Friday, August 30, 2019

Friday Freebie: Kopp Sisters on the March by Amy Stewart


Congratulations to Delia Igo, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: the new novel by Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island.

This week’s giveaway is for Kopp Sisters on the March by Amy Stewart. In the fifth installment of the clever and original Kopp Sisters series, the sisters learn some military discipline—whether they’re ready or not—as the U.S. prepares to enter World War I. Keep scrolling for more about the novel and how to enter the contest...
It’s the spring of 1917 and change is in the air. American women have done something remarkable: they’ve banded together to create military-style training camps for women who want to serve. These so-called National Service Schools prove irresistible to the Kopp sisters, who leave their farm in New Jersey to join up. When an accident befalls the matron, Constance reluctantly agrees to oversee the camp—much to the alarm of the Kopps’ tent-mate, the real-life Beulah Binford, who is seeking refuge from her own scandalous past under the cover of a false identity. Will she be denied a second chance? And after notoriety, can a woman’s life ever be her own again? In Kopp Sisters on the March, the women of Camp Chevy Chase face down the skepticism of the War Department, the double standards of a scornful public, and the very real perils of war. Once again, Amy Stewart has brilliantly brought a little-known moment in history to light with her fearless and funny Kopp sisters novels.

If you’d like a chance at winning Kopp Sisters on the March, simply e-mail 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 Sept. 5, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 6. 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 e-mail 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). P.S. Since I’m downsizing my own book collection, I’ll occasionally toss an extra book into package. If you aren’t interested in reading the extra “Freebie,” please consider donating it to your local little free library.

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, August 26, 2019

My First Time: Christopher Swann



My First Time Meeting an Author

When I was an undergraduate student at Washington and Lee, the author Richard Ford (pictured above) visited campus. I had read his short story “Rock Springs” and his most recent novel at the time, The Sportswriter, and I vaguely understood that he was a Serious American Author, an up-and-coming big deal in the world of American literary fiction. One of my professors, Jim Warren, invited me and another creative writing student, Traci Lazenby, to dinner with Richard Ford. Moreover, we would each submit a piece of writing for Ford to read, and he would give us feedback in a subsequent one-on-one workshop with him the next day.

We had dinner at one of the fancier restaurants in Lexington, Virginia, the kind of place you only went to when your parents were in town and could take you out to dinner. Richard Ford was wearing khakis and a white shirt and a dark tie and a lived-in blazer, the kind he probably wore when he sat down at his typewriter and pushed his sleeves back to the elbows before writing. I immediately regretted my own blazer, which had brass buttons and made me look, I was certain, like a little boy going to church for the first time. I remember Ford asked the waitress for a Bombay and tonic. This made an impression on me because my dad drank gin and tonics, and Bombay was his preferred gin. However, the waitress didn’t know what Bombay was, and Ford had to explain it to her. The waitress went to the bar but returned and said she was sorry, they didn’t have Bombay, but they had Tanqueray. Ford politely said that would be fine. I don’t remember much else about the dinner, except that Richard Ford epitomized East Coast cool while I mostly remained mute because I was afraid I’d make a fool of myself.

The next day I met Richard Ford in an empty classroom in Payne Hall—the House of Payne, we called it. I was nervous because this was the first time an actual, serious author who was not my instructor was going to read and evaluate my writing.

I was also nervous because no one else had read what I had sent to the celebrated author for his feedback. It was the opening chapter to a novel I’d begun about a college student, a frat guy, who likes to party and cruises on his smarts but secretly wants to be a writer, except he’s afraid to admit it. There was a James Earl Jones-like instructor, Professor Worthington, and a beautiful girl, a poet in the same creative writing class as the protagonist. The title of this tour de force was Wasted Time. (No one is more certain of his own cleverness than a college undergraduate.)

Richard Ford wore the same blazer he’d worn the night before, although he had shed the tie and, I assumed, was wearing a different shirt and khakis. He greeted me and shook my hand, but he seemed a little out of sorts as he sat there looking at me. He asked me which contemporary authors I liked to read. I froze. I was into Shakespeare and Chaucer and medieval literature. Contemporary? Every title of every contemporary novel I’d ever read vanished from my mind. Ford sat there patiently. If I said “Richard Ford,” I’d look like the worst kind of sycophant. Then a memory dropped like a bright penny: my high school English teacher had assigned Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, which I had liked, so I said that. Richard Ford raised his eyebrows in surprise, and we chatted about Bright Lights, Big City for a minute. “I can’t believe we’re talking about Jay’s book,” Richard Ford said.

Jay’s book, I thought. He was on a first-name basis with Jay McInerney. It was like a hidden door to the world of authors had been opened. This was the real deal. And I wanted in. I wanted to write novels and to wear a lived-in blazer and to be able to say casually, some day, to a would-be writer, “Oh, you read Richard Ford’s book? Yeah, Rick and I were tossing back Bombay and tonics just last weekend. I can’t believe we’re talking about old Rick’s book.”

Then Richard Ford picked up the pages I had sent him to read and sort of looked at them, like there was something he wanted to say but he’d lost it in those pages. He leafed through them, then put the pages down and started talking. I don’t know what he said, because when he’d put the pages down, the last page was on top, and so I could read Richard Ford’s handwritten note on that last page. What he had written was, A really bad story.

Ford continued to talk, and somehow, through my embarrassment and basement-level self-esteem, I understood that he was talking about why my short story wasn’t working. When he paused to take a breath, I rushed into the opening. “This isn’t a short story,” I said.

“It’s not?” he said.

“No, sir,” I said. “It’s meant to be the opening chapter of a novel.”

“Oh,” he said, then looked down at the comment he’d written on the back page, A really bad story. He picked up a pen and reached over and crossed out the word really.

In the past, when I’ve shared this story, I’ve usually stopped there. I get to shrug and smile ruefully while my listeners laugh, and unlike real life that anecdote has a definitive zinger of an ending.


What actually happened was that, after a moment or two of looking down at my pages while I tried not to die of mortification, Richard Ford reached over again with his pen and crossed out the entire comment. He looked relieved, although nowhere near as relieved as I felt. And then he talked with me about the difference between short stories and novels, how to lay out a long narrative and use the opening to set up characters and conflicts.

I walked away from that meeting with a profound sense of relief that I had escaped unscathed. It was only much later that I came to appreciate what Richard Ford had done. He had shared his honest opinion of my writing, something all writers need to hear. When he learned that what I had written wasn’t a short story but the opening of a novel, he re-evaluated his opinion on the fly and offered his thoughts on how to approach writing novels. More than anything else, Richard Ford treated me seriously, as someone who wanted to write well and needed guidance on how to do so. He initiated me into the fellowship of writers.

In my long career as a high school teacher, I have met several students who want to write, all of them eager and anxious, all of them wanting to know if they are any good. An unthoughtful critique or a dismissive word from a teacher could be devastating. Richard Ford was kind enough to be both honest and encouraging, and so I hope to be able to pay that forward, to offer candid and supportive feedback, to help a young would-be writer think that he or she just might be able to do this after all.


Christopher Swann is a graduate of Woodberry Forest School in Virginia and hold a Ph.D. in creative writing from Georgia State University. In 2018, Chris was a Townsend Prize finalist, a finalist for a Georgia Author of the Year award, and longlisted for the Southern Book Prize with his debut novel, Shadow of the Lions. He lives with his wife and two sons in Atlanta, where he is the English department chair at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School. He has finished a second novel and is currently writing a third.

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, August 25, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Great Books by David Denby


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

NOTE: This week, while reading the “Shakespeare” chapter in David Denby’s Great Books, I couldn’t choose between sentences, so I am giving you a double-dose this week. You’re welcome.


My mother died the way she did everything, decisively and in great haste.

The play is about fierce, pre-Christian aristocrats, not American Jewish mothers. But Ida Denby was the Lear of my life.

Great Books by David Denby


Friday, August 23, 2019

Friday Freebie: Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh


Congratulations to Craig Brown and Diane Porter, winners of the previous Friday Freebie contest: Tell Me Who We Were by Kate McQuade.

This week’s giveaway is for the new novel by Amitav Ghosh: Gun Island. By all indications, this novel couldn’t be more timely for our current messed-up world. Here’s the great Annie Proulx (Close Range: Wyoming Stories, Barkskins, etc.) on why we should all read Gun Island:

“In The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh, an important international writer, asked why writers avoid the foremost subject in our lives―climate change. In Gun Island it is unmistakably the central issue. With sweeping exuberant style and extraordinary linguistic facility, Ghosh takes us into a world where desperate refugees trickle through borders like water from melting ice, but where massing animals find no escapes. Old legends and ancient myths take on new meaning. The difficulties of characters in the Sundarbans begin to appear the world over as the climate becomes a forcing element. Our ordinary lives with air travel, cell phones, friends in distant places, smart-mouth teenagers, life insurance, money and investment concerns intersect with forest fire, flooding, storms. This important novel is an account of our current world, the one few writers have had the courage to face.”

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


Bundook. Gun. A common word, but one that turns Deen Datta’s world upside down. A dealer of rare books, Deen is used to a quiet life spent indoors, but as his once-solid beliefs begin to shift, he is forced to set out on an extraordinary journey; one that takes him from India to Los Angeles and Venice via a tangled route through the memories and experiences of those he meets along the way. There is Piya, a fellow Bengali-American who sets his journey in motion; Tipu, an entrepreneurial young man who opens Deen’s eyes to the realities of growing up in today’s world; Rafi, with his desperate attempt to help someone in need; and Cinta, an old friend who provides the missing link in the story they are all a part of. It is a journey that will upend everything he thought he knew about himself, about the Bengali legends of his childhood, and about the world around him. Amitav Ghoshs Gun Island is a beautifully realized novel that effortlessly spans space and time. It is the story of a world on the brink, of increasing displacement and unstoppable transition. But it is also a story of hope, of a man whose faith in the world and the future is restored by two remarkable women.

If you’d like a chance at winning Gun Island, simply e-mail 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 Aug. 29, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky readers on Aug. 30. 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 e-mail address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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


Thursday, August 22, 2019

Front Porch Books: August 2019 edition


Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of new and forthcoming booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. 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, but they’re definitely going in the to-be-read pile.



Tiny Love
by Larry Brown
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  A career-spanning collection, Tiny Love brings together for the first time the stories of Larry Brown’s previous collections along with those never before gathered. The self-taught Brown has long had a cult following, and this collection comes with an intimate and heartfelt appreciation by novelist Jonathan Miles. We see Brown's early forays into genre fiction and the horror story, then develop his fictional gaze closer to home, on the people and landscapes of Lafayette County, Mississippi. And what’s astonishing here is the odyssey these stories chart: Brown’s self-education as a writer and the incredible artistic journey he navigated from “Plant Growin’ Problems” to “A Roadside Resurrection.” This is the whole of Larry Brown, the arc laid bare, both an amazing story collection and the fullest portrait we’ll see of one of the South’s most singular artists.

Opening Lines:  Jerry Barlow eased the ’67 Sportster to the edge of the sand road and shut off the motor. He listened closely to the silence of the woods. Aside from the voices of a few mockingbirds and blue jays crouched in the leaves of blackjack oak and scrub pine, nothing could be heard except the ticking of his hot motor. He got off and unstrapped the short-handled hoe and the gallon jug of liquid plant food from the chrome sissy bar.
       He knew Bacon County, Georgia, was a dangerous place to be doing what he was doing, but he was sure he wouldn't get caught.

Blurbworthiness:  “Larry Brown wrote stories that captured both the beauty and the brokenness of life. He never blinked at life’s darkness, but drew you into it with his characters. Larry Brown wrote the way the best singers sing: with honesty, grit, and the kind of raw emotion that stabs you right in the heart. He was a singular American treasure.”  (Tim McGraw)



The Topeka School
by Ben Lerner
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  Adam Gordon is a senior at Topeka High School, class of ’97. His mother, Jane, is a famous feminist author; his father, Jonathan, is an expert at getting “lost boys” to open up. They both work at a psychiatric clinic that has attracted staff and patients from around the world. Adam is a renowned debater, expected to win a national championship before he heads to college. He is one of the cool kids, ready to fight or, better, freestyle about fighting if it keeps his peers from thinking of him as weak. Adam is also one of the seniors who bring the loner Darren Eberheart―who is, unbeknownst to Adam, his father’s patient―into the social scene, to disastrous effect. Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is the story of a family, its struggles and its strengths: Jane’s reckoning with the legacy of an abusive father, Jonathan’s marital transgressions, the challenge of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a riveting prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the trolls and tyrants of the New Right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men.

Opening Lines:  Darren pictured shattering the mirror with his metal chair. From TV he knew there might be people behind it in the dark, that they could see him. He believed he felt the pressure of their gazes on his face. In slow motion, a rain of glass, the presences revealed. He paused it, rewound, watched it fall again.
       The man with the black mustache kept asking him if he wanted something to drink and finally Darren said hot water.

Blurbworthiness:  “In Ben Lerner’s riveting third novel, Midwestern America in the late nineties becomes a powerful allegory of our troubled present. The Topeka School deftly explores how language not only reflects but is at the very center of our country’s most insidious crises. In prose both richly textured and many-voiced, we track the inner lives of one white family’s interconnected strengths and silences. What’s revealed is part tableau of our collective lust for belonging, part diagnosis of our ongoing national violence. This is Lerner’s most essential and provocative creation yet.” (Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen: An American Lyric)



The Ghosts of Eden Park
by Karen Abbott
(Crown)

Jacket Copy:  In the early days of Prohibition, long before Al Capone became a household name, a German immigrant named George Remus quits practicing law and starts trafficking whiskey. Within two years he’s a multi-millionaire. The press calls him “King of the Bootleggers,” writing breathless stories about the Gatsby-esque events he and his glamorous second wife, Imogene, host at their Cincinnati mansion, with party favors ranging from diamond jewelry for the men to brand-new cars for the women. By the summer of 1921, Remus owns 35 percent of all the liquor in the United States. Pioneering prosecutor Mabel Walker Willebrandt is determined to bring him down. Willebrandt’s bosses at the Justice Department hired her right out of law school, assuming she’d pose no real threat to the cozy relationship they maintain with Remus. Eager to prove them wrong, she dispatches her best investigator, Franklin Dodge, to look into his empire. It’s a decision with deadly consequences. With the fledgling FBI on the case, Remus is quickly imprisoned for violating the Volstead Act. Her husband behind bars, Imogene begins an affair with Dodge. Together, they plot to ruin Remus, sparking a bitter feud that soon reaches the highest levels of government--and that can only end in murder. Combining deep historical research with novelistic flair, The Ghosts of Eden Park is the unforgettable, stranger-than-fiction story of a rags-to-riches entrepreneur and a long-forgotten heroine, of the excesses and absurdities of the Jazz Age, and of the infinite human capacity to deceive.

Opening Lines:  He had been waiting for that morning, dreading it, aware it couldn’t be stopped. An hour ago he was eating breakfast and now here he was, chasing her through Eden Park.

Blurbworthiness:  “Prose so rich and evocative, you feel you’re living the story—and full of lots of ‘I didn’t know that’ moments. Gatsby-era noir at its best.”  (Erik Larson, author of Devil in the White City)



The Body
by Bill Bryson
(Doubleday)

Jacket Copy:  Bill Bryson once again proves himself to be an incomparable companion as he guides us through the human body—how it functions, its remarkable ability to heal itself, and (unfortunately) the ways it can fail. Full of extraordinary facts (your body made a million red blood cells since you started reading this) and irresistible Bryson-esque anecdotes, The Body will lead you to a deeper understanding of the miracle that is life in general and you in particular. As Bill Bryson writes, “We pass our existence within this wobble of flesh and yet take it almost entirely for granted.” The Body will cure that indifference with generous doses of wondrous, compulsively readable facts and information.

Opening Lines:  Long ago, when I was a junior high school student in Iowa, I remember being taught by a biology teacher that all the chemicals that make up a human body could be bought in a hardware store for $5.00 or something like that. I don’t recall the actual sum. It might have been $2.97 or $13.50, but it was certainly very little even in 1960s money, and I remember being astounded at the thought that you could make a slouched and pimply thing such as me for practically nothing.



Tell Me Who We Were
by Kate McQuade
(William Morrow)

Jacket Copy:  It begins with a drowning. One day Mr. Arcilla, the romance language teacher at Briarfield, an all-girls boarding school, is found dead at the bottom of Reed Pond. Young and handsome, the object of much fantasy and fascination, he was adored by his students. For Lilith and Romy, Evie and Claire, Nellie and Grace, he was their first love, and their first true loss. In this extraordinary collection, Kate McQuade explores the ripple effect of one transformative moment on six lives, witnessed at a different point in each girl’s future. Throughout these stories, these bright, imaginative, and ambitious girls mature into women, lose touch and call in favors, achieve success and endure betrayal, marry and divorce, have children and struggle with infertility, abandon husbands and remain loyal to the end. Lyrical, intimate, and incisive, Tell Me Who We Were explores the inner worlds of girls and women, the relationships we cherish and betray, and the transformations we undergo in the simple act of living.

Opening Lines:  We were all a little bit in love with her.
       Partly the good of her, and partly the bad. Partly the pretty, and partly the dark thing under the pretty.

Blurbworthiness:  “The stories in Tell Me Who We Were are united by ferociously complicated women wrestling with pain and desire in a vividly unsettled world. Kate McQuade is a spectacular writer, equal parts sensitive and fearless, and Tell Me Who We Were is abundant with heartbreak and wonder.”   (Laura Van Den Berg, author of Find Me)



A Good Neighborhood
by Therese Anne Fowler
(St. Martin’s)

Jacket Copy:  In Oak Knoll, a verdant, tight-knit North Carolina neighborhood, professor of forestry and ecology Valerie Alston-Holt is raising her bright and talented biracial son. Xavier is headed to college in the fall, and after years of single parenting, Valerie is facing the prospect of an empty nest. All is well until the Whitmans move in next door―an apparently traditional family with new money, ambition, and a secretly troubled teenaged daughter. Thanks to his thriving local business, Brad Whitman is something of a celebrity around town, and he’s made a small fortune on his customer service and charm, while his wife, Julia, escaped her trailer park upbringing for the security of marriage and homemaking. Their new house is more than she ever imagined for herself, and who wouldn’t want to live in Oak Knoll? But with little in common except a property line, these two very different families quickly find themselves at odds: first, over an historic oak tree in Valerie’s yard, and soon after, the blossoming romance between their two teenagers. Told in multiple points of view, A Good Neighborhood asks big questions about life in America today―what does it mean to be a good neighbor? How do we live alongside each other when we don’t see eye to eye?―as it explores the effects of class, race, and heartrending star-crossed love in a story that’s as provocative as it is powerful.

Opening Lines:  An upscale new house in a simple old neighborhood. A girl on a chaise beside a swimming pool, who wants to be left alone. We begin our story here, in the minutes before the small event that will change everything. A Sunday afternoon in May when our neighborhood is still maintaining its tenuous peace, a loose balance between old and new, us and them. Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who’s to blame. They’ll challenge attendees to say on-camera whose side they’re on.
       For the record: we never wanted to take sides.

Blurbworthiness:  “A gripping modern morality tale...Familiar elements―two families, two young lovers, a legal dispute―frame a story that feels both classic and inevitable. But Fowler makes the book her own with smart dialogue, compelling characters and a communal “we” narrator that implicates us all in the wrenching conclusion.”  (Tara Conklin, author of The Last Romantics)



Edison
by Edmund Morris
(Random House)

Jacket Copy:  Although Thomas Alva Edison was the most famous American of his time, and remains an international name today, he is mostly remembered only for the gift of universal electric light. His invention of the first practical incandescent lamp 140 years ago so dazzled the world—already reeling from his invention of the phonograph and dozens of other revolutionary devices—that it cast a shadow over his later achievements. In all, this near-deaf genius (“I haven’t heard a bird sing since I was twelve years old”) patented 1,093 inventions, not including others, such as the X-ray fluoroscope, that he left unlicensed for the benefit of medicine. One of the achievements of this staggering new biography, the first major life of Edison in more than twenty years, is that it portrays the unknown Edison—the philosopher, the futurist, the chemist, the botanist, the wartime defense adviser, the founder of nearly 250 companies—as fully as it deconstructs the Edison of mythological memory. Edmund Morris, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, brings to the task all the interpretive acuity and literary elegance that distinguished his previous biographies of Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Ludwig van Beethoven. A trained musician, Morris is especially well equipped to recount Edison’s fifty-year obsession with recording technology and his pioneering advances in the synchronization of movies and sound. Morris sweeps aside conspiratorial theories positing an enmity between Edison and Nikola Tesla and presents proof of their mutually admiring, if wary, relationship. Enlightened by seven years of research among the five million pages of original documents preserved in Edison’s huge laboratory at West Orange, New Jersey, and privileged access to family papers still held in trust, Morris is also able to bring his subject to life on the page—the adored yet autocratic and often neglectful husband of two wives and father of six children. If the great man who emerges from it is less a sentimental hero than an overwhelming force of nature, driven onward by compulsive creativity, then Edison is at last getting his biographical due.

Opening Lines:  Toward the end, as at the beginning, he lived only on milk.
       Even when he turned eighty-four in February, and pretended to be able to hear the congratulations of the townspeople of Fort Myers, and let twenty schoolgirls in white dresses escort him under the palms to the dedication of a new bridge in his name, and shook his head at being called a “genius” by the governor of Florida, and gave a feeble whoop as he untied the green-and-orange ribbon, and retreated with waves and smiles to the riverside estate he and Mina co-owned with the Henry Fords, he declined a slice of double-iced birthday cake and instead drank the fourth of the seven pints of milk, warmed to nursing temperature, that daily soothed his abdominal pain.



We Leave the Flowers Where They Are
by Richard Fifield (editor)
(Sweetgrass Books)

Jacket Copy:  Longtime memoir instructor and novelist Richard Fifield of Missoula, Montana has curated an anthology, We Leave The Flowers Where They Are, named after a line in the single poem included in the book. Fifield is the author of The Flood Girls and The Small Crimes Of Tiffany Templeton. The idea for the project grew out of Fifield’s memoir classes. Women of all ages and backgrounds have been writing and sharing their stories in his classes for years, according to Fifield, who says “it is time to share these stories with a broader audience.” The anthology is a truly diverse collection, with stories from women all around the Big Sky State, from Powder River to Eureka. Reflecting the lives of all Montana women, the authors’ stories offer joy, pain, humor and hope. From the story of how a midwife in Montana was sued and fought in court to ultimately earn the first professional license issued by the state, to the memoir of an incarcerated woman diagnosed with AIDS, the anthology represents the voices of writers with stories that demand to be told. Fifield’s hope is that these memoirs will help other women to not feel alone, ashamed, and to believe that change is possible. A portion of the book’s proceeds will benefit two nonprofit organizations: Zootown Arts Community Center, an arts nonprofit based in Missoula, and Humanities Montana, a nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities with offices around the state.

Opening Lines:  When the phone rings in the middle of the night, I turn on a small light, and it wakes my husband. It is just after two in the morning. He turns over in the bed, accustomed to these late night calls. Sarah is in labor, and I must go to work. After years as a midwife, the rush of an impending birth jolts me awake, and I move quickly, a familiar routine, but still exciting every time.  (from “Number One” by Dolly Browder)



The Life and Afterlife of Harry Houdini
by Joe Posnanski
(Avid Reader Press)

Jacket Copy:  Harry Houdini. Say his name and a number of things come to mind. Escapes. Illusions. Magic. Chains. Safes. Live burials. Close to a century after his death, nearly every person in America knows his name from a young age, capturing their imaginations with his death-defying stunts and daring acts. He inspired countless people, from all walks of life, to find something magical within themselves. This is a book about a man and his extraordinary life, but it is also about the people who he has inspired in death. As Joe Posnanski delves into the deepest corners of Houdini-land, visiting museums (one owned by David Copperfield), attractions, and private archives, he encounters a cast of unforgettable and fascinating characters: a woman who runs away from home to chase her dream of becoming a magician; an Italian who revives Houdini’s most famous illusion every night; a performer at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles who calls himself Houdini’s Ghost; a young boy in Australia who, one day, sees an old poster and feels his life change; and a man in Los Angeles whose sole mission is life has been to keep the legend’s name alive. Both a personal obsession and an odyssey of discovery, Posnanski draws inspiration from his lifelong passion for and obsession with magic, blending biography, memoir, and first-person reporting to examine Harry Houdini’s life and legacy. This is the ultimate journey to uncover why this magic man endures, and what he still has to teach the world about wonder.

Opening Lines:  “Ladies and gentlemen,” Harry Houdini sang, for in those days he did sing. Houdini’s voice in many way was more magical than any escape or illusion. He spent a lifetime cultivating it, smoothing it, flattening out the Hungarian accent, cleaning up the new York street grime, transforming every da into the, dees into these, and ain’t into are not. By the time he became famous around the world―and by 1915 he was famous in more countries than any performer on earth―you could hear European high society in the street urchin’s voice.



Not a Thing to Comfort You
by Emily Wortman-Wunder
(University of Iowa Press)

Jacket Copy:  From a lightning death on an isolated peak to the intrigues of a small town orchestra, the glimmering stories in this debut collection explore how nature—damaged, fierce, and unpredictable—worms its way into our lives. Here moths steal babies, a creek seduces a lonely suburban mother, and the priorities of a passionate conservationist are thrown into confusion after the death of her son. Over and over, the natural world reveals itself to be unknowable, especially to the people who study it most. These tales of scientists, nurses, and firefighters catalog the loneliness within families, betrayals between friends, and the recurring song of regret and grief.

Opening Lines:  The woman crawled into town from the riverbed. Two miles. The elbows of her jean jacket were ripped to shreds and there was tar on her forearms, and gravel, and river mud. That’s how it was we knew how far she’d come. That, and the other body, the man’s, was found down in the tamarisk, catfish gnawing on his feet. We knew they were together because they each had part of the same animal skull in a pocket: she had the cranial cavity and upper mandible; he had the jaw. I put hers on her nightstand so it’d be the first thing she saw when she woke up.

Blurbworthiness:  “Populated with all manner of wild animals, endangered species, and flawed people, the endlessly readable stories in Not a Thing to Comfort You remind me of campfire ranger talks, if the rangers are Annie Proulx or Raymond Carver and the untended campfire burns down an entire forest. Wortman-Wunder now certainly enters the ranks of our finest naturalist writers, yet what gives these stories their remarkable power and depth is her lifetime of meticulous fieldwork on the always unpredictable human heart.” (Justin Hocking, author, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld: A Memoir)



Sweep Out the Ashes
by Mary Clearman Blew
(University of Nebraska Press)

Jacket Copy:  Diana Karnov came to Versailles, Montana to uncover secrets. Teaching college history in remote northern Montana offers the opportunity to put distance between herself and her overbearing great-aunts and to uncover information about her parents, especially the father she can’t even remember. At first overwhelmed by the brutal winter, Diana throws herself into exploring mysteries her aunts refuse to explain. Eventually, she befriends several locals, including a student, Cheryl Le Tellier, and her brother, Jake. As Diana’s relationship with Jake deepens, he discusses his M├ętis heritage and culture, exposing the enormous gaps in her historical knowledge. Astounded, Diana begins to understand that American narratives, what she learns about her father, and the capacity for women to work and learn is not as set and certain as she was taught. Mary Clearman Blew deftly balances these 1970s pressure points with multifaceted characters and a layered romance to deliver an instant Western classic.

Opening Lines:  Diana Karnov stood at the classroom window, looking out over the faculty parking lot in the early twilight of Montana’s northern latitude. Beyond the parking lot stretched the frostbitten brown grass of the Lawn, ringed by a glow of lights like a barrier between the campus and the open prairie. As the afternoon faded into nightfall, her own reflection emerged in the glass like a ghost of herself superimposed upon an unforgiving landscape.

Blurbworthiness:  “Smart, witty, hard-hitting, tender, and compelling. . . . Much more than a saga about women struggling for their rightful place in the world, though, this book stages a fascinating love story, a fresh look at ethnic relations, and an exciting exploration of history and its surprising revelations. It’s a damned good read.”  (Joy Passanante, author of Through a Long Absence: Words from My Father’s Wars)



Vera Violet
by Melissa Anne Peterson
(Counterpoint)

Jacket Copy:  Vera Violet recounts the dark story of a rough group of teenagers growing up in a twisted rural logging town. There are no jobs. There is no sense of safety. But there is a small group of loyal friends, a truck waiting with the engine running, a pair of boots covered in blood, and a hot 1911 with a pearl pistol grip. Vera Violet O’Neely’s home is in the Pacific Northwest—not the glamorous scene of coffee bars and craft beers, but the hardscrabble region of busted pickups and broken dreams. Vera’s mother has left, her father is unstable, and her brother is deeply troubled. Against this gritty background, Vera struggles to establish a life of her own, a life fortified by her friends and her hard-won love. But the relentless poverty coupled with the twin lures of crystal meth and easy money soon shatter fragile alliances. Her world violently torn apart, Vera is forced to leave everything behind and move to St. Louis, Missouri. She settles into a job at an inner-city school where she encounters the same disarray of community. And alone in her small apartment, Vera grieves. She thinks about her family and the love of her life, Jimmy James Blood. In this brilliant, explosive debut, Melissa Anne Peterson establishes herself as a fresh, raw voice, a writer to be reckoned with.

Opening Lines:  The Montana sky opened up and gave me snow. Snow to numb my wounds. Snow to cover my footprints. Snow to cushion the echo of the rifle as I fired it repeatedly.

Blurbworthiness:  “Vera Violet is the most authentic and exciting debut I’ve read in a long time. At once gritty and jaw-droppingly lyrical, Peterson’s voice is a clarion call for the downtrodden and disenchanted. Reading Vera Violet is nothing less than a visceral and stirring experience.”  (Jonathan Evison, author of Lawn Boy)



Deacon King Kong
by James McBride
(Riverhead)

Jacket Copy:  In September 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn, pulls a .45 from his pocket, and in front of everybody shoots the project’s drug dealer at point-blank range. The reasons for this desperate burst of violence and the consequences that spring from it lie at the heart of Deacon King Kong, James McBride’s funny, moving novel and his first since his National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird. In Deacon King Kong, McBride brings to vivid life the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the white neighbors, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportcoat was deacon, the neighborhood’s Italian mobsters, and Sportcoat himself. As the story deepens, it becomes clear that the lives of the characterscaught in the tumultuous swirl of 1960s New Yorkoverlap in unexpected ways. When the truth does emerge, McBride shows us that not all secrets are meant to be hidden, that the best way to grow is to face change without fear, and that the seeds of love lie in hope and compassion. Bringing to these pages both his masterly storytelling skills and his abiding faith in humanity, James McBride has written a novel every bit as involving as The Good Lord Bird and as emotionally honest as The Color of Water. Told with insight and wit, Deacon King Kong demonstrates that love and faith live in all of us.

Opening Lines:  Deacon Cuffy Lambkin of Five Ends Baptist Church became a walking dead man on a cloudy September afternoon in 1969. That’s the day the old deacon, known as Sportcoat to his friends, marched out to the plaza of the Causeway Housing Projects in South Brooklyn, stuck an ancient .45 Luger in the face of a nineteen-year-old drug dealer named Deems Clemens, and pulled the trigger.


Sunday, August 18, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Inland by Tea Obreht


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

“Lies cut holes in the fabric of Heaven, Toby, and make all the little angels fall out.”
Inland by Tea Obreht


Friday, August 16, 2019

Friday Freebie: Tell Me Who We Were by Kate McQuade


Congratulations to Rhonda Lomazow, winner of the previous Friday Freebie contest: Someone We Know by Shari Lapena.

This week’s giveaway is for Tell Me Who We Were by Kate McQuade. Two lucky readers will each win a hardcover copy of the book (dressed in that gorgeous, haunting cover). Here's what Joyce Carol Oates had to say about it: “These are stories of magical lyricism, contemporary in their exploration of the obsessions of girls and young women, mythic in their scope and mystery. Remarkable.” Keep scrolling for more about the novel and how to enter the contest...


Lyrical, intimate, and incisive, Tell Me Who We Were explores the inner worlds of girls and women, the relationships we cherish and betray, and the transformations we undergo in the simple act of living. It begins with a drowning. One day Mr. Arcilla, the romance language teacher at Briarfield, an all-girls boarding school, is found dead at the bottom of Reed Pond. Young and handsome, the object of much fantasy and fascination, he was adored by his students. For Lilith and Romy, Evie and Claire, Nellie and Grace, he was their first love, and their first true loss. In this extraordinary collection, Kate McQuade explores the ripple effect of one transformative moment on six lives, witnessed at a different point in each girl’s future. Throughout these stories, these bright, imaginative, and ambitious girls mature into women, lose touch and call in favors, achieve success and endure betrayal, marry and divorce, have children and struggle with infertility, abandon husbands and remain loyal to the end.

If you’d like a chance at winning Tell Me Who We Were, simply e-mail 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 Aug. 22, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky readers on Aug. 23. 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 e-mail 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.


When My Father Fell in Love With Annie Dillard



In 1975, my father read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard and fell in love with both the book and its author. At the time, the Reverend Dan Abrams of the First Baptist Church in Jackson, Wyoming spent a goodly, Godly amount of time on the rivers and streams which braided through Jackson Hole like tangled silver necklaces. He could often be found in his non-pulpit hours standing on water-lapped banks, or thigh-deep in a tugging current, or atop great boulders in mid-stream where with his fly-rod raised like a sword and the determined, concentrated pinch of his face, he could be the model for a Civil War statue or, at the very least, the pudgy-but-dapper male model on page 54 of the L. L. Bean catalogue.

In the 1970s, my father spent so many restless hours outdoors that I wonder now if he wasn’t in daily pursuit of his own peaceful Tinker Creek where he could find temporary shelter from the emotional and soulful demands of the ministry. All I know is, when he read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, he closed the book with a sigh then sat down and wrote a love letter to its author. I was young then, but I can still remember the stir this caused in our house―not because of the word “love” (in my father’s line of work, love was the main commodity), but because he was corresponding with a famous person. Yes, once upon a time, writers were minor-league celebrities.

It was all in the guise of a proper book review which appeared in the weekly Jackson Hole News where, in fact, my father penned a weekly column called “Outdoors with Dan Abrams.” Over the course of nearly a decade, my father wrote about fishing, hiking, hunting, and conservation ethics. But mostly fishing. My father, the fisherman and, religiously-speaking, the “fisher of men,” was mad for piscatorial pursuits. In fact, if he’d been one of those original disciples on the beach who’d heard Jesus call to them, “Leave your nets and follow me!”, he might have been the last to drop his net and, with a final doleful look at the water, turn to go with the rest. I think it’s the simplicity of the water he loves: the languid glide over rocks, the rhythmic lap of waves, the determined, no-nonsense way a river cuts through a canyon of stone. He has always shared Annie Dillard’s “holy curiosity” for nature.

And so he reviewed her book.

And he sent her a tearsheet of the review.

And the author wrote back to the reviewer. And my father has rightly treasured that card with its quick-scrawled Thank You for years.

As I continue to make my way through James Mustich’s landmark 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, I have arrived at the D section, specifically “Di-”, and just around the corner from Dickens and next-door to Joan Didion, there is Annie Dillard. The inclusion of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, has stirred the memory of the time my father fell hard for Annie Dillard. Though I haven’t yet read Pilgrim (or, truth be told, any of Dillard’s other books―I am such a filial disappointment!), I remembered my father waxing rhapsodic about the book across a dozen dinnertimes. And so, the other day I asked my father if he still had a copy of that review. It arrived in my inbox less than an hour later. He, it seems, has not lost any of his ardor for this book....

I’ve never met Annie Dillard. Never laid eyes on her. But I think I’ve fallen in love with Annie Dillard (with my wife’s permission, of course).

You see, Annie wrote a book which she entitled Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It was published over a year ago, but I got around to reading it just last month.

I wish I had read it a year ago. In fact, I wish Annie had written it ten years ago and I had read it then. But I am grateful she did and that I stumbled across it.

At first glance Pilgrim appears to be a chronicle of a year’s hikes and observations of the plants, insects, birds and animals which inhabit the environs of Tinker Creek, an ordinary stream flowing near her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.

But don’t let that fool you. Through the eyes of Annie Dillard, the ordinary becomes something special and the common things in nature give hints of the very essence of life and the universe itself.

She allows herself to become immersed in a sense of wonder at the intricacies and interrelationships of God’s creation. She thrills at each new insight of universal proportion as revealed through her windows opened toward the little world of Tinker Creek.

We walk and watch with Annie as she stalks muskrats, scares frogs, collects the eggs of a praying mantis, and sees a mosquito sinking its hypodermic stinger into the neck of a copperhead snake.

We sense her fascinated horror as she observes a giant water bug as it injects a frog with enzymes which dissolve the victim’s muscles, bones and organs. Then the heavy-bodied brown beetle sucks the frog dry of the resulting juices, leaving nothing but a formless skin floating in the film of the water.

Let me warn you, Annie’s imagination takes some strange leaps when you least expect it. She spends a night in a nearby meadow and somehow her thoughts wander to a phenomenon about eels described by Edwin Way Teale. [My father was also a big EWT fan; I have his books, too, but once again you should just go ahead and dip me headfirst in boiling oil because I haven’t read them.]

In one of his fascinating books, Teale tells how eels will sometimes crawl for a mile or more across dewy meadows to reach streams that will carry them to salt water. Annie’s stream of consciousness then flows along to consider the strange life cycle of eels. Not the ordinary stuff of thoughts to ponder as one whiles away the night on an inland meadow.

She has an insatiable thirst for kinky facts and quirks of nature. Annie sits under a sycamore tree near Tinker Creek and begins to contemplate the tremendous extent of life to be found in the top inch of soil on which her body rests.

There comes a consciousness of the fact that in the top inch of forest soil, scientists have found an average of 1,356 living creatures present in each square foot, including 865 mites, 265 springtails, 22 millipedes, 19 adult beetles and various numbers of 12 other forms. There could be upwards of two billion bacteria, and many millions of fungi, protozoa, and algae in a mere teaspoon of soil.

Such statistics tend to boggle the mind, but they keep Annie intensely aware of her surroundings and instills a refreshing sense of awe and wonder at finding herself in the presence of such variety and quantity of life.

In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek one receives new insights to the art of seeing, hints on stalking small wild creatures, and a treasure of interesting facts (ten percent of all the world’s species are parasitic insects).

Annie Dillard is a poet and it is a pleasure to read words strung together exquisitely as pearls on a delicate strand from Cartiers.

Her enthusiasm for life, her childlike sense of wonder and her aggressive curiosity seriously infect the reader. All of this has joined together in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to produce a hymn of joyous praise to the Creator and His world.

Do yourself a favor and read this book. It will go a long way in honing your sensitivity to the natural world about you and thus tuning up your capacity to enjoy the moment at hand wherever you are. Be careful, though. You, too, will probably fall in love with Annie Dillard.

After all, who can resist a girl who plays “King of the Meadow” with a field of grasshoppers and who delights in knowing there are two-hundred twenty-eight separate and distinct muscles in the head of an ordinary caterpillar.

[...There is something endearing about that “Shucks.” I like to think of the author sitting at her table, the burble and babble of Tinker Creek riding to her on the breeze, reading this fawning review that arrived out of the blue from a preacher-man in Wyoming, feeling the pink bloom across her cheeks, searching her roomy writer’s brain for just the right word and finally finding it in the simple, charming Shucks.]

*     *     *

Postscript: When I visited Annie Dillard’s website after posting this, I learned just how rare and special that handwritten note has turned out to be. The Annie Dillard of 1975, still standing fresh and unknowing at the doorstep of her approaching fame, could afford the time to write to small-town pastors; now, however, it’s another story (and justifiably so; I may one day steal/borrow these words for my own0:
Like many other writers, I can no longer read, let alone comment on, the many books and manuscripts people send me. I am going to stop even acknowledging them, to my sorrow and the sorrow of many good writers. I’m merely overwhelmed. I can’t help get others’ writing published, not because I’m holding out, but because I don’t know any agents who are taking on new writers or even who handle “literature.” I lay low. Nor can I write introductions or forwards or provide comments or text or reviews. It’s a matter of time, not of heart. If I answered one-twentieth of the mail, I could neither read nor write, let alone take care of family.