Monday, October 31, 2011

My First Time: Peter Geye

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 Peter Geye, author of Safe from the Sea which came out last year from Unbridled Books.  It's a story about a son, his estranged father, the Great Lakes, and a shipwreck which both men are trying to come to grips with.  Library Journal said the novel is "inspiring, wise, and enthusiastically recommended for all readers."  Geye received his MFA from the University of New Orleans and his Ph.D. from Western Michigan University, where he was editor of Third Coast.  He was born and raised in Minneapolis and continues to live there with his wife and three children.  He is available to meet with book groups.  His website is

My First Book Club

About twenty years ago I decided to be a writer.  When the notion first occurred to me, I was inspired by thoughts of Hemingway sitting on the boulevards of Paris, drinking who knew what sort of cocktails after a solitary day spent at his typewriter.  Though I loved Hemingway’s books, loved the idea of telling stories the way he did, I only ever considered the exchange between a writer and a reader from the writer’s point of view.  That is, I never really (or at least seriously) thought about that solitary person holding my creation, bringing to it their own life experiences, their own emotional and intellectual proclivities.

Even after I finished writing Safe from the Sea, after it was sold to a publisher, after it was out in the world, after I was, finally, the writer I had for so long imagined myself becoming, even after all this I hadn’t given much consideration to the idea of the solitary reader.  Reviews started coming in, along with kind words from booksellers, even interviews with television and radio hosts, and though these exchanges were in a way proof that my book was being read, they seemed also to be part of the business of publishing rather than an intimate exchange between the words on the page and some impartial and unknown reader.

The fact is, I didn’t fully appreciate the idea of a solitary reader until I accepted an invitation from a book club and spent my first evening with a room full of people who had read the book and came armed with their list of disarming questions and insights.  I remember arriving, being shown my seat in the living room, being offered a bottle of beer.  I was exceedingly self-conscious, and not at all prepared for the exchange that was about to take place.  That exchange went something like this...

There were pleasantries all around, a few softballs lobbed up to get the conversation started, and then, wham!  The real business of reading showed up all at once.  People talked about how their own difficult relationships with their father came back to life while they read Safe from the Sea.  They talked about how difficult it was to watch their mother or father die while so many questions or unresolved issues went unattended.  They talked about their own struggles with infertility, or of their daughters or sons in such struggles.  They talked about how hard it was to watch someone they loved battle alcoholism.  In other words, they talked from the point of view of the solitary reader.  They brought to the book the other half of the equation that exists in every book’s life.

I don’t know why this surprised me.  Maybe it’s simply that I never allowed myself to see the book’s life through to the end for fear of jinxing it.  Maybe it’s that there seemed to be such an unreal quality to a life’s dream coming true (publishing a book) that it was beyond my capacity to anticipate the fact that people would read Safe from the Sea in exactly the way that I read books, with their own experiences as the foundation of their understanding.  Whatever the case, I was awake, aware suddenly that the writer’s life doesn’t only involve the time he or she spends at their computer.  Aware that the writer’s life has virtually nothing to do with sitting at café tables, whether in Paris or Minneapolis.  On the contrary, the writer’s life is validated only after the reader gets her own imagination involved.

I’ve been to dozens of book clubs since that first one, and each time I marvel at the thoughtfulness of the discussion.  Every time, I relish the notion that here is a group of people—sometimes it’s fifty people, sometimes it’s eight—who have brought my book to life.  And every time I experience the huge feeling that accompanies that realization, I think back to the first book club I visited and realize what a profound evening it was.

Photo by Jeff Fifield

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Book Nerd Alert: On Flannery's Toilet

This post is my entry in the Book Nerd Out giveaway hosted by Book Riot: Reviews, Recommendations, and Commentary about books and reading (but, you know, fun).

My zenith of book nerdiness surely came in those minutes I sat on Flannery O’Connor’s toilet.

Blame it on the Chinese food.  For weeks, I'd looked forward to this moment: the day I would first set foot inside Flannery’s childhood home.  I'd Googled, I'd Mapquested, I'd made dry runs on the route through southern Georgia, I'd Wise Blood-ed myself to death.  But now something stood in the way of Complete Flannery Fulfillment: the Chinese food.

Two hours before our arrival in downtown Savannah, my wife and I stopped for a quick meal of meat, vegetables and MSG.  The food was good and quickly settled into our stomachs.  In my case, it also traveled farther south at an alarming pace.

By the time we approached the O'Connor Childhood Home, I was walking funny.  My wife took one look at my grimacing face and said, "You're kidding, right?"

I shook my head.

She sighed.  "You couldn't have taken care of this when we stopped for gas thirty minutes ago?"

"It wasn't an issue at that point."

"We can always turn around and come back another day."

“No, not another day.”

I'm sure my wife was more than a little concerned by the hypno-spiral look in my eyes, the fevery knit of my brows, the high squeak of my voice when I talked about making this pilgrimage to the home of my idol.

When we reached the former residence of the O'Connor family and I climbed the steep stone staircase, I knew what Dorothy and her friends must have felt when they topped that rise in the poppy field and saw jutting before them the emerald shards of the City of Oz.  I was here, I was really here.  I was about to walk where Flannery once walked.  What would I say?  What would I do?  How would I greet the particles of her ghost that still filtered like motes through the air of the house?

I opened the door and grinned sheepishly at the docent there to greet us.  "Can I use your bathroom, sir?"

He pointed to the back of the house and I waddle-limped down the hallway.  I closed the door on the closet-sized bathroom, dropped my pants, and did my business (or, as Flannery would say, “bidness”).

As I sat there, all I could think was: "I am sitting in Flannery O'Connor's bathroom!"  Had her hindquarters once rested where mine now did?  Had she sat here as a child, reading books?

Even after taking a closer look at my surroundings and noting the chrome handle on the toilet and the post-1980 architecture of the tank, I couldn't be talked out of my new, trans-century connection to my literary heroine.

I washed my hands (IN FLANNERY'S SINK!), dried them (ON FLANNERY'S TOWELS!), then rejoined our tour group, feeling like a complete and utter book nerd.  But a happy, fulfilled nerd.

And what about you?  What was your height (or depth) of literary fanaticism?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Soup and Salad: NOT David Foster Wallace, Halloween Costumes for Literary Nerds, John "Lightning" Sayles, Jason's Hemingway, He Ain't Heavy--He's My Kindle, Reluctant E-Book Converts, The American Book Awards, Reading on the Toilet

On today's menu:

David Foster Wallace?  Nope, not even close.

1.  Let's kick things off with the latest useless-but-addictive addition to Tumblr: Not Foster Wallace.

2.  By now, you probably already have your Halloween costume all picked out--maybe you've gone the DFW route with a bandanna and a pair of granny glasses.  But there's always next year's outfit to think about.  Here are 20 Clever Halloween Costumes for Literary Nerds.  I'm especially partial to going as "The Green Light" from The Great Gatsby.  However, this year I'll be handing out candy dressed as Future Struggling Mid-List Novelist (i.e. whatever I'm wearing at the time).

3.  At The Millions, Robert Birnbaum has a very long convo with filmmaker-novelist John Sayles, which only serves to remind me of the weight of Sayles' A Moment in the Sun as it rests midway up my To-Be-Read pile (aka Mt. NeverRest).  Apparently, Sayles is something of a wizard when it comes to writing.  Let's eavesdrop:
JS: While we were also going around the country doing publicity for [the film] Honeydripper, our last feature. We went to 36 cities by air and if you have traveled domestically lately you’re in Raleigh–Durham airport for six more hours with a delayed flight, so you better have a book to work on. So I had a lot of that. Or you’re in Israel and you’re awake at three in the morning and can’t get back to sleep because your body thinks its 10 a.m. and you’re back at home. So you are going to be up for five hours and nobody else is around. I actually write very fast. I actually wrote this thing in about a year. Including research.
RB: Wow. How much revision
JS: You know, the revision is interesting. I did my own revision — really only a couple of weeks of that. I took the main four characters’ chapters and I extracted and combined them via computer, into the Book of Royal, the Book of Hod, the Book of Diosdado, the book of Harry, and then read them to make sure–
RB: –for continuity.
JS: And then my literary agent Anthony Arnove, who was Howard Zinn’s agent, took it around for almost two years.
RB: Did he do any editing?
JS: No. So in about a year and a half — a little bit more — we had gone through all the major publishers, including people who had published me before, 17 years later.
RB: All owned by conglomerates now.
JS: So we got two bites, “We want it, and I just have to ask the people upstairs.” And then they never called back. So obviously the people upstairs said no. Then Anthony went to the second tier of smaller publishers, not quite the university presses. And McSweeney’s said yes.

4.  Norwegian cartoonist Jason has a chat with the folks at The Casual Optimist.  I've always been drawn to Jason's work (pardon the pun).  For those who haven't had the pleasure of picking up one of the beautiful editions published by Fantagraphics Books, The Casual Optimist explains it to you:
Jason’s comics are immediately identifiable. You cannot mistake them for the work of someone else....Jason’s work references both the pop and the high-brow: zombies and werewolves on the one hand; Hemingway and the Beats on the other. The result is both original and off-beat. His protagonists are like renegades from a Max Fleischer cartoon who’ve inadvertently wandered into a Jim Jarmusch movie…Anthropomorphic animals smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, talking about French actresses. Action and slapstick wrestle with ennui and loneliness.
This is a panel from The Left Bank Gang which re-imagines Paris of the 1920s with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Ezra Pound as graphic artists rather than writers.  Brilliant!

Click to enlarge

5.  The New York Times asks: "When an e-reader is loaded with thousands of books, does it gain any weight?"  Click here for the scientific answer.

6.  Speaking of Kindles, Jenny Shank gives us 5 Reasons E-Books are Awesome, Even for the Very Reluctant.

7.  Maybe it's because I wasn't very book-aware in 1980 (more concerned with avoiding wedgies in the locker room and getting stuffed into my locker between classes, I guess), but I never heard of the glitzy, Oscar-style American Book Awards.  The New York Times has the scoop on the literary disaster: The Short, Unsuccessful Life of the American Book Awards

8.  And, finally, here's what I consider one of the most important book-related news stories of 2011: "Is reading on the loo bad for you?"  The Guardian examines a semi-scientific survey of bathroom bookworms to determine whether or not fecal microbes and hemorrhoids are hazardous to your reading health.  If you can get past the unforgivable puns (e.g., "...the situation became clear that here, on his hands, was a big job" and "As Curtis says, 'we don't need to get anal about it.'"), it's enlightening and gives credence to what I've always maintained: it's okay to sit and think while you shit and stink.  When I worked in the Pentagon, a co-worker and I were committed bathroom readers (separate stalls, of course), but we completely grossed out another office worker who, every time she saw us coming back in the door from the restroom with books in our hands, would say, "Oooo, gross!" and then walk around the office shuddering for a good fifteen minutes.  She just didn't understand that the solitude of the stall was the only haven where I was able to get any reading done.  As Henry Miller says in the article, the toilet might just be the best place to absorb Ulysses.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Friday Freebie: Tales of the New World by Sabina Murray

Congratulations to Glen Chamberlain, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Men in the Making by Bruce Machart.

This week's book giveaway is the new collection of short stories by Sabina Murray, Tales of the New World.  The celebrated author of A Carnivore's Inquiry and The Caprices, Murray takes a fresh look at some pivotal moments in history: namely, the discovery of new worlds (both physical and spiritual/cultural).  Here's the jacket copy for Tales of the New World:
In her first collection of stories since her PEN/Faulkner-winningThe Caprices, Sabina Murray confronts the manipulation, compassion, ambition, and controversy surrounding some of the most intrepid and sadistic pioneers of the last four millennia. Iconic explorers and settlers are made intimately human as they plow through the un-navigated boundaries of their worlds to give shape to modern geography, philosophy, and science. As Ferdinand Magellan sets out on his final voyage, he forms an unlikely friendship with a rich scholar who harbors feelings for the captain, but in the end cannot save Magellan from his own greed. Balboa’s peek at the South Sea may never have happened if it wasn’t for his loyal and vicious dog, Leonico, and an unavoidable urge to relieve himself. And Captain Zimri Coffin is plagued by sleepless nights after reading Frankenstein, that is until his crew rescues two shipwrecked Englishmen who carry rumor of a giant and deadly white whale lurking in the depths of the ocean. With her signature blend of sophistication and savagery, darkness and humor, Sabina Murray investigates the complexities of faith, the lure of the unknown, and the elusive mingling of history and legend.

Is your curiosity piqued and lured?  Well then, let me seal the deal for you.  Here are the opening lines to the book's first story, "Fish":
The light filters through the window into the still, dark air. In the whirling dust, Mary can make out the fairies, winking, disappearing, toes pointed and wings tensed. She hears them whispering her name, tormenting her. "Mary, Mary," they say, and then are gone. There is nothing left to break the silence but the sluggish tick from the thick hall clock, its pendulum swung in lethargy, like a fat man swinging his pocket watch: and both pass time. Mother has bricked all the windows over but this one and the house presents its sleeping face to the street, where heels click by and dogs raise their legs to the rusted wrought-iron fence. Women's rustling skirts drag on the uneven paving stones and thieves, or so Mother says, stand in shadow stropping their knives, sucking on their yellow teeth, waiting and waiting for something worthwhile to come within arm's reach.

If you'd like to put Tales of the New World within your reach, all you have to do is answer this question to be entered in the contest:

What was the name of the film Murray wrote which was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award?  (Explore the author's website to find the answer)

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 midnight on Nov. 3--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 4.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Mag Watch: Tin House, Vol. 12, No. 3 ("The Mysterious Issue")

"Scare me."

"So you think it's that easy, do you?  Scare me, right, I'm going to put on a pig mask and jump out of the bushes when you walk down the street at night.  Of course, that might be pretty scary, but not, I think, for any of the obvious reasons."

That's the start of the conversation between Benjamin Percy (The Wilding) and Peter Straub (A Dark Matter) in Tin House's "Mysterious Issue."  Though it came out this past Spring, I thought I'd pull it off the shelf, take a second look at its scarifying contents (through cracks in the fingers clapped over my eyes) and give you a report in time for Halloween.  Read on.  If you dare.

Benjamin Percy's interview with Peter Straub ("You Have Nothing to Fear But Fear Himself") is the candelabra centerpiece of this issue of Tin House--a spooky chat between two novelists who know a thing or two about making the words on the page hard to read for all the trembling of our hands. It's a wide-ranging conversation touching on the craft of writing ("a novel [can] be both horror and art"), the underestimation of Stephen King, and frank revelations about Straub's sexual abuse as a child.  Through it all, horror drips across the Q & A like a crimson rain.  I like to think they conducted the interview in the dark with lit flashlights held beneath their chins.  After Percy's "Scare me" challenge, Straub goes on to tell a pair of creepy vignettes too long to repeat here, but trust me when I say they'll set your mind at unease.

Straub finishes his answer by saying, "What would be frightening about me jumping out of the bush wearing a pig mask is not the sudden surprise, not me, and not the pig mask, but that the ordinary world had split open for a moment to reveal some possibility never previously considered."  Later, he adds, "When I speak of a crack in the world, I mean a fissure from which unease can leak, because all of a sudden, things are operating the way they're supposed to operate, and when you see that in your own world, you can't count on anything anymore, nothing works."

A split seam?  Oh, you mean like the one in Luis Alberto Urrea's short story "Chametla"?  The story opens with these sentences:
      The last shot fired in the Battle of Chametla hit Private Arnulfo Guerrero in the back of the head. It took out the lower-right quadrant, knocking free a hunk of bone roughly the size and shape of a broken teacup. This shot was fired by a federal trooper, who then shouldered his weapon and walked to a cantina on the outskirts of town, where he ate a fine pork stew with seven corn tortillas and a cup of pulque.
The crack in the world?  Hold on, I'm getting to that.

Private Guerrero doesn't die right away after getting shot in the head.  He falls into a sort of sustained epileptic fit, "the ugly black cavern" in his head leaking "slow and watery blood."  He's pulled off the battlefield by his best friend, Corporal Angel Garcia, who attends to him--with the help of their dog Casan--all through the night.  Then things take a turn for the horrific, magic-realism-style:
      [Garcia] must have drifted off to sleep, for it was Casan’s whimpering that awoke him. The big dog had worked himself free from the rope, and he stood over the prone body of Guerrero and whined.
      “What is it, boy?” Garcia whispered.
      Casan tilted his head and stared down at Guerrero. The dog yelped. Then he backed away.
      Garcia crawled over to Guerrero and said, “Arnulfo? Are you awake?”
      The wounded man didn’t stir.
      “What the hell is wrong with you?” Garcia chided the dog. “Nothing here.”
      Then he heard it, too. The faint whistling. He inclined his head. There was a plaintive hooting coming from under Guerrero’s bandage. Were poor Guerrero’s sinuses blowing air out of his skull? Christ. What next? Garcia pulled open the wrapping and was startled to see a small puff of smoke rising from out of his friend’s head. He crossed himself.
      “Ah, cabrón!” he said.
      The whistle again, then another puff of smoke. Casan barked. Garcia sat beside the dog and stared. Then, was it? It couldn’t be! But—a light—a small light was coming out of the ragged hole in Guerrero’s head.
      Garcia bent down, but then had to leap back because a small locomotive rushed out of Guerrero’s wound. It fell out of the wound, pulling a coal car and several small cattle cars as if it were falling off a minuscule bridge in some rail disaster. The soft train fell upon the ground and glistened, puffing like a fish. Casan pounced on it and took it in his mouth, shaking it once and gulping it down.

When a scene like that jumps out of the bushes at me, I tumble back from the page, tripping over my shoes, then scramble back along the sidewalk, trying to get away from a nightmarish vision spawned from an imagination as fertile Urrea's.

Fiction like "Chametla" is one thing, but what about when the unthinkable is unavoidably real?  That's the case with "Johannesburg Underground," Richard Poplak's startling account of "The Suitcase Murder" which plagued South Africa at the height of apartheid in the 1960s.  Never heard of it?  Trust me, after reading Poplak's reportage, you'll never forget it.  Here's just one of the paragraphs you'll read with a dry mouth and thumping heart:
      Bekker notices a suitcase washed up on the shale. He opens it and finds a hock of waterlogged meat wrapped in plastic, butcher paper, and a filthy sheet. The flesh is pocked with knife marks. He removes the sheet. A woman's breast, areola dark against a pallid mound, falls from the suitcase. An arm follows. Organs spill out like a chicken's giblets.

My apologies if I've ruined your lunch.  Not all of the mysterious goings-on in this issue of Tin House are as graphic and gruesome.  Many of the essays, stories, poems and reviews are the sort of reading that creeps up slowly on slippered feet in the fog, lightly touching the back of your neck with cold fingertips.  In her poem "Fear," Robin Beth Schaer writes: "Nothing is there, but you will never believe that."

John Crowley doesn't believe in ghosts, and his explanation for this ecto-atheism in "New Ghosts and How to Know Them" is a practical one:
      I was very young when I proved to my own satisfaction that the ghosts described in stories or appearing in movies didn't really exist. It was their clothes. I could entertain the idea that our spirits might live on after the death of the body, and appear as spectral selves before the living, but how do they come to be wearing clothes? It's usually by their clothes that we know them: the faded wedding dress, the bloody shirt, "my father in his habit as he lived." So how do they come to be dressed in clothes--often not even the clothes they were interred in? Are the clothes ghosts, too? What about the armor and swords and crowns and other things they bear? No, it was clear to me that such apparitions are not spirits of the departed but the guilty imaginings or irrational fears of the living made visible.
Lately, Crowley says he's been seeing a trend in "new ghosts" appearing in fiction (like that written by Kelly Link, Hilary Mantel and George Saunders): "They come from new afterworlds or underworlds; they have different ways to haunt the living, and the living have new ways of dealing with them.  They're usually wearing clothes."

One of this issues finest revelations for me was the ghost story by Maurice Pons--firmly in the "old ghost" tradition of M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood.  Looking at the contributors' notes, I was surprised to find "The Baker's Son" was the first of Pons' stories to be translated into English.  As Edward Gauvin tells us in his introduction to the story, Pons is something of a cult figure in France where he has been writing steadily since the 1950s: "Uniformly in the first person, the stories often turn on some macabre or mysterious coincidence, sometimes not disclosed until the final line or paragraph, when both reader and narrator are faced with the blunt fact of it, impossible to dismiss."

Such is the case with "The Baker's Son" in which the titular character's father disappears from their small French village one snowy, fogbound January 4, never to return home.  Over the years, the baker reappears to his son in various places in different guises (a traveler, a referee at a soccer game, a waiter, etc.)....and always on January 4.  The story builds swiftly and tightly to its final, inevitable conclusion.  In the end, I was left wanting to brush up on my French so I could read the rest of Pons' work in the original language.

Other highlights of "The Mysterious Issue" include a story by Andrea Barrett ("The Ether of Space") in which science clashes with superstition, and a story about troubled new parents by Kenneth Calhoun called "Then" which consists of a series of short sections all beginning with the word "Then" (sample: "Then he was so tired that he vomited. There were things in it that he didn't remember eating.").  You'll also be treated to a brief history of UFOs by Chester Knapp ("True Enough"), an appreciation of film noir by Eddie Muller, and a look at twentieth-century domestic thrillers by Sarah Weinman ("The Dark Side of Dinner Dishes, Laundry, and Child Care") which revives the novels of Marie Belloc Lowndes (The Lodger), Elizabeth Sanxay Holding (The Death Wish) and Celia Fremlin (The Hours Before Dawn)--three writers who "peered into the never-discussed abyss of family and home life and lifted rocks that revealed a pit of crawling worms."

Another fine selection from Tin House's "Lost and Found" section comes from Hugh Ryan who begins his essay with this:
      I’m a sucker for a good monster-origin story. What’s Cujo without the rabies, Godzilla without the bomb?
      So how about this: Imagine a man born at the end of the nineteenth century, the all-American son of a traveling preacher. He drives a French ambulance in World War I, gets gassed, and receives the Croix de Guerre. He becomes a reporter for William Randolph Hearst, but something is wrong. He can’t sit still. He travels–Arabia, West Africa, England, Timbuktu. He becomes obsessed with the supernatural and befriends Satanist Aleister Crowley. He moves to France and cavorts with ex-pats. Gertrude Stein writes about him. His sex life is the stuff of morbid pulp novels: bondage, sadism, wife swapping. He samples human flesh, which he categorizes as “like good, fully developed veal, not young, but not yet beef.” His drinking spirals out of control, and for eight months he has himself institutionalized. When that doesn’t work, he plunges his arms into a vat of boiling water, hoping that by immobilizing them, he will stop himself from drinking. Eventually, at sixty-one, after writing nearly a dozen books, he kills himself, destroying the monsters in his mind.
      All but one.
      That man was William Buehler Seabrook, and though he’s forgotten now, his book The Magic Island midwifed into existence a monster that lives on in undead fecundity, reaching out from beyond the grave to top the New York Times bestseller list, meddle with Jane Austen, and routinely scare the crap out of me: the zombie.
What, he couldn't simply attend a local AA meeting instead of boiling his arms to keep from drinking?  Still, Seabrook's work intrigues.  Methinks it would pair nicely with a marathon session of The Walking Dead or even a George Romero-fest one night in my basement home theater.  Shades drawn and doors bolted shut, of course.

Click here to purchase Tin House's "Mysterious Issue" (or, better yet, click here to subscribe)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Candy Porn

This is not a review of Steve Almond's newest book.  But it should be.

God Bless America: Stories officially went on sale yesterday.  It's being published by Lookout Books and it's chock-full of short stories like "What the Bird Says" and "Not Until You Say Yes" and "A Jew Berserk on Christmas Eve."  I'd like everyone to rush out and buy a copy right now.

I haven't read God Bless America, but I'm willing to put my reputation on the line and say that it's good.  Perhaps even better than good.

Exhibit A:  The opening lines from "Shotgun Wedding."
Carrie had never seen Dr. Joel Olefeeder before, but he was the only one available under her medical plan--the old HMO clusterfuck--so here she was, at a chintzy little family clinic in the ass end of San Diego. She felt achy and tired, as if she might have the flu, the scary kind with the special abbreviation she could never quite remember. The waiting room smelled as if someone had just made popcorn. She signed in and took a seat across from the aquarium, where a young father was patiently trying to prevent his toddler from murdering the fish.

I wish I had time to read the entire short-story collection, but....well, you know, the old adage of "too many books, not enough time, blah blah blah."  That's why I want you to do the work for me.  Go out, buy the book, then come back and tell me what you think.  I hope you'll be pleased and full of gratitude and want to give me time shares at your Panama City condo just for recommending a book I haven't even read.

What I can do with absolute certainty is endorse an earlier book by Steve Almond which I have read.  Here's my review of Candyfreak from years ago (when I was still living in Alaska) as it originally appeared at January Magazine.  It seems like a fitting pre-Halloween recommendation.

*     *     *     *

Steve Almond opens his new book Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America with a section called "Some Things You Should Know About the Author."  Item #1: The author has eaten a piece of candy every single day of his entire life.  He then asks us to say a little prayer on behalf of his molars.

In truth, it's our teeth we should be worried about because, if you're anything like me (and if you aren't, then why the hell not?), after reading Candyfreak, you'll go out and binge-gorge on chocolate bars.  And not just any candy bars, mind you--the candy that's lovingly produced in small factories like Marty Palmer's in Sioux City, Iowa where conveyor belts carry a daily parade of Twin Bings ("Imagine, if you will, two brown lumps, about the size of golf balls, roughly textured, and stuck to one another like Siamese twins.  The lumps are composed of crushed peanuts and a chocolate compound.  Inside each of the lumps is a bright pink, cherry-flavored filling.").

Long before turning the last page of Almond's mouthwatering love letter to American candy, I was at the local Gas-n-Go snatching crinkly-wrapped bars off the racks.  Unfortunately, all my neighborhood store had to offer were the bland products of the Big Three chocolate companies--Nestle, Hershey's and Mars--and I had to satisfy my craving with boring brown planks of chocolate-nuts-nougat like Snickers, Baby Ruth and Milky Way.  I was sorely disappointed by the mild, crumbling chocolate, the mealy, deflated crisped rice and the varnish-colored caramel (to paraphrase Almond).

What I really wanted was an Idaho Spud.

Those of you who didn't grow up in the immediate neighborhood of the "Famous Potatoes" State probably haven't heard of the Idaho Spud.  Your loss.  And I weep for you.

I live in Alaska now, miles and years from my childhood home in Wyoming, but I can still taste the Spud on my tongue.  Shaped like a Twinkie, it's a chocolate-and-coconut-covered lump made of marshmallow filling flavored with maple, vanilla and dried cocoa.  Until I read Almond's book, I hadn't realized  the ingredients also included ager ager, a seaweed derivative.  That's not enough to dampen my lust for Spud and reading about Almond's trip through the Boise candy plant made me teary-eyed with nostalgia for the days as a teenager when I'd smuggle Idaho Spuds into my bedroom, carefully, quietly tearing open the brown wrappers so as not to trigger parental radar.  Then I'd sprawl across my bed, sink my teeth into the slightly-firm chocolate shell and feel something akin to a prepubescent orgasm when that spongy marshmallow-maple-vanilla-cocoa-seaweed filling slid through my mouth.  I'd read my Hardy Boys books or think about all the wonderful things I'd do with my school's hot cheerleader if by some freak miracle I ever got her alone in my bedroom, savoring with masturbatory pleasure those bites of Spud which were always gone too soon.   Then I'd carefully brush the flaky crumbs of coconut from the front of my shirt onto the floor where I ground them into the carpet with my shoe in the vain hope  my parents wouldn't notice the detritus of my pleasure.  So, yes, Spuds filled my veins for many years, as did the sugar of Charleston Chews, BB-Bats, Big Hunks, Wacky Wafers, Cup of Golds and Mallo Cups.

I mention this because we all have stories about candy, the intimate friends of our youth.  Reading Candyfreak is bound to bring those memories to the surface.  In fact, the book came about because of Almond's own longing for candy which seems to have inexplicably disappeared from stores over the years.
Oh where are you now, you brave stupid bars of yore?  Where Oompahs, those delectable doomed pods of chocolate and peanut butter?  Where the molar-ripping Bit-O-Choc?  And where Caravelle, a bar so dear to my heart that I remain, two decades after its extinction, in an active state of mourning?

Candyfreak is the funniest, most endearing book I've read in a long time.  Almond, whose previous book was the short-story collection My Life in Heavy Metal, is spot-on in his evocative descriptions of not only the Candy of Our Youth, but in the way we lived back in the 1970s.  He rhapsodizes about how candy triggers nostalgic secretions in our brains then goes on to describe how he burned heads off Gummy Bears in his ninth-grade science class ("I loved the way the little gummy bear heads would sizzle and smoke, and the syrupy consistency of the resulting mess.").  He talks about Halloween with the kind of reverence some folks reserve for Christmas ("There's something incredibly liberating about a holiday that encourages children to take candy from strangers").

This is candy porn for the undiscriminating palate.  Speaking of palates, did anyone else besides Almond and me suck on Jolly Rancher Stix until they softened and you could mold them with your tongue to the roof of your mouth in retainer-like fashion?  ("At a certain point, this habit morphed into an ardent belief that I could use candy to straighten my teeth," he writes.)

This is just one of many moments of personal connection I felt while reading Candyfreak.  I should add that I don't always agree with his opinion of certain candies.  He has unkind words for marshmallow Peeps and coconut.  But I immediately forgive him when he also trashes Jujubes:
The young and fortunate reader may not have heard of Jujubes, and this candy will be hard to describe in a fashion that makes it sound suitable for human consumption. They were basically hard pellets the size and shape of pencil erasers. Indeed, if one were to set Jujubes beside pencil erasers in a blind taste test, it would be tough to make a distinction, except that pencil erasers have more natural fruit flavor.

In these pages, we learn that Oliver R. Chase invented the lozenge cutter which began producing Necco wafers in 1847--later a staple of Union soldiers in the Civil War; that there was once--briefly--a pineapple-flavored Mars bar; and that people used to buy something called the Vegetable Sandwich (dehydrated vegetables covered in chocolate).

We also learn about "slotting fees," the book's most unforgettable villain.  Some of the nation's larger retail chains and supermarkets charge tens of thousands of dollars to stock a particular candy bar in the racks near the register, squeezing out the smaller companies who cannot possibly compete with the big-budget Big Three.  Slotting fees are partly responsible for the extinction of the beloved Candy of Our Youth.

Almond's fascination with candy initially leads him to send letters to manufacturers asking for factory tours.  When he's rebuffed by the big mega-corporations--who, as it turns out, are paranoid about industry spies stealing recipes and techniques--Almond turns to the little guys, the barely-struggling companies spread across the nation.  The account of his journey through the sweet, chewy center of America is fresh, funny and, at times, heartbreaking as we witness the hanging-by-a-fingernail survival of these small, independent candy companies.  Most of them can't afford the slotting fees to be placed on the checkout-stand impulse racks at Wal-Mart, chain supermarkets, or even the grocery stores in their own home town.  So, even though Almond writes rapturously about velvety chocolate commingling with satiny marshmallow filling, we're left with the taste of bittersweet chocolate on the tongue.  When it comes down to it, the book's really about the David and Goliath battles being fought every day in the candy industry.  One factory's aging machinery is literally patched together with Band-Aids and duct tape.

As Almond says in the closing pages of Candyfreak: "In the end, the laws of the candy world were the laws of the broader world: the strong survived, the weak struggled, people sought pleasure to endure their pain."  Almond does a marvelous job of turning a candy memoir into a broader statement on cutthroat economics which threaten to homogenize society, turning it into one big, bland nougat.  Candyfreak will make you laugh, cheer and cry--but mostly it will make you hungry.

Now if you'll excuse me, I must go inject some marshmallow filling directly into my veins.

*     *     *     *

Addendum I
Sometime after this review appeared, an Associated Press reporter doing a feature story on Idaho Spud candy bars contacted me while I was deployed to Iraq.  I was happy to sing the praises of the delectable Spud.  By the time the story appeared, I was already on my way back home to the States.

Addendum II
About two months after the AP story hit the presses, I received an email from the reporter.  She'd been contacted by the Idaho Spud Company who had received a $100 check from a patriotic gentleman in Pennsylvania, instructing them to send me $100 worth of Spuds.  (God bless America, indeed!)  I called John Wagers at the Idaho candy plant, explained to him that I was home now and not nearly so sensory-deprived as I was in Baghdad.  But, I added, I was still hankering for some Spuds.  He and I agreed that he'd send some Spuds to soldiers over in Iraq, but he also promised to send me a box of Spuds.  A week later, I received a box in the mail: rows and rows of Idaho Spuds, all neatly lined up like little brown logs in their wrappers.  Three minutes later, I was limply crumpled back in my chair, transported to spongy marshmallow-maple-vanilla-cocoa-seaweed heaven, coconut flakes littering the front of my shirt.

Apart from meeting Tom McGuane, it remains the best perk I ever got in this thankless business of book reviewing.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dead-Tree Books in the E-Age: The Late American Novel by Jeff Martin & C. Max Magee

The book is dead.  Long live the book.

As we continue to step into the E-Age with shaky legs--some of us trading our pulp-based books for KinNookPads, others vowing "they can have my dog-eared paperback of The Catcher in the Rye when they pry it from my cold, dead fingers"--some questions pop to my mind:

Do we live in an age of reading revolution, or is the iPad merely the cassette tape* of publishing?  Should we be alarmed or thrilled?  Does convenience of pixels smother quality of prose?  Is my Kindle Satan's tool or a gift from God?  Am I a new-age Gutenberg for wanting to read screen-words, or am I betraying all that is good and holy in the act of reading?  If I Whispersync do I effectively reduce brick-and-mortar bookstores to smoking piles of rubble?

These and many other questions are posed and sort of answered in The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee.  The anthology of essays comes at the dawn or twilight of the Age of Reading, depending on how you look at it.  Martin (author of the "fabricated memoir" My Dog Ate My Nobel Prize) and Magee (founder of The Millions) have corralled an impressive list of contributors to address the issues surrounding this "sea change" in publishing, writing, and reading.  "We wanted to hear from some of today's most promising literary voices, to find out if they are optimistic, apathetic, or just scared shitless," Martin and Magee write in their introduction.

The result is a volatile mix of cultural dissection, personal testimony, and dice-tossing prognostication.  The editors found a good balance between those for and against e-books, as well as others who are sitting on the fence waiting for the jury to come back in.  The Late American Novel provokes, cajoles, and laments with equal measure.  It is must-reading for anyone at all interested in the sunny-bleak future of books.

I read The Late American Novel earlier this year and have been letting its contents simmer on low boil ever since.  For the record, I read the Dead-Tree Book version, though I could have easily downloaded it via Whispersync onto my Kindle.  Though I'm a reluctant champion of the e-book, a little voice inside whispered that I should hold this particular book in my hands, feel the paper beneath my fingertips even as I read about the alleged coming death of paper.

I apologize in advance for making this one of those reviews which are heavy on the quoted excerpts, but I thought it best to let the book speak for itself--as all books should be allowed to do.  Here then, are some choice cuts from The Late American Novel.  But, really, do yourself a favor and buy the whole side of beef.  (In hindsight, I realize most of these quotations are from pro-DTB essays, but there really are some excellent contributions from e-book-friendly authors in the anthology.)

In "Not Quite as Dire as having Your Spine Ripped Out, but..." Owen King writes:
      I don't mean to be a Luddite, and I'm speaking entirely for myself. I belong to the tail-end of the last generation whose first computer was an electric typewriter and who didn't know that email existed until college. On some level, I'm still coming to grips with the Roomba. It could very well be that my inner fogey is just squawking over one technological advance too many. I should be happier for the trees.
      That said, I don't believe it's unreasonable to have some concern about "the future of the book" in the context of a world where more immediate diversions--music, movies, video games--are all readily available in the same portable device. While novels have been in competition with these entertainments for years, and it hasn't stopped a diverse audience of readers from flocking to Jonathan Franzen and John Grisham alike, the difference now is that for many people, their books will be snuggled right up next to the other stuff on their iPads, or whatever their multimedia machine of choice happens to be. While it’s sort of exciting in the abstract to imagine Jonathan Franzen rubbing shoulders in a tight electronic space with your favorite Beck songs, a few choice episodes of The Wire and ZombieSmash, in reality that’s an awful lot of potential distraction when you’re in the trenches of the difficult first hundred or so pages of The Corrections. Again, these temptations are nothing new, but in the past, a person generally needed to at least stand up and take a few steps to get at them.

In "Modes of Imagining the Writer of the Future," Lauren Groff handles the problem with acerbic wit in a list describing the writer of the future, including:
      A writer of the future sits in her office in the present, trying very, very hard to not panic.
      The writer of the future will sell her wares on the dog-crotted sidewalks of city streets, desperately flinging open her trench coat to reveal advance reading copies, braving the disgusted or averted faces of the more respectable kinds of pedestrians to whom French flaps or deckle edges mean nothing even remotely titillating.
      It will be mandated: At every table in every diner in the world, there will sit a writer about the size of a napkin dispenser. At the end of the meal, one shall put in one’s credit card and out will pop a novel in a hundred and forty characters, or fewer.
      Bleak House: Fog in London, judicial shenanigans. How does it end? Nobody knows.
      The Road: A boy and his father in black and white and red. And roasted babies!
       Portnoy’s Complaint: Oh, my penis. Oh, my mother. Oh, my penis again.
Groff's essay alone is worth the price of admission.

I could quote the entire length and breadth of Rudolph Delson's essay...but I won't because then you wouldn't buy the book and discover it for yourself.  Instead, I'll just give you his wonderful title: "The Best Books Will Be Written Long After You Are Dead."

In "Home Word Bound," Nancy Jo Sales writes:
      Would my life in books have been the same if they had been coming to me via Kindle or iPad? I don't think so. There's something about the physicality of a book, the way it looks and feels and even smells--the notes written in the margins--that makes it a living, breathing companion (who, like yourself, is actually dying). I don't think books will ever disappear for this reason: We need them too much. They remind us that we exist; they show us how we have lived.

Tom Piazza interviews Tom Piazza during his slice of the book.  Here's one answer he gives himself:
      Computers and e-books and smartphones all basically look alike. They are strictly vehicles; you pick them up to step through them into some consensus reality; you’re wired in. Everything is leveled out. When everything has equal weight, everything is weightless. The world they offer is one of infinitely diverse information with a common denominator: the screen. The computer is neutral in that it gives you access to limitless amounts of information, but the one requirement is that you have to get it on the computer. The information has no smell, no weight, no texture. Nothing that seriously impinges on your reality. People think it represents some kind of democratizing of information because everything’s the same size. But democracy is when things of different sizes get a chance to mix it up and work it out, measure themselves in their respective strengths. If everything is the same size, there’s no perspective.

The arguments in these pages are not confined to "real books" vs. e-books; these writers have plenty to say about the novel itself--whether it lingers on life-support or dances around hale and hearty.  Here's Kyle Beachy in "The Extent of Our Decline":
      Here is your novel of the future. It is messy and sometimes long. It traffics in both ontology and epistemology and demands from you, reader, activity unique today. Your time, your patience. Your effort. But rest assured, please, that beneath these words are the everlasting arms. Sink into these pages, the novelist says, whether on paper or touchscreen, and find love within. Lies, yes, told via a bounty, even superfluity, of words. Though hidden among these lies sits an experience buried, a truth untellable as fact.

In "The Outskirts of Progress," Marco Roth writes:
      The "future of the book" is, by definition, unknowable. There are only attitudes towards the future which shape possible futures from the vantage of the present: foully apocalyptic, silvery utopian, cautiously conservationist. These attitudes can even coexist within each of us. The crisis of the book is really a crisis of our free will to culture.

The collection ends with Reif Larsen's "The Crying of Page 45."  Like Larsen's visually-stunning novel The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, his essay comes complete with illustrations, charts and dotted lines in the margins.  Martin and Magee were wise to save Larsen's contribution until last--like the final, rousing sermon of a tent revival.  Here's just a portion of the (blessedly-welcome) preaching:
      As I write this, e-books have not been able to achieve the same sang-froid delivery hum of the book. Perhaps it is no surprise then that e-readers are currently obsessed with mimicking the printed page as best they can. The animation present in the iPad, in which you literally can watch the page turn with your fingertip, was cited as "comforting" and "satisfying" and "just like reading a real book" by early reviewers. Of course this is nothing like reading a "real book"--whatever that means. Nor should it be. This kind of thinking is a lingering form of the "horseless carriage syndrome," in which we are trying to reconstruct old technologies in a medium that does not do old technology well. The screen cannot be fondled or written on, folded or torn. The screen does not smell (not yet, at least). We should not simply recreate the sparse beauty of the printed page on the screen. We can learn from the page's minimalism, from the power of its margins, but if we are to be true storytellers in this new medium, then we must embrace the power of the medium and move into new standards of delivery that use the page as only an instructive starting point.

(A curiosity: As I was reading "The Crying of Page 45" six months ago, I was taking a bath.  A hot, steamy bath.  A bath during which I leaned back in pleasure and the pages dipped dangerously close to the water.  As a consequence, whenever I reach that portion of the book now the paper is rippled and wrinkled. What should rub against the grain of my desire to have "clean books" actually comforts me because just by touching these warped pages, a synapse sparks in my brain and I'm taken back to that bathtub. To my delight, I find the water is still warm.  Take that, Kindle!)

The Late American Novel is designed to be a conversation-starter--whether in an on-line chat room or in the living room at your book club's next get-together.  Do yourself a favor, get a copy and use it as fuel** for your literary fire (Kindle version or otherwise).

*A term which, by the way, was recently excised from the "concise edition" of The Oxford English Dictionary.
**Not meaning any Fahrenheit 451 implications by this.

Monday, October 24, 2011

My First Time: Elizabeth Stuckey-French

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 Elizabeth Stuckey-French, the author of two novels--The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady and Mermaids on the Moon--as well as a collection of short stories, The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa.  She is a co-author, along with Janet Burroway and Ned Stuckey-French, of Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft.  Her short stories have appeared in The Normal School, Narrative Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Gettysburg Review, Southern Review, Five Points, and The O’Henry Prize Stories 2005.  She was awarded a James Michener Fellowship and has won grants from the Howard Foundation, the Indiana Arts Foundation, and the Florida Arts Foundation.  She teaches fiction writing at Florida State University.

My First Editorial Confab

Before my father died, he told me an amazing story.  When he was younger he’d been a student of the novelist Caroline Gordon, and as the years went by he and Ms. Gordon became good friends.  When I was a child, she was hired as a visiting writer at Purdue, where my father also taught in the English Department.  (She was a frosty woman who disliked children, so she’ll always be Ms. Gordon to me, even though my father named me after her—my middle name is Caroline.)  While Ms. Gordon was at Purdue, another of Ms. Gordon’s mentees, Flannery O’Conner, living in Milledgeville, Georgia, was revising her short story “Revelation,” and had sent a copy to Ms. Gordon to be critiqued.  She was an amazingly generous and helpful reader, and her letters to Flannery contain some of the most useful bits of advice about fiction writing I’ve ever read.

Ms. Gordon showed my father Flannery’s story "Revelation” and asked him to read it and offer some suggestions to Flannery, which he did.  And, he informed me, after the story was published he noticed that Flannery had taken his suggestion and changed some of her wording and used his!  Being a huge O’Conner fan, I was thrilled. Which wording?  He couldn’t remember.  How could he not remember?  I badgered him about this for awhile, but he was speaking the truth.  He couldn’t remember, and so, for both of us, his contribution to “Revelation” remains a mystery.  But it tickles me to know that some of my father’s words are part of one of the greatest short stories ever written.  Or so he said, and as he wasn’t prone to brag or invent, I believe him.

I read “Revelation” over and over again, each time with the intention of trying to ferret out my father’s words, but I’d always forget my ridiculous mission after the first few paragraphs and get caught up in the seamless beauty of the story itself.  And, when I finally turned the last page, I’d once again realize that since “Revelation” seems like it sprang out of the ether fully formed, what difference does it make which words were suggested by whom?  It all works together, and that’s what matters.

I learned this lesson from a writer’s perspective when I was revising my own far inferior short story, “Blessing,” which was collected in my first book, The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa.  It was one of my earliest story publications—appearing initially in a small magazine called Indiannual—and the publication process for “Blessing” was the first time I’d ever worked with a smart, serious and obsessive editor.

What a gift that editorial experience was!  My afternoon dissecting “Blessing” with Jerome Donahue was life changing for me.  Jerome and I spent hours on the phone, combing the story paragraph by paragraph.  We spent the longest amount of time on the last paragraph of the story--four sentences--considering different versions of one sentence and the effectiveness of one word.  We talked about the rightness of that particular word for half an hour or more, speculating on the ramifications of replacing it with one word or another.

I’d never met Jerome—although we later became good friends--and from the sound of his voice I imagined him to be a tall imposing African-American man, when in actuality he was a short white gay man.  As we debated, inspecting words and sentences as if we were spies carrying out a desperately important mission, as if we’d been charged with sending the most accurate dispatch we possibly could back to the motherland, my ear hot and aching from holding the phone against it, I attempted to act like I thought such intense scrutiny of a mere short story was par for the course.

But all along I was thinking, Really?  One word is that important to you?  And it should it be that important to me?  Is this what real writers have to do?  Discuss EVERY LITTLE WORD???   Are they—we—really this neurotic and obsessive and compulsive?  Do I have go through these gyrations with everything I write?  I’d had no idea.  The marathon session with Jerome was eye-opening.  I was beginning to get an inkling how much work, and…yes, okay…fun, revising could actually be.  Fun if you’re neurotic, which I realized, talking to Jerome, I am.

When I set out to write this piece, I’d intended to talk about which word, in the last paragraph of “Blessing,” that Jerome and I went back and forth about endlessly.  The word that gave us so much trouble.  Was it “heard”?  Or “think?” or…but I have no idea which word it was, even though I was certain I’d never forget.

When I read “Blessing” now, it feels like someone else wrote it, and I couldn’t tell you who suggested what where.  I no longer remember what Jerome said, or what I said, because all traces of our tinkering and haggling have disappeared, and that, of course, is how it should be. Writers and editors crack a piece of fiction open to examine it for flaws, and after careful analysis and meticulous changing and rearranging and adding and subtracting, if they’ve done their work well, the surface closes over and the story is whole again.

The world of a fictional story is understood by readers to be merely an illusion, but I’d say that the way a story can appear to be effortlessly formed, springing right out of the ether like a gift from a benevolent goddess, might be the biggest, and coolest, fictional illusion of all.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Where is the West?

Anthologies of western literature have been cropping up in the last few decades at the rate of McMansions sprouting in the foothills of Rocky Mountain ranges.  The rise in appreciation for western lit is, perhaps, far less troubling for some than the influx of the wealthy "out-of-staters."  We can at least tolerate a groaning shelf of regional books. For starters, there's the grandaddy of them all: The Last Best Place, the 1988 collection of Montana writing edited by William Kittredge and Annick Smith.  It's a door-stopper volume of Big Sky writing that is the touchstone for any purple-mountains-majesty anthology which followed--a long list which includes Circle of Women: An Anthology of Contemporary Western Women Writers, The Best of the West, The Literary West, and New Writers of the Purple Sage.

Now comes West of 98: Living and Writing the New American West, edited by Lynn Stegner and Russell Rowland, a 380-page trip through the New West which poses the question "What does it mean to be a westerner?" and receives a chorus of answers.

My review of West of 98 appears in The Billings Gazette and opens like this:
      What is the West?  Where does it begin and end?  How does one even get there?
      According to West of 98’s editors and contributors, the answer to all three questions is: it depends. The West is less terra firma than it is terra incognita, a landscape of the imagination that is still being mapped by politicians and poets.
Lynn Stegner, who co-edited the anthology with Russell Rowland, writes in the Introduction that the original goal was to find “a kind of Greek chorus that might define, remark upon, and otherwise characterize the West as each of us grew to know it, and, equally important, the West that is still becoming. A declaration not of our independence this time, but of our interdependence.”
      What Stegner and Rowland got were 67 writers—most of them all-stars in contemporary west-of-the-Mississippi literature—each with a distinct and often contradictory perspective on what it means to live “west of the 98th meridian.”  Taking a wide-angle view of West of 98, we find a crazy-quilt definition of the western landscape and its people; some of the individual essays are exquisite, a few are flat as a Nebraska wheat field, but all form a pattern of what eventually looks like a singular landscape which generations have both tamed and succumbed to in the quest for more open spaces.  The West is, as David Mas Masumoto claims, “dirt worth fighting for.”
      In this thick, rich volume, we’re treated to essays and poems by, among others, Rick Bass, Larry McMurtry, Judy Blunt, Walter Kirn, and Gretel Ehrlich—all of them trying to pin down the nature of a place that is equally defined by the Marlboro Man and the neon cowboy of Las Vegas. Some of the contributors merely define their own postage-stamp-sized corner of the West, others conclude by admitting they’re baffled by the physical and imaginative boundaries of the region. The true West is such an enigma to Ron Hansen, for instance, that his entire essay “Why the West?” is nothing but a series of questions (“Why do movie characters on the run almost always head west?” etc.).
      The editors have smartly arranged the anthology according to geography, moving from east to west, so we begin with Louise Erdrich in the “big grass” of North Dakota and spill out of the book with Paige Stegner in coastal California.
Click here to read the rest of the review.

As with all reviews, I was constrained by the limits of column inches (and readers' attention spans).  So, that meant I wasn't able to include some of my favorite passages from West of 98.  Here are two--the first from Rowland's essay "Chasing the Lamb" which goes like this:
      What I wonder finally is whether the last frontier of the West might be the internal journey, the search for how each of us fits in this mythical place. From as far back as I can remember, there was an underlying feeling that growing up here meant that we shouldn't expect to be as sophisticated as those exotic folks to the east or even the ones on our own coast....The West has long suffered from an inferiority complex. Westerners have been reminded in ways that are often subtle, but always clear, that we are interesting in some of the same ways that cavemen or headhunters are interesting. We are reminders of a past that was brutal and lawless. And we are often expected to perpetuate these myths, making occasional appearances in the press for our modern day outlaws, our mountain men or our Unabomber, and producing art that reflects the same old stereotypes. We constantly struggle with the possibility that, if we step out of these roles, we might not be taken seriously. And yet we're not taken seriously when we stick with the roles, either. Even those who have achieved success in their artistry are considered regional and are often dismissed by the elite.

And this from "Celilo Falls" by Craig Lesley in which the Oregon writer remembers the time he watched a dam kill a waterfall revered by Native Americans:
      My grandfather took me out to Celilo the day they closed the dam's floodgates. For a few hours it didn't seem to make much difference. The whitewater came rushing down the chutes, roaring and crashing over the Falls. But down below I could see the water hit the dam and start rolling back against itself, like wild horses driven into a blind canyon cutting back on their trail. By the middle of the afternoon, I could tell the water was rising. A large pool stretched across the river, but the Falls kept on roaring as if nothing could stop them.
      Finally, the lake reached the base of the first Falls, so the engineers in their hard hats and the politicians in their ties lined up for pictures, the last pictures of the Falls. Then I heard a high wail. It was even louder than the roar of the Falls. All the old Celilos had turned their backs to the rising water and were lined up facing the canyon wall. Their arms were crossed and they were chanting the death chant.
      The lake rose against the Falls as the water kept pouring over them, but the more it crashed into the lake, the higher it rose, choking them back. I closed my eyes, praying it would stop. My grandfather put his hand on my shoulder. Then I opened my eyes and stared. One after another, the Falls drowned themselves, until the roaring stopped, and I couldn't hear anything but the sucking of the dark, eddying lake as it grew larger and larger, filling up the canyon.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Soup and Salad: Laura Miller's tin-foil hat, Harper Perennial's new publishing model, Essays: red-headed stepchildren of the NBA, Charles Dickens' demonic energy, Zombies eat highbrow fiction, Bellevue Literary Press does it right, BFFs: Eugenides, Franzen and DFW

On today's menu:

1.  Edward Champion (Reluctant Habits) mixes it up with Laura Miller (Salon) in the latest tussle in what Miller would call our insular literary community.  The issue at hand?  The National Book Awards.  Specifically, the piece Miller recently wrote for Salon, criticizing the judges for giving the award to what they think are well-deserving, obscure books which should be spoon-fed to the general public like spinach: "Like the Newbery Medal for children’s literature, awarded by librarians, the NBA has come to indicate a book that somebody else thinks you ought to read, whether you like it or not."  For his part, Champion says Miller was wearing her tin-foil hat when she wrote a column which amounted to "little more than irresponsible speculation."  So, here we go:

In this corner, wearing the green trunks and weighing in at 176 pounds....

And in the other corner, wearing gold trunks and tipping the scales at 183 pounds....

2.  Elsewhere at Salon, Kevin Canfield has this interesting report on the new publishing model of Harper Perennial (which, Canfield notes, is not unique to this particular imprint):
      In a sense, (Blake) Butler represents everything that Harper Perennial has tried to become since it started a rebranding effort in 2005, trying to find its niche in the unpredictable world of contemporary book publishing. Like Vintage Contemporaries did in the 1980s when it published a series of novels by Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz that captured the zeitgeist, Perennial, with its line of handsome, affordable paperback originals--many of which are penned by members of Butler’s generation--is trying to establish itself as the home of a new kind of literary smarts and style. It’s almost a small press inside a much bigger one--authors get paid less than they might even from another HarperCollins branch, but still benefit from the publicity and distribution muscle.
      “Some of the books we’re doing are almost avant-garde, a lot of them are by young writers, and a lot of the promotional efforts we do are online or in innovative new ways,” (Cal Morgan, editorial director of Harper Perennial) said in a recent interview. “But it still is all coming from this very deep-rooted sense of the physical book as our little sacred item.”
I was surprised to learn Harper Perennial places its books in off-beat merchandising locations like clothiers Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters.  Is this really true?  (I wouldn't know because I'm pretty much an Old Navy guy.)

3.  Back to the NBA for a moment....Ned Stuckey-French feels essays get short shrift in the non-fiction category.  He presents his case for "The Essay as Red-Headed Stepchild" here at Brevity.

4.  Lev Grossman has a lively piece on Charles Dickens in TIME.  Expect to see many more Dickens-centric posts here at The Quivering Pen in the coming months as we approach the bicentennial of his birth.  What can I say?  I'm a fan in the true fanatic sense of the word.  Grossman writes:
Dickens grew up to be a man of demonic energy: it’s like he was bitten by a radioactive scrivener that gave him superpowers. As a working writer who, like Dickens, writes novels and journalism, I can only read about his output with awe. He wrote his books as serials, published in monthly installments, and he sometimes went two at a time—he wrote The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist simultaneously, punching them both out in 7,500 chunks. When he finished Pickwick he started Nicholas Nickleby, while never dropping a stitch of Oliver. Sometimes, after an especially intense writing jag, he would dunk his head and hands into a bucket of cold water, then keep right on going.

5.  The Atlantic looks at how "literary writers" like Justin Cronin (The Passage), Colson Whitehead (Zone One) and Benjamin Percy (the upcoming Red Moon) are legitimizing genre fiction with their fresh takes on vampires, zombies and werewolves: "Today's serious writers are hybrid creatures--yoking the fantasist scenarios and whiz-bang readability of popular novels with the stylistic and tonal complexity we expect to find in literature. Meet the New Mutants of American fiction."  Percy has this--pardon the pun--killer quote at the end of the article:
If (you) look at the best of literary fiction, you see three-dimensional characters, you see exquisite sentences, you see glowing metaphors. But if you look at the worst of literary fiction, you see that nothing happens. Somebody takes a sip of tea, looks out the window at a bank of roiling clouds and has an epiphany....In the worst of genre fiction, you see hollow characters, you see transparent prose, you see the same themes and archetypes occurring from book to book. If you look at the best of genre fiction, you see this incredible desire to discover what happens next....So what I'm trying to do is get back in touch with that time of my life when I was reading genre, and turning the pages so quickly they made a breeze on my face. I'm trying to take the best of what I've learned from literary fiction and apply it to the best of genre fiction, to make a kind of hybridized animal.

6.  "We are getting fantastic material," said Bellevue Literary Press Editor Erika Goldman. "It's a terrible climate out there and we are profiting."  That comes from this feature story on Bellevue Literary Press, the home of this year's National Book Award finalist The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak and last year's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Tinkers by Paul Harding.  The editorial team at Bellevue must be doing something right to have such a high percentage of winners from such a small catalogue of titles.  “We are dedicated to serious literary works and we don't compromise on quality for commerce,” said Ms. Goldman.  Oh, so that's it.  Not that they will, but it shore would be nice if other publishers had that same kind of dedication.

7.  Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace star in "Just Kids" in New York magazine: "The crowd was overwhelmingly male, very close in age, largely from the Midwest, and engaged in a kind of generational struggle to make sense of the postmodern literary legacy--of Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and others--that they found both consuming and unsatisfactory, especially as a guide to writing about the new, weird America of the eighties and nineties."