Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Given World by Marian Palaia

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

Marian Palaia's debut novel The Given World is a haunting narrative about the Vietnam War--and yet, there's not a single bullet fired in combat, there are no scenes of jungle patrols in its pages, and we don't see any embittered veterans rolling their wheelchairs through the bureaucratic stink of VA hospital corridors. No, The Given World treats the war in a much more oblique and tender fashion, seen primarily through the eyes of a young girl named Riley whose brother Mick is drafted into military service in the early chapters of the book. When the family gets the news that Mick has gone MIA in Vietnam, Riley's world starts to fall apart and she spends the rest of the book trying to find both Mick and herself, traveling from Montana to San Francisco to Saigon and several other compass points in between. The Given World is one of those novels that feels like it was written with a pen dipped in the heart's blood of its author. That's why I wasn't surprised to hear Palaia allude to this in the book's trailer: "The characters in the book are, for the most part, composites of people I knew. A couple of them have died, and writing about them made me incredibly sad and incredibly happy. To be able to capture their personalities and really put them on the page in a way that people who also knew and loved them are able to recognize them--that was really a gift." Likewise, The Given World is one of the better gifts I've given myself this year. The closing chapters in particular really punched me in the heart. Watch the trailer then go buy the book.

Monday, June 29, 2015

My First Time: Sean Murphy

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 Sean Murphy, author of the just-published novel Not to Mention a Nice Life. Murphy has been publishing fiction, reviews (of music, movie, book, food), and essays on the technology industry for almost twenty years. He is an associate editor at The Weeklings, where he contributes a monthly column. He writes regularly for PopMatters, and his work has also appeared in Punchnel’s, The Village Voice, AlterNet, Web Del Sol, All About Jazz, The Good Men Project, Elephant Journal and Northern Virginia Magazine. He is the recipient of a Noepe Center for Literary Arts Writer Residency. Murphy’s best-selling memoir Please Talk about Me When I'm Gone: A Memoir for My Mother was released in 2013.

All My Firsts

Let’s talk about the first.

There’s the first story I wrote. (Original story: fifth grade; vaguely plagiarized ones where, looking back and with apologies to Edgar Allan Poe, imitation was the sincerest form of flattery: third and fourth grades.)

There’s the first “adult” book I read. (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, fourth grade. Huge mistake. Having seen the movies and read some comic book treatments, I thought I was ready for the real thing. It took me more than halfway through to understand Frankenstein was not, in fact, the monster.)

There’s the first success. (Being asked to compose and recite an original poem for an eighth-grade student assembly.)

There’s the first readership. (A series of features I wrote for my high school newspaper. For a teenager, a printed byline is as close to the big-time as it got, at least in the old-school era before social media and blogs.)

There’s the first publication. (A poem in my college literary magazine.)

There’s the first “important” publication. (A short story in another, better-known literary magazine.)

There’s the first in a series of unfortunate events. (Also known as writing workshops, wherein the cocky writer’s work gets, well, workshopped. Hilarity does not often ensue.)

There’s the first in a longer series of ceaseless rejection. (No comment necessary.)

There’s the first short story I knew would make me famous. (It’s still unpublished.)

There’s the first attempt at a novel. (Also unpublished. Fortunately, for all involved.)

There’s the subsequent, earnest attempt at a first novel. (Still a work-in-progress. Sort of.)

Nothing especially unique or noteworthy, right? All of these events or experiences were stepping stones most, if not all, writers will recognize and relate to. There is an evolution comprised of myriad firsts (and lasts), but what separates all but the most successful and/or lucky authors is what happens after the familiar epiphanies of the apprentice have occurred and it gets to the eventual, inevitable matter of perseverance.

The “first” that was, if not unique, for me the most formative and indelible, involved rejection and resolve.

Let me tell you a story: a famous writer saw a first chapter of this aforementioned novel. Famous writer picks up phone (people still used phones in those days) and tells unknown writer that he loves the material and wants his agent to look at it. Agent receives chapter, loves it too, and asks to see entire manuscript on an exclusive basis. Unknown writer thinks: this is it, the big break, the moment of truth, and other clichés. An entire summer passes, which is unfortunate. It happens to be the same summer unknown writer’s mother—who has been battling cancer for five years—begins to lose her final battle. By the time unknown writer’s mother passes away, the novel, the agent and the famous writer are about the farthest things from his mind. On the day of mother’s funeral, unknown writer makes the ill-advised decision to check his email before leaving the house. He sees the overdue email from agent. Something tells him not to open it, but of course he has to; according to logic and everything right in the world, not to mention the imperative of Cliché, this is the perfect time to see he’s about to be represented and eventually published, and this is the miracle he’ll employ to overcome his grief, and he’ll dedicate this book to his mother, without whom he could never have written it, or written anything.

Naturally, the email is, in fact, a rather terse (but apologetic) rejection.

And this unknown writer, in spite of himself, looks past the computer, looks beyond his disbelief, and looks out to whomever or whatever may be listening (or orchestrating this test of faith) and can’t quite believe hearing the words, in a voice that sounds a lot like his: “Is that all you got?”

No, this is not going to be the final, unkindest cut, the sign that failure is inevitable, the signal that it’s better to move on to other things, the message that it’s not meant to be. I’m not doing this, he thinks, because I want to, or that I hope to prove anything, or become famous (he has put away childish things). I’m doing this, he knows, because he doesn’t know what else he could possibly do with himself. He does it, he finally understands, because there’s nothing else he could imagine himself doing. And that the only failure is to stop. To be afraid, to give up.

It wasn’t the first rejection, obviously, and while it may be the biggest, it wasn’t the last.  In addition to death and taxes, writers recognize at some point, however resignedly, that rejection will always be on offer, for free, forever.

And ultimately it mattered only in the sense that it didn’t matter. Or, it mattered a great deal in the sense that it was not enough to dissuade or discourage him from stumbling down a path he made up as he went along; that revealed itself only when he looked back on another piece of writing and thought: Good thing I didn’t stop.

This was the most important first, the first day of the rest of my life.

Author photo by Paul Misencik

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday Sentence: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

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

Today was Sunday, and Aunt Alexandra was positively irritable on the Lord’s Day. I guess it was her Sunday corset. She was not fat, but solid, and she chose protective garments that drew up her bosom to giddy heights, pinched in her waist, flared out her rear, and managed to suggest that Aunt Alexandra’s was once an hour-glass figure. From any angle, it was formidable.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Big, One-Millionth Pageview Friday Freebie Contest (aka The Mother of All Giveaways)

Congratulations to Bart Zimmer, winner of last week's Friday Freebie contest, As Good as Dead by Elizabeth Evans.

This week's book giveaway is a big one--"big" as in, "all previous Friday Freebies were sardines compared to this Moby Dick-sized lineup." It's all in celebration of passing a major milestone here at The Quivering Pen: the one-millionth pageview. Earlier this week, the Blogger odometer rolled over into the seven digits. That means, over the course of the past five years, one million fingers have clicked an equal number of mice, touchpads, touchscreens, or whatever people use to navigate around the web. Whether the owners of those fingers were delighted or disappointed by what they found, I can't say...but what I can tell you is that I'm delighted by all the support I've gotten from readers (that's-a you!) over the last half-decade.

So, to return the favor, I've cleaned out my shelves and boxed up 33 books to give away to one lucky reader. There's something for just about every reader in this batch of books (unless you're looking for an owner's manual on how to repair a 1977 Atari 2600 game console, in which case you're out of luck, sorry). Some of the books are recent releases, others are volumes which have lingered on my surplus bookshelf for a number of years and it's now time I send them out to a good home. The mix includes both hardcovers and paperbacks--all of which are in new, unread condition. Rather than take up a lot of space right now telling you about the books, let's get down to the nitty-gritty.

How do I win this pot of literary gold? I'm glad you asked...

If you’d like a chance at winning ALL THE 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 July 2, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 3.  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.

Now, read on for more info about each of the books...


Charlie Martz and Other Stories: The Unpublished Stories
by Elmore Leonard

A collection of fifteen stories, eleven of which have never been previously published, from the early career of bestselling American master Elmore Leonard. Over his long and illustrious career, Elmore Leonard was recognized as one of the greatest crime writers of all time, the author of dozens of bestselling books—many adapted for the big screen—as well as a master of short fiction. A superb stylist whose crisp, tight prose crackled with trademark wit and sharp dialogue, Leonard remains the standard for crime fiction and a literary model for writers of every genre. Marked by his unmistakable grit and humor, the stories in Charlie Martz and Other Stories—produced early in his career, when he was making his name particularly with westerns—reveal a writer in transition, exploring new voices and locations, from the bars of small-town New Mexico and Michigan to a film set in Hollywood, a hotel in Southern Spain, even a military base in Kuala Lumpur. They also introduce us to classic Leonard characters, some who recur throughout the collection, such as aging lawman Charlie Martz and weary former matador Eladio Montoya. Devoted Leonard aficionados and fans new to his fiction will marvel at these early works that reveal an artist on the cusp of greatness.

Crazy Mountain Kiss
by Keith McCafferty

In the latest addition to the acclaimed Sean Stranahan mystery series, PI Stranahan and Sheriff Ettinger reunite to investigate a young girl’s death. It’s April, but there’s still snow on the Montana mountains the day a member of the Madison River Liar and Fly Tiers club finds a Santa hat in the chimney of his rented cabin. With the flue clogged and desperate to make a fire, he climbs up to the roof, only to find the body of a teenage girl wedged into the chimney. When Sheriff Martha Ettinger and her team arrive to extract the body they identify the victim as Cinderella “Cindy” Huntington, a promising young rodeo star, missing since November. Was Cindy murdered? Or running for her life—and if so, from whom? Cindy’s mother, Etta, hires private detective Sean Stranahan to find out. Jasper Fey, the girl’s stepfather, believes moving on is the only way to heal. But Etta’s not willing to let it go, and neither are Sean or Martha, who find clues to the death in the mysterious legends of the Crazy Mountains. The fourth book in McCafferty’s mystery series features a brisk, savvy plot and charming yet authentic characters—perfect for fans of C. J. Box and Craig Johnson.

The Heart of the Order
by Theo Schell-Lambert

A sharply observed debut novel that signals a significant voice in contemporary fiction, The Heart of the Order follows a ballplayer as he takes time to mend—physically and emotionally—from a spectacular injury. Blake Alexander—“Xandy” to his teammates and fans—is the starting leftfielder for the Carolina Birds of the National League South, until a knee injury in Cincinnati leaves him facing a summer of rehab and a career in doubt. Eager to occupy himself around game time, Xandy trades his glove for an Acer laptop, and each night before first pitch, he settles into a lounger behind his borrowed house to write. What emerges from Xandy’s patio sessions is a series of reflections on the game he loves and beyond—from losing streaks to bullpen phones to his beguiling physical therapist, Jenn, who (like a third base coach) keeps giving him signs he can’t quite read. A winning narrator, with an observational style honed over years spent judging the spin on fly balls, Xandy shines as a fresh and memorable voice in American fiction.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
by Erik Larson

The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history. A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance--and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition. Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming--yet wholly sinister--Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.

Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes
by Daniel Kehlmann

Fame and facelessness, truth and deception, spin their way through the nine interlocking chapters of this captivating and wickedly funny novel by the internationally bestselling author of Measuring the World. No one is more surprised than Ebling when his new cell phone begins receiving calls meant for popular actor Ralf Tanner. At first he tries to set the callers right, but soon he is enjoying the drama and power that celebrity brings. Little does he know that his actions will cause a ripple effect that will leave very few lives untouched, from the movie star himself to those lingering at the edges of the limelight. And as paths cross and plots thicken, the boundaries of fiction and reality start to crumble.

A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates
by Blake Bailey

The first biography of acclaimed American novelist and story writer Richard Yates. Celebrated in his prime, forgotten in his final years, only to be championed anew by our greatest contemporary authors, Richard Yates has always exposed readers to the unsettling hypocrisies of our modern age. Classic novels such as Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade are incomparable chronicles of the quiet and not-so-quiet desperation of the American middle-class. Lonely housewives, addled businessmen, desperate career-girls and fearful boys and soldiers, Yates’s America was a panorama of high living, self-doubt and self-deception. And in the tradition of other great realistic writers of his time (Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Cheever and Updike), Yates’s fictional world mirrored his own. A manic-depressive alcoholic and unapologetic gentleman, his life was a hornets’ nest of childhood ghosts, the horrors of war, money woes, and ebullient cocktailed evenings in New York, Hollywood, and the Riviera. A Tragic Honesty is a masterful evocation of a man who in many ways embodied the struggles of the Great American Writer in the latter half of the twentieth century. Fame and reward followed by heartbreak and obscurity, Richard Yates here stands for what the writer must sacrifice for his craft, the devil’s bargain of artistry for happiness, praise for sanity.

A Dirty Job
by Christopher Moore

Charlie Asher is a pretty normal guy. A little hapless, somewhat neurotic, sort of a hypochondriac. He's what's known as a Beta Male: the kind of fellow who makes his way through life by being careful and constant -- you know, the one who's always there to pick up the pieces when the girl gets dumped by the bigger/taller/stronger Alpha Male. But Charlie's been lucky. He owns a building in the heart of San Francisco, and runs a secondhand store with the help of a couple of loyal, if marginally insane, employees. He's married to a bright and pretty woman who actually loves him for his normalcy. And she, Rachel, is about to have their first child. Yes, Charlie's doing okay for a Beta. That is, until the day his daughter, Sophie, is born. Just as Charlie -- exhausted from the birth -- turns to go home, he sees a strange man in mint-green golf wear at Rachel's hospital bedside, a man who claims that no one should be able to see him. But see him Charlie does, and from here on out, things get really weird....People start dropping dead around him, giant ravens perch on his building, and it seems that everywhere he goes, a dark presence whispers to him from under the streets. Strange names start appearing on his nightstand notepad, and before he knows it, those people end up dead, too. Yup, it seems that Charlie Asher has been recruited for a new job, an unpleasant but utterly necessary one: Death. It's a dirty job. But hey, somebody's gotta do it. Christopher Moore, the man whose Lamb served up Jesus' "missing years" (with the funny parts left in), and whose Fluke found the deep humor in whale researchers' lives, now shines his comic light on the undiscovered country we all eventually explore -- death and dying -- and the results are hilarious, heartwarming, and a hell of a lot of fun.

Assassination Vacation
by Sarah Vowell

New York Times bestselling author of The Wordy Shipmates and contributor to NPR’s "This American Life" Sarah Vowell embarks on a road trip to sites of political violence, from Washington DC to Alaska, to better understand our nation’s ever-evolving political system and history. Sarah Vowell exposes the glorious conundrums of American history and culture with wit, probity, and an irreverent sense of humor. With Assassination Vacation, she takes us on a road trip like no other -- a journey to the pit stops of American political murder and through the myriad ways they have been used for fun and profit, for political and cultural advantage. From Buffalo to Alaska, Washington to the Dry Tortugas, Vowell visits locations immortalized and influenced by the spilling of politically important blood, reporting as she goes with her trademark blend of wisecracking humor, remarkable honesty, and thought-provoking criticism. We learn about the jinx that was Robert Todd Lincoln (present at the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley) and witness the politicking that went into the making of the Lincoln Memorial. The resulting narrative is much more than an entertaining and informative travelogue -- it is the disturbing and fascinating story of how American death has been manipulated by popular culture, including literature, architecture, sculpture, and -- the author's favorite -- historical tourism. Though the themes of loss and violence are explored and we make detours to see how the Republican Party became the Republican Party, there are all kinds of lighter diversions along the way into the lives of the three presidents and their assassins, including mummies, show tunes, mean-spirited totem poles, and a nineteenth-century biblical sex cult.

Congo: The Epic History of a People
by David Van Reybrouck

Hailed as "a monumental history...more exciting than any novel" (NRC Handelsblad), David van Reybrouck’s rich and gripping epic, in the tradition of Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore, tells the extraordinary story of one of the world's most devastated countries: the Democratic Republic of Congo. Epic in scope yet eminently readable, penetrating and deeply moving, David van Reybrouck's Congo: The Epic History of a People traces the fate of one of the world's most critical, failed nation-states, second only to war-torn Somalia: the Democratic Republic of Congo. Van Reybrouck takes us through several hundred years of history, bringing some of the most dramatic episodes in Congolese history. Here are the people and events that have impinged the Congo's development—from the slave trade to the ivory and rubber booms; from the arrival of Henry Morton Stanley to the tragic regime of King Leopold II; from global indignation to Belgian colonialism; from the struggle for independence to Mobutu's brutal rule; and from the world famous Rumble in the Jungle to the civil war over natural resources that began in 1996 and still rages today. Van Reybrouck interweaves his own family's history with the voices of a diverse range of individuals—charismatic dictators, feuding warlords, child-soldiers, the elderly, female merchant smugglers, and many in the African diaspora of Europe and China—to offer a deeply humane approach to political history, focusing squarely on the Congolese perspective and returning a nation's history to its people.

Blood Infernal
by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell

As an escalating scourge of grisly murders sweeps the globe, archaeologist Erin Granger must decipher the truth behind an immortal prophecy foretold in the Blood Gospel, a tome written by Christ and lost for centuries: The shackles of Lucifer have been loosened, and his Chalice remains lost. It will take the light of all three to forge the Chalice anew and banish him again to his eternal darkness. With the Apocalypse looming, Erin must again join forces with Army Sergeant Jordan Stone and Father Rhun Korza to search for a treasure lost for millennia. But the prize has already fallen into the hands of their enemy, a demon named Legion, before whom even the walls of the Vatican will fall. The search for the key to salvation will take Erin and the others across centuries and around the world, from the dusty shelves of the Vatican's secret archives to lost medieval laboratories, where ancient alchemies were employed to horrific ends. All the while, they are hunted, besieged by creatures of uncanny skill and talent. As clues are dug free from ancient underground chapels and found frozen in icy mountain caverns, Erin will discover that the only hope for victory lies in an impossible act--one that will destroy not only her, but all she loves. To protect the world, Erin must walk through the very gates of Hell and face the darkest of enemies: Lucifer himself. With The Blood Gospel, the first novel in the Order of the Sanguines series, James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell combined science, myth, and religion to introduce a breathtaking world where miracles hold new meaning and the fight for good over evil is far more complicated than we ever dreamed. And now, in this epic conclusion to the Sanguines trilogy, Blood Infernal, they take us to the very pit of Hell itself, making us peer into the abyss and face our greatest fears, to answer the ultimate question: What price will we pay for true salvation?

The Instructions
by Adam Levin

Beginning with a chance encounter with the beautiful Eliza June Watermark and ending, four days and 900 pages later, with the Events of November 17, this is the story of Gurion Maccabee, age ten: a lover, a fighter, a scholar, and a truly spectacular talker. Expelled from three Jewish day-schools for acts of violence and messianic tendencies, Gurion ends up in the Cage, a special lockdown program for the most hopeless cases of Aptakisic Junior High. Separated from his scholarly followers, Gurion becomes a leader of a very different sort, with righteous aims building to a revolution of troubling intensity. The Instructions is an absolutely singular work of fiction by an important new talent. Combining the crackling voice of Philip Roth with the encyclopedic mind of David Foster Wallace, Adam Levin has shaped a world driven equally by moral fervor and slapstick comedy—a novel that is muscular and exuberant, troubling and empathetic, monumental, breakneck, romantic, and unforgettable.

The Barbed Crown: An Ethan Gage Adventure
by William Dietrich

In The Barbed Crown, the sixth tale of rogue and adventurer Ethan Gage by William Dietrich, our hero returns to Paris and London. Against a background of imperial pomp and the gathering clouds of war, Gage plots revenge on Napoleon Bonaparte for the kidnap of his son. Paris, the “City of Lights,” shines – but alongside its splendor is great squalor. Heroic patriotism rubs against mean ambition, while grand strategy and back-alley conspiracy are never far apart. While Ethan spies on the French court, his wife, Astiza, works to sabotage Napoleon’s coronation using the Crown of Thorns, a legendary relic said to have come from the Crucifixion itself. But when Napoleon is crowned nonetheless, they flee to England. At Walmer Castle on the English coast, Gage joins a daring campaign by Smith, Fulton, rocket inventor William Congreve and smuggler Tom Johnstone to halt Napoleon’s intended invasion of England – a campaign which leads Ethan to take a role in the Battle of Trafalgar itself…


Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

The Miniaturist
by Jessie Burton

Set in seventeenth century Amsterdam—a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion—The Miniaturist is a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant. ”There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed...“ On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office—leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin. But Nella’s world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways...Johannes’ gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand—and fear—the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction? Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932
by Francine Prose

A richly imagined and stunningly inventive literary masterpiece of love, art, and betrayal, exploring the genesis of evil, the unforeseen consequences of love, and the ultimate unreliability of storytelling itself. Paris in the 1920s shimmers with excitement, dissipation, and freedom. It is a place of intoxicating ambition, passion, art, and discontent, where louche jazz venues like the Chameleon Club draw expats, artists, libertines, and parvenus looking to indulge their true selves. It is at the Chameleon where the striking Lou Villars, an extraordinary athlete and scandalous cross-dressing lesbian, finds refuge among the club’s loyal denizens, including the rising Hungarian photographer Gabor Tsenyi, the socialite and art patron Baroness Lily de Rossignol; and the caustic American writer Lionel Maine. As the years pass, their fortunes—and the world itself—evolve. Lou falls desperately in love and finds success as a race car driver. Gabor builds his reputation with startlingly vivid and imaginative photographs, including a haunting portrait of Lou and her lover, which will resonate through all their lives. As the exuberant twenties give way to darker times, Lou experiences another metamorphosis—sparked by tumultuous events—that will warp her earnest desire for love and approval into something far more.

Seven Houses in France
by Bernard Atxaga

A brooding novel of colonial intrigue in the Congo, from the author of The Accordionist’s Son and Obabakoak. The year is 1903, and the garrison of Yangambi on the banks of the Congo is under the command of Captain Lalande Biran. The captain is also a poet whose ambition is to amass a fortune and return to the literary cafés of Paris. His glamorous wife, Christine, has a further ambition: to own seven houses in France, a house for every year he has been abroad. At Lalande Biran’s side are the ex-legionnaire van Thiegel, a brutal womanizer, and the servile, treacherous Donatien, who dreams of running a brothel. The officers spend their days guarding enslaved rubber-tappers and kidnapping young girls, and at their hands the jungle is transformed into a wild circus of human ambition and absurdity. But everything changes with the arrival of a new officer and brilliant marksman: the enigmatic Chrysostome Liege. An outstanding new novel from the critically acclaimed and prizewinning author Bernardo Atxaga, Seven Houses in France is a blackly comic tale which reveals the darkest sides of human desire.

Light from Heaven
by Jan Karon

The ninth novel in the beloved Mitford series, by the bestselling author of At Home in Mitford and Somebody Safe with Somebody Good. Father Tim Kavanagh has been asked to "come up higher" more than once. But he's never been asked to do the impossible--until now. The retired Episcopal priest takes on the revival of a mountain church that's been closed for forty years. Meanwhile, in Mitford, he's sent on a hunt for hidden treasure, and two beloved friends are called to come up higher. As Father Tim finds, there are still plenty of heartfelt surprises, dear friends old and new, and the most important lesson of all: It's never too late.

Confessions of a High School Word Nerd: Laugh Your Gluteus Off and Increase Your SAT Verbal Score
edited by Arianne Cohen and Colleen Kinder

Effortlessly acquire an SAT vocabulary through hilarious high school essays. Every year, 9 million American students expend large amounts of time and energy preparing for proficiency and entrance exams like the SAT, ACT, PSAT, and SSAT with a heap of vocabulary flash cards and a fat volume of repetitive practice tests. Each one of them, along with their parents and teachers, wishes that there was a less painful way to prepare for test day. There is, and this book is the solution: a collection of ten well-written, entertaining essays by recent college-graduates-turned-writers that honestly and amusingly recount wild, traumatizing, and hilarious high-school events, using common SAT words as a study tool.

The Meagre Tarmac
by Clark Blaise

An Indo-American Canterbury Tales, The Meagre Tarmac explores the places where tradition, innovation, culture, and power meet with explosive force. It begins with Vivek Waldekar, who refused to attend his father’s funeral because he was “trying to please an American girl who thought starting a fire in his father’s body too gross a sacrilege to contemplate.” It ends with Pranab Dasgupta, the Rockefeller of India, who can only describe himself as “‘a very lonely, very rich, very guilty immigrant.’” And in between is a cluster of remarkable characters, incensed by the conflict between personal desire and responsibility, who exhaust themselves in pursuit of the miraculous. Fearless and ferociously intelligent, these stories are vintage Blaise, whose outsider’s view of the changing heart of America has always been ruthless and moving and tender. "Clark Blaise’s brilliantly imagined The Meagre Tarmac is a novel in short-story form, warmly intimate, startling in its quick jumps and revelations, a portrait of individuals for whom we come to care deeply – and a portrait of an Indo-American way of life that shimmers before our eyes with the rich and compelling detail for which Clark Blaise’s fiction is renowned…The Meagre Tarmac is a remarkable accomplishment." (Joyce Carol Oates)

A Replacement Life
by Boris Fishman

A singularly talented writer makes his literary debut with this provocative, soulful, and sometimes hilarious story of a failed journalist asked to do the unthinkable: Forge Holocaust-restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn, New York. Yevgeny Gelman, grandfather of Slava Gelman, “didn’t suffer in the exact way” he needs to have suffered to qualify for the restitution the German government has been paying out to Holocaust survivors. But suffer he has—as a Jew in the war; as a second-class citizen in the USSR; as an immigrant to America. So? Isn’t his grandson a “writer”? High-minded Slava wants to put all this immigrant scraping behind him. Only the American Dream is not panning out for him—Century, the legendary magazine where he works as a researcher, wants nothing greater from him. Slava wants to be a correct, blameless American—but he wants to be a lionized writer even more. Slava’s turn as the Forger of South Brooklyn teaches him that not every fact is the truth, and not every lie a falsehood. It takes more than law-abiding to become an American; it takes the same self-reinvention in which his people excel. Intoxicated and unmoored by his inventions, Slava risks exposure. Cornered, he commits an irrevocable act that finally grants him a sense of home in America, but not before collecting a price from his family. A Replacement Life is a dark, moving, and beautifully written novel about family, honor, and justice.

Sweet Forgiveness
by Lori Nelson Spielman

#1 international bestselling author Lori Nelson Spielman follows The Life List with Sweet Forgiveness, in which a woman’s receipt of two “forgiveness stones” sends her searching for atonement. The Forgiveness Stones craze is sweeping the nation—instantly recognizable pouches of stones that come with a chain letter and two simple requests: to forgive, and then to seek forgiveness. But New Orleans' favorite talk show host, Hannah Farr, isn't biting. Intensely private and dating the city’s mayor, Hannah has kept her very own pouch of Forgiveness Stones hidden for two years—and her dark past concealed for nearly two decades. But when Fiona Knowles, creator of the Forgiveness Stones, appears on Hannah’s show, Hannah unwittingly reveals on air details of a decades-old falling out with her mother. Spurned by her fans, doubted by her friends, and accused by her boyfriend of marring his political career, Hannah reluctantly embarks on a public journey of forgiveness. As events from her past become clearer, the truth she’s clung to since her teenage years has never felt murkier. Hannah must find the courage to right old wrongs, or risk losing her mother, and any glimmer of an authentic life, forever.

Out of the Woods: A Memoir of Wayfinding
by Lynn Darling

Combining the soul-baring insight of Wild, the profound wisdom of Shop Class as Soulcraft, and the adventurous spirit of Eat, Pray, Love: Lynn Darling’s powerful, lyrical memoir of self-discovery, full of warmth and wry humor, Out of the Woods. When her college-bound daughter leaves home, Lynn Darling, widowed over a decade earlier, finds herself alone—and utterly lost, with no idea of what she wants or even who she is. Searching for answers, she leaves New York for the solitary woods of Vermont. Removed from the familiar, cocooned in the natural world, her only companions a new dog and a compass, she hopes to develop a sense of direction—both in the woods and in her life. Hiking unmapped trails, Darling meditates on the milestones of her past; as she adapts to her new surroundings, she uses the knowledge she’s gained to chart her future. And when an unexpected setback nearly derails her newfound balance, she is able to draw upon her newfound skills to find her bearings and stay the course. In revealing how one woman learned to navigate—literally and metaphorically—the uneven course of life, Out of the Woods is, in the words of Pulitzer-prize winning author Geraldine Brooks, “a marvelous book...both a compass and a manifesto for navigating the often-treacherous switchbacks of the second half of life.”

The Master of Confessions: The Making of a Khmer Rouge Torturer
by Thierry Cruvellier

Renowned journalist Thierry Cruvellier takes us into the dark heart of Cambodia's Khmer Rouge with The Master of Confessions, a suspenseful account of a Chief Interrogator's trial for war crimes. On April 17, 1975, the communist Khmer Rouge, led by its secretive prime minister Pol Pot, took over Cambodia. Renaming the country Democratic Kampuchea, they cut the nation off from the world and began systematically killing and starving two million of their people. Thirty years after their fall, a man named Duch (pronounced "Doïk"), who had served as Chief Prison officer of S21, the regime's central prison complex, stood trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Unlike any other tribunal defendant, Duch acknowledged his personal responsibility, pleaded guilty, and asked for forgiveness from his victims. In The Master of Confessions, Thierry Cruvellier uses the trial to tell the horrifying story of this terrible chapter in history. Cruvellier offers a psychologically penetrating, devastating look at the victims, the torturers, and the regime itself, searching to answer crucial questions about culpability. Self-drawing on his knowledge, and experience, Cruvellier delivers a startling work of journalistic history—by turns deeply moving, horrifying, and darkly funny.

Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World
by Noreena Hertz

Eyes Wide Open: How to Make Smart Decisions in a Confusing World is Noreen Hertz’s practical, cutting-edge guide to help you cut through the data deluge and make smarter and better choices, based on her highly popular TED talk. In this eye-opening handbook, the internationally noted speaker, economics expert, and bestselling author of IOU: The Debt Threat and Silent Takeover reveals the extent to which the biggest decisions in our lives are often made on the basis of flawed information, weak assumptions, corrupted data, insufficient scrutiny of others, and a lack of self-knowledge. To avert such disasters, Hertz persuasively argues, we need to become empowered decision-makers, capable of making high-stakes choices and holding accountable those who advise us. In Eyes Wide Open, she weaves together scientific research with real-world examples from Hollywood to Harry Potter, NASA to World War Two spies, to construct a path to more astute and empowered decision-making in ten clear steps. With a razor-sharp intellect and an instinct for popular storytelling, she offers counter-intuitive, actionable guidance for making better choices—whether you are a business-person, a professional, a patient, or a parent.

The Angel of Losses
by Stephanie Feldman

Stephanie Feldman's lushly imagined debut novel—reminiscent of The Tiger's Wife and The History of Love—explores the intersections of family secrets, Jewish myths, the legacy of war and history, and the bonds between sisters. Sisters Marjorie and Holly are best friends—until Holly converts to a mysterious Jewish sect and marries a controlling man Marjorie despises. When Holly announces she's expecting her first child, Marjorie fears that she's lost her sister forever. But then Marjorie discovers their late grandfather Eli's notebook and its tale about a wizard named the White Rebbe and his struggle against the Angel of Losses, protector of the lost letter of the alphabet, which completes the secret name of God. Everything Marjorie thought she knew about her family comes undone. To learn the truth, she embarks on an odyssey that will lead her deep into the past and back to the present—and finally to her estranged sister, Holly, whom she must save from the consequences of Eli's secrets. Interweaving history, theology, and both real and imagined Jewish folktales, The Angel of Losses is a family story of what lasts, and of what we can—and cannot—escape.

A Tender Struggle: Story of a Marriage
by Krista Bremer

Fifteen years ago, Krista Bremer would not have been able to imagine her life today: married to a Libyan-born Muslim, raising two children with Arabic names in the American South. Nor could she have imagined the prejudice she would encounter or the profound ways her marriage would change her perception of the world. But on a running trail in North Carolina, she met Ismail. He was passionate and sincere—and he loved adventure as much as she did. From acquaintances to lovers to a couple facing an unexpected pregnancy, this is the story of two people—a middle-class American raised in California and a Muslim raised by illiterate parents in an impoverished Libyan fishing village—who made a commitment to each other without forsaking their own identities. It is the story of a bicultural marriage—and aren’t all marriages bicultural? In any marriage, we might discover that our mate is foreign to us, with very different language, memories, and assumptions about home and family. How we respond to difference shapes our world. Profoundly moving and often funny, this meditation on tolerance explores what it means to open our hearts to another culture and to embrace our own.

The Master
by Colm Toibin

Like Michael Cunningham in The Hours, Colm Toibin captures the extraordinary mind and heart of a great writer. Brilliant and profoundly moving, The Master tells the story of Henry James, a man born into one of America's first intellectual families two decades before the Civil War. James left his country to live in Paris, Rome, Venice, and London among privileged artists and writers. In stunningly resonant prose, Toibin captures the loneliness and longing, the hope and despair of a man who never married, never resolved his sexual identity, and whose forays into intimacy inevitably failed him and those he tried to love. The emotional intensity of Toibin's portrait of James is riveting. Time and again, James, a master of psychological subtlety in his fiction, proves blind to his own heart and incapable of reconciling his dreams of passion with his own fragility. Toibin is "a great and humanizing writer" who describes complex relationships in "supple, beautifully modulated prose" (The Washington Post Book World). In The Master, he has written his most ambitious and heartbreaking novel, an extraordinarily inventive encounter with a character at the cusp of the modern age, elusive to his own friends and even family, yet astonishingly vivid in these pages.

All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood
by Jennifer Senior

Thousands of books have examined the effects of parents on their children. But almost none have thought to ask: What are the effects of children on their parents? In All Joy and No Fun, award-winning journalist Jennifer Senior analyzes the many ways children reshape their parents' lives, whether it's their marriages, their jobs, their habits, their hobbies, their friendships, or their internal senses of self. She argues that changes in the last half century have radically altered the roles of today's mothers and fathers, making their mandates at once more complex and far less clear. Recruiting from a wide variety of sources—in history, sociology, economics, psychology, philosophy, and anthropology—she dissects both the timeless strains of parenting and the ones that are brand new, and then brings her research to life in the homes of ordinary parents around the country. The result is an unforgettable series of family portraits, starting with parents of young children and progressing in later chapters to parents of teens. Through lively and accessible storytelling, Senior follows these mothers and fathers as they wrestle with some of parenthood's deepest vexations—and luxuriate in some of its finest rewards. Meticulously researched yet imbued with emotional intelligence, All Joy and No Fun makes us reconsider some of our culture's most basic beliefs about parenthood, all while illuminating the profound ways children deepen and add purpose to our lives. By focusing on parenthood, rather than parenting, the book is original and essential reading for mothers and fathers of today—and tomorrow.

Appointment in Samarra (Penguin Classics Deluxe)
by John O'Hara

The writer whom Fran Lebowitz compared to the author of The Great Gatsby, calling him “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald,” makes his Penguin Classics debut with this beautiful deluxe edition of his best-loved book. One of the great novels of small-town American life, Appointment in Samarra is John O’Hara’s crowning achievement. In December 1930, just before Christmas, the Gibbsville, Pennsylvania, social circuit is electrified with parties and dances. At the center of the social elite stand Julian and Caroline English. But in one rash moment born inside a highball glass, Julian breaks with polite society and begins a rapid descent toward self-destruction. Brimming with wealth and privilege, jealousy and infidelity, O’Hara’s iconic first novel is an unflinching look at the dark side of the American dream—and a lasting testament to the keen social intelligence if a major American writer.

The Wilding
by Benjamin Percy

From the author of this year's The Dead Lands, The Wilding is a powerful debut novel (published in 2010) set in a threatened western landscape. Echo Canyon is a disappearing pocket of wilderness outside of Bend, Oregon, and the site of conflicting memories for Justin Caves and his father, Paul. It's now slated for redevelopment as a golfing resort. When Paul suggests one last hunting trip, Justin accepts, hoping to get things right with his father this time, and agrees to bring his son, Graham, along. As the weekend unfolds, Justin is pushed to the limit by the reckless taunting of his father, the physical demands of the terrain, and the menacing evidence of the hovering presence of bear. All the while, he remembers the promise he made to his skeptical wife: to keep their son safe.

Fear in the Sunlight
by Nicola Upson

Nicola Upson blends biography and fiction, excitement and menace, and a touch of Alfred Hitchcock in Fear in the Sunlight, a mystery starring real-life writer Josephine Tey. Summer, 1936: Josephine Tey joins her friends in the resort village of Portmeirion to celebrate her fortieth birthday. Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville, are there to sign a deal to film Josephine’s novel, A Shilling for Candles, and Alfred Hitchcock has one or two tricks up his sleeve to keep the holiday party entertained—and expose their deepest fears. But things get out of hand when one of Hollywood’s leading actresses is brutally slashed to death in a cemetery near the village. The following day, fear and suspicion take over in a setting where nothing—and no one—is quite what it seems. Based in part on the life of Josephine Tey—one of the most popular, best-loved crime writers of the Golden Age, Nicola Upson’s Fear in the Sunlight features legendary film director Alfred Hitchcock as a prominent character—and features the classic suspense and psychological tension that fans of Hitchcock films love.

All I Love and Know
by Judith Frank

Told with the storytelling power and emotional fidelity of Wally Lamb, this is a searing drama of a modern American family on the brink of dissolution, one that explores adoption, gay marriage, and love lost and found. For years, Matthew Greene and Daniel Rosen have enjoyed a quiet domestic life together in Northampton, Massachusetts. Opposites in many ways, they have grown together and made their relationship work. But when they learn that Daniel’s twin brother and sister-in-law have been killed in a bombing in Jerusalem, their lives are suddenly, utterly transformed. In dealing with their families and the need to make a decision about who will raise the deceased couple’s two children, both Matthew and Daniel are confronted with challenges that strike at the very heart of their relationship. What is Matthew’s place in an extended family that does not completely accept him or the commitment he and Daniel have made? How do Daniel’s questions about his identity as a Jewish man affect his life as a gay American? Tensions only intensify when they learn that the deceased parents wanted Matthew and Daniel to adopt the children—six-year-old Gal, and baby Noam. The impact this instant new family has on Matthew, Daniel, and their relationship is subtle and heartbreaking, yet not without glimmers of hope. They must learn to reinvent and redefine their bond in profound, sometimes painful ways. What kind of parents can these two men really be? How does a family become strong enough to stay together and endure? And are there limits to honesty or commitment—or love?

Elegy for Eddie
by Jacqueline Winspear

In this latest entry in Jacqueline Winspear’s acclaimed, bestselling mystery series—“less whodunits than why-dunits, more P.D. James than Agatha Christie” (USA Today)—Maisie Dobbs takes on her most personal case yet, a twisting investigation into the brutal killing of a street peddler that will take her from the working-class neighborhoods of her childhood into London’s highest circles of power. Perfect for fans of A Lesson in Secrets, The Mapping of Love and Death, or other Maisie Dobbs mysteries—and an ideal place for new readers to enter the series—Elegy for Eddie is an incomparable work of intrigue and ingenuity, full of intimate descriptions and beautifully painted scenes from between the World Wars, from one of the most highly acclaimed masters of mystery, Jacqueline Winspear.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

On MFA Programs and States of Being

On MFA Programs and States of Being

If you are reading this, it means you are interested in books, writing, literature. Maybe you are interested in the writing life; maybe you want to be a writer. Maybe you want to be a writer and you have some talent for writing, a love for language, an ear for how words can go together in the service of more than clever ideas. If that is indeed the case, I say, YES. By all means, do it. The world needs writers. It needs stories. Our stories are a way of connecting. And without connection? Well, we’ve seen what can happen, what is happening. So, connect. So, write.

One way to begin, or to continue, or to get better, is to find a Creative Writing program that will accept you, mentor you, teach you, give you time and support. Many people take this route. I did, twice actually, over a period of about twenty-five years. This was not my plan, and (for good reason) it probably isn’t anyone else’s either. But it worked out okay for me. Actually, long run—very, very long run—it worked out a lot better than okay. My novel, The Given World, came out in April from Simon and Schuster. I loved writing it, and I love that it seems to have resonated with a lot of people, and I think it’s going to do all right. I am living a dream I was never really brave enough to have. In large part, I get to live it now because of those Creative Writing programs—one MA and one MFA—and also, at least equally, because of the time between them, which I spent out in the real world. Here is some of what I have learned.

There is something about the study of Creative Writing that makes people—from both inside and outside the discipline—love to bash it. It seems, for one thing, an increasing number of critics have it that Master of Fine Arts programs are, more and more, simply and primarily a pyramid scheme, designed to keep otherwise marginal writers—themselves MFA grads—employed, and there is indeed a common trajectory: from BA, to MFA, to adjunct, to publication, to tenure track, to further publication (perchance of a “how-to” book), to retirement with a pension and (hopefully) some royalties trickling in from time to time. Setting aside, for the moment, the “bubble” aspect of such a trajectory, the theory is that as more and more MFA programs are created, more and more budding writers will attend, but the talent pool remains static, in which case thousands of people (mostly, but not all, young) go into debt every year in pursuit of a dream that is only going to come crashing down around them—largely but not solely because there are far more aspiring writers out there than the establishment publishing world has room for—but every year a slightly larger (and thereby in aggregate less gifted) handful of the lucky will get teaching jobs, and the cycle will continue until it spirals completely out of control. Or maybe it already has.

As if this Ponzi conspiracy masquerading as a batch of legitimate graduate programs weren’t bad enough, every single soul who comes out of one (or so goes a different but often associated theory), will be writing the same basic book anyway, because, through some magical, mysterious process I have as yet been unable to grasp, all MFA programs teach them how to write in exactly the same way.

I have trouble with these, among other blanket theories: I do not believe that MFA programs are a pyramid, or any other sort of scheme, and although a lot of what is published in mainstream magazines and journals does seem to hew to a certain esthetic, I don’t believe that is a result of what students are taught so much as what they see modeled in print, because it is what editors can agree on. I honestly don’t know what the formula is, or if there is, in fact, a formula, but even if there were one, it would still be no easy thing to follow it; many have tried, and most fail. It is true, my experience as an editor has been limited, so maybe it is also true that all most editors see is formulaic writing, but I doubt it, and I have never seen a teacher try to get her students to write like she does, or like any particular writer has done.

The MFA bashing that comes from people who have not been in an MFA program, is, I suppose, understandable, or at least not particularly remarkable: “Outsiders” have been bashing what they perceive to be foreign, or elite, or effete, or what have you, since the beginning of time. Ironically, however, many of the people participating in this bash-fest have themselves been in these programs. Some of them have not made it (by whatever measure) as writers, and some have, but all have been on the inside. And many of the most vocal critics, even if they have removed themselves, or been removed from the world of Creative Writing academia, are still involved; they are still of the broader CW world.

From some of those who do not find immediate success, or acceptance, and who therefore must consider other pursuits, a common refrain is: “I just wasted two (or three) years of my life, and ran up my student loan bill to the point I will never be able to pay it off, and have nothing to show for it. And people were mean.” And, yes, this is sad. And happens often. The consolation to the literati may be: at least they will be better readers. The consolation to the students themselves—though it might take a while: at least they will be better readers, writers, and observers. Hell, they might wind up being better people. Or maybe the opposite will happen and they will turn mean themselves, bitter to the end, and write scathing Goodreads reviews, of good books, by the hundreds.

Or, maybe, just maybe—because they have gotten a taste, and been introduced sufficiently to aspects of the craft (and, yes, I do believe that craft matters when it comes to writing) to be able to read critically and to write more carefully—they will continue to do it anyway; they will put in their 10,000 hours, nail their own particular art, and “make it,” in one form or another. It happens. All the time. So there is that. Hope, is what that is. And whatever else may occur, it is at least tempting to have some sympathy, or even empathy, if you remember what it is like to be young.

A recent flap has come about as the result of a blog post in The Stranger, written by a person (Ryan Boudinot) who apparently does not remember what that was like, even though, from where I sit (reluctantly preparing to celebrate 60), he ought to. His post, at any rate, is not so much a direct indictment of MFA programs as it is of MFA students. While I tend to agree with a few of his main points, e.g., “Some people have more talent than others,” and, “Students (in this case those in his low-residency program) who . . . blow deadlines, and whine about how complicated their lives are should just give up and do something else. Their complaints are an insult to the writers who managed to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than the 21st-century MFA student.” Amen, with a caveat. The caveat because some students’ lives are incredibly complicated; Amen, especially to that final sentence, because the majority’s aren’t, but they think they are, because life has never challenged them very much. Relatively. So they lack perspective, which if you are going to be a writer, is an important thing to have. Unfortunately, Boudinot undermines himself, and any valid arguments he makes, when he claims to have met only three or four “real deal” writers in his years of teaching, when he says, “No one cares about your problems if you’re a shitty writer,” and (especially this), “Just because you were abused as a child does not make your inability to stick with the same verb tense for more than two sentences any more bearable.” He goes on to say he wishes some of them “had suffered more.” I can see teachers nationwide both cringing and nodding their heads—not in agreement with Boudinot’s tone, or with his incredibly ill-advised decision to cite child abuse as an example—but in absolute agreement that reading one more account of a teenage breakup, a first time getting high, or another parent-sponsored summer in Paris, disguised as fiction, is enough to make one very, very sad.

Another blogger, Anis Shivani, weighs in on MFA writing programs at the Huffington Post now and again, and has it, among other things, that creative writing is a “stripped (and) dumbed down” “subset of therapy.” Also that “ . . . methods of the workshop lead to ‘improvement’ by subtraction -- since by definition the instructor can't compel the student to produce something that's not within his capability.” (Italics mine.) Shivani also maintains that what comes out of creative writing workshops, at any level, is not literature. He concedes that creative writing can be taught, but since literature (by his standard), is not what is being created, not only is the entire endeavor a patent waste of time, but “ . . . we are all fucked because of it.” I will get back to this.

In the meantime, without getting too deeply into the topic of, “Who died and made any one person arbiter of ‘real deals’?” and the one or two missing boxcars that might make the “improvement by subtraction” statement at least resemble a train of logical thought (No, I can’t compel my students to do something they can’t do, but I can compel the vast majority of them to do something they hadn’t thought of, or thought they were not capable of; it happens all the time, and isn’t this what studying or teaching anything implies?), I’d just like to say that making blanket statements about MFA programs, or students, or teaching practices, feels reductive and unnecessarily provocative, though maybe that is the point. And while both of these writers, among other critics, may well have legitimate gripes, one might ask for a little concreteness, a bit of specificity—as opposed to gross generalizing—as that would better support their views, as it most always does. Or did we (by which, yes, I do mean they) miss that particular aspect of craft, or was it not taught, in our (their) own workshops?

That being said—the part about not generalizing—here is a generalization of sorts. Quite a few writers do make it, at least enough to remain in the bubble, either straight out of grad school (or the odd PhD) or soon enough after. In this case, not only are those who complain, along with their complaints, difficult to understand, they themselves are acutely difficult to have sympathy for. Often what I hear coming from these quarters sounds like, “Well, this worked out pretty well for me. See all these awards? This tenured four-courses-a-year teaching gig? But these things really had nothing to do with the program: Clearly, with my talent, I could have done this on my own.” Right? Perhaps. So why didn’t you? Because you bought into the bullshit? Because your girlfriend applied to MFA programs for you and you got in, without really meaning to? Because everyone else was doing it? Again, perhaps, but you’re going to have trouble convincing me, or a whole lot of other people who have tried to do it on their own. Because this is what I know.

Writing while you are trying to support yourself is hard. Teaching yourself to write is hard. Doing both, and doing them long enough to produce something that will in fact be published takes an enormous amount of dedication, discipline, perseverance, and time; way more than most people have. Which is why a place in a fully-funded MFA program is an extraordinary gift, whether or not you have the good sense to recognize it as one. There is no getting around this: If you are getting paid, for two or three years, to do little more than write, you are ridiculously lucky. If you can afford—with grants, loans, your parents’ help, partial funding, scholarships—to attend an MFA program without working (or while teaching that one Intro to Creative Writing workshop), you are luckier than 99.9% of the people in this country, and 99.99999999999% of the people on the planet, if not quite so ridiculously. Many deserving people (writers or not) don’t get to do this, or anything remotely like it. No matter what, breathing that rarified MFA air puts you in a place few people can imagine, so when your working friends and relatives, or people who are simply paying attention to what is going on in the world outside your very small part of it, raise their eyebrows at your complaints about how rough workshop is, or how you have been passed over again this year for a Stegner or a Guggenheim, maybe have the good graces to clam up.

Maybe also have the good graces to not, from where you remain inside this bubble, breathing the rarified air that keeps it afloat, bite the hand that has fed you, because it all ends up sounding like sour grapes. To me, at least, it sounds that way, and maybe that is because it took me 30 years to get from point A (knowing I wanted to write, but not knowing one more thing about it) to point B (a pretty, at least for now, comfy spot in the bubble), and along the way I gained a lot of the perspective I was talking about earlier, or at least I like very much to believe I did.

I started writing short stories at 24 or so (which, according to Boudinot, should disqualify me from being a bona fide writer, because I did not start when I was a teenager). I worked my way, as a newspaper truck driver (a job I loved), through my first, unfunded, Creative Writing MA. I learned a lot, acquired enough knowledge of craft to keep going, if only a little less haphazardly than before the Master’s. Things were not so expensive then, so I came out without too much debt. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a funded Creative Writing program, so I did not feel in any way robbed, and I still don’t. After I graduated, I had to keep making a living, so I did many things, and I traveled when I could afford it (basically, I worked so that I could take time off to travel), and I began to pay attention to the world. Twenty years went by, and I wrote a few more stories, attended a handful of writers conferences, took what I learned there and what I learned from reading more critically than I had had the insights to do pre-MA, to revise old stories until they were pretty much unrecognizable, but much, much better. Still, it became increasingly apparent that I did not have the discipline, or the energy, to write anything worthwhile and substantial (enough to wind up book-length and publishable), because I was busy trying to keep myself housed and fed, and at the end of the day I was just too tired to do much more than drink a few glasses of wine and watch the Newshour on TV. That was me, and sadly so, for a long, frustrating, time.

Until one day about five years ago—and then every day after, until I did something about it—when I woke up saying, If not now, when? Out of the blue, or the funk, or whatever, I was ready. Realistically, I had probably been ready for at least ten years (but not necessarily a great deal longer). I was 53 years old. I applied to MFA programs. The University of Wisconsin at Madison took me. They supported me. They taught me. They gave me time. I wrote a novel. Found an agent. Sold the book. No, it was not as easy as it sounds, because writing—all writing—is hard, but it happened, and now I have enough money, and because of the money, I have enough time (if I use it wisely), to write the next book. I don’t know how appreciative I would have been if this had happened to me much earlier. Maybe I would have felt as though I was entitled to some success (though that would have been untrue). I do know there is no way I could ever have written the book I did if I had not already seen what I had of the world, and had not subsequently been given the gifts of time and support to write it. I am sure that, a decade or two prior, I would not have felt quite so enormously, so dizzily, fortunate.

No, I do not advise waiting as long as I did to get an MFA, if you are sure that what you want to do, what you are cut out to do, is to write. What I do advise is gaining some awareness of the world, and of the people in it who are not like you, before you go into a program. And I recommend practicing your craft until your fingers bleed (metaphorically of course). And being your own toughest critic, because people—especially people who love you, and those who don’t want you to get better—will lie to you. Above all I advise, if you do happen to land a spot, recognizing and appreciating what you have, and not complaining about it, particularly around people who don’t live in your bubble, and who never will. Yes, sometimes you do make your own luck, but that does not alter the fact of its existence. Write your book. Count your blessings. Do it quietly. With grace.

And (I said I would get back to this) I also advise, no matter how tempting, how clever that line sounds, that when, from deep inside the bubble, you think it would be a good idea to say that we are all fucked because Creative Writing can be taught, that you don’t demonstrate your bad judgment by actually saying it. Because that is not, by any stretch of the imagination, unless you really have lost all sense of perspective, or never had it to begin with, why we are fucked. (And we aren’t, completely, yet, but it is probably coming, for many reasons that have nothing at all to do with Creative Writing.) Right now, though, the Syrians living in the Zaatari refugee camp—they are fucked. And the Libyans drowning off the coast of Italy when their boats catch fire. And those girls in Nigeria. And the Christians in northern Iraq. And people who don’t have water, or have too much of it and their countries are drowning. And the polar bears. And the elephants. And people living in appliance boxes under bridges. Those are the fucked ones. You do not—none of the people who will read this do—get to count yourself among them. Something to remember when you write, anything at all.

This essay originally appeared at Literary Hub. Reprinted with permission.

Marian Palaia was born in Riverside, California, and has lived in Washington, DC, Montana, Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City, and Nepal, where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. Her debut novel, The Given World, was praised by Lorrie Moore (author of Bark), who said, “It has been a long time since a first book contained this much wisdom and knowledge of the world.” Now living in San Francisco, Marian has been a teacher, a truck driver, a bartender, and a logger. She is currently working on a new novel, The Hello Kitty Justice League.