Sunday, November 30, 2014

Sunday Sentence: "Probate" by Joyce Carol Oates

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

She had a blunt bold fist of a face.

"Probate" from Sourland by Joyce Carol Oates

Friday, November 28, 2014

Friday Freebie: Pickett’s Charge by Charles McNair, Sometimes the Wolf by Urban Waite, Three Bargains by Tania Malik, The Family Hightower by Brian Francis Slattery, and Big Little Man by Alex Tizon

Congratulations to Bart Zimmer, winner of last week's book giveaway: Electric City by Elizabeth Rosner.

This week's Black Friday Freebie is a whopper of a shelf-stuffer.  One lucky reader will win a hardcover copy of ALL the following books: Pickett’s Charge by Charles McNair, Sometimes the Wolf by Urban Waite, Three Bargains by Tania Malik, The Family Hightower by Brian Francis Slattery, and Big Little Man by Alex Tizon.  Read on for more info on the books...

Imagine Kurt Vonnegut and Ken Kesey joining forces with Shelby Foote and Margaret Mitchell to tell the last story of the American Civil War.  Welcome to Pickett’s Charge.  At 114 years old, Threadgill Pickett believes he is the only living Civil War veteran.  He bides his time at a retirement home in Mobile, Alabama, where he nurses a great vengeance over something terrible that befell him as a boy on a journey to join the Confederate army.  On a day in turbulent 1964, Threadgill’s long-dead brother, Ben, visits him with the news that one Union soldier remains alive, in faraway Bangor, Maine.  Threadgill Pickett doffs an old hat with a yellowhammer feather in its band and heads north to fight the last battle of the Civil War.  Through one improbable adventure after another, he finds himself forced to reexamine notions of valor and vengeance he has held so fiercely, so long.  Charles McNair inventively blends the historical fiction of Threadgill’s past with 1960s-influenced tall tale-telling of an epic journey north.  It’s the most ambitious Civil War fiction since Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and as sweeping as Gone with the Wind.  Pickett’s Charge is a long-awaited second novel. McNair’s first novel, Land O’ Goshen, was a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994.  Part romance, part adventure yarn, part horror story, this novel about a boy and his friend growing up in a mythical Southern town draws on the most fantastic elements in the tradition of Southern fiction.

Set in the Pacific Northwest, Sometimes the Wolf is a spellbinding story of family, violence, and unintended consequences from a startling new voice in literary suspense--the author of the highly acclaimed novels The Carrion Birds and The Terror of Living.  Sheriff Patrick Drake tried to lead an upstanding life and maintain some semblance of financial stability, until his wife grew ill and they were in danger of losing everything they'd worked for.  Single-handedly raising his family in a small mountain town, he was soon hit with money troubles, fell in with some unsavory men--and then was caught and convicted of one of the biggest crimes in local history.  Twelve years later Patrick is out on parole under the watchful eye of his son, Bobby, who just happens to be a deputy sheriff in his father's old department.  Bobby hasn't had it easy, either.  He's carried the weight of his father's guilt and forsaken his own dreams, and his marriage has suffered for it.  Yet no matter how much distance he's tried to put between himself, his father, and the past, small-town minds have long memories--and trouble isn't done with the Drakes.  Not too long after Patrick's release, a terrifying threat from his old life reappears, and this time no one will be spared.  With their searing prose, soulful characters, and rich and evocative settings, the novels of Urban Waite prove that he is a worthy heir of America's most admired masters of crime fiction, from Elmore Leonard to Cormac McCarthy to Dennis Lehane.

The San Jose Mercury News called Tania Malik's Three Bargains “an impressive first novel.”  By the banks of the River Yamuna in northern India, where rice paddies of basmati merge into fields of sugarcane, twelve-year-old Madan lives with his impoverished family in the town of Gorapur.  Madan's father works for Avtaar Singh, a powerful and controlling man who owns the largest factory in town and much of the land around it.  Madan's sharp mind and hardened determination catch Avtaar Singh's attention.  When Madan's father's misdeeds jeopardize his sister's life, Madan strikes his first bargain with Avtaar Singh to save her.  Drawn into Avtaar Singh's violent world, Madan becomes his son in every way but by blood.  Suddenly it looks as if everything will change for Madan and his family until a forbidden love affair has brutal consequences and he is forced to leave behind all that is dear to him.  On his journey toward redemption, Madan will have to bargain, once, twice, three times for his life and for the lives of those he loves.

Kirkus Reviews gave The Family Hightower a starred review, saying: “A tale dripping with blood and money in a family that's far more fun to read about than it would be to live with.  And one could fill a page with all the novel's quotable lines; 'I love you means I will bleed you dry' tops the list.  This is a splendid story filled with betrayal and disaster.”  In 1968 two boys are born into a large family, both named for their grandfather, Peter Henry Hightower.  One boy—Peter—grows up in Africa and ends up a journalist in Granada.  The other—Petey—becomes a minor criminal, first in Cleveland and then in Kiev.  In 1995, Petey runs afoul of his associates and disappears.  But the criminals, bent on revenge, track down the wrong cousin, and the Peter in Granada finds himself on the run.  He bounces from one family member to the next, piecing together his cousin's involvement in international crime while learning the truth about his family's complicated history.  Along the way, the original Peter Henry Hightower's story is revealed, until it catches up with that of his children, revealing how Peter and Petey have been living in their grandfather's shadow all along.  The novel takes a look at capitalism and organized crime in the 20th century, the legend of the self-made man, and what money can do to people.  Like Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, The Family Hightower stretches across both generations and continents, bearing the weight of family secrets and the inevitable personal toll they take on loved ones despite our best intentions.

In Big Little Man, an award-winning writer takes a groundbreaking look at the experience and psyche of the Asian American male.  Alex Tizon landed in an America that saw Asian women as sexy and Asian men as sexless.  Immigrating from the Philippines as a young boy, everything he saw and heard taught him to be ashamed of his face, his skin color, his height.  His fierce and funny observations of sex and the Asian American male include his own quest for love during college in the 1980s, a tortured tutorial on stereotypes that still make it hard for Asian men to get the girl.  Tizon writes: "I had to educate myself on my own worth.  It was a sloppy, piecemeal education, but I had to do it because no one else was going to do it for me."  And then, a transformation.  First, Tizon's growing understanding that shame is universal: that his own just happened to be about race.  Next, seismic cultural changes--from Jerry Yang's phenomenal success with Yahoo Inc., to actor Ken Watanabe's emergence in Hollywood blockbusters, to Jeremy Lin's meteoric NBA rise.  Finally, Tizon's deeply original, taboo-bending investigation turns outward, tracking the unheard stories of young Asian men today, in a landscape still complex but much changed for the Asian American man.

If you’d like a chance at winning all five 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 Dec. 4, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 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.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Bernie Brown's Library: The No-Arrangement Arrangement

Reader: Bernie Brown
Location: Townhouse in Raleigh, North Carolina
Collection size: About 250 in this bookshelf.  The same number scattered throughout the house on other shelves.
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue: Once Upon A Town by Bob Greene.  This nonfiction book tells the story of the women of North Platte, Nebraska during World War II and the thousands of troops they served at the Railroad Depot Canteen.  The canteen was funded and staffed entirely by volunteers.  They met every single troop train, every single day of every single year of the war, from five in the morning until after midnight every night feeding them what might be their last homemade meal as they made their way to the war in Europe.  The men who remember stopping there tell how in the coldest battlefields, on the darkest of nights, they shared treasured memories of that meal in that town when they were scared and leaving home, maybe never to return.  The book makes my heart sing with pride to be an American, especially a Midwesterner.
Favorite book from childhood: All The Bobbsey Twins books by Laura Lee Hope.
Guilty pleasure book: No, I Don't Want to Join a Book Club by Virginia Ironside.  Not a bestseller, not by a famous author, just a quirky book I found in a used bookshop that I reach for when I want to laugh.  It is the fictional diary of a British art school teacher as she turns sixty and retires.  She celebrates this milestone by taking a stand on all the personal things people tell her she "should" do that she doesn't want to do, among them joining a book club, learning a foreign language, and doing volunteer work.  She also shares the joys and fears of becoming a grandmother and renewing old friendships and making new ones.  It is a laugh and cry kind of book that never fails to engross me.

I replied to a post of David Abrams about bookshelf arrangement by announcing that my bookshelf had no arrangement, by arrangement.  A nice inviting jumble gives my book collection any order it might have.  He responded by suggesting I tell all in a My Library blog post.  Here goes.

My custom- built, arched, and lighted bookshelf showcases my books, DVDs, and treasured old photos.  Above the top shelf the lights shine on a framed greeting card featuring a picture of a woman whose face is hidden by the book she is reading.  A quote by Evelyn Waugh declares that any young woman who reads a novel before luncheon is committing one of the grossest sins.

Little pockets of order do exist within the greater disarray.  On the top shelf, all of Peter Mayle’s books wait to satisfy my hunger for stories of French travel, food, and wine.  Stacked willy-nilly on the left side and piled up in a second stack two shelves down are titles written and inscribed by writer friends.  David Abrams’ Fobbit is there hiding behind the arch.

But most of the other titles reside happily as next-door neighbors to unlikely companions.  Leslie Caron’s autobiography Thank Heaven snuggles up to Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods.  I like to imagine what the ballerina from Paris and the goofy guy from Iowa might talk about.  Maybe Leslie, like Bill, enjoys a cold beer, and Bill has always secretly longed to speak French.

The Great Gatsby sits shoulder-to-shoulder with A Child’s Garden of Verses.  One wonders if Jay Gatsby might have read "The Swing" to Daisy during an afternoon in Nick Carraway’s flower-bedecked bungalow.  Child-like Daisy would have been charmed.

On the third shelf down you can see a collection of miniature books.  Imagine how delighted I was when I found miniature bookends to keep them tidy.  Among the miniatures are six Little Golden Books.  Remember The Tawny, Scrawny Lion?  I am especially proud of two others, a tiny collection of Elvis pictures and trivia and a midget book of graph paper.  Why graph paper?  I can’t explain it.

The To-Be-Read stacks are the most jumbled of all.  Diane Chamberlain’s The Silent Sister, Lydia Netzer’s How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky—which, by the way, wins the award for best title ever—and Anne Barnhill’s Queen Elizabeth’s Daughter all ensure that I will be sinning (think Evelyn Waugh) in the best of company.

There are infinite possibilities that this cheerful juxtaposition of titles can produce, such is the beauty of the no-arrangement arrangement.  The best thing about it is that if books have no set order then they are never out-of-order and never have to be straightened up.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: Some Luck by Jane Smiley

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

In this week of Thanksgiving, I'm giving thanks that, within the next six months, we'll have not one, but two new Jane Smiley novels in our hands.  Some Luck, which came out last month, is the first in a planned trilogy called "The Last Hundred Years."  The next volume in the series, Early Warning, is scheduled to be released in May.  These are family sagas in the true sense of the word--rich and detailed genealogies of one American family, the Langdons, who live in central Iowa.  The Langdons are a farm family--"I wouldn't say they're prosperous, but they're getting by," Smiley tells us in this beautifully-produced trailer for Some Luck.  The first novel follows the fortunes and misfortunes of patriarch Walter and all his offspring in the years 1920 to 1953; Early Warning continues the story through 1986.  "They're enfolded into the history they live through," Smiley says.  I myself can't wait to be folded into the dirt of the Langdon family and I look forward to reading more about them in the coming years.  First up, however, is the Smiley novel on my Essentials list: A Thousand Acres.  Yes, I have some catching up to do...  (P.S.  Every time, I start to get stressed about the height and depth of my Essentials reading pile, I'll just go back to the very kind and wise comment Ms. Smiley left on my Facebook post about the list: "When you live in an age of wonderful writing, as we do, you can't read everything, and you must pray for reincarnation as a librarian."  I love that sentiment so much, I might just cross-stitch it and frame it for my office wall...or, at the very least, put it on a T-shirt.)

Monday, November 24, 2014

My First Time: Elizabeth Rosner

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Elizabeth Rosner, a bestselling novelist, poet, and essayist living in Berkeley, California.  Her third novel, Electric City, and her full-length poetry collection, Gravity, were both published last month.  Her first novel, The Speed of Light, was translated into nine languages.  Short-listed for the Prix Femina, the book won several literary prizes in both the U.S. and Europe, including the Prix France Bleu Gironde; the Great Lakes Colleges Award for New Fiction; and Hadassah Magazine's Ribalow Prize, judged by Elie Wiesel.  The Speed of Light was optioned by actress Gillian Anderson, who will be making the film her directorial debut.  Blue Nude, Rosner's second novel, was named one of the best books of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle. Her essays have appeared in the NY Times Magazine, Elle, Hadassah Magazine, and several anthologies.  You can find Elizabeth on Facebook, Twitter, and at her own website.

My First Editor

I want to talk about the relationship I have with my current editor who was also my first editor and also my second editor.  In other words, he is My Editor.  Otherwise known as The Person Who Makes Me a Better Writer.

The story begins like this....

Executive Editor Daniel Smetanka bought my novel The Speed of Light for Ballantine Books (Random House) in the spring of 2000, and the contract included my yet-to-be-written second novel too, the one that would eventually be published in 2006, entitled Blue Nude.  I still have the yellow legal pad on which I scribbled the words “two book deal,” while gripping the telephone with my agent on the line and trying to keep from falling out of my chair.  At the time, I had no coherent idea what any of it really meant, only that a very large publisher in New York City was about to pay an astonishing sum of money so that they could launch my first novel, my career, my future.  The Speed of Light was scheduled for publication in September 2001, and all the way up until September 10, 2001, I was caught up in one of the most ecstatic periods of my life.

Meanwhile, back in April 2000, I flew to NYC to meet Dan in person.  I’ll never forget sitting together at a conference table on some double-digit floor of a Midtown Manhattan high-rise, discussing our collaborative plans for the summer.  During our very first phone conversation in late March, it had become immediately clear to me that I could trust Dan’s impressions about what was already succeeding in the novel and what still needed to be improved upon.  Though I’d nervously imagined work with an editor to be intimidating and even discouraging at times, my experience with Dan turned out to be respectful, insightful, generous and inspiring.  We laughed a lot, too.  I felt as though I’d been granted a wish I didn’t even know how to ask for.

During the many months of back-and-forth by phone and email, Dan and I traded ideas about the novel in its largest sense--themes and structure, character arcs and storylines.  And by the time we achieved a completed final draft, I could have sworn we had considered each word of the manuscript at least once; the same goes for each phrase, sentence, paragraph.  The experience was exhausting and exhilarating, a challenge and a privilege.  I had spent ten years writing the manuscript before it ever reached Dan’s desk, but now I knew the novel was closer to my ideal vision than I could have managed on my own.

Fast forward to now, October 2014, and the publication of my third novel, Electric City.  My editor?  Dan Smetanka, of course, now with Counterpoint Press in my very own town of Berkeley, California.  Coincidence?  Not on your life.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday Sentence: "Crossing the Indian Ocean" by Meena Alexander

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

Sometimes the syllables of poetry well up, waves on the surface of the sea, and they burst as flying fish might, struck by light.

"Crossing the Indian Ocean" by Meena Alexander
from Short, edited by Alan Ziegler

Saturday, November 22, 2014

My 5-Year Reading Plan: The Essentials List

This is the one where I expose myself as a two-faced liar.

For far too long, I've stood at the fringes of conversation at parties, nodding along as if I've actually read Ulysses (or A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, or The Phantom Tollbooth, or whatever).  I've gone to book festivals and looked fellow authors in the eye--without blinking--and wordlessly pretended I've read their books.  I have prevaricated, fumbled, mumbled and bumbled my way through this reading life, chanting a mantra to myself and others, "No, I haven't read that--yet."  Or, "Someday soon, I intend to pull it off the shelf."  Or that stalwart stand-by: "It's in my TBR pile."

The time has come, my friends, to topple that To-Be-Read stack and stop fooling myself that I'll eventually get around to tackling my literary bucket list.  "Someday" is today.  Or, more accurately, January 1.

Starting in 2015, I, David Abrams, being of sound mind and semi-healthy body, hereby resolve to begin a five-year reading plan in which I finish as many books on my "someday I'll get around to it" list.  I've spent the better part of this week going through my bookshelves, my e-books, and my To-Be-Read stack (mine is so long, I keep it stored in a Word document on my computer.  Nineteen single-spaced pages).  I've picked, I've culled, I've winnowed.  The list is now down to a barely-manageable 200 books.  It's an eclectic list, with representatives from not only the standard canon, but more-recent books which I've added to the TBR roster in the past few months.  So, you'll find Balzac rubbing elbows with Sean Vestal's Godforsaken Idaho (this year's winner of the PEN/Robert W. Birmingham Prize) and Tao Lin neighboring Sinclair Lewis.

Will I finish them all in five years?  Probably not.  Will I eventually abandon this scheme (like I did The Biography Project) and continue my regular habit of reading the next Bright, Shiny New Thing which comes my way?  Perhaps (but I hope not).

I'll admit I'm driven partly by a deadline of mortality.  I'm on the downhill side of 50 and the clock is ticking.  I mean, do I really want to die without having read Everything Is Illuminated?  Do I want the coffin to close, wishing I'd had a taste of Trollope?  Bottom line: I want to finish the bucket list before I kick the bucket.

But I'm also motivated by a sense of excitement--like an explorer who's heard about the jungle all his life and is now about to step behind the curtain of leaves.  After assembling the 200-volume list, my anticipation has grown even further.  The cream of literature's crop awaits me!

I still haven't decided how I'll approach the list: will I do it alphabetically or will I cherry pick at random?  Or will it be a combination of the two?  I'm leaning toward the latter.  In addition, I'm not going to completely set aside the "regular" To-Be-Read roll call.  There are just too many intriguing titles on that 19-page list (and more new books arriving every week) for me to kid myself that I won't be tempted to read the new Stephen King or crack open that debut novel by the next promising young writer.  So, the plan is to dip back into the long-standing TBR pool every third book or so.  That way, I can read both Portnoy's Complaint and the Most-Buzzed-About Book of 2017.

At the risk of embarrassing myself ("What?!  You've never read A Separate Peace?!"), I'm going to post The List here, baring my breast for the slings and arrows of your mockery and tsk-tsks.  But I also hope it will spur you to take a look at your own Someday-I'll-Read-That roster and that you, too, will organize your own reading plan.

To all the still-living authors on here (many of whom are my friends, Facebook and otherwise), I'm coming clean: No, I haven't read your book....but I've always wanted to.  If I've ever lied to you--either directly or by inference--I apologize.  (And if you don't see your name on here, it probably just means it's on the other TBR list.)  Bear in mind that I only got around to reading Anthony Doerr, Lolita, and Donna Tartt this year after they'd been decade-long residents of the neglected and undusted Someday Shelf.

To my fellow readers out there: I'm open to suggestions for alternate books by these authors.  I'm pretty solid on most of my choices (Bird by Bird, for instance), but if you think there's a better book than the one I have listed, please feel free to let me know.

One other thing to note: There are a few authors on here whose books I have read (hello, James Joyce) but want to read another more seminal work in their oeuvre (I'm lookin' at you, Ulysses).  I've marked those authors with an asterisk.

The Essentials List
Abbott, Megan: The Fever
Atwood, Margaret: Alias Grace
Atkinson, Kate: Life After Life
Babel, Isaac: The Complete Works
Baldwin, James: Go Tell It On the Mountain
Balzac, Honore de: Pere Goriot
Barrie, J. M.: Peter Pan
*Beattie, Ann: Chilly Scenes of Winter
Bell, Matt: In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods
Bergman, Megan Mayhew: Birds of a Lesser Paradise
Bohjalian, Chris: The Night Strangers
Boyle, T. C.: The Road to Wellville
Bradbury, Ray: Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales
Bronte, Charlotte: Jane Eyre
Bryson, Bill: One Summer
Burke, James Lee: Bitterroot
Butler, Robert Olen: A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain
Byatt, A. S.: Possession
Canty, Kevin: A Stranger in This World
Carroll, Lewis: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass
*Cather, Willa: Death Comes for the Archbishop
Chandler, Raymond: The Big Sleep
Chaon, Dan: Among the Missing
Chesterton, G. K.: The Complete Father Brown Stories
Collins, Wilkie: The Woman in White
Colwin, Laurie: Shine On, Bright and Dangerous Object
Crane, Stephen: The Red Badge of Courage
Cunningham, Michael: The Hours
Danielewski, Mark Z.: House of Leaves
Davis, Lydia: The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
DeWitt, Patrick: The Sisters Brothers
*Dillard, Annie: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Donoghue, Emma: Room
Dreiser, Theodore: An American Tragedy
Dufresne, John: Louisiana Power and Light
Egan, Jennifer: A Visit From the Goon Squad
Eggers, Dave: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Ellis, Bret Easton: Less Than Zero
Ellroy, James: The Black Dahlia
Emerson, Ralph Waldo: Nature and Selected Essays
Englander, Nathan: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank
Eugenides, Jeffrey: The Virgin Suicides
Falco, Edward: Sabbath Night in the Church of the Piranha
Ferber, Edna: Come and Get It
Ferrante, Elena: My Brilliant Friend
Fielding, Henry: Tom Jones
Finkel, David: Thank You For Your Service
Foer, Jonathan Safran: Everything is Illuminated
Follett, Ken: The Pillars of the Earth
Forester, C. S.: Beat to Quarters
Forster, E. M.: Howards End
Fowles, John: The French Lieutenant’s Woman
Frangello, Gina: A Life in Men
Frank, Anne: The Diary of Anne Frank
*Fromm, Pete: Indian Creek Chronicles
Gaddis, William: J R
Gaitskill, Mary: Bad Behavior
Galvin, James: The Meadow
Gay, William: The Long Home
Gilbert, Elizabeth: Eat, Pray, Love
Gold, Glen David: Sunnyside
Golding, William: Lord of the Flies
Gloss, Molly: Wild Life
Gogol, Nikolai: Dead Souls
Goolrick, Robert: Heading Out to Wonderful
Gordon, Jaimy: Lord of Misrule
Graham, Kenneth: The Wind in the Willows
Greene, Graham: The Power and the Glory
Grey, Zane: Riders of the Purple Sage
The Annotated Brothers Grimm
Grodstein, Lauren: A Friend of the Family
Groff, Lauren: The Monsters of Templeton
Gurganus, Allan: Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
Guthrie, A. B.: The Big Sky
Gwyn, Aaron: Wynne’s War
Haddon, Mark: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Hall, Brian: I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company
Hamid, Mohsin: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Hammett, Dashiell: Red Harvest
Hannah, Barry: Long, Last, Happy
Harding, Paul: Tinkers
Hardy, Thomas: The Mayor of Casterbridge
Harrison, Kathryn: Poison
Haruf, Kent: Plainsong
Hasek, Jaroslav: The Good Soldier Svejk
*Hawthorne, Nathaniel: The Blithedale Romance
Helprin, Mark: A Soldier of the Great War
Hemon, Aleksandar: Nowhere Man
Hempel, Amy: The Collected Stories
Henley, Patricia: Friday Night at the Silver Star
Herr, Michael: Dispatches
Hiaasen, Carl: Double Whammy
Hillenbrand, Laura: Unbroken
Hilton, James: Good-Bye, Mr. Chips
Hornby, Nick: About a Boy
Houston, Pam: Cowboys Are My Weakness
Huxley, Aldous: Brave New World
Ishiguro, Kazuo: Never Let Me Go
Jin, Ha: Waiting
*Johnson, Denis: Jesus’ Son
Jones, Edward: The Known World
Jones, James: From Here to Eternity
Joyce, Graham: The Silent Land
*Joyce, James: Ulysses
Julavits, Heidi: The Mineral Palace
July, Miranda: No one belongs here more than you.
Kane, Jessica Francis: This Close
Karr, Mary: The Liar’s Club
Kesey, Ken: Sometimes a Great Notion
King, Owen: Double Feature
Kipling, Rudyard: Kim
Knausgaard, Karl Ove: My Struggle, Book 1
Knowles, John: A Separate Peace
Koryta, Michael: Those Who Wish Me Dead
Lamb, Wally: She’s Come Undone
Lamott, Anne: Bird by Bird
Larson, Erik: The Devil in the White City
LaValle, Victor: The Devil in Silver
Le Carre, John: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
Lethem, Jonathan: The Fortress of Solitude
Lewis, Sinclair: Main Street
Lin, Tao: Tai Pei
Lipsyte, Sam: The Ask
Maguire, Gregory: Wicked
Mandel, Emily St. John: Station Eleven
Mann, Thomas: Death in Venice
Mantel, Hilary: Wolf Hall
Martel, Yann: Life of Pi
Maugham, W. Somerset: Of Human Bondage
Maxwell, William: So Long, See You Tomorrow
McCann, Colum: Let the Great World Spin
McCorkle, Jill: The Cheer Leader
McCullers, Carson: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
McInerney, Jay: Bright Lights, Big City
*McMurtry, Larry: Lonesome Dove
McNamer, Deirdre: Red Rover
Meloy, Maile: Half in Love
Minor, Kyle: Praying Drunk
Montgomery, L. M.: Anne of Green Gables
Moody, Rick: The Ice Storm
Moore, Christopher: Fluke
Nesbo, Jo: The Bat
O’Brian, Patrick: Master and Commander
Offutt, Chris: Out of the Woods
O’Hara, John: Appointment in Samarra
Orlean, Susan: Rin Tin Tin
Orwell, George: 1984
Palahniuk, Chuck: Fight Club
Parker, Dorothy: The Portable Dorothy Parker
Patchett, Ann: Bel Canto
Pearlman, Edith: Binocular Vision
Perrotta, Tom: Little Children
Picoult, Jodi: The Tenth Circle
Pollock, Donald Ray: The Devil All the Time
Porter, Katherine Anne: Collected Stories and Other Writings
Portis, Charles: The Dog of the South
Price, Reynolds: Kate Vaiden
Price, Richard: Freedomland
Proust, Marcel: Swann’s Way
Pushkin, Alexander: Eugene Onegin
Pym, Barbara: Excellent Women
Reid, Van: Cordelia Underwood
Robbins, Tom: Another Roadside Attraction
Robinson, Marilynne: Housekeeping
Roth, Philip: Portnoy’s Complaint
Savage, Thomas: The Power of the Dog
Scott, Sir Walter: Rob Roy
Sedaris, David: Me Talk Pretty One Day
Shepard, Jim: You Think That’s Bad
Shteyngart, Gary: Super Sad True Love Story
Smiley, Jane: A Thousand Acres
Smith, Zadie: White Teeth
St. Aubyn, Edward: Never Mind
Stendhal: Red and Black
Strayed, Cheryl: Wild
*Theroux, Paul: The Mosquito Coast
Thompson, Hunter S.: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Thompson, Jean: The Year We Left Home
Toole, John Kennedy: A Confederacy of Dunces
Trevor, William: The Collected Stories
Trollope, Anthony: The Way We Live Now
Tropper, Jonathan: One Last Thing Before I Go
Turow, Scott: Presumed Innocent
Tyler, Anne: Breathing Lessons
Van den Berg, Laura: What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us
Vann, David: Caribou Island
Vestal, Shawn: Godforsaken Idaho
Vidal, Gore: Lincoln
Vollmann, William T.: Europe Central
Waters, Sarah: The Paying Guests
Watkins, Claire Vaye: Battleborn
Waugh, Evelyn: Brideshead Revisited
Welch, James: Winter in the Blood
*Wells, H. G.: The Invisible Man
Whitehead, Colson: Zone One
Williams, John: Stoner
Williams, Joy: The Quick and the Dead
Wodehouse, P. G.: The Old Reliable
Woodrell, Daniel: The Maid’s Version
Yarbrough, Steve: Visible Spirits

Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Freebie: Electric City by Elizabeth Rosner

Congratulations to Christine Neuman, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: a signed copy of Robin Black's debut novel, Life Drawing.

This week's book giveaway is Electric City by Elizabeth Rosner.  One lucky reader will win a hardcover edition of this new novel by the author of The Speed of Light, Gravity, and Blue Nude.  (And do you love that cover design as much as I do?)

Here's a little more about the book from the publisher: Upstate New York, at the confluence of the great Hudson River and its mighty tributary the Mohawk —from this stunning landscape came the creation of a new world of science.  In 1887, Thomas Edison moved his Edison Machine Works here and in 1892, it became the headquarters of a major manufacturing company, giving the town its nickname: Electric City.  The peak of Autumn, 1919: The pull of scientific discovery brings Charles Proteus Steimetz, a brilliant mathematician and recent arrival from Ellis Island, to town.  His ability to capture lightning in a bottle earns him the title “Wizard of Electric City.”  Barely four feet tall with a deeply curving spine, Steinmetz’s physical deformity belies his great intellect.  Allied with his Mohawk friend Joseph Longboat and his adopted eleven-year-old granddaughter Midget, the advancements he makes in Electric City will, quite simply, change the world.  The peak of Autumn, 1965: Sophie Levine, the daughter of a company man, one of the many scientists working at The Company, whose electric logo can be seen from everywhere in town.  Her family escaped Europe just before World War II, leaving behind a wake of annihilation and persecution.  Ensconced in Electric City, Sophie is coming of age just as the town is gasping its last breaths.  The town, and America as a whole, is on the cusp of great instability: blackouts, social unrest over Vietnam, and soon the advent of the seventies.  Into her orbit drifts Henry Van Curler, the favored son of one of Electric City’s founding Dutch families, as well as Martin Longboat, grandson of Joseph Longboat.  This new generation of Electric City will face both the history of their town and their own uncertain future, struggling to bridge the gap between the old world and the new.  Electric City is a vital, pulsing, epic novel of America, of its great scientific ingenuity and its emotional ambition; one that frames the birth and evolution of its towns against the struggles of its indigenous tribes, the immigrant experience, a country divided, and the technological advancements that ushered in the modern world.

Here's some nice blurbworthiness from Caroline Leavitt (author of Pictures of You): "A heady mix of world-changing history (Thomas Edison and Charles Steinmetz) coupled against a bewitching love triangle ignites Rosner's gorgeously written exploration of the way inventions transform cities, hearts, and lives, sometimes with a terrible cost, and the way light nudges inroads in the darkness.  Electrifyingly original."

If you’d like a chance at winning Electric City, 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. 27, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 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.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Phil Klay wins National Book Award

“I can’t think of a more important conversation to be having....War is too strange to be processed alone.”

~Phil Klay

Congratulations, Phil, on winning the National Book Award for Redeployment, and for continuing the national conversation in such a thoughtful and deeply-moving way.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ed Lahey: Butte's Underground Poet

When I was invited to contribute to a new anthology of essays about Montana poets, I knew exactly who I wanted to write about.  While other contributors to These Living Songs: Reading Montana Poetry wrote about Big Sky poetry legends like Richard Hugo, James Welch, Lowell Jaeger, Melissa Kwasny, Roger Dunsmore and Tami Haaland, I chose a big bear of a man whose hands were once creased black with dirt and whose poems had the lung-rattle of silica dust: Butte native Ed Lahey.

“Ed who?” many of you are asking--even those of you who are well-versed in Montana verse.  Don't worry, I myself hadn't heard of Lahey before I moved to the Mining City in early 2009 (and even then, he was hardly a household name here in Butte).  It was only after his death two years later that I cracked open his collected poem, Birds of a Feather, and realized that if he wasn't well-known, then by God, I'd try to do something about that, in my own small way.

That's why I was thrilled to be asked by editors Lisa Simon and Brady Harrison to come up with something for this new anthology, now out from University of Montana Press.  Here's an excerpt from what I wrote:

I stand at the edge of the Alice Pit, a dry, abandoned hole in the hill above Butte.  Someone with high hopes once dug here, the first open pit mine in Butte.  Someone with mineral lust once scooped away the soil, ears ringing with the bells of a thousand cash registers.  The Alice only lasted five years before shutting down, the failed dreams blowing away in the wind that knifes its way from Walkerville down to Butte.  Now it’s been reclaimed, a bowl of green, terraced like the seats in a football stadium.

I linger at the lip of the hole on a late April day.  The wind at my back wants to push me into the pit, tumble me down the green scar of earth.

I’ve come here as a sort of personal eulogy to Butte’s unofficial poet laureate who, I just learned, has died in an assisted-living home up in Missoula.  Staring at a hole in the ground seems a fitting tribute to Ed Lahey.  His, after all, was the voice of the miner—one in a long tradition of writers in Montana who made mining central to their work.  Men like novelist Myron Brinig who described Butte as “a gaudy scramble of races and creeds” in his autobiographical novel Singermann, published in 1919.  In “The Idealist,” published in The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology, Butte poet Berton Braley unapologetically defends his mining town against its detractors:
Ugly and bleak? Well, maybe,
But my eyes have learned to find
The beauty of truth, not substance,
The beauty that lies behind.
Lahey also scratched beneath the copper-rich surface of Butte, but what he found was less beautiful than Braley’s greeting-card vision.

Lahey’s poem “The Beauty and the Beast,” from his 2005 collection, Birds of a Feather, growls in my ear as I stare at the Alice: “empty as a starling’s song . . . / a small acidic lake / above the wounded town.”  Lahey was keenly attuned to the sensitivity of Butte.  Despite their reputation for living in a rough-and-tumble town, residents of the Mining City rarely stop thinking about these lakes of poison, poised to tip and spill across the already-wounded town (fittingly renamed “Poisonville” by Dashiell Hammett in his 1929 private-eye novel Red Harvest).  Those lines from “The Beauty and the Beast” serve as both lament and warning.

Lahey was an artist who found commonplace beauty in the wreckage of a town like Butte.  Read his poems closely and you’ll discover a man torn between celebrating the town’s decadent past and wryly, ruefully mourning what it has become.

Look, for instance, at one of his most celebrated poems, “The Ballad of the Board of Trade Bar.”  The bar is gone now—a parking lot next to the old city hall marks its place like a missing tooth in a mouth that used to smile—but for the space of Lahey’s poem, it comes alive again with the kind of verbal energy typical of his other work.

“The Ballad of the Board of Trade Bar” centers around a prostitute named Coal Oil Belle who “was a red lamp legend / in a brown town.”  Each night as the shift-change whistle echoed around town (aurally illustrated in Lahey’s internal rhyme), Belle could be found “behind a smelter stack,” plying her trade.

Belle is literally a colorful figure in Lahey’s “brown town”; the color red is mentioned twice and then there’s the silver-lined coffin in which she’s buried.  In his poem, Lahey buries her “beneath a smoking torch”—which could refer to the lovelorn torch her customers still carry for her, but more tellingly points to the smoldering smelter stacks of the dozens of mines dotting Butte’s landscape.  “In a town of misery,” Lahey writes, “one needs sentimental history.”

He saves his most bitter sentiment for the final stanza where Belle gets the last laugh.  There she is in her silver coffin, “ten pounds of bone” residing in the mineral-rich earth for which Butte was known.  “[W]hen the whistles blow,” Lahey supposes, “her earless sockets listen” and her hips still move in sexual rhythm “to the pocket sound / of a lover’s jingle.”  It’s a marvelous marriage of earthy sexuality and criticism of the crass materialism (silver coins jingling in a pocket) that was rampant in Butte.

Lahey had an unmistakable love/hate relationship with his hometown.  It is, as he writes in “Deep Bells,” a “city of tired miners.”  It is also a city of “mystic mountains, blue sky, that / furls around the town, still as hesitant air.”  Butte is ugly, Butte is beautiful, and it works its way into your soul like coal dust into the seams of your palms.  It is a stoic place, “a place of private / struggle.”

Ed Lahey had a voice deep as dynamite.  At his readings, he hardly needed a microphone, his words rumbling out of his 6’5” frame—grizzly bear dimensions—and setting the chairs to buzzing.  He filled a room with his voice, his demeanor, his words.

I once heard someone say, “When I listened to him read, it was like hearing the resonance of the earth.”  And yet, he never rose as large as he should have on Montana’s literary map.

After Lahey died on April 27, 2011—two days before I walked to the edge of the Alice Pit—it took more than a week for his obituary to appear in the local Butte newspaper, and even then his passing didn’t so much as raise a ripple on the toxic waters of the city’s Berkeley Pit (“twenty billion gallons and rising,” he writes in his poem “A Note From the Third World”).  Lahey, the son of a miner and a former worker in Butte’s Swiss-cheese network of mines, struggled for popular recognition during his life and, it seems, even after death.

By contrast, there was a much louder and more public mourning two hours up the interstate in Missoula where some of Lahey’s closest friends— mostly writers and artists—reeled in shock and sadness at news of his death.  He’d been ill for quite some time—a broken man at the end of what even he called a heartbreak life—but still it was hard to believe he was gone.

“He had the most beautiful and large soul and it spilled over into our lives,” said Sheryl Noethe, then Montana’s poet laureate.

Lahey wrote raw-nerve poems of blue-collar life, but his work went largely unchampioned by that very laboring class.  He often stands in the shadow of his contemporary and mentor, Richard Hugo, but the two poets share similar themes in the concentration of their work: the dim drink-stained bar, the bruised knuckles from a fistfight, the comfort of a prostitute’s bed.

Lahey’s poem “In My Three Act Dream” describes how comfort is sought in drink (“good corn bourbon / smoking my liver”) and women (“my green-eyed girl with the apple breasts”).  In Lahey’s Butte, prostitutes like Coal Oil Belle earn their wages behind smelter stacks, offering themselves under the neon blaze of Butte’s uptown district, debasing themselves for underground men, but when the end comes they’re buried in $2,000 engraved coffins lined with silver.

In its glory days, above-ground Butte was a bustling hive of commerce and culture with a peak population of 100,000 in the early 1900s, making it the largest city between Minneapolis and Seattle.  Bars and brothels thrived, restaurants never closed, and Charlie Chaplin and Sarah Bernhardt lit up the theater stages.  But below the surface, it was a dark dank world where timbers groaned, the ground shuddered, compressors moaned, drills chattered, and a miner’s cough was full of “silicotic glitter” (“A Letter to the Editor”).  The bipolar city was rough and the poet tumbled with the best of them.

“The town has grown into my nervous system,” Lahey told a reporter in 2005.  “Sometimes I feel like a hostage in a war, but I am glad, too.”  The wind at the Alice Pit stabs me in the back and I head down off the hill to my house on the Flats where I open the paper (the Missoula paper) and read Lahey’s obituary in that day’s edition.
MISSOULA – Edward Thomas Lahey was born in Butte on July 8, 1936, to Edward and Frances Lahey, and grew up in a successful and colorful mining family, the youngest of two. He died on Wednesday, April 27, 2011, in Missoula....After achieving a Master of Arts in English from the University of Montana, Ed went on to teach American literature (and was a member of Richard Hugo’s poetry workshop). He left teaching in the late 1960s, and devoted the remainder of his life to his work. His first book of poetry, The Blind Horses, won the first Montana Arts Council First Book Award in 1979. Clark City Press published a complete collection of Ed’s poetry, Birds of a Feather in 2005. In 2008, he received the Montana Arts Council Governor’s Arts award for his lifetime work. Later in 2008, his semi-fictional memoir, The Thin Air Gang was published. 
I read how he grew up in a house on Aluminum Street, not far from the Travona Mine; how he went to work as a teenager and got paid $10 a day to crawl into manganese gondola cars with a five-pound sledge and clear out the dusty residue; how he would later sit in the Silver Dollar Saloon and read his poems to the half-stoned (and, no doubt, sometimes all-stoned) patrons—poems which sang like theme songs from a jukebox, songs about labor and corporate greed and the cynicism of easy, early death.

Mines are merciless and so were the mining companies who poisoned the Richest Hill on Earth while also lining their corporate pockets with copper.  Lahey burned with anger at the way Butte workers were treated and that boiled over into his stanzas.  In one of my favorite poems, “A Different Price,” he writes:
a bull gear caught Haggerty’s hand,
slick iron on a wet day.
I heard him speak to it.
“Whoa,” he said.
It cut his hand off anyway.
The mine doesn’t care.  It has callous disregard for its workers.  They are meat in its machine.  Lahey knew this, he lived it, and he wrote sympathetically of those who were caught in the cogs—both literal and metaphoric.  As his poem “In My Three Act Dream” tells us, “payday’s just a shack / at the edge of the great pit’s lip.”

Postscript:  Lahey's good friend, fellow poet Mark Gibbons, writes movingly of a visit he paid to E. L. in his last days in a nursing home.  Take a look at “The King of Poetry” on Gibbons' website--then be sure to check out his other books of poetry, including Forgotten Dreams and Shadowboxing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

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

      I've only met Joseph Kanon once--at a book festival in Palm Springs, California (which is either a city with a golf course problem or a golf course with a city problem)--but we instantly bonded and became good friends.  Or maybe that's just me; if you stopped him on the street today and showed him my picture, he probably wouldn't have the faintest idea who I was.  But for one evening in Palm Springs, it felt like we were BFFs.  Mr. Kanon (“Oh, please!  Call me Joe!”) is such a genial, loquacious personality that I was immediately drawn in and put at ease by his sincerity and warmth.  Mr. Kan--Joe and I shared tiny plates of food during an evening party at the Sunnylands estate after a book reading which was part of the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival.  Owned by Walter Annenberg, a philanthropist, ambassador and publisher (he founded both TV Guide and Seventeen), the palatial Sunnylands is informally known as the Presidential Retreat.  Most of the Republican presidents since Nixon have slept there.  The Annenbergs died years ago, so it was okay for President Obama to sleep overnight there a few months before Joe and I attended the dinner party.  There’s a mid-size room just off the master bedroom where the flat surface of every piece of furniture is crowded with framed photos of the Annenbergs shaking hands with Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II.  Another whole wall is devoted solely to Christmas cards from Queen Elizabeth (there must have been at least 40 of them).  When I wandered out to the terrace, lit by gas-fed tiki torches, I found tables mounded with food: five kinds of cheese, artisanal ham, lamb chops, berries, arugula salad.  Serving staff circulated with trays of canap├ęs and hors d’ouevres: “Would you like an herb shrimp crostini with mango salsa, sir?”  I stood at one of the small, chest-high tables, forking down salad, gulping white wine and starting to hyperventilate like a fish out of water.  I've never been good at social settings; cocktail parties give me the prickly hives.  But then my nervous solitude was interrupted by a “May we join you?”  I glanced up from my lollipop-sized lamb chop to see a tall, distinguished-looking gentlemen and his wife holding drinks and plates of food in their hands.  “Certainly!” I said.  He set down his plate, extended his hand, and said, “I'm Joe and this is Robin.”  Of course, I recognized him as the Edgar Award winner of novels like Los Alamos, The Good German and Istanbul Passage.  And of course I was intimidated by my impression of this guy who'd hopped around the globe on jets and lunched with glitterati like George Clooney.  The best-selling author immediately put me at ease by drawing me into conversation: “Isn't this food exquisite?  And what did you think of the artwork inside the house?  Is this your first time in Palm Springs?  Are you having a good time?”  And we were off, dashing through a maze of chatter and gossip which lasted nearly half an hour and ranged across so many topics I can't remember them all now.  What I do know is that Joe Kanon struck me as someone with an encyclopedic knowledge who would give any Jeopardy! champion a run for his money.
      Which brings me to the book trailer at hand....
      In the video for Leaving Berlin (coming to bookstores next March), Kanon plays tour guide as we walk through the German city.  Contemporary street scenes smoothly melt into historic photos of the ruined and bomb-scarred landscape of Berlin in the late 1940s, the setting for the new novel, Leaving Berlin.  As anyone who's read Kanon's previous novels knows, there is bound to be intrigue and spycraft in the pages of this book.  Take a look at the publisher's synopsis and you'll see it has a great set-up for a Cold War thriller:
Alex Meier, a young Jewish writer, fled the Nazis for America before the war. But the politics of his youth have now put him in the crosshairs of the McCarthy witch-hunts. Faced with deportation and the loss of his family, he makes a desperate bargain with the fledgling CIA: he will earn his way back to America by acting as their agent in his native Berlin. But almost from the start things go fatally wrong. A kidnapping misfires, an East German agent is killed, and Alex finds himself a wanted man. Worse, he discovers his real assignment—to spy on the woman he left behind, the only woman he has ever loved. Changing sides in Berlin is as easy as crossing a sector border. But where do we draw the lines of our moral boundaries?
As Kanon notes in the trailer, “Occupied Berlin was a city made for spies,” and complicated, haunted cities like this were made for kind, smart, engaging raconteurs like Kanon.  I'm putting Leaving Berlin near the top of my 2015 reading list.  I think I'll pair it with a glass of Riesling and a shrimp crostini with mango salsa in honor of our brief encounter in Palm Springs.