Friday, October 31, 2014

A Pumpkin-Spice-Flavored Book Review

I've designed this book review to be a special scratch-and-sniff product compatible with most computer screens and mobile devices.  Simply scrape your fingernail over the following word to enjoy an extra-sensory reading experience:


Didn't work?  Hmmm....I'll have to go back in and tinker with the HTML code, I guess.

In the meantime, please enjoy today's blog post while sipping your Extreme Pumpkin Pizazz Latte from Starbucks and eating your Choco-Pump Flakes (sprinkled with Nutmeg Sugar) from Kellogg's.  Perhaps you are also burning your Autumn Harvest Pumpkin Pie candle from The Wick Barn and wearing those "once-a-year" orange slippers your aunt gave you four birthdays ago.  I'm assuming that you're already listening to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by The Smashing Pumpkins as you read this.

Each year at this time, the P-word is as unavoidable and inevitable as Christmas decorations in August.  You'd think the whole world was bathed in orange and dusted with cinnamon spice.

I myself am not immune to the seduction of the squash.  This year, I even managed to gear my reading schedule around pumpkin-flavored books like Agatha Christie's Hallowe'en Party, a book about the making of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and, returning to a favorite from last year, the definitive Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon by Cindy Ott.  Heck, I even began a short-story collection by Joyce Carol Oates (Sourland) all because it began with a story called "Pumpkin-Head."  I stopped myself before I started reading A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.  I mean, there's the Christmas reading list to start thinking about, right?

Let's begin with Ott's "curious history," which is a terrific stem-to-seed overview of our orange crush on what's been called the "national vegetable" (better luck next time, Mr. Broccoli).  Ott primarily (though not exclusively) looks at the pumpkin's American history, including the first Thanksgiving dinner, which almost certainly did not finish with wedges of golden-brown pumpkin pie.  "No one mentioned dining on pumpkin at the feast that day in Plymouth--not a word about it," she writes.  Squash--which, by the way, is loaded with Vitamin A--was a sacred part of early Native American life; the Iroquois even held an annual feast of squash.  "American Indians introduced the pumpkin to European explorers and colonists, who regarded it with the same mix of wonder and disdain with which they viewed must of North America," Ott adds.

Apart from Native American reverence, the poor pumpkin wasn't very popular back in the day.  Artists frequently used "pompions" in their paintings to signify idiocy (hence, the term "pumpkinhead") or lasciviousness ("immoderate lust").  "People on both sides of the Atlantic identified the pumpkin with crude and unruly behavior and with unchecked human desires," Ott notes.  Worse yet, the early American settlers discovered that pumpkins were not exactly a cash crop: "The vegetable's value lay in the kitchen cellar, not in the marketplace.  Americans raised pumpkins primarily to feed their families rather than to garner wealth."  By the end of the 19th century, pumpkins were bringing in about $2.50 a ton on the market (that's about a tenth-of-a-cent for those of you trying to do the math).  The agricultural journal The Horticulturalist wrote in 1870: "We could wish that we had seen the last of them...It is about time that pumpkins were retired from service and entered upon the fossil list."  Wow, harsh words, indeed.  That guy must have been a real pumpkinhead.

Today, of course, pumpkin farming is big business--as in BIG business.  There's a robust competition to grow the biggest pumpkin known to tip a county fair's scales--you know, the kind that give pick-up trucks flat tires when they're loaded into the back.  "Some growers bid for seeds at online auctions," Ott writes, "paying up to $1,600 for a single top-quality seed from a 'stud pumpkin,' as the heaviest, better-pedigreed pumpkins are known."  (Fun fact: in 2007, Illinois was the number-one pumpkin producer, with 13,679 acres and nearly 219,000 tons of pumpkins harvested that year.)

Ott does an excellent job of making our mouths water with descriptions of dishes like "pumpkin pudding" and roasted pumpkins.  Colonial versions of "Thanksgiving pie" went something like this: "bear's meat, dried pumpkin, and maple sugar in a cornmeal crust."  By the early 19th century, however, what we now know as pumpkin pie was making a regular appearance on the dessert table--particularly in late November.  "The thought of keeping Thanksgiving without a pumpkin pie," wrote a correspondent to American Farmer in 1833, "is surely almost insupportable."

Ott also excels at taking us on a tour through the pumpkin's role in popular literature, from Cinderella to "Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater," all the way to Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
     About the time of the publication of Sleepy Hollow, the pumpkin first appeared in its incarnation as a jack-o’-lantern, although Halloween was not yet a part of Americans’ regular holiday calendar. The jack-o’-lantern as a folk character originated in Ireland as a trickster forced to wander the netherworld after being banned from both heaven and hell for his ornery behavior. He had nothing to do with the pumpkin at all. Americans may have merged the Irish jack-o’-lantern with legends about supernatural pumpkins, but another source lay closer to home.
     In North America, “jack-o’-lantern” (or jack-ma-lantern among African Americans in the South) was another name for the will-o’-the-wisp—an unsettling and inexplicable light emanating from a darkened forest or dense swamp. A newspaper account published in October 1830 offers a good description: “Two gentlemen saw a globe of light or fire apparently twenty feet above the ground. The light resembled a large lamp, was in constant motion, slowly traveling on a light breeze…This is the first ‘Will with a Whisp,’ or Jack o’ Lantern, of which we have had any credible information for many years.” Jack-o’-lantern personified the unknown, bewildering forces that seemingly occupied wild places. For some, it was not simply a spook. Like St. Pompion, it might lead people astray or lure them with its evil ways. “If the victim had an irresistible urge to follow the Jack-O’-Lantern,” explained one source, “it would be overcome only by ‘flinging [himself] down, shutting [his] eyes, holding [his] breath, and plugging up [his ears].’”
     By having a ghost hurl a pumpkin from the dark and sinister woods, Irving combined the pumpkin and the jack-o’-lantern legends, but the pumpkin in his story was not carved into a grinning jack-o’-lantern. One of the earliest examples of the pumpkin as jack-o’-lantern is an 1846 newspaper account called “The Jack o’Lantern,” about a young boy taking a pumpkin that a farmer did not “make any use of” and carving in it “the outline of three faces, with their eyes, and noses, and teeth.”
I've only just skimmed the surface of all the good stuff you'll find inside Ott's Pumpkin.  I highly recommend it as a book to get you fully in the mood for the season (though its pages hold up nicely at any time of year).

*     *     *

Speaking of getting into the spirit of the season, few things do it for me as well as the annual watching of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  It's all there: the pulled-away football, the World War I flying ace, Pigpen's "off-white" ghost costume, and the long vigil in the pumpkin patch.  I can almost taste those dog-lips on my apple...

As he did in his book about the Charlie Brown Christmas special, Peanuts executive producer Lee Mendelson here takes us behind the scenes in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown: The Making of a Television Classic.  In addition to the script and the music score, Mendelson includes sections on the young voice actors, the animation by Bill Melendez, and an endearing account of his decades-long friendship with Charles M. Schulz, aka "Sparky."
We were just good friends. There are only half a dozen pictures of the three of us [including Melendez] over four decades. We simply never bothered. We were having too much fun to pose for cameras.
The concept for It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown originated during a brainstorming session between creator, animator and producer shortly after the huge success of A Charlie Brown Christmas.  The television studio "suits" wanted another "guaranteed blockbuster," Mendelson tells us: "Now that we had agreed we would do the show, we needed to come up with the idea--and fast.  We were all kind of blankly staring at nothing in particular."

Mendelson, Schulz and Melendez started throwing ideas onto the table: "What about something involving all the unrequited love between Sally and Linus...?"  "How about doing something with those strips you started a few months ago...the one with Snoopy as a WWI Flying Ace?"  And then comes this exchange:
     Sparky:  When do they want this show?
     Lee:  Sometime between October and February.  Just as long as it's a blockbuster.  Ha, ha.
     Sparky:  Do you think they would go for a Halloween show?
     Lee:  I don't know.  I don't think there's ever been an animated Halloween show.  Do you want me to call them and see?
     I called the network and asked them if we could do a Halloween show.
     Network Exec:  It's up to you guys.  Just be sure it's a block--
     Lee:  (interrupting)  I'll call you back later.
     I hung up the phone before he could get in another word.
     Lee: He says it's up to us.
     Sparky:  So why don't we do something with Linus and the Great Pumpkin?
     Bill and I both jumped up and said: Yes!!!!  That's it!!!
     It was one of those moments when you know something important, creatively, has transpired.

And that, boys and girls, is how a cultural icon is born: just by tossing a few ideas against the wall and seeing if they'll stick.  There may come a day when The Great Pumpkin goes out of fashion and those simply-drawn, jazzy-scored kids start to lose their appeal.  But I don't think that's happened yet.  Every year, you'll find the faithful sitting in a pumpkin patch waiting for the appearance of a great television show.

*     *     *

In closing, I'll turn to a slightly more devious version of Halloween (though still tame by Rob Zombie standards).  Agatha Christie's Hallowe'en Party begins with the ill-fated titular gathering of children, chaperoned by the usual roster of adults with secrets behind their mask-like faces.  By the end of the second chapter, a girl has been drowned in a tub of water where earlier the children had been bobbing for apples, the small village of Woodleigh Common is in an uproar over perverted serial killers who prey on the young and innocent, and Hercule Poirot has been called in by his friend and mystery writer Ariadne Oliver (a thinly-costumed Agatha Christie) to investigate what looks like murder.  The stage is set, let the questions and prevaricating answers begin...

As with every Agatha Christie mystery, I read every sentence with scrutiny, searched every wayward gesture and tossed-away line of dialogue for clues....and, as with every Agatha Christie mystery, I was left completely stumped and baffled right up to the very end.  Hallowe'en Party, published late in Christie's career in 1969, shows no sign of the author losing her touch.  If anything, she's at her typical best here, with a conclusion that's more suspenseful than most of her books I can recall.  It helps to make it a scene of child endangerment, I suppose; but even so, Christie tightens the screws in the final pages.

The first scene, by contrast, is full of merriment and decorated with pumpkins (Great ones and little ones alike) as Ariadne and the other adults bustle about the house making party preparations (little do they know, it's about to become the scene of the murder).  Here's how the book begins:
     Mrs. Ariadne Oliver had gone with the friend with whom she was staying, Judith Butler, to help with the preparations for a children’s party which was to take place that same evening.
     At the moment it was a scene of chaotic activity. Energetic women came in and out of doors moving chairs, small tables, flower vases, and carrying large quantities of yellow pumpkins which they disposed strategically in selected spots.
     It was to be a Hallowe’en party for invited guests of an age group between ten and seventeen years old.
     Mrs. Oliver, removing herself from the main group, leant against a vacant background of wall and held up a large yellow pumpkin, looking at it critically—“The last time I saw one of these,” she said, sweeping back her grey hair from her prominent forehead, “was in the United States last year—hundreds of them. All over the house. I’ve never seen so many pumpkins. As a matter of fact,” she added thoughtfully, “I’ve never really known the difference between a pumpkin and a vegetable marrow. What’s this one?”
I'm sure Cindy Ott could tell her.  Or perhaps even Linus.

Friday Freebie: Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates and Return to Oakpine by Ron Carlson

Congratulations to Martha Gifford, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Game We Play by Susan Hope Lanier, The Freedom in American Songs by Kathleen Winter, and There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.

This week's book giveaway is a pair of novels by two of our greatest contemporary American writers: Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates and Return to Oakpine by Ron Carlson.  One lucky reader will win both books which are now out in paperback.

A young girl's disappearance rocks a community and a family in Carthage, a stirring examination of grief, faith, justice, and the atrocities of war from Joyce Carol Oates.  Zeno Mayfield's daughter has disappeared into the night, gone missing in the wilds of the Adirondacks.  But when the community of Carthage joins a father's frantic search for the girl, they discover the unlikeliest of suspects--a decorated Iraq War veteran with close ties to the Mayfield family.  As grisly evidence mounts against the troubled war hero, the family must wrestle with the possibility of having lost a daughter forever.  Carthage plunges us deep into the psyche of a wounded young corporal haunted by unspeakable acts of wartime aggression, while unraveling the story of a disaffected young girl whose exile from her family may have come long before her disappearance.  “Oates shows how perilous it is to assign guilt, and how hard it is to draw the line between victim and perpetrator in a blurred moral landscape in which every crime, on the battlefield or on the home front, is a crime of conscience.”  (New York Times Book Review)

Return to Oakpine was high on the list of best books I read last year (but, really, the same could be said for just about any year I read something by Ron Carlson).  Click here to read my full appreciation for the novel.  Here's the publisher's jacket copy synopsis to tell you a little more about the book:  Ron Carlson has always been a critics’ favorite, but Return to Oakpine shows the acclaimed writer at his finest.  In this tender and nostalgic portrait of western American life, Carlson tells the story of four middle-aged friends who once played in a band while growing up together in small-town Wyoming.  One of them, Jimmy Brand, left for New York City and became an admired novelist.  Thirty years later in 1999, he’s returned to die.  Craig Ralston and Frank Gunderson never left Oakpine; Mason Kirby, a Denver lawyer, is back on family business.  Jimmy’s arrival sends the other men’s dreams and expectations, realized and deferred, whirling to the surface.  And now that they are reunited, getting the band back together might be the most essential thing they ever do.

If you’d like a chance at winning both books, simply 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 Nov. 6, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 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, October 30, 2014

Painting Ghosts: The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill

One of the creepiest ghost stories I've ever read chilled my blood one October night some time ago.  Susan Hill's slim-as-a-stilletto novel The Man in the Picture (2008) is a quick, unsettling read, and would make a nice companion to her more recent The Mist in the Mirror (which is still on my To-Be-Read list--must do something about that!).  Here's my short review, published elseweb six years ago, which should get you in the Halloween spirit....if you're not already there.

*     *     *

In 1924, M. R. James wrote: “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely-managed crescendo.”

In her novel, The Man in the Picture, Susan Hill (The Woman in Black) mixes those ingredients with other elements of classic Gothic fiction to deliver a story that will have readers nervously avoiding art galleries.

This ghost story, easily read in one nerve-jangling sitting, begins as a man named Oliver visits his old Cambridge professor and learns the deadly secret behind an oil painting of a Venetian carnival scene.  As literary tradition dictates, the tale is spun beside a fire “one bitterly cold January night” as the wind “howled round and occasionally a burst of hail rattled against the glass.”

Like Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu and the two Jameses (M. R. and Henry), Hill knows how to carefully dole out the tension.   The horror here creeps up slowly and reaches a “nicely-managed crescendo” in its final pages.  Hill never condescends to parody—her frights are in earnest.  The smallest detail like “the faintest smell of fresh oil paint” will prickle the hairs of the reader’s scalp.

Poe would be proud.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Soup and Salad: Michel Faber's Last (?) Novel, The All Things Oz Museum, Karen Russell's Talk-Talk Solution, The Hemingwrite, Jennifer Weiner on Writers vs. Reviewers, The Writing Life in 1991, Writers' Sheds, Writing on the Rails (U.S. and French versions), Slow-and-Steady-Wins-the-Race Authors

On today's menu:

1.  “I wanted this to be the saddest thing I’d ever written,” the writer Michel Faber said over coffee last month in Midtown Manhattan, looking tired and disoriented.  That’s from an article in the New York Times in which Faber (author of Under the Skin and The Crimson Petal and the White) says his latest novel, The Book of Strange New Things, will be his last.  As a fan of The Crimson Petal and the White, I hope this isn’t true, that these are only words spoken in the emotion of the moment--which, as it turns out, come from the bottom of a well of sorrow:
     Those who work closely with Mr. Faber say that his decision to stop writing novels may be a manifestation of grief for Eva Youren, his companion of 26 years and his wife since 2004.
     “Eva was the one he wrote for, and he was blessed in having someone of her intelligence and judgment be his constant sounding board,” said Jamie Byng, the publisher of Canongate, which has published Mr. Faber’s books in Britain for 16 years. “In terms of his creative process, she was the absolute center of it.”
     Mr. Byng said that Mr. Faber’s decision to end with a novel that eulogizes his wife was fitting.
     “It’s such an extraordinary novel about grief and loss and people being forced apart, and the emotional integrity and power comes from the very heartbreaking things that he was going through when he was writing it,” he said. “If it’s the last novel that he ever writes, so be it.”

2.  The All Things Oz museum is housed in a square, green (natch!) building on Genesee Street in downtown Chittenango, New York.  “You could easily drive past the building without being aware of the cultural treasures housed inside,” Francis DiClemente writes at Narratively.  The yellow-brick sidewalks lining both sides of the street might be a giveaway, though.
Visitors to All Things Oz enter a small gift shop up front, dubbed “Baum’s Bazaar,” in reference to the name of a fine china and gift store L. Frank Baum and Maud owned in Aberdeen, South Dakota, on the western frontier. It failed, however, as Marc Baum (museum volunteer and no relation to Frank L.) explains. “People on the western frontier didn’t need china. So it was an utter failure. He always had kind of lofty aspirations and they didn’t always work out.”

And where did the name of Baum’s kingdom come from?
      One day L. Frank Baum was sitting in his parlor, telling his stories to some neighborhood children.
      “And one of the kids said, ‘Mr. Baum, Mr. Baum, what is this magical place with the Wizard and Dorothy, and where is this?’ And he said, ‘Oh it’s a magical place.’ And they said, ‘Does it have a name?’ And he said, ‘Of course it has a name.’”
      Marc Baum says the writer noticed a filing cabinet with two drawers in a nearby room. He says the top drawer was labeled “A to N” and the bottom one “O to Z.”
      “And he said, ‘Of course it’s Oz.’”

3a.  From the Dept. of Oil and Water: Karen Russell vs. Cell Phones:
“Ninety-nine percent of people have no issue using this kind of phone,” she said, holding her iPhone overhead. “Um, I can’t do it. I can’t hear or be heard. The shape of my face is either wrong, or when I smile I turn it off. And poor Adam, the first name in my phonebook, fifty times a day.”
As Nick Fuller Googins reports at The Story Prize blog, Russell’s solution is a device known as Talk-Talk (pictured above), “a bright pink cell phone plug-in made to resemble a land line handset that she found at a Portland, Oregon, gag store.”  Which reminds me....

3b.  ....I'm looking forward to checking out the Hemingwrite when it’s finally released onto the market.

4.  Should writers respond to bad reviews?  Jennifer Weiner has a few words on the subject at New Republic:  “Clearly, there are people who believe that readers and writers—at least the right kind of readers and writers—are special snowflakes, existing on a more exalted plane than mere mortals.”

5.  As Weiner notes, a lot has changed since the advent of the Internet.  At the Powell’s blog, novelist Karen Karbo (The Diamond Lane) further illuminates the differences in writers’ lives between 1991 and 2014:
      The Diamond Lane, published in May 1991, was my second novel, and what is most striking about the difference between the publishing process 23 years ago and now is not that the book was written on a Kaypro, Xeroxed at Kinko's, and sent overnight in a FedEx box to G. P. Putnam's Sons, but that after the manuscript was accepted and given a pub date, I asked my esteemed editor, "What should I do now?" and she said, "Just write the next one."
      Before I get too far down the road extolling the good old days, let me say that I'm not particularly nostalgic by nature, that Xeroxing manuscripts and sending them FedEx was a pain in the ass, as was hanging around the house waiting for your editor to call, which felt exactly like waiting for a boy to call in 8th grade; that I love my Kindle, enjoy a lively love/hate relationship with social media, admire the pioneering souls that have forged the way for quality self-publishing, and have no desire to hop in the way-back machine.
      That said, in 1991, the main job of a writer was to just write the next one. Publicity-wise, you were expected to be able to show up to a reading (arranged by your more charming publicist) and read from your own work in a manner that didn't put people to sleep. You were expected to be socially awkward, possibly unkempt, and a little wild-eyed — bonus points awarded for not being falling down drunk. After your book tour, whether large or small, you were expected to disappear into your scribe-cave.

6.  While you're getting down to the business of "just writing the next one," maybe you're doing it in a shed like the ones used by Roald Dahl, Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas, Philip Pullman, or (most famously) Henry David Thoreau.

Roald Dahl's chair, preserved right down to the ashtray with his cigarette butts.

7.  Or maybe you're doing it on a train.  Amtrak's first writer-in-residence, Bill Willingham, offers a few tips for writing on the rails:
  • Bring pajamas (there being a shared corridor between your bed and the bathroom)
  • Bring a power strip or charging outlet; there's only one outlet in the Roomette
  • Stock up on small bills (tipping is on you)
  • Bring shampoo and conditioner (soap and towels are supplied, hair stuff is not)
  • Don't put anything on the shelf above the bed that might spill on you while you're sleeping (like, say, a glass of water)

8.  Better yet, maybe your railroad writing residency is on a trip from Paris to the Côte d’Azur.  Sigh.

9.  At Huffington Post, Louise Disalvo reminds us that it's the journey, not the arrival, that matters:
When I meet with writers who want to rush through their work, so eager are they to finish, so imbued are they with the "hurriedness" of our times, I tell them what I've learned. That many famous writers work slowly. That it takes many writers five or ten years to pen their works. That when Virginia Woolf was writing To the Lighthouse, for example, she often penned no more than 460 or so words a day. Learning this -- they, too, can let themselves work slowly and take all the time they need to complete a work.
Disalvo offers up the slow-and-steady example of writers like Michael Chabon, Henry Miller, Jeffrey Eugenides, Elizabeth Gilbert and others.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Remedy for Love by Bill Roorbach

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

On the Richter scale of my book love, the needle swings wildly, scribbling in wide arcs across the paper, when it comes to Bill Roorbach's new novel The Remedy for Love.  My feelings for this book run so deep and strong that they rumble bedrock, crack the earth, topple buildings.  If you think that's some unchecked Overpraise, then just wait until you read The Remedy for Love for yourself and see if you don't feel the same way.  Seven months ago, I was lucky and privileged to read an advance copy of the book and offered up a few words on its behalf to the publisher:
Take two strangers—Eric, a small-town lawyer, and Danielle, a former schoolteacher turned homeless squatter—put them in a cabin in the Maine woods, spice it up with a little romantic tension, stir in the wreckage of past love affairs, sprinkle liberally with sharp, funny dialogue, then add the Storm of the Century which buries the cabin in huge drifts of snow, and—voila!—you've got The Remedy for Love, one of the best novels of this or any year. I'm not a doctor, but I'll be prescribing Bill Roorbach's novel to readers sick of blase, cliched love stories that follow worn-out formulas. What we have here is a flat-out funny, sexy, and poignant romantic thriller.
I meant every word when I wrote the blurb half a year ago, and I'd say the same thing if you were to ask me today.

The book trailer--handmade by the author himself--gives you a good feel for what's inside the front cover: fast-falling snow, howling winds, and the rich warmth of Roorbach's prose as he narrates the opening paragraphs of Chapter 2 when Eric makes the fateful decision to give Danielle a lift home as the storm approaches.

I can count on one hand the number of books I've re-read in my life--Catch-22, the Bible, Dombey and Son, the works of Flannery O'Connor and Raymond Carver--and now I'll add The Remedy for Love to that list (twice in one year, no less!).  I think I'll wait until the snow starts to fall (which could be any day now here in Butte, Montana)--you know, just to lend a little verisimilitude to this love story between two blizzard-bound characters.  I can feel that happy rumble starting deep inside my chest already.

Monday, October 27, 2014

My First Time: Sara Lippmann

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 Sara Lippmann, the author of the story collection Doll Palace, now out from Dock Street Press.  Leesa Cross-Smith at Sun Dog Lit says, “Lippmann is one of those authors who can get away with both seriousness and hilarity in the same sentence.”  Sara's stories have been published in The Good Men Project, Wigleaf, Slice magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland and elsewhere.  She is the recipient of a 2012 fellowship in Fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts and co-hosts the Sunday Salon at Jimmy's 43, a longstanding reading series in New York's East Village.  Click here to visit her website.  You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

My First Lucky Break,
Which Screwed Me Up Good

My first time I got lucky.

First short story I ever wrote, accepted on its first shot.

It wasn’t The New Yorker or anything.  Not even close.  Still, the quick return screwed me up good.

Oh, please, you say.  Cry me a river.

A fluke, of course, a freak occurrence.  Not remotely representative of the lit world order where rejection is the norm.  Where rejection can be the best kind of teacher.

Those of us who’ve been around have come to respect the submission process.  We’ve spilled the blood, sweat, and tears.  We’ve stumbled, detoured, gotten lost, given up, rediscovered our way.  We know there is no choice but to persevere, to put down one word then the next.

But try telling that to my twenty-five-year-old self.  Not only did I believe I was deserving of–even, entitled to–this random blip of success, I quickly adopted the delusional notion that this was how it was going to go.  This writer business, it was Cake.

It all seemed so easy.  An email blast in grad school: The Beacon Street Review (now Redivider) had an open call for submissions.  Did I have a story?  Why, yes. I had a story.  Exactly one story.  I wrote it that fall in a workshop with Darcey Steinke, my first writing instructor, my first term in graduate school.  Was it ready?  What did I know?  Ready or not, I mailed it.

It was a season of firsts.  First serious relationship, first (and only) man I’ve ever lived with.  When I received the good news I was in Florida, visiting my boyfriend (now husband) who was stationed there for a stint in medical school.

One for one!  He said.  We high fived.  We actually did that.  Slapped palms in his student housing then drove down to the Everglades and paddled a canoe around mangroves, alligators.

That summer, I’d left my charmed job at a magazine (which I’d landed after college, thanks to another stroke of serendipity), where I was paid to write about things like aphrodisiacs and Atari.  I assumed fiction would be a logical extension of that, like a freelance gig.  I even felt indignant that I wasn’t being compensated to the tune of $2/word.  Here, I thought, lay the recipe to The Writing Life: Scratch something out, fire it off, watch doors fly open, sirens sing.

When the issue was published, Emerson College invited me up to their school to do a reading at the BSR launch party.  I wore a dress and read my Lola Giter story–in character.  There were cheese cubes, warm grapes.  Wine in plastic cups.  I told myself this was fancy and grown up.

Maybe I affected modesty.  Perhaps I shrugged it off as Beginner’s Luck.  After all, this crap happens all the time.  But when the crap actually happened to me, it couldn’t have felt less arbitrary.

It felt…destined.

You know those self-congratulatory parents of angel babies who attribute their child’s sunny disposition and miraculous sleeping to their homemade organic mush and expert swaddling skills?  Until the next kid comes along, colicky and up all night?  Only then do the poor schnooks realize how little they had to do it with it, how vast the world is; how much they have to learn.

I was that schnook.

Intellectually, sure. I understood the path to publication could be pitted with potholes.

But I didn’t get it.  I thought, not me.  I sent out my second story, my third.  I didn’t wait to make sure my stories were honest or earned or necessary, urgent–much less well-told.  My sentences were empty but I was hungry for instant gratification.  One taste and I was a junkie for praise.

Entitlement is an ugly thing, particularly in young writers.  Steve Almond recently addressed this.  When the rejections started to pile up, they crushed me.  I didn’t process them for the lessons they contained.  I grew bitter.  Worse, I felt owed.  I played the toxic comparison game.  I fell into deep wells of self-pity.  There must be something wrong with me.  Or the world.  Both.

It is embarrassing to look back and admit this.

Mostly, I lacked “perversity of spirit,” a phrase I love, coined by Rufi Thorpe in the latest issue of Poets & Writers.  It was a short, fast fall from inflated sense of self to total absence of conviction.

It has taken fourteen years from that first publication for my first story collection to come out.  I have been through it, saddled by it, stuck in the muck.  Sometimes the work pays off quickly and sometimes not and sometimes it may feel like things happen or don’t without rhyme or reason, and true, some of it shakes out by chance.  Yet, the work is all we have.  It is not a race.  There are no shortcuts.  If I’ve learned anything since the fall of 2000 it is to keep my head down, pace myself for the long haul and approach the page with openness and humility.

A part of me wishes my first time had been different.  That I hadn’t been so clueless, so hasty, so ridiculously naïve.  But I am grateful for the years.  I’ve become a better writer–and hopefully, a better person–because of it.

Recently, I dug up my contributor’s copy of the BSR.  My first published story begins like this: “The night the fire alarms shook the Riverdale Home for the Aged, Lola Giter stayed in bed.”  The story must be 8,000 words.  It is about the German Jewish immigrant experience told entirely in interior monologue, as a woman contemplates her mortality, with switchbacks to past and present.  It goes on (and on and on) as the inferno rages in her mind but little happens until it ends:
She was old, true, an old woman already. But how could she be remembered with such little respect? Lola Giter threw back the covers. Pheh. She would get up.
No frosted wings or magic cranes.  No one to lift you out of your misery, to quell the indulgent fantasies, the rampant surges of self-doubt.  It is a wonky combination but writers must both must believe in themselves, in the singular value of their work, and be absolutely ruthless, unsatisfied, and self-effacing in order to ensure what is put out there is worthy of its reader.

No rejection or acceptance slip can achieve that.  That’s our work alone.  Only we can do that for ourselves.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sunday Sentence: Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie

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

Everything noticeable is worth remembering.

Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Early Thoughts on the Composition of Fobbit, With Detours into Thumb-Slicing, Car Bombs, and Tim O'Brien

Aug. 31, 2009 (Butte, Montana):  Work on Fobber [the early working title for Fobbit, before I became familiar with the common term for the "stay-back, stay-safe" soldiers who populate the Forward Operating Bases in Iraq and Afghanistan] continues apace.  I rise at 4:30 every morning, work out on the elliptical for 45 minutes, then sit down and write for anywhere between one and two hours.  Some days, it’s writing; other days, it’s just typing.  Today, I was distracted and the words had a hard time coming.  Tomorrow will be better.  Today’s total word count: 60,324.

Author at Work Rest (2009)
Sept. 5, 2009:  I made beef stew today.  While cutting the carrots, my left thumb got in the way of the knife and the blade sliced right through my nail and took off most of the tip.  Without hesitation, blood welled up, filling the sides of my cuticle and running over the meaty part of my thumb.  I turned to the sink and put it under water.  When that didn’t staunch the flow, I one-handedly grabbed a paper towel and wrapped it around the thumb.
      Ordinarily, this scenario wouldn’t be a problem, but Jean is out of town for three weeks, back in Virginia helping my parents pack their condo there and move out to Bozeman.  I pressed her speed dial on my phone.
      “I just cut the tip off my thumb!”
      “What?!  The whole whole tip or just part of it?”
      “Well, there’s still a flap hanging on.  But it’s pretty bad.  I’ve got it wrapped in a towel now, but should I put ice on it, too?”
      “I don’t know.  I guess so.”  Her voice was not burdened with sympathy.
      So, I’ve spent the rest of the day with a thumb enlarged by a paper towel rubber-banded around it.   It took nearly three hours for the bleeding to stop.  In that time, however, Jean did call back twice to ask how I was doing.

September 7, 2009:  Currently reading: The Naked and the Dead (for a lesson in how to construct Fobber) and the Library of America’s just-issued Raymond Carver: The Collected Stories (for a lesson in how to write like a motherfucking god!).
      Today’s final Fobber word count: 65,861.

Sept. 27, 2009:  Fobber progress: 78,835.  A good day today.  Wrote Gooding’s diary entries for his first trip into Iraq.

Sept. 30, 2009:  First snow.

Oct. 14, 2009:  A piss-poor Fobber day.  Got up at 4:20, as usual.  Showered right away without working out, since I have to be to work early this morning.  Got coffee, came downstairs and was immediately distracted by the Internet.  Mindless surfing for far too long drained the batteries and so I only typed (wouldn’t even qualify it as “wrote”) 51 words today.  Overall, the word count stands at 93,923.

Oct. 22, 2009:  Tim O’Brien spoke in Helena today, as part of the city’s Big Read program (they’re reading The Things They Carried).  Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger introduced O’Brien to the crowd of about 250 crammed into the basement of Carroll College’s Student Center.  Bohlinger went on and on about O’Brien’s story “On the Rainey River,” treating it as if it was memoir.  It was my understanding that even though the narrator is named “Tim O’Brien,” the story is partly (mostly?) fabrication.  But when O’Brien got up to speak, he acted as if it was all Fact, none of it Fiction.  Only at the very end of his lecture did he mention, in a toss-off line, that the character of the old man Elroy was a “composite” of many people—his father, his preacher, the townspeople, God.  Did O’Brien just want to avoid embarrassing the lieutenant governor?
      During the Q&A, someone asked O’Brien about his writing habits.  He started by saying he got up at 7:30 every day—I wanted to sneer “Lightweight!” but kept quiet.  (I’m writing this journal entry at 5:20 a.m., preparatory to diving back into Fobber after an absence of three days—much too long away from it.  Word count, by the way, is now at 98,363.)  O’Brien said his writing process is like trying to capture the contents of a dream: “You know how when you wake up, and you go into the kitchen, reach for the orange juice in the refrigerator, you’re trying to remember all those scraps of the dream you just had, but the longer you’re awake, the harder it is to remember the details?  Well, that’s how it is with me and my stories.  If I don’t write every day, then when I come back to whatever it is I’m working on, I might be able to remember the details of the plot’s action, but the passion, what drove me to write the story in the first place, is starting to dissipate.”  So, he writes every day to keep up the enthusiasm for what he’s working on.
      During the reading, O’Brien also told us about the fact that he’s what you’d call an “old father,” a man who had children late in life: he’s now 63 and has two sons, ages 4 and 6.  Recently, he caught his four-year-old peeing into the wastebasket in the bathroom.  “And this was not just any wastebasket, but a wire-mesh wastebasket—”  (much laughter from the audience)  “—and not just any old wire-mesh wastebasket, but one that was sitting on top of brand-new maroon carpeting which I myself had installed.”  (more laughter)  “Well, I raised my voice—not something I usually do—and I kept repeating over and over, ‘What are you doing?!  What are you doing?!’  I was so upset, I had to go into my study to cool down.  When I came out a hour later, I went to Sam and talked to him about it and again asked why’d he’d been peeing into the trashcan.  Eventually, he told me, ‘It’s because I have two heads, Daddy.’  ‘Two heads?’  ‘Yeah, one head said “Mommy won’t like me doing this.”  The other head said, “But it will be fun.”’”  (Cue the gales of laughter).  Later, O’Brien said he turned this incident into three or four pages of prose and that it’s the germinal seed of his next book.  “I don’t know where it will go from there—I know I want to avoid writing about Vietnam again—but I know I have to follow wherever it takes me.”

October 24, 2009:  Hit 100,000 words in Fobber today.

October 25, 2009:  While I’m typing a particular funny scene in Fobber, I get a “Breaking News” e-mail from the Washington Post.  Two suicide car bomb attacks in Baghdad.  “At least 132 people were killed and 520 wounded…The blasts, which the Interior Ministry said were carried out by suicide bombers, detonated under a pale gray sky, shattering windows more than a mile away.  Broken water mains sent water coursing through the street, strewn with debris.  Pools of water mixed with blood gathered along the curbs, ashened detritus floating on the surface.  Cars caught in traffic jams were turned into tombs, the bodies of passengers incinerated inside.  The smell of diesel mixed with the stench of burning flesh.   ‘Bodies were hurled into the air,’ said Mohammed Fadhil, a 19-year-old bystander.  ‘I saw women and children cut in half.’  He looked down at a curb smeared with blood.  ‘What's the sin that those people committed?  They are so innocent.’”
      There’s nothing particular funny about this kind of déjà vu.  I squirm while writing Fobber.  How can I make readers laugh about the U.S. in Baghdad while blasts are still cutting children in half?  I can only hope my intent is in the right place.

November 17, 2009:  Fobber word count: 122,043.  I’ve been on a roll lately.

December 9, 2009:  Been in a slump with Fobber for days, perhaps even weeks.  I’m at a point in the narrative right now—Lieutenant Colonel Strong [later, Duret] wakes up and we’re told he’s going to die that day—when the novel’s culmination is scheduled to begin.  I’m reluctant to write those scenes, however.  Instead, I’m planning to go backwards in the novel and try to insert things I’ve missed.

December 24, 2009:  Been off and on with Fobber lately.  Blame it on holiday stress, which leads to a foggy mind, which contributes to depression, which easily links to inactivity at the keyboard.  I find, however, that on the days when I tell myself to just go downstairs and write one perfect sentence, just one, that those are the days when I end up staying longer at the computer.  Maybe I don’t find “the perfect sentence,” but at least I type more than one.  Today’s word count: 134,620.

Laughter Salted With Tears: Boy With Loaded Gun by Lewis Nordan

It’s been too long since I last posted anything here about the late, great Lewis Nordan.  I try to bring him up in conversation at least once a year (more often, if I can), just to keep his flame alive.  The Funniest Writer You Never Read shuffled off this mortal coil in April 2012, and I’m still mourning his passing.  His publisher, Algonquin Books, has done a fine job of keeping the fire stoked with logs--including recently re-issuing some of his best works like Wolf Whistle and Music of the Swamp.  I was thinking about Buddy Nordan this morning as I browsed through the archive of my older, pre-Quivering Pen book reviews.  When I came across Boy With Loaded Gun, I remembered how much I enjoyed this memoir and thought I’d share it with you here.  This review, published elseweb about 14 years ago, was written long before Nordan died.  In re-reading it, my laughter is only more heavily salted with tears.

*     *     *

Behind every comic’s smile is a grimace of pain.  The laughter, the one-liners, the puns are there to mask the wounded heart, the losses, the disappointments, the self-doubts.  Don’t believe me?  Ask Lewis Nordan, he’ll tell you all about sorrow.  Then he’ll turn right around and spin a funny story to ease his marrow-deep pain.

Nordan is in a three-way race with Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor as the best American humorist alive.  We’re talking about someone who goes for the genuine, well-earned laugh.  Someone on the order of Mark Twain or Robert Benchley or James Thurber.  Smart writing that will have you rolling on the floor with laughter while you turn the pages (and most likely earn you a paper cut in the process).

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you haven’t yet discovered Lewis Nordan, then you’re leading a pretty dull life.  In the last fifteen years, he’s written seven books—three novels, three short story collections and one that was a hybrid (related stories that formed a fairly smooth narrative).  All were set in the South and most featured a young character named Sugar Mecklin (really a thin disguise for Nordan himself).  Flat-out funny, every one of them.

But between the laughter, there were moments of deep tenderness, scenes of great heartbreak, whole passages that swept me up in lyrical beauty so that I sat back and exclaimed, “Well now!  This big ball of soil we call Earth is really populated with sweetness and light after all.”  That’s the effect Nordan has on me—one minute I’m choked with laughter, the next I’ve got a lump in my throat.

Now I realize those seven books were a prelude to what is probably the book Nordan considers his most important: Boy With Loaded Gun.  The book jacket calls it “a memoir,” but I’m not inclined to believe it’s all true.  In fact, Nordan himself begins the book with a droll conversation on the subject:
      I couldn’t decide whether to call this book a Memoir or not, so I put the problem to my wife. I said, “If you were working at the Library of Congress, how would you list this one?”
      She said, “Nordan, Lewis.”
      I said, “No, I mean—”
      She said, “ISBN whatever.”
      “Fiction or Nonfiction,” I said. “It seems to fall somewhere between the two.”
      She said, “You made up your memoir?”
      “Names mostly, you know.”
      She said, “You didn’t mention my name, did you?”
      “I changed your name, I changed all the names, that’s what I’m saying.”
      “If all you changed was names—”
      “And conversations. I made up some conversations.”
      “Still—I’d say Memoir.”
      “And maybe I exaggerated some stuff too. Some of the painful stuff, death and like that.”
Needless to say, I kept my shaker of salt handy while reading Boy With Loaded Gun.  What to believe, what to disbelieve?  Well, certainly the most hilarious parts—the anecdotes of his childhood, the caricatures of the folks back in his hometown of Itta Bena, Mississippi—read like something out of his fiction.

Here’s how he describes himself as a fifth-grader:
I could fold back my eyelids and bend all my fingers at the first joint and throw both my thumbs out of joint. I lighted farts with a Zippo lighter I had won at a carnival, as boys my age crowded near to see the blue streak fly out of the seat of my pants. At the same carnival I paid a full dollar to enter a tent where a so-called flatulence artist plied his strange trade. I was astonished and impressed, even inspired, by his ability to blow out a series of candles from across the room. I wanted to be like him. Secretly I hoped his vocation might someday be mine.
His parents order the household’s first TV and he gets so excited, he dons his Superman cape, leaps off his porch and falls flat on his face.

He goes to New York City to meet the beatniks, checks into a fleabag hotel, gets up to use the shared bathroom down the hall, then discovers he’s locked himself out of the room.  Did I mention he was naked as a jaybird?

He meets his father’s first lover—a midget.

And so on, all of it funny and a little sad and wistful.

But then the tale turns dark.  There are deaths, betrayals, adulteries, more deaths, alcoholism, divorce and more adulteries.  If we are to believe that what’s on these pages is the truth—or, at least, the truth filtered through his brain’s Fiction Sieve—then Nordan is to be commended for his courage.  It is painful to watch him peel back the scab that covers all the wrong-headed things he’s done in his life.

Once the scab is gone, the healing begins.  I get the feeling that writing Boy With Loaded Gun was cathartic for Nordan, that he’d waited years to squeeze this poison out of his system.

I don’t think this is his best book (read Wolf Whistle or The Sharpshooter Blues for examples of classic Nordan).  It’s episodic and, here and there, reads like something out of a 12-step program.  It certainly won’t appeal to readers who can’t bear to watch a man destroy himself with drink and adultery.  Once the laughter fades, there is only squirming left.

But, as I said before, there are moments of throat-lump beauty between these covers.  The chapters “The Man I Killed” and “A Body in the River” especially moved me.

Through it all, there is Nordan’s distinct voice—something like a cross between William Faulkner and Lake Wobegon.  I think Boy With Loaded Gun would be most successful as an audio book—but only if read by the author himself.  I once had the pleasure of hearing Nordan read the New York City episode (the one where he gets locked out of his room, then wraps himself in toilet paper to cover his nakedness) while it was still a work-in-progress.  I only caught every other sentence.  The laughter in the room kept drowning him out.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Friday Freebie: The Game We Play by Susan Hope Lanier, The Freedom in American Songs by Kathleen Winter, and There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Congratulations to Lewis Parker and Carl Scott, winners of last week's Friday Freebie contest: The Pearl That Broke Its Shell by Nadia Hashimi, Gravity by Elizabeth Rosner, and Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante.

This week's book giveaway is a trio of short story collections: The Game We Play by Susan Hope Lanier, The Freedom in American Songs by Kathleen Winter, and There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.  One lucky reader will win all three paperbacks.  Read on for more information about the books.

The ten riveting, emotionally complex stories in The Game We Play examine the decisions we make when our choices are few and courage is costly.  Topics include a young couple facing disease and commitment with the same sharp fear, a teenager stealing from his girlfriend's mother's purse to help pay for her abortion, and a father making a split-second decision that puts his child's life at risk.  Here's some praise from Paste Magazine: “Lanier's deceptively breezy prose may pour off the page as easily as water flows from the tap, but her unassuming way with words actually requires great finesse.  Apparently fluent in the unvarnished dialect we speak in our own thoughts, Lanier adroitly avoids the trap of trying too hard to sound clever.  Instead, she relies on cutting wit, keen powers of observation, and an easily swollen heart to shine light on awkward truths in a way that renders them almost deliciously painful.  Without glamorizing youthful malaise, her flawed but endearing characters bump—and sometimes grind—against each other, leaving the kinds of bruises that turn into lingering regret and inconvenient wisdom.  In The Game We Play, Lanier manages to be understated and unflinching at the same time and strides forward with a confident, highly compassionate debut.”

In the pages of The Freedom in American Songs, you'll find some indelible characters.  Meet Xavier Boland, the untouchable cross-dresser, who walks loose and carefree as an old Broadway tune.  Meet Miss Penrice, a lost old woman forced by wartime to parent a child for the first time.  Meet a Zamboni mechanic turned funeral porteur, Madame Poirer's lapdog (and its chastity belt), a congregation of hard-singing, sex-obsessed Pentecostals, and more.  With The Freedom in American Songs, Kathleen Winter brings her unusual sensuality, lyrically rendered settings, and subversive humor to bear on a new story collection about modern loneliness, small-town gay teens, catastrophic love, and the holiness of ordinary life.  Praise for The Freedom in American Songs: “Winter’s quirky second collection offers 14 stories filled with extraordinary individuals living within artfully rendered landscapes.  The three ‘Marianne Stories,’ set in a village on the east coast of Canada, are filled with wonders and discoveries, from the beauty of splits of wood in winter to raspberries out of season.  Marianne’s visit to a Pentecostal service is a comic delight.  The second section ranges from the cross-dressing Xavier of the title story to Claire, who is visiting Florida’s Sanibel Island as a respite from the Montréal winter, to a homeless flamenco dancer, all rendered in vivid, empathetic language.”  (Jane Ciabattari, “Between the Lines,”

“Love them,­ they’ll torture you; don’t love them, ­they’ll leave you anyway.”  In the three darkly-imagined novellas of family life in There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In, both cruelty and love dominate relationships between husband and wife, mother and child.  Here a devoted mother commits a terrible crime against her own son in order to save him; an aging poet exploited by her own children struggles for survival; a young nurse fears murder at the hands of her brutal husband.  Blending horror with satire, fantasy with haunting truth, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's newly-translated tales create a cast of unlikely heroines in a carnivalesque world of extremes.  After her work was suppressed for many years, Petrushevskaya won wide recognition for capturing the experiences of everyday Russians with profound pathos and mordant wit.  Among her most famous and controversial works, these three novellas—The Time Is Night, Chocolates with Liqueur, and Among Friends—are modern classics that breathe new life into Tolstoy’s famous dictum, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Together they confirm the genius of an author with a gift for turning adversity into art.  Praise for Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: “This celebrated Russian author is so disquieting that long after Solzhenitsyn had been published in the Soviet Union, her fiction was banned—even though nothing about it screams ‘political’ or ‘dissident’ or anything else.  It just screams.”  (Elle)

If you’d like a chance at winning all three books, simply 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 Oct. 30, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 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.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Slipping Into the Skin: Down in the River by Ryan Blacketter

Down in the River
by Ryan Blacketter
Review by Christian Winn

It’s the hot end of summer when I sit down to re-read Down in the River, Ryan Blacketter’s remarkable, darkly startling and endearing debut novel.  I’m in a park abutting my own city’s river, and it’s got to be 90 degrees in the shade.  But, I’m feeling cold–the chill wrap of wet air all around me on an early winter evening as I stand amidst pines outside a café in Eugene, Oregon.

By the end of page two, it is not August in Idaho, and I am not a forty-seven-year old writer drinking iced coffee in the quiet afternoon.  I’m Lyle Rettew, and I’m sixteen, and I’m feeling lost, doomed, wishful, haunted, and still so cold.  I’m the new kid in town watching would-be friends I long to connect with mill about the café.

Then it’s on to page three, and I’m fully into Ryan Blacketter’s world once more, and so happy to be here.

Such is the power of great fiction–to be transported, to live within characters’ skin and spirits, to understand how it is to stand in that cool clutch of trees as Lyle does.  Blacketter puts me there so vividly, with tight, detailed, heartfelt passages such as this:
A far train shrieked a high note of panic. Then came the ding ding of a warning gate. The air sang with the freight passing and he heard it occasionally under the rain. When the headlights of a turning car swept the grove, trees staggering in light and shadow, he went toward the café door, hesitated, then ducked back into the trees. He didn’t want to be laughed at.
This passage is wholly indicative of the precision of language and emotion of the entirety of Down in the River, and this is what stitches artful meaning into the often macabre and shrouded plotline where Lyle, in the fractured aftermath of his twin sister’s death, endeavors to break into a mausoleum to steal a young girl’s remains.  His motives are noble, at least within his youthful sideways mind–he wants to lay this girl peacefully to rest, deliver her to her rightful grave.

Thus begins the quest at the heart of Down in the River, as Lyle successfully extracts the remains and sets off with the bones in his backpack.  Along the way Lyle endeavors to enlist Rosa, the girl he’s deeply into, to come with him on this morbid and heartbreaking quest.  Events unfurl and the dark tension rises as Lyle tries to explain to the kids he knows, the adults he is fleeing, and to himself just how right the decision really is.  He's snatching these bones in order to save this young woman’s soul, and maybe his own.

Blacketter so wonderfully describes instances of physical and emotional grace in this troubled, dim narrative, especially as Lyle and Rosa come together through all these genuine, if twisted, events.
He opened his coat to the bottleneck poking his shirt, grinning. He pulled out the Mad Dog, broke the seal, and drank. They crawled into the concrete mouth and sat down on the grass. Into the whale’s hole sprinkled a circle of snow in front of them, drawing their eyes while they ate. Then Rosa pushed herself back, leaning against the concave wall so that her head was bowed. Her moonstone earrings took the dim light into them. Her face was lost in the black, but her anxiety and fatigue drifted into him like a mist.
These startling, real, gorgeous lines made me sit up from my perch beside the river, and say, “Wow,” aloud, feeling the stark chill and longing of these kids on the run.

It’s rare to be transported so vividly and convincingly into a cold, broken world like Lyle and Rosa’s, but Blacketter does it for 208 wise, tight, beautifully dark pages.  And as Lyle’s quest unfolds with messy inevitability, I am rooting for this young man, I am living as this young man, I am learning to feel as skewed and caring as Lyle does.  And what a pleasure this is, and what great inspiration to a fellow writer the experience of Down in the River is.  I cannot recommend this novel enough.

Christian Winn is the author of Naked Me, a short story collection now out from Dock Street Press.  He lives in Boise, Idaho where he writes and teaches in the Creative Writing Department at Boise State University.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Soup and Salad: Afghanistan: Our Undescribed War, Writers and Their Day Jobs, Small Presses and Their Authors, 50 Best Films About Writers, Weird and Wonderful Bookstores

On today's menu:

1.  At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brian Castner (author of The Long Walk) wonders where he can find the poetry and fiction coming out of the war in Afghanistan:
If World War II is the Good War, Korea the Forgotten War, Vietnam the Bad War, and Iraq the New Bad War, then Afghanistan, it would seem, is the Lonely War. Or maybe the Ignored War. It is, at least, the Undescribed War.
He's got a valid point.  Two of the novels he cites, Elliot Ackerman's Green on Blue and John Renehan's The Valley, are in my To-Be-Read queue, but there are scarcely any other recent or forthcoming titles by Afghanistan veterans on my shelves.  (Two other novels by non-veterans, Wynne's War by Aaron Gwyn and The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, are also on that same TBR list.)  Castner's article is well worth the read for anyone even remotely interested in war literature.

2.  Ah, the dreaded, necessary and (occasionally) beloved Day Job.  Nearly every "working" writer has one, whether they like it or not.  I've had a few over the years: cook, dishwasher, soldier, pizza delivery driver, janitor, clerk at a video-rental store (remember those?), tutor at a community college, storage yard caretaker, and, currently, public affairs specialist for the Bureau of Land Management.  So, I can really relate to this article, which talks to writers like Catherine Lacey (Nobody is Ever Missing) and Shane Jones (Crystal Eaters), who works as "a writer/event planner/logistics person.  It's a pretty standard desk job, I think.  I answer phones and emails and print signs and banners."  Jones' advice in what to look for in a Day Job is pretty much what I'd say:
I don't want to take my work home or work extra hours. I look for a day job that pays well and doesn't tax me mentally. If you want to produce creative work look for a job that doesn't burn you out mentally and allows you to daydream a little. Bookstore clerk, parking lot attendant, late night security patrol at a college, lifeguard at the YMCA, things like that are good.

3.  Shane Jones pops up again in this feature about small presses at Poets & Writers.  Jones describes the feeling of going small with Two Dollar Radio:
      After publishing two novels with Penguin I was told by my editor that if sales didn’t increase it would be difficult to proceed with a third book. The following year was a brutal time of stagnation—e-mails to my agent on where to submit next that went unanswered, erratic editing on my book, and fits of jealously over friends’ publishing deals. I would gladly have this time mind-erased.
      I had been a fan of Two Dollar Radio for more than a year when I submitted Crystal Eaters on a Thursday afternoon. I had become frustrated being at a large literary agency and a major publishing house—an experience that at its worst resembled answering office e-mail. I occasionally felt like I was doing something wrong when it was impossible to be doing something wrong. My time spent with independent presses in the past (Publishing Genius, for example) was more akin to building a tree house in the dark by candlelight, hoping you create something to stand on. Crystal Eaters was accepted Monday morning and a contract came days later.
      What appealed to me about Two Dollar Radio was a combination of things: from its dedication to publishing outsider voices all with a cohesive aesthetic (I’m still not sure how they pull this off) to a publishing philosophy that mixes family closeness and punk aesthetics (think of a record label like Drag City). I wanted to be there. I wanted to go back to the tree-house feeling. When Eric Obenauf sent me an acceptance letter just under a thousand words long (keep in mind, this is four days after submitting a book I had sat with for more than a year) I was excited again. It felt raw and dangerous to be publishing a book like this again. Not only did Eric have a vision for Crystal Eaters (which he would help expand fifteen thousand words and cut thousands more), but there was also a close, loose, “let’s just do this” vibe. Things felt fun again, and if it doesn’t feel fun, why do it at all?
Indeed, indeed.  The rest of the article highlights presses like Red Hen Press (and author Pete Fromm), Black Balloon Publishing (and author Kevin Clouther), A Strange Object (and author Kelly Luce), and several others.

4.  Flavorwire ranks the 50 Best Films About Writers.  My favorites on the list: Manhattan, My Left Foot, The Royal Tenenbaums, Julia, Midnight in Paris, Iris, Misery, The Shining, Sunset Boulevard, Adaptation, and Barton Fink.  And, yes, there are some glaring omissions--most notably the movie that perfectly nails the relationship between writer and creation: Stranger Than Fiction.  Maybe you can think of some others they missed?

5.  Are you sitting at a desk in your windowless office cubicle (perhaps at your Day Job--see above) and wishing you could just get away from it all?  Well, I can't whisk you off to Finland or take you on a shopping spree along the Champs Elysee, but I can offer this refreshing tour of "weird and wonderful bookstores" around the world, like Atlantis Books in Greece:

I love the caption for this one: "In 2004, two Oxford students were on holiday in Santorini, got drunk and decided to open a bookshop.  Despite niggling doubts once they sobered up, after graduating they filled up a van and drove back.  They run a small printing press in the back room and have signs saying you can ‘rent a cat’ while you read."