Embrace this time. You have taken leave from the Day Job in order to do this work. This is serious stuff. You hoard your leave days like they were a measured number of breaths left in your oxygen tank. You save your time off for when you’ll really need it: your daughter’s wedding in May, and that someday-we’ll-honest-to-God-do-it trip to Italy with your wife. Do not waste this week. Embrace these hours like they were a lover you want to take to bed.

7.  Banish doubt. Forbid the following phrases to play on a rewind loop in your head: “sophomore novel curse,” “nice try, no cigar,” and “we waited five years for this?” This book will be nothing like the first one you published, and that’s okay. Artists change, evolve, improve.

8.  And if this one sucks, then you just try again with the next book. Fail better.

9.  Go deaf and blind to distractions: the internet, that painful cut on your thumb swaddled in Band-Aids, your wife clattering dishes downstairs, cats leaping into your lap, the internet, the thoroughly-engrossing book you’re halfway through reading, birdsong outside your window, the internet, something somebody said to you two weeks ago which now pops back into your brain, thirst, hunger, that bottle of wine chilling in the refrigerator, your bladder, the internet, the internet, the internet.

10.  The title of your novel is Braver Deeds. Let that serve as a motto for this revision process.

11.  Do not look down. You’re at a high enough elevation from the page to get that ticklish, heebie-jeebie feeling in your gut. Keep staring straight ahead toward the next sentence.

12.  But if you do look down, imagine you are a farmer and this page is a field. Your pen is a plow sinking into the soil, dark as coffee grounds, cutting a wake through the sentences. Watch the earth curl away from the plow-blade; if you see a rock boil up from below, stop and put it in your pocket; it could turn out to be a gem.

13.  Remember why you started this book three years ago: you cared about these characters. Do not let them down.

14.  It’s hard to see in this cave—you are afraid of tripping, tumbling into a chasm—but march forward, brother, march forward. There is a light ahead. It’s just a pinprick now, but it will grow bigger. Keep walking toward it.

Trailer Park Tuesday: 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad

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

Today, I give you two ways of looking at Mona Awad. In the first trailer, the author of the new novel 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl goes undercover at one of America’s best independent bookstores, Tattered Cover in Denver. There, posing as three different booksellers, her mission is to find the perfect book for befuddled bookstore browsers. It’s no spoiler to say that of course the “perfect” book turns out to be Awad’s debut novel in each case. Sure, it’s predictable and has as much cheddar as a bag of Cheet-os, but I’ve watched the video four times now and I always end up with a smile on my face because Awad is so danged charming and witty. It certainly makes me want to put 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl at the top of my To-Be-Read listwhich, of course, is the goal of every book trailer, amiright?

The second video is just as warm and inviting as Awad introduces herself to librarians. Filmed for the Early Word website, this short trailer begins with the author (playing herself this time) recommending three of her own favorite reads: The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, The Torn Skirt by Rebecca Godfrey, and the novels of Jean Rhys. If nothing else, Awad sent me scurrying to my own shelves to hunt down a copy of Wide Sargasso Sea. As of this date, it is unread. Thanks to Awad’s nudge, I will change that soon...after I read 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girlwhich Awad also talks about at the end of this video. The book, she explains, “is about loneliness, loss, friendship. It’s kind of a coming-of-age book in some ways, and it’s especially about the act of looking at someone and the experience of being looked at, and just how much that can affect the way we see ourselves and the way that we are in the world.”

Still need more convincing to pick up a copy of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl? Not too long ago, Electric Literature posted one of the stories, which you can read for free at their website. It was introduced by Laura van den Berg who said, “The story doesn’t let up. It keeps pushing its narrator, and thus the reader, into increasingly dark and thorny and risky territory.” Come join me: let’s go exploring.

Monday, March 14, 2016

My First Time: Matthew J. Hefti

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 Matthew J. Hefti, author of A Hard And Heavy Thing, a novel of love and redemption (and one which I particularly happen to love, calling it “brilliantly-observed and exquisitely-paced”). Audible recently purchased the rights to A Hard and Heavy Thing and it will soon be recording an audiobook. As a member of the armed forces, Matthew spent 12 years as an explosive ordnance disposal technician. He deployed twice to Iraq and twice to Afghanistan, once to Iraq as an EOD team member and the remaining three tours as an EOD team leader. While enlisted, he earned a BA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing. Matthew currently attends the University of Wisconsin Law School, where he is a member of both the Wisconsin Innocence Project and the Criminal Appeals Project. He writes and edits regularly with fellow veteran authors Mike Carson, David James, and Adrian Bonenberger at You can follow him on Twitter at @TheRealHefti.

My First Hard and Heavy Review

On some level, we novelists are all trying to write scripture. Whether we recognize it or not, we want to redeem—and as readers, we want to be redeemed. This created world we each envision in our own imagination burns inside of us, and we want to get it out, to give it to others, to make it perfect. We write and rewrite and rewrite and edit and tinker and pick and fret because we want it to be right. We want it to be good. We want to harness the power of the gospel. We want our words to be downright holy.

For me, no memories exist before my dreams of becoming a writer. To see from the eyes of another, to live in the world of another, to feel from the heart of another, to gain insight, understanding, and redemption—this is why a novelist lives, and this is why a reader reads. Fiction can serve as a bridge: often the only way that an insulated white boy out in the country can glimpse what it is to be a poor black boy in Chicago; for a poor black boy in Chicago to experience the life of a partner at a major law firm; for an oppressed woman under an oppressive regime to imagine the privilege provided by an Ivy League education; for a battered young girl in Afghanistan to see a world of hope outside her mud walls.

I gave the first story I ever wrote to my dad as a gift for Father’s Day. Written in careful block letters, it told the story of a young boy who ruins his dad’s chair, and as punishment, he must stay home from vacation while the rest of the family goes to the Wild West for vacation. While on vacation, the rest of the family rides off a cliff in a stagecoach. I suppose even as a child I was drawn to melodrama, even if the melodrama was drawn with crayon.

But now I am 33 years old. I can no longer make light of tragedy like a child with a crayon. I married young and have painfully loved one woman for 13 years as the work I proudly did in uniform took me from her for years of our young life together. I have held her when we’ve lost the life that grew inside her. I have fought for her just as I fought enemies on foreign soil. We battled to grow up together when the world makes it so easy to grow apart.

I have been to combat four times. I have scraped up the remains of my comrades from sticky roads in distant lands. I have lost some of my closest friends in a sickening instant of fire and blast. I have had other fine young men die in front of me or with my hands in their gaping chest wounds. I have watched those closest to me endure the greatest tests I can imagine. I have endured my own trials, as we all have in one way or another.

Yet, I have also soared on wings as eagles. I married young and have ferociously loved one woman for 13 years, knowing that no person on this earth has ever known me like she does, and it is a beautiful thing to be known. I have watched her swell as the life we made together grew inside her, and I have watched the births of our three daughters. I have watched these girls grow and I don’t know that my heart could be fuller than it is when I watch them all tumble around on the floor of our modest townhome. My overwhelmed heart could burst like so many bombs on the side of the road.

But joys or pain, boy or man—I still have dreams. I dream to be a novelist. I dream to take what’s inside of me and transcribe it in a way that makes it valuable, that makes it reach inside of others. I dream to take all those joys, all those pains, all those sorrows, and all those questions and make something meaningful from them.

This past year, everything I dreamed came true. I sold my first novel. Right before Christmas I held the printed copy in my hand, amazed that this bit of wood pulp and ink was real. The effusive praise on the back from other writers I admire and the starred reviews from places like Booklist validated that reality. Dreams, they do come true.

I got a text from my editor telling me the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel would be doing a full review of the book. I could not have been more thrilled. After all, my book was set in Wisconsin and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is the largest newspaper in the state. Surely this was a good thing.

In the same way our dreams often do, life can quickly turn to nightmares. The next text I got from my editor was a link to the review. After twelve years taking apart roadside bombs and fighting terrorists, I no longer have much of a flight response, but the familiar rush of adrenaline from the fight response coursed through me as I first read the review. A powerful and wealthy man thought it a worthy use of his time to write a review of a novel he didn’t even like. That review panned the book it took me six years to write.

As I tirelessly work and forgo sleep to keep food on the table for my kids while I struggle through school to make a new life for our family after four combat tours and a decade in service, this critic thought it was important to warn anyone reading the newspaper against buying the book I wrote, a book published by a small press that began right here in our state.

Unfortunately, if books are simply ignored by critics, the books and authors often go away. The harsh reality known by people who actually write literature rather than tear it down is that people don’t need to be warned against buying novels. This is especially true of serious literature published by small presses such as the one that published A Hard and Heavy Thing. Publishers are already risk averse and every unknown artist that fails to turn a profit for the publisher that did take a risk will need a miracle to sell the next title. So a negative review in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for a dense work of metafiction set in Wisconsin printed by a small press from Wisconsin does nothing but compound an already serious problem in literature.

To make matters even worse, of all the reviews available—every other review being positively glowing—every major newspaper in the country that printed a review picked up the review from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the one written by the powerful and wealthy man with nothing better to do than actively try to sabotage the career of a struggling debut novelist. Why the critic did not just ignore the book after learning it wasn’t for him, I cannot say.

However, in revisiting some of his comments now that my initial impression has passed, I cannot help but laugh out loud as I read what he wrote. That he believes A Hard and Heavy Thing “unwittingly” describes the experience of reading A Hard and Heavy Thing simply belies any claim that the critic could have carefully considered the book, which was quite wittingly written and marketed as a work of self-referential metafiction. That nearly every chapter title and ironic literary discussion in A Hard and Heavy Thing flew over the critic’s head or under his radar simply evinces the point made by one of the characters in the book. Near the end of A Hard and Heavy Thing, when Nick tries to urge Levi to write the book Levi had always wanted to write, he sounds downright prophetic in saying, “Forget about the critics. They want books written by a god they don’t believe in.”

That isn’t to say my novel is the paragon of originality. Perhaps the critic is right that my book is more of the same. Sure, perhaps I should have broken more rules. And how ignorant am I that I didn’t even know there were rules to break when creating art? Earnest and overworked. That one I can probably agree with. Overwrought. Probably. There certainly was a lot of beating this thing into shape, and I was unsure of the line between wrought and overwrought. These artistic choices can be complicated, especially when the author is unaware there are rules to writing stories.

Here is the link to the review: Debut Novel Questions Whether Soldiers Ever Truly Come Home. I am not ashamed to share the link, because I am not ashamed of the book. A Hard and Heavy Thing is a book I would want to read. All art doesn’t resonate in the same way with all people, so I bear no ill will to the reviewer simply for not caring for the book. Literature is subjective; reasonable people disagree. And I am not ashamed to share the link, because it is of such great value. It is such a great reminder to me of what I am and what I am not.

What I am is a father, a husband, a brother, and a son. I’m an advocate and a friend—someone who holds the hand of the wrongfully convicted and spends sleepless nights working for no pay on their behalf. I’m a guy who plunks away on a typewriter in my basement, surrounded by books and boxes that—except for the books—remain unpacked from the last three times my family picked up and moved. I’m a guy who loves the breaks I get when I’m frequently visited by little girls who come in from playing with their friends to see what daddy’s working on. I’m a guy who has difficulty staying organized and even more difficulty being on time. I’m a guy who still doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up, but I am a guy who wakes up every morning wanting to make a difference.

What I am not is special or righteous. I’m no sage, no great prophet. My words are not holy. My book is not scripture. In reality, I’m just a guy whose dreams outsize his pragmatism. I’m a guy with more faults than I can count. I’m a guy who—just like everyone else—can’t make it on my own. And being reminded of that by the critics of the world—well that’s an incredible gift. I can’t be more blessed than to be reminded of how fallible I am. It is good that the harsh voices in the world are willing to whisper in my ear during my time of triumph, “Remember you are just a man. You are just a man. And you are mortal.”

It is a gift because it is only in abjection that we can possibly find redemption. Because it is then—when I remember that from dust I came and to dust I will return—that I remember that I am broken. I am imperfect. And when I remember my own decrepitude, I remember that I don’t write scripture. I remember that the words I write are not holy, and they never will be. But I also remember that some words are holy, and that I am indeed redeemed.

The harsh criticism of my first negative review (an inevitability for any published novelist) reminds me that the “impossibly good” Nick in my book aspires to be like one who was impossibly good in the way that that only God himself could have been. That is, God made man, who walked around in dusty sandals and said, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” God made man, who did what I can only feebly attempt to do with my pens and notebooks and novels; he actually put himself in our shoes and lived the life of another, doing it for me and all who are far off. And in that, all my rags turn to riches, my overwrought prose turns to poetry, and my hard and heavy things concern me no more.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Dead Man’s Float by Jim Harrison

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary. Note: I’m going to cheat this week with extra sentences because I couldn’t pick just one from Jim Harrison’s terrific new collection of poetry. The sentences come from “Solstice Litany,” “Zona,” and “Easter Again,” respectively.

of birds die but we never see it—they like
privacy in this holy, fatal moment or so
I think. We can’t tell each other when we die.

Time rushes toward me—
it has no brakes.

Christ rose so long ago but the air
he rose through hasn’t forgotten
the slight red contrail from the wounds.

Dead Man’s Float by Jim Harrison

Friday, March 11, 2016

Friday Freebie: Liar by Rob Roberge, Unslut by Emily Lindin, Mesa of Sorrows by James F. Brooks, Empire of Deception by Dean Jobb, Lives in Ruins by Marilyn Johnson, and Fight Like a Girl by Laura Barcella

Congratulations to Lisa Murray, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Miracle Girl by Andrew Roe.

This week’s book giveaway is a grab-bag of recent non-fiction titles: Liar: A Memoir by Rob Roberge, UnSlut: A Diary and a Memoir by Emily Lindin, Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat'ovi Massacre by James F. Brooks, Empire of Deception: The Incredible Story of a Master Swindler Who Seduced a City and Captivated the Nation by Dean Jobb, Lives in Ruins: Archaeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble by Marilyn Johnson, and Fight Like a Girl: 50 Feminists Who Changed the World by Laura Barcella. Liar, Unslut, and Mesa of Sorrows are hardcovers, the rest are trade paperback editions. Read on for more details about the books...

When Rob Roberge learns that he's likely to have developed a progressive memory-eroding disease from years of hard living and frequent concussions, he is terrified by the prospect of becoming a walking shadow. In a desperate attempt to preserve his identity, he sets out to (somewhat faithfully) record the most formative moments of his life—ranging from the brutal murder of his childhood girlfriend, to a diagnosis of rapid-cycling bipolar disorder, to opening for famed indie band Yo La Tengo at The Fillmore in San Francisco. But the process of trying to remember his past only exposes just how fragile the stories that lay at the heart of our self-conception really are. As Liar twists and turns through Roberge’s life, it turns the familiar story of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll on its head. Darkly funny and brutally frank, it offers a remarkable portrait of a down and out existence cobbled together across the country, from musicians’ crashpads around Boston, to seedy bars popular with sideshow freaks in Florida, to a painful moment of reckoning in the scorched Wonder Valley desert of California. As Roberge struggles to keep addiction and mental illness from destroying the good life he has built in his better moments, he is forced to acknowledge the increasingly blurred line between the lies we tell others and the lies we tell ourselves.

When Emily Lindin was eleven years old, she was branded a “slut” by the rest of her classmates. For the next few years of her life, she was bullied incessantly at school, after school, and online. At the time, Emily didn't feel comfortable confiding in her parents or in the other adults her my life. But she did keep a diary. UnSlut is adapted from Emily’s much-acclaimed blog “The UnSlut Project” presenting unaltered excerpts from that diary alongside split-page commentary to provide context and perspective.

The Hopi community of Awat’ovi existed peacefully on Arizona’s Antelope Mesa for generations until one bleak morning in the fall of 1700―raiders from nearby Hopi villages descended on Awat’ovi, slaughtering their neighboring men, women, and children. While little of the pueblo itself remains, five centuries of history lie beneath the low rises of sandstone masonry, and theories about the events of that night are as persistent as the desert winds. The easternmost town on Antelope Mesa, Awat’ovi was renowned for its martial strength, and had been the gateway to the entire Hopi landscape for centuries. Why did kinsmen target it for destruction? Drawing on oral traditions, archival accounts, and extensive archaeological research, James Brooks unravels the story and its significance. Mesa of Sorrows follows the pattern of an archaeological expedition, uncovering layer after layer of evidence and theories. Brooks questions their reliability and shows how interpretations were shaped by academic, religious and tribal politics. Piecing together three centuries of investigation, he offers insight into why some were spared―women, mostly, and taken captive―and others sacrificed. He weighs theories that the attack was in retribution for Awat’ovi having welcomed Franciscan missionaries or for the residents’ practice of sorcery, and argues that a perfect storm of internal and external crises revitalized an ancient cycle of ritual bloodshed and purification. A haunting account of a shocking massacre, Mesa of Sorrows is a probing exploration of how societies confront painful histories, and why communal violence still plagues us today.

It was a time of unregulated madness. And nowhere was it madder than in Chicago at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties. Enter a slick, smooth-talking, charismatic lawyer named Leo Koretz, who enticed hundreds of people to invest as much as $30 million—upward of $400 million today—in phantom timberland and nonexistent oil wells in Panama. This rip-roaring tale of greed, financial corruption, dirty politics, over-the-top and under-the-radar deceit, illicit sex, and a brilliant and wildly charming con man on the town, then on the lam, is not only a rich and detailed account of a man and an era; it’s a fascinating look at the methods of swindlers throughout history. As Model Ts rumbled down Michigan Avenue, gang-war shootings announced Al Capone’s rise to underworld domination. As bedecked partygoers thronged to the Drake Hotel’s opulent banquet rooms, corrupt politicians held court in thriving speakeasies and the frenzy of stock market gambling was rampant. Leo Koretz was the Bernie Madoff of his day, and Dean Jobb shows us that the American dream of easy wealth is a timeless commodity.

The author of The Dead Beat and This Book is Overdue! turns her piercing eye and charming wit to the real-life avatars of Indiana Jones—the archaeologists who sort through the muck and mire of swamps, ancient landfills, volcanic islands, and other dirty places to reclaim history for us all. Pompeii, Machu Picchu, the Valley of the Kings, the Parthenon—the names of these legendary archaeological sites conjure up romance and mystery. The news is full of archaeology: treasures found (British king under parking lot) and treasures lost (looters, bulldozers, natural disaster, and war). Archaeological research tantalizes us with possibilities (are modern humans really part Neanderthal?). Where are the archaeologists behind these stories? What kind of work do they actually do, and why does it matter? Marilyn Johnson’s Lives in Ruins is an absorbing and entertaining look at the lives of contemporary archaeologists as they sweat under the sun for clues to the puzzle of our past. Johnson digs and drinks alongside archaeologists, chases them through the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, and even Machu Picchu, and excavates their lives. Her subjects share stories we rarely read in history books, about slaves and Ice Age hunters, ordinary soldiers of the American Revolution, children of the first century, Chinese woman warriors, sunken fleets, mummies. What drives these archaeologists is not the money (meager) or the jobs (scarce) or the working conditions (dangerous), but their passion for the stories that would otherwise be buried and lost.

Nearly every day there’s another news story, think piece, or pop cultural anecdote related to feminism and women’s rights. Conversations around consent, equal pay, access to contraception, and a host of other issues are foremost topics of conversation in American media. And today’s teens are encountering these issues from a different perspective than any generation has before—but what’s often missing from the current discussion is an understanding of how we’ve gotten to this place. Fight Like a Girl introduces readers to the history of feminist activism in the U.S. in an effort to celebrate those who paved the way and draw attention to those who are working hard to further the feminist cause today.

If you’d like a chance at winning all six 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 March 17, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 18.  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, March 9, 2016

Front Porch Books: March 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. 

We’ve Already Gone This Far
by Patrick Dacey
(Henry Holt)

Let’s start off this month’s roundup with one of my most-anticipated short story collections of 2016 (along with Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink, which I finished reading a couple of weeks ago). From the title to the cover design to the first sentence of the first story, Patrick Dacey’s debut collection has been on my radar since I first heard about it last year. Now I can finally settle in with his words and his characters. I’m hanging a Do Not Disturb sign on my door.

Jacket Copy:  In Patrick Dacey’s stunning debut, we meet longtime neighbors and friends--citizens of working-class Wequaquet--right when the ground beneath their feet has shifted in ways they don’t yet understand. Here, after more than a decade of boom and bust, love and pride are closely twinned and dangerously deployed: a lonely woman attacks a memorial to a neighbor’s veteran son; a dissatisfied housewife goes overboard with cosmetic surgery on national television; a young father walks away from one of the few jobs left in town, a soldier writes home to a mother who is becoming increasingly unhinged. We’ve Already Gone This Far takes us to a town like many towns in America, a place where people are searching for what is now an almost out-of-reach version of the American Dream. Story by story, Dacey draws us into the secret lives of recognizable strangers and reminds us that life’s strange intensity and occasional magic is all around us, especially in the everyday. With a skewering insight and real warmth of spirit, Dacey delivers that rare and wonderful thing in American fiction: a deeply-felt, deeply-imagined book about where we’ve been and how far we have to go.

Opening Lines:  During the war, most of us in Wequaquet hung up a flag to support the troops, though it was clear some of us did it because others were doing it. We pulled out our flags from the last war or went to Hal’s and bought a new one. Hal sold out pretty fast, and good for Hal, because usually no one goes to Hal’s anymore, the way he charges, though he says he has no choice if he wants to compete with MegaWorld.

Blurbworthiness:  “Patrick Dacey is one of my favorite young American writers. The stories in We’ve Already Gone This Far are dangerous, funny, sometimes savage (the phrase lyrical hammers comes to mind), but underneath it all beats a strangely kind and hopeful heart. Dacey is channeling both a terrifyingly dark view of America, as well as a movingly optimistic one, and he shows us that the truth of who we are lies in that very juxtaposition. Fast, poetic, edgy, full of tremendous affection for the things of the world.”  (George Saunders, author of The Tenth of December)

Scary Old Sex
by Arlene Heyman

Frightening intimacy between geriatrics? Or, a more cautionary take on “good ol’ sex”? Either way, the stories in Arlene Heyman’s debut collection promise piercing insight into the ways we live, we love and we learn. She wastes no time getting into it, either. Witness the first sentence in the book: “Would you like to make love?”

Jacket Copy:  A woman goes about certain rituals of sex with her second husband, sharing the bed with the ghosts of her sexual past. A beautiful young art student embarks on an affair with a much older, married, famous artist. A middle-aged woman struggles with the decline of her mother, once glamorous and still commanding; their fraught relationship causes unexpected feelings, both shaming and brutal. A man finds that his father has died while in the midst of extra-marital sex and wonders what he should do with the body. And a boy sits in his Calculus class, fantasizing about a schoolmate’s breasts and worrying about his father lying in hospital, as outside his classroom window the Twin Towers begin to fall. In this stunning, taboo-breaking debut, Arlene Heyman, a practicing psychiatrist, gives us what really goes on in people’s minds, relationships, and beds. Raw, tender, funny, truthful and often shocking, Scary Old Sex is a fierce exploration of the chaos and beauty of life.

Opening Lines:  “Would you like to make love?” Stu called out to Marianne as she entered their apartment. She walked toward his office. It was mid-Saturday afternoon and Stu was still in his purple pajamas at the computer, a mug of coffee on the cluttered desk. He had a little wet mocha-colored stain under his lip on his beard, and his wiry gray hair stood up thinly around his large bald spot. He looked at her shyly for a moment, then looked back at the computer screen.

Blurbworthiness:  “Heyman has been described as [Bernard] Malamud’s muse. Judging from these stories, he may have been hers as well. The stories in this keenly observed collection lay bare truths--some comforting, others uncomfortable--about love and sex, aging and acceptance.”  (Kirkus Reviews)

The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness
by Julie Riddle
(Bison Books)

I have a rule that says any book which opens with a father lowering a drill into his daughter’s thumb must go right to the top of the To-Be-Read pile. Julie Riddle’s memoir about growing up in rustic conditions in Montana’s wilderness during the 1970s neatly fits the bill. In the very first pages, we read--hand clapped to mouth--about how Julie accidentally smashes her thumb while trying to close a window. The thumb swells. Her 11-year-old body throbs with pain. The next day, her father says, “Let me see your hand.” He grabs her wrist, “appraising my thumb as though it were a bent framing nail that he was deciding whether to hammer true.” He tells her to follow him down to his gun shop in the basement where he puts her hand on the metal plate of a drill press:
     He gripped the lever and lowered the spindle, the spinning bit a blur, the bit puncturing my thumbnail, my father raising the lever with expert timing, as though piercing a piece of construction paper without scratching the surface below. The bit lifted and blood spurted in a small black plume, and my thumb’s throbbing pain disappeared. “Put a Band-Aid over it for a couple days,” he said, handing me a paper towel. “The nail’ll fall off before long.”
     “Thanks, Dad,” I said, examining my thumb with wonder.
I think I’m more shocked by the young girl’s wonder-filled appreciation than I am about a father drill-pressing his own daughter’s hand. At any rate, I’m guessing the rest of the book holds up just as well as these opening pages. Hel-lo, TBR stack!

Jacket Copy:  Everything changes when Julie Riddle’s parents stumble across the wilderness survival guide How to Live in the Woods on Pennies a Day. In 1977, when Riddle is seven years old, she and her family—fed up with the challenges of city life—move to the foot of the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwestern Montana. For three years they live in the primitive basement of the log house they are building by hand in the harsh, remote Montana woods. Meanwhile, haunted by the repressed memory of childhood sexual abuse, Riddle struggles to come to terms with the dark shadows that plague her amid entrenched cultural and gender mores enforced by enduring myths of the West. As Riddle grapples with her own painful secrets, she discovers the world around her and its impact on people—the demands of living in a rural, mountain community dependent on boom-and-bust mining and logging industries, the health and environmental crises of the W. R. Grace asbestos contamination and EPA cleanup, and the healing beauty of the Montana wild. More than simply a memoir about family and place, The Solace of Stones explores Riddle’s coming of age and the complexities of memory, loss, and identity borne by a family homesteading in the modern West.

Blurbworthiness:  “Heartbreaking, courageous, and written with rare beauty. The Solace of Stones will be a Western classic.”  (Mary Clearman Blew, author of All But the Waltz)

Maisie at 8,000 Feet
by Frederick Reuss
(Unbridled Books)

Talk about a book with a bird’s-eye view! From wingsuiters to Superman to Peter Pan, we all dream of flying (sans airplane). But in Frederick Reuss’ new novel, he puts us at 8,000 feet with a young girl named Maisie who soars through the clouds above the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. It’s a great plot setup and the language, from what I’ve read of it, is as magical as flying fairy-dust or a red cape. Up, up, and away....

Jacket Copy:  Maisie at 8,000 Feet is the story of an eight-year old girl who can fly and her idyllic summer in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey that ends in a moment of catastrophic loss. Following the death of her mother, Maisie travels the Pine Barrens with her artist/archaeologist father; meets his cousin and confidante, Sally, who wants to repair the little girl’s heart; and flies over it all trying to see how her life could have taken such a turn. Many years later, her son gone to college and her marriage ended, Maisie struggles to reconnect with the aging Sally. Doing so, she hopes to understand why her father didn’t raise her, what that long-ago summer was all about, and whether she has ever really been attached to anyone in any place. Seen from the heights of Maisie’s childlike imagination and the rootless perspective of the woman she becomes, the fractures in her life reveal the slippery connection between childhood and identity—and between remembering and forgetting.

Opening Lines:  Maisie was over the Hackensack River when a Pan Am Boeing 707 passed less than a thousand feet above her. She dipped her shoulder and banked to the left, away from the flight path of the big jet coming out of Newark, then turned south, keeping the orange ribbon that was the New Jersey Turnpike to her right and the vast blackness of the Atlantic on the left horizon.

Blurbworthiness:  “Frederick Reuss bestows the Pine Barrens of New Jersey with the gently haunting texture of a French movie. Maisie at 8,000 Feet is a supple, moving meditation on landscape, and how place takes up real estate in our imaginations.”  (Lisa Zeidner, author of Love Bomb)

by Saleem Haddad
(Other Press)

On the back cover of my copy of Guapa, there is a single paragraph, boxed in bronze above a laudatory blurb. That short paragraph (seen below in Opening Lines) was enough to pull me closer to this debut novel about a young gay man in the Middle East who just wants to get through a single day with his life and dignity intact. I’m entranced, intrigued, piqued. Nicely done, opening paragraph!

Jacket Copy:  Set over the course of twenty-four hours, Guapa follows Rasa, a gay man living in an unnamed Arab country, as he tries to carve out a life for himself in the midst of political and social upheaval. Rasa spends his days translating for Western journalists and pining for the nights when he can sneak his lover, Taymour, into his room. One night Rasa’s grandmother—the woman who raised him—catches them in bed together. The following day Rasa is consumed by the search for his best friend Maj, a fiery activist and drag queen star of the underground bar, Guapa, who has been arrested by the police. Ashamed to go home and face his grandmother, and reeling from the potential loss of the three most important people in his life, Rasa roams the city’s slums and prisons, the lavish weddings of the country’s elite, and the bars where outcasts and intellectuals drink to a long-lost revolution. Each new encounter leads him closer to confronting his own identity, as he revisits his childhood and probes the secrets that haunt his family. As Rasa confronts the simultaneous collapse of political hope and his closest personal relationships, he is forced to discover the roots of his alienation and try to re-emerge into a society that may never accept him.

Opening Lines:  The morning begins with shame. This is not new, but as memories of last night begin to sink in, the feeling takes on a terrifying resonance. I grimace, squirm, dig my fingers in my palms until the pain in my hands reflects how I feel. But there is no controlling what Teta saw, and her absence from my bedside means that she doesn’t intend, as she had promised, to file away last night’s mess in a deep corner of her mind.

All the Ways We Kill and Die: An Elegy for a Fallen Comrade, and the Hunt for His Killer
by Brian Castner
(Arcade Publishing)

In war, there is Us and there is Them; there is Over There and Back Here; there is the Before and the After. Few writers know how to bridge all of those canyons with as much clarity and compassion as Brian Castner. As a veteran of the Iraq War, Brian has been There and Back and wrote a memoir about his experience on both sides called The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows which told of his rocky readjustment to civilian life after spending a tour of duty as bomb disposal expert in Iraq. That book earned all kinds of acclaim and was even turned into an opera. Now, Castner returns to our bookshelves with an equally personal story about the hunt for his friend’s killer. It’s on the shortest of my short lists of Books to Read in 2016. I strongly urge you to add it to your own reading queue. Who knows, you just might learn something, here and there.

Jacket Copy:  The EOD—explosive ordnance disposal—community is tight-knit, and when one of their own is hurt, an alarm goes out. When Brian Castner, an Iraq War vet, learns that his friend and EOD brother Matt has been killed by an IED in Afghanistan, he goes to console Matt’s widow, but he also begins a personal investigation. Is the bomb maker who killed Matt the same man American forces have been hunting since Iraq, known as the Engineer? In this nonfiction thriller Castner takes us inside the manhunt for this elusive figure, meeting maimed survivors, interviewing the forensics teams who gather post-blast evidence, the wonks who collect intelligence, the drone pilots and contractors tasked to kill. His investigation reveals how warfare has changed since Iraq, becoming individualized even as it has become hi-tech, with our drones, bomb disposal robots, and CSI-like techniques. As we use technology to identify, locate, and take out the planners and bomb makers, the chilling lesson is that the hunters are also being hunted, and the other side—from Al-Qaeda to ISIS— has been selecting its own high-value targets.

Opening Lines:  A western mountain warm spell had stolen the modest Christmas snows, and the home of Matthew and Jennifer Schwartz sat among bare trees and dying grass, a pale house on a brown lawn.
     The house was nearly empty. The girls were off at school. Jesus and his radiant Sacred Heart stared from the living room wall at a blank television and forgotten couch. Duke the chocolate Lab slept at the foot of the stairs. The only sound in the empty house was the mechanical hum of the treadmill and the regular beat of a runner’s footfalls.
     The house was often empty. A new pickup truck and trailer filled the driveway, camping equipment filled the garage, dirty dishes filled the sink, Duke shuffled and huffed about the backyard, the three girls laughed and sang songs, but Matt was gone, always gone, and the hole remained. A toothbrush here, a T-shirt there, the small reminders of him were strewn about the house like so many pretty gold rings, and she but the amputated stump of a hand with no fingers.
     That morning Jenny was finishing another long run on her treadmill. She had discovered running on Matt’s second tour. At the start of his deployments, she ran four or six miles. Now that he had been gone three months, she was up to ten and barely out of breath.
     Jenny had learned long ago not to pine by the phone; it only made the hours crawl. But she had also learned to save the last recording on the answering machine, not to delete the last email. Matt had been out on a long-distance patrol for over a week, and had managed only a quick and broken sat phone call. So more than anything, it was a last email that kept tumbling through her head. It bothered her that it read like a last email. Heavy zippered sweatshirts in the dryer, tumble, tumble, the email always in the back of her mind as she ran.
     Jenny was soaked when she got off the treadmill, dripping the sweaty, unwashed funk that comes from not having showered since, well, who keeps track of these things when your husband is gone and the girls need you? She paced and began her stretching routine, and the doorbell rang. Under no circumstances would she ever answer the door smelling like she did, but she did look out the window.
     She saw a sea of uniform blue hats stark against the dry Wyoming prairie.
     If I don’t answer the door, she thought, he’s not dead. He’s not dead yet.
     The doorbell rang again. Perhaps a third time. They weren’t leaving.

Blurbworthiness:  “In this book Brian Castner takes us through a kind of moral detective work, uncovering not only private griefs, but also the broader military and social context of our country’s response to such deaths. A brilliant, moving, and troubling portrait of modern American warfare.”  (Phil Klay, author of Redeployment)

by Shawn Vestal
(Penguin Press)

Just as Brian Castner straddles the divide between military and civilian, Shawn Vestal deepens our understanding of the Mormon faith. His prose is alive, electric and I love it so much I spent an entire blog post a while ago just talking about the first sentences of the stories in his first book, Godforsaken Idaho. I’ve been anxiously waiting for whatever he’d bring our way next. I’m delighted to report it’s a novel that, once again, explores the complexities of faith and family. The fact that he tosses Evel Knievel and hero-worship into the stew pot just makes this even tastier. If anyone can jump forty buses in a single leap while strapped to a revving motor of language, it’s Shawn Vestal.

Jacket Copy:  At the heart of this exciting debut novel, set in Arizona and Idaho in the mid-1970s, is fifteen-year-old Loretta, who slips out of her bedroom every evening to meet her so-called gentile boyfriend. Her strict Mormon parents catch her returning one night, and promptly marry her off to Dean Harder, a devout yet materialistic fundamentalist who already has a wife and a brood of kids. The Harders relocate to his native Idaho, where Dean’s teenage nephew Jason falls hard for Loretta. A Zeppelin and Tolkien fan, Jason worships Evel Knievel and longs to leave his close-minded community. He and Loretta make a break for it. They drive all night, stay in hotels, and relish their dizzying burst of teenage freedom as they seek to recover Dean’s cache of “Mormon gold.” But someone Loretta left behind is on their trail...A riveting story of desire and escape, Daredevils boasts memorable set pieces and a rich cast of secondary characters. There’s Dean’s other wife, Ruth, who as a child in the 1950s was separated from her parents during the notorious Short Creek raid, when federal agents descended on a Mormon fundamentalist community. There’s Jason’s best friend, Boyd, part Native American and caught up in the activist spirit of the time, who comes along for the ride, with disastrous results. And Vestal’s ultimate creation is a superbly sleazy chatterbox—a man who might or might not be Evel Knievel himself—who works his charms on Loretta at a casino in Elko, Nevada.

Opening Lines:  Evel Knievel Addresses an Adoring Nation
     When did we first think of jumping a canyon? It seems now that we always thought it. That it was always there for us to think. What do you call that, when the world guides you toward its purpose? We believed, America. We believed we could do anything we tried to do. We believed we could do anything we said we would do. We believed in ourselves and the things we were saying. We believed that in saying these things, we were already making them true.

Blurbworthiness:  “Shawn Vestal’s seductive Daredevils is part American Dream and part American Gothic. Gold, lust, cults, polygamy, broken bones, broken hearts, and the yearning for a possibly fatal freedom drive this book, which shares a few features with its character of Evel Knievel: it is lean, fierce, and dangerous. Read it with care.”  (Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer)

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Trailer Park Tuesday: Bottomland by Michelle Hoover

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

Michelle Hoover’s second novel, Bottomland, gets a dreamy, artsy trailer to showcase its equally dreamy and artistic prose. The vivid, impressionistic animation is done by Laura Harrison, who deserves great credit for creating a moody trailer set against pieces of the novel. Hoover, author of the critically-acclaimed The Quickening (2010), narrates excerpts from Bottomland, told in the distinct voices of three characters (Myrle, Esther and Nan). And so, we’re treated to beautiful lines like these:
At the river, the dirt turned to mud, the grass higher than my knees. I threw my nightgown on the bank and hugged three stones to my chest. When I stepped in, it was cold enough to burn. The moon barely showed itself. The river cut a trail between the fields. The cold changed to numbness the deeper I went in. There’s a place where a person is nothing, where the water is the same as breathing. This was it. And if something wanted me to stay with the river, I would. Because who says a person can’t live more than one life?

That same sort of lyrical writing is veined throughout Bottomland, a novel set in post-World War I about a German-American family living in Iowa whose two daughters vanish in the middle of the night. The remaining family members’ search for the missing girls also becomes a quest to overcome prejudice and the stain of anti-German feeling in post-war America. Give a listen to Hoover reading excerpts from Bottomland and you’ll quickly see how thin the membrane is between word and emotion on these pages. For more on the story behind the novel, visit Hoover’s website and scroll down to The Real Life Story.

Monday, March 7, 2016

My First Time: Beth Kissileff

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 Beth Kissileff, editor of the new anthology Reading Genesis: Beginningsthe first of a series (Reading Exodus is in the works). She holds a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Pennsylvania and has taught English literature, writing, Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College. She is the author of a forthcoming novel Questioning Return (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016) and is at work on a short story collection and a second novel. She lives in Pittsburgh with her family.

My First Book Vertigo

When I got home from Sabbath lunch at a friend’s house and glanced at the mail, I knew what it was. A package from London, from my publisher, could only mean one thing: it had to be my book.

I don’t tear on the Sabbath so I won’t open my mail or a package. There are exceptionsone can hint to a non-Jew without asking explicitly how nice it would be to have a labor performed on your behalf that you can’t do yourself. When the last Harry Potter books came out and were delivered on Saturday to our neighborhood (one filled with observant Jews), my oldest daughter stayed home from synagogue to be sure and catch the letter carrier. By the time he got to our door and saw the eager face waiting for his arrival, our mail carrier was smart enough to know that he would get a delighted smile if he asked whether he should open the package from Amazon. Oh yes, my daughter would be so pleased if he opened that package from Amazon himself, a service he had already performed many times at other neighborhood households that morning.

But when it came time to open the package from my publisher, I waited until after we said the prayer of separation between holy and profane, between the Sabbath and the six days of the week. My kids, excited for me, decided we needed to do an “unboxing” video of me unwrapping my book, heralding the arrival of a beautiful volume with a cover done in bold shades of red and gray by the extraordinary and generous artist Tobi Kahn.

I felt a bit like I did with my first babyoh, it is real. Of course, when I was pregnant I had nine months to prepare for the arrival of a full-fledged human being. My stomach had contorted and grown and stretched and I had spent the entirety of those months in a fugue of nausea, throwing up once and often twice a day. I knew things would be changed, that a baby was coming, but somehow it was only when I actually saw each of my stupendously beautiful daughters arrive that they became real. Not before.

Happily this new book of mine didn’t interrupt my sleep schedule—or not exactly. After unboxing, we spent the evening with my husband’s college roommate and his wife, eating dinner and watching a movie. I had two glasses of wine.

When I got home and readied myself for sleep, an odd thing happened as I lay my head down on the pillow. Everything was spinning, my body a spaceship hurtling through the world, whirling around and around. Though I was inert, lying perfectly flat and motionless, I felt like all of me was in dizzying transit. I somehow imagined myself at rest and the hurtling stopped but it was all very real, not a hallucination.

The next morning, I felt nauseous. I threw up once, and combined with my sense of dizziness and lack of command of my surroundings, I was sure I was having a brain hemorrhage. A friend of ours had one last year and was saved only by rapid intervention; I was positive I was experiencing something similar and we had no time to spare in getting to the emergency room.

My wise husband, a bit less concerned, took me to urgent care.

So, why vertigo now? My best friend says it is just a coincidence, that it had nothing to do with the effect of seeing my book in print. I am sure she is wrong. I was jolted and disoriented, feeling my body moving through the world in an unnatural way when it was clearly at rest.

The odd thing is that the essay I wrote for this new book I edited was about someone who lived her life in the aftermath of a jolt to her system. Well, two jolts really. Reading Genesis is an anthology of essays by academics, using something of their professional field of knowledge to explore the Biblical text. My essay is about the matriarch Rebecca, scouted out as a possible wife for Isaac by the servant of Isaac’s father, Abraham. When the servant sees Rebecca, he gives her jewelry and then asks her who her family is. When he meets up with her family, he tells the tale of the encounter in a way they will find flattering and convincing, that he first asked who the young lady’s family was, and on hearing the correct answer, gave Rebecca her trinkets. I imagine this twisted recounting of the narrative must have startled Rebecca, changed her notions of herself in some way, for the servant was basically saying that it was her deeds that made this marriage possiblewhen she acted, God was acting through her. This gave her a great deal of power.

Yet it was dangerous. Later in life, Rebecca had a message from God about the fate of her sons, the twins Jacob and Esau, telling her the younger would rule the older. She never told her husband about her oracle from God; but when she heard Isaac offer to bless Esau, Rebecca asked Jacob to impersonate his brother and steal his blessing.

In my reading, Isaac was ready to offer Jacob the appropriate blessing of inheritance anyway; Rebecca’s intervention was wholly unnecessary. I believe it is her early exposure to a misreading of events, that she was perceived to have a power that she did not, that threw off the rest of her life. Rebecca, after the encounter with the servant and then falling off her camel when meeting Isaac—astounded in some way the text conceals and mystifies—never has full control of her narrative. Her life has been interpreted by others. In her bid to control the plot of her life, she fails and she is alienated from her beloved son Jacob, never to see him again.

I was nervous about writing my essay, claiming a place for myself among Biblical interpreters and implying that I and those I had invited had something worthwhile to say about the Bible—The Bible, sacred text for multiple faiths.

Maybe there will be critique of the book—I don’t know yet. All along, I felt so unsure of whether I had the right to do this, to edit an anthology, to make a claim for myself as an authority figure. Am I qualified? Who am I? Whether I had the right to or not, I had the idea and wanted it to come to fruition. I wanted something new in the world that I created and would be responsible for.

I am floating through life now, but I don’t have vertigo. It went away after that one day. I do feel that I needed it to give me a sense that I am moving to a new phase of my life. The way I approach the world is different. I was off kilter and askew in the hours after I first saw my book. I am going to be different now, as I was when I gave birth. But I am ready to face whatever changes having my book out in the world will bring.

Author photo by Yael Perlman