Thursday, January 31, 2013

On the Road Again

After taking a breather from the flurry of bookstore readings and literary festival appearances last Fall, I'll be heading back out on the road for another round of events in support of Fobbit and Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, the anthology of short stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan coming from Da Capo Press.  I haven't said too much about Fire and Forget here at the blog (I'll have a longer post about it in the future), but I urge you to pre-order it or request it at your local bookstore.  The official publication date is Feb. 12 and it features stories by Siobhan Fallon, Colby Buzzell, Brian Turner, Matt Gallagher and other military veterans (including yours truly).

Here are some of my confirmed appearances between now and the beginning of summer.  If you're near any of these locations, I hope to see you out there in the audience.  (Note to my friends in the Northeast: sadly, no, I'm still not coming to the Washington, DC or NYC areas.  Bummer.)

Bozeman, MT
March 3 at 7 pm
Reading from Fire and Forget at The Country Bookshelf

Deer Lodge, MT
March 8 at 7 pm
Reading from Fobbit at the Kohrs Memorial Library

Missoula, MT
March 9 at 2 pm
Reading from Fire and Forget at Fact and Fiction

Portland, OR
March 20 at 7:30 pm
Reading from Fire and Forget at Powell's with Roy Scranton and Gavin Kovite

Seattle, WA
March 21 at 7 pm
Reading from Fire and Forget at Elliott Bay Books with Roy Scranton and Gavin Kovite

Clemson, SC
April 5 at 5 pm
Clemson Literary Festival
Reading from Fobbit at Tiger Town Tavern (368 College Ave), along with authors Eduardo C. Corral, Charles McLeod, Bonnie Nadzam, and Ariana Reines.

Bozeman, MT
April 10 at 6 pm
Reading from Fobbit at MSU's SOB Barn

Little Rock, AR
April 18-21 (Day/time TBD)
Arkansas Literary Festival

Coos Bay, OR
May 13-14
The Coos Bay Library has generously selected Fobbit as a community-wide read.  I'll be making appearances at several locations around town, reading from the novel and talking about my war experience.

Ketchum, ID
May 16 (Time TBD)
Reading from Fobbit at The Community Library

One final note: if you are part of a book club, university class, or other literary-type organization, I'm always happy to Skype with your group.  Just drop me a line and we'll work something out.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Ones We Lost

For the length of a season, it seemed like we were losing all the good ones.  They say death comes in threes, but halfway into 2012, it felt more like sixes and sevens.  Each time we opened the paper to the obituary section or logged on to Twitter, it seemed like another legendary writer had passed on to that Final Draft in the Sky.

Bradbury.  Sendak.  Fuentes.

Every week, it seemed like another pillar of the literary community was crumbling.  Some of the deaths we'd seen coming (Lewis Nordan, for instance, had been in failing health for years), but others were a complete shock (Anthony Shadid, dead of an asthma attack at age 43).  With every passing, I thought to myself, "Damn, I should have read more of their books while they were still alive."  In many cases, I did march straight to my bookshelves and take down a volume of their words to read.  It's never too late to appreciate the art they left for us.

As with last year's In Memoriam post here at The Quivering Pen, this list is hardly complete, by any means. I combed through my back issues of Poets & Writers magazine and tried to keep up with obituaries as I came across them, but I know there are many, many more authors I've missed.  Feel free to remind us of other literary passings in the comments section below.

Josef Škvorecký
Sept. 27, 1924 – Jan. 3, 2012
Škvorecký was born in Czechoslovakia and wrote his first books there, including The Cowards.  But after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Škvorecký and his wife, writer and actress Zdena Salivarová, fled to Canada.  In 1971, they founded 68 Publishers which, over the next twenty years, published banned Czech and Slovak books. The imprint became an important mouthpiece for dissident writers, such as Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, and Ludvík Vaculík, among many others.  In addition to being a first-rate poet, essayist, screenwriter and novelist (I'm particularly fond of Two Murders in My Double Life), Josef Škvorecký was also a renowned book smuggler.  During the Cold War, he and Zdena arranged for books to be smuggled behind the Iron Curtain, and "people who got books from the Škvoreckýs still recall who brought it to them, how much time they had to read it, which of the books they copied and which were confiscated in a search of their homes by the StB (Czechoslovakia’s State Security Police)," the newspaper Czech Position wrote.  "Till this day I remember the feel of the books, how wonderfully they slipped into your pocket, and how pages fell out of them in frantic, all-night reading marathons," said writer Jáchym Topol.

Reginald Hill
April 3, 1936 – Jan. 12, 2012
The creator of the Dalziel and Pascoe series of crime novels, Hill won the Crime Writers Association's Golden Dagger in 1990 and the Diamond Dagger in 1995.  Oddly and eerily, Random House hasn't updated Hill's author page since his death.  His biographical note there is delightfully cheeky.  To wit: "I was born in the north-east of England in a town called Hartlepool whose main claim to fame is that its inhabitants are alleged to have put a shipwrecked monkey on trial during the Napoleonic wars and when it answered all their questions in what they presumed was French, they hanged it as a spy.  The year of my birth was 1936 and not long after the event, the king abdicated. Despite the rumours, the two events were probably not related."  His obituary in The Guardian opens with another choice quote.  When asked in a 2007 interview if this was his 48th published novel to date, he replied: "That sounds very reasonable. I counted religiously till I got to 10, then in a more secular fashion till I got to 20, and after that I lost interest in keeping a tally. I mean, if 20 doesn't mean you're a real writer, then what number does?"

Wislawa Szymborska
July 2, 1923 – Feb. 1, 2012
As her Wikipedia page notes, Wislawa Szymborska was once described as a "Mozart of Poetry."  In Poland, her books reached sales rivaling prominent prose authors: although she once remarked in a poem, "Some Like Poetry," that no more than two out of a thousand people care for the art.  In a fine appreciation of the poet at the Melville House blog, Valerie Merians wrote: "The simplicity and seeming ease of her poetry belied the great care she took in making her poems.  As the Times reports, 'Despite six decades of writing, Szymborska had less than 400 poems published.  Asked why, she once said: "There is a trash bin in my room.  A poem written in the evening is read again in the morning.  It does not always survive."'"  Speaking personally, I came to admire Szymborska's work late in her life, well after she'd won the Nobel Prize in 1996.  Here's just a taste of her marvelous work--some lines from "Divorce" which can be found in her 2010 collection Here:
For the kids the first ending of the world.
For the cat a new master.
For the dog a new mistress.
For the furniture stairs, thuds, my way or the highway.
For the walls bright squares where pictures once hung.
For the neighbors new subjects, a break in the boredom.
For the car better if there were two.
For the novels, the poems--fine, take what you want.
Worse with encyclopedias and VCRs,
not to mention the guide to proper usage,
which doubtless holds pointers on two names--
are they still linked with the conjunction "and"
or does a period divide them.

Dorothy Gilman
June 25, 1923 – Feb. 2, 2012
Maybe only readers of a certain age (i.e., me) remember Dorothy Gilman, but for years she reigned as the bestselling author of what I'd call "the little old lady espionage novel."  Her Mrs. Pollifax books featured Emily Pollifax, a garden-clubbing grandmother and widow in New Jersey looking for something to do late in life.  So she becomes a CIA agent.  Across the 14-book series, Gilman sent her grandma-agent to such far-flung places as Mexico, Turkey, Thailand, China, Morocco, Africa, and Sicily.  As the New York Times noted in its obituary, "in a genre in which women had long been young and sultry, Mrs. Pollifax, with her peril and petunias, made an irresistible, early feminist heroine."  Gilman wrote more than 15 other books and was named 2010's Grand Master by Mystery Writers of America.

Anthony Shadid
Sept. 26, 1968 – Feb. 16, 2012
The author of three books--the last of which, House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East, was published a month after his death--Shadid was a two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist for The New York Times.  In its obituary, the paper wrote that Shadid "had long been passionately interested in the Middle East, first because of his Lebanese-American heritage and later because of what he saw there firsthand."  Here's an example of his fine work of reportage from inside the Arab Spring uprising: “The idealism of the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, where the power of the street revealed the frailty of authority, revived an Arab world anticipating change.  But Libya’s unfinished revolution, as inspiring as it is unsettling, illustrates how perilous that change has become as it unfolds in this phase of the Arab Spring.  Though the rebels’ flag has gone up in Tripoli, their leadership is fractured and opaque; the intentions and influence of Islamists in their ranks are uncertain; Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi remains at large in a flight reminiscent of Saddam Hussein’s; and foreigners have been involved in the fight in the kind of intervention that has long been toxic to the Arab world.  Not to mention, of course, that a lot of young men have a lot of guns.”

Barney Rosset
May 28, 1922 – Feb. 21, 2012
I took this loss in a deeper, more personal way than some of the others listed here on this page.  Barney Rosset was, after all, the legendary owner of Grove Press, the precursor to my current publisher Grove/Atlantic.  As news spread about his death of complications from heart surgery, tributes from friends and fans lit up social media with words like "legendary" and "maverick" and "giant" and "hero."  Rosset once told the New York Times, "All my life I followed the things that I liked — people, things, books — and when things were offered to me, I published them. I never did anything I really didn't like."  In an article in the New York Times, Douglas Martin wrote: "In 2008 the National Book Foundation honored him as 'a tenacious champion for writers who were struggling to be read in America.'  Other mentions were less lofty.  Life magazine in 1969 titled an article about him 'The Old Smut Peddler.'  That same year a cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post showed him climbing out of a sewer."  He led a successful legal battle to publish the uncensored version of D. H. Lawrence's novel Lady Chatterley's Lover, and later was the American publisher of Henry Miller's controversial novel Tropic of Cancer. The right to publish and distribute Miller's novel in the United States was affirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1964, in a landmark ruling for free speech and the First Amendment.  You can read my full tribute to Rosset by clicking here.

William Gay
Oct. 27, 1941 – Feb. 23, 2012
William Gay is another of the many names on my list of authors I really need to get around to reading someday.  I hate that "someday" keeps getting pushed off to a later day.  Gay's books The Long Home and I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down: Collected Stories have been on my shelves for years and years, sadly untouched.  Even though he'd been writing since the age of fifteen, Gay did not publish anything until 1998, when two of his short stories were accepted by literary magazines. Before then, he made his living as a carpenter, drywall-hanger and house painter.  His books were set firmly in the Southern Gothic tradition and he was often compared to William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe and Cormac McCarthy.  All the more reason I should drop everything and read one of his books.  Today.

Jan Berenstain
July 26, 1923 – Feb. 24, 2012

Need I say anything more?

Adrienne Rich
May 16, 1929 – March 27, 2012
Poet.  Feminist.  Essayist.  War Protester.  Adrienne Rich's art was closely intertwined with her activism, making hers a fierce, beautiful voice in the world.  She was the recipient of a long list of literary awards, including the Yale Younger Poets prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and the Dorothea Tanning Award given by the Academy of American Poets. In 1973, in the midst of the feminist and civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, and her own personal distress (her ex-husband had committed suicide three years earlier), Rich wrote Diving Into The Wreck, a collection of exploratory and often angry poems, which garnered her the National Book Award in 1974.  Rich accepted the award on behalf of all women and shared it with her fellow nominees, Alice Walker and Audre Lorde. She famously declined the National Medal of Arts in 1997, protesting the United States House of Representatives and Speaker Newt Gingrich's vote to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. On the role of the poet, she once wrote, "We may feel bitterly how little our poems can do in the face of seemingly out-of-control technological power and seemingly limitless corporate greed, yet it has always been true that poetry can break isolation, show us to ourselves when we are outlawed or made invisible, remind us of beauty where no beauty seems possible, remind us of kinship where all is represented as separation."

Harry Crews
June 7, 1935 – March 28, 2012
Shortly after learning of Harry Crews' death, novelist Jamie Ford Tweeted: "The great Harry Crews has gone to meet his maker, where I'm sure Harry will punch that bastard square in the jaw." I can't think of a Tweet that could pay better homage to a man who with a figurative fist guiding his pen.  I mean, just take a look at the titles of some of his novels: A Feast of Snakes, The Hawk Is DyingScar Lover, The Knockout Artist, Karate Is a Thing of the Spirit, All We Need of Hell, and The Mulching of America.  But there was more to Crews than just knuckles and tattoos.  As Baynard Woods wrote in his posthumous appreciation at The Millions, "when we look past the haggard face and the thrilling biography full of fights and fornication, we find a fictional world closer to the Eastern Europe of Kafka and Hrabal than to today’s good ole boy."  His 1976 novel, A Feast of Snakes, revolves around a town’s annual rattlesnake rodeo and opens like this:
She felt the snake between her breasts, felt him there, and loved him there, coiled, the deep tumescent S held rigid, ready to strike. She loved the way the snake looked sewn onto her V-neck letter sweater, his hard diamondback pattern shining in the sun. It was unseasonably hot, almost sixty degrees, for early November in Mystic, Georgia, and she could smell the light musk of her own sweat. She liked the sweat, liked the way it felt, slick as oil, in all the joints of her body, her bones, in the firm sliding muscles, tensed and locked now, ready to spring — to strike — when the band behind her fired up the school song: “Fight On Deadly Rattlers of Old Mystic High.”

Reed Whittemore
Sept. 11, 1919 – April 6, 2012
Right around the time Reed Whittemore passed away, I was reading his section in The Poets Laureate Anthology (he was named to the post twice: from 1964 to 1965 and again from 1984 to 1985).  I'd never heard of him before, but I greatly enjoyed what I read.  As the New York Times wrote in its obituary, his poems' "calm, unruffled surface belied deep subversion below."  Here, for instance, is the first stanza of "The Storing of the Soul":
The American soul has been stored under the stairs
In a box with the mittens and scarves
For the longest time. We couldn't think where we had put it.
We looked in the attic and cellar, and in the garage,
And then found it at last, as I say, under the stairs.
When he was a sophomore at Yale in 1939, he founded a magazine called Furioso, a journal that would go on to publish such poetry luminaries as Wallace Stevens, Archibald Macleish, Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings and William Carlos Williams. As The Washington Post noted in its obituary, Furioso was run on a shoestring budget; at one point, contributors were paid with ties from an Italian haberdasher.  Now that's spunk!

Lewis Nordan
Aug. 23, 1939 – April 13, 2012
Ah, Buddy, Buddy, I still mourn your passing....  Regular readers of The Quivering Pen know all too well that my love and admiration for Lewis "Buddy" Nordan runs deep and wide.  A comic writer who never enjoyed the kind of audience he deserved, Nordan was an unsung genius at taking the most miserable human condition and slathering it with a layer of laughter. Sometimes it was a very thin layer—that divide between the awful and the awful funny—as with, for instance, his most famous work, the 1993 novel Wolf Whistle which was a fictional retelling of the story of Emmett Till, the young black boy murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman in 1955. In a touching tribute at the blog of Nordan's long-time publisher Algonquin Books, Craig Popelars summed him up best when he wrote:
Reading Lewis Nordan is an act of defiance. His stories are swollen with life, death, and a deep love of the Delta and its people. He was a writer who simultaneously kept a reader’s heart and head in his cross-hairs. He was confident with his aim, knew when to pull the trigger, understood the trajectory, and he cared deeply for each of his victims. Buddy was an amalgamation of Flannery O’Connor, Lenny Bruce, Pinocchio, and Houdini. If there was an opportunity to dance, peek up a girl’s dress, throw M80 fireworks off a front porch, or run bare-assed through a hotel lobby you could count on Buddy’s participation. He was that hole in heaven where some sin slips through.
Farewell, farewell, my dear Clown Prince of Laughter.  May you have the angels in heaven slapping their knees and rolling in the clouds.

Doris Betts
June 4, 1932 – April 21, 2012
The author of six novels and three collections of short stories who was often compared to Flannery O'Connor is another member of that Unread Shelf in my bookcase.  Her novel Souls Raised from the Dead has been there waiting for me patiently for at least the last decade.  In addition to her writing, Betts was a much-loved creative writing professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.  In its obituary, the Charlotte News & Observer testified to that popularity with this story: "The late Max Steele, former head of the creative writing program, once said she was the most popular teacher there. 'I could never get into her office to talk with her,' he said. 'There was always such a line of students waiting to see her that I had to go back to my office and phone her.'"  To get a better feel for Betts' writing, I just pulled one of her books, Heading West, off the shelf and opened it to the first page:
Every summer thousands of cars come rolling like shiny marbles through the ancient gneiss of the southern Appalachians and clot in many colors at overlooks and parking zones. At such stops, vacationing families pose year after year before the same rock slabs: they growing taller or older, the rock holding still.
For such a light and lively beginning, Heading West goes on to tell the story of one of those vacationers, a woman named Nancy, who's abducted by a man with a gun in North Carolina and forced to drive with him on what the jacket copy calls "a journey of self-discovery that will culminate in a deadly confrontation in the Grand Canyon."

Maurice Sendak
June 10, 1928 – May 8, 2012
That sound you heard on May 8?  That was the collective groan of grief coming from an entire generation (perhaps even two generations) of readers who grew up with a disobedient boy named Max in a wolf costume who goes on a wild rumpus that will live forever in our cultural imagination.  There have been few children's authors and illustrators as beloved as Maurice Sendak.  Since it was published in 1963, Where the Wild Things Are sold more than 19 million copies and was adapted in both a movie and an opera.  According to Wikipedia, Sendak's love of books began at an early age when he developed health problems and was confined to his bed.  He decided to become an illustrator after watching Walt Disney's film Fantasia at the age of twelve. One of his first professional commissions was to create window displays for the toy store F.A.O. Schwarz. His illustrations were first published in 1947 in a textbook titled Atomics for the Millions by Dr. Maxwell Leigh Eidinoff. He spent much of the 1950s illustrating children's books written by others before beginning to write his own stories.  Despite a grumpy exterior, Sendak could be quite charming, as with this story he loved to recount: ''A little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children's letters--sometimes very hastily--but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, 'Dear Jim: I loved your card.' Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said: 'Jim loved your card so much he ate it.' That to me was one of the highest compliments I've ever received.  He didn't care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything.  He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.''

Carlos Fuentes
Nov. 11, 1928 – May 15, 2012
A Mexican novelist and essayist, Carlos Fuentes' works include The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), Aura (1962), The Old Gringo (1985) and Christopher Unborn (1987). In its obituary, the New York Times described him as "one of the most admired writers in the Spanish-speaking world" and an important influence on the Latin American Boom, the "explosion of Latin American literature in the 1960s and '70s," while The Guardian called him "Mexico's most celebrated novelist."  His many literary honors include the Miguel de Cervantes Prize as well as Mexico's highest award, the Belisario Domínguez Medal of Honor. He was often named as a likely candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, though he never won.  One of his most most recognizable titles in the U.S. was The Old Gringo which, the New York Times noted, was "a convoluted tale about the American writer Ambrose Bierce, who disappeared during the Mexican Revolution. It was the first book by a Mexican novelist to become a best seller north of the border, and it was made into a 1989 film starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda."

Jean Craighead George
July 2, 1919 – May 15, 2012
Of the more than 100 novels Jean Craighead George published, she was best known for the Newbery Award winning novel Julie of the Wolves (1972) as well as My Side of the Mountain (1958).  Her website sums it up best with this message on the homepage: "Jean wrote for children. Children are still in love with the wonders of nature, and she was, too. She told them stories about a boy and a falcon, a girl and an elegant wolf pack, about owls, weasels, foxes, prairie dogs, the alpine tundra, the tropical rain forest. And when the telling was and is done, she hoped they will want to protect all the beautiful creatures and places."  According to the New York Times obituary, she married ornithologist John George in 1944 "and settled into a domestic routine that included writing, motherhood and wildlife management. Over time, as she recounted in her memoir for children, The Tarantula in My Purse (1996), the household grew to include 173 pets, not counting cats and dogs.  Among them were a crow that gathered coins and deposited them in the rainspout of the local bank and an owl that adored taking showers in the family tub. (Overnight guests at the George home were met with a cautionary sign: 'Please remove owl after showering.')  Also in residence, for a brief, nervous time, was a 'darling beaver,' as Ms. George later recounted, adding, 'We didn’t keep him long because he cut down the furniture.'" 

Paul Fussell
March 22, 1924 – May 23, 2012
As the author of more than 20 books, Paul Fussell was, according to the New York Times obituary, a "wide-ranging, stingingly opinionated literary scholar and cultural critic" who wrote of an "admiration for Samuel Johnson, Kingsley Amis and the Boy Scout Handbook and...withering scorn for the romanticization of war, the predominance of television and much of American society." Fussell's 1975 literary study The Great War and Modern Memory won the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism, and the Ralph Waldo Emerson Award of Phi Beta Kappa. It was ranked number 75 in the Modern Library's Board's List of the 100 Best Nonfiction Books of the Twentieth Century.  The book most likely had its genesis in the brutal action in Europe Fussell saw during World War Two.  In southern France, at age 20, he lay wounded while men under his command were being killed in an artillery barrage. “Before that day was over I was sprayed with the contents of a soldier’s torso when I was lying behind him and he knelt to fire at a machine-gun holding us up; he was struck in the heart and out of the holes in the back of his field jacket flew little clouds of blood, tissue and powdered cloth,” Mr. Fussell wrote in a 1982 essay in Harper’s Magazine called “My War.” “Near him another man raised himself to fire, but the machine gun caught him in the mouth, and as he fell he looked back at me with surprise, blood and teeth dribbling out onto the leaves.”  Out of such trauma can come great literature, as Fussell proved.

Kathi Kamen Goldmark
Aug. 18, 1948 – May 24, 2012
By all accounts, Kathi Kamen Goldmark was every writer's best friend and when she passed away at the end of a battle with breast cancer, a tide of genuine grief swept across the literary landscape from New York to San Francisco.  It was perhaps loudest in the West Coast book world where Kathi had made her mark for years as the founder of Goldmark Media Escorts which ushered authors from place to place while on book tours (at its peak, it handled 500 author tours a year).  Writer Kevin Smokler posted this on Goldmark's Facebook page: "San Francisco lost Kathi Kamen Goldmark today, a giant of this town's cultural life. We are better for her having been here, colder and grayer for her passing. I will miss her terribly."  Goldmark wrote several books, the best known of which was And My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You.  She was also legendary for starting the literary rock band The Rock Bottom Remainders whose members included Stephen King, Amy Tan and Dave Barry, Goldmark's brother-in-law.  Amy Tan said that of all the jobs Ms. Goldmark held — author, columnist, publishing consultant, radio and music producer, songwriter — the word that best summed her up was connector: “She got people together.”  According to the New York Times obituary, that included right up to her final moments of life when she was "surrounded by authors, among them Tan,  Barry and Maya Angelou.  Judy Collins called to sing 'Amazing Grace.'  Near the end, Ms. Goldmark smiled and whispered the famous enigmatic line from the movie classic Citizen Kane.  'Rosebud.'"

Ray Bradbury
Aug. 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012
Soon after Ray Bradbury's death, I dashed off a quick eulogy for Book Riot called "Words Obeyed Him," in which I tried to sum up this huge loss to readers and writers alike.  But I think the caretakers of Bradbury's own website sum it up best in their posthumous tribute: "In a career spanning more than seventy years, Ray Bradbury has inspired generations of readers to dream, think, and create. A prolific author of hundreds of short stories and close to fifty books, as well as numerous poems, essays, operas, plays, teleplays, and screenplays, Bradbury was one of the most celebrated writers of our time. His groundbreaking works include Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. He wrote the screenplay for John Huston's classic film adaptation of Moby Dick, and was nominated for an Academy Award. He adapted sixty-five of his stories for television's The Ray Bradbury Theater, and won an Emmy for his teleplay of The Halloween Tree. In 2005, Bradbury published a book of essays titled Bradbury Speaks, in which he wrote: 'In my later years I have looked in the mirror each day and found a happy person staring back. Occasionally I wonder why I can be so happy. The answer is that every day of my life I've worked only for myself and for the joy that comes from writing and creating. The image in my mirror is not optimistic, but the result of optimal behavior.'" Goodbye, Ray. I hope you're out there somewhere on Mars or Venus, wearing an ice-cream suit to a carnival where you can drink dandelion wine.

Barry Unsworth
Aug. 10, 1930 – June 5, 2012
Barry Unsworth died of lung cancer at age 81, at the end of a writing career which started in the 1960s with novels that, as The Guardian so eloquently stated in its obituary, were filled with "a peculiarly luminous and elegiac prose and an obsession with the themes of secrecy and betrayal...and with the mouldering of past greatness." He died on the same day as Bradbury, whose passing mostly overshadowed the lesser-known British writer's--which is a shame because both were equally-skilled word wizards.  Unsworth said his early influences were writers from the American South: William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers. Though his early books were set in contemporary England, Unsworth soon found his groove in historical novels. He once told an interviewer how he relished writing novels set in previous centuries: "The great advantage of this, for a writer of my temperament at least, is that one is freed from a great deal of surface clutter. One is enabled to take a remote period and use it as a distant mirror (to borrow Barbara Tuchman’s phrase), and so try to say things about our human condition--then and now--which transcend the particular period and become timeless." His most famous work was Sacred Hunger, which told the grim, harrowing story of the 18th-century slave trade. It won the Booker Prize in 1992, sharing the honor that year with Michael Ondaajte's The English PatientClick here to read more of my appreciation, including a review of Unsworth's novel Morality Play.

Andrew Sarris
Oct. 31, 1928 – June 20, 2012
If you're a student of film, when you hear the word "auteur," one of the first people who spring to mind should be Andrew Sarris.  He's the critic who coined the term in his 1962 essay, "Notes on the Auteur Theory."  In its obituary, the New York Times called Sarris "courtly, incisive and acerbic in equal measure."  Still playing the word-association game, the next words out of your mouth after "Andrew Sarris" should be "Village Voice," where he was a long-time film critic.  Sarris is best known for the highly influential 1968 book The American Cinema: Directors And Directions 1929-1968, an opinionated assessment of films of the sound era, organized by director. The book was to influence many other critics and help raise awareness of the role of the film director and, in particular, of the auteur theory. In The American Cinema, Sarris lists what he termed the "pantheon" of the 14 greatest film directors who had worked in the United States. The list includes the Americans Robert Flaherty, John Ford, D. W. Griffith, Howard Hawks, Buster Keaton, and Orson Welles; the Germans Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch, F. W. Murnau, Max Ophüls, and Josef von Sternberg; the British Charles Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock; and the French Jean Renoir.  In particular, Sarris was a champion of Hitchcock, elevating the master director to a level above what many at the time thought of as a mid-level horror director.  In fact, his very first review for The Village Voice was a passionate defense of Psycho: “Hitchcock is the most daring avant-garde filmmaker in America today.  Besides making previous horror films look like variations of Pollyanna, Psycho is overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain.”  Bravo, sir, bravo!

Maeve Binchy
May 28, 1940 – July 30, 2012
Sure, I knew that if you cut Maeve Binchy, she bled Irish green, but I was surprised to learn at her Wikipedia page that her books outsold those of other Irish writers such as Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, W. B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Edna O'Brien and Roddy Doyle and that "Recognised for her 'total absence of malice' and generosity to other writers, she finished ahead of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Stephen King in a 2000 poll for World Book Day."  I'll admit that my only encounter with Binchy's work was the time I went to the movie theater in 1995 and saw Circle of Friends, starring Minnie Driver and Chris O'Donnell, which was based on her 1990 novel.  Binchy grew up the oldest of four children to loving parents who lived ten miles outside of Dublin.  As she wrote at her website, "My memory of my home was that it was very happy, and that there was more fun and life there than there was anywhere else. My mother could do all kinds of things, like take a bone out of your throat if it got stuck and you were choking, or clean out a turkey on Christmas Eve when it arrived far from oven-ready. She could take out splinters and cure headaches and get the grocer to deliver her a packet of Gold Flake by giving a list of other items as well and asking if it could be brought up to the house soon because she was in a hurry for the cornflour....I was the big bossy older sister, full of enthusiasms, mad fantasies, desperate urges to be famous and anxious to be a saint. A settled sort of saint, not one who might have to suffer or die for her faith."  Her last novel, A Week in Winter, will be released in the U.S. by Knopf next month.

Nora Ephron
May 19, 1941 – June 26, 2012
When Harry Met Sally..., Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail.  Our lives would be less romantic, less comedic if Nora Ephron had never written these screenplays, wouldn't they?  Even down to her last movie, Julie and Julia, Ephron had a knack for translating human chemistry into single lines of dialogue.  To love was to chuckle over lines like "When a man is a widower why do we say he was widowed? Why don't we say he was widowered?" (Sleepless in Seattle) or "I'll have what she's having" (When Harry Met Sally...).  Ephron was also the author of a novel, Heartburn (based on her tumultuous marriage to Carl Bernstein) and several essay collections, including Crazy Salad, I Feel Bad About My Neck, and I Remember Nothing, from which this list of things she will and won't miss was taken:

What I Won't Miss
Dry skin
Bad dinners like the one we went to last night
Technology in general
My closet
Washing my hair
Illness everywhere
Polls that show that 32 percent of the American people believe in creationism
Fox TV
The collapse of the dollar
Bar mitzvahs
Dead flowers
The sound of the vacuum cleaner
E-mail. I know I already said it, but I want to emphasize it.
Small print
Panels on Women in Film
Taking off makeup every night

What I Will Miss
My kids
The concept of waffles
A walk in the park
The idea of a walk in the park
The park
Shakespeare in the Park
The bed
Reading in bed
The view out the window
Twinkle lights
Dinner at home just the two of us
Dinner with friends
Dinner with friends in cities where none of us lives
Next year in Istanbul
Pride and Prejudice
The Christmas tree
Thanksgiving dinner
One for the table
The dogwood
Taking a bath
Coming over the bridge to Manhattan

Donald J. Sobol
Oct. 4, 1924 – July 11, 2012
Encyclopedia Brown and I were both born in the same year, but over his 50-year career, he's managed to find more kidnapped pigs, confirm the provenance of Civil War swords, and recover stolen watches than I'll ever dream of doing.  Then again, he only made 25 cents per day and I've got a family to feed and a roof to keep over my head, so I guess I'm better off in the long run.  And we're all better off for having Encyclopedia Brown in our lives, thanks to Donald J. Sobol who for five decades--right up until the month before he died--provided us with short, tricky brain-teasers.  As the New York Times wrote in its obituary, "Mr. Sobol found a winning formula and stuck to it. Each book holds 10 stories, each involving a mystery that 10-year-old Leroy (Encyclopedia) Brown solves by keen observation and deduction. He notices that the culprit has his sweater on inside out, or claims to smell flowers that are fake. The rest is self-evident. The solution is not spelled out in the story; readers are challenged to figure it out for themselves — or to flip to the back for the answer."  I can remember checking out Encyclopedia Brown books from the Teton County Library in Jackson, Wyoming, and spending hours trying to outwit E. B. and his Girl Friday, Sally Kimball.  But my brain always failed and fizzled before I turned to the back of the book to find the solution.  Encyclopedia Brown was the smartest boy I ever knew.  I mean, my Lord, he even managed to track down some missing toilet paper ("The Case of Lathrop's Hobby" in Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Treasure Hunt).  The boy was a genius, and so was his creator.

Gore Vidal
Oct. 3, 1925 – July 31, 2012
When "imperious gadfly" (Washington Post) Gore Vidal died on the last day of July, it felt like a era had come to an end.  Mailer, Plimpton, Buckley, Capote...and now the last pillar of acerbic wit and political-pinpricker was gone, crumbled, swept off stage.  But not silently.  Eugene Luther Gore Vidal would never go quietly or gently into that good night.  Throughout his long career--starting with his 1946 novel Williwaw and continuing through his essays collected in United States (1993)--Vidal showed us how words could be used as rapiers, steel dancing in the air, choosing just the right moment to move in for the cut.  A small sampler:  "Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little."  "A narcissist is someone better looking than you are."  "Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn."  "I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television."  Indeed, Vidal could charm the glass off a television screen in his many talk show appearances.  He could also be combative, lest we forget the infamous head-butt from Norman Mailer on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971.  Asked by a journalist what comment he had about Mailer's head-butting him backstage, Vidal dead-panned, "Once again, words failed Norman Mailer."  Due to his open sexuality and caustic put-downs, Vidal's success did not always come easy.  As the Washington Post notes in its obituary, one of his novels was the 1948 novel The City and the Pillar, "an account of two all-American boys and what was — at that time — 'the love that dare not speak its name.'  Although that book is now viewed as a pioneering work of gay literature, its casual acceptance of homosexual impulses offended some contemporary critics — and Mr. Vidal’s subsequent seven novels went unnoticed by TIME magazine, Newsweek and the New York Times."  For me, Vidal is most intriguing for his so-called American Chronicle, a series of seven novels — the best known are Burr and Lincoln — detailing the secret political history of the United States.  They, like so many others on my shelves, are the ones I most want to read.  If for not other reason than to learn more about my country.  As Vidal once said, "We are the United States of Amnesia, we learn nothing because we remember nothing."

David Rakoff
(Nov. 27, 1964 – Aug. 9, 2012)
Like fellow humorist David Sedaris, David Rakoff excelled at examining the world's foibles through the filter of self.  As the New York Times noted in its obituary, "A self-described gay Jewish Canadian transplant to New York City, Mr. Rakoff was a social anthropologist of postmodern life. His research often entailed firsthand field work, as when, in pursuit of conspicuous consumption, he became a passenger on one of the last flights of the Concorde.  He described the trip in his essay 'As It Is in Heaven': 'At 42,000 feet and Mach 1.71 (1,110 m.p.h.), we are given some small canapés. Triple rounds of edible money: filet mignon topped with caviar, smoked salmon, foie gras and a gooseberry.'"  Rakoff, the Times also notes, showed both sides of that story by taking a later flight on Hooters Air, the "short-lived airline operated by the Hooters restaurant chain and with a crew that included its pneumatic, scarcely clad hostesses."  Rakoff’s print essays--which appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Details, Salon, Slate and elsewhere--formed the meat of his three published collections: Half Empty, Fraud and Don't Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never- Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems.

Louis Simpson
(March 27, 1923 – Sept. 14, 2012)
Poet Louis Simpson was born in Jamaica to a father who was of Scottish and African ancestry; his mother was born in Russia and later Simpson found out she was Jewish.  The mixed blood of his heritage may have made his work as a poet rounder, fuller, richer.  He emigrated to the U.S. when he was 17 and joined the Army where, from 1943 to 1945 he was a member of the elite 101st Airborne Division and saw combat action in France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany. Simpson was a runner for the company captain, which involved transporting orders from company headquarters to officers on the front line. His unit was involved in a very bloody battle with German forces on the west bank of what is now the Carentan France Marina and later wrote of that moment in his poem "Carentan O Carentan," which includes this stanza:
There is a whistling in the leaves
And it is not the wind,
The twigs are falling from the knives
That cut men to the ground.
His many books of poetry include The Arrivistes, Searching for the Ox, In the Room We Share and The Owner of the House: New Collected Poems.  He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1964 for At The End Of The Open Road.

Jack Gilbert
(Feb. 18, 1925 – Nov. 13, 2012)
Jack Gilbert was born and raised in Pittsburgh--"a city of brick and tired wood," he once wrote--and just like the forged heat from those steel mills, he believed a good poem should "detonate" inside a reader.  According to the Los Angeles Times, "At Gilbert's readings, audience members were known to burst into tears."  In an obituary appreciation of his work, David Hagland wrote in Slate: "Many of his poems have a straightforward lyricism that grabs you right away."  His first book of poetry, Views of Jeopardy, won the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1962.  Here's an example of his work, from "A Brief for the Defense," one of his best-known poems:
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
In its obituary, The New York Times wrote that Gilbert "was a peculiar figure in the contemporary poetry world in the sense that he wasn’t exactly in it. A restless man who traveled a great deal, lived frugally and occasionally lectured or taught to support himself, he spoke and wrote with enthusiasm about life in the world, without failing to acknowledge its terrors and miseries.  Famous for eschewing fame, he did not go to writers’ conferences or cocktail parties, gave readings sporadically and did not publish a great deal, either. His output over a half-century included a mere five slim volumes; his Collected Poems, which Knopf brought out earlier this year, squeezed the entire oeuvre into 400 pages. Reviewing it in The New York Times, Dwight Garner called it 'a revelation, almost certainly among the two or three most important books of poetry that will be published this year.'"

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Trailer Park Tuesday: Sightings by B. J. Hollars

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.  Unless their last name is Grisham or King, authors will probably never see their trailers on the big screen at the local cineplex.  And that's a shame because a lot of hard work goes into producing these short marriages between book and video.  So, if you like what you see, please spread the word and help these videos go viral.

I got a very distinct Benjamin Percy vibe as I was watching the trailer for B. J. Hollars' forthcoming short story collection Sightings.  Maybe throw a little Jonathan Evison and Ron Carlson into the mix, too.  All three of those authors (personal favorites of mine) have written about Bigfoot in their fiction with terrific results.  And now along comes Sasquatch striding through the opening frames of the Sightings video (in a clever nod to the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot footage).  It's a gorgeous, haunting short film in its own right, wordlessly capturing the odd nature of Hollars' stories which, according to the publisher's synopsis, are
ten thematically linked tales....out to subvert conventional notions of the midwestern coming-of-age story. The stories feature an assemblage of Bigfoot believers, Civil War reenactors, misidentified Eskimos, and grief-stricken clowns, among other outcasts incapable of finding a place in their worlds.
George Singleton calls the stories "pitch-perfect" and says "fans of Kevin Wilson, Lewis Nordan, George Saunders, and Karen Russell need to add B. J. Hollars to their must-read list."  Say no more, George--I'm already burning rubber down the road to the bookstore. Sightings will be released this spring  by Break Away Books, an imprint of Indiana University Press.  If the words on the page are even half as good as these shots of Bigfoot shooting hoops in a gymnasium*, then we're all in for a real treat.

*Trivia alert: The trailer was filmed in the same gym where they filmed the classic basketball movie Hoosiers.  Which I think is twenty-nine flavors of awesome.

Monday, January 28, 2013

My First Time: Claire Bidwell Smith

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 Claire Bidwell Smith, author of the memoir The Rules of Inheritance, which has just been released in paperback.  The Rules of Inheritance describes how, when she was still a young adult, Smith lost both of her parents to cancer.  Caroline Leavitt praised the book by saying, “Forget everything you think you know about grief.  Smith’s memoir is the most honest book I've ever read about how loss unmoors, challenges and changes you, written in prose so exquisite it could be poetry.  Dazzlingly brave and absolutely true.”  Smith lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two daughters where she is an experienced therapist specializing in grief counseling.  She has a bachelor’s degree from The New School University in Manhattan and a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Antioch University in Los Angeles.  Click here to visit her website.

My First Agent

My first agent found me.  A dream come true, right?  Not exactly.  My first agent found me when I was twenty-five years old.  I hadn’t been out of college for all that long and I’d begun a blog just to keep my writing flowing.  A few months into it, my blog was included in a list the Sydney Morning Herald ran: The 20 Best Blogs in the World.  Within days, I had thousands of new readers and an email in my inbox from a well-known literary agent.

She soon had me working on a book proposal and visions of becoming a published author before I was thirty were swimming before my eyes.  After a couple of months, the proposal was complete and was circulating with publishers.  I was on constant edge with anticipation and only a couple of weeks passed before I was chatting on the phone to an editor at Random House.

Ultimately though, every single publisher passed and the agent who had been so on fire to work with me had begun ignoring my emails.  My heart was officially broken, dreams crushed.

Ten years have since passed and I can confidently tell you that I couldn’t be more grateful for that experience, and grateful for all of those rejections.  The book proposal I put together with that agent wasn’t one I was ready to write.  Had I sold it, I never would have written the book that I am now so proud of.

It was almost exactly six years after that first agent when I landed my second one, and it was a completely different experience.  This time around, I carefully researched agents and then queried them one after another.  Whereas the first one had fallen into my lap, the second proved much more elusive.  Although I knew I finally had a book I was ready to sell, I received many rejections.  More than half of the agents I contacted asked to see my proposal, and then turned me down.  A couple of them taunted me by asking for more material, and then turned me down.

Finally, on the verge of giving up, I went back through my list and noticed that there was one agent with whom I hadn’t followed up after sending her my proposal.  I shot her an email and received a response right away from her saying she would read it that night.  The next morning when I woke up there was a note waiting for me in my inbox.  She had read my proposal and loved it.  Following a lengthy phone conversation, Wendy Sherman signed me that very day.

Just three weeks later she sold my book to Penguin, forever cementing one of the best days of life.

I think a lot about that first agent, about how young and naïve I was, about how glad I am that things never worked out with her, how happy I am that I never sold a book I wasn’t ready to write, and about how much more exciting the occasion was with Wendy because of all the work I put into it.

Now, whenever I find myself disappointed that something I want isn’t falling in my lap, I remind myself of this experience.  It was a hard lesson, but one of the best I’ve ever had.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Soup and Salad: Anna Keesey's paperclip, Adam Mansbach's book tour hell, Board games for book nerds, J. M. Barrie unveils Thomas Hardy statue, Jonathan Franzen visits Portland

On today's menu:

1.  Last October, fellow debut novelist Anna Keesey (Little Century) and I were squished up against a mutual wall in the Texas Monthly editorial offices during a party kicking off the Texas Book Festival.  The room was lousy with writers and loud with writerly conversation.  Somehow, Anna and I found each other in the midst of all that literary chaos.  Even though we'd never met, we instantly bonded.  I think we could both smell the fear sweating out of our pores and recognized the uncertainty in each other's eyes.  We'd both worked long and hard on our books and now, suddenly, they (and we) were cast out into the world like we were loin-clothed innocents hacking our way through a panther-filled jungle with a penknife as our only protection.  In a wonderful, brutally-honest essay at Bloom, Anna has one of the best descriptions of the writing process that I've ever seen:
You must imagine me crouching, an unbent paper clip in my hand, trying to pull a lumpy woolen scarf through a keyhole. This is what writing a novel was like for me. It could be done, but it was painstaking work. A few millimeters would come, but then a bunching, or a knot in the wool, compelled retreat—that precious progress had to be poked back through and drawn forward again. The bit on this side of the keyhole, though perhaps gay in color, looked ragged from the journey. On the other side—who knew? Perhaps some dexterous artificer was behind the door knitting away, and if I remained patient and picked and pulled and picked and pulled with the little tool at my disposal, then as much as I pulled she would knit. But it was also possible that I was working in vain, that there was nothing much there, and what emerged from the keyhole would be weathered, ugly, and too short to wear.
Read the rest of her essay here.

2.  At Salon, Adam Mansbach has a confession of his own about book tours:
     A lot can go wrong on a book tour. For instance – stop me if I’m getting too technical here – nobody shows up to the reading. When this happens, you’re forced to spend about 20 minutes with an apologetic, pitying bookstore employee, attempting to strike the right blend of self-deprecation, cavalier disregard, and passive-aggression toward the bookstore for failing to promote the event in any way except by placing posters in the bathroom of the store itself. This bathroom is not for customer use.
      Ultimately, the bookstore employee will treat you to a coffee drink of your choosing (quadruple espresso) in the bookstore’s cafe, which generates 83 percent of the bookstore’s annual revenue. You will cast spiteful glances at all the people sitting in there chilling and sipping lattes and not attending your reading a mere 75 feet away.
Mansbach's tongue may be lodged in his cheek, but he speaks the Truth. I should know--I've had more than my fair share of complimentary bookstore lattes (though I never had anything but grateful glances to the patrons who cocked an ear to hear me read from Fobbit).

3.  Board games for book nerdsMoby-Dick: The Game of the White Whale, anyone?

4.  Peter Pan author J. M. Barrie speaks!  Here he is in a short newsreel at the unveiling of a statue of Thomas Hardy:

Photo by Diane Prokop
5.  Jonathan Franzen came to Portland and intrepid blogger Diane Prokop was there to bottle the experience for the rest of us:
Do you ever get the overwhelming urge to yell at an author during a reading? Sometimes I want so badly to break the church-like atmosphere of quiet that hangs like a bell jar over the audience, I can barely contain myself. Apparently there are others who feel the same. After Franzen mentioned yet again his dislike for Amazon, a woman with less impulse control than myself broke the evening’s respectful silence when she yelled loudly into the hallowed Schnitzer Concert Hall that she had bought her copy of Freedom on Amazon. Take that, Franzen! He was unflapped though, and sweetly suggested readers could shop at Barnes & Noble – he does. That got the ball rolling, and someone else shouted “indie’s,” and then, “Powell’s!” And then everyone slipped back under the bell jar.