Sunday, June 30, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Shrapnel by William Wharton

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

War for me, though brief, had been a soul-shaking trauma.
Shrapnel: A Memoir by William Wharton

Friday, June 28, 2013

Friday Freebie: A Nearly Perfect Copy by Allison Amend

Congratulations to Brett Kruger, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Possibility Dogs: What a Handful of "Unadoptables" Taught Me About Service, Hope, and Healing by Susannah Charleson.

This week's book giveaway is A Nearly Perfect Copy, the new novel by Allison Amend.  Here's a little more about the book:
Elm Howells has a loving family and a distinguished career at an elite Manhattan auction house.  But after a tragic loss throws her into an emotional crisis, she pursues a reckless course of action that jeopardizes her personal and professional success.  Meanwhile, talented artist Gabriel Connois wearies of remaining at the margins of the capricious Parisian art scene, and, desperate for recognition, he embarks on a scheme that threatens his burgeoning reputation.  As these narratives converge, with disastrous consequences, A Nearly Perfect Copy boldly challenges our presumptions about originality and authenticity, loss and replacement, and the perilous pursuit of perfection.
A Nearly Perfect Copy has been justly receiving high praise since its release in April.  Here, for instance, is what Kevin Brockmeier (author of The Brief History of the Dead) had to say about it: "Just when you think you know where A Nearly Perfect Copy is going, it swerves, like life, in some new direction.  Allison Amend has packed this book with wit, style, yearning, risk, damage, truth, and compassion, populated it with characters who breathe with their own individual mystery, and along the way written what just might be the definitive fictional treatment of art forgery."

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of A Nearly Perfect Copy, 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 July 4, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on July 5.  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.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Trailer Park Tuesday: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

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

You can sell a lot of books in 16 seconds.  All it takes is one creaking door, an ominous thrum of deep music, and a trickle of blood down the side of a bathtub.  And if you're touting Stephen King's forthcoming book Doctor Sleep, the word "REDRUM" finger-painted on the wall.  That's right, boys and ghouls, Danny Torrance from The Shining is back, all grown up but still haunted by demons.  The 16-second trailer for Doctor Sleep doesn't tell us much about plot.  It doesn't need to; it merely serves as a pre-jolt, like sticking our tongue on the battery terminals, before the flip-the-switch-give-em-the-full-gigawatt-blast-of-electricity on September 24, the book's official publication date.  The trailer is a prick tease, but if you want more to entice you, then check out this 11-minute video of King reading an excerpt from the book at an event at George Mason University.  In typical King fashion, he starts off gently, sedately with a humorous riff on the caravans of RVs on interstates driven by Golden Agers who annoy all of us by driving the speed limit and choking us with their exhaust.  By the end of the reading, however, King is running his icy fingertips down our spine and making us think twice about those sweet grandparents behind the wheel of their retirement-age RVs.  From the sounds of it, none of us will get any sleep while reading Doctor Sleep.

Monday, June 24, 2013

My First Time: Marion Winik

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 Marion Winik, author of the new memoir, Highs in the Low Fifties: How I Stumbled through the Joys of Single Living.  Laura Lippman, author of And When She Was Good, has this to say about Winik's latest book: “Highs in the Low Fifties hits the bull’s eye—funny, sharp, poignant, wise.  Sometimes, I think Marion Winik is simply selfless enough to live the life that most of us are too scared to try, then generously shares the results.  Her latest memoir has her trademark candor and poetic cadences.  But there’s something new here, too—happiness. Rueful, cautious, but happiness nonetheless. It’s like finding the Rough Planet Guide to Middle-Age.”  Highs in the Low Fifties joins Telling, First Comes Love, The Lunch-Box Chronicles: Notes from the Parenting Underground, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead and others in the ongoing saga of her life.  She writes a bi-weekly column at, reviews books for Newsday, and contributes to The Sun.  You can find lots more info at  (Please note: this essay contains adult language.  Sensitive readers are advised to click away.  As fast as they fucking can.)

The First Time I Censored Myself

A long, long time ago, it was 1992.  I was a commentator on All Things Considered.  A literary agent who'd heard me on the radio called and asked if I had any more work like what she'd heard.  She flew down to Austin, we spread the essays across her bed at the Four Seasons, then she went back to New York and sold my first collection, Telling, to Villard.

While I was not a pornographer or a terrible potty-mouth, my book was certainly rated R.  It discussed drug use, shoplifting, lying, and various other types of misbehavior--in fact, its confessional aspect was essential to its nature and summarized in its title.  So I was very surprised when the editor excised the two uses each of the words "shit" and "fuck" in the book.  This was a book for grownups, and such books were full of words like this--and ones a lot worse, too.  Why did everybody get to say "fuck" but me?

I wrote back a very detailed response.  I agreed to lose one "shit" and one "fuck" and argued to keep the other two.  But I wasn't going down easy, as these notes reveal:
      p. 43:  But it is a damn nose job.  "Damn" expresses my ruefulness about it.
      p. 45:  The puke and the hosing off are part of the unglamorous, pedestrian suburban acid experience I am trying to describe.  Yes, it's a little gross but so what.
      p. 47:  As for "suck my dick," I think it is humorous in its absurdity--after all, it's my 14-year-old sister saying it.  I've taken out the use of "dick" in "On Being Gay," so at least we're down to one dick overall.
Fast forward 20 years and many books and articles later.  These days I write a column for an online magazine whose publisher has the same sensibility as my Villard editor, and I still am ready to put up my dukes and fight about poop jokes, dicks and the F word, none of which are preferred in the Baltimore Fishbowl.  I struggle with the same fervor as always, though I have often noticed that a cleaned-up piece is not a whole lot different than the dirty version I was trying so hard to keep.  And I do get away with shit sometimes.

So here's an interesting thing.  A few months ago, I was reading over the galley of my latest book, Highs in The Low Fifties.  Though the story focused largely on my experiences with men after the end of my second marriage and was R-rated for sure, it used "fuck" just twice and "shit" only once, excluding compound formulations like "clusterfuck" and "bullshit," and the language had already passed muster with the editor and copy-editor.

The single shit and one of the fucks are in dialogue, and I don't even say them.  My mother is "fucking disgusted" and my son exclaims "oh, shit."  But the third was mine, all mine.  Though I had read it many times in manuscript, this was the first I saw of it in print, between covers, and this time it hit me differently.  The section in question describes an ill-advised rendezvous with one of my former graduate students.
      He led me to a floodlit, garbage-swept concrete parking lot surrounded by a chain link fence.  With no further preliminaries, a furious make-out session was in progress.  It was fun, but Zach and I had different ideas of what came next.  I wanted to discuss our relationship; he wanted me to give him a blow job.  This seemed beneath my dignity as a fifty-two-year-old mother of three so I regretfully declined and we went back inside.  He seemed to be about one millimeter from either puking or alcohol poisoning but was still on his feet when I left.
      The next day my dignity went into remission and I emailed him to ask if he was having regrets, and if he wasn't would he like to fuck my brains out.
When I read this passage, I felt a little betrayed.  Who was this writer who was making me look so desperate and trashy and lacking in self-respect?  Just a couple days before, I had read another woman's memoir where I'd been taken aback at her crass attitudes about men.  Now I was having that same reaction to myself.  And though I'd pressed send on that email too fast to redact the demeaning words, now I had another chance.

I wrote the editor asking if it was too late to change the phrase to "wouldn't he like to continue where we left off."  She said sure, and that's the way it reads in the final version.

So look at that.  Every degrading thing in that passage was okay with me, right up to the phrase with "fuck."  That's the point where I felt the reader's judgment of me might just go past "this woman is craaaaazy" to "ick, this woman is gross and I don't want to read another word about her disgusting life."  I could be wrong, but that's where I was drawing the line.

"Fuck" has power.  That's why we want to use it.  And that's why it's worth being careful when we do.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sunday Sentence: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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

Her tongue is quick and slippery in his mouth, a warm little amphibian.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

Friday, June 21, 2013

Friday Freebie: The Possibility Dogs by Susannah Charleson

Congratulations to Jim Simpson, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: the double-prize package of The Wonder Bread Summer by Jessica Anya Blau and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison.

This week's book giveaway is The Possibility Dogs: What a Handful of "Unadoptables" Taught Me About Service, Hope, and Healing by Susannah Charleson. Here's a little more about the book:
An inspiring story that shows how dogs can be rescued, and can rescue in return. With her critically acclaimed, bestselling first book, Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog, Susannah Charleson was widely praised for her unique insight into the kinship between humans and dogs, as revealed through her work in canine search and rescue alongside her partner, golden retriever Puzzle. Now, in The Possibility Dogs, Charleson journeys into the world of psychiatric service, where dogs aid humans with disabilities that may be unseen but are no less felt. This work had a profound effect on Charleson, perhaps because, for her, this journey began as a personal one: Charleson herself struggled with posttraumatic stress disorder for months after a particularly grisly search. Collaboration with her search dog partner made the surprising difference to her own healing. Inspired by that experience, Charleson learns to identify abandoned dogs with service potential, often plucking them from shelters at the last minute, and to train them for work beside hurting partners, to whom these second-chance dogs bring intelligence, comfort, and hope. Along the way she comes to see canine potential everywhere, often where she least expects it – from Merlin the chocolate lab puppy with the broken tail once cast away in a garbage bag, who now stabilizes his partner’s panic attacks; to Ollie, the blind and deaf terrier, rescued moments before it was too late, who now soothes anxious children; to Jake Piper, the starving pit bull terrier mix with the wayward ears who is transformed into a working service dog and, who, for Charleson, goes from abandoned to irreplaceable.
Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review and said: "You don’t have to be an animal lover to be moved by this beautifully written and impassioned account of the author’s work rescuing dogs from shelters and training them to be service animals...This is the rare book that can change minds about the reality of animals’ emotional lives."

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of The Possibility Dogs, 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 27, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on June 28.  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.

Monday, June 17, 2013

My First Time: Scott Elliott

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 Scott Elliott, author of the novel Temple Grove, which was released earlier this year by the University of Washington Press.  Set in Washington's Olympic Peninsula among the majestic stands of Douglas fir, Temple Grove has earned praise from the likes of Kim Barnes, who said, "Like Alan Heathcock and Benjamin Percy, Scott Elliott writes from that place where the old myths and the new stories collide.  In Temple Grove, he reminds us of what it means to be lost to everyone and everything we have ever loved...and to be found again.  It is a story of longing, cruelty, forgiveness, and redemption, shot through with intimate descriptions of a land on the cusp of ruin that will break your heart with their beauty."  Elliott was educated at Vanderbilt University, Columbia University, and the University of Houston.  His stories and essays have been published in the Antioch Review, Forklift Ohio, the New York Times, Juked, The Writers Chronicle, Mayday, and elsewhere. His first novel, Coiled in the Heart (Putnam 2003) was a Booksense 76 and a Library of Congress One Community-One Book selection.  He is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing and English at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington where he lives with his wife Jenna Terry and their two sons August and Harper.  Click here to visit his website.

My First Calling

In 1980 my family moved across the country from Louisville, Kentucky to Port Angeles, Washington to be closer to my mother’s side of the family way out on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State.  We moved into a beach cabin about a hundred yards (one vacant lot and a house) from the mouth of a little creek called Morse Creek that emptied into the Strait of Juan de Fuca.  Steelhead, salmon, and sea-run cutthroat trout came up this river in their seasons to spawn.  Albino deer, sacred to the local tribes, were sometimes seen in the thickets.  When I wasn’t trying to make new friends by playing pick-up tackle football on that vacant lot or basketball at neighboring kids’ houses, I was balancing on the smooth logs, the husks of the great conifers endemic to the region, that lined the stony beach or I was putting in some serious time as a creek urchin—fishing, noting how the creek’s course shifted with the tides and after big rains, inner-tubing in the summer, and looking for golf balls (the creek bordered a course) and lures stuck on snags.

In some ways the creek was an upgrade from the beloved little creek (Owl Creek) we’d left behind in Kentucky, a creek that was the source for my first novel Coiled in the Heart.  Morse Creek had its source in the snow-capped peaks of the Olympic Mountains, eight-thousand-foot sentinels rising up from the Strait to keep watch over all below.  I sometimes caught sea-run cutthroat trout, one time a foul-hooked chum salmon, and I tried and tried but never did catch a winter steelhead, a species that had men lining the bank when they made their winter run.  My father did catch two—a bright hen and a buck, our first winter there.  I spent countless hours on the creek and came to know all the holes and riffles, from the mouth up to a railroad trestle about a mile upstream.

And on some summer days, when most men were working and I was haunting the creek by myself as usual, a quiet man with a contemplative air, not quite old enough for retirement, also alone, would join me.  He’d stand across the mouth of Morse Creek in a fisherman’s cap, and he’d sometimes give me a wave when he or I first arrived to cast into the first pools near the mouth.  We’d fish in this manner for long stretches, across the mouth from one another in an easy camaraderie, neither of us ever trying to converse over the waves coming in from the Strait and the gentle sussing of the creek.

About eight or so years later, after we’d moved back to Kentucky following that one year on the Olympic Peninsula and after I’d picked up with old friends who hadn’t yet forgotten me--who were ready, in fact, to anoint me with the aura of mystery from my travels afar--and after eight more years and many more firsts, I was fired from a job (the first and only time this has happened to me) when I couldn’t find a replacement to take my shift waiting tables at a Romano’s Macaroni Grill so I could attend the Indiana University Writers Conference.  I was a junior in college by this time, and my mother had encouraged me to register for the conference, supporting me in my burgeoning but in no way fully formed interest in writing the same way she had encouraged me when I was younger by signing me and my brothers up for basketball camps.  At the conference I was the youngest person by many years in Robert Boswell’s workshop.  The other participants, graduate students and adults taking time off from complicated lives, were indulgent of my stories to a point, but drew the line at some of my facile criticisms of mainstream middle-class life, which at that time I was convinced I would somehow avoid for something more interesting.

In my individual meeting with Robert Boswell and at a few other times during the conference Raymond Carver kept coming up.  This was the early nineties and Raymond Carver was all the rage.  Under the influence of these direct recommendations and multiple references, I bought a copy of Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories at the IU Bookstore and settled into my bed in the dorm room the same night thinking I’d have just a little taste.  I didn’t sleep much that night.  The stories were familiar, set in the same world I lived in and seemingly so simple, yet they were also strange, delving down through surface-ordinary kitchens and living rooms into the downright archetypal.  They seemed to tap into mysterious undercurrents, what Flannery O’Connor calls the mystery beneath the manners.

The story that really punched me in the gut that night was the first one in the collection, “Nobody Said Anything” in which two Eastern Washington creek urchins collaborate to corner and catch a miserably thin steelhead in a drainage ditch.  Stalled by the conundrum of who gets to take the fish home, the boys decide to cut it in half.  The narrator of the story comes home late with the head and partial body (for which he’s bargained) of a badly sawed-in-half steelhead to find his parents arguing in the kitchen.  His mother’s reaction to his catch is to scream, “Oh, oh, my God!  What is it?  A snake?  Please, please take it out before I throw up.”  His father says, “Take the goddam thing out of here!...Take it the hell out of kitchen and put it in the goddamn garbage!”  Once the narrator is standing outside, he says of his catch, “What was there looked silver under the porch light.  What was there filled the creel.  I lifted him out.  I held him.  I held that half of him.”  These are the last lines of the story, and in that dorm room in Bloomington this line put me in touch, before I was aware of it, with Emily Dickinson’s definition for poetry: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry….”  The top of my head was off, and I was also somehow floating in the room.  Somewhere in the midst of this disembodied, top-of-head-off feeling--certainly not by a long shot the first pleasure I’d taken in reading, but somehow the first so deep and all-encompassing—gradually winkled up to surface the conviction that I wanted to devote my life to the attempt to put words, even very simple words, on the page in such a way that they might devastate someone, lay them low, the way that story had devastated me.

That was the moment, the first commitment to putting the pursuit of writing above other paths I might have chosen, a commitment that would be, and still is, tested and re-confirmed over and over.

After that night I put the top of my head back on and sought out and devoured everything Carver had written, something I continue to do with certain writers (most recently Lydia Davis and David Mitchell), binge-reading authors whose work I find I love.  That summer I read other collections of Carver’s stories and his poems and essays.  In his collection of poems Where Water Comes Together with Other Water, I found a poem titled “Morse Creek.”  And of course, I also came to find out that Carver had lived in Port Angeles with his wife Tess Gallagher in a house above the community where we lived during our year in Port Angeles.  These two facts brought to mind the quiet, contemplative man who came to fish across from me at the mouth of Morse Creek.  I can’t say for certain whether or not I fished across the creek from Raymond Carver on those summer days when I was eleven years old.  At this point, the fact of it doesn’t matter so much as the belief.  I have chosen to believe that I did.

Is it possible that the universe winks at us, tells us where we’re going, offers us first flashes of the road ahead, whether or not we’re prepared to see them, whether or not we recognize what we’ve been shown, sometimes long before we’ve begun to set out to find what we’re looking for?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead

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

Insensate, he was drawn against the tide of subtlers and ambulances, the carriages and caissons, the long parade of the hip-shot, the mud-spattered, the blood-dirty, and the slaughter-gutted, the wheeling army of the dead and the dying.  For twenty miles they came against him and the coal black horse in a relentless tide and he rode on without hesitation through their broken and driven ranks.

Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Combat Panorama: A Sneak Peek at Joe Sacco's The Great War

I came home yesterday to find a thin envelope from publisher W. W. Norton, heralding an advance copy of a book they thought I might like: The Great War.  Inside: a piece of 8-1/2 by 11 cardboard that unfolded into an astonishing triptych of a battle scene drawn by Joe Sacco (author of Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, among others).  These were three of twenty-four panels from Sacco's new "book" coming in November.

I air-quoted "book" because though this will be a handsome volume packaged in a deluxe hardcover slipcase, it's more like a continuously unscrolling narrative.  Imagine one 24-foot black-and-white drawing printed on heavyweight accordion-fold paper, an entire war-is-hell panorama stretched across the length of a room.  There are no words in The Great War, only Sacco's soldiers, shell bursts, and trenches.  Judging by the three panels I was privileged to see, this will be enough.  Here is one of those sections:

Click to enlarge

This is the third panel of the unfolded three which were in my envelope and, if my eye "reads" left to right like a panning camera, it is the most brutal.  In the first two panels, we see British soldiers in their trenches--smoking, talking quietly, loading their knapsacks, mounting the ladders that lead them onto a battlefield whose horizon is one wall of smoke, fire and explosions.  It's not until this third panel that we actually see death--and then it's pretty brutal (note the two torsos flying through the air on the right).  Sacco sure as hell doesn't need words to make his point.

The single-scene book depicts one of the most infamous days of World War I: the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916--a day on which nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed and another 40,000 wounded.  Staggering, sad statistics, rendered all the more telling by Sacco's pen.

My package from Norton came with an author's note from Sacco:
      The Great War is modeled in part on Mateo Pericoli's wordless Manhattan Unfurled, a beautiful, accordion-style foldout drawing of the city's skyline. As a comic book artist, however, I felt impelled to provide a narrative, so the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Norman invasion of England, was my touchstone. In the interest of making the drawing compact, I referenced medieval art in other, stylistic ways, namely by dispensing with realistic perspective and proportion. Thus a few inches in the drawing might represent a hundred yards or a mile of reality. However, I have tried to get the details--the field kitchens, the horse ambulances--right.
      Making The Great War wordless made it impossible to indict the high command or laud the sacrifice of the soldiers. It was a relief not to do these things. All I could do was show what happened between the general and the grave, and hope that even after a hundred years the bad taste has not been washed from our mouths.
World War I was known as "the War to End All Wars."  That, as we all know, was dozens of wars ago.  And now we're left with the continuous taste of death and destruction in our mouths.

Sacco's wide-angle landscape of war reminds me of the Cyclorama in Atlanta, the 15,030-square-foot oil painting of a Civil War battle; or even a great, sweeping CinemaScope scene from a David Lean film--with one exception: I can hold Sacco's 24-foot battlefield in my hands and easily visit it any time I like.  I'm looking forward to seeing more of The Great War when it arrives in November.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Friday Freebie: The Wonder Bread Summer by Jessica Anya Blau and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

Congratulations to Jonathan Butters, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Son by Phillip Meyer.

This week's book giveaway is another terrific two-fer: one lucky reader will win a copy of both The Wonder Bread Summer (paperback) by Jessica Anya Blau and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (hardcover) by Jonathan Evison.

Jessica recently wrote a memorable My First Time guest blog for The Quivering Pen, featuring--among other things--a naked men's book club.  She also mentioned another reading where an old college friend showed up and Jessica reminded him of an incident which had clung to her brain like Saran Wrap:
After the reading, I approached the old college friend. “Do you remember when you brought the bread bag of cocaine to my apartment?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. “Was it almost full?” I asked. “Because in my memory it was almost full.” “More like three-quarters full,” he said.
That bread bag of drugs is the fulcrum point of her latest novel, The Wonder Bread Summer--a book which Laura van den Berg called "a lightning strike of a novel, sexy and dangerous and aglow with adventure." Here's the plot summary of Blau's new novel:
In The Wonder Bread Summer, loosely based on Alice in Wonderland, 20-year-old Allie Dodgson has adventures that rival those Alice had down the rabbit hole. Or those of Weeds’ Nancy Botwin. Allison is working at a dress shop to help pay for college. The dress shop turns out to be a front for drug dealers. And Allison ends up on the run—with a Wonder Bread bag full of cocaine. With a hit man after her, Allison wants the help of her parents. But there’s a problem: Her mom took off when Allison was eight; her dad moves so often Allison that doesn’t even have his phone number. Set in 1980s California, The Wonder Bread Summer is a wickedly funny and fresh caper that’s sure to please fans of Christopher Moore, Carl Hiaasen, and Marcy Dermansky.

The characters in Jonathan Evison's new novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, also hit the road which is likewise paved with adventure.  Here's the official summary of what goes down in these pages:
Benjamin Benjamin has lost virtually everything—his wife, his family, his home, his livelihood. With few options, Ben enrolls in a night class called The Fundamentals of Caregiving, where he is instructed in the art of inserting catheters and avoiding liability, about professionalism, and on how to keep physical and emotional distance between client and provider. But when Ben is assigned to tyrannical nineteen-year-old Trevor, who is in the advanced stages of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, he soon discovers that the endless mnemonics and service plan checklists have done little to prepare him for the reality of caring for a fiercely stubborn, sexually frustrated adolescent with an ax to grind with the world at large. Though begun with mutual misgivings, the relationship between Trev and Ben evolves into a close camaraderie, and the traditional boundaries between patient and caregiver begin to blur as they embark on a road trip to visit Trev’s ailing father. A series of must-see roadside attractions divert them into an impulsive adventure interrupted by one birth, two arrests, a freakish dust storm, and a six-hundred-mile cat-and-mouse pursuit by a mysterious brown Buick Skylark.
The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving has just been released in paperback, but the winner of this contest will receive a shiny-new hardback.  And hey, if you don't win the contest, I highly recommend you cough up the 15 simoleons and go buy yourself a paperback copy. It's good stuff, ladies and gents.  But don't just take my word for it--here's what The Boston Globe had to say: "With its extremely cinematic plot and collection of quirky scenes, the novel might remind you of Little Miss Sunshine meets Rain Man....The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is even-keeled, big-hearted, and very funny, and full of hope."

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of both The Wonder Bread Summer and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, 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 20, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on June 21.  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, June 13, 2013

The Quiet Outrage of War: Sparta by Roxana Robinson

Conrad Farrell comes home from the war in Iraq, skin unbroken and all limbs still attached...and yet he is a damaged man, a wounded warrior struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder--like so many (too many) of our returning veterans.  PTSD is at the heart of Roxana Robinson's riveting new novel Sparta which describes the condition in terms I've never before seen on the page.  Precise as a psychological case history, the book charts the painful journey of Conrad from gung-ho boy to disillusioned warrior to broken man.

Conrad comes from a family that's "bookish and liberal, not martial and authoritarian," with a mother and father who can't understand why he'd want to take up arms in defense of his country.  Conrad, a classics major in college, is drawn to the stories of the ancient world--particularly Sparta, the Peloponnesian War, and the Iliad.  "I want to do something big," he tells his family when announcing his decision to join the Marines.  "I want to do something that has consequences."

Little does he know, he'll be the one on the receiving end of those consequences.

As the novel opens, we see Conrad on a flight out of the combat zone, returning to an uncertain future with his family and his girlfriend.  How will he live life without the comforting structure of the military?  Where will he go, what will he do?  Robinson writes: "He couldn't think how to move on; it seemed like a cliff that he was approaching.  Beyond was a dark drop.  He didn't want to remember what lay behind him in Iraq."

But of course he can't not think about what happened to him over there in the desert.  He's haunted by a series of recurring images: blood on a wall, a young girl on a bed, one of his soldiers whispering from the front seat of a humvee in a throaty death rattle.

Just as Robinson did in her previous novels Cost and Sweetwater, Sparta is unapologetic in the way it gets its point across: we must always remember the human cost of the decision to enter war.  No matter where you fall in the spectrum between hawk and dove, Robinson's novel is powerfully affecting and takes its place on the shelf of essential war literature.

I was privileged to interview Roxana recently as part of The Authors Guild program Booktalk Nation.  In the course of our conversation, I brought up the fact that Roxana's great-great-great aunt was Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of what is perhaps the greatest activist novel in the history American literature.  "Yes," Robinson said, "when she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, she was voicing her outrage."

Sparta is similarly full of outrage--at a costly war, at civilians' ignorance of military sacrifice, at a flawed Veterans Administration.  But it is a quieter book than Uncle Tom's Cabin, its punches land with fists wrapped in language that borders on the poetic.  Just as Aunt Harriet did with slavery, Robinson describes the problem of 21st-century war with a poignancy that insists we pay attention.

Here, for instance, she writes about the moral conflict all warriors must face:
Humans have a powerful and innate resistance to killing other humans. Something in the heart curdles at the prospect. The sound of screams, the sight of blood, the evidence of pain: all arouse an urgent need to quit. The human recognizes itself in the other. Within the military, this deep empathetic response causes profound problems. To be effective soldiers, men must be persuaded to kill other men. They must be persuaded to give up their recognition of another man's humanity.
This echoes what Karl Marlantes wrote in his masterpiece of war literature, What It Is Like to Go to War: "You can’t be a warrior and not be deeply involved with suffering and responsibility.  You’re causing a lot of it.  You ought to know why you’re doing it.  Warriors must touch their souls because their job involves killing people."

What Conrad does and what he sees in Iraq will stay with him forever, like sand clinging to the skin, a ghost that cannot be exorcised.  Similarly, there are passages in Sparta that will linger with the reader--like this one:
      That June, in Ramadi, insurgents started sending rockets and mortars onto the base. The perimeter fence kept them at a distance, so they couldn't see where they were sending them. They just lobbed them over at random. Sometimes the mortars missed everyone and everything, exploding harmlessly, and sometimes they were duds and didn't explode at all, and sometimes they took someone's leg off, like Kuchnik, who was in their sister platoon and was on his way over to the mess hall with his buddy, Colbert.
      Halfway there, Kuchnik remembered a letter he wanted to mail to his girlfriend. He went back for it, and Colbert went on ahead. Kuchnik got the letter and started back to the mess hall and was nearly there when the rocket landed. It didn't hit him, though, it landed right beside him. It hit a utility pole, and the impact detonated the rocket's hot-metal penetrator. White-hot metal shards pierced Kuchnik's thigh, severing the femoral artery. Kuchnik lay in the sand outside the mess hall, screaming and bleeding out, still holding the letter. Doc Whitman came running, but he was on his way to the shower and was wearing only his PT shorts, and he didn't have a tourniquet.
      They finally got Kuchnik tourniqueted and medevaced out to Landstuhl, in Germany, where the trauma hospital was. But by then he'd lost a lot of blood, and even though they got him stabilized on the flight over, two days after he got to Frankfurt, he died of organ failure.
      He was twenty feet from the door of the mess hall, which had sandbags around it to protect it from blasts. Colbert had already gone inside and was standing in line. Afterward it was impossible to get all the blood out from the sand, and for weeks after, going in and out of the mess hall you walked over a dim stain on the ground from Kuchnik. At the beginning, when he was still alive, you thought of it as blood, but after he died, you thought of it as Kuchnik.
I've read that passage four different times, always marveling at the way Robinson tells the story, layering the details until the reader reaches that final devastating line.

Robinson also describes Conrad's tour through the hellish labyrinth of PTSD in piercing, beautiful terms.  While writing the book, she interviewed several veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, gently prying them open until their stories spilled out (like the one about Kuchnik, I'm guessing).  Though she's a stranger to the military community (a community that is often gated and locked to outsiders) and has no history of military service in her immediate family, Robinson perfectly captures the anguish and frustration of one soldier's inability to shake the war from his system:
The thing was that he couldn't see where he was going. It was like heading toward a dam. He couldn't see past it, over the edge. All he could see was air, though he knew about the drop. He was waiting for something to click into place. In the military you had orders, and a task. Now what he had to do was keep moving. Without orders or a task.
That's how Conrad feels in the early pages of the novel.  It only gets worse for him as time goes on and he's squeezed tighter and tighter into an inescapable corner.

When I asked Roxana during our Booktalk Nation chat what she thought could be done to help soldiers with PTSD, she paused and softly said, "I don't know."  Granted, I was putting her on the spot, but her answer reflects a collective frustration with this unseen affliction, this kingdom of demons which science is still trying to map.  A cure--or, at the very least, a relief--may be on the horizon, but it is approaching too slowly, given the increasing rate of soldiers returning from war, broken in body and spirit.  Near the end of Sparta, Conrad takes shaky, tentative steps toward recovery:
It was too much to expect the end of this, but he hoped for a lessening. He hoped for a kind of hope. He wouldn't use large words like redemption, or grace. He was hoping for something humbler, something small and private.
Robinson's message is clear as a bell: wounded warriors need to take these small steps toward recovery and we, as supporters, as caregivers, as a nation which complicitly sent them off to war, need to walk patiently beside them.  All we can do is hope for hope.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Front Porch Books: Stephen King, flappers, Dani Shapiro, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Willa Cather, and war poetry

I'll have a proper edition of Front Porch Books later this month, but for now, I wanted to talk about the books which landed on my doorstep in a single day.  It's always a miniature Christmas whenever I come home from a long, soul-draining day at work and find a pile of boxes and/or large envelopes waiting for me to open, but yesterday was an especially Good Day, bringing a treasure trove of books I'd ordered from Amazon, advance copies from publishers, and the latest installment in my subscription to the Art of the Novella series.  It's unusual that I get so many good books in one day, and so I thought I'd share the joy with you....

Joyland by Stephen King (Hard Case Crime):  Speaking of joy....No two ways about it, I'm tremendously excited to have my fingers curled around King's newest novel, published by my favorite mystery imprint, Hard Case Crime.  You may have heard the noise in the book world about how King held off releasing Joyland as an e-book in order to persuade readers to purchase it from independent booksellers (Full Shameful Confession: I'd ordered my copy from Amazon months ago, so I guess I really fucked his plan all to hell).  I'm all for putting bodies inside independent bookstores, but what I think is really going on here is that King wants readers to enjoy the gorgeous cover art by Glen Orbik--those menacing shadows, the flaming lights of the amusement park, that short green dress!  The physical book is indeed a thing of beauty, but I'm really looking forward to exploring the funhouse contents beyond the cover: "Set in a small-town North Carolina amusement park in 1973, Joyland tells the story of the summer in which college student Devin Jones comes to work as a carny and confronts the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and the ways both will change his life forever."  The back cover copy says this is less horror-gore King than it is bittersweet King (a la The Green Mile).  The first paragraph certainly seems to bear that out:
I had a car, but on most days in that fall of 1973 I walked to Joyland from Mrs. Shoplaw’s Beachside Accommodations in the town of Heaven’s Bay. It seemed like the right thing to do. The only thing, actually. By early September, Heaven Beach was almost completely deserted, which suited my mood. That fall was the most beautiful of my life. Even forty years later I can say that. And I was never so unhappy, I can say that, too. People think first love is sweet, and never sweeter than when that first bond snaps. You’ve heard a thousand pop and country songs that prove the point; some fool got his heart broke. Yet that first broken heart is always the most painful, the slowest to mend, and leaves the most visible scar. What’s so sweet about that?

Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern by Joshua Zeitz (Three Rivers Press):  I've had this book on my wishlist for nearly five years, but have only just now gotten around to ordering it. I've long been fascinated by the Jazz Age lifestyle, embodied by the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald and the movies of Clara Bow. The female "flapper" epitomizes the image of change and rebellion. Here's how Zeitz describes the origin of the term in the introduction to his book:
      It's not clear how or when the term flapper first wound its way into the American vernacular. The expression probably originated in prewar England. According to a 1920s fashion writer, "flapper" initially described the sort of teenage girl whose gawky frame and posture were 'supposed to need a certain type of clothing--long, straight lines to cover her awkwardness--and the stores advertised those gowns as 'flapper dresses'."
      "Shortly after the closing shots of World War I, the word came to designate young women in their teens and twenties who subscribed to the libertine principles that writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and actresses like Clara Bow popularized in print and on the silver screen.
      An early reference in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defined the flapper as "A young girl, esp. one somewhat daring in conduct, speech and dress," a designation that at least one eighteen-year-old woman in 1922 seemed ready to embrace. "Of all the things that flappers don't like," she boldly explained to readers of The New York Times Book Review and Magazine, "it is the commonplace."
Well, pour me some bathtub gin and put an Al Jolson platter on the phonograph, I'm ready to Charleston my way into this book!

Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life by Dani Shapiro (Atlantic Monthly Press):  Shapiro's book comes out in October and I was lucky enough to get an advance copy from my publisher.  It couldn't have come at a better time.  For the past six months or so, I've been living in a trough of slack habits, a creative doldrums that infects a lot of writers after they drink the champagne fizz of publication success.  Oh sure, since Fobbit was released, I've kept myself busy by working on this blog, noodling around with a few short stories, and writing some essays, but right now I'm in need of a creative spark.  Someone please hook a car battery to my nipples and give me a jolt.  Still Writing might just be the kind of jump-start I'm looking for.  The back cover copy states: "Like Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary, and Stephen King's On Writing, Dani Shapiro's Still Writing is a lodestar for aspiring scribes and an eloquent memoir of the writing life."  This morning, I reached for her book, I opened a page at random, I drank these words:
We writers spend our days making something out of nothing. There is the black page (or screen) and then there is the fraught and magical process of putting words down on that page, as if through a mist. Is it a mirage? Is it real? We can't know. And so we need a sense of structure around us. These four walls. This cup. The wheels of the train beneath us. This borrowed room. The weight of this particular pen. Whatever it is that makes us feel secure in our physical space allows us to make the leap hoping that the page will catch us. Writing, after all, is an act of faith. We must believe, without the slightest evidence that believing will get us anywhere.
I closed the book.  I closed my eyes.  I rested in the cradle of Shapiro's words.  I thought about how the page would catch me if I just took that leap with an insuck of breath and a modicum of faith.  I opened my eyes and vowed, right then and there, to begin each day by reading a few pages of Still Writing (the book is conveniently fenced into short, sip-length essays).  It will be like my morning matin, a linguistic Our Daily Bread, my devotion to this craft.

The Eternal Husband by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Alexander's Bridge by Willa Cather (Melville House):  The novella: the overweight son nobody talks about, the smart kid with ambition but little success to show for it, the noisemaker clanging in an empty room.  Pity the novella, the resident of literary limbo--too long to be a short story, too short to be a novel.  I love novellas--in fact, I just finished reading five excellent examples of the form as part of my duties judging Press 53's Open Awards--but novellas are the Rodney Dangerfields of the book world, earning little respect beyond a small circle of writers and readers with pigeon-holed tastes.  But thanks to the good people at Melville House, the shortish-longish story is getting the attention it deserves.  I've subscribed to the Art of the Novella series for nearly a year and I'm always pleased to find a Melville House envelope on my front porch.  This time around, I received two classic works by Dostoevsky and Cather (both long-time favorites of mine).  I own other editions of The Eternal Husband and Alexander's Bridge, but the Melville House volumes take their place of honor on that special shelf of books which are packaged like palm-sized gems and easily digested.  If you'd like to subscribe to the Art of the Novella series, CLICK HERE.

The Stick Soldiers by Hugh Martin (BOA Editions):  I've been looking forward to this book ever since I first met Hugh Martin on the pages of his chapbook So, How Was the War?.  Not since Brian Turner (Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise) has a poet so perfectly captured the horror, the insanity, the inanity, and the sorrow of the war in Iraq.  In his introduction to this latest book, Cornelius Eady writes: "The Stick Soldiers touches a soldier, touches a war, touches the landscapes of two loaded cultures, a landscape where night-vision goggles and Kurdish lutes coexist in the same space, where laptop porn glows under the door of the base shit-house, where even a drive on a snowy stateside road can evoke the bombs that are not under the tires."  I can't wait to start reading The Stick Soldiers as part of my Poem-a-Day habit.  To give you a taste of what waits for you inside the book, here are the first four stanzas from the title poem of Martin's new collection:
The children have colored the cards,
dated from December,
with Christmas trees, piles of presents,
snowmen smiling, waving. Sara wants
a doll. Evan, a dog. Kyle promises
to pray for us.

Outside the hooch, we open mail,
hundreds of letters
from youth groups, scout troops,
classes of school children.

Kearns wants to write back,
ask for pictures
of older sisters.

We tape our favorites to the door.
In blue crayon, a stick-figure soldier poses
as he’s about to toss
a black ball,
fuse burning,
at three other stick figures,
red cloth wrapped over faces,
Iraki written
across stick chests.
He also has some new poetry in the Spring issue of The Iowa Review, a journal which sits high atop my To-Be-Read pile.  For those who seek the artful truth of war, I highly recommend Hugh Martin's poetry.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Trailer Park Tuesday: Highs in the Low Fifties by Marion Winik

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

If there was ever a time we need a compass and a map, middle age is it.  I'm happily married so divorce is not even a fleeting thought for me; but, as with everyone, the possibility of widowhood looms like a heavy black cloud that only seems to build and darken the older I get.  I can't imagine having to be back out on the "meat market" (though, by this point, it's probably something closer to liver and onions than filet mignon).  Marion Winik, a commentator for NPR's All Things Considered, knows all about widowhood--and divorcehood, for that matter--and her stories about navigating her way across the meat market landscape are both funny and down-to-earth.  Poe Ballantine, author of Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, says Winik's new book, Highs in the Low Fifties: How I Stumbled through the Joys of Single Living, is "like laughing gas at a car accident."  In the trailer, Winik reads what I presume is an excerpt from the book with deadpan delivery, recalling her first failed romance: a pen-pal relationship with the jailed Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo. Winik was 9 years old. "Sadly, he never responded to my letters.  And then he was murdered in jail." Undeterred, she continued to forge ahead into, as the publisher's blurb tells us, "a series of ill-starred romantic experiences" with "her signature optimism, resilience, and poor judgment." Sometimes poor judgment is the best teacher.  I can't wait to learn from and laugh at/with Winik in the pages of Highs in the Low Fifties.  I'm hoping the book comes with a free compass.

Monday, June 10, 2013

My First Time: Caroline Leavitt

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 Caroline Leavitt, an acclaimed novelist whose new book Is This Tomorrow has just been released by Algonquin Books.  She is the prize-winning author of Girls in Trouble, Coming Back to Me, Living Other Lives, Into Thin Air, Family, Jealousies, Lifelines and Meeting Rozzy Halfway.  Her ninth novel, Pictures of You, went into three printings months before publication.  A New York Times bestseller, it was also a Costco "Pennie's Pick" and was on the Best Books of 2011 lists from the San Francisco Chronicle, The Providence Journal, Bookmarks Magazine and Kirkus Reviews.  Her many essays, stories, book reviews and articles have appeared in Salon, Psychology Today, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, People, Real Simple, New York Magazine, Parenting,The Chicago Tribune, Redbook, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and numerous anthologies.  Click here to visit her website.

My First Discouragement

I knew I wanted to be a writer from the time I could first hold a pencil.  I wrote novels all through my girlhood, scribbled and illustrated in tablets, always about an orphan (which tells you something about my home-life at the time), who had been left millions (which tells you I was practical) and who went on adventure after adventure.  I had it all planned out, this writer’s life, and the only thing standing in my way were all the no’s.

“What’s wrong with being a wife and mother?” my mother said.

“A writer is an avocation, not a vocation,” said my teachers.

I didn’t listen.  I kept writing and I began sending out stories when I was in my teens.  They got rejected but I kept trying.  When I got to Brandeis, I wrangled my way into an advance writing class taught by an author (a real author!) notorious for being a friend of Philip Roth’s and for being the target of Norman Mailer’s ire.  The second class, we were to discuss my story, and that day, the professor picked up my manuscript by the edge of his fingertips, sniffed, and said, “Now.  Let’s discuss this garbage.”

I flinched, but the boy next to me audibly gasped.  Everyone slunk lower in their seats.  The professor tore my story apart.  He hated the characters.  He disliked the language, which he said was sloppy and larded with adjectives.  The story had no ending and my beginning wasn’t so hot, either.  I didn’t realize tears were streaming down my cheeks until the professor spun a box of Kleenex towards me across the table.

I hated him.  I wanted to leave class and never come back.  But I wanted to be a writer more, and when I showed up the next session, he arched one brow at me.  “Well, well, well,” he said, and he put the Kleenex next to me.

For the entire semester, he never liked anything I wrote.  He actually loathed everything everyone turned in, except for one girl, who was already published, and who brought in Valiums and passed them out to all of us before class like party candy.  My end of class evaluation?  You’ll never make it.

Even after college, when I floated from one mind-deadening job after another, I kept writing, determined to prove him wrong.  I kept sending stories out, two every weeks.  And I kept getting rejected.

As soon as I saw those brown self addressed envelope come bouncing back in my mailbox, I didn’t even look at the form letters inside.  I repackaged the stories and sent them immediately out again.  A few years passed, and the more rejections I got, the more I began to wonder in terror: What if my professor was right about me?

One day, I came home to find two self-addressed stamped envelopes in my mail and I began to cry.  Rejections.  Two at once.  It was too much to bear and I knew then I’d never be a writer.  I’d always have to work terrible jobs that I would be fired from.  I’d never be taken seriously.  I took the first envelope and without even looking at it, ripped it in half.  A page fluttered in front of me, and I glanced down and there it was, shining like a supernova.  The single word: Congratulations.

Trembling, I sat on my front porch and carefully took out the torn pages.  I had won first prize in Redbook’s Young Writer’s Contest!  They were not only paying me handsomely for my work, they were publishing it!  I opened the second envelope. The Michigan Quarterly Review wanted my story and they were paying me $50.  By then, I was crying so hard, a man walking by stopped, his face a map of concern.  “Are you okay?”

“I am now,” I sobbed.

I framed those first acceptances.  They buoyed me in my work, and a year later, that prize-winning story became my first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway.  I had a movie option from Paramount.  I had foreign sales and reviews everywhere on the planet.  I was interviewed on TV and the radio and in Publishers Weekly, and I got my first New York Times review.  But amidst all the joy, I kept hearing my professor telling me I’d never make it.  So I packed up a copy of the book and the slew of reviews, and sent them to him with a note: “You were wrong.  Respectfully, Caroline Leavitt.”  I didn’t think he’d respond, but it felt important to me that I lay claim to this, that he know that I had triumphed after all.

He wrote me instantly, congratulating me, and then he told me that he had known all along that I would make it, that he was just trying to get me angry enough to succeed.  He pointed out an adjective he didn’t like, and then he signed off with “warmly,” and his name.

I published a second novel, and then my career began to boomerang, so I had to grapple again with the no’s in my path.  The rejections.  My publishers going out of business just as my book was about to come out.

But I kept writing.

So here it is, years later.  I’m a New York Times bestselling author now (I still can’t believe it and say it out loud every chance I get) and my 10th novel is now out.  Of course, I still have no’s in my pathway, but I’ve learned that sometimes success is really just refusing to give up.  I teach writers at Stanford and UCLA online and I have private clients, and I would never ever tell any of them that they will never make it.  I remember all the years of struggle and then those two brown envelopes and my first acceptances.  I remember my professor being so sure I couldn’t ever succeed.  So I tell my students the same thing I always tell myself: Don’t you dare give up.  Because under all those no’s is always a yes, humming quietly, just waiting for you to claim it.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sunday Sentence: "Indulgence" by Susan Perabo

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

My mother was thrilled to be dying of brain cancer after a lifetime of smoking.

"Indulgence" by Susan Perabo in One Story, Issue 178

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Soup and Salad: Book Riot podcast, New covers for old books, 10 Reasons Not to Be a Writer, Write what you don't know, Reading Raymond Carver in Safeway, Kevin Powers at Powell's, Searching for Norman Maclean's rivers, Henry Miller's 11 Commandments, "I thought I was Dickens!"

On today's menu:

1.  Need some quick-witted, up-to-the-minute book chatter to listen to during your commute, or on your lunch break, or while you're lounging on the beach in Cancun sipping a cocktail out of a coconut?  I've got just the thing for your ears!  My Book Riot pals Jeff O'Neal and Rebecca Schinsky have started a new podcast and it's pretty damn fantastic.  They're only four episodes deep, but I'm already hooked.  Book Riot's podcast now joins Brad Listi's Other People as my regular must-listen during the daily commute.  Jeff and Rebecca banter about everything from Dan Brown's Inferno to the trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.  Click here to subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, or you can listen to the episodes here.

2.  We've all seen it: the bland or just plain wrong cover design to a treasured classic novel:

One of my favorite novels about Take Your Kitty to Work Day
Creative Action Network is trying to turn the tide of WTF?! covers with its crowd-sourced Recovering the Classics project.  Readers can buy the classics with their favorite cover design and a portion of the proceeds go to the designer.  Some of the covers are better than the others, of course.  Here are two of my favorites:

2a.  Speaking of book covers, there's this (which I grabbed off Paige Kellerman's Facebook page):

3.  Novelist Matt Haig gives us 10 Reasons Not to Be a Writer.  Here's Reason #2:
They are depressed. Writers are miserable. Think of some of the saddest people in history--Woolf, Plath, Hemingway, Sexton, Poe, Tom Clancy--and ninety per cent of them are writers. They write because they are depressed. Even Dan Brown is depressed. Every single person you pass in the street has happier brain chemistry than Dan Brown. Probably. That's why he has to hang upside down like Bruce Wayne between paragraphs. Possibly. And why he believes life is a kind of Countdown Conundrum designed by Dante or Da Vinci or albino priests. Possibly. And look, US website says that writing is one of the top 10 professions most likely to lead to depression. So be jealous of happier people, like undertakers and debt collectors. Being a writer is deciding to live your whole life as if it was soundtracked by Radiohead.
This makes me sad.  But you know what would make me happy?  If you were to buy Matt's new novel, The Humans, out next month from Simon & Schuster.  It's all about aliens secretly observing the human race and taking notes on what they find--including, I assume, the puzzle of depressed writers.

4.  It would also make me very, very happy if you bought Katey Schultz' new short story collection Flashes of War.  (Let's face it, if you buy any of the books I recommend here on the blog, I'll be a contented man.)  This debut collection is a series of flash fictions centering around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  I haven't had a chance to read the whole book, but I've skimmed a few of the stories and they're pretty remarkable for someone who has never donned a military uniform.  At The Story Prize blog, Schultz talked about that old adage "Write what you know."
"[W]rite what you know" is, in fact, a very limiting piece of advice and I don't suggest anyone follow it beyond getting a basic starting point every once in a while. My collection, Flashes of War, features characters in and around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the stories are written in first person, from the point of view of soldiers or civilians. I've never served in the military, don't know anyone currently serving, don't know any Iraqi or Afghan citizens, and have never been to the Middle East. But I felt compelled to write the stories in that book, and I was able to research and imagine with enough precision to pull it off. More than writing what I know, the exercise of writing what I don't know stretched me to become a more precise, conscious, dedicated writer, and I'm better off for it.

5.  I love this photo of Tess Gallagher reciting Raymond Carver's poetry through a bullhorn while standing in the middle of Safeway.  She was there to promote her late husband's work as part of the inaugural Raymond Carver Festival in Port Angeles, Washington.  Trust me, if I had more vacation days at my Day Job, I would have hopped in the car and driven 11 hours to the coast just to be part of this tribute to Ray, one of the seminal writers (if not the seminal) in my life.  The festival flash mob traveled to several locations in the area, starting at Morse Creek where Carver used to fish, and ending at Ocean View Cemetery where participants ate pie at his gravesite.

6.  Meanwhile, a little farther south, Kevin Powers visited Powell's.  Intrepid reporter Diane Prokop was there and, as always, filed a dispatch which put blog-readers in the front row of the event as Kevin talked about his debut novel The Yellow Birds.

7.  Here in Montana, anglers search for the elusive waters of A River Runs Through It.  They are still haunted.

8.  At the 49 Writers blog, Andromeda Romano-Lax is stopped short by Henry Miller's 11 Commandments while she's at a writing retreat in Virginia:
Three of the eleven commandments all boil down to this same rule: that one must stay focused and true to a single project, and give it one's fullest attention. On this particular trip, I had days upon days of glorious solitude, including lots of driving time: a 10-hour drive from Akron, Ohio down into rural Virginia, via small, winding roads, past horse farms and plantation houses and wooded hillsides. An evening drive through foggy Appalachian country. And the days that followed: more drives past vineyards and lavender farms and the past the James River and up mountains to wonderful trailheads (good hiking and trail-running country, in addition to good writing country). All those drives gave me lots of happy time to think, and when I'm happy, book ideas multiply. On the 10-hour drive to Virginia alone, my brain was so occupied dreaming about two separate new book ideas and one new idea for an abandoned-novel revision that I had to keep forcibly harnessing my mind and pulling it back to the novel I am currently working on, the one I had come to Virginia to write. (Once I was at my desk at the retreat, it was blessedly easy to focus. It was only once I hit those winding roads again that my polygamous brain wanted to start new relationships with more new book ideas.)
Like Andromeda, my brain has a hard time being quiet.  For instance, if you were to hook a seismograph to my frontal lobe right now, these are the things which would send the needle flying: three short stories, a novella, a one-act play, half a dozen blog posts, and Dubble (my novel which is still a work in progress).  So much activity can't be good for me.  I need to find my zen of writing.  Right after I finish this blog post.

9.  It was a very bleak house indeed when burglar Russell Bibby got done with it.  After nipping a wee bit too much of the bottle at a wedding reception, the 34-year-old left the party, went to a nearby 600-year-old home, and thoroughly trashed it.  When police arrived, Bibby fled the scene, running across rooftops until he was eventually caught.  He told his captors: "I thought I was in Victorian London, mate.  I was running across the roofs.  I thought I was Dickens!"