Sunday, January 20, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes


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


The writer must wade into life as into the sea, but only up to the navel.
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes


Thursday, January 17, 2019

My First Time: Christy Stillwell



My First Encouragement

As a freshman at the University of Georgia, I declared an art major. Winter quarter I was registered for my first studio art class, held in the art building, a warehouse-like place with high ceilings and cement floors. Smelling of chalky paint and turpentine, the place felt exotic and intimidating. We sat at long worktables. A quick glance at the supply list and syllabus revealed what I estimated to be several hundred dollars’ worth of materials. The instructor explained that we would be drawing while she roved the room looking over our shoulders. On Fridays, we would place our work on the easel in the center of the room and submit to peer critique. At that moment I knew I wasn’t as serious as I thought about drawing or painting. I left the class, walked to the registrar, and dropped my major. Standing there with my pencil and my drop/add form, I asked myself, “What do you like to do? What can you see yourself doing—maybe not forever but for the next four years?”

Reading. I liked to read.

Major: English. I signed up for one of the few English classes with spaces left: Creative Writing 101, with Coleman Barks.

I didn’t know who he was. He wasn’t as famous at the time as he was going to become—Coleman Barks, the pre-eminent translator of Rumi, the thirteenth-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. When my dorm hall monitor explained to me that Barks was a poet and a translator and a “Big Deal,” I shrugged and nodded. To me he was a bearded man with a deep voice who was open to going to the bar with his students, those who were old enough to drink.

Barks’ method of teaching was passive; he didn’t care what we called him, Coleman, Mr. Barks, Dr. Barks. He let us say what we wanted, and write what we wanted. He spoke of poetic moments and gave us examples: Crossing a parking lot he had seen a young woman walking through a row of cars. Each time she passed a window, she turned to look at her reflection. She was compelled to look, it seemed to him. She couldn’t not look, and this struck him as beautifully human, this need for reassurance of her own existence.

Coleman Barks
Midway through the ten-week quarter, just after I had presented my first story, he said something to me that no teacher has said before or since. I waited in my chair until everyone else had left class. I still remember the pit in my stomach, a roiling mix of fear and nausea. I was full of a shameful need. I didn’t know exactly what it was I sought from him, only that I had a burning question to ask. He was looking at me, waiting for what I had to say. I swallowed hard and met his eye. “Am I any good?” I asked, sweating, even more embarrassed now that the question was out. “What do you think? Can I write?”

In truth, I don’t remember exactly how I phrased my question. It’s funny; if this were fiction, I’d have it all—smells, sounds, precise feelings and words. But this is the past and when I write about the past I find poignant feelings and sensations more often than I find actual words. I do, however, recall Coleman’s exact words. He gathered his legal pad and stack of manuscripts. He stuck his pen in his nest of graying hair.

“You’ve got it, if you want it,” he said.

My heart was beating so fast I couldn’t register his words. I barely knew what I was asking, but I certainly had no idea what he meant. What was “it”? Fame and fortune? The writing of books? Anyone could write a book. Anyone could sit down and put the words on paper. What I wanted to know was, was I any good? Should I bother? And the way he phrased that last part, “if you want it.” To me this suggested that “it” whatever it was, might not be something I ought to want.

“Can’t you feel it?” he added, looking at me. “What happens when you read?” He flashed his sad, charming smile and shuffled out the door.

That was all he said. I recall speed walking across campus, filled with adrenaline. I was thrilled. I was besieged with confusion and doubt, but I was thrilled. What he said was a thumbs up, even if it wasn’t a precise thumbs up.

Looking back, I’m shocked by my nerve. I see now that what I wanted, he could not give. I wanted a guarantee. Even at age nineteen I knew that this kind of work was different from, say, banking. I felt the difference when I sat in my dorm room or the library or the coffee shop drafting those stories for his class. Time evaporated. The world around me ceased to be confusing or scary or unwieldy. It ceased to be anything at all.

I can’t say that when I’m drafting fiction, I’m happy. What I am is absent. My ego vanishes. Even in those early years I experienced the space created in my mind as a balm, a consolation. I felt a sense of purpose, and perhaps best of all, meaning. This felt a little naughty to me. It did not feel like a job, or a thing grown-ups pursued. If I was going to pursue it, I’d better be good, and I wanted Coleman to reassure me. To tell me that I wouldn’t make a fool of myself, that I would not be wasting my time.

Of course Coleman would leave the hard work to me. The larger question I was asking him, and myself and the universe, was the question asked by every young person since the dawn of time: “What Do I Want?” No one could answer that, least of all Coleman Barks, the man who devoted his life to interpreting the works of Rumi, the spiritual teacher whose poetry explored divinity, the soul, and the pursuit of God. Coleman wrote about him, “Rumi .... wants us to be more alive, to wake up... He wants us to see our beauty, in the mirror and in each other.”

I wouldn’t have minded if he’d said, Yes Christy. You are brilliant. Keep writing. He might have mentioned how long it would all take, how much rejection would be involved. I’d have loved a hint about that low period in my early thirties, when my first novel was with an agent but didn’t sell and I caught myself reading debut novels and hoping I’d hate them. I wanted others to fail. That was a new low, using other writers’ hard work to confirm that the world was against me.

But if Coleman had said any of that, would it have been encouraging? A writer needs encouragement, maybe more than a banker needs encouragement. Finishing work takes a long time. Publishing takes even longer. Writers can be unstable, insecure people. We need positive feedback as often as we can get it. But thinking back on the koan-like comments from my first teacher, he gave me exactly what I needed, what all writers need even more than they need encouragement. They need the truth.

“Can’t you feel it?” he asked me. The truth was that I could feel it. I read my work that first time and my skin tingled. My guts churned and my scalp burned. I could feel it all right. My classmates, the grad students auditing the course, even my teacher: everybody was listening.


Christy Stillwell is the author of The Wolf Tone and the poetry chapbook Amnesia. She is the winner of the Elixir Press Fiction Prize, a finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Story Contest and the recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, a residency at Vermont Studio Center and a Wyoming Arts Council Literary Fellowship. Her stories and essays have appeared in journals such as Pearl, River City, Sonora Review, Sou’wester, The Massachusetts Review, and The Tishman Review. Visit her online at ChristyStillwell.com

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. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Christmas by Vladimir Nabokov


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


The outer door resisted at first, then opened with a luscious crunch, and the dazzling frost hit his face.

“Christmas” by Vladimir Nabokov
Christmas Stories


Friday, January 11, 2019

Friday Freebie: Wild Life by Kathy Fish


Congratulations to Jacqueline Isler, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Woman at 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrimur Helgason.

I’m thrilled to announce this week’s giveaway is for the new collection of short-short stories by Kathy Fish, Wild Life. This book, which shares the title of an earlier collection by Fish, adds several new stories and the result is one of the best short-fiction reading experiences I’ve had in years. Wild Life is, in a word, brilliant; in two words: brilliantly illuminating. Kathy Fish has a way of drilling down into the heart of her characters with a speed and economy that by the time you reach the end of the story—often less than two pages—you feel you’ve explored an entire universe in just three paragraphs. Yes, reader, I loved Wild Life, and I think you will, too.

Keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...


Here’s author Sara Lippmann (Doll Palace) on why she loved Wild Life as much as I did:

For more than a decade, Kathy Fish has been skewering the American landscape to bring us startling, unforgettable stories of people trying to forge a path through this shattered world. Her characters—patchwork families, scrappy siblings, unraveling couples, strangers, neighbors, and women confronting the violent self-annihilation that attends motherhood—are wracked by their actions and inactions. Surreality may be the only way out. If she did not coin the term flash fiction, we have her to thank for singlehandedly growing and elevating the dynamic form, securing its indelible place in the literary canon. With Wild Life, Fish demonstrates time and again why she is one of the most exciting and influential writers we have. Her range is on full display in this brilliant, comprehensive collection, an absolute must for students and teachers, for writers and readers across the genres.

No two stories are alike; each one dazzles in its own surprising way, all of them remarkable gems. Some, like “At Ethel and Harry’s On the Last Night,” contain the astounding scope of a novel in a few compressed pages; others, like “Lioness” open up with a scream. Fish fearlessly explodes structure and upends form with a playfulness and permissiveness that transcends myopic conventions of storytelling.

Devour them, but don’t be deceived by their thumbnail size; her stories are expansive, rife with a complexity that demands a slow, dedicated, and repeated read. Even after a close study, you won’t begin to grasp how she devastates and delights on a single line. This is her inimitable magic. She will gut you with the sheer precision of her emotional restraint. Images don’t just pop but vibrate through the senses. The familiar becomes unfamiliar in exquisite juxtaposition. Through Fish’s deft pen, the wind is never the wind but “the hands of many children clapping.” Rooms smell like creamed corn. Parachutes bloom like jellyfish. A party hat becomes a narwhal’s tooth. The road and clouds press down upon a trapped narrator like two large hands. Every story shatters, unsettling the fractured ground on which we stand, and then somehow invites the reader to gather shards and hold them to the light. That is grace “This broken planet needs a hero,” one of her characters says. My hero, bar none, is Kathy Fish.”

If you’d like a chance at winning Wild Life, 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 remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 17, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 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.


Sunday, January 6, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes


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


Me and my books, in the same apartment: like a gherkin in its vinegar.
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes



Friday, January 4, 2019

Friday Freebie: Woman at 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrimur Helgason


Congratulations to Jennifer Oleson Boyd, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Two Girls Down by Louisa Luna.

This week’s giveaway is for the new paperback Woman at 1,000 Degrees by Hallgrimur Helgason. Hannah Kent, author of Burial Rites, had this to say about the book: “What a novel! Helgason’s Woman at 1,000 Degrees is a gutsy, brilliant book: I could not tear myself away from it. Octogenarian Herra Björnsson’s dying recollections, as she lies nursing a hand grenade between her legs in an Icelandic garage, hurtle the reader headfirst into an epic narrative of war, loss, desire and survival, across years and continents. Both funny and deeply moving, I finished it utterly dazzled, my ears ringing.” Keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...



“I live here alone in a garage, together with a laptop computer and an old hand grenade. It’s pretty cozy.”

Herra Björnsson is at the beginning of the end of her life. Oh, she has two weeks left, maybe three—she has booked her cremation appointment, at a crispy 1,000 degrees, so it won’t be long. But until then she has her cigarettes, a World War II–era weapon, some Facebook friends, and her memories to sustain her. And what a life this remarkable eighty-year-old narrator has led. In the internationally bestselling and award-winning Woman at 1,000 Degrees, which has been published in fourteen languages, noted Icelandic novelist Hallgrímur Helgason has created a true literary original. From Herra’s childhood in the remote islands of Iceland, where she was born the granddaughter of Iceland’s first president, to teen years spent living by her wits alone in war-torn Europe while her father fought on the side of the Nazis, to love affairs on several continents, Herra Björnsson moved Zelig-like through the major events and locales of the twentieth century. She wed and lost husbands, had children, fled a war, kissed a Beatle, weathered the Icelandic financial crash, and mastered the Internet. She has experienced luck and betrayal and upheaval and pain, and—with a bawdy, uncompromising spirit—she has survived it all. Now, as she awaits death in a garage in Reykjavík, she shows us a woman unbowed by the forces of history. Each part of Herra’s story is a poignant piece of a puzzle that comes together in the final pages of this remarkable, unpredictable, and enthralling novel.

If you’d like a chance at winning Woman at 1,000 Degrees, 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 remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 10, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 11. 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, January 1, 2019

Reading Ahead



I do a quick tally of my to-be-read list.

1,981.

I look again at that single-spaced list of books on my computer, that long scroll of titles that, at various times over the past decade, have piqued my interest. One thousand, nine hundred and eighty-one books. That’s a lot of papercuts.

The TBR list ebbs and flows, but mostly flows. For every four titles I add in a zest of anticipation, I know that only one will be read. When all is said and done, there’s a lot more said than done; or, a lot more said than read. Still, the mountain of must-reads, my own Mount NeveRest, grows and grows and grows.

I have no expectation of chopping off very many of feet in elevation during 2019, but I do a have a plan. I will attack Mount NeveRest methodically, judiciously, alphabetically. At least that is my plan on this first day of the year; we’ll see how the other 364 play out.

As some of you who have popped in to my Facebook page already know, I have been making a practice of adding to my TBR list by going through 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich one volume per day (if I’ve already read Mr. Mustich’s suggestion, all the better....but, like I said, that’s about one in four). The 1,000 Books Before You Die roster supplements my already-existing Essentials List. My plan is to alternate reading one book from the top of the list (James Agee, for instance) with one from the bottom (Emile Zola, I’m looking at you!).

Alternating with that system, I intend to take a book off the top of my ebook and “regular” book lists, which means the newer (2018 and 2019 vintage) books which I’ve been hoping to read soon. That way, I can get the best of both classic and modern literature in my diet.

Taking a peek at that latter list, here are the books which have climbed to the top (though they could always be bumped down a notch or two by other shiny new arrivals):

Earth to Charlie by Justin Olson
I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott
The Fifth Risk by Michael Lewis
The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King
Inheritance by Dani Shapiro
The Municipalists by Seth Fried
Veterans Crisis Hotline by Jon Chopan
Little Faith by Nickolas Butler

But first, it’s Agatha Christie. I have a long-standing tradition of making the first book I read in the new year one by Dame Agatha. Last year, it was The Boomerang Clue; the year before that, it was Death in the Air; in 2016, it was Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. I’ve read about half of her prolific output and I’m working on the second half, starting this year with the 1933 mystery Thirteen at Dinner (aka Lord Edgware Dies). Double bonus points for the fact that it’s one of the Dell Mapbacks in my collection. I love these vintage paperbacks for the stylized maps they included, as the name states, on the back cover.


Thirteen at Dinner is a fairly routine, by-the-numbers Christie mystery. So far, nothing outright memorable has reared its bloody head to distinguish it from the many other Christies I have read. But I’m okay with a comfortable, routine investigation at this point. I read Agatha Christie to slow down, to savor, to allow my mind to float, to hover over the scene in the locked drawing room, to dissolve into the clues and to transport myself to the scene of the crime. Harsh cold weather, the bleak midwinter government furlough, the wind-up chattering-teeth noise of news headlines: all of that melts away as Hercule Poirot strokes his mustaches and announces, on page 140 (of 240 pages!!), “I know the truth of the whole affair.”

Of course he does. And now I settle in for the delicious 100-page tease in which I try, and fail and fail again, to match wits with Monsieur Poirot.

It’s a fun game to play: me in my armchair with a book and nothing but time on my hands (thanks to the government furlough) to solve a murder.