Friday, May 31, 2013

Friday Freebie: Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt and The Glass Wives by Amy Sue Nathan

Congratulations to Tisa Houck, winner of last week's Friday Freebie "Mega-Scary-Good Joe Hill Prize  Pack" which included all of Hill's published fiction: NOS4A2, Horns, Heart-Shaped Box and 20th Century Ghosts.

This week's book giveaway is another multi-book bundle.  I'm very excited to offer up copies of two new novels: Is This Tomorrow by Caroline Leavitt and The Glass Wives by Amy Sue Nathan.  One lucky reader will win both books.

Is This Tomorrow is Caroline Leavitt's tenth novel, following on the heels of her previous bestseller, Pictures of You.  As with all of her novels, the nuts and bolts of the plot are wrenched tight and the characters are deep and fascinating.  Here's a plot synopsis of Is This Tomorrow: In 1956, Ava Lark rents a house with her twelve-year-old son, Lewis, in a desirable Boston suburb.  Ava is beautiful, divorced, Jewish, and a working mom.  She finds her neighbors less than welcoming.  Lewis yearns for his absent father, befriending the only other fatherless kids: Jimmy and Rose.  One afternoon, Jimmy goes missing.  The neighborhood—in the throes of Cold War paranoia—seizes the opportunity to further ostracize Ava and her son.  Years later, when Lewis and Rose reunite to untangle the final pieces of the tragic puzzle, they must decide: Should you tell the truth even if it hurts those you love, or should some secrets remain buried?  Novelist Stewart O'Nan praised Is This Tomorrow by saying, "From the lockstep '50s into the do-your-own-thing '60s, Caroline Leavitt follows her cast of lonely characters as they grapple with the sorrowful mystery of a missing child.  'Are any of our children safe?' one asks, and of course the answer is no, no one is.  Like Mona Simpson's Off Keck Road, Is This Tomorrow is an intimate meditation on time, loss and destiny." For more about the book, check out the April edition of Front Porch Books here at The Quivering Pen.

In Amy Sue Nathan's debut novel, Evie and Nicole share a last name: Glass.  They also shared a husband.  Here's the plot synopsis of The Glass Wives: When a tragic car accident ends the life of Richard Glass, it also upends the lives of Evie and Nicole, and their children.  There’s no love lost between the widow and the ex.  In fact, Evie sees a silver lining in all this heartache—the chance to rid herself of Nicole once and for all.  But Evie wasn’t counting on her children’s bond with their baby half-brother, and she wasn’t counting on Nicole’s desperate need to hang on to the threads of family, no matter how frayed.  Strapped for cash, Evie cautiously agrees to share living expenses—and her home—with Nicole and the baby.  But when Evie suspects that Nicole is determined to rearrange more than her kitchen, Evie must decide who she can trust.  More than that, she must ask: what makes a family?  Since its publication, The Glass Wives has been racking up the praise.  Booklist declared: "Jodi Picoult fans will appreciate the surprising twists embedded in this thought-provoking narrative."  Julie Kibler (author of Calling Me Home) said: "In The Glass Wives, Amy Sue Nathan examines what it means to build an unconventional family when the original families shatter suddenly and irreparably into pieces.  Nathan's adept writing, wry humor, and authentic emotion carried me effortlessly from the beginning of this tender and hopeful debut novel to its satisfying end."

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of both Is This Tomorrow and The Glass Wives, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on June 6, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on June 7.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Look What I Found: Charles Dickens Globe editions ("won't injure the eyesight")

Look What I Found is an occasional series on books I've hunted-and-gathered at garage sales, used bookstores, estate sales, and the occasional pilfering from a friend's bookshelf when his back is turned. I have a particular fondness for U.S. novels written between 1896 and 1931. If I sniff a book and it makes me sneeze, I'm bound to fall in love.

It's not like I lack for any volumes of Charles Dickens' novels in my library.  I have Penguin, Modern Library and Signet paperbacks; a set of Nonesuch facsimiles I coveted three years ago; and at least three different versions of A Tale of Two Cities on my Kindle.  Why on earth would I want to add more book-poundage to my shelves already groaning under the weight of so many (too many!) dead-tree books?

Because I am a sick man (who's not in search of a cure).

When I saw these "Globe editions" of Dickens' works in an antique shop in Boise, Idaho two weeks ago, I knew I would walk out the store with them in the clutch of my covetous collector's hands.

Published by Houghton, Mifflin and Company in 1881, these squat, dark-green books immediately caught my attention with the illustrations (about four per volume) by F. O. C. Darley and John Gilbert:

Via Google, I found an ad in a 19th-century edition of Literary World which noted these books were "the best cheap edition on the globe....The paper is good, the print is clear, and the type of a size that won't injure the eyesight."  They sold for $1.50 a volume--which, as another ad in The American Naturalist declares, shall "be within the reach of all classes."

Though time has bent the books' spines to a slouch so that the pages have a charming C-shaped edge, the set is overall in very good condition.  In fact, I'd hazard to say that, with the exception of Our Mutual Friend, they are unread by any of the owners.  Each book has a nameplate inside the front cover: "Library of Minnie Washburne" and are numbered sequentially.  I'm missing a few of the numbers (between 102 and 114), so I'm wondering if there are other Globe editions, or if Miss Washburne was cataloging several new acquisitions that day and got some other books interspersed with her set of Dickens.  And did Minnie read Our Mutual Friend, then find Dickens wasn't to her taste and left the other volumes unread?  Or was she stricken by influenza and on her deathbed called for a book, any book, by that fellow she'd never read (but always meant to)?  Call me odd, but I fantasize about previous readers' lives like this.

In Googling "Minnie Washburne," I found several mentions of a woman by that name who was prominent in social activism--primarily the suffrage cause--around the turn of the 20th century.  What's more, she lived in Eugene, Oregon.  This is an especially sharp freak of coincidence because on the day I stopped in the Boise antique mall, I was en route to Oregon (which you might have read about in yesterday's blog post).  Was it the same Minnie Washburne?  I'd like to think it was.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Fog-Shroud of Memory

We were lost.

We were driving through a foreign city.  Eugene, Oregon.  It was a city foreign to our present, but so familiar in our past.  Nearly 30 years ago, Jean and I had lived here, worked here, gone to school here, given birth to two children here.  Why did nothing look familiar?  Had the city changed, or was it us?  Our memories were blurred by the soft, unfocused fog-shroud of memory, as omnipresent as the clammy mist which blankets western Oregon.

We'd just driven two days from our home in Montana as part of a mini-book tour for Fobbit.  Coos County, Oregon was kind enough to select my debut novel as its annual county-wide Title Wave Read (a mind-blowing honor for a first-time novelist).  Over the next two days, I was scheduled to visit public libraries and speak to high school students about my dual life as a soldier and a writer.  Before we hit the coast, however, we had one stop to make.

We pulled into Eugene, trying to find our past.  Eugene is a college town fueled by its passion for track-and-field (it's where the legendary Steve Prefontaine lived and died).  It's a liberal city known for its eco-evangelism (ground zero for both tree huggers and loggers), but it's also a relatively quiet place.  People go about their business on the moist streets without too much pomp and circumstance.  It's a small enough community to be shaken to the core by a murder: seven months before Jean and I moved there, Diane Downs shot her three children in neighboring Springfield.

Eugene is where our marriage grew up, taking its first toddler steps.  I enrolled at the University of Oregon in the fall of 1984 and got my bachelor's degree in English three years later.  As I mentioned earlier, we were broke as a joke in those days, rationing our gas, riding our bikes wherever we could, pinching pennies, shopping the supermarket specials like they were a military campaign.  We were young, we were just a few inches above the poverty line, but we were happy.  Now, thirty years later, we were determined to find personal landmarks from those days.

We cruised the streets and nothing looked familiar.  "This is weird," we kept saying.  "This is so freakin' weird."

Finally, between the two of us, we managed to piece together the general location of our first house.

"I think it was on a street named for a president," Jean said.

"I know there was a convenience store on the corner just down the street--a Dairy-Mart or something like that," I said.  "I remember there was a huge cow on top of the sign which kept spinning around.  I always wanted to go in there and ask if the cow ever threw up.  Never worked up the nerve to do that, though."

We moved to Eugene in January 1984, less than a month into our marriage.  We drove over Santiam Pass, bringing everything we owned with us in a U-Haul truck.  It was the smallest U-Haul available because at that time "everything we owned" consisted of a waterbed, a large hanging lamp with a fringed shade, a Mickey Mouse phone, a few boxes of clothes and the wedding gifts we'd just received.  We came over that pass in a wet snowstorm, descended into the city, and found a house to rent.  The landlord, a man only a few years older than us, looked at his new tenants with scorn and arrogance.  He saw us for what we were: two naifs with bottomless dreams, but a shallow bank account.  When he handed over the lease agreement, he did so reluctantly.  The security deposit and first month's rent almost completely wiped us out, leaving us $75 for groceries and gas.  (Jean just reminded me that I spent $60 of that on a necklace for a Valentine's Day gift.  What a romantic fool!)

Since we couldn't afford furniture, I "built" chairs, tables, and an elaborate sofa out of the packing boxes, stuffing one inside the other multiple times to strengthen them.  I spent an entire day making this cardboard furniture set and when I called Jean into the room, the look on her face was priceless.  I might be one of the only guys on this earth to win a girl's heart with cardboard furniture.

Our first kitchen, furnished with the finest in cardboard furniture

We smiled now, remembering those early days of ours.

I snapped my fingers.  "Hey, I just remembered--there was a Bi-Mart nearby.  Google that."

Jean punched "Bi-Mart" into her smartphone and gave me the address of the nearest store.  We pointed our car toward the eastern side of Eugene, then turned down 18th Street.  Gradually the fog started to burn off, landmarks became vaguely familiar.

"I remember this park," I said, pointing out the window to an expanse of grass, trees, swingsets, a running trail.

"Oh, yeah," Jean said.

"Remember how we started an exercise program?  We told ourselves we'd go jogging every night."

"I remember it didn't last," she said.

The reason it didn't last was because one month into our marriage Jean got pregnant.  One night after jogging once around the park's trail, Jean bent over at the waist, breathing hard.  "I can't do it," she panted.  "I feel like I have cement blocks tied to my feet."

Was that the same night we locked ourselves out of the house?  (The house we now couldn't find.)  My memory--or maybe it's just my imagination--tells me it was.  I remember going around to all the doors, twisting the unyielding knobs with my hand, and even tried prying up the bedroom window.  Then I started worrying someone would see me there in the dark, a sweat-suited figure trying to break in, and would call the cops.  Getting in trouble with the law, however innocently, was the last thing I wanted in this new relationship.  I was still in the Impress-Your-Lover phase of marriage.

"It won't budge," I told my still-breathless, sweating wife.  I dropped back to the ground.  We stared at each other in the dark, two frightened, unsure lovers who'd done a simple, careless thing--forgetting to put a key in their pocket before a nightly jog--and who now faced the embarrassment of calling up their landlord--a fussy, grade-A asshole--and asking him to come to their house and unlock the front door.  We'd only been living in the place for two weeks and now look, we'd barred ourselves from the few worldly possessions we'd brought with us from Wyoming.

We walked two blocks to Dairy-Mart and, because we didn't have any change for the pay phone, asked the night clerk if we could make a call.  Outside, above our heads, the cow spun itself into a dizzy vertigo.

Thirty years later, we crawled past 1920 Hayes Street at 5 miles per hour (Jean was right, though she never would have guessed Rutherford B. Hayes--who the hell ever remembers that President?).

You know that scene at the end of Planet of the Apes where Charlton Heston rounds the corner on the beach and sees the Statue of Liberty buried in the sand?  Or how Atlanta looks to the zombie-survivors of The Walking Dead?  It was the same effect on the two of us as we looked at our first house, three decades after we left it.

The front lawn was a wild overgrowth, the siding was dingy, there were cracks in the sidewalk.  It was as if a jungle had grown up around that house, the earth trying to swallow it in a clutch of dirty vegetation.  In fact, Jean and I weren't even sure this was the right house.  We snapped a photo on our smartphone anyway, then drove on.

We felt so old, so wealthy, so...superior to our younger selves.  Those two sweet, distant versions of us really had no clue what lay ahead of them.  Back then, we were so bound up in neuroses, financial anxieties, and just plain ignorance that we couldn't even feel life happening all around us--not even during what should have been a funny, rom-com moment of locking ourselves out of the house.  We drove on, clucking our tongues at 1984 Us.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the checkerboard of streets around downtown Eugene, desperately, stubbornly trying to find the birth home where our two sons came into the world.  We Googled "Lucinia Birth Home," but since it had closed years ago--probably pre-internet--we came up empty.  We called the OB-GYN department at Sacred Heart Medical Center: did anyone there remember Lucinia?  The twenty-something female voice on the other end acted as if we were asking to speak to George Washington.

Defeated, we drove out of the city toward our second home, confident we could at least find that place.

In February 1984, unemployed and down to our last couple of dollars with nothing to show for the second month's rent, we were forced to leave 1920 Hayes Street.  The smug landlord was disappointed but not surprised when we told him of our failure.  Through our church pastor, we'd heard of a boat-and-RV storage place out in Santa Clara which was looking for a couple to serve as caretakers for the yard.

We got the job, which required us to be on the property 24/7 (yes, that means seven days a week with no respite).  It provided a house with utilities and paid $400 a month.  It was manna from heaven and we gobbled it up.  We worked that job for two years (eventually, we successfully lobbied for one day off a week) and built our marriage on that financial stability.

($400?  Ha!  Three days ago, we spent $300 on a vacuum cleaner and went out to eat an $80 dinner at a local restaurant without batting an eyelash.  We would have been unrecognizable aliens from the future if those younger selves had seen that).

We made that house on Awbrey Lane our home.  That first hot summer, with Jean in her third trimester, we stripped all the paint off the kitchen cabinets, and even though we found a cheap wood bordering on plywood underneath we stained the cabinets and looked on our work with pride.  I set up a writing studio in the upstairs hallway, a short passageway with sloped ceilings which prevented me from standing up straight, and I wrote poetry, short stories, and half a draft of a really terrible novel.  We got to know our customers, the owners of boats and RVs, and always got a laugh after Mrs. Cobb came in to pay her monthly storage bill.  Mrs. Cobb was in her seventies and had a thin frizz of hair which stood up, as if the follicles were electrocuted, in an airy nimbus around her head.  Her hair was so thin, we could see her gleaming skull beneath the afro.  We might have laughed, but we felt sorry for Mrs. Cobb and always spoke more gently when she was in the office.  That house on Awbrey Lane was where Jean puked her way through a first pregnancy, where we adopted our first pet (a hypertensive mutt we named Caleb), where we decorated our first Christmas tree, where we brought our first child home from the birth home and lay in bed holding hands as we listened to our son suckle softly in the dark.

As we drove out of Eugene to Santa Clara two weeks ago, all of these memories rolled over us like a white-foamed wave striking rocks on the coastline.  We were more confident of this address, we were sure we could find this one page from our scrapbook waiting for us at the end of Awbrey Lane.  We drove with fear and curiosity.

If 1920 Hayes had been the vine-choked future of Logan's Run, then seeing the present-day Eugene Trailer and Boat Storage on Awbrey Lane was like walking across the atomic wasteland of Hiroshima.  Our memory of the place had been reduced to rubble--scorched earth--and something new had risen in its place.

The House on Awbrey Lane, 1985: our first garage sale
Awbrey Lane, 2013
Where once a house--built in the 1930s and weathered, sure, but still charming--had stood, there was now a double-wide trailer where the caretaker had her office and living quarters.  Where once tall trees had sheltered the house, there was now bare, too-sunny landscaping.  I remember once, back in 1985, hearing an odd noise outside in the trees at night.  I got dressed and, flashlight in hand, investigated.  I shined the beam up into the branches and nearly dropped the flashlight when a family of raccoons hissed at me.

Now it was all gone, our memories leveled by bomb-blast.  We got out of the car and introduced ourselves to the manager of the storage yard, a pleasant woman in her fifties. She'd been here for seven years, she said, and the place had always been like this.  I looked at the ground around the trailer, denuded of grass, and remember how I'd once seen a rat--large as a puppy--running across the lawn away from the house and how my heart had seized up because our infant son was sleeping in his crib at the time.  The garden bed we'd once tilled and planted--ambitiously too large for just the two of us, so large that watermelons rotted on the vine--was now paved over.

It was almost too sad and weird for us to see our first real home--the one where we'd lived for two years--erased like this.  We turned to go, exchanging pleasantries and names with the woman.  "Oh, Abrams?" she said.  "I've seen that name on some of the old invoices.  Every now and then I'll run across your signature."

Jean and I got in the car and pulled out of the driveway, smiling, marveling that the 30-year-old ink of our signatures was still on the books.  The past hadn't completely forgotten us, it seemed.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Trailer Park Tuesday: Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

As stark, offbeat, and cool as a Cannes Film Festival indie movie, the trailer for Tupelo Hassman's debut novel Girlchild is haunting and engaging.  The book, released in paperback earlier this year, centers around elementary school student Rory Hendrix, "a smart kid living in a poor town" which is "just north of Reno and just south of nowhere."  Out of loneliness, Rory decides to start her own Girl Scout troop.  So what if she's the only member?  As long as she is willing to sell cookies, we should ask no questions.  She also goes full-on GS as a way to cope with her single mother's behavior.  As a bartender at the local truck stop, Jo has poor taste in men.  Echoing William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, Rory tells us in the video, "My mother is a hungry dog."  Lines like that should make you hungry to read this novel, which Aimee Bender has called an "amazing debut [that] spills over with love, but is still absolutely unflinching and real."  In case you missed it earlier here at the blog, Tupelo contributed a memorable story to the My First Time series about writing in closets.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day Reading List: All That Is by James Salter

I began this Memorial Day weekend by reading the first chapter of All That Is, James Salter's first novel in 35 years, published last week by Knopf.  I bought the book on Saturday as an early birthday* gift to myself (today is, in fact, my birthday, and I baptized the morning by reading Chapter 2).  Even though I'm only 30 pages into it, I can already tell that this novel will be firmly stapled to my year-end "Best Books of 2013" list.

At the center of All That Is stands Phillip Bowman who, as the pages progress, we see as a young naval officer in World War Two, a Harvard student, then a book editor in mid-century Manhattan.  He lives, he loves, he advances toward death.  Nothing too remarkable plot-wise (at least so far), but the book's majestic magic is all in the telling.

James Salter is hardly a household name--even, sadly, in bookish households--but he's been quietly producing great works of literature since the late 1950s.  In his generous and spot-on review for the New York Times, Malcolm Jones writes:
Salter is 87, with a reputation so secure he has nothing left to prove. If there were a Mount Rushmore for writers, he’d be there already. He could have published nothing, and no one would have thought less of him.
And yet, here he is in the twilight of a career with what could arguably be his best book so far.  It is, I told my wife yesterday, full of language distilled down to pure, true sentences.

It is also a good book to start reading on Memorial Day, though All That Is is not, strictly speaking, a war book.  In fact, after the first chapter, the remainder of its pages are devoted to the post-war years, the time when America gathered her skirts in one hand and strode forth boldly into progress and optimism.  Salter's language is beautiful and breath-takingly confident.  How many writers do you know who can carry off describing the span and breadth of one person's life in the space of just one paragraph?  Seemingly minor character are given full, rich treatments in big, bold strokes--like this cameo portrait of Bowman's college roommate Malcolm Pearson:
After marriage, Malcolm did very little. Dressed like a bohemian of the 1920s in a loose overcoat, scarf, exercise pants, and an old fedora and carrying a thorn stick, he walked his collie on his place near Rhinebeck and pursued his own interests, largely confined to the history of the Middle Ages. He and Anthea had a daughter, Alix, to whom Bowman was godfather. She, too, was eccentric. She was silent as a child and later spoke with a kind of English accent. She lived at home with her parents, which they accepted as if it had always been intended, and never married. She wasn't even promiscuous, her father complained.
Chances are, we will never see Malcolm or his un-promiscuous daughter again in these pages, but Salter is like a strong, hard bell-clapper and the people described in this short paragraph toll, ring, resonate.

As does the novel's opening paragraphs--the real reason I'm bringing All That Is to you today.  I knew as soon as I read the first pages that I'd be posting these sentences here on Memorial Day.
      All night in darkness the water sped past.
      In tier on tier of iron bunks below deck, silent, six deep, lay hundreds of men, many face-up with their eyes still open though it was near morning. The lights were dimmed, the engines throbbing endlessly, the ventilators pulling in damp air, fifteen hundred men with their packs and weapons heavy enough to take them straight to the bottom, like an anvil dropped in the sea, part of a vast army sailing towards Okinawa, the great island that was just to the south of Japan. In truth, Okinawa was Japan, part of the homeland, strange and unknown. The war that had been going on for three and a half years was in its final act. In half an hour the first groups of men would file in for breakfast, standing as they ate, shoulder to shoulder, solemn, unspeaking. The ship was moving smoothly with faint sound. The steel of the hull creaked.
      The war in the Pacific was not like the rest of it. The distances alone were enormous. There was nothing but days on end of empty sea and strange names of places, a thousand miles between them. It had been a war of many islands, of prying them from the Japanese, one by one. Guadalcanal, which became a legend. The Solomons and the Slot. Tarawa, where the landing craft ran aground on reefs far from shore and the men were slaughtered in enemy fire dense as bees, the horror of the beaches, swollen bodies lolling in the surf, the nation’s sons, some of them beautiful.
"....some of them beautiful."  Wow.  I read that last sentence twice, thrice, four times just to savor the words and let them impact me.  They are, I think, completely apropos for this "holiday" weekend.

On this Memorial Day, it would be good and right for us to remember the battle-fallen, those shipped home in flag-blanketed coffins, those buried anonymously on foreign soil or in deep oceans, sunk like anvils.  Let us honor the brave ones, the timid ones, the privileged, the poor, the plain, the beautiful--all of them sacrificed in service to one cause or another.  Like many other writers who are also combat vets (Norman Mailer, Tim O'Brien, Karl Marlantes, among others), James Salter honors the war dead with his words.  Thank you, sir.

*50, in case anyone is sitting at home doing the math.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Sunday Sentence: All That Is by James Salter

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

There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real.
Opening note to All That Is by James Salter

Saturday, May 25, 2013

New Stories: "Arm" and "The Things He Saw"

It's National Short Story Month and I'm happy to announce that two of my short pieces of fiction have recently found their way to print.

"Arm" is in the inaugural issue of The Provo Canyon Review (alongside stories by Joe David Bellamy and Philip F. Deaver).  Here's the first paragraph of that story--the first of my published pieces set here in Butte, Montana:
As I was going into Wal-Mart, a man with a useless arm came out. I’d never seen anything like that arm—a dangle-flesh, rubbery thing with no purpose. It was like this three-foot flaccid glove coming off his shoulder. Made me stop where I was, halfway in the door, and turn to look. Even made me go blank for why I was there in the first place. Julie needed mozzarella and oregano and I’d planned on picking up more beer and Oreos, but after seeing that arm, everything on the list went out of my head. Jules and her half-made lasagna were waiting for me back at the house and she was probably getting more and more pissed by the minute, but can you blame me, man? That arm, that arm.

In light of the fact this is Memorial Day weekend, I'm especially honored to have my story "The Things He Saw" (hat tip to Mr. Tim O'Brien) between the covers of a new anthology from Press 53, Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand, the second anthology in this series, edited by Jeff Hess.  My story is about a wounded warrior who sits in his barracks room thinking about the photos he took during his deployment.  Through this memory-mosaic, he patches together a troubled picture of the Iraq War.  Here's how the story begins:
      They said he was lucky. The eye had not lost all its internal fluid, which would have led to its permanent collapse. Another millimeter to the right—one piece of shrapnel colliding with another to alter the course of his history—and the puncture would be bigger. Probably would have gone all the way to the brain. It was all in how you looked at it. Could have gone either way. Let’s keep things in perspective, they said. He was one lucky soldier.
      Lucky. Yeah, right, motherfucker.
CLICK HERE to order Home of the Brave: Somewhere in the Sand directly from Press 53.

And, as another self-centered reminder, you should also get a copy of Fire and Forget, the anthology of short stories by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (and one military spouse, Siobhan Fallon). My story, "Roll Call," is especially pertinent to this "holiday" weekend since it's all about a memorial service in Baghdad, soldiers honoring one of their fallen comrades just before they head out again on another mission.  Here's a snippet from that story:
     We were standing around after the memorial service. Seven of us, the ones who’d made it this far.
     The afternoon wind kicked up and we bent our heads, tucking up under our Kevlars. Two of us realized the dust covers on our 16s were open and clicked them shut. To someone passing by, it might have looked like we were praying, huddled in a tight circle of faith and brotherhood.
     Bullshit. It was just the motherfucking wind.
     But yeah, God and the hereafter and all that come-unto-me crap was fresh in our minds, since we’d just wrapped up Carter’s memorial service. We could hear the dog tags clicking against the receiver on Carter’s downturned M-16.
Please take a moment this weekend to pause and honor the lives of all the men and women who gave their lives in service to our country--the "some gave all" of that Billy Ray Cyrus song.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Friday Freebie: Mega Scary-Good Joe Hill Gift Pack (N0S4A2, Horns, Heart-Shaped Box, 20th Century Ghosts)

Congratulations to Jeffrey Tretin, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick.

This week's book giveaway is a special multi-book prize package.  I'm thrilled to offer blog readers four books by Joe Hill: NOS4A2, HornsHeart-Shaped Box, and 20th Century Ghosts.  In other words, the entire* Joe Hill Library Collection.  One lucky reader will win all four books (N0S4A and Horns are hardbacks, Heart-Shaped Box and 20th Century Ghosts are paperbacks).  Author Michael Kortya has called Hill "quite simply the best horror writer of our generation," and I'm not about to disagree.  If you want sleepless nights and restless days, crack open one of his novels or enter one of his short stories just before going beddy-bye and just see how far you get into Slumberland.  I haven't had a chance to read it yet, but N0S4A2 is at the summit of my always-growing To-Be-Read pile (aka Mt. NeveRest), along with two other 2013 books by members of the King clan**.  Read on for more information about the books you can win in this week's Friday Freebie contest:

N0S4A2: Victoria McQueen has a secret gift for finding things: a misplaced bracelet, a missing photograph, answers to unanswerable questions. On her Raleigh Tuff Burner bike, she makes her way to a rickety covered bridge that, within moments, takes her wherever she needs to go, whether it’s across Massachusetts or across the country. Charles Talent Manx has a way with children. He likes to take them for rides in his 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith with the NOS4A2 vanity plate. With his old car, he can slip right out of the everyday world, and onto the hidden roads that transport them to an astonishing – and terrifying – playground of amusements he calls “Christmasland.” Then, one day, Vic goes looking for trouble—and finds Manx. That was a lifetime ago. Now Vic, the only kid to ever escape Manx’s unmitigated evil, is all grown up and desperate to forget. But Charlie Manx never stopped thinking about Victoria McQueen. He’s on the road again and he’s picked up a new passenger: Vic’s own son. Blurbworthiness: “Words of warning for those who pick up this hefty, 704-page saga: You’ll never listen to Christmas carols the same way. Or sleep with the lights off.” (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

Horns: Ignatius Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke up the next morning with a thunderous hangover, a raging headache....and a pair of horns growing from his temples. At first Ig thought the horns were a hallucination, the product of a mind damaged by rage and grief. He had spent the last year in a lonely, private purgatory, following the death of his beloved, Merrin Williams, who was raped and murdered under inexplicable circumstances. A mental breakdown would have been the most natural thing in the world. But there was nothing natural about the horns, which were all too real. Once the righteous Ig had enjoyed the life of the blessed: born into privilege, the second son of a renowned musician and younger brother of a rising late-night TV star, he had security, wealth, and a place in his community. Ig had it all, and more—he had Merrin and a love founded on shared daydreams, mutual daring, and unlikely midsummer magic. But Merrin's death damned all that. The only suspect in the crime, Ig was never charged or tried. And he was never cleared. In the court of public opinion in Gideon, New Hampshire, Ig is and always will be guilty because his rich and connected parents pulled strings to make the investigation go away. Nothing Ig can do, nothing he can say, matters. Everyone, it seems, including God, has abandoned him. Everyone, that is, but the devil inside....Now Ig is possessed of a terrible new power to go with his terrible new look—a macabre talent he intends to use to find the monster who killed Merrin and destroyed his life. Being good and praying for the best got him nowhere. It's time for a little revenge....It's time the devil had his due. Blurbworthiness: “Horns is a pitchfork-packing, prodigal son’s take on religion...But the real meat of the story dissects man’s relationship with good and evil without sacrificing a bit of suspense...Horns is a mesmerizing page-turner.” (Tulsa World)

Heart-Shaped Box: “Buy my stepfather's ghost” read the e-mail. So Jude did. He bought it, in the shape of the dead man's suit, delivered in a heart-shaped box, because he wanted it: because his fans ate up that kind of story. It was perfect for his collection: the genuine skulls and the bones, the real honest-to-God snuff movie, the occult books and all the rest of the paraphernalia that goes along with his kind of hard/goth rock. But the rest of his collection doesn't make the house feel cold. The bones don't make the dogs bark; the movie doesn't make Jude feel as if he's being watched. And none of the artifacts bring a vengeful old ghost with black scribbles over his eyes out of the shadows to chase Jude out of his home, and make him run for his life. Blurbworthiness: “The set-up for Joe Hill's novel, Heart-Shaped Box, is appealingly simple. Jude Coyne, an aging rock star, buys himself a dead man's suit. He acquires it online, lured by the promise that the dead man's ghost will be included in his purchase. Jude thinks this is a joke, of course. He also assumes the seller is a stranger. We soon discover that he's wrong on both counts, however, and from this point on the story moves with an exhilarating urgency. Jude wants the ghost gone; the ghost wants Jude dead. We watch, chapter-by-chapter, as they battle for survival. 'Watch' is the appropriate word, too, because this is an extremely visual book. Hill's prose is lean and precise, and he renders Jude's world with impressive confidence. It feels solid, every detail both correct and fresh. And this physicality provides a firm platform for the book's otherworldly happenings, which seem all the more frightening for being so securely grounded.” (Scott Smith, author of The Ruins)

20th Century Ghosts: Here are just a few of the characters you'll meet in this superb collection of short stories: Imogene is young and beautiful. She kisses like a movie star and knows everything about every film ever made. She's also dead and waiting in the Rosebud Theater for Alec Sheldon one afternoon in 1945....Arthur Roth is a lonely kid with big ideas and a gift for attracting abuse. It isn't easy to make friends when you're the only inflatable boy in town.... Francis is unhappy. Francis was human once, but that was then. Now he's an eight-foot-tall locust and everyone in Calliphora will tremble when they hear him sing.... John Finney is locked in a basement that's stained with the blood of half a dozen other murdered children. In the cellar with him is an antique telephone, long since disconnected, but which rings at night with calls from the dead....Blurbworthiness: “This solid, inventive, scary collection of stories reveals a writer who has thought hard about the problematics of horror.” (New York Times)

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of N0S4A2, Horns, Heart-Shaped Box, and 20th Century Ghosts, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on May 30, at which time I'll draw the winning name. I'll announce the lucky reader on May 31. If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

*Minus the graphic-novel series Locke and Key (which I didn't have the foresight to order in time for this contest).
**Double Feature by brother Owen King and Joyland by father Stephen King.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Front Porch Books: May 2013 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, Amazon and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

Guests on Earth by Lee Smith (Algonquin Books):  As I mentioned before, 2013 is shaping up to be the Year of Zelda.  While I'm looking forward to reading Erika Robuck's Call Me Zelda and Therese Anne Fowler's Z, Lee Smith's new novel about Mrs. Fitzgerald also intrigues.  I'm a long-standing member of the Lee Smith Fan Club and a quick skim through the early pages in Guests on Earth reminds me that few writers are her equal in creating a vivid world simply through dialect and narrative rhythm.  As in so many recent novels about historical figures (especially artists), Smith comes at her subject obliquely through the eyes of her own fictional creation.  Here's the Jacket Copy to explain more:
Evalina Toussaint, the orphaned child of an exotic dancer in New Orleans, is just thirteen when she is admitted to Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. The year is 1936, and the mental hospital is under the direction of the celebrated psychiatrist Robert S. Carroll. His innovative program of treatment for mental and nervous disorders and addictions is based on exercise, diet, art, and occupational therapies—and experimental shock therapy.  Evalina finds herself in the company of some notable fellow patients, including Zelda Fitzgerald, estranged wife of F. Scott, who takes the young piano prodigy under her wing. Evalina becomes the accompanist for the musical programs at the hospital. This provides privileged insight into the events that transpire over the next twelve years, culminating in a tragic fire—its mystery unsolved to this day—that killed nine women in a locked ward, Zelda among them. At all costs, Evalina listens, observes, remembers—and tells us everything.
The title, by the way, comes from a letter F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his daughter Scottie on December 15, 1940:  "The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read."

The Exiles by Allison Lynn (New Harvest):  I like novels in which authors begin by thrusting their characters into difficult, seemingly impossible situations almost from the first page.  The Jacket Copy for The Exiles shows how Allison Lynn jeopardizes her creations:
A couple escaping the over-the-top lifestyle of Manhattan's Upper East Side move to comparably quaint Newport, Rhode Island, only to be confronted by truths they tried to leave behind. Nate, a midlevel Wall Streeter, and his partner Emily are effectively evicted from New York City when they can no longer afford their cramped apartment on the Upper East Side. An out presents itself when Nate's offered a job in Newport—complete with a bucolic, small-scale, and seemingly affordable new house. They're eager to start fresh, yet within minutes of arriving in Rhode Island, their car and belongings are stolen, and they're left with nothing but the keys to an empty house and a bawling 10-month-old son. Over the three-day weekend that follows, as Emily and Nate watch their meager pile of cash dwindle and tension increase, the secrets they kept from each other in the city emerge—and threaten to destroy their hope for a future. A story about economic precariousness, family history, tainted gene pools, art theft, architecture, and the mad grab for the American Dream, The Exiles bravely explores the weights of our pasts—and whether or not it's possible to start over.
I like the repeated cry of "promise" in the Opening Lines:
It's 5:10 p.m. and the bay is a hazy blue, the sky a hint of orange, the land full of promise, promise, promise. Cars creep across the bridge as if pulled by the force of that promise itself. Look, sailboats! Hark, a resort hotel. Ho there, bloated gulls line up along the bridge's side rails and point their beaks toward the traffic, guiding the way. In three days the high season will be over and Newport's ice cream vendors, trinket traders, and yachtsmen will crawl deep into their off-season dens to hibernate. Off-season: the beach's sand will turn gray and flat overnight; the historic mansions will offer tours only two days a week; boats will be pulled from the water.

Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense by Sarah Weinman (Penguin Books):  Let me start by saying how much I love the cover design for this anthology of classic mystery stories.  Evocative of pulp fiction covers in their heyday, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives gives us a femme fatale* caught in the beam of a flashlight, startled eyes popping out of her head, hand up, fingers curled, claws out.  This is a cover that will reach out and grab bookstore browsers.  Once past the packaging, however, they'll find stories which will sink even deeper claws into their attention.  Editor Sarah Weinman assembles a line-up of authors whose names might not be heard in even the most literate of households these days.  Weinman knows crime fiction inside and out and has written on the subject for the Los Angeles Times and The Barnes and Noble Review (among others), so I totally trust her judgment when it comes to literature about the darker side of domesticity.  In her introduction to Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, she talks about the early female pioneers of crime fiction: "Their books color outside the lines, blur between categories, and give readers a glimpse of the darkest impulses that pervade every part of contemporary society.  Especially those impulses that begin in the home."  Contemporary female writers particularly intrigue the editor--authors like Gillian Flynn, Tana French and Attica Locke who "take a scalpel to contemporary society and slice away until its dark essence reveals itself: the ways in which women continue to be victimized, their misfortunes downplayed by men (and women) who don't believe them, and how they eventually overcome."  For this anthology, Weinman stretches farther back to a goldener age of suspense fiction to bring us short stories by Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Dorothy B. Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Margaret Millar and several others to paint a portrait of troubled domesticity in mid-century America.  At the anthology's companion website, Weinman further defines "domestic suspense":
To my mind, it’s a genre of books published between World War II and the height of the Cold War, written by women primarily about the concerns and fears of women of the day. These novels and stories operate on the ground level, peer into marriages whose hairline fractures will crack wide open, turn ordinary household chores into potential for terror, and transform fears about motherhood into horrifying reality. They deal with class and race, sexism and economic disparity, but they have little need to show off that breadth. Instead, they turn our most deep-seated worries into narrative gold, delving into the dark side of human behavior that threatens to come out with the dinner dishes, the laundry, or taking care of a child. They are about ordinary, everyday life, and that’s what makes these novels of domestic suspense so frightening. The nerves they hit are really fault lines.
Blurbworthiness: “At last, the anthology we have been waiting for: a veritable goldmine of spellbinding, psychologically rich tales. Masterfully curated by crime fiction expert Sarah Weinman, Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives not only brings much-deserved attention to fourteen unjustly neglected, pioneering writers—it also changes the way we think about the history, and the future, of the suspense genre.” (Megan Abbott, author of Dare Me)

Tumbledown by Robert Boswell (Graywolf Press):  Robert Boswell (author of The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards: Stories and Century's Son) has written a big book.  Big in all senses of the word--page count, cast of characters, sentences ripe as plums.  Big like the epic-length works of Tom Wolfe**, Michael Chabon and John Irving.  Hard-to-zipper-the-suitcase-shut big.  Here, for instance, is the Jacket Copy:
Welcome to the Onyx Springs Rehabilitation and Therapeutic Center. Mick Coury is schizophrenic, and he doesn’t feel alive when he takes the drugs that keep him sane. Alonso Duran is, among other things, a compulsive masturbator. Bellamy Rhine has his head in the clouds. All three of them are in love with the gorgeous Karly Hopper, who is developmentally disabled and living with a trucker whose motives are questionable at best. Guillermo Mendez is clinically sane and of average to above-average intelligence, but desperately wants to avoid another tour of Iraq so he can start a real life. Maura Wood is extremely intelligent but has terrible judgment, among other problems; she’s also in love with Mick. Therapist James Candler is about to be made director of the center. A program he devised, a sheltered workshop where patients practice working on an assembly line, is a huge success. His unreliable best friend from childhood, Billy Atlas, has moved in temporarily, and Candler has found him a job managing the sheltered workshop, a serious miscalculation. He doesn’t really know his fiancĂ©e, Lolly (they got engaged via text message), and he seems to be falling in love with Lise, a girl he meets one night at a bar, who, unbeknownst to him, has been trailing him for years, after one counseling session with him that changed her life. And then there’s the reason that Candler is doing this kind of work, trying to save everyone else, in the first place: his older brother Pook, a talented artist whose life came to a tragic end. They’re all trying, and succeeding or failing in varying degrees, to make sense of an irrational, unfair world, to “accommodate the impossible.”
Or take a look at Exhibit B, the Opening Lines of Tumbledown:
      There are yet states of being that have no name, anonymous human conditions that thrive at the periphery of powerful emotion the way bedroom communities manacle a city. James Candler and Elizabeth Ray reside in such a place.  Separately.  They are new arrivals.  Candler showed up the last week of January, purchasing a big stucco house snouted by a two-car garage.  A few weeks later, Elizabeth Ray paused in her pale subcompact to eye his residence.  Neither the ugliness of it nor its enormity could dissuade her.  She circled the block several times to look it over.  Around the corner, she parked at an apartment complex.  Her studio-with-balcony rented by the week.
      The subtle pleasures of suburban life would prove difficult for Candler to seize.  Shoving the mower around his front lawn left him without the humblest sense of accomplishment: what could he do in that yard?  The elementary school down the street spawned a daily parade of idling station wagons and SUVs, a surprisingly civil motorcade that left gaps to protect the right-of-way at every household drive, but the polite convoy struck Candler as a funeral procession for the ozone layer.  He managed to locate a decent local restaurant, a steakhouse that also served Mexican food, but it played CNN day and night on an elevated screen the size of a motel mattress. "I don't suppose you could turn that off," he asked.  The waiter, a Sinaloa transplant who walked past Candler's house every weekday morning, holding hands with his fourth-grade daughter and practicing English according to her strict instructions, smiled and shook his head, saying, "People like."  Even the spitting applause of sprinklers oppressed Candler, reminding him of waking as a child to a snow-covered television screen and the disturbing sense that he was sleeping through his life, and it would soon be time to die.
There's a lot of information to process in those two paragraphs--and the formality of language in that first sentence is, admittedly, a little off-putting--but I really, really love some of the fresh, startling images Boswell gives us: the snout of the two-car garage, Elizabeth's "pale subcompact," the "spitting applause of sprinklers."  I will happily clear the calendar and burrow deep in a book to be rewarded with language like that.  Blurbworthiness: "If you read Tumbledown in public, beware: Boswell's story is barkingly, snort-spurtingly, people-give-you-looks funny. Yet its humor is the most generous kind, uncynical and unsentimental, and woven through an ensemble story so large-hearted it keeps bursting its narrative seams. The result is a brilliant, humane, engrossing argument for how infinitely whacked and contingent life can be, and therefore how desperately we need one another to survive. I finished it with a long contented sigh, thinking, this is why I love reading novels."  (David Wroblewski, author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle)

*At least, I assume she's an ff; maybe she's a good girl, the nice wife, the pure heroine, the wifely Jane Wyatt rather than the vixen Lizabeth Scott
**Typo joke which might be funny only to me: I initially wrote his name as "Tome Wolf.""

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Slaying Holmes: Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters by Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley

There was a period in my life when I was reading so many mystery novels and was so deeply immersed in the lives of fictional gumshoes that I toyed with the idea of opening my own detective agency.  Such are the dreams and ambitions of 14-year-old boys.

My private eye education began with Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and, when I was in sixth grade, progressed to Agatha Christie.  But it wasn't until I discovered Sherlock Holmes that I truly fell in love with the genre*.

Today marks the birthday of Holmes' creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and I thought I'd honor the man by directing you to a review I wrote of Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters for The Barnes & Noble Review six years ago.  Here's how the review begins:
      On November 22, 1891, after writing five Sherlock Holmes stories now considered enduring classics of the mystery genre, Arthur Conan Doyle sat at his desk composing a letter to his mother. He dipped his pen in ink and scratched these words onto the paper: "I think of slaying Holmes in the sixth & winding him up for good & all. He takes my mind from better things."
      Only three years after writing the first story featuring the world's greatest fictional detective and already Conan Doyle was tired of him! Creator and creation had a troubled, complicated relationship. Holmes may have been the millstone around Conan Doyle's neck, but he also put plenty of coin in his pocket. Once he'd set Sherlock Holmes in motion and the public latched on to the stories, Conan Doyle found himself shackled to the character forever. He never did kill Holmes; he only gave him a false death at Switzerland's Reichenbach Falls in 1893's "The Final Problem," then reluctantly resurrected him ten years later in "The Adventure of the Empty House." Over time, Sherlock Holmes has grown larger in the public's imagination while his author retreats farther into the shadows.
      Now, a trio of Sherlockian scholars -- Jon Lellenberg, Daniel Stashower, and Charles Foley -- have done their best to bring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle back into the limelight with a biography told through his correspondence. Arthur Conan Doyle: A Life in Letters collects hundreds of letters, many of them never before published, and annotates them with historical context, photographs and excerpts from Conan Doyle's works, including his own Memories and Adventures from 1924.
      About a thousand letters from Conan Doyle's 54-year correspondence with his mother were among his papers -- which had been locked away for a half century due to what the authors call "family disagreements." Before her death in 1997, his youngest child, Dame Jean Conan Doyle, bequeathed them to the British Library, and now they arrive in our hands in this handsome and impressive biography.
      In these pages, Conan Doyle is a jovial man who skis in the Alps, plays cricket, pedals his newfangled Autowheel bike for miles across the English countryside, runs for Parliament, advocates the development of body armor during World War I, and volunteers to go into the thick of battle (though he is rejected time and again, because England cannot risk losing so valuable a writer). We see him take up the cause of George Edalji, a Eurasian attorney who had been arrested and convicted (unjustly, due to his race, Conan Doyle believed) for mutilating cattle; this case was the basis for Julian Barnes's 2006 novel Arthur and George. We watch him hobnobbing with the likes of Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill. At every turn, Conan Doyle comes across as a man who is fully a product of the Edwardian era: arrogant, magnanimous, eager for adventure, and fully confident of what he believes will be his lasting fame.
Click here to read the rest of the review.

On a personal note, I can tell you that Doyle, Holmes and my own novel Fobbit are coincidentally and happily intertwined. I'll have more to say about this in the coming weeks, but for now I'll leave you with this tantalizing clue:

*I'm primarily a fan of novels from the Golden Age of Detective Fiction--stopping somewhere around Ellery Queen and Richard and Frances Lockridge--and only occasionally read contemporary mystery books, so I really don't know much about Nordic gumshoes, alphabetical PIs, or mass-produced books from the James Patterson Factory.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Trailer Park Tuesday: As I Lay Dying

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

As I prepared to watch the first official trailer for the big-screen version of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, one thought screamed loud in my head: "Dear God, don't let James Franco screw this up."  Not that Franco is much of a screwer-upper, in my opinion.  I genuinely like him as an actor (see also: 127 Hours) and as what appears to be his latest incarnation as literary tastemaker in Hollywood (he's also directing Cormac McCarthy's Child of God, Andre Dubus III's The Garden of Last Days, and a screen bio of Bukowski).  But when it comes to Faulkner's 1930 novel about a family's disastrous attempts to transport their matriarch to a final resting place, I'm passionate and protective.  As I Lay Dying is my favorite Faulkner (followed closely by The Sound and the Fury).  It's certainly the most accessible of the Faulkner novels I've read; and I think that might be what attracted Franco to direct, write and star (as Darl Bundren) in the movie.  The trailer gives me hope that Franco at least preserves one of the novel's best aspects: the shifting points of view, narrated by 15 different characters (including Addie, the corpse in the coffin).  The movie premiered at Cannes yesterday and while early reviews  have been mixed (one reviewer called it "a tedious dud"), I'm reserving judgment until I can see it for myself.  I'm not ready to put this film in a coffin just yet.

Monday, May 20, 2013

My First Time: Sarah Gerkensmeyer

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 Sarah Gerkensmeyer. Her creative research interests include bubble algae, nipple creams, internet ads for secular polygamy, Wonder Woman, and bare-chested female skin divers in ancient Japan (among many other things).  Her story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying, was selected by Stewart O'Nan as winner of the 2012 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize.  A Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and the Italo Calvino Prize for Fabulist Fiction, Sarah has received scholarships to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, Ragdale, Grub Street, and the Vermont Studio Center.  Her stories have appeared in Guernica, The New Guard Literary Review, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, and Cream City Review, among others.  She received her MFA in fiction from Cornell University and now teaches creative writing at State University of New York at Fredonia.  Click here to visit her website.

My First Superhero

I've got a lot of strange stuff in my short story collection. Looting babies. Gigantic catfish. Chocolate-milk-drinking monsters. But for some reason, the first and only time I have ever stopped and truly questioned a weird choice in one of my stories was when I decided to write about Wonder Woman. I was stumped. Why her? How did you get here, I wanted to ask her, in a story about a group of bored teenaged girls who kill time in the middle of nowhere Nebraska at the airport bar?

I did not read comic books growing up. But after I wrote a story about Wonder Woman (as an angst-ridden teenager in the middle of nowhere Nebraska), I began to wonder if there is a sense of story in any comic narrative that we can all tap into, whether or not we are true fans of the genre. So I've done a little bit of digging, in an attempt to understand at least a tiny portion of the superhero history that I've missed out on. It seems that with this topic you could keep digging back into eternity. Gilgamesh was an early superhero, people argue. The chalky, faded stick drawings on ancient cave walls, supposedly, tell the stories of superheroes. But let's start with Mandrake the Magician, who was born into the comic strip world in 1934. When Mandrake runs into a shady character, he simply gestures hypnotically, causing his foe to hallucinate. He can sidetrack any evil force in this way, from gangsters to mad scientists to extraterrestrials.

Now that's a story I can sink my teeth into.

When I teach students in my introductory creative writing courses about persona poetry, I show them examples like Jeannine Hall Gailey's “Wonder Woman Dreams of the Amazon” and A. Van Jordan's “The Flash Reverses Time.” These poems show students how strong and direct voice can be in poetry, and how much story a poem can hold. These poems tap into a longing that reaches beyond nostalgia, into something unspeakable. But both poems try to speak it nonetheless: pain and loss, enough of it to don a cape and perhaps a mask and to demand action and popping color. When I ask my students to write their own persona poems, they grimace at the task of giving a cartoon character an authentic voice. (The one rule of the exercise: Take your character seriously.) But then they churn out magnificent pieces in which Cap’n Crunch and Stewie from Family Guy are desperate and bursting with emotional epics that need to be told.

I like to think of story as something that is inherent in all of us, an instinct that each one of us is born with. And perhaps that's why I feel connected to the stories of superheroes that I've never paid much attention to. But there are the hardcore superhero know-it-alls—the true geek fan boys and the comic book scholars who know every single detail about overwhelming worlds that I know nothing about. Do I have a right to Wonder Woman, their busty, red-booted heroine? I think I do, because of the child-like fascination that comic books elicit in all of us, even if we aren't faithful fans. We all want to be fantastic. And we all want to hear a story about someone who suffered and then rose up to defeat evil. Superman's home planet exploded, along with all of his people, when he was an infant. Batman witnessed the murder of his parents when he was eight years old. And according to a 1984 issue of Marvel Comics’ Spiderman, Peter Parker was sexually abused as a kid. Tracing all the way back to Mandrake the Magician, who discovers that his nemesis The Cobra is his own half-brother, the backstory of any superhero is a sad one. They have a lot to bear. And so why not let them enter our own stories and live like us every once in a while? Why not give them a chance to be ordinary and small?

Maybe this is why Wonder Woman ended up in my story, in a dank airport bar in the middle of nowhere Nebraska with a horrible fake I.D. Self-conscious and bored. Give her a few horrible margaritas. Try to help her ignore the supernatural awareness of human suffering that's constantly buzzing about her head, at least for one night. Yes, when I decided to write a story about Wonder Woman, I was truly stumped for the first time. And yes, she might be the only superhero in my short story collection. But she's not alone. Look at the people we write about. Dig into their lives of solitude, their hidden identities and their radioactive backstories that burn like nothing else. Whether we tell these stories in pixelated, primary colors or not, they are all very familiar indeed.