Sunday, December 8, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Say Uncle by Becky Mandelbaum

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

I once lifted a picnic table over my head to cheer up a woman who was so sad she sometimes ate nothing but cabbage and Tic Tacs for days at a time.

Cry Uncle by Becky Mandelbaum

Friday, December 6, 2019

Friday Freebie: Big Holiday Giveaway

Congratulations to Carl Scott, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Current by Tim Johnston.

This week, I’ve donned a Santa Claus suit and put together a big, multi-book giveaway, just in time for the holidays. I have a stack of eleven books up for grabs. One lucky reader will win them all. Will it be you? Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey: It’s 1491. In the small village of Oakham, its wealthiest and most industrious resident, Tom Newman, is swept away by the river during the early hours of Shrove Saturday. Was it murder, suicide, or an accident? Narrated from the perspective of local priest John Reve—patient shepherd to his wayward flock—a shadowy portrait of the community comes to light through its residents’ tortured revelations. As some of their darkest secrets are revealed, the intrigue of the unexplained death ripples through the congregation. But will Reve, a man with secrets of his own, discover what happened to Newman? And what will happen if he can’t?

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: A Vintage Classics edition of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved and influential story of the March sisters, which is once again a major motion picture. First published in 1868, and based on Louisa May Alcott’s own unusual family, the novel brought to life some of American literature’s most spirited female characters—and this edition has a fresh new cover to match the vibrancy of these heroines. Little Women has long been one of the most enduringly beloved classics of children’s literature, as popular with adults as it is with young readers. Generations have been entranced by the adventures of the four March sisters, each with their distinct and realistic virtues and flaws: tomboyish, ambitious Jo; frail and sweet Beth; beautiful, confident Meg; and artistic, willful Amy. With their patient mother, Marmee, they survive the hardships of the Civil War and the dramas and tragedies of family life.

Sugar Run by Mesha Maren: In 1989, Jodi McCarty is seventeen years old when she’s sentenced to life in prison. When she’s released eighteen years later, she finds herself at a Greyhound bus stop, reeling from the shock of unexpected freedom but determined to chart a better course for herself. Not yet able to return to her lost home in the Appalachian Mountains, she heads south in search of someone she left behind, as a way of finally making amends. There, she meets and falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother living in a motel room with her children. Together they head toward what they hope will be a fresh start. But what do you do with your past—and with a town and a family that refuses to forget, or to change?

Space Invaders by Nona Fernandez: Space Invaders is the story of a group of childhood friends who, in adulthood, are preoccupied by uneasy memories and visions of their classmate Estrella González Jepsen. In their dreams, they catch glimpses of Estrella’s braids, hear echoes of her voice, and read old letters that eventually, mysteriously, stopped arriving. They recall regimented school assemblies, nationalistic class performances, and a trip to the beach. Soon it becomes clear that Estrella’s father was a ranking government officer implicated in the violent crimes of the Pinochet regime, and the question of what became of her after she left school haunts her erstwhile friends. Growing up, these friends―from her pen pal, Maldonado, to her crush, Riquelme―were old enough to sense the danger and tension that surrounded them, but were powerless in the face of it. They could control only the stories they told one another and the “ghostly green bullets” they fired in the video game they played obsessively.

The Other End of the Line by Andrea Camilleri: A wave of refugees has arrived on the Sicilian coast, and Inspector Montalbano and his team have been stationed at port, alongside countless volunteers, to receive and assist the newcomers. Meanwhile, Livia has promised their presence at a friend’s wedding, and the inspector, agreeing to get a new suit tailored, meets the charming master seamstress Elena Biasini. But while on duty at the dock one late night, tragedy strikes, and a woman is found gruesomely murdered. Between managing the growing crowds at the landing, Montalbano delves into the world of garments, in the company of an orphaned cat, where he works to weave together the loose threads of the unsolved crimes and close the case.

The Edge of America by Jon Sealy: Bobby West is on the edge. As chief financial officer for a Miami holding company and a CIA front, he has overleveraged his business in the go-go 1980s financial culture. He turns to a deal-with-the-devil money laundering operation with a local gangster, Alexander French--a deal which quickly goes south when $3 million goes missing. Now Mr. French, a group of Cuban exiles, and an Israeli smuggler named Adriana Chekhov are all after Bobby West to pay up. With echoes of Iran-Contra and the Orwellian surveillance state, The Edge of America is a stunning thriller about greed, power, and the limits of the American dream.

Birthright (Poems) by Erika Dreifus: The poems in Birthright embody multiple legacies: genetic, historical, religious, and literary. Through the lens of one person’s experience of inheritance, the poems suggest ways in which all of us may be influenced by how we perceive and process our lives and times. Here, a poet claims what is hers as a child of her particular parents; as a grandchild of refugees from Nazi Germany; as a Jew, a woman, a Gen Xer, and a New Yorker; as a reader of the Bible and Shakespeare and Flaubert and Lucille Clifton. This poet’s birthright is as unique as her DNA. But it resonates far beyond herself.

Virginia Woolf by Gillian Gill: How did Adeline Virginia Stephen become the great writer Virginia Woolf? Acclaimed biographer Gillian Gill tells the stories of the women whose legacies—of strength, style, and creativity—shaped Woolf’s path to the radical writing that inspires so many today. Gill casts back to Woolf’s French-Anglo-Indian maternal great-grandmother Thérèse de L’Etang, an outsider to English culture whose beauty passed powerfully down the female line; and to Woolf’s aunt Anne Thackeray Ritchie, who gave Woolf her first vision of a successful female writer. Yet it was the women in her own family circle who had the most complex and lasting effect on Woolf. Her mother, Julia, and sisters Stella, Laura, and Vanessa were all, like Woolf herself, but in markedly different ways, warped by the male-dominated household they lived in. Finally, Gill shifts the lens onto the famous Bloomsbury group. This, Gill convinces, is where Woolf called upon the legacy of the women who shaped her to transform a group of men--united in their love for one another and their disregard for women--into a society in which Woolf ultimately found her freedom and her voice.

Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights by Dorothy Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe: In Mighty Justice, trailblazing African American civil rights attorney Dovey Johnson Roundtree recounts her inspiring life story that speaks movingly and urgently to our racially troubled times. From the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, to the segregated courtrooms of the nation’s capital; from the male stronghold of the army where she broke gender and color barriers to the pulpits of churches where women had waited for years for the right to minister—in all these places, Roundtree sought justice. At a time when African American attorneys had to leave the courthouses to use the bathroom, Roundtree took on Washington’s white legal establishment and prevailed, winning a 1955 landmark bus desegregation case that would help to dismantle the practice of “separate but equal” and shatter Jim Crow laws. Later, she led the vanguard of women ordained to the ministry in the AME Church in 1961, merging her law practice with her ministry to fight for families and children being destroyed by urban violence. Dovey Roundtree passed away in 2018 at the age of 104. Though her achievements were significant and influential, she remains largely unknown to the American public. Mighty Justice corrects the historical record.

This Particular Happiness by Jackie Shannon Hollis: Knowing where your scars come from doesn’t make them go away. When Jackie Shannon Hollis marries Bill, a man who does not want children, she joyfully commits to a childless life. But soon after the wedding, she returns to the family ranch in rural Oregon and holds her newborn niece. Jackie falls deep into baby love and longing and begins to question her decision. As she navigates the overlapping roles of wife, daughter, aunt, sister, survivor, counselor, and friend, she explores what it really means to choose a different path. This Particular Happiness delves into the messy and beautiful territory of what we keep and what we abandon to make the space for love.

What is Missing by Michael Frank: Costanza Ansaldo, a half-Italian and half-American translator, is convinced that she has made peace with her childlessness. A year after the death of her husband, an eminent writer, she returns to the pensione in Florence where she spent many happy times in her youth, and there she meets, first, Andrew Weissman, an acutely sensitive seventeen-year-old, and, soon afterward, his father, Henry Weissman, a charismatic New York physician who specializes in—as it happens—reproductive medicine. With three lives each marked by heartbreak and absence—of a child, a parent, a partner, or a clear sense of identity—What is Missing offers Costanza, Andrew, and Henry the opportunity to make themselves whole when the triangle resumes three months later in New York, where the relationships among them turn and tighten with combustive effects that cut to the core of what it means to be a father, a son, and—for Costanza—a potential mother.

If you’d like a chance at winning ALL THE BOOKS, 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 (or, two if you share the postsee below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 19, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 20. 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.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Front Porch Books: December 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.

Cargill Falls
by William Lychack
(Braddock Avenue Books)

Jacket Copy:  There is good reason why William Lychack’s writing has been called “Precise, exhilarating, sometimes wonderfully funny and always beautiful” (Margot Livesey). In prose you can practically feel moving in your hands, Cargill Falls takes you through a series of unforgettable scenes that coalesce into an extended meditation on the meanings we give—or fail to give—certain moments in our lives. The story begins when an adult William Lychack, hearing of the suicide of a childhood friend, sets out to make peace with a single, long-departed winter’s day when the two boys find a gun in the woods. Taking place over the course of just a few hours, this simple existential fact gathers totemic force as it travels backwards and forwards in time through Lychack’s consciousness and opens onto the unfinished business in the lives of the boys, their friends, parents, teachers, and even the family dog. Cargill Falls is a moving conversation with the past that transports us into the mysteries of love and longing and, finally, life itself. Brimming with generosity and wisdom, this is a novel that reveals a writer at the top of his form.

Opening Lines:  We once found a gun in the woods—true story—me and Brownie, two of us walking home from school one day, twelve years old, and there on the ground in the leaves was a pistol. Almost didn’t even notice. Almost passed completely by. Had to be the last thing we expected, gun all black and dull at our feet, Brownie almost kicking it aside like an empty bottle or little-kid toy.
       But then we saw what it was for real and got those shit-eating grins on our faces. We looked back to make sure no one else was coming. Nothing but skinny trees and muddy trail in either direction. Not even a bird chirping that we could hear. We held our breath to listen, everything so quiet we were afraid to move, whole world teetering as if balanced on a point.

Blurbworthiness:  “Cargill Falls is an immediate classic. At once essential and profound and hugely entertaining, the story of the two boys at the heart of this book, and the men they become, follows in the tradition of great coming of age stories like Stand by Me, and then twists and reinvents and does the tradition better, upending all that we know and expect. It’s rare to come across books like this. A writer hopes that once in his or her life he or she can write something so honest.”  (Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children )

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’m a mega-fan of Lychack’s short story collection The Architect of Flowers, so this new short novel was an automatic add to the top of the To-Be-Read (TBR) stack that towers both physically (dead-tree books) and virtually (e-books) in my life. Any new Lychack book will roughly elbow other books aside, without apology. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a ride to catch to Cargill Falls where I’ll be following two young boys into the woods on a particular winter’s day.

Shakespeare for Squirrels
by Christopher Moore
(William Morrow)

Jacket Copy:  Shakespeare meets Dashiell Hammett in this wildly entertaining murder mystery from Christopher Moore—an uproarious, hardboiled take on the Bard’s most performed play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring Pocket, the hero of Fool and The Serpent of Venice, along with his sidekick, Drool, and pet monkey, Jeff. Set adrift by his pirate crew, Pocket of Dog Snogging washes up on the sun-bleached shores of Greece, where he hopes to dazzle the Duke with his comedic brilliance and become his trusted fool. But the island is in turmoil. Egeus, the Duke’s minister, is furious that his daughter Hermia is determined to marry Demetrius, instead of Lysander, the man he has chosen for her. The Duke decrees that if, by the time of the wedding, Hermia still refuses to marry Lysander, she shall be executed . . .or consigned to a nunnery. Pocket, being Pocket, cannot help but point out that this decree is complete bollocks, and that the Duke is an egregious weasel for having even suggested it. Irritated by the fool’s impudence, the Duke orders his death. With the Duke’s guards in pursuit, Pocket makes a daring escape. He soon stumbles into the wooded realm of the fairy king Oberon, who, as luck would have it, is short a fool. His jester Robin Goodfellow—the mischievous sprite better known as Puck—was found dead. Murdered. Oberon makes Pocket an offer he can’t refuse: he will make Pocket his fool and have his death sentence lifted if Pocket finds out who killed Robin Goodfellow. But as anyone who is even vaguely aware of the Bard’s most performed play ever will know, nearly every character has a motive for wanting the mischievous sprite dead. With too many suspects and too little time, Pocket must work his own kind of magic to find the truth, save his neck, and ensure that all ends well. A rollicking tale of love, magic, madness, and murder, Shakespeare for Squirrels is a Midsummer Night’s noir—a wicked and brilliantly funny good time conjured by the singular imagination of Christopher Moore.

Opening Lines: We’d been adrift for eight days when the ninny tried to eat the monkey.

Why It’s In My Stack: I’m a fool for Shakespeare, I dig hardboiled crime fiction, and I need to laugh. I’m gonna tell the rest of the world to Puck off while I burrow into Christopher Moore’s latest pulpy production.

The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals
by Becky Mandelbaum
(Simon and Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is in trouble. It’s late 2016 when Ariel discovers that her mother Mona’s animal sanctuary in Western Kansas has not only been the target of anti-Semitic hate crimes—but that it’s also for sale, due to hidden financial ruin. Ariel, living a new life in progressive Lawrence, and estranged from her mother for six long years, knows she has to return to her childhood home—especially since her own past may have played a role in the attack on the sanctuary. Ariel expects tension, maybe even fury, but she doesn’t anticipate that her first love, a ranch hand named Gideon, will still be working at the Bright Side. Back in Lawrence, Ariel’s charming but hapless fiancé, Dex, grows paranoid about her sudden departure. After uncovering Mona’s address, he sets out to confront Ariel, but instead finds her grappling with the life she’s abandoned. Amid the reparations with her mother, it’s clear that Ariel is questioning the meaning of her life in Lawrence, and whether she belongs with Dex or with someone else, somewhere else. Acclaimed writer Pam Houston says that “Mandelbaum is wise beyond her years and twice as talented,” and The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals poignantly explores the unique love and tension between mothers and daughters, and humans and animals alike. Perceptive and funny, moving and eloquent, and ultimately buoyant, Mandelbaum offers a panoramic view of family and forgiveness, and of the meaning of home. Her debut reminds us that love provides refuge, and underscores our similarities as human beings, no matter how alone or far apart we may feel.

Opening Lines:  It was midnight in Kansas, and the bigots were awake.

Why It’s In My Stack:  That first sentence!

In Our Midst
by Nancy Jensen
(Dzanc Books)

Jacket Copy:  Drawing upon a long-suppressed episode in American history, when thousands of German immigrants were rounded up and interned following the attack on Pearl Harbor, In Our Midst tells the story of one family’s fight to cling to the ideals of freedom and opportunity that brought them to America. Nina and Otto Aust, along with their teenage sons, feel the foundation of their American lives crumbling when, in the middle of the annual St. Nikolas Day celebration in the Aust Family Restaurant, their most loyal customers, one after another, turn their faces away and leave without a word. The next morning, two FBI agents seize Nina by order of the president, and the restaurant is ransacked in a search for evidence of German collusion. Ripped from their sons and from each other, Nina and Otto are forced to weigh increasingly bitter choices to stay together and stay alive. Recalling a forgotten chapter in history, In Our Midst illuminates a nation gripped by suspicion, fear, and hatred strong enough to threaten all bonds of love―for friends, family, community, and country.

Opening Lines:  Nina’s favorite moment was the hush, just before she pushed through the swinging door from the kitchen into the dining room of the restaurant, holding out her best Dresden platter, filled to its gold-laced edges with thin slices of fruitpocked Christollen, chocolate Lebkuchen, and hand-pressed Springerle in a dozen designs, fragrant with aniseed. Following close behind would be her husband Otto, bearing the large serving bowl brimming with Pfeffernusse, crisp and brown―each spicy nugget no larger than a hazelnut―ready to dip them up with a silver ladle and pour them into their guests’ cupped and eager hands. Next would come the boys, Kurt first, with two silver pitchers―one of hot strong coffee, the other of tea―and then Gerhard, carrying the porcelain chocolate pot, still the purest white and so abloom with flowers in pink, yellow, and blue that it seemed ever a promise of spring. Nina’s mother had passed it on to her in 1925, a farewell gift when she, Otto, and the boys―Kurt a wide-eyed three and Gerhard just learning to walk―had left Koblenz for the Port of Hamburg, bound for America.

Why It’s In My Stack:  I am drawn by the rich description of that hot meal coming through the swinging door into the restaurant―my mouth waters at the very words―which is such a pleasant scene...and one about to be destroyed by prejudice and hate.

Butch Cassidy
by Charles Leerhsen
(Simon and Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  For more than a century the life and death of Butch Cassidy have been the subject of legend, spawning a small industry of mythmakers and a major Hollywood film. But who was Butch Cassidy, really? Charles Leerhsen, bestselling author of Ty Cobb, sorts out facts from folklore and paints a brilliant portrait of the celebrated outlaw of the American West. Born into a Mormon family in Utah, Robert Leroy Parker grew up dirt poor and soon discovered that stealing horses and cattle was a fact of life in a world where small ranchers were being squeezed by banks, railroads, and cattle barons. Sometimes you got caught, sometimes you got lucky. A charismatic and more than capable cowboy—even ranch owners who knew he was a rustler said they would hire him again—he adopted the alias “Butch Cassidy,” and moved on to a new moneymaking endeavor: bank robbery. By all accounts, Butch was a smart and considerate thief, refusing to take anything from customers and insisting that no one be injured during his heists. His “Wild Bunch” gang specialized in clever getaways, stationing horses at various points along their escape route so they could outrun any posse. Eventually Butch and his gang graduated to train robberies, which were more lucrative. But the railroad owners hired the Pinkerton Agency, whose detectives pursued Butch and his gang relentlessly, until he and his then partner Harry Longabaugh (The Sundance Kid) fled to South America, where they replicated the cycle of ranching, rustling, and robbery until they met their end in Bolivia. In Butch Cassidy, Charles Leerhsen shares his fascination with how criminals such as Butch deftly maneuvered between honest work and thievery, battling the corporate interests that were exploiting the settlers, and showing us in vibrant prose the Old West as it really was, in all its promise and heartbreak.

Opening Lines:  Start at the end, they say.
       The last member of Butch Cassidy’s gang, the Wild Bunch, went into the ground in December 1961. Which means that someone who held the horses during an old-school Western train robbery, or had been otherwise involved with the kind of men who crouched behind boulders with six-guns in their hands and bandanas tied around their sunburnt faces, might have voted for John F. Kennedy (or Richard Nixon), seen the movie West Side Story or heard Del Shannon sing run-run-run-run-runaway—that is, if she hadn’t been rendered deaf years earlier during the blasting open of a Union Pacific express car safe. Her outlaw buddies were always a little heavy-handed with the dynamite.
       Yes—she. The Wild Bunch, which some writers have called the biggest and most structurally complex criminal organization of the late nineteenth century, came down, in the end, to one little old lady sitting in a small, dark apartment in Memphis. Laura Bullion died in obscurity eight years before the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, revitalized the almost-forgotten semilegend in which she had played a minor but authentic part.

Why It’s In My Stack: Like many of you, my depth of knowledge about Butch Cassidy is only as thick as a daguerrotype photo print and about as long as a two-hour movie. Leerhsen’s biography of the outlaw looks like a vibrant and entertaining way to go deeper.

The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon
by Jane Kenyon
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  Published twenty-five years after her untimely death, The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon presents the essential work of one of America’s most cherished poets―celebrated for her tenacity, spirit, and grace. In their inquisitive explorations and direct language, Jane Kenyon’s poems disclose a quiet certainty in the natural world and a lifelong dialogue with her faith and her questioning of it. As a crucial aspect of these beloved poems of companionship, she confronts her struggle with severe depression on its own stark terms. Selected by Kenyon’s husband, Donald Hall, just before his death in 2018, The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon collects work from across a life and career that will be, as she writes in one poem, “simply lasting.”

Opening Lines: (“From Room to Room”)
       Here in this house, among photographs
       of your ancestors, their hymnbooks and old

       I move from room to room,
       a little dazed, like the fly. I watch it
       bump against each window.

       I am clumsy here, thrusting
       slabs of maple into the stove.

Blurbworthiness:  “The poems of Jane Kenyon are lodestars. I can think of no better way to navigate life than to keep her work close, as I have always done. It’s thrilling to now have this great parting gift from Donald Hall―his loving, intimate, discerning selection of the best of her poems.”  (Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Otherwise, Kenyon’s collection of “new and selected poems,” which was published shortly after her death in 1995, remains one of my absolute favorite collections by a poet, contemporary or otherwise. Like Dani Shapiro, I keep Kenyon and her lodestar words close to me and within easy reach. I don’t know how many of the “greatest hits” collected here will be new to me, but a return trip to her work is overdue.

The Splendid and the Vile
by Erik Larson

Jacket Copy:  On Winston Churchill’s first day as prime minister, Adolf Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold his country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally—and willing to fight to the end. In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson (author of The Devil in the White City) shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless.” It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it’s also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London. Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports—some released only recently—Larson provides a new lens on London’s darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents’ wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela’s illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill’s “Secret Circle,” to whom he turns in the hardest moments. The Splendid and the Vile takes readers out of today’s political dysfunction and back to a time of true leadership, when, in the face of unrelenting horror, Churchill’s eloquence, courage, and perseverance bound a country, and a family, together.

Opening Lines:  No one had any doubt that the bombers would come. Defense planning began well before the war, though the planner had no specific threat in mind. Europe was Europe. If past experience was any sort of guide, a war could break out anywhere, anytime.

Why It’s In My Stack:  Though I’ve yet to read any of Larson’s books (they’re all in my TBR pile!), his treatment of the Blitz looks like a good place to start. Bombs away and here we go!

Dressed All Wrong For This
by Francine Witte
(Blue Light Press)

Jacket Copy:  Robert Olen Butler, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, had this to say about the new collection of flash fiction by Francine Witte: “Dressed All Wrong For This is a splendid demonstration of the depth and range of the short-short story, an art form whose relevance and influence are rapidly growing in this digital age of compressed communication. Francine Witte brilliantly illuminates nuanced truths of the human condition in this collection, truths that could be expressed in no other way.”

Opening Lines:  She became like a fish out of it. Dizzy. Always dizzy. And dry.
       She would ready her arms for floating. Let them stretch out long and perpendicular. But nothing. Always nothing.
       She thought of how she got here. Days and days of scorching sunlight. And other obvious signs. In fancy restaurants, when conversation turned to global warming, for instance, she said she would rather talk about film.
          (From the opening story “When There Was No More Water”)

Blurbworthiness:  “With Dressed All Wrong For This, Francine Witte has created an illuminated manuscript of life at a slant: where we encounter a woman who loses her “husband weight,” Suzo the clown and his many wives, a shadow that takes matters into its own hands. Rarely does one come across a story collection so astonishingly original, language so fresh, and surreal writing so rife with what is real to us all.”  (Robert Scotellaro, author of Bad Motel)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’ll make this quick: Francine Witte writes with tectonic plates, pressing and squeezing words until they are compressed into gems. Her flash fiction short-short stories sparkle. I plan to pair Dressed All Wrong For This with Witte’s new poetry collection, The Theory of Flesh.

The Center of Everything
by Jamie Harrison

Jacket Copy:  For Polly, the small town of Livingston, Montana, is a magical ecosystem of extended family and raw, natural beauty governed by kinship networks that extend back generations. But the summer of 2002 finds Polly at a crossroads. A recent head injury has scattered her perception of the present, bringing to the surface events from thirty years ago and half a country away. A beloved friend goes missing on the Yellowstone River as Polly's relatives arrive for a reunion during the Fourth of July holiday, dredging up difficult memories for a family well acquainted with tragedy. Search parties comb the river as carefully as Polly combs her memories, and over the course of one fateful week, Polly arrives at a deeper understanding of herself and her larger-than-life family. Weaving together the past and the present, bounded by the brisk shores of Long Island Sound and the landscape of big-sky Montana, The Center of Everything examines with profound insight the nature of the human condition: the tribes we call family, the memories and touchstones that make up a life, and the loves and losses we must endure along the way.

Opening Lines:  When Polly was a child, and thought like a child, the world was a fluid place. People came and went and never looked the same from month to month or year to year. They shifted bodies and voices—a family friend shaved a beard, a great aunt shriveled into illness, a doctor grew taller—and it would take time to find them, to recognize them.
       Polly studied faces, she wondered, she undid the disguise. But sometimes people she loved disappeared entirely, curling off like smoke.

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’ve been looking forward to holding Jamie Harrison’s next novel in my hands ever since the release of The Widow Nash two years ago. Based on Harrison’s other work, The Center of Everything is bound to delight and satisfy. Side note: I made my home in Livingston for a brief, windy spell in the mid-1980s, so I automatically gravitate toward any book set there.

The Impossible First
by Colin O’Brady

Jacket Copy:  Prior to December 2018, no individual had ever crossed the landmass of Antarctica alone, without support and completely human powered. Yet, Colin O’Brady was determined to do just that, even if, ten years earlier, there was doubt that he’d ever walk again normally. From the depths of a tragic accident, he fought his way back. In a quest to unlock his potential and discover what was possible, he went on to set three mountaineering world records before turning to this historic Antarctic challenge. O’Brady’s pursuit of a goal that had eluded many others was made even more intense by a head-to-head battle that emerged with British polar explorer Captain Louis Rudd—also striving to be “the first.” Enduring Antarctica’s sub-zero temperatures and pulling a sled that initially weighed 375 pounds—in complete isolation and through a succession of whiteouts, storms, and a series of near disasters—O’Brady persevered. Alone with his thoughts for nearly two months in the vastness of the frozen continent—gripped by fear and doubt—he reflected on his past, seeking courage and inspiration in the relationships and experiences that had shaped his life. Honest, deeply moving, filled with moments of vulnerability—and set against the backdrop of some of the most extreme environments on earth, from Mt. Everest to Antarctica—The Impossible First reveals how anyone can reject limits, overcome immense obstacles, and discover what matters most.

Opening Lines:  I started thinking about my hands.
       That was my first mistake.
       After forty-eight days and more than 760 miles alone across Antarctica, the daily ache of my hands—cracked with cold, gripping my ski poles twelve hours a day—had become like a drumbeat, forming the rhythm of my existence.

Blurbworthiness:  “Suspenseful, soul-searching, and at times metaphysical as O’Brady endures an endless sheet of white and ice...The book is a testament to the human soul and the amazing feats we can accomplish with training, willpower, and the singular resilience of the mind. You will learn from and be inspired by it.” (Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Earlier this year, I traveled across the vast icy desert of Antarctica. I wasn’t alone: I was accompanied by Apsley Cherry-Garrard and his classic adventure book The Worst Journey in the World—a narrative of walking and sledding across the continent in the early 1910s with details so intense I braved frostbite to turn the pages. So, Antarctica has been on my mind a lot. O’Brady’s solo account is now perched near the icy peaks of my towering to-be-read mountain. I can’t wait to freeze again.

by Julia Alvarez
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  Antonia Vega, the immigrant writer at the center of Afterlife, has had the rug pulled out from under her. She has just retired from the college where she taught English when her beloved husband, Sam, suddenly dies. And then more jolts: her bighearted but unstable sister disappears, and Antonia returns home one evening to find a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep. Antonia has always sought direction in the literature she loves—lines from her favorite authors play in her head like a soundtrack—but now she finds that the world demands more of her than words. Afterlife, the first adult novel in almost fifteen years by the bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, is a compact, nimble, and sharply droll novel. Set in this political moment of tribalism and distrust, it asks: What do we owe those in crisis in our families, including—maybe especially—members of our human family? How do we live in a broken world without losing faith in one another or ourselves? And how do we stay true to those glorious souls we have lost?

Opening Lines:  She is to meet him / a place they often choose for special occasions / to celebrate her retirement from the college / a favorite restaurant / and the new life awaiting her / a half-hour drive from their home / a mountain town / twenty if she speeds in the thirty-mile zone / Tonight it makes more sense / a midway point / to arrive separately / as she will be driving down from her doctor’s appointment / she gets there first / as he will be driving from home / he should have been there before her / she starts calling his cell / after waiting ten, twenty minutes / he doesn’t answer

Blurbworthiness:  “Ravishing and heartfelt, Afterlife explores the complexities of familial devotion and tragedy against a backdrop of a world in crisis, and the ways in which we struggle to maintain hope, faith, compassion and love. This is Julia Alvarez at her best and most personal.” (Jonathan Santlofer, author of The Widower’s Notebook)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I was blown away by the Prologue, whose opening lines I quoted above. It continues on in that fashion / fragments sliced by backslashes / for three pages / titled “Broken English” / the parts adding up to the whole. It reflects, in concrete form, the stuttering thoughts which swirl and dive-bomb our minds in times of grief. And it made me sit up and take notice that here was something fresh, something visceral, something that might make me cough up tears as the pages go on. (The rest of Afterlife is told in the “normal” way, sans backslash interruption.)

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

War-mocker: New Interview in Mount Hope magazine

There’s a new interview with yours truly in the latest issue of Mount Hope magazine, published by Roger Williams University’s Department of English and Creative Writing. My thanks to writer Hannah Little and editor Edward J. Delaney (author of The Big Impossible) for giving me the space to talk about my war novels Fobbit and Brave Deeds. Other topics of discussion: the transition from military to civilian life, James Mustich’s 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, my second (and current) career with the Bureau of Land Management, the 4:30 a.m. alarm, and my two current works in progress (Happily and Dubble). Here’s how the conversation begins:

Mount Hope:  You’ve described yourself as a “people pleaser” in the past. Did you worry about what your fellow servicemen or colleagues would think of the satirical honesty in your first novel, Fobbit?

David Abrams:  I share the same pre-publication anxieties as most writers: Will readers appreciate what I have to say? Will they love my characters or loathe them? Will the book become a Frisbee that’s tossed across the room in disgust? This is all the needless worry and fretting creators are riddled with when it comes time to publicly unveil the creation.
       In my case, concern, and trepidation about what military members, veterans, and their families—particularly those who’ve lost loved ones in combat—would think about Fobbit was paramount in my mind in the months before it was released. This was a novel that, on the surface, appears to mock all that patriotic Americans hold dear to their hearts. Would they think I was ridiculing or diminishing what they or their families had sacrificed for this country? It kept me awake at night.
       As it turns out, I could have slept peacefully: Fobbit was embraced with open arms by my fellow servicemembers. I was surprised, humbled, and brought to tears on a couple of occasions when people came up to me after readings or emailed me to say how much they appreciated Fobbit and what it had to say. I learned a valuable lesson with that first book: trust your readers to “get it.” They knew I was mocking the bureaucracy of war, not those who were only carrying out their orders in a complex tangle of a war.

MH:  Would you say that writing acts as an outlet of sorts for expressing your frustrations through snark and sarcasm? Such as the parts of Fobbit that show the ridiculous bureaucracy behind each press release, or your short story “Thank You” (if I am remembering the title correctly), which is both funny and heartbreaking.

DA:  Oh, absolutely. Humor is a way for me to vent about issues that frustrate and anger me. Fobbit was a guided missile launched into the sky, aimed toward all the things that tied me in knots during my year in Iraq: the tangle of bureaucratic red tape, the clowns in the White House who never seemed to understand what was happening in the desert, and the blind American patriotism that vigorously waved the flag while glossing over the real questions like why were we there in the first place? I vented and vomited my anger all over the pages of Fobbit while, at the same time, I perfumed it with jokes.
       Don’t get me wrong—the United States did accomplish some good things in that country over the long slog of the war. And while I would never discount the value of the humanitarian projects the military undertook during my time in Iraq (which included building schools, upgrading and providing security for power plants, and repairing infrastructure—which U.S. forces had damaged and destroyed during the invasion-slash-liberation), I would characterize most of our efforts there as one-step-forward-half-a-step-back. It was that disconnect between the way the Fox News anchors seemed to sing The Star-Spangled Banner while reporting the news and what I saw actually taking place on the ground which was the ultimate driving force in writing this novel. One of my favorite quotes from Flannery O’Connor is about how sometimes you have to use “violent” literary ways to get your vision across to a hostile, ignorant, or reluctant audience: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” In my case, I loaded those guided missiles with whoopee cushions. It was totally cathartic for me and gave me a sense of comfort knowing that I’d vented my feelings. It just so happened that spew of anger manifested itself as humor.

Read the rest of the interview here

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

The First Time Ever I Saw Her Face

We got married in a blizzard.

December 3, 1983 was supposed to be our day, the date we had set for the wedding ceremony in my hometown of Jackson, Wyoming; instead, Mother Nature laughed at our puny human plans and said, “Watch this.”

The storms began in early November and never really let up, dumping record amounts of snow across the peaks of the Grand Tetons and blanketing the valley. The morning of our wedding dawned cold and bright with a surprise appearance from the sun reflecting off the white landscape. It was a Saturday, the end of “a week of almost unending snow,” according to the local newspaper, which went on to detail the snowpack inches with the kind of exuberant joy reserved for ski resort towns like Jackson Hole: 62 inches at the summit of Rendezvous Mountain in Teton Village, 26 inches at the base. The valley’s ski bums were dancing with glee.

Not us. We weren’t dancing...yet. Jean and I had invited more than 500 people to the ceremony which was due to begin at 5 p.m. that day. My father, the pastor at the First Baptist Church and a pillar of the community, had a wide network of friends and he expected to see most of them sitting in the church pews that evening as he officiated the ceremony.

But the snow had other ideas.

By noon that day, my mother was already getting phone calls from people who said they were very sorry but it looked like they wouldn’t be able to make it to the wedding because they were too busy digging out from the week of relentless snow. Nonetheless, we drove the decorations and the catered food (enough for 500 mouths) to the reception hall across town, tires spinning and slipping the whole way there. We were determined to reclaim this day for ourselves. We were gonna get married, dammit, and not even snow and ice could stop us.

Late that afternoon, Jean put on her wedding dress and I donned my tuxedo. I took my place at the front of the church as Jean waited at the back in the vestibule, just out of my line of sight. Bridesmaids slow-marched up the aisle, smiling at the brave and hardy souls (150 of them, as it turned out) who’d struggled through the snowdrifts to reach the church.

I rocked nervously and impatiently in my black dress shoes. My bowtie strangled me. My heart beat like a timpani drum. I was swollen with anxiety and joy and hope and fear. I thought I would burst through my skin.

Outside, clouds heavy and dark with a fresh, frozen mix moved in. Snow started falling, again, as the organist lifted his wrists and the first notes of the organ prelude filled the church.

Fourteen inches of snow would smother the town in the next twenty-four hours, but neither Jean nor I cared. By that time, the rings were already on our fingers and the world was ours.

*     *     *

How did we get here? How did these two imperfect people come together to form this perfect union? It had happened so quickly, like we were caught in a whirling gust of circumstance, blown forward into each other’s arms.

After all, we’d only met six months earlier....

*     *     *

It was a perfect late May morning: the air was crisp and cool as the other side of the pillow, clouds were a garden of white blooms, birds soundtracked the day with every ounce of breath in their tiny lungs. Everywhere you looked in Jackson, the molecules of the air sang This day will be bright as a Colgate smile. The town felt ripe with possibility.

I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

*    *    *

I’d returned to my hometown after my sophomore year at the University of Wyoming—nine months during which I got a girlfriend, lost a girlfriend, longed for a girlfriend, stared too hard and creepily at certain girls in my psychology class, snaked my fingers into one girl’s pants and under the bra of another, and then—finally, finally—lost my virginity in my dim dorm room….only to have that girl, Becky, drift away with disinterest in a matter of less than two weeks.

Becky was the one who finally undid me. She burned my heart until it tasted bitter and angry. Romance was now nothing but a charred piece of meat on a plate in front of me.

After being dumped by what I thought was my first true and committed lover, my eye stopped wandering and I clenched tight inside myself. I vowed to have nothing to do with women. Ever again.

“I’m through,” I told my friend and fellow actor Randy. “I’m done, done, done with girls. From now on, I focus inward, taking care of myself, looking out for Number One and all that shit.”

Randy slid his gold-rimmed glasses back up the bridge of his nose and did his best to hold in a knowing smile. “Sure,” he said. “Whatever you say.”

This was near the end of the spring semester in Laramie and to Band-Aid my heart, I plunged headfirst into my classwork. I roused myself from a spiritual torpor that had seemed to spread like cancer in me for the past eighteen months. It’s like I’d broken out of a fever that had held me in a sweaty dream, demanding my attention at the cost of everything else. I felt renewed in my fresh determination to forge ahead as a single person moving through life unencumbered and free from distraction. Girls were the disease I no longer wanted to catch.

*    *    *

When the semester ended, I returned home to Jackson, reluctant and dragging my feet. Moving back in with my parents was contrary to my new life plan as a footloose and fancy-free single man (determinedly single). I didn’t want to return to living in my bedroom with its childsize bed and all its sweaty teen love agonies.

But I had to go back. It was strictly a financial decision. I had $200 to my name and couldn’t afford to pay rent anywhere in Laramie, so I prodigaled my way back to Jackson.

I consoled myself with the thought that it would only be for a short time. I’d already laid my escape plans. My friend Tupper Cullum, a veteran actor from the previous summer at Dirty Jack’s Wild West Theater in Jackson, had found work in Denver and invited me to come along on this budding-thespian adventure.

Tupper, a tall, muscular fellow with a smooth-as-cream-cheese Southern accent, was fun to be around. He had a soft manner, but was always quick with a dry-wit joke and wry grin. I looked up to him as a big brother, a potential mentor who might bring me along with him on whatever breaks in the acting profession were to be had in Denver. This could be the start of something big, I told myself. That’s how I thought in those days: in wide-eyed naiveté like I was a backstage ingénue in a 1930s movie about a small-town girl longing for her big break in Hollywood.

But press the Pause button, buddy. Tupper couldn’t go to Denver until the end of June. He’d already planned to be in Alaska for a theater repertory workshop and wouldn’t be traveling back through Wyoming before the end of the month.

“That’s okay,” I told him on the phone. “I’ll just hang out at my parents’ place in Jackson until you’re ready.”

All the time, I wondered what I would do with myself for the next month and a half.

How’s that saying go? Life is what happens when you’re making plans…

*    *    *

As I walked into my father’s church that perfect May morning, the lawn sparkled with diamonds of dew. I’d cut the grass the day before as a favor to my father and I could still smell the slightly sour earthiness rising from under my feet. The morning felt like it could turn out to be beautiful with birdsong, moist grassblades, and crystalline skies.

As I walked up the steps and entered the church, I noticed none of that beauty.

I was thinking of charred and smoking hearts.

I was thinking of girls betraying me with flamethrowers, scorching my earth.

I was thinking of avenues of escape.

I was thinking of doors and windows, how when God closes one He opens another.

Bitterness and anger hurricaned my heart.

What I wasn’t thinking about was destiny and fate and the random intersection of lives.

I’d celebrated my 20th birthday two days earlier by going to see Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life at the Jackson Hole Cinema. But right at this moment, I felt like my own life had no meaning.

I was handed a church bulletin by an avuncular usher who greeted me with a too-cheery, “Welcome home! Glad to see you’re back for the summer.”

I nodded and thought to myself, This is just a whistle stop, buddy. The train is only pulling into the station for a few minutes before heading on down the tracks.

I took my place in my usual pew—halfway back on the right-hand side—so I could be inconspicuous but not appear to my father that I was looking for a hasty exit after the service. Which I was, of course.

By this point in my life, I treated church attendance as an obligatory, check-the-box chore I performed for the pleasure of my parents. They suspected I had spent my college years wandering away from the flock, a black sheep exploring a different meadow on his own. What they didn’t know was that I’d lost my virginity a couple of months earlier: I’d desecrated the holy temple of my body without the sanctity of marriage. I’d also started going out to bars and smoking cigarettes—habits I tried to keep hidden from them, but deep down knew it was futile. I mean, my clothes reeked of nicotine. And it was impossible not to hug my mother. She’s just that kind of person.

When I returned home that summer, I was different—and proud of it. I’d seen James Dean on screen for the first time earlier that year, when the tiny arthouse theater in Laramie (Trout Cinema) showed all three of his movies in a mini-filmfest. He was the coolest, the ab-so-lute coolest dude I’d ever seen. I started modeling my behavior on his: I cupped cigarettes in the palm of my hand like he did; when I wore my winter jacket, I flipped up my collar and smirked at the world over its edge like he did; I squinted my eyes and adopted a tortured look like he did. I was a rebel with a cause: I was no longer the polite, sissy preacher’s kid. I was the new cool kid on the block.

I couldn’t see that my tough James Dean persona was just a thin veneer over my ongoing insecurity.

As I sat there in the church pew waiting for the service to begin, I squinched my eyes and hardened my face against the rest of the congregation: kind old ladies whom I’d grown up with me who were now smiling in happy recognition of my homecoming appearance; and their husbands with their thinning hair and once-a-week fancy church clothes who were likewise grinning and winking in my direction. I nodded back at them coolly and pretended to have a sudden interest in reading the church bulletin.

The church smelled of lemon-scented furniture polish, dusty hymnals, and once-a-week wardrobes. Its pine timbers creaked and groaned as they expanded with the day’s growing warmth. All around me there was the rustle of bodies and the crinkle of wrappers from hard candies older ladies gave to their grandchildren to keep them quiet during the service.

My father entered and mounted the steps to the pulpit. He looked out across the congregation, found me in my usual spot, and gave a curt nod of recognition. I was where he wanted me to be.

But I was far from wanting to be where I was at that moment.

I sighed. Only another fifty-five minutes to go and then I was out of there.

The organist struck the first loud notes of the prelude and, on cue, the choir members started filtering in. My father had a showy tradition of having the robed choir members enter the area behind the pulpit from entrances at the front of the church, one on each side of the pulpit area. As the organist and pianist started playing the first hymn, the choir would climb from their backstage waiting area in the basement, two lines of semi-professional-but-mostly-amateur singers who forced the notes from their throats with all the lusty fervor of the birds outside. They filtered in single-file from each side like a line of ants, then took their places in the choir loft.

I glanced up from my bulletin and saw they were the same old crowd of the usual suspects: the heavily-permed ladies, the tall thin men, the altos, the sopranos, the baritones, the thickset men of the bass section. I’d grown up watching them week after week, leading us in the hymns and performing the once-weekly “special music” when the offering plates were being circulated by the deacons halfway through the service.

The line of familiar ants marched into the choir and I started to yawn.

But then, but then, but THEN!!

My mouth froze mid-yawn.

There was a new choir member.

A girl, a woman, a beauty.

Thunder clapped across my heart, my brain went blank, my eyes melted.

*     *     *

At this point in the story, I’ll let the words written by Ewan MacColl in 1957 and recorded by Roberta Flack in 1972 describe the storm swirling in my head and heart:
The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the endless skies
*     *     *

She was in the back row of the choir, half-hidden behind Steve C., a county surveyor, and Barb T., an elementary school teacher. I shifted in my pew, straining for a better look.

Holy crap! There was a new girl in town—someone close to my age—and my parents hadn’t bothered to mention her to me in the week I’d been back? What the hell?! I’d have to have a serious talk with them when I got home.

I suddenly hated the fact that “love at first sight” was a cliché because it had just come true and I knew that no one in all the years to come would ever believe me when I say it happened to me on that gorgeous dewy day in June in the Year of Our Lord 1983.

Her eyes, her eyes, her eyes. Even from halfway back in the congregation, a distance of fifty yards, I could see them, rounded and darkly-lashed with mascara. I could tell right away they were eyes that engaged with the world, peering into life and drawing unsuspecting souls (like mine!) into their orbit.

That mouth, that mouth, that mouth. It was full-lipped, but not too wide, not too tight. It was the kind of shapely mouth that, I suspected, held back a deep and wondrous voice.

Her hair, her hair, her hair. Dark blonde curls cascaded and tumbled and rolled down to her shoulders. Those strands beckoned my hands and I knew, if given the chance, my fingers would romp with delight in the soft folds and ringlets they found there.

By this point, my James Dean coolness lay in smoking ruins at my feet.

I realized my mouth still hung open in the unfinished yawn and I snapped my jaws shut. The bulletin was a soggy sweat-mess in my hands.

Oh my Lord, I whispered—and not in a reverent churchy way.

Needless to say, I heard nothing of my father’s sermon that day. The only part of the service which had my full attention was the special music during the offertory when the choir stood—when she rose!—and delivered the day’s song, adding her voice to the choir’s overall off-key-ness, which to me at that moment sounded as perfectly tuned as an angel’s harp. My heart kept time with the one-two-three, one-two-three of the choir director’s arms. For me, church was over when the choir sat down and my father took the pulpit for his sermon. I was already out of there and heading back to my bedroom to cancel my plans with Tupper—my temporary bedroom which now looked like it would be my permanent bedroom, at least for the summer.

I had no idea who this mystery girl was, but I would employ every skill I’d learned from Nancy Drew, Encyclopedia Brown, and Hercule Poirot to find out.

Little did I know that six months later—almost to the day—I would walk out of that same church with that woman beside me. She’d be wearing white and I would be the happiest man alive. And love, like those blizzard-blown snowflakes outside on that December evening, would continue to fall and blanket us for the rest of our lives.

June 1983: The first photo ever taken of us as a couple

This is an excerpt from my current work in progress, Happily, a memoir about my marriage. It’s also a gift to my beloved on our 36th wedding anniversary.

Monday, December 2, 2019

My First Time: Barbara J. King

The First Book My Mother Didn’t Read

On my bookshelf at home sits Still Alice by Lisa Genova. The novel, which tells the story of cognitive psychology professor Alice Howland’s struggles with early-onset Alzheimer’s, is 292 pages long; nestled at page 265 is my mother’s bookmark. Before she could finish reading, my mother, Elizabeth King, died of COPD and vascular dementia at age 88.

Through her 80s, thanks to the crush of those oxygen-robbing diseases, my mother read increasingly slowly and with a comprehension that I could not readily judge. Yet she read, always. Her need to read was enduring and was beautiful to me.

When I hold Still Alice in my hands as my mother held it in hers, a world of mental images floods my brain, telescoping backwards in time. I see my mother reading my book How Animals Grieve, deliberately and intently, in her wheelchair at the assisted living facility near my home in Virginia. I see the moment, years ago, when I handed her my first book, based on my anthropology dissertation and written for a far narrower audience. (It was titled The Information Continuum: Evolution of Social Information Transfer in Monkeys, Apes, and Hominids—and she read it anyway!). I see the two of us browsing in a bookstore, my knowing that no matter my age, she would insist on gifting me with a book because it flooded her with pleasure. Finally I see her as young mother driving me again and again to Shrewsbury Public Library in our little town, where the universe of books truly opened for me.

In that universe, my mother held up some books as her favorites: Biographies of arresting public figures, mysteries that invite a cognitive quest, and at the top of the heap (a function, I know, of maternal pride) my own books. She read each of the five, and somehow, inevitably just happened to have one with her—cover held high in her lap—at lunch with new friends or when one of her doctors walked into the examining room to greet her.

And then she died. No matter that my mother had recently acquiesced to her physician’s suggestion that she enter hospice, and no matter that I had negotiated the arrangements; her death came as a blaze of shock to me. I’d been with her just hours before. While she did seem a little off—she was tilted in an embodied way, so that I insisted she get out of the wheelchair and into bed, and asked the nurse to come look—there was no clear crisis and she expressed no discomfort. To my forever gratitude, we parted lovingly. When only hours later the phone rang at home, I could not process what the nurse intended to convey. My mother had passed? Passed where?

Among the losses I felt as I sat with her body that night, organized the funeral service in New Jersey, and spoke over her grave, one I did not anticipate. Twenty-three months after her death, my Personalities on the Plate: The Lives & Minds of Animals We Eat was published. Fresh grief washed over me when, just as had happened five times before, a box stuffed with copies for me arrived shortly ahead of the book’s on-sale date. Extracting the top copy, meant for my mother, I felt disoriented to the point of dizziness.

My father had been keenly smart, and together we shared many of life’s joys, but reading was not one of them. He had died years before I became a book author. I have no siblings. My husband, an avid reader and sweetly attentive to my writing, first knew me as a 30-something adult. My daughter shares my reading habits, to my serious delight; she’s 26 and later in her life, my books may occupy her intently. But who could possibly read me as my mother had read me? Who could take in the profound love of anthropology and animals inscribed in my books and yet see in her mind’s eye the young girl who pestered her for a trip to the public library for another volume in the “Cherry Ames Student Nurse” series?

In the past, handing my shiny-new volumes to my mother, each with that heady new-book smell, was a way to say thank you. Neither of my parents had finished high school, though both later earned GEDs. My father left school to join the Navy during World War II, and departed on Liberty Ship runs to Murmansk; my mother worked at a factory and took a variety of other jobs during the war. Later, my father became passionate about, and highly successful in, his work in the anti-organized-crime division of the New Jersey State Police. (Once or twice I’d accompanied my Dad on dry runs to count windows and doors before house raids on mob figures, and once in our driveway he made me back away from the family car before he turned on the ignition, a caution I only fully figured out years later.) My mother wanted most—truly wanted; she told me this often—to be a homemaker and raise me, though she also did part-time book-keeping for the town of Shrewsbury once I entered school. In our home, the furniture and rugs were threadbare in the early years, but I was given encyclopedias and other books, and music lessons. When I enrolled at Douglass College as a first-generation university student, the 28-mile drive from Shrewsbury to campus felt to me like a long-distance trek (and in so many ways, it was). Through graduate school, field work in Kenya that began shortly after my father’s death, becoming a professor in Virginia, and falling hard in love with book-writing, I felt that my mother journeyed with me.

In her final years, my mother understood fewer of the details of my participation in academic and—as my books found their audience more and more—in public discourse. Yet the year before her death, when I brought her a copy of The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014 which featured a piece of mine, she glowed as she read it. That, I had expected. What blew me away, what caused me to glow too, is that she read on and on from there, tackling chapters devoted to hard science with a fiery curiosity.

Sometimes, I’m sorry to say, I became impatient with my mother’s mind. Always sharp with numbers, she now pored over her financial statements and announced her suspicion that the bank was cheating her. These dark worries of deception and theft extended to the overworked and mostly very kind caregivers at her assisted living home. This was brain disease at work, I knew, yet it caused me embarrassment. Her only child, her advocate in public, I fought with her sometimes in private, and she fought back. We had always navigated mother-daughter waters with intensity, on some days battling to keep the love ahead of the exasperation.

In the presence of books, though—the world’s books, my books—we found common cause. Our sensibilities converged; we discovered then rediscovered much to share. Now, my seventh book is written and in the hands of peer reviewers. Revisions are certain to come, based on these readers' wisdom. Then will come the long wait for my publisher to turn manuscript pages into print, and for that day when a heavy box of new books will thud onto my doorstep. Already I anticipate deep pleasure, and once again, a spiking of deep loss.

Barbara J. King is emerita professor of anthropology at William & Mary and a freelance science writer and public speaker. The author of six books, Barbara focuses on animal emotion and cognition, the ethics of our relationships with animals, and the evolutionary history of language, culture, and religion. She spoke about animal love and grief in her TED talk given from the main-stage at TED’s 2019 Vancouver conference. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, NPR, Aeon, and Undark, and she regularly reviews books for NPR and the TLS. She lives in Virginia with her husband and rescued cats. Barbara tweets persistently from @bjkingape and her website can be found here.

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, December 1, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien

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

My buddies were grunts, 11-Bravo, and they did the daily, nasty, grinding, lethal work of war. They slept in the rain; they fought the firefights; they spent their nights lying in ambush and their days trudging through minefields out on the Batangan Peninsula; they were not cooks or clerks or mechanics or supply specialists; they were infantry; they lived in the war, and the war lived in them, and fifty years ago they did your killing and your dying for you.

from Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien