Friday, November 9, 2018

Friday Freebie: Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye

Congratulations to Paul Weidknecht, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Catch, Release by Adrianne Harun.

This week’s giveaway is for Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye, a new short story collection now out from Press 53. Here’s what Jim Shepard, author of The World to Come, had to say about the book: “The characters in Virginia Pye’s Shelf Life of Happiness experience their lives as a tangle they urgently need to understand before it’s too late. These are deft and moving stories.” Three lucky readers will each win a copy of the collection. Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest.

In these bittersweet, compelling stories, Virginia Pye’s characters in Shelf Life of Happiness long for that most-elusive of states: happiness. A young skateboarder reaches across an awesome gap to reconnect with his disapproving father; an elderly painter executes one final, violent gesture to memorialize his work; a newly married writer battles the urge to implode his happy marriage; and a confused young man falls for his best friend's bride and finally learns to love. In each case, Pye’s characters aim to be better people as they strive for happiness--and some even reap the sweet reward of achieving it.

If you’d like a chance at winning Shelf Life of Happiness, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. This contest is open to U.S. addresses only. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 15, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 16. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Thursday, November 8, 2018

When Books Go MIH (Missing in House): One Writer’s Library

Reader:  Lisa Romeo
Location:  Cedar Grove, NJ
Collection Size:  About 1,400
The one book I’d run back into a burning building to rescue:  A fill-in-yourself cookbook of my recipes—because it carries an inscription: “To my daughter, who turned out to be a terrific cook!” This surprised Mom because as she always admitted, she was not a good cook.
Favorite book from childhood:  Every single one that featured a horse. I’ll have to go with National Velvet.
Guilty pleasure book:  Books I only discover after falling in love with the film or TV series the books inspired. Currently, the Call the Midwife memoir trilogy.

I ordered more bookcases last week when I caught myself doing what I vowed I’d never do: piling books on the wing chair I’d confiscated from the living room, claiming I needed a reading chair in my home office. The chair now resembles the basement treadmill—sturdy and parked in a fine spot but rendered useless by its transformation into a holder of stuff. In the chair’s case, it’s books purchased in the past few weeks or those I’d pulled from the shelf for some worthy reason, but when I went to return them to their rightful spot, the spot was gone, overtaken by other books.

I looked around. The chair wasn’t the only warning sign that my home library needed attention.

Piled on a card table were books about fathers and daughters, grief, and death rituals— books I’d read or skimmed last year while writing and revising my recently published memoir, Starting With Goodbye, and/or while writing more about those topics for book publicity months ago. Huh. Thought I’d re-shelved them. The card table itself had been hastily erected as a place to stash other books I’d assigned my online MFA students months ago and needed handy, then promptly forgotten I’d pulled from shelves. Later, I’d go to the appropriate spot, move my index finger along to find one, alphabetically, where it should have been.

Then our son called from college during his first week—as instructed because surely most of the books assigned in his 20th Century American Literature class were on my shelves, saving us both a wad of cash. Instead, I discovered the stash of classics I absolutely know I had somewhere, were apparently elsewhere.

Books are often MIH. Missing, but In the House. Somewhere.

For someone with nearly 100 linear feet of book shelf space, it probably shouldn’t be this way.

Six years ago, the home office/library of my dreams took shape. I did the imagining, my dear husband did the work: painting the walls red, the window trim and door white; measuring, then assembling eight black bookcases; moving a white-and-butcher-block glass-fronted cabinet up from the kitchen. I dislike desks so we floated a black wood dining table in the center of the room so every bit of wall space could be given over to books.

I drafted one son and for two days we organized, alphabetized, and shelved some 1,000 books. All the novels together, followed by short story collections. Then the narrative nonfiction, memoirs, and essay collections by a single author. A separate slim bookcase was devoted to essay anthologies. In the white cabinet: two shelves for poetry, three for books on writing craft, one for language and style reference. Finally, there were two shelves for stuff I’d written myself (before my book), that appeared between physical covers, plus books by editing clients.

Back then, there were empty spaces at the end of many shelves which I filled with mementos, travel trinkets, photos, and Mom’s Waterford candy jars filled with shells and pretty rocks.

It seemed like enough space. So much space, after 23 years working in that same home office with drab hand-me-down, beige office shelving designed to hold anything but books.

It wasn’t enough space.

Slowly, the bits of art and ephemera gave way to newly-acquired books. When all the linear space was full, I began laying books horizontally on top of standing books, then eventually, sadly, stacking books in front of other books. Mind you, each time I get to the end of a 10-week writing class I teach four times a year, I cull the collection, yanking out a dozen books to give away to students. It doesn’t help much.

From where I sit writing in my home office, I watch the light traffic on my suburban street. Recently I tried to think of a week when the UPS van didn’t stop to drop off books, or I didn’t arrive home from a conference, bookstore appearance, or book festival without an armful. No such week existed in my memory. (Some weeks, no such day exists.)

I haven’t even mentioned the bookcases in the breakfast nook holding cookbooks, the one in the living room stacked with travel and local history. Or the baskets in two bathrooms holding trivia and joke books. Or the shelves in the basement where my sons stack books they want to be rid of, awaiting my sorting into bags for the hospice shop, friends with younger children, and book drives.

My fiction shelves are mostly well-behaved; novels rarely go MIH. I read only one novel at a time and return it to its place according to the author’s last name within days. Poetry books and writing craft books don’t generally go missing either but if they did, I wouldn’t realize it right away since I don’t impose alphabetical shelving there. When I want to read a particular poem again, I likely have a vivid memory of the book’s cover and search that way. Craft and writing reference books seem to self-sort into most-consulted at one end of the shelf, and infrequently-thumbed at the other.

What I’m challenged by are the 27 shelves, always full, overflowing, haphazard, holding nonfiction prose, shelves that begin alphabetically but devolve into chaos. I tend to read—or skim, study, search through—about six different nonfiction books at a time. They could be anywhere—in the pool bag, on my night table, in the car, under a pillow on the family room couch. Shelved in the wrong place. I blame not having my glasses handy, ever. Or if I’m tired, I might re-shelve P after R. Put a single-author essay collection on the anthology shelf, drop a memoir by a multi-genre author alongside her novels.

The nonfiction shelves are where at 3:00 a.m. I once decided to reposition some physical shelves, pulled out about 300 books, judged wrong about shelf height, and so now some books are (horrors!) shelved horizontally. It’s where gaps might mean the book is in a pile meant for research or teaching. The nonfiction shelves are also where I’m perplexed by a “missing” title until I realize I meant to buy it, thought I bought it, but didn’t (yet) buy it.

I did find all the classic novels that my college son called about (okay, two weeks too late), neatly stacked (though behind several trophies) in a bookcase in the elder son’s room, where of course I’d suggested he keep them until his brother needed them. Shouldn’t they be back in my office? Of course. Alas, where to put them and the 50-odd other currently shelf-less books?

First, I consult my husband, whose regular job demands he organize a sizable wholesale warehouse for maximum storage and efficiency. How, dear, can we cram in more shelves, more books? He pulls out the measuring tape and yes, we can squeeze one of the narrowest, tallest bookshelves between the window and the closet door, and another next to the wing chair.

But honey, he said ever so gently, you don’t really have a bookshelf problem. You have a book-buying problem.

How could I explain? I don’t have a book-buying problem. I have a library.

Lisa Romeo is the author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss (University of Nevada Press). Her short work is listed in Best American Essays 2018 and 2016, and has appeared in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Longreads, Brevity, Under the Gum Tree, and many other places. Lisa teaches with the Bay Path University MFA program and earned her MFA from Stonecoast. Connect on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or at her website.

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

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

America, You Know What to do Today

Government by the people is, in the end, an “affair of calculation,” a math problem: Who votes? How much does each vote count?
Jill Lepore, These Truths

(Not sure where to go to mark your ballot? The #BooktheVote website will help point you in the right direction.)

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Beautiful Country Burn Again by Ben Fountain

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

Trump is good, so good that I half expect myself to be taken with him, to feel some glimmer of inclination toward the optimistic view, but the prevailing mood is dread, dread bordering on depression. Then the thought arrives fully formed, without effort, without joy or pleasure either, just this final, crude certainty like a hammer coming down: Donald Trump, plainly and simply, is full of shit.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Scenes From a Marriage: First Sight


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, and birds were soundtracking the day with every ounce of air in their tiny lungs. Everywhere you looked in Jackson that day, 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 eyes 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 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 crap.”

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 of collegiate life. 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 humid 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. My father, the Baptist minister, gave me one of his trademark one-armed sidehugs and grunted against the top of my head, “Good to have you back.”

I consoled myself with the thought that it would only be for a short time. I’d already laid my escape plans. As a theater major, I had Hollywood dreams (what theater major doesn’t?). My friend Tupper Cullum, a fellow actor from the previous summer when we’d both appeared on stage 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 a big-city break. In my crazed young mind, I seriously thought of Denver as a stepping stone paving my way to H-wood. It was a tiny paving stone, but a stone nonetheless.

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 busy making other 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 grass blades, 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.

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. Two weeks earlier, I wrote, inscrutably, in my diary, “Someday soon, I’ll just step into the elevator of blackness and hit the button for the ground floor.”

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 only a whistle stop, buddy. I’m just pulling into the station to catch my breath before I head on down the tracks to my destination.

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

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, and never would, was that I’d lost my virginity a couple of months earlier—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 my 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 was too blind to see 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 squinted my eyes and hardened my face against the rest of the congregation: kind old ladies I’d grown up with were now smiling in happy recognition of my homecoming; and their husbands with thinning hair and once-a-week fancy church clothes were likewise grinning and winking in my direction. I nodded back coolly and then pretended to have a sudden interest in reading the church bulletin.

The log-built church smelled of lemon-scented furniture polish, dusty hymnals, and once-a-week wardrobes. Its thick timbers creaked and groaned as they expanded with the day’s growing warmth. All around me came the rustle of bodies and the crinkle of wrappers from hard candies older ladies gave to their grandchildren quiet them 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 notes of the Prelude and, on cue, the choir members started filtering in to the room. 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 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 loft 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.

She was in the back row, 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 beat with the one-two-three, one-two-three syncopation 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.

My life had just ended and begun afresh at the same time. It’s like God took a pen and pressed it against that tiny red reset button at the back of my head.

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 church with that woman beside me. She’d be wearing white and I would be the happiest man alive.

Excerpted from the early draft of my current work-in-progress, a memoir about my marriage to Jean. Spoiler: we celebrate 35 years of marriage exactly one month from today.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Friday Freebie: Catch, Release by Adrianne Harun

Congratulations to Carl Scott, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Evergreen Tidings From the Baumgartners by Gretchen Anthony.

This week’s giveaway is for Catch, Release, the new short-story collection by Adrianne Harun, author of A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain. Tim O’Brien had this to say about the new story collection: “Catch, Release is brilliant. Masterly brilliant. Tour de force brilliant―the crystalline prose, the characters who dive off the page and splash down into the reader’s heart, the islands and water and sunlight and sand and trees that are as astonishingly real as last night’s dreamscape, the moral complexities and contradictions of human beings in contest with the devil, the pitch-perfect sounds of desperation and joy and terror and triumph and unspeakable loss, the smells of fish and salt and sand and musty old farmhouses. As a whole―and these wonderful stories demand to be read as a whole―Catch, Release will break your heart and then mend it and then break it again. This book will endure.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest. And be sure to check Adrianne’s account of her “first time.”

In Catch, Release, Adrianne Harun’s second story collection, loss is the driver. But it’s less the usual somber shadow-figure of grieving than an erratically interesting cousin, unmoored, even exhilarated, by the sudden flight into emptiness, the freedom of being neither here nor there. In this suspended state, anything might happen―and it does. Harun’s most realistic stories are suffused with mystery, while her more fantastic tales reveal startling truths within the commonplace. In diverse settings that include, among other places, a British Columbian island, a haunted Midwestern farmhouse, a London townhome, and a dementia care facility overpopulated with dangerously idle guardian angels, characters reconfigure whole worlds as they navigate states defined by absence. In “The Farmhouse Wife,” a young couple, struggling financially, takes up residence in a near-abandoned farmhouse, only to be joined by an inconvenient roommate, a woman whose own bereft state proves perilously seductive. A kleptomaniac father gets caught in one of his petty thefts in “Pearl Diving,” propelling his two sons out of one life into another, perhaps more appropriate, one. In “Madame Ida,” a family of little girls steadily invades a woman’s life as she puzzles out the mysteries of a missing sheriff-turned-cult-leader and the absence of her own son. And in the title story, two teenagers face off against the hurtful lies of an ancient con woman who is mining a widow’s grief for her own ends. Adrianne Harun has been described as an exacting and attentive stylist whose stories are rendered in vivid language. The Los Angeles Review of Books wrote of her work: “Harun finds beauty in pitch black; she makes poetry out of brutality and grace out of terror. She is an alchemist, turning the worst aspects of life into gold.” With Catch, Release, Harun upends the world once more.

If you’d like a chance at winning Catch, Release, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. This contest is open to U.S. addresses only. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 8, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 9. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Scary as Sheet: Ghost Stories For My Halloween

I live in a house that has good potential to breed ghosts. Built in 1920, the Craftsman home on a quiet tree-lined street in Butte, Montana, is a jigsaw puzzle of dark corners, cobwebbed crawlspaces, drafty closets, an obsolete coal chute, and narrow, twisting staircases that send one’s mind reeling with vertigo. In the basement lurks a big-bellied, multi-armed and asbestos-lined furnace that, when it gleams with inner fire, looks like a mechanical beast out of Jules Verne. And one hears things. At night, the radiators tick like approaching high heels. The blowsy curtains shift from side to side, in a breezeless room. There are creaks, there are hums, there are papery whispers behind one’s back.

The house has seen its share of stories, passing through several different Butte families before us, including one owner, a well-known married ophthalmologist, who met a scandalous end when he was killed in a car accident, along with an 18-year-old female passenger. In an unofficial history left by previous owners, there’s a winking little addendum to the story: He was known for his wandering eye and partying ways.

Like I said, stories have attached themselves to this house. And I believe some characters from those stories still live here.

During one visit, my daughter tripped near the top of one of those spiral staircases, barely catching herself in time from falling. She swears she was nudged from behind. A distinct push against the middle of my back. She was alone in the house at the time.

Houses contain us, we live our lives in them, and it is not surprising that they might continue to shelter us after we die. We are attached to our homes, perhaps so much that we cannot leave, even though we are dead. A haunted house has an emptiness that is filled by the inappropriate or unnatural. A house can lose its soul, a house can go bad. Houses can be monuments to personality, we inflict our tastes upon them, but they can afflict us with their perversity in return. Ghosts can be like vermin–pests to be driven away or exterminated. We are anxious about our houses. Even the most conciliatory, helpful house can become supernaturally burdensome.
I don’t know if I’m supernaturally burdened in my house or if those noises in the other room are just noises, but I do know I suck a lot of pleasure out of that paragraph from Audrey Niffenegger’s introduction to her excellent collection, Ghostly, which is one of the books I’ve been reading this past month to get me in the mood for Halloween.

Ghostly begins with “The Black Cat.” It has been years–decades–since I read Edgar Alan Poe’s classic, and Niffenegger was smart to open her roster with this one because I felt those spinal chills all afresh as if for the first time when I read these words from the narrator (murderer and terrible pet owner) when he overconfidently bangs against his cellar wall as a show of bravado in front of the investigating policemen:
       “Gentlemen,” I said at last, as the party ascended the steps,” I delight to have allayed your suspicions. I wish you all health, and a little more courtesy. By the bye, gentlemen, this–this is a very well constructed house.” ( In the rabid desire to say something easily, I scarcely knew what I uttered are all.)–“I may say an excellently well constructed house. These walls–are you going, gentlemen?–these wall are solidly put together,” and here, through the mere frenzy of bravado, I rapped heavily, with a cane which I held in my hand, upon that very portion of the brick-work behind which stood the corpse of the wife of my bosom.
       But may God shield and deliver me from the fangs of the Arch-Fiend! No sooner had the reverberation of my blows sunk into silence, than I was answered by a voice from within the tombs!–by a cry, at first muffed and broken, like the sobbing of a child, and then quickly swelling into one long, loud, and continuous scream, utterly anomalous and inhuman–a howl–a wailing shriek, half of horror and half of triumph, such as might have arisen only out of hell, conjointly from the throats of the dammed in their agony and of the demons that exult in the damnation.

The book only gets better from there. Shivery standouts include short stories by Edith Wharton, Oliver Onions (funny name, creepy story), A. M. Burrage, A. S. Byatt, and Neil Gaiman, whose “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” is an icy stab to the heart. I don’t want to spoil anything for the virgin reader, but these lines near the end really sent me over the edge:
He pushed open the door to the attic room. It was perfectly dark, now, but the opening door disturbed the air, and I heard things rattle gently, like dry bones in thin bags, in the slight wind. Click. Clack. Click. Clack. Like that.

Ghostly also briskly re-introduced me to Saki and his equally-brisk pleasures. “Laura” and “The Open Window” are both delights in narrative wordplay, trickery, and compression. Especially the latter. Saki gets the job done in the time it takes some writers (present company included) to merely warm up the pen.

Niffenegger closes Ghostly with Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” (updated here to “August 2026”). As she writes in her introductory note: “Perhaps this is not a ghost story at all, but I like to think it is. It is a story of the ghost of a house and the ghost of a civilization. It is a warning and a parable. Of all the stories in this book, it is the most possible.”

The story moves like a roving camera, in one take, through a day in the life (and death) of a house which has miraculously survived a nuclear attack. The house lived, but nothing else did:
       The house stood alone in a city of rubble and ashes. This was the one house left standing. At night the ruined city gave off a radioactive glow which could be seen for miles.
       Ten-fifteen. The garden sprinklers whirled up in golden founts, filling the soft morning air with scatterings of brightness. The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint. The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball, and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down.
       The five spots of paint—the man, the woman, the children, the ball—remained. The rest was a thin charcoaled layer.
       The gentle sprinkler rain filled the garden with falling light.

A house also featured prominently in my TV watching in October. The Haunting of Hill House was only nominally, tangentially related to the novel by Shirley Jackson, and it took my wife and I a couple of episodes to really get into the Netflix series, but when we did, we were sucked in, as helpless as poor little Carol Anne splaying her fingers across the television screen in Poltergeist. There were plenty of legitimate jump scares that had me choking on my candy corn, but more than anything The Haunting of Hill House succeeded as–get this–a tender story about the bonds of family and how to deal with grief and guilt. The scares melt to schmaltz in the final episode as the denouement swerves like a car on an icy road toward a tree called This is Us, but even that isn’t enough to dampen the series’ well-earned sentiment of family first, even unto death.

I also appreciate how the Netflix series was kind enough to include a few patches of text lifted directly from Jackson’s famous opening/closing lines:
Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it has stood for eighty years and might stand eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

I concluded my Halloween reading jag with Dolly by Susan Hill. While I wouldn’t rate it as highly as I would her previously ghost story novella, The Man in the Picture, Dolly does have its moments. Hill creates a soupy, chilly atmosphere of an isolated house out on the fens in Britain. She writes: “Empty houses breed fantasies, bleak landscapes lend themselves to fearful imaginings.” There are some superb, evocative descriptions which all combine to create some tense scenes surrounding temperamental children, a too-large mansion, and an unappreciated gift, a doll. And don’t even get me started on the rustling of tissue paper.

Speaking of odd noises, I just heard something strange coming from the other room. I’m gonna go check it out and then I’ll be right back.

Monday, October 29, 2018

My First Time: Jenn Stroud Rossmann

The First Time I Took Myself Seriously

The first time I went to a weeklong writers’ workshop I was still in grad school, before jobs and kids and various responsibilities kicked in. Since I was working toward my PhD in mechanical engineering, a week at Squaw Valley felt like a glorious moment of finding my people while visiting a land where words were the currency. I felt instantly at home. There’s a reason they call it the Squaw Valley “Community of Writers.” But, because I was still in the suspended half-reality of grad school, I didn’t yet know how special, wondrous, and rare this experience was. Also, there were hot tubs and mountains and wine. It was late-90s northern California, in the middle of another gold rush (several of my lab-mates had side hustles daytrading), and we were invincible.

After Squaw Valley, I buckled down and finished my thesis; I got a job teaching engineering with the marvelously clever students at Harvey Mudd College. I had wonderful colleagues and a little bungalow in Pasadena, and I was trying to get tenure. I wrote on the weekends, or late at night after finishing my grading. But I was very much an engineering professor whose “hobby” was writing fiction. (And reading it: I subscribed to several litmags, and read a few novels a month.) In the meantime, the veins of gold dried up, and several California universities froze hiring. So my husband’s faculty job, when it came, was across the country, in New Jersey. We moved, I found a new position, and I was back at the starting line of the tenure track. Then, we had children.

This is how some novels get written: after the “real work” is done; at naptime; in the car while you’re waiting for ballet class to get out; when your husband sees you getting twitchy and takes the kids to the park for a canoe. I wrote stories and novels this way, on the side and in the margins, and I sent them out. I got some useful feedback, and some not-so-useful. I slid a lot of manuscripts into the drawer. My children grew, and I started to feel more confident about my odds of earning tenure.

I had been automatically deleting those emails from Squaw Valley about each summer’s re-convening of the Community of Writers, and—after a wistful sigh, and a little wave of ennui, those about other conferences and residencies. (I never took the step of unsubscribing. I may be a bit of a masochist when it comes to ennui.)

Then, twelve years after Squaw Valley, I decided to apply to Tin House’s summer workshop. It would be in July, in Portland, Oregon; in August, I would compile and submit my tenure file. I made a pro-and-con list. I shopped for daycamps that my young daughters could attend while I was gone. Here’s what cinched it: my capable husband said, We got this. My best friend back in California said, I’ll meet you there. My mother said, Use my frequent flier miles. My in-laws said, What took you so long.

The week of workshops with the legendary Jim Shepard was transformative. The craft talks and readings were edge-of-seat, can’t-take-notes-fast-enough terrific. (This must be what it feels like to get an MFA, I thought.) My fellow writers were generous, subversive, hilarious. And not all of them were shockingly young, with jetpacks strapped to their backs as they counted down to career rocket-launches. Some, like me, had other lives, other jobs. (I called home each night to hear my daughters’ sweet, vulnerable voices, usually during happy hour.) We called it wordcamp, recognizing the ephemerality of our time together.

All of us recognized each other as fellow citizens of this world of words. The work of both workshoppers and faculty was dauntingly excellent, so the week didn’t exactly build my confidence in my own writing. But it was a homecoming. The week reminded me how alive I felt in this world: performing a close reading of a story; discussing stories and novels; hearing lyrical poetry read aloud; watching as Luis Alberto Urrea dropped his new novel to the ground and performed the first chapter from memory, in character(s).

I soaked it all in, sat marinating on the plane ride home, then faced a week of agonizing detox on re-entry to Real Life. I resolved to figure out how to bring writing out of the margins. A slow learner, I realized only gradually that if I could visit this country of Wordland again—whether it was in Oregon, or Brooklyn, or California, or Chicago—I could reconnect with my people, practice my conjugations in the native language, cobble together something like a DIY MFA, and eventually learn how to conjure this feeling at my very own desk: I belong here, I’ve knit something of words, and I believe I may be able to strengthen it, today.

Jenn Stroud Rossmann is the author of the new novel The Place You’re Supposed to Laugh, set in Silicon Valley in 2002. Kate Racculia, author of Bellweather Rhapsody, says it is “acutely observed, full of wit, keen insight, and compassion.” Rossmann writes the essay series “An Engineer Reads a Novel” for Public Books. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, Jellyfish Review, Tahoma Literary Review, failbetter, and other magazines. Her work has been a finalist for honors including the BOA Editions Short Fiction Prize, the Disquiet Literary Prize, and Sarabande Books’ Mary McCarthy Prize. She earned her BS and PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a professor of mechanical engineering at Lafayette College. You can find her online at

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, October 28, 2018

Sunday Sentence: American Radiance by Luisa Muradyan

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

                 If sadness were a fruit
                 It would be a sadberry
                 which is related to the blueberry
                 but sadder.

“Clams” from American Radiance by Luisa Muradyan

Friday, October 26, 2018

Friday Freebie: Evergreen Tidings From the Baumgartners by Gretchen Anthony

Congratulations to Elyse Garrett, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Strangers in Budapest by Jessica Keener.

This week’s giveaway is for Evergreen Tidings From the Baumgartners, a new holiday novel by Gretchen Anthony. One lucky reader will win a new paperback copy. Will it be you? Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest.

Dearest loved ones, far and near—evergreen tidings from the Baumgartners!

Violet Baumgartner has opened her annual holiday letter the same way for the past three decades. And this year she’s going to throw her husband, Ed, a truly perfect retirement party, one worthy of memorializing in her upcoming letter. But the event becomes a disaster when, in front of two hundred guests, Violet learns her daughter Cerise has been keeping a shocking secret from her, shattering Violet’s carefully constructed world. In an epic battle of wills, Violet goes to increasing lengths to wrest back control of her family, infuriating Cerise and snaring their family and friends in a very un-Midwestern, un-Baumgartner gyre of dramatics. And there will be no explaining away the consequences in this year’s Baumgartner holiday letter. Full of humor, emotion and surprises at every turn, Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners brings to life a remarkable cast of quirky, deeply human characters who must learn to adapt to the unconventional, or else risk losing one another. This is the story of a family falling to pieces—and the unexpected way they put it all back together.

If you’d like a chance at winning Evergreen Tidings From the Baumgartners, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 1, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 2. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Front Porch Books: October 2018 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.

The Adults
by Caroline Hulse
(Random House)

Jacket Copy:  A couple (now separated), plus their daughter, plus their new partners, all on an epic Christmas vacation. What could go wrong? Meet The Adults. Claire and Matt are no longer together but decide that it would be best for their daughter, Scarlett, to have a “normal” family Christmas. They can’t agree on whose idea it was to go to the Happy Forest holiday park, or who said they should bring their new partners. But someone did—and it’s too late to pull the plug. Claire brings her new boyfriend, Patrick (never Pat), a seemingly sensible, eligible from a distance Ironman in Waiting. Matt brings the new love of his life, Alex, funny, smart, and extremely patient. Scarlett, who is seven, brings her imaginary friend Posey. He’s a giant rabbit. Together the five (or six?) of them grit their teeth over Forced Fun Activities, drink a little too much after Scarlett’s bedtime, overshare classified secrets about their pasts...and before you know it, their holiday is a powder keg that ends where this novel begins—with a tearful, frightened call to the police. What happened? They said they’d all be adults about this...

Opening Lines:  Matt had known about the trip for months before he dropped it into conversation.
       Matt didn’t deliberately keep things from Alex; he just dealt with complicated thoughts like he dealt with his post.
       When letters landed in the hallways, Matt stepped over them or, when they could no longer be ignored, crammed them into any nook he could find.

Blurbworthiness:  “Such a breath of fresh air! Witty, intensely human, and (dare I say it) relatable...This novel is the perfect comedy of errors.”  (Katie Khan, author of Hold Back the Stars)

The Elephant in the Room
by Tommy Tomlinson
(Simon & Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  When he was almost fifty years old, Tommy Tomlinson weighed an astonishing—and dangerous—460 pounds, at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, unable to climb a flight of stairs without having to catch his breath, or travel on an airplane without buying two seats. Raised in a family that loved food, he had been aware of the problem for years, seeing doctors and trying diets from the time he was a preteen. But nothing worked, and every time he tried to make a change, it didn’t go the way he planned—in fact, he wasn’t sure that he really wanted to change. He was only one of millions of Americans struggling with weight, body image, and a relationship with food that puts them at major risk. Intimate and insightful, The Elephant in the Room is Tomlinson’s chronicle of meeting those people, taking the first steps towards health, and trying to understand how, as a nation, we got to this point. From buying a FitBit and setting an exercise goal to contemplating the Heart Attack Grill, America’s “capital of food porn,” and modifying his own diet, Tomlinson brings us along on an unforgettable journey of self-discovery that is a candid and sometimes brutal look at the everyday experience of being constantly aware of your size. Over the course of the book, he confronts these issues head on and chronicles the practical steps he has to take—big and small—to lose weight by the end.

Opening Lines:   I have this dream. We’re on a road trip, out in this house in the country, and I’m trying to talk to my wife. But this hog gets in the house. It stinks and it’s slick to the touch and I can’t keep it off me. I push it away but it keeps plowing back and I see tusks. I finally shove it out the door. Now I’m in bed. Here comes the hog again. I can barely stave it off with my hands. It’s all over me. I get to my feet and kick it and ram it with my shoulder and we tumble out into the yard. My mouth is coated with hog-slime, and I reach in and scrape it off my tongue. I’m half-dressed, stinking, miserable. Suddenly we’re back in a room and I can sense I’m being watched. Three or four official-looking people are lined up at a table, like judges on a panel. One of them says, “Here’s what you have to do.”
     I wake up knowing two things.
     One, I have to kill the hog.
     Two, the hog is a part of me.

     I weigh 460 pounds.
     Those are the hardest words I’ve ever had to write.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Elephant in the Room is more than a memoir of an ever-supersizing America. It’s a love story. It’s also a whipsmart history of working-class America, where the fast-food line is long and a weary mother’s love is shown in third helpings of cornbread and butter beans. Tommy Tomlinson’s singular voice—of journalist, Southerner, son, and of a husband who knows how lucky he is—is at turns punchy and poetic, heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud, and full of language so authentically fresh it needs no sell-by date.”  (Beth Macy, author of Dopesick)

The Promise of Elsewhere
by Brad Leithauser

Jacket Copy:  Louie Hake is forty-three and teaches architectural history at a third-rate college in Michigan. His second marriage is collapsing, and he's facing a potentially disastrous medical diagnosis. In an attempt to fend off what has become a soul-crushing existential crisis, he decides to treat himself to a tour of the world's most breathtaking architectural sites. Perhaps not surprisingly, Louie gets waylaid on his very first stop in Rome—ludicrously, spectacularly so—and fails to reach most of his other destinations. He embarks on a doomed romance with a jilted bride celebrating her ruined marriage plans alone in London. And in the Arctic he finds that turf houses and aluminum sheds don't amount to much of an architectural tradition. But it turns out that there's another sort of architecture there: icebergs the size of cathedrals, bobbing beside a strange and wondrous landscape. It soon becomes clear that Louie's grand journey is less about where his wanderings have taken him and more about where his past encounters with romance have not. Whether pursuing his first wife, or his estranged current wife, or the older woman he kissed just once a quarter-century ago, Louie reveals himself to be endearing, deeply touching, wonderfully ridiculous . . . and destined to find love in all the wrong places.

Opening Lines:  If at last they are to come down to us—the Extraterrestrials—what better time than dusk, what better place than the American Midwest? It’s midsummer and a small boy sits beside his father on their sagging back porch. The boy’s name is Louie Hake and the father’s name is Louie Hake as well, and so prickling-potent is the boy’s sensation of kinship while the two of them hunch in the neighborhood twilight, it’s like some internal scent lodged within the very bones of his head. Both wear khaki shorts. Both have blue-gray eyes.

Winter Loon
by Susan Bernhard
(Little A)

Jacket Copy:  Abandoned by his father after his mother drowns in a frozen Minnesota lake, fifteen-year-old Wes Ballot is stranded with coldhearted grandparents and holed up in his mother’s old bedroom, surrounded by her remnants and memories. As the wait for his father stretches unforgivably into months, a local girl, whose own mother died a brutal death, captures his heart and imagination, giving Wes fresh air to breathe in the suffocating small town. When buried truths come to light in the spring thaw, wounds are exposed and violence erupts, forcing Wes to embark on a search for his missing father, the truth about his mother, and a future he must claim for himself—a quest that begins back at that frozen lake. A powerful, page-turning coming-of-age story, Winter Loon captures the resilience of a boy determined to become a worthy man by confronting family demons, clawing his way out of the darkness, and forging a life from the shambles of a broken past.

Opening Lines:  A hawk banked in the gray daybreak, head hunched, eyes darting beneath a cross of wings. Nothing scampered or skittered along the ice, nothing meaty or gamey worth a closer look, nothing with any fight left. All that hawk could have seen was me as I was that morning, a boy only fifteen years old curled up tight as a fiddlehead, ear to the ice, alone on a frozen lake surrounded by remote miles of woods and farmland, a handful of houses sagging in the dark.

Blurbworthiness:  “Winter Loon is a brutal, beautiful coming-of-age story in which a young man who loses everything must return to the landscape of that loss to discover what it all means. Susan Bernhard is a writer of incredible grace and power who employs weather and the natural world to plumb the icy depths of her characters’ souls for the warmth of hope, healing, and heart.”  (Wiley Cash, author of The Last Ballad)

Buddhism for Western Children
by Kirstin Allio
(University of Iowa Press)

Jacket Copy:  Set on the coast of Maine and in the high desert of New Mexico in the late 1970s through the early 80s, Buddhism for Western Children is a universal and timeless story of a boy who must escape subjugation, tell his story, and reclaim his soul. In search of community and transcendence, ten-year-old Daniel’s family is swept into the thrall of a potent and manipulative guru. To his followers, Avadhoot Master King Ivanovich is a living god, a charismatic leader who may reveal enlightenment as he mesmerizes, and alchemizes, Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. Daniel’s family plunges into a world with different rules and rhythms—and with no apparent exit. They join other devotees in shunning the outside world, and fall under the absolutist authority of the guru and his lieutenants. Daniel bears witness to the relentless competition for the guru’s favor, even as he begins to recognize the perversion of his spirituality. Soon, Daniel himself is chosen to play a role. As tensions simmer and roil, darkness intrudes. Devotees overstep, placing even the children in jeopardy. Daniel struggles with conflicting desires to resist and to belong, until finally he must decide who to save and who to abandon. With spiraling, spellbinding language, Allio reveals a cast of vivid, often darkly funny characters, and propels us toward a shocking climax where Daniel’s story cracks open like a kaleidoscope, revealing the costs of submitting to a tyrant and the shimmering resilience of the human spirit.

Opening Lines:  Daniel’s parents listened to the Guru on cassette tape all the way down to Maine from Halifax.
       Canyon stripes of browns and grays whipped by like banners out the window. As they got farther south there was yellow-green in the blur of bushes at the bottom.
       His dad, Ray, set a plastic milk jug of drinking water on the floor of the back seat, and it was Daniel’s job to pass it up when Ray got thirsty.

Blurbworthiness:  “One piece of traditional writer’s advice is ‘Give the devil all the best lines’; Kirstin Allio has instead elected to give him the entire book, leaving the reader and her dear feral child of a protagonist, Daniel/Jubal, to fight their way free together through nests of dazzling, seductive, off-kilter language. The result is a superb exploration of the emotional condition of guru-drunkenness.”  (Jonathan Lethem, author of The Feral Detective)

The Altruists
by Andrew Ridker

Jacket Copy:  Arthur Alter is in trouble. A middling professor at a Midwestern college, he can’t afford his mortgage, he’s exasperated his much-younger girlfriend, and his kids won’t speak to him. And then there’s the money—the small fortune his late wife Francine kept secret, which she bequeathed directly to his children. Those children are Ethan, an anxious recluse living off his mother’s money on a choice plot of Brooklyn real estate; and Maggie, a would-be do-gooder trying to fashion herself a noble life of self-imposed poverty. On the verge of losing the family home, Arthur invites his children back to St. Louis under the guise of a reconciliation. But in doing so, he unwittingly unleashes a Pandora’s box of age-old resentments and long-buried memories—memories that orbit Francine, the matriarch whose life may hold the key to keeping them together. Spanning New York, Paris, Boston, St. Louis, and a small desert outpost in Zimbabwe, The Altruists is a darkly funny (and ultimately tender) family saga in the tradition of Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, with shades of Philip Roth and Zadie Smith. It’s a novel about money, privilege, politics, campus culture, dating, talk therapy, rural sanitation, infidelity, kink, the American beer industry, and what it means to be a “good person.”

Opening Lines:  The Alter family was beset by fire. All autumn there were flare-ups, happenings, the kind of uncoordinated auguries that look ominous only in retrospect. In September, Ethan singed his thumb trying to light a cigarette. Three days later, a faulty burner caused the range in the kitchen to malfunction; the igniter made an anxious sound, a string of desperate ticks, before sparking a flame that caught Francine’s cuff. And at Arthur’s fiftieth birthday, a modest gathering on the back lawn of the house, a trick candle fell from the carrot cake and set a few dead leaves alight, which Maggie stomped out with her foot.

Blurbworthiness:  “Andrew Ridker has a lot to say about the way we live now. The result is one of those super-brilliant, super-funny novels one enjoys in the manner of a squirrel with an especially delicious acorn. I found myself trying to get out of every activity and responsibility just to come back to this novel.”  (Gary Shteyngart, author of Lake Success)

A Philosophy of Ruin
by Nicholas Mancusi
(Hanover Square Press)

Jacket Copy:  A young philosophy professor finds himself in the middle of a drug-running operation after his personal life derails in this taut, white-knuckle debut for fans of Breaking Bad. Oscar Boatwright, a disenchanted philosophy professor, receives terrible news. His mother, on her way home from Hawaii with Oscar’s father, has died midflight, her body cooling for hours until the plane can land. Deeply grieving, Oscar feels his life slipping out of his control. A seemingly innocuous one-night stand with a woman named Dawn becomes volatile when, on the first day of classes, he realizes she is his student, and later learns that she is a fledgling campus drug lord. To make matters worse, his family is in debt, having lost their modest savings to a self-help guru who had indoctrinated Oscar’s mother by preying on her depression. Desperate to help his family, Oscar breaks with his academic personality—he agrees to help Dawn with a drug run. A Philosophy of Ruin rumbles with brooding nihilism, then it cracks like a whip, hurtling Oscar and Dawn toward a terrifying threat on the road. Can Oscar halt the acceleration of chaos? Or was his fate never in his control? Taut, ferocious and blazingly intelligent, A Philosophy of Ruin is a heart-pounding thrill ride into the darkest corners of human geography, and a philosophical reckoning with the forces that determine our destiny.

Opening Lines:  Oscar Boatwright’s mother had died in her seat during a flight from Hawaii to California, and his father had been made to sit for three hours in the same aircraft as her cooling body. This information had been relayed to Oscar via telephone by an airline representative who spoke in a measured tone that simultaneously conveyed measured sympathy and complete legal indemnity. The plane was still in the air.

Blurbworthiness:  “An unforgettable debut. Mancusi is a writer to watch.”  (Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel)

The Other Americans
by Laila Lalami
(Pantheon Books)

Jacket Copy:  Late one spring night, Driss Guerraoui, a Moroccan immigrant in California, is walking across a darkened intersection when he is killed by a speeding car. The repercussions of his death bring together a diverse cast of characters: Guerraoui’s daughter Nora, a jazz composer who returns to the small town in the Mojave she thought she’d left for good; his widow Maryam, who still pines after her life in the old country; Efrain, an undocumented witness whose fear of deportation prevents him from coming forward; Jeremy, a former classmate of Nora’s and a veteran of the Iraq war; Coleman, a detective who is slowly discovering her son’s secrets; Anderson, a neighbor trying to reconnect with his family; and the murdered man himself. As the characters tell their stories, the invisible connections that tie them together—even while they remain deeply divided by race, religion, or class—are slowly revealed. When the mystery of what happened to Driss Guerraoui unfolds, a family’s secrets are exposed, a town’s hypocrisies are faced, and love, in its messy and unpredictable forms, is born.

Opening Lines:  My father was killed on a spring night four years ago, while I sat in the corner booth of a new bistro in Oakland. Whenever I think about that moment, these two contradictory images come to me: my father struggling for breath on the cracked asphalt, and me drinking champagne with my roommate, Margo

Blurbworthiness:  “This deftly constructed account of a crime and its consequences shows up, in its quiet way, the pressures under which ordinary Americans of Muslim background have labored since the events of 9/11.”  (J. M. Coetzee, author of Disgrace)