Saturday, April 30, 2011

H is for Heroin

Sometimes you find a book and sometimes the book finds you.

Last night, I made a quick after-work run to one of Butte's thrift shops with my wife where I was to give my husbandly approval of a table and chairs she wanted to buy and re-finish for her funky-junk business.  The furniture was fine--bolts and screws needed a little tightening, but otherwise I could see how Jean would work her magic on this early-century table and turn it into something beautiful and vintage-y.  She's good at breathing new life into old things (present company included).

While she paid for the junk furniture, I beat a predictable path toward the book section.  (What?  You thought this was going to be a post about repurposing furniture?)

The tattered and torn book spines were a siren song, drawing me closer and closer to the cast-off David Baldaccis and DaVinci Codes.  My pulse always quickens and I break into a light sweat whenever I'm around books that smell like someone's basement.  Yesterday was no exception.  Just look at one of the treasures which had been sitting on the shelf waiting for me to come along with my coins:

(click image for a larger version)

(click image for a larger version)

Oh sure, we can laugh about it now, but back in 1952, they took heroin addiction very seriously.  In its June 9, 1952 issue, TIME magazine offered less of a review of Hulburd's book than a cautionary sermon dotted with excerpts from the pages of H is for Heroin.
"One day," says Amy, "Jocelyn. and I rode around in Jocelyn's car and she started telling me all over again what kicks I would get out of blowing up a joint....We parked way down the other side of the abalone pier. She gave me the joint and I lit it. Yeah....I liked it. I had a ball real soon....It made me feel just good, I guess. Kind of silly-like....Then we had another and then we just rode around and goofed."
I don't know about you, but I'm fascinated by books like this which pull up the shades on windows to earlier times.  This is one reason my collections of Dell mapbacks and vintage pulp fiction novels are so large.  Apart from the cover art, I love reading the jacket copy and phraseology of a society that now seems quaint in how it commercially treated sex and violence.  "Shocking" and "sordid" are tossed around like firecrackers, even though the actual contents of the book usually turn out to be tame by comparison.

There was never any question I would buy H is for Heroin from that Butte thrift store.  While my wife was feeding her furniture addiction, I was busy paying 33-1/3 cents for Hulburd's narcotic expose.  The store had a special 3-for-$1 deal on books (I spent my other 66-2/3 cents on The Foolish Immortals by Paul Gallico and Killing Time by Thomas Berger).

So one day in the near future, don't be surprised if you find me sitting at a circa 1945 table reading a 1952 account of a young girl's downward spiral into a shocking and sordid lifestyle.  For good measure, maybe I'll watch Reefer Madness later that night.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Friday Freebie: The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse

Congratulations to Wayne Allen, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, the package of three titles from Fantagraphics Books: Castle Waiting, Vol. 2 by Linda Medley, Unlovable by Esther Pearl Watson and Special Exits by Joyce Farmer.

Last week's trivia question asked readers which recent or upcoming Fantagraphics title they were most looking forward to getting their inky little paws on.  According to my unscientific poll, the top pick was, by far, Congress of the Animals by Jim Woodring.  Other popular must-reads included Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s by Greg Sadowski, Yeah! by Peter Bagge, The Arctic Marauder by Jacques Tardi, and Buz Sawyer: The War in the Pacific by Roy Crane.  But, almost to a person, the response to the question was "Do I have to choose?  I want all of them!"

This week's book giveaway is The Madonnas of Echo Park by Brando Skyhorse.  The novel, first published last year, is a critically-acclaimed story about the Mexican-American experience told in a chorus of voices and shifting viewpoints, similar to the movie Crash.  Critics have compared it to work by Junot Diaz, Sandra Cisneros, Sherman Alexie and Chang Rae-Lee.  Here's the publisher's blurb about the plot:
When a dozen or so girls and mothers gather on an Echo Park street corner to act out a scene from a Madonna music video, they find themselves caught in the crossfire of a drive-by shooting.  In the aftermath, Aurora Esperanza grows distant from her mother, Felicia, who as a housekeeper in the Hollywood Hills establishes a unique relationship with a detached housewife.

The Esperanzas’ shifting lives connect with those of various members of their neighborhood.  A day laborer trolls the streets for work with men half his age and witnesses a murder that pits his morality against his illegal status; a religious hypocrite gets her comeuppance when she meets the Virgin Mary at a bus stop on Sunset Boulevard; a typical bus route turns violent when cultures and egos collide in the night, with devastating results; and Aurora goes on a journey through her gentrified childhood neighborhood in a quest to discover her own history and her place in the land that all Mexican Americans dream of, "the land that belongs to us again."
Skyhorse shows off his lyrical flair from the very beginning of the first chapter:
     We slipped into this country like thieves, onto the land that once was ours. Those who'd never been here before could at last see the Promised Land in the darkness; those who'd been deported and come back, only a shadow of that promise. Before the sun rises on this famished desert, stretching from the fiercest undertow in the Pacific to the steepest flint-tipped crest in the San Gabriel Mountains, the temperature drops to an icy chill, the border disappears, and in a finger snap of a blink of an eye, we are running, carried on the breath of a morning frost into hot kitchens to cook your food, waltzing across miles of tile floor to clean your houses, settling like dew on shaggy front lawns to cut your grass. We run into this American dream with a determination to shed everything we know and love that weighs us down if we have any hope of survival. This is how we learn to navigate the terrain.
     I measure the land not by what I have but by what I have lost, because the more you lose, the more American you can become.
If you'd like a chance at winning a new paperback copy of the novel, all you have to do is answer this question:

According to the book's official website, in his next book--a memoir--Skyhorse describes his life growing up.  How many stepfathers did he have?

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until the contest closes at midnight on May 5--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on May 6.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Soup and Salad: William Lychack on William Maxwell, Los Angeles Review of Books Launches, Richard Ford on Raymond Carver, Jonathan Evison on Brick-and-Mortars, An Author's Monobookist Bookstore

On today's menu:

1.  As part of NPR's "You Must Read This" series, William Lychack (The Architect of Flowers) writes about William Maxwell and the advice he once gave the young writer: "There is so much that we know that we don't know we know.  Try to listen to your feelings as you would to the sound in a seashell, and then put them down on paper."  Lychack shapes this small essay with as much care and intelligence as he does the brilliant stories in his new collection.  He also reminds me that it's about damn time I pull Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow off my bookshelf.

2.  If you haven't done so already, you need to bookmark The Los Angeles Review of Books.*  The site is just 10 days old, but it's already fulfilled its promise of a force to be reckoned with among book review sites.  The LARB's manifesto says it hopes to be a place where readers can find "deeply informed discourse" on books and writers in the 21st century.  Look no further than the highlights of its first week:
Jane Smiley on Nancy Mitford
Geoff Nicholson on Buster Keaton
Ben Ehrenreich on The Death of the Book

3.  The thing I carried away from this short New Yorker interview with Richard Ford about the new anthology he edited, Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar?  His comment on why Raymond Carver, his best bud and champion of the working class, was not included in the collection:
The book is dedicated to Raymond Carver, but you note that you did not receive permission to include Carver’s “Elephant.”  Was a reason given by the Carver estate for declining?
The reason was not given. It’s ridiculous, of course.  A rather glaring loss. His work belongs in this collection. He was my great pal, and was the pal of many of the writers in the book. At the very least, you could say that the forces in control of his estate may not have his readers’ interests at heart.
Nice bitchslap, Richard!  (Though I wholeheartedly agree on the "glaring loss" of Carver from the book.)

4.  I'm late in bringing this to you, but Jonathan Evison's short sermon "Why Brick and Mortars Still Rule the Book World, and Why We Must Shop at Them Even If It Costs a Couple Extra Bucks and Few Extra Minutes" is a definite must-read.
In the past eight weeks, I’ve visited more than forty independent bookstores all over the continent, and every one of them had its own personality, and virtually every one of them was owned by an impassioned soul, who had bought themselves into a low paying job by buying bookstore.  Oh, and virtually every one of them was a pillar of their community, who put their money right back into said community. And guess what else?  All their employees were impassioned people, who happe ned to be local, and happened to like working for a low wage, if only because it allowed them to work around books, and to spread the word about books and authors, and none more so than the those who otherwise might fall under the radar, or the search engine.

Think about that the next time you click “buy” online to save a couple bucks.  Ask yourself: what have I lost, what has my community lost, in the name of convenience?  You wanna’ live in a town with wide boulevards, no sidewalks, and box stores on both sides?  Then don’t spend your money at indiebookstores, or indie hardware stores, or indie grocery stores.  Don’t seek out conversations.  Just keep clicking and saving, and serving yourself in the name of convenience.

5.  And if you're only looking for one book in particular, you can visit Andrew Kessler's "Monobookist Bookstore."  Don't ask for Lolita or Pillars of the Earth because you won't find them at the Hudson Street bookshop.  In fact, the only book you'll be able to buy is Kessler's Martian Summer.  The shelves are stocked with 3,000 copies, so you're pretty much guaranteed not to be put on a wait list.

*Full disclosure: I'm a contributor.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

From the Cutting Room Floor: Oopsie!

The skin of fiction covering the truth in Fobbit, my novel about the Iraq War, is very thin in some places.  Fact: I spent 10 months in Baghdad in 2005 with the 3rd Infantry Division, working 11-hour days in the Public Affairs cell.  Fact:  I was in charge of writing and releasing the majority of press releases from Task Force Baghdad headquarters during that period.  Fact:  I kept a rigorously-detailed journal.  Fiction:  I did not shower with lavendar-vanilla scented body wash every day, nor did I ever once weep while watching Mrs. Miniver on my laptop computer while sitting in my hooch at night, nor did I work for a man prone to chronic nosebleeds (at least not at the rate portrayed in my novel).

But this episode, which I recently trimmed from the novel during the latest round of revisions, hews pretty close to actual events.  I excised it from the manuscript because there are just too many reports of military actions like this and I needed to cut the least interesting ones of the bunch.  I reprint it here for posterity's sake (as much as the vaporous internet can provide posterity) and so you'll never forget this kind of crazy shit goes on all the time over there.  Most days, the Iraq War was a tragedy; other days, it was a tragi-comedy of errors.

*     *     *     *

From the Diary of Chance Gooding Jr.

July 16: Another day, another attack.  When I get to the office this morning, I pull up the Significant Activities reports and find one where we engaged in a running gun battle with people we believed were terrorists.

Here’s what I know to be true at this point:  At 3:45 a.m., U.S. military police came under small-arms fire attack.  They called for backup and aviation responded with attack helicopters.  The pilots located the terrorists and saw them piling into a pickup truck.  The helicopters followed that truck as it fled the scene.  Eventually, more vehicles joined the pickup and traveled to another location where, in an alley, everyone got out of the vehicles and started unloading some items (which may or may not have been weapons).  There was a small flash and then the helicopters started taking some fire from an unknown direction.

(All this was taking place during what were supposed to be curfew hours, mind you, when no one but U.S. and Iraqi military were allowed to be out on the streets.)

Maj. Pepper, the Aviation Brigade Public Affairs Officer, tells me that the helicopter pilots looking through their night-vision scopes definitely identified weapons in some of the individuals’ hands and that those weapons were glowing under the night-vision, indicating they’d just been fired.  The pilots requested permission to fire before the group scattered.  Permission was granted by the brigade who owned that sector of the city.  Forty rounds of 30-millimeter ammunition were fired.  “Unknown BDA [battle damage assessment—i.e., body count],” according to the Sig Act.

I think at one point either the Iraqi Police or Iraqi Army showed up and eventually the wounded were taken to various local hospitals.  Division headquarters sent intel teams to the hospitals to determine who exactly these people were.

Meanwhile, CNN started calling us, saying they heard Fox News reporting that U.S. troops had “mistakenly fired on Iraqi civilians,” wounding or killing 26 innocent people.

(Okay, for one thing: there are NO INNOCENTS prowling around the streets at 4 Fucking A.M.  And for another, unless it was a wedding or a funeral, I don’t think 26 Iraqis would be gathered together in the same place at the same time at an hour like that. But that’s just me ranting and raving.)

After I check with the battle major in the Secure Military Operations Group (SMOG) and confirm the facts—which still indicate all the “BDA” were Anti-Iraqi Forces--we tell CNN that we have no reports of Division troops firing on civilians.  CNN thanks us and hangs up.  We go on about our merry ways.

Three hours later, CNN is on the phone again, asking if we’ve heard anything more about civilian casualties.  We say, no, still the same information as last time.

Then an hour later, doubts start to arise in the Sig Acts.  I notice that now it’s saying “LNs [Local Nationals]” instead of “AIF.”

I get an e-mail from Corps PAO saying that the BBC is asking them about an incident earlier that morning where some civilians were wounded by U.S. soldiers.  I suspect that the Iraqi Police are bad-mouthing us without having all the facts.  Still, I’m not comfortable with any of this.  There are too many unknowns and even as I type a draft press release for Lt. Col. Harkleroad to approve (I can already hear him sniffling back another nosebleed in his office), I have to fudge on my certainty of the facts.  Nobody, it seems, knows what really happened in that alley in the pre-dawn darkness.  There was suspicious movement, there was a flash, there were the pings off the helicopter’s metal skin, there was what appeared to be green-glowing weapons in the pilots’ night-vision scope, and then it gets fuzzy from there.

However, as Maj. Pepper said, “The fact of the matter is that AIF are civilians, if you want to get technical about it.  So, we wouldn’t be lying by saying we wounded ‘civilians.’”

This could either be all a big misunderstanding, or it could turn into a mini My Lai.  Guess I’ll find out when I come into work tomorrow.

July 17:  Once I get to the cubicle, I learn more details about our alleged “firefight with civilians” yesterday.

Workers in a fire station were attacked by terrorists in the dark of the morning.  The terrorists left, but the firefighters were able to get a description of their vehicle.  Around 4 a.m., one of our military police patrols shows up to investigate the reports of gunfire.  As they’re getting out of their vehicles and approaching the fire station, the firemen start shooting at them—about 150 rounds coming from the roof, second and ground floors of the station.

(Later, the red-faced Iraqi fire captain says, “It was dark.  We thought you were the terrorists come back to place a bomb at the fire station.”)

The MPs, not knowing who’s firing at them, start shooting back.  Gunfire is exchanged for about 10 minutes until eventually both sides realize they’re firing at “friendlies.”

When the MPs enter the fire station, they discover eight wounded local nationals—two of those later die of their wounds.

Meanwhile, the real bad guys have already gotten away in their red pickup truck.  They fire on another U.S. patrol along the way.

At this point, we send out attack helicopters to track the fleeing terrorists.  The pilots positively ID them as the same guys described by the workers at the fire station.  “Whoomp!  Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do when they come for you?” runs through their heads.

At one point, the red truck stops and, like circus clowns in a Volkswagen, a dozen terrorists start piling out. They fire at the helicopter.

Big mistake.

Division gets the clearance to fire back.  The pilots cut them down.  The terrorists crumple and fall like they were suddenly robbed of bones.  The Iraqi Army comes in to clean up the mess.

So, the only “civilians” we might have killed were at the fire station—though, in our defense, they fired at us first.  In any case, it is only two who died there, not the “26 civilian workers” that were bandied about in the press.

I went to work on the keyboard and we sent up a third, hybrid version of both press releases to Corps PAO.  They shot back an e-mail saying it was "unacceptable" because it was so "vague" and didn’t mention anything about civilians being killed.

Lt. Col. Harkleroad and Corps PAO then engaged in their own skirmish over e-mail, with Harkleroad eventually sputtering, “Fine!  You want to put out your own release, go for it.”

About three hours later, a press release trickled out from Corps, saying, in part, “This fight resulted in an undetermined number of civilian casualties…Multi-National Force-Iraq regrets any loss of life or injuries sustained by the civilians in the area.”

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Tuesday Tune: "Yours Truly, the Commuter" by Jason Lytle

Nobody likes to work (and if you do, you're either a nymphomanic prostitute or the senior taste-tester at the lollipop factory).  But what's worse than working?  Driving to work every day, the same tire treads digging a monotonous rut on your morning and evening commutes.

If you have to drive, then I suggest plugging in Jason Lytle.  He'll make the route fun to traverse.  The title track from his first solo album, Yours Truly, the Commuter, never fails to make me start tapping the steering wheel right from the start:
Last thing I heard, I was left for dead.
Well, I could give two shits about what they said.
I may be limping, but I'm coming home.
All work and no play might have done me in.
Lytle was the principal singer and songwriter for the band Grandaddy until he got tired of touring and gave up the band life up for a solo career.  His biography on this Anti Records page documents the flame-out:
If Jason Lytle learned anything from nearly 15 years at the helm of Grandaddy--the Modesto, California quintet whose celebrated five-album run started as a project in Lytle's bedroom and took him around the world--it's that he's just not cut out to be a 21st-century pop star.  There were triumphs, no doubt--they toured the world, created a technological dystopian classic with 2000's The Sophtware Slump, shared stages with Elliott Smith, and talked shop with David Bowie when he turned up at their shows.  But Lytle was a poor fit for life in a breakthrough indie rock franchise.  Touring was endured more than enjoyed, and he often found himself wishing he was biking or skateboarding, staring into hiking magazines while the band was trapped in the cycle of sitting on cigarette-stained couches, filling sweaty clubs, and hauling ass to a new city every night.  By the time he was writing 2006's Just Like the Fambly Cat, he knew it was over, that the machine had simply lost its momentum, its gears too clogged with years of frustration, substance abuse, and diminishing returns.  His choice became clear: he needed to go somewhere else and start over completely.  He needed to go to Montana.

Like all sensible people (myself included), he limped home to Big Sky Country.  Now he lives less than two hours away from me, just over Homestake Pass and across a stretch of ranchland.  The mountains and clean air have cleared his head and his lyrics are sharper than ever.  Judging by the spring in the step of this song, it isn't hard work at all.  In fact, it sounds like he's taking a day off and keeping it to himself.  If it weren't for the necessity of a paycheck, I would be, too.

(Click on the YouTube icon for a larger video)

If you would like to purchase "Yours Truly, the Commuter" from Amazon, CLICK HERE.

Monday, April 25, 2011

My First Time: Claudia Sternbach

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Claudia Sternbach, author of Reading Lips: a Memoir of Kisses, which has just been published by Unbridled Books.  At The Book Lady's Blog, reviewer Rebecca Joines Schinsky wrote: "This slim volume is a one-sitting read and would be an excellent companion on the couch, the beach, or at a book club meeting.  Sternbach is funny when she wants to be, serious when she needs to be, and often quite poignant, and Reading Lips is a delightful gift of a book.”  Sternbach is the Editorial Board Chair of Memoir Journal and Editor in Chief of their publication Memoir (and).  Her first memoir, Now Breathe, was published by Whiteaker Press in 1999.

My First Faux Pas

It wasn't planned.  A lunch date had been made with my agent, that is true.  It wasn't our first dining experience together.  She, a lovely woman, had invited me to sit across the table from her and discuss projects more than once.

It was a winter afternoon in New York City.  We entered the midtown cafe and were greeted by a slender young woman dressed stylishly and asking the customary, "How many?"

Directed to a booth I shrugged off my coat before taking a seat.  My agent did the same.  As we were removing our first layers of clothing she asked what was new.  Nothing, was my reply.  Then I took a good look at her as she finished pulling off her winter wear.

But, I said grinning and wishing I wasn't saying what I was saying right as I said it, "I see something is new with you," directing my gaze towards her puffed out empire waist dress.

Her face reddened as she shook her head no.  Mine went white as I realized I had just stuck my winter-booted foot in my mouth.  It was the first time I ever passed on the cafĂ©’s elegant eggplant panini and chose instead the taste of my footwear.

Photo by Kira Sternbach

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Day Christ Died

Now, at the end, Jesus again pulled himself up to the top of his cross.  Again he spoke.  “Father,” he cried, “into your hands I commit my spirit!”  One of the soldiers came around to the front of the cross to take another look.  Then he went back and lay down on the rock.  From Jesus’ lungs came a final cry: “It is finished!”  The body sagged on the cross.  Jesus willed himself to die.  A sound went through the air as though a herd of animals had stampeded underground.  A fresh breeze expelled its brief breath on the wildflowers.  The earth trembled and a small crack fissured the earth from the west toward the east and split the big rock of execution and went across the road and through the gate of Jerusalem and across the town and through the temple, and it split the big inner veil of the temple from the top to the bottom and went on east and rocked the big wall and split the tombs in the cemetery outside the walls and shook the Cedron and went on to the Dead Sea, leaving fissures in the earth, the rocks and across the mountains.  The centurion and some of the soldiers jumped to their feet in alarm.  They came to the front of the cross and looked at him and at the darkened sky and the crack across the big rock.  The centurion bowed his head.  “Assuredly,” he said to the others, “this man was the Son of God.”
That excerpt about the final moments of Christ's life comes from the 1957 bestseller The Day Christ Died by Jim Bishop, a book I just flicked onto my Kindle.  In his Introduction to the 1977 edition of the book, Paul L. Maier wrote:
It is not irreverent to wish that Jim Bishop had lived two thousand years ago instead, so that the New Testament might have contained five Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Bishop.  His fifth evangel would have been vastly different from the other four in that he would have taken care of all the little details missing in the standard Gospels, which unfold their great story by focusing only on the major events. The Day Christ Died comes close to what Jim Bishop might have written under those circumstances.  Ever the meticulous journalist with panoramic vision, Bishop searches where even scholars sometimes forget to look, and supplies us with all the colorful data from everyday life in first-century Palestine to make “the greatest story ever told” more credible and alive than would seem possible on the printed page.
Bishop (1907-1987) was a literary wizard when it came to making historic events "credible and alive," a style which he brewed through years as a reporter, editor and columnist.  TIME magazine once called him "The Golden Hack," saying that the "silver-haired Jim Bishop, 49, talks in terse, side-of-the-mouth sentences that often sound as if he read Hemingway before writing, also brings to his craft an Irish eye for sentiment and a memory for 'all the important little tiles of fact on every story of consequence.'"  (Bishop was also a very prescient reporter; according to this page, on the day I was born he published a column called "A Beautiful Young Man.")

I was surprised to find I didn't already own The Day Christ Died since I've been a long-time fan of Bishop's work, starting with The Day Lincoln Was Shot, the author's first bestseller written in 1955.  I can still remember the very look and feel of that book: a paperback which had been transmogrified into a hardback by the Teton County Library in Jackson, Wyoming.  As best I can remember, I was in junior high when I checked out the book, took it home and started reading it right away.  By the time my mother called me to dinner, I was deep into John Wilkes Booth's conspiracy; by breakfast the next morning, the bullet was already lodged in Lincoln's head.  The Day Lincoln Was Shot was one of those transformational books--a reading experience which shaped and altered the course of my entire life.  In those pages, Bishop showed me how dusty historical facts can be sparked to life by a style that borders on the fiction.  He revealed the possibilities of turning truths into half-truths without sacrificing believability.

In one sense, Bishop's trademark "Day" books* should be read as fiction, just as The Executioner's Song and In Cold Blood cannot be completely held accountable to the truth.  Indeed, for as much as it adheres to the written record of the Gospels and Bishop's intense research, The Day Christ Died could easily be called "cruci-fiction."  Just look at how vividly Bishop brings to life the loud crack of the earthquake at the moment Jesus gives up the ghost.  The Gospel of Matthew gives it one verse: "And behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom, and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent."  Bishop adds the thundering herd of animals and the "brief breath on the wildflowers."  Accurate?  Maybe not.  Memorable?  You better believe it.

*Which also include The Day Kennedy Was Shot and The Day Christ Was Born.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Tours of Duty in the Jungle of Heartbreak: Michael Parker's Don't Make Me Stop Now

Michael Parker's new novel, The Watery Part of the World, hits bookstores on Tuesday.  I haven't read the advance copy Algonquin Books sent to me (and, as I sit in the long shadow of my towering To-Be-Read stack, I'm not sure how soon I'll get to it), but if it's anything like Parker's 2007 collection of short stories, Don't Make Me Stop Now, it will be well worth your time and investment.  (Click on the cover for a larger image--isn't that a thing of beauty?)

The Watery Part of the World is set on the barrier islands off the coast of North Carolina and spans more than a hundred years, beginning in 1813 when pirates attack the ship carrying Aaron Burr's daughter Theodosia and she is left for dead, only to be nursed back to health by an island hermit.  Another strand of the novel tells the story of Woodrow, a black man, and Maggie and Whaley, two white sisters, who in 1970 are the last remaining residents of their island.  Kirkus Reviews compared the novel to William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor--words which instantly make a ka-ching! sound in my head.

The plot sounded vaguely familiar, so I pulled Don't Make Me Stop Now off my shelf and, sure enough, one of the collection's short stories ("Off Island") seems to be the genesis for this novel.  While I thought "Off Island" was one of the weaker entries in the book, that doesn't mean it was bad, only that its flame was a small flicker compared to the blazing inferno of creativity on the other pages.

Here's what I had to say four years ago in a review which originally appeared at January Magazine...

*     *     *     *

I have never burned down my house in the name of love, but in his new collection of stories, Michael Parker helps me understand why a guy named Sanderson takes a match to his place and incinerates all his belongings except for his car and the clothes on his back: all because he is still slavishly in love with his ex-girlfriend.  In "The Right to Remain," planted midway through Don't Make Me Stop Now, Sanderson spends his cold nights parked at the curb in front of his old girlfriend's house in his "martyrmobile," making lists of all the things he should have done (but didn't) to prevent her from going off with another man.
There were no other cars out, only cats slinking and screeching, and once he spotted a possum waddling around the side of the house where she kept the trashcans, and he was glad to share the night with these stealthy creatures who did their business in the dark. He spoke to them warmly, and they offered their condolences, as if they knew just from looking at the angle of his repose in the front seat of the Ford how much misery he was shouldering.
When burning down his house doesn't capture the ex-girlfriend's attention, Sanderson sits and stares at her house, torturing himself with thoughts of what's going on behind the curtains.  He eventually takes action, but it's a little too late and a little too feeble -- something we already know long before a sympathetic cop hauls him away.

Sanderson is just one of many forlorn and lovelorn characters Parker sets before us in Don't Make Me Stop Now.  With a style that's unadorned to the point of being deceptively simple, Parker injects the reader under his characters' skin, making us feel the pain of anxiety, heartbreak, loneliness and miserable hope.

In "I Will Clean Your Attic," a woman, despondent over her husband leaving her, hires a handyman to haul away his belongings, only to find that the handyman is harboring a secret of his own.  In "What Happens Next," the first and perhaps best story in the book, Charlie Yancey measures his commitment to prospective girlfriends against their reaction to the story of how he killed his grandmother by playing Humble Pie's "Hot 'N' Nasty" on a car stereo (trust me, it makes hilarious sense in Parker's hands).

In another of the book's gems, "Muddy Water, Turn to Wine," James is making love with a one-night stand named Erin while listening to ZZ Top when she gets a phone call.  Erin comes back into the room and tells him that her father just died, then she pins him against the bed and continues to have sex with him.  On a whim, James decides to take a road trip and drive her to the funeral.  The story, like many others in Don't Make Me Stop Now, gathers its energy from the ironies and incongruities Parker inserts at right angles throughout the narrative.

Not all of the stories succeed.  One about the sighting of a mythic nightbeast called Dogman, never really gels; another, "Off Island," about the three last residents of an island off North Carolina's coast, just doesn't fit in with the rest of the collection.  But those are detours in a book that otherwise stays on track, bumping along the rough road of Carveresque blue-collar desperation.

In "The Golden Age of Heartbreak," this miserable fellow sums up the collection best:
People have no sympathy for the brokenhearted because it's what they fear the most. They pretend it's as minor and obligatory as having your wisdom teeth pulled, getting your heart ripped from your chest, having feral mutts tug-a-war the bloody organ in your kitchen while you lean white-veined against the rusty refrigerator, drowning in schmaltzy string arrangements.
Haven't we all been white-veined at some point in our lives?  Parker knows the majority of us have gone through life staring at silent telephones, awkwardly shifting from foot to foot at the edge of a half-empty dance floor, grinding our teeth as we lie sweaty-headed on the pillow thinking about all the Lovely Desirable Ones we let slip away.  This collection is full of rootless, longing characters who walk around with holes in their hearts looking for the right person to fill that shape.  Who can't relate to people like that?  After all, as Parker writes, we're all just on "extensive tours of duty in the jungles of heartbreak."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Friday Freebie: Fantagraphics Threebie

Congratulations to Andi Diehn, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Architect of Flowers by Wiliam Lychack.

This week's book giveaway is something extra-groovy.  For the price of one entry, you'll have the chance to win not one, not two, not four, but three books from my favorite graphic-novel publisher: Fantagraphics Books.

If the names R. Crumb, Jason, Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes mean nothing to you, then you're just not hip to Fantagraphics.  You probably also eat your dinner on square plates and drink your coffee from square mugs.  The cool cats at Fantagraphics have been cheerleaders of comics as a legitimate form of art and literature since they began publishing The Comics Journal in 1976.  Simply put, they take comix very seriously.  I have a whole shelf of Fantagraphics treasures--including their gorgeous re-issues of the Prince Valiant, Popeye and Peanuts strips--and they are among the best examples of visual literary art in my library.

In this week's Fantagraphics Friday Freebie package, you'll get:

Castle Waiting, Vol. 2 by Linda Medley:  The Castle Waiting series tells the story of an isolated, abandoned castle, and the eccentric inhabitants who bring it back to life.*  A fable for modern times, Castle Waiting is a fairy tale that's not about rescuing the princess, saving the kingdom, or fighting the ultimate war between Good and Evil — but about being a hero in your own home.  With its long-awaited second volume, this witty and sublimely drawn fantasy eases into a relaxed comedy of manners as Lady Jain settles into her new life in Castle Waiting.  Unexpected visitors result in the discovery and exploration of a secret passageway, not to mention an epic bowling tournament.  A quest for ladies’ underpants, the identity of Pindar’s father, the education of Simon, Rackham and Chess arguing about the “manly arts,” and an escape-prone goat are just a few of the elements in this delightful new volume.

Unlovable by Esther Pearl Watson:  Loosely based on a teenager’s diary from the 1980s found in a gas-station bathroom, Unlovable details the sometimes ordinary, sometimes humiliating, often poignant and frequently hilarious exploits of underdog Tammy Pierce.  This remarkably touching and funny graphic novel tells the first-person account of Tammy’s sophomore year in 1985, from the first day of school to winter break.  Her hopes, dreams, agonies and defeats are brought to vivid, comedic life by Watson’s lovingly grotesque drawings, filled with all the eighties essentials — too much mascara, leg warmers with heels and huge hair — as well as timeless teen concerns like acne, dandruff, and the opposite sex (or same sex, in some cases).  In the epic saga that is Unlovable, Tammy finds herself dealing with: tampons, teasing, crushes, The Smiths, tube socks, facial hair, lice, celibacy, fantasy dream proms, gym showers, skid marks, a secret admirer, prank calls, backstabbers, winter ball, barfing, narcs, breakdancing, hot wheels, glamour shots, roller coasters, Halloween costumes, boogers, boys, boy crazy feelings, biker babes, and even some butt cracks.  Tammy’s life isn’t pretty, but it is endlessly charming and hilarious.  Originally serialized in Bust magazine, Unlovable includes over 100 new pages created just for this edition, which is handsomely packaged in a unique hot pink hardcover format with sparkly blue glitter that would make Tammy proud.

Special Exits by Joyce Farmer:  This memoir chronicles the decline of the author’s parents’ health, their relationship with one another and with their daughter, and how they cope with the day-to-day emotional fragility of the most taxing time of their lives.   Elderly parents Lars and Rachel, who have enjoyed a long and loving married life together, are rendered in fine, confident pen lines.  Set in southern Los Angeles (which makes for a terrifying sequence as blind Rachel and ailing Lars are trapped in their home without power during the 1992 Rodney King riots), backgrounds and props are lovingly detailed: these objects serve as memory triggers for Lars and Rachel, even as they eventually overwhelm them and their home, which the couple is loathe to leave.  Special Exits is laid out in an eight-panel grid, which creates a leisurely storytelling pace that not only helps to convey the slow, inexorable decline in Lars’ and Rachel’s health, but perfectly captures the timbre of the exchanges between a long-married couple: the affectionate bickering; their gallows humor; their querulousness as their bodies break down.  Though Lars and Rachel are the protagonists of Special Exits, Farmer makes her voice known through creative visual metaphors and in her indictment of the careless treatment of the elderly in nursing homes.  Special Exits gracefully deals with the hard reality of caring for aging loved ones: those who are or who have been in similar situations might find comfort in it, and those who haven’t will find much to admire in the bravery and good humor of Lars and Rachel.

To enter the giveaway, all you have to do is answer this question:

After going to this page of new releases, which book (or books) would you add to your must-read list?

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until the contest closes at midnight on April 28--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on April 29.

*All blurbs come from the publisher's website.