Monday, November 30, 2015

My First Time: Erika Swyler

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 Erika Swyler, author of The Book of Speculation. Erika is a self-described failed actor, amateur baker, occasional bookbinder, and accidental illustrator. Her writing has appeared in various literary journals and anthologies, most recently The New York Times, and Colonial Comics. Her debut novel, The Book of Speculation, is a 2015 Barnes & Noble Discover pick, and one of’s Top 100 Books of 2015. She lives and writes in Long Island, NY. You can find her on twitter at @ErikaSwyler, or at

My First Book Without My Name

I don’t have a desk drawer novel or a shelf full of false starts. My first book lives in e-book purgatory and wears an imaginary author’s name. I am a debut novelist who isn’t really a debut novelist.

It was a write-for-hire novel for a startup publisher ofwait for itfeminist erotica. In a standard startup nightmare, the publisher folded after I’d delivered my manuscript. My paycheck never materialized. The book is my biggest achievement and greatest failure. It’s a terrible piece of writing, but the circumstances under which I wrote it changed my perspective on who I am and what writing work means.

A dear friend was the publisher’s managing editor. I was struggling to finish The Book of Speculation, and her offer of a write-for-hire gig meant actual writing income. Erotica sounded fun, feminist erotica sounded even better, and working from plot treatments seemed like a good way to learn. There was a three-month turnaround for 80,000 words. I’d work with an experienced editor. Writing under a pseudonym meant I could continue writing literary fiction unscathed. I jumped at it. Get me on that sex-positive feminism train.

I’d just started work when my mother was struck by a car while biking. She suffered brain damage and was put in a medically-induced coma. I kept it quiet. I had my first real paying writing gig and it felt like a lifeline to who I wanted to be. Eventually, once Mom was in a rehab facility, I had to let my editor know. I asked about deadline flexibility. In the politest possible way, she informed me that deadline extensions were not part of the business model.

I panicked. I wrote. Few experiences are more strange than trying to write oral sex while waiting for a neurologist to tell you about your mother’s potential for meaningful speech. I wrote a poker game complete with foreplay between morning and evening hospital visits. It never occurred to me that erotica could be written while waiting to learn if someone would die. That it had been before. But there it is. I know the names of ten different blood-pressure medications and infinite synonyms for penis.

Mom recovered enough to be released to my care, which meant 24/7 supervision, medication monitoring and injections, companionship, and shifting from daughter to caretaker. It meant writing without everything perfectly arranged. It meant deadlines and word counts and figuring out why on earth this cowgirl would want to have sex with that gambler in the middle of a river. And exhaustion. It meant exhaustion.

At 6:00 a.m. I’d wake up and count out Mom’s meds. I did laundry, made breakfast, worked my freelance transcription gig, cleaned, made lunch, took care of Mom, and ran errands. Dinners were early. After evening meds, my time was mine. I wrote from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. with Johnny Cash on loop. I am staunchly northeastern; my jaw reflexively locks at the thought of a Texas drawl, but I made cowgirls, ranchers, and gamblers have sex. A lot. I threw in gunfights and wolves. I chewed scenery until Mom called for me. At 10:00 she’d get night meds, then I’d clean up, shower, and crash on the couch. At 6:00 a.m. I’d start again.

Everything that wasn’t medications or fear of dying went into the work.

I did this for three months. Mom got better. The word count grew. I met with my editor and we talked about how half the sex in books isn’t sex; it’s tension. At points I disappeared, becoming the word count. Goal: 1,700. Goal: 1,225. Goal: 783. Make up Wednesday’s 220 on Thursday. Edit. I met my deadline. I emailed my manuscript and cried. I’ve since learned that I always cry after hitting send, and that’s generally a good sign. Caring is never bad.

The worm turned and my friend left the publisher. All communication from my editor and management stopped. The publisher folded, leaving my book out in the ether. I was published, but hadn’t been paid. To be fair, no one could adequately compensate me for what went into that book. I know it for what it is: a terrible piece of writing that made me who I am.

Not three months after sending the manuscript off I was contacted by the woman who would become my agent. She’d read a short story of mine and wondered if I had a novel. I sent her The Book of Speculation, my “debut.” It needed work, and she wanted to know if I was up for it. I thought of my awful book and the word counts. With utter confidence I said, “I can work.”

No work has been more difficult than the work I did while Mom recovered.

St. Martin’s Press bought The Book of Speculation. Two weeks later, Mom died. I knew that six months to a year’s worth of editing and revision lay ahead. It’s a situation that might make anyone crack, and writers are notoriously flaky. From a business stance I was a terrible investment. I feared that everything that hadn’t already fallen apart soon would. I desperately needed to be something other than someone grieving. I needed to be the word count.

I thought of 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m., medications, cowboys and gamblers. I thought, “I can work. I am a workhorse. I know how to do this. Wind me up and watch me go.” And I did. I can hold my second book because of the first.

The power of a first book is that it teaches us how to work.

Mine is a book without my name that isn’t worth reading. But it made me.

Author photo by BJ Enright

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Sunday Sentence: Ongoingness by Sarah Manguso

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

Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Friday Freebie: The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge by Charlie Lovett

Congratulations to Jon Butters, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie, People Like You by Margaret Malone.

This week’s book giveaway is The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge by Charlie Lovett. But wait, there’s more! The good people at Penguin Classics will also send one lucky reader a copy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, part of their beautiful Christmas Classics series (pictured at right), which also includes books by Louisa May Alcott, L. Frank Baum, Anthony Trollope, Nikolai Gogol, and E. T. A. Hoffmann. If you're like me, you'll want to collect all the books in this handsome set and make them part of your annual holiday reading.

Keep scrolling for more information about The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge, the new novel by Charlie Lovett.

The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge is a delightful sequel to Dickens’s beloved A Christmas Carol by the bestselling author of First Impressions and The Bookman’s Tale. On a hot summer day some twenty years after he was famously converted to kindness, Ebenezer Scrooge still roams the streets of London, spreading Christmas cheer, much to the annoyance of his creditors, nephew, and his employee Bob Cratchit. However, when Scrooge decides to help his old friend and former partner Jacob Marley, as well as other inhabitants of the city, he will need the assistance of the very people he’s annoyed. He’ll also have to call on the three ghosts that visited him two decades earlier. By the time they’re done, they’ve convinced everyone to celebrate Christmas all year long by opening their wallets, arms, and hearts to those around them. Written in uncannily Dickensian prose, Charlie Lovett’s The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge is both a loving and winking tribute to the Victorian classic, perfect for readers of A Christmas Carol and other timeless holiday tales.

If you’d like a chance at winning a copy of The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. One entry per person, please. This contest is limited to those with mailing addresses in the U.S. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 3, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 4. 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 26, 2015

Thanksgiving as Jet Lag: Richard Ford, Frank Bascombe and The Lay of the Land

This year, for the first time since my deployment to Iraq, I won’t be cooking a Thanksgiving feast. Instead, I’ll fill my day by continuing to revise my novel-in-progress (Braver Deeds), answering emails, and, later, going to a friend’s house for the traditional dinner. In between, I’m sure I’ll manage to work in some hearty gulps of the book I’m currently reading, The Lay of the Land by Richard Ford.

Though I normally put Ford, one of my favorite contemporary American writers, to the top of the To-Be-Read heap as soon as he releases a new book, it has taken me nine years to get around to The Lay of the Land. I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps other books intruded back in 2006, perhaps I was postponing the pleasure of the novel like an after-dinner mint, or perhaps (probably) it was because I’ve never been the biggest fan of Ford’s Bascombe novels. While I thought The Sportswriter and Independence Day, which chronicle the trials and tribulations of Frank Bascombe, were well-written, I’ve always had a more emotional connection with Ford’s fiction set in the American West (Rock Springs, Wildlife and Canada). Bascombe always left me feeling a little meh.

That being said, The Lay of the Land is proving to be the best of the Bascombe trilogy (last year’s Let Me Be Frank With You still remains in the TBR pile). Maybe it’s because Frank Bascombe and I are close in age (he’s 55, I’m a few years behind that), or maybe the time is right for me to read about a white male in 2000 riddled with anxiety over the unresolved presidential election results, his wayward children, his ex-wife, his real estate business, and—most of all—a recent diagnosis of prostate cancer, or maybe because there’s some damn fine writing on these pages—whatever the cause, I’m certainly enjoying this Bascombe more than I did versions 1.0 and 2.0.

Since I’m in a Thanksgiving-giving-thanks mood today, I thought I’d share two separate sections from Chapter 1 where Frank ruminates on the holiday season as he drives through the snarls of traffic near his New Jersey home.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Route 37, the Toms River Miracle Mile, is already jammed at 9:30 with shopper vehicles moving into and out of every conceivable second-tier factory outlet lot, franchise and big-box store, until we’re mostly stalled in intersection tie-ups under screaming signage and horn cacophony. Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when merchants hope to inch into the black, is traditionally the retail year’s hallowed day, with squadrons of housewives in housecoats and grannies on walkers shouldering past security personnel at Macy’s and Bradlees to get their hands on discounted electric carving knives and water-filled orthopedic pillows for that special arthritic with the chronically sore C6 and C7. Only this year—due to the mists of economic unease—merchants and their allies, the customer, have designated “gigantic” Black Tuesday and Black Wednesday Sales Days and are flying the banner of EVERYTHING MUST GO!—in case, I guess, the whole country’s gone by Friday.

Cars are everywhere, heading in every direction. A giant yellow-and-red MasterCard dirigible floats above the buzzing landscape like a deity. Movie complexes are already opened with queues forming for Gladiator and The Little Vampire. Crowds press into Target and International Furniture Liquidator (“If we don’t have it, you don’t want it”). Christmas music’s blaring, through it’s not clear from where, and the traffic’s barely inching. Firemen in asbestos suits and Pilgrim hats are out collecting money in buckets at the mall entrances and stoplights. Ragged groups of people who don’t look like Americans skitter across the wide avenue in groups, as though escaping something, while solitary men in gleaming pickups sit smoking, watching, waiting to have their vehicles detailed at the Pow-R-Brush. At the big Hooper Avenue intersection, a TV crew has set up a command post, with a hard-body, shiny-legged Latina, her stiff little butt turned to the gridlock, shouting out to the 6:00 p.m. viewers up the seaboard what all the fuss is about down here.

Yet frankly it all thrills me and sets my stomach tingling. Unbridled commerce isn’t generally pretty, but it’s always forward-thinking. And since nowadays with my life out of sync and most things in the culture not affecting me much—politics, news, sports, everything but the weather—it feels good that at least commerce keeps me interested like a scientist. Commerce, after all, is basic to my belief system, even though it’s true, as modern merchandising theory teaches, that when we shop, we no longer really shop for anything. If you’re really looking for that liquid stain remover you once saw in your Uncle Beckmer’s basement that could take the spots off a hyena, or you’re seeking a turned brass drawer pull you only need one of to finish refurbishing the armoire you inherited from Aunt Grony, you’ll never find either one. No one who works anyplace knows anything, and everyone’s happy to lie to you. “They don’t make those anymore.” “Those’ve been back-ordered two years.” “That ballpoint company went out of business, moved to Myanmar and now makes sump pumps...All we have are these.” You have to take what they’ve got even if you don’t want it or never heard of it.

As everyone knows, the Thanksgiving “concept” was originally strong-armed onto poor war-worn President Lincoln by an early-prototype forceful-woman editor of a nineteenth-century equivalent of the Ladies’ Home Journal, with a view to upping subscriptions. And while you can argue that the holiday commemorates ancient rites of fecundity and the Great-Mother-Who-Is-in-the-Earth, it’s in fact always honored storewide clearances and stacking ’em deep ’n selling ’em cheap—unless you’re a Wampanoag Indian, in which case it celebrates deceit, genocide and man’s indifference to who owns what.

Thanksgiving also, of course, signals the beginning of the gloomy Christmas season, vale of aching hearts and unreal hopes, when more suicide successes, abandonments, spousal thumpings, car thefts, firearm discharges and emergency surgeries take place per twenty-four-hour period than any other time of year except the day after the Super Bowl. Days grow ephemeral. No one’s adjusted to the light’s absence. Many souls buy a ticket to anyplace far off just to be in motion. Worry and unwelcome self-awareness thicken the air. Though strangely enough, it’s also a great time to sell houses. The need to make amends for marital bad behavior, or to keep a way eye on the tax calendar to deliver on the long-postponed family ski outing to Mount Pisgah—all make people itchy to buy. There’s no longer a real off-season for house sales. Houses sell whether you want them to or not.

In my current state of mind, I’d, in fact, be just as happy to lose Christmas and its weak sister New Year’s, and ring out the old year quietly with a cocktail by the Sony. One of divorce’s undervalued dividends, I should say, is that all the usual dismal holiday festivities can now be avoided, since no one who didn’t have to would ever think about seeing the people they used to say they wanted to see but almost certainly never did.

And yet, Thanksgiving won’t be ignored. Americans are hard-wired for something to be thankful for. Our national spirit thrives on invented gratitude. Even if Aunt Bella’s flat-lined and in custodial care down in Rucksville, Alabama, we still “need” her to have some white meat and gravy, and be thankful, thankful, thankful. After all, we are—if only because we’re not in her bedroom slippers.

And it is churlish not to let the spirit swell—if it can—since little enough’s at stake. Contrive, invent, engage—take the chance to be cheerful. Though in the process, one needs to skirt the spiritual dark alleys and emotional cul-de-sacs, subdue all temper flarings and sob sessions with loved ones. Get plenty of sleep. Keep the TV on (the Lions and Pats are playing at noon). Take B vitamins and multiple walks on the beach. Make no decisions more serious than lunch. Get as much sun as possible. In other words, treat Thanksgiving like jet lag.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Trailer Park Tuesday: American Copper by Shann Ray

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

If I compared a book to a twilit mountain range washed in purples and oranges and reds, the sight of it causing you, the reader who has trudged through a dull landscape of ordinary novels, to stumble in your sojourn and fall to one knee in reverence for the toothy horizon; and if I said reading this particular novel was as bracing and invigorating as drinking from a cold, clear alpine stream; and if I said it was gorgeous as a coffee-table book and deeply meditative as the Book of Psalms; and if I said just one book can, however briefly, change the way you look at both the natural world and human nature—if I said all that, you’d want to read this book, wouldn’t you? Good, glad to hear it, because American Copper by Shann Ray is all this, and more. And if you think I’m overstating the qualities of this novel set in Montana, well then my dear friend, it’s obvious you haven’t read it. I’m here to help you correct that oversight. American Copper has a huge timesweep, from the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 to the years just before World War II, but it is, at heart, an intimate novel. It traces the intertwined lives of three individuals: Evelynn Lowry, daughter of a copper baron who all but owns the city of Butte, Montana; William Black Kettle, a Native American who works the rodeo circuit and longs for peace in the midst of violence; and a bear of a man named Middie who ends up working as a bouncer on a passenger train. With apologies to other great Big Sky writers like Ivan Doig and Norman Maclean, this is the Montana novel to end all Montana novels.

The beautiful, panoramic images in the trailer and the words of praise floating across the screen give you a taste of what Ray’s debut novel is like, but it’s really at the sentence level where American Copper works its way inside. I already shared one marvelous line with you in a recent Sunday Sentence, but here are a few other random passages from American Copper’s pages which give you a sense of how Shann Ray sees this wild land and its people:
     Winter set in like the teeth of a badger.

     A single butterfly moved toward her as if climbing poorly made stairs.

     He felt the clean blade of pine, the rich taste of high mountains, the nicker of winter, windy and subliminal.
And, finally, a sentence that could describe Ray himself:
     The language in his mouth was stark and eloquent, warrior-like one minute but in the next moment as light-filled as water, and as lovely.
If you’re looking for a beauty of a novel to give (or get) this holiday season, look no further than American Copper.

Monday, November 23, 2015

My First Time: Elizabeth Kadetsky

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 Kadetsky, author of a memoir, First There is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance (Little, Brown); a story collection, The Poison that Purifies You (C & R Press); and a novella, On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World (Nouvella). Her short fiction and personal essays have been published widely—recently in Glimmer Train, Antioch Review, and New England Review. She is assistant professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State, and her words can be found at

My First Firsts

My first publication was a series of poems and drawings accepted for the campus literary magazine by my best friend. My first prose publication was a truly awful article occasioned by my summer in Cuba rooted nevertheless exclusively in research, submitted to the feminism editor at the campus newspaper, who, recognizing its awfulness, completely rewrote it in an equally awful manner, and then proceeded to hire me for an internship in which I would produce eleven articles on feminism each of which she would rewrite in a similar pattern of awfulness replaced by a yet different form of awfulness.

My first fiction publication would occur several months after my college graduation, accepted for print by my then boyfriend, an older man and a publisher of a small literary review. It was a story about a young woman who suffers a kind of PTSD after a series of comical and disturbing episodes that take place while she tries to leave her boyfriend, an older man. It was based on true events, and modeled in part on the writings of Rona Jaffee and Joan Didion in the tradition of young women who are horribly unprepared for it moving to New York City to start out their new lives as writers.

In retrospect, this story wasn’t so bad—“Mood Indigo on Duke Ellington Boulevard.” It was perhaps painfully funny, but when I finally secured a literary agent for a different work he said it read like “something you would read in a magazine.” By that, I think—or I thought charitably to myself at the time—he meant the type of fiction for hire that the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Thurber used to produce in the early 20th century for magazines such as Saturday Evening Post. But he might have meant, more derisively, women’s magazines.

The agent nevertheless helped me publish my first book, after which he summarily dumped me when I told him I’d be writing exclusively short stories. That first book, a memoir: I worked on it for seven years before it was published by a top New York press. The fact of its long trajectory was a point underscored in a profile of me in Poets & Writers magazine upon its publication. This focused on the fact that I stuck with the project against all odds, never receiving the hoped-for advance to produce it, and then, seemingly miraculously and certainly in spite of myself, got it not just published but published well.

Reading over this litany, I am struck by an obvious truth that would occur to anyone: I am nuts. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, I pursued my idée fixe that I was a worthy writer. In fact maybe I’m not even a good writer. But, then, I’m an amazing writer. Such are the tricks of the ego. The unreliable narrator narrating my own life to myself at the time certainly operated according to the logic of this ipso facto truth, that I was an amazing writer. How else could I have persevered in this psychotic manner?

Is there a lesson here for the young writer? There were many years before I secured my first faculty teaching job. During that uncertain time, I suffered poverty, grief, anxiety, depression, nights up at 3 a.m. asking myself what I would do if my book never sold. There was the uncertainty of my future; the question of whether my entire self-conception as a writer was based on flimsy evidence if not lies; the bigger question of how to support myself or whether my lot in life was as a truly excellent copy editor for magazines or how to pay my rent when even that work eventually dried up.

One of my mentors in my MFA program once said to our group, “I look at my baby daughter with such love and tenderness. And I think, Please, please, don’t be a writer.” Is this the answer? Spare yourself the grief! Certainly, when I met with a grad student recently who told me of her plans to pursue a PhD instead of creative writing, I heard myself railing against the academic establishment, heard myself telling her to be true to herself, her creative muse, her dreams. Then I stopped myself. In fact, this particular student may not have had what it takes, and by that I mean a modicum of insanity and megalomania, the constitutional impracticality to blaze forth without a contingency plan.

Think of it: a journalism degree; five years as a long-form journalist for increasingly high-profile national venues; a career change; an MFA; seven years working on Book Number 1. Had Book 1 never received a fond reading by a fairy godmother editor at a top house, I may have squandered all that, and in addition lost my shot at becoming a journalist on a national scale. That possibility, to me, was and remains terrifying. Would I have become a housewife, a dabbler, a starving visual artist, a member of a commune?

Such is the garden of forking paths. In the end, I do have some qualms about the proliferation of MFA programs encouraging students on a path that many may not have the wherewithal to follow through. On the other hand, perhaps the same proportion as at any other time ultimately pursues the dream, throws out the competing desire for stability, salary, the house with a lawn and kid and the neighbor’s cat. Crazily, I now have all that, too. But it took a long time. Certainly, for me, the adventure was worth the injuries along the way.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sunday Sentence: People Like You by Margaret Malone

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

He reached out to shake her hand with his free hand and for a moment the three of us formed a human chain, like together we might break out into song to oppose senseless killings or an oppressive regime; but what had happened to us wasn’t anything like that: it was only a miscarriage, the single quiet slipping away of something that wasn’t quite something enough yet.

“Welcome to Samsara” from People Like You by Margaret Malone

Friday, November 20, 2015

Friday Freebie: People Like You by Margaret Malone

Congratulations to Sherry Devlin, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie, the Big Box o’ Books which contains the following titles: Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford, Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish, Rooms by Lauren Oliver, The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith, Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson, The Sisters Club by Lauren Baratz-Logsted, Say Yes to the Death by Susan McBride, Clinton, Inc.: The Audacious Rebuilding of a Political Machine by Daniel Halper, The Visitors by Sally Beauman, Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie, Acts of God by Ellen Gilchrist, Sidney Sheldon’s Reckless by Tilly Bagshawe, and The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson. Sherry has some great reading ahead of her this winter.

This week’s book giveaway is the new short story collection People Like You by Margaret Malone. People, people, people: I can’t say enough good things about People! I’m only three stories in, but I can tell you this is, beyond a doubt, some of the best fiction I’ve read all year--short or otherwise. As I Tweeted last night:

In fact, rather than break the Sunday Sentence rules of sticking to just one “best” sentence of the week, why don’t I just give you my favorite sentences now from that one story, “Yes,” as found in People Like You? Here they are, starting with the story’s opening line:
     Chuck rings the doorbell and I have my luggage all ready set go by the front door but when I let him in, instead of reaching for my suitcase, Chuck kneels on the hard tile in the entryway and says will you marry me and so I say all right: Chuck’s mom Gladys is watching the whole thing from her car right out front, engine idling, window rolled down, extra long cigarette burning between two straight fingers. After that I yell goodbye to my dad who says bye back but doesn’t come out of the garage to say it, then Chuck helps me squeeze my suitcase and backpack into the crammed trunk of his mom’s car and slam the lid shut. And we’re off.
     So now I’m engaged. I am reserved, like a table at a restaurant.

     Gladys smokes like it was just invented, brand new and full of possibility.

     Reno is a smudge of tallish buildings and neon-signed casinos, dry desert mountains all around. It’s almost a tiny Vegas but feels unfinished, like someone took a lunch break in the middle of building it and never came back.

     If I could propose, what I’d want to marry is that feeling I feel when Chuck and I are riding fast on his bike, winding our way up the forested incline, our bodies intuitively leaning left and right with the weight of the beautiful machinery underneath us, the two-lane road all ours except for the passing of the occasional car headed in the opposite direction and oh how we feel sorry for them, those passengers, they do not know what they’re missing, the warm air against my bare shoulders, the streams of sunlight sneaking through the heavy pines, the smell of dusty heat and warmed pavement and the cool damp of the forest floor, my arms wrapped around Chuck, my smile so wide I have to tuck my face into his shoulder so I don’t swallow air, my whole body, each cell, singing with the abandon of being part of every single thing.

So there you have it: some random, out-of-context sentences which should give you a taste of what’s on these pages. I have to agree with Tom Spanbauer, author of I Loved You More, when he says, “There are moments in Margaret Malone’s collection People Like You when it’s hard to breathe. Because People Like You are people a lot like you, disturbingly so: awkward, petty, flawed, full of hope and monotony, yearning. Malone is a master of the minimal....Whether it’s a dying mother at a slot machine, a drinking pregnant mother stalking sex offenders, or a husband who’s having his prostate checked—every story is flawlessly told, the reader brought to the knees again and again by luxurious moments of intimacy and estrangement....And did I mention hilarious? Don’t let these wonderful stories pass you up. Margaret Malone is a name that will soon be up there with the best and brightest.”

In case you missed it earlier at the blog, check out Margaret’s account of her “first time” and the trailer for the new book.

If you’d like a chance at winning a signed copy of People Like You, 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. 26, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 27. 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 19, 2015

Amy Gustine’s Library: A Post-Apocalypse Bunker of Books

Reader:  Amy Gustine
Location:  Toledo, Ohio
Collection Size:  800, give or take
The one book I’d run back into a burning building to rescue:  Honestly? My current project, unless I was smart enough to back it up off site. I don’t own any family Bibles, signed first editions, or otherwise irreplaceable books.
Favorite book from childhood:  The Trixie Belden mystery series.
Guilty-pleasure book:  Dewey by Vicki Myron—nonfiction about a kitten abandoned on a bitterly cold Iowa night in a library’s book drop. Found in the morning nearly dead, Dewey is revived and becomes permanent guardian of the stacks and a community treasure. I’m a sucker for stories about animals who save us from ourselves. I say it’s a “guilty” pleasure because being brought to tears and laughter by a story about a cat seems like something I should feel guilty about—but I don’t.

More than anything else, books vastly expand our world and provide a refuge from it. Since I’m an introvert wary of received wisdom, they were no doubt my inevitable destination, but childhood circumstances probably paved the way. My sister and I split the week between our maternal and paternal grandparents, spent Saturday with Mom and Sunday with Dad. In essence I had six parents in four different neighborhoods. In addition, we attended a small, private school, which meant we had no neighborhood playmates. Because all my homes offered a single TV with three channels, there wasn’t much else to do but read. No matter—a book or two can easily be taken from house to house. Sometimes you find them just lying around. That’s how during grade school I came to work my way through James Michener, James Fenimore Cooper, Edna Ferber, and the first three of V.C. Andrew’s Dollanganger series (forbidden reading, but Grandma was busy making dinner). Prior to that I had been a big Trixie Belden fan (think a younger, more-awkward Nancy Drew). By high school I had found Salinger (Franny and Zooey was my favorite) and the Russians. Crime and Punishment still sits in my all-time top ten.

When I was fourteen my mom let me commandeer a wall of shelves in the guestroom. Then I went off to college, Mom downsized and my books slipped away. I regret losing the marginal comments. The few books I still have from that time are like reading old diaries, but better—they don’t reveal my crushes.

Like my mother, my inner HGTV-snob wants a house ready to photograph on short notice. Like my father, I take comfort in knowing that even post-apocalypse, I would have enough reading material to keep busy for decades. (Yes, I manage to ignore other apocalyptic challenges like food, clean water, and roving bands of cannibals). Fortunately, I have a home office, a living room and family room. The fiction lives in my office arranged alphabetically by author. My current obsession is with the brilliant Dan Chaon.

I also keep story anthologies, literary magazines, books about writing, reference books and research in my office, segregated on their own shelves but otherwise unorganized. Two shelves are dedicated to the to-be-read pile, roughly sorted by novels, story collections, and non-fiction. I’ve got some James Wood up there right now, Thrown by Kerry Howley, and Honor by Elif Shafak, a writer my exchange student from Pakistan turned me onto. When I was writing a novel with a Pakistani character, my research shelves held books on Islam, South Asia, and the Middle East. Now this area holds material for a project I’m not sure I’ll write yet, so I can’t reveal its contents. It might jinx me.

In front of the books sit mementos. The round wooden box was on my grandmother’s screened porch. As a child I always felt boxes with lids were going to have something wonderful and mysterious inside (they never did). Some of the other items are props I’ve used for writing projects, like the car, a replica of one a character owned, and the vase, a piece similar to a jar in my novel about Czech immigrants.

Some of the living room and family room shelves are arranged for looks, in vertical and horizontal stacks interspersed with tchotchkes and photos. There I shelve poetry and nonfiction very roughly arranged by topic and author, but also placed where they look good, or based on size, so the big books are on the bottom of the stack. I have oversized gardening books (lots of pictures) and several coffee-table books on cats (cue Dewey). I also have a set of Harvard Classics my mother gave me (most of which I haven’t read—sorry Cellini, you’re reserved for the apocalypse).

My favorite non-fiction topics are psychology, anthropology, ethics, religion and evolution. My favorite essayist is Alain de Botton. My favorite writer on religion is Karen Armstrong. The single biggest game changer I’ve read as an adult is Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. I would love to see this adapted for young readers and made a standard high school text. (If the job comes available, somebody let me know.)

I borrow books from the library often, but when I read something I love, I allow myself to buy it. Buying a book I’ve already read used to feel indulgent, but I decided it was better than avoiding the library because I’m afraid of finding a book I don’t want to give back. Still, my tendency to feel crushed by clutter requires brutality. I can’t ask myself if I’d like to own a book (the answer is always yes; it’s a book isn’t it?). Instead I ask: Might I read this again, loan it to a friend, browse excerpts for inspiration, or use it to teach a class or write an essay? Because I insist on keeping the fiction alphabetized, when I find no room for a new novel or story collection, I subject nearby hangers-on to this litmus test. Sometimes a handy space opens; sometimes I sigh and start rearranging shelves.

Digital books serve my neat-nick impulse, make browsing annotations easy and assuage my fear of being caught somewhere without something to read, but they have so many failings. My iPad is always tempting me to check email or click over to “breaking news.” I can’t loan digital books to friends. I’m worried Amazon or Apple might take my books away someday. Once in a while, amid numerous in-process books and magazines, I forget that I was reading something digital because the book isn’t lying on my end table...So sad, but true. Also, digital books are just so....unbook-like. It might be asking too much that they smell and feel like real books, but why do they so often lack the same lovely cover art? Why don’t they include the dust jacket copy?

Worst of all, digital books don’t beg to be thumbed through by a bored kid. My office faces the street. One year on Halloween a teenage girl spied my shelves through the window. She commented that she had never seen so many books before. “And a house,” she said with evident amazement. It reminded me how lucky some of us are to find James Michener lying next to Grandpa’s chair. As children, we often have only what is within reach inside the four walls of our home. If a book is in reach, the walls somehow both come down and fold protectively around you. That’s the greatest gift my six parents ever gave me.

Amy Gustine is the author of the story collection You Should Pity Us Instead from Sarabande Books (out February 2016). Her fiction has received Pushcart Special Mention and appeared in several publications, including The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, North American Review and Black Warrior Review. She lives in Ohio.

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.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Getting a Grip: a Conversation Between Kathy Flann and Julianna Baggott

Authors Kathy Flann (Get a Grip) and Julianna Baggott (Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders) recently got together to talk about writing, Bill Clinton, Baltimore, and ducks that sabotage your homework. Here's their conversation, starting with Julianna...

When super-agent Nat Sobel tracked me down as a newbie short-story writer and asked me if I was writing a novel, I lied and said yes. Then I wrote it and was pretty sure it wasn’t very good. So I called up my MFA alma mater, UNC-Greensboro, and asked them who, of the current crop of MFA students, was the best reader. The answer was Kathy Flann. I asked Kathy—a stranger to me at the time—if I could hire her to critique the manuscript. She said she would. It turns out—lucky for me—that Flann is brilliant. The novel, Girl Talk, went to auction, and sold to Simon and Schuster who would go on to publish my next two novels. Kathy and I have stayed in touch and I’ve watched as her career has taken off. Her new collection Get a Grip has just hit bookstores and it’s my great pleasure to interview her here.

What kind of child were you, and how did it shape you as a writer?

One day in first grade, the teacher said, “Okay, time to turn in your homework.” Homework? What homework? I watched the other kids open their folders and produce these worksheets that had a big cartoon duck. Inside the duck were math problems, and the kids had completed them, lots and lots of large child handwriting on them. My heart raced. I had never seen that duck in my life. Had I been absent the day before? I opened my folder. There was the damn duck. Blank. Looking at me with its big, googly eyes. I understood that, at some point the day before, a day I barely remembered, I had received the duck and held it in my hands. I had always daydreamed a lot and forgotten things, but that moment with the duck was the first time I remember engaging in self-reflection about it. Oh, so this is what kind of person I am. I think becoming a writer was a decision to lean into that instead of fighting it.

A collection of stories isn’t just an assortment of parts. It becomes a whole organism in and of itself. What are some of the elements that make Get a Grip a whole, not just a sum?

In the most basic sense, what connects the stories is location. They all take place in the Baltimore area, though I should say that it is a Baltimore of the mind. Parts of the location are real and other parts are made up. My previous collection had taken place in an imaginary town, and so it was new to me to use a place that actually exists. My subconscious interpreted the idea loosely. When I inhabited the mind of a particular character, I’d find that the map of my neighborhood would rearrange itself to suit (or confront) that person’s story, that person’s outlook and problems. Baltimore tailored itself to each character, and I grew to understand that I actually think that’s how place functions in our lives. My Baltimore is not the same as my neighbor’s Baltimore or my mechanic’s Baltimore. The characters long for connection, and they struggle to achieve it or they achieve it when they didn’t expect to.

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I actually love to do research. My previous collection had a story from the perspective of Bill Clinton, so I spent a ton of time researching his life. One of the things I learned was that his mom used to encourage him to stuff down his problems. “Lock up your troubles in an airtight box, Billy,” she’d say, which seemed important in thinking about his excesses and his thirst for connection and notoriety. It became the story’s title: “An Airtight Box.” As a result of that process, I always have these warm feelings when I see him on TV, almost like he’s a character I created. In a sense, I did. The Bill Clinton in my story is fictional, my own version of him, even though I tried so hard to use real information.

In the new book, “Heaven’s Door” was the one that required the most research. I learned a great deal about the world of meteorites. They’re more valuable if they’re witnessed falling or the fall is caught on camera. The value goes down the longer they sit on the ground. So a meteorite that lands in someone’s attic is worth more. The main character, known as The Meteorite Man, spends his life racing the clock, barely touching down on earth himself. But people don’t win races against clocks.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

You know, this is going to sound like shameless plugging, but it’s the honest answer. I’m lucky to have talented friends who write, and I have many of their books in the queue (yours is one of them!). Some that I’ve read recently have included Let Me See It, a collection of linked stories by James Magruder about two gay cousins growing up in the seventies and discovering their sexuality as they get older; Highs in the Low Fifties by Marion Winik, a hilarious essay collection about dating after fifty; Could You Be With Her Now, award-winning novellas by Jen Michalski; My Life as a Mermaid by Jen Grow, also a collection of stories and a Dzanc Award winner; One Child for Another by Nancy Murray, a memoir about giving up a child for adoption; Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball, a wrenching novel in unsent letters. Reading stuff by people I know is something that I find inspiring and reassuring. We’re all in this together. And see? This is the end result of all of this work and uncertainty—these incredible stories that are out there now.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

Absolutely not. Who are these balanced people? I am going to refuse to like their cat pictures on Facebook.

Why do you do you teach—other than cash?

When I first started out, I had hourly-paid jobs in restaurants and hair salons. I was a clock-watcher. The hours felt like forever. I developed some understanding of caged birds that pluck out their own feathers. I went into teaching partly because it’s hard and keeps my mind busy, and because it’s different each semester because the people are different. I enjoy sharing my love of writing with people who love writing. For writers, people who spend time imagining what it’s like to be someone else, teaching can be a great fit. We have to figure out what makes students tick, how they’ll perceive our efforts, what will motivate them. As an added bonus, teaching others is a way to teach one’s self. Every time that I explain how to heighten tension or manage a certain point of view, I learn that thing more deeply. And that’s what’s really important in the classroom, as I like to tell the students: It’s all about me and whether I’m enjoying myself (which is more likely if the light is flattering).

What’s your advice to a writer who’s looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

I recently got married for the first time at forty-five, so I do have a thought or two on this subject!

Tip #1: Leave your house. As writers, we tend to be introverted and stay home writing or reading or simply recharging. Find a community you enjoy. For me, it was Atomic Books, a few blocks from my house. I loved to go there and spend time with the owners. I hosted events sometimes. People would hang out afterward and drink in the back room. And isn’t that what you want? To meet your husband-to-be while drinking in a back room?

Tip #2: Have a plan and don’t stick to it. When I was thinking about a lifelong partner, I pictured someone who loved fiction and was a vegetarian. Basically, I was looking for myself. Who did I actually end up with? A guy who likes books, but is not drawn to fiction. And not only is a he a meat-eater, but when we met he was in meat club, which involved getting together to eat muskrat or rattlesnake. But we shared a sense of humor, pop culture interests, and had similar priorities about our relationships with people. I love the fact that he’s less anxious than I am and ruminates less, a good fit for his career in medicine and a nice foil for a writer. I often think of that Seinfeld episode when Jerry dumps a girl who’s too much like him. “I can’t date me!” he says. “I hate me.”

Kathy Flann’s fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, The North American Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, New Stories from the South, and other publications. Her short-story collection Get a Grip won the George Garrett Award and was released by Texas Review Press in the fall of 2015. A previous collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. For five years, she taught creative writing at the University of Cumbria in England, where she created mini-courses for the BBC’s Get Writing website and served on the board of the National Association of Writers in Education. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Sozopol Fiction Seminars in Bulgaria, and Le Moulin à Nef in France. She is an associate professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

Julianna Baggott is the author of more than twenty books published under her own name as well as two pen names. Her novel Pure was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Her most recent release is All of Us and Everything, a comedic novel about an odd family, written under the pseudonym Bridget Asher. Baggott's essays have appeared in The New York Times Modern Love column, Washington Post, Real Simple, Best American Poetry series, and on NPR. She teaches in the film school at Florida State University and holds the Jenks Chair of Contemporary American Letters at Holy Cross.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Trailer Park Tuesday: People Like You by Margaret Malone

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

I didn’t intend to make this Margaret Malone Week here at The Quivering Pen; it’s just going to turn out that way. Yesterday, we read about Malone’s “first time” in which she said the joy of selling the first copies of her debut book was like a warm-honey feeling. Today, we turn our attention to the trailer for People Like You, a two-minute reel of film that will jar your senses and shake loose that honey from your bones. “What interests me most as a writer are the everyday, mundane ways that as humans we come together and fall apart,” Malone says in the trailer. Nowhere is this dry-crumble-but-still-together life better described than the opening, titular story of the collection (which I started reading last night while sitting in a bland chain restaurant in Billings, Montana, banks of competing sports-channel TVs chattering overhead and a boring slice of pizza on the plate before me). In “People Like You,” average American married couple Cheryl and Bert attend a surprise birthday party for a “friend” they don’t particularly like. They get lost en route, drink too much once there, and leave with some stolen balloons. On the surface, it’s an ordinary evening; but what sets this story apart, what gives it an electric buzz that tastes like you just licked a lamp socket, is what doesn’t happen. With remarkable restraint, Malone takes us on a tour of the tip of the iceberg without feeling the need to state the obvious: there's a massive, continent-sized chunk of ice right below our feet. A current of tension between Cheryl and Bert hums throughout the story. Their marriage is in free fall when we begin our 13-page eavesdrop and they’re both (or at least Cheryl is) frantically scrabbling their hands across their bodies, trying to find the ripcord that will open the marriage-saving parachute. It may or may not happen. That’s not the point. The point is the ride: the wry, jolting, cynical, sweet, hilarious ride Malone takes us on with her sentences. Sentences like: “We drive in silence for minutes, the inside-car hush of our motion, all the best-times feelings dissolving, the thick familiar air starts up between us. Me, driving. Him, sitting there.” I can’t wait to continue my journey through these pages. Wait, wait! I haven’t even really talked about the trailer and how well it’s assembled by filmmaker Brian Padian (who also happens to be Malone’s husband) and the way those noirish, off-focus black-and-white images form the perfect marriage (unlike that of Cheryl and Bart) with the music and Malone’s narration. It is simultaneously beautiful and unsettling. Much like the stories themselves.

Monday, November 16, 2015

My First Time: Margaret Malone

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 Margaret Malone, the author of the story collection People Like You from Atelier26 Books. Her stories and non-fiction can be found in The Missouri Review, Oregon Humanities, Propeller Magazine, Timberline Review, and elsewhere. A recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship and an Oregon Arts Commission Individual Artist Fellowship, Margaret is a co-host of the artist and literary gathering SHARE. She lives in Portland with her husband, filmmaker Brian Padian, and their two children.

My First Book Sale

I was in our station wagon, driving to a reading on a Sunday afternoon and I was running late. It might have been cold and wet, I can’t remember, but it’s Portland, Oregon, and it often rains, and so I remember it that way. As I drove, unorganized fragments of my life rolled around in the trunk of our station wagon every time I turned left or rightit has become a dumping ground for our life and on this day it contained the following items: week-old, slobbered-on pretzels; a toddler’s Radio Flyer push bike; some rocks, sticks and dried fallen leaves; duck food in a Ziploc bag; some rope from a swing I tried unsuccessfully to harness to a backyard apple tree; a golf umbrella that I can never find when I need because it’s in the back of the station wagon instead of on the porch where one might think to look for it before taking a walk in the rain; and a plain brown box of books, my book: thirty copies of People Like You, my author payment from my publisher, Atelier26thirty books, to do with as I chose: give away, sell, keep, whatever. The box of books was not with me intentionallyit was in the back of the station wagon with everything else because that’s where I put it when the publisher gave me the box two weeks earlier and that’s just how my life’s been lately.

I drove past the reading venue on Alberta Street, turned onto 22nd and smooshed my car into a parking spot in such a way that it was just barely not blocking someone’s driveway.

Jumping out of the car, as an afterthought, I grabbed five books from the plain brown box in the back, since I was told it’d be okay to bring some books to sell. It was the first time I’d ever done a reading where I could conceivably sell my book afterwards. I didn’t know if it was okay to sell the book yet since it wasn’t officially out for another three weeks. But what the hell, I thought I’d bring them in anyway knowing full well I’d walk them right back out to the car at the end of the reading, and load them back into the box with their other twenty-five friends. It didn’t matter. What excited me was simply the idea that I could sell a book. That I had a book to sell. This book is after all my first book.

I walked up 22nd, crossed Alberta Street and pulled open the heavy door to Post 134, a Legion Hall in northeast Portland.

Inside it was cool and dark, the open space filled with a handful of dark brown circular tables, those metal upholstered conference room stacking chairs tucked underneath; a couple of couches lining the perimeter, a pool table off to the side, a cozy C of a bar tucked into the corner, and a small stage immediately on the left upon entering. A string of Christmas lights, those big old-school bulbs, framed the wall in back of the stage. The word that always comes to mind when I enter is safe.

Folks were scattered around the room, chatting to each other, managing to seem lively and quiet both, and there wasn’t anybody on stage yet, so I was a little late but not asshole late.

The legion hall is managed by a vet named Sean Davis, who also happens to be a writer, and because of him and his generous and welcoming nature, the Post 134 has become a hub of literary activity, not only for veterans but also for the whole Portland writing community. It has become my favorite place for literary readings. Any time I’m asked to read there, I say yes.

As I headed for the back of the room, I saw mostly familiar facesa variation of the same group of folks who often gather here at readings, often sitting at the same tables.

I saw that there were other books for sale on the pool table in back. I laid my five books down on the felt too, and before I could get my coat off, a woman I know, a fellow writer, stopped me.

“Your book’s for sale?” she said. “I thought it wasn’t out yet? Can I buy one?”

Really? I thought. You want to buy my book?

“It’s not out for another three weeks,” I said. “But I had some in my car and I think it’s okay if I sell them, right?”

I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t checked with the publisher.

She was already reaching for her wallet. It dawned on me I had no money in my wallet, no change for accepting cash, no way to take credit cards. What the hell was I thinking? The woman said she thought she had exact change, sixteen dollars.

Then another voice. “You’re selling your book? I want one, too.”

I was still wearing my coat.

This person also had exact change.

I’d just sold two books. Two books! My book! A book filled with stories that I had written. The feeling I had was the opposite of shame but that’s as far as I understood it, it was so unfamiliar.

I propped up my remaining three books and settled in at the back of the house. The reading was about to begin.

I listened.

Two poets, an essayist, three of us reading short stories. As always at Post 134 the writing is alive, present, and often uncomfortably hilarious.

At the end of the reading someone else came toward me and said she liked my story and would like to buy a book.

My book? I thought. You would?

Cash again, and I’d made enough money from selling the first two books to accept her twenty and give her change.

And then one of the poets who read walked over and wanted to buy a copy, too.

You do? I had to stop myself from saying it out loud.

My one remaining copy was sold in a matter of minutes, and then I had a request for another one, but had to say I’d run out and I was sorry because they were all gone. Gone!

I’d sold five books. For money. Real money. And here is the thing I want to talk aboutthis feeling I had after selling the books, it was new. I didn’t have a name for it. I tried to understand it and went through the logic of it all again: I wrote a story; I read the story out loud; someone listened to the story; someone liked it; then someone bought my book.

I’m not a person accustomed to achieving my goals, and so I had no word for the slow honey warmth that was moving through my body, rising up from my feet, through my belly, making my cheeks feel flushed. It was only feeling. A new, good feeling.

Weirder still, despite how badly my husband and I needed the money, it seemed like it wasn’t the money that was making me feel so good. No, it wasn’t the money at all.

It was the exchange.

I did this thing. You liked it. You gave me something you valued. I gave you a book. Therefore, the bookthe stories, the wordshad value for you.

Value and belonging and art were not things I ever thought would be together in one place at one time in my life. And yet here we were, together, unexpected, inside my body, in the safe womb of this place.

The longer I sat with it I realized something more; this feeling, it was mine, but also it wasn’t mine.

That was itis there an English word for it? The feeling felt like all of us were part of this something that we’d created together, you and me and what we share and how we are when for the briefest of moments we’re not lone blips traveling the space-time continuum, but we collide in the best way and are changed.

Years ago I sat next to an older fellow on an airplane, grey hair and beard, kind smile, he might even have had suspenders. We ended up talking on and off during the flight and before the plane landed he said this thing I have always remembered.

He told me, there are only two things in this life that can’t be taken away from you. One is your education; and the other is your travel. Despite my youth at the time, I knew he was rightthat what he said was the truth.

Turns out he was wrong. Turns out there is this third thing, too.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday Sentence: “Gun Notes” by David Huddle

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

          Violence-addicted gun-idiot
          America, I’d shed you like a rattlesnake
          scraping off its old skin except I’d still
          be a rattlesnake.

“Gun Notes” from Dream Sender: Poems by David Huddle

Friday, November 13, 2015

Friday Freebie: The OMG Big Box of Books Giveaway

Congratulations to Nancy Bekofske, Melissa Seng, and Seth Tucker, winners of last week’s Friday Freebie: American Copper by Shann Ray. Congratulations are also in order to Carl Scott who won the special midweek giveaway of The Beauty of What Remains: Family Lost, Family Found by Susan Johnson Hadler.

Brace yourselves, dear readers—this week’s contest is for one ginormous box of books with a little something for just about everybody. One lucky reader will win the following titles: Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford, Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish, Rooms by Lauren Oliver, The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith, Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson, The Sisters Club by Lauren Baratz-Logsted, Say Yes to the Death by Susan McBride, Clinton, Inc.: The Audacious Rebuilding of a Political Machine by Daniel Halper, The Visitors by Sally Beauman, Gutenberg’s Apprentice by Alix Christie, Acts of God by Ellen Gilchrist, Sidney Sheldon’s Reckless by Tilly Bagshawe, and The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson. There’s a mix of hardcovers and paperbacks in the box; whenever possible, I’ve linked to the appropriate format.

I timed this giveaway for just before the holidays so you’ll be able to give some of these books as gifts to fellow readers. Unless you want to keep the whole hoard to yourself...which is entirely understandable and acceptable. Keep scrolling for more about each of the books from the publishers’ jacket copy...

Let Me Be Frank With You is a brilliant new work that returns Richard Ford to the hallowed territory that sealed his reputation as an American master: the world of Frank Bascombe, and the landscape of his celebrated novels The Sportswriter, the Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner winning Independence Day, and The Lay of the Land. In his trio of world-acclaimed novels portraying the life of an entire American generation, Richard Ford has imagined one of the most indelible and widely discussed characters in modern literature, Frank Bascombe. Through Bascombe—protean, funny, profane, wise, often inappropriate—we’ve witnessed the aspirations, sorrows, longings, achievements and failings of an American life in the twilight of the twentieth century. Now, in Let Me Be Frank with You, Ford reinvents Bascombe in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In four richly luminous narratives, Bascombe (and Ford) attempts to reconcile, interpret and console a world undone by calamity. It is a moving and wondrous and extremely funny odyssey through the America we live in at this moment. Ford is here again working with the maturity and brilliance of a writer at the absolute height of his powers.

In Preparation for the Next Life, Zou Lei, orphan of the desert, migrates to work in America and finds herself slaving in New York’s kitchens. She falls in love with a young man whose heart has been broken in another desert. A new life may be possible if together they can survive homelessness, lockup, and the young man’s nightmares, which may be more prophecy than madness. When it was published last year, Atticus Lish’s novel took home a trunkful of awards and acclaim, including: Winner of the 2015 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, Winner of the New York City Book Award for Fiction, and Finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Fiction. The New York Times called it “The finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade.”

Lauren Oliver, the New York Times bestselling author of Before I Fall and the Delirium trilogy makes her brilliant adult debut with Rooms, a mesmerizing story in the tradition of The Lovely Bones, Her Fearful Symmetry, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane—a tale of family, ghosts, secrets, and mystery, in which the lives of the living and the dead intersect in shocking, surprising, and moving ways. Wealthy Richard Walker has just died, leaving behind his country house full of rooms packed with the detritus of a lifetime. His estranged family—bitter ex-wife Caroline, troubled teenage son Trenton, and unforgiving daughter Minna—have arrived for their inheritance. But the Walkers are not alone. Prim Alice and the cynical Sandra, long dead former residents bound to the house, linger within its claustrophobic walls. Jostling for space, memory, and supremacy, they observe the family, trading barbs and reminiscences about their past lives. Though their voices cannot be heard, Alice and Sandra speak through the house itself—in the hiss of the radiator, a creak in the stairs, the dimming of a light bulb. The living and dead are each haunted by painful truths that will soon surface with explosive force. When a new ghost appears, and Trenton begins to communicate with her, the spirit and human worlds collide—with cataclysmic results. Elegantly constructed and brilliantly paced, Rooms is an enticing and imaginative ghost story and a searing family drama that is as haunting as it is resonant.

Set in a small coastal town in North Carolina during the waning years of the American Revolution, The Story of Land and Sea follows three generations of family—fathers and daughters, mother and son, master and slave, characters who yearn for redemption amidst a heady brew of war, kidnapping, slavery, and love. Drawn to the ocean, ten-year-old Tabitha wanders the marshes of her small coastal village and listens to her father’s stories about his pirate voyages and the mother she never knew. Since the loss of his wife Helen, John has remained land-bound for their daughter, but when Tab contracts yellow fever, he turns to the sea once more. Desperate to save his daughter, he takes her aboard a sloop bound for Bermuda, hoping the salt air will heal her. Years before, Helen herself was raised by a widowed father. Asa, the devout owner of a small plantation, gives his daughter a young slave named Moll for her tenth birthday. Left largely on their own, Helen and Moll develop a close but uneasy companionship. Helen gradually takes over the running of the plantation as the girls grow up, but when she meets John, the pirate turned Continental soldier, she flouts convention and her father’s wishes by falling in love. Moll, meanwhile, is forced into marriage with a stranger. Her only solace is her son, Davy, whom she will protect with a passion that defies the bounds of slavery. In this elegant, evocative, and haunting debut, Katy Simpson Smith captures the singular love between parent and child, the devastation of love lost, and the lonely paths we travel in the name of renewal.

Ten Thousand Saints, the extraordinary national bestseller, is now a film starring Ethan Hawke, Hailee Steinfeld, and Emile Hirsch. Adopted by a pair of diehard hippies, restless, marginal Jude Keffy-Horn spends much of his youth getting high with his best friend, Teddy, in their bucolic and deeply numbing Vermont town. But when Teddy dies of an overdose on the last day of 1987, Jude’s relationship with drugs and with his parents devolves to new extremes. Sent to live with his pot-dealing father in New York City’s East Village, Jude stumbles upon straight edge, an underground youth culture powered by the paradoxical aggression of hardcore punk and a righteous intolerance for drugs, meat, and sex. With Teddy’s half brother, Johnny, and their new friend, Eliza, Jude tries to honor Teddy’s memory through his militantly clean lifestyle. But his addiction to straight edge has its own dangerous consequences. While these teenagers battle to discover themselves, their parents struggle with this new generation’s radical reinterpretation of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll and their grown-up awareness of nature and nurture, brotherhood and loss. Moving back and forth between Vermont and New York City, Ten Thousand Saints is an emphatically observed story of a frayed tangle of family members brought painfully together by a death, then carried along in anticipation of a new and unexpected life. With empathy and masterful skill, Eleanor Henderson has conjured a rich portrait of the modern age and the struggles that unite and divide generations.

In The Sisters Club, Lauren Baratz-Logsted reminds us of this: Some families you are born into. Some you choose. And some choose you. Four women have little in common other than where they live and the joyous complications of having sisters. Cindy waits for her own life to begin as she sees her sister going in and out of hospitals. Lise has made the boldest move of her life, even as her sister spends every day putting herself at risk to improve the lives of others. Diana is an ocean apart from her sister, but worries that her marriage is the relationship separated by the most distance. Sylvia has lost her twin sister to breast cancer, a disease that runs in the family, and fears that she will die without having ever really lived. When Diana places an ad in the local newsletter, Cindy, Lise, and Sylvia show up thinking they are joining a book club, but what they discover is something far deeper and more profound than any of them ever imagined. With wit, charm, and pathos, this mesmerizing tale of sisters, both born and built, enthralls on every page. Click here to read about Lauren Baratz-Logsted’s “first time.”

In Say Yes to the Death, debutante dropout Andrea Kendricks is beyond done with big hair, big gowns, and big egos—so being dragged to a high-society Texas wedding by her socialite mama, Cissy, gives her a bad case of déjà vu. As does running into her old prep-school bully, Olivia La Belle, the wedding planner, who’s graduated to berating people for a living on her reality TV show. But for all the times Andy wished her dead, nobody deserves Olivia’s fate: lying in a pool of blood, a cake knife in her throat—but did the angry baker do it? Millicent Draper, the grandmotherly owner of Millie’s Cakes, swears she’s innocent, and Andy believes her. Unfortunately, the cops don't. Though Andy’s fiancé, lawyer Brian Malone, is handling Millie’s case, she’s determined to spring Millie herself. But where to start? “La Belle from Hell” had enemies galore. Good thing Andy has a BFF who’s a reporter—and a blue-blood mother who likes to pull strings.

In Clinton, Inc., Weekly Standard editor Daniel Halper provides a meticulously researched account of the brilliant calculations, secret deals, and occasionally treacherous maneuverings that led to the Clintons’ return to political prominence. In the twelve years since the Clintons left the White House, they have gone from being virtually penniless to multi-millionaires, and are arguably the most popular politicians in America—respected and feared by Republicans and Democrats alike. But behind that rise is a never-before-told story of strategic cleverness, reckless gambles, and an unquenchable thirst for political power. Investigative reporter Daniel Halper uses a wealth of research, exclusive documents, and detailed interviews with close friends, allies, and enemies of the Clintons to reveal the strategy they used and the deals they made to turn their political fortunes around. Clinton, Inc. exposes the relationship between President Obama, the Bush family, and the Clintons—and what it means for the future; how Bill and Hillary are laying the groundwork for the upcoming presidential campaign; how Vice President Biden and other Democrats are trying to maneuver around her; Chelsea’ s political future; the Clintons’ skillful media management; the Clintons’ marriage and why it has survived; and an inside look at the Clinton’s financial backers and hidden corporate enterprises.

Based on a true story of discovery, The Visitors is New York Times bestselling author Sally Beauman’s brilliant recreation of the hunt for Tutankhamun’s tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings—a dazzling blend of fact and fiction that brings to life a lost world of exploration, adventure, and danger, and the audacious men willing to sacrifice everything to find a lost treasure. In 1922, when eleven year-old Lucy is sent to Egypt to recuperate from typhoid, she meets Frances, the daughter of an American archaeologist. The friendship draws the impressionable young girl into the thrilling world of Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter, who are searching for the tomb of boy pharaoh Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings. A haunting tale of love and loss, The Visitors retells the legendary story of Carter and Carnarvon’s hunt and their historical discovery, witnessed through the eyes of a vulnerable child whose fate becomes entangled in their dramatic quest. As events unfold, Lucy will discover the lengths some people will go to fulfill their deepest desires—and the lies that become the foundation of their lives. Intensely atmospheric, The Visitors recalls the decadence of Egypt’s aristocratic colonial society, and illuminates the obsessive, daring men willing to risk everything—even their sanity—to claim a piece of the ancient past. As fascinating today as it was nearly a century ago, the search for King Tut’s tomb is made vivid and immediate in Sally Beauman’s skilled hands. A dazzling feat of imagination, The Visitors is a majestic work of historical fiction.

Gutenberg’s Apprentice is an enthralling literary debut that evokes one of the most momentous events in history, the birth of printing in medieval Germany—a story of invention, intrigue, and betrayal, rich in atmosphere and historical detail, told through the lives of the three men who made it possible. Youthful, ambitious Peter Schoeffer is on the verge of professional success as a scribe in Paris when his foster father, wealthy merchant and bookseller Johann Fust, summons him home to corrupt, feud-plagued Mainz to meet “a most amazing man.” Johann Gutenberg, a driven and caustic inventor, has devised a revolutionary—and to some, blasphemous—method of bookmaking: a machine he calls a printing press. Fust is financing Gutenberg’s workshop and he orders Peter, his adopted son, to become Gutenberg’s apprentice. Resentful at having to abandon a prestigious career as a scribe, Peter begins his education in the “darkest art.” As his skill grows, so, too, does his admiration for Gutenberg and his dedication to their daring venture: copies of the Holy Bible. But mechanical difficulties and the crushing power of the Catholic Church threaten their work. As outside forces align against them, Peter finds himself torn between two father figures: the generous Fust, who saved him from poverty after his mother died; and the brilliant, mercurial Gutenberg, who inspires Peter to achieve his own mastery. Caught between the genius and the merchant, the old ways and the new, Peter and the men he admires must work together to prevail against overwhelming obstacles—a battle that will change history...and irrevocably transform them.

Master short story writer Ellen Gilchrist, winner of the National Book Award, returns with her first story collection in over eight years. In Acts of God, she has crafted ten different scenarios in which people dealing with forces beyond their control somehow manage to survive, persevere, and triumph, even if it is only a triumph of the will. For Marie James, a teenager from Fayetteville, Arkansas, the future changes when she joins a group of friends in their effort to find survivors among the debris left when a tornado destroys a neighboring town. For Philipa, a woman blessed with beauty and love and a life without care, the decision she makes to take control of her fate is perhaps the easiest she has ever made. As she writes to Charles, her husband and lifetime partner, “Nothing is of value except to have lived well and to die without pain.” For Eli Naylor, left orphaned by a flood, there comes an understanding that sometimes out of tragedy can come the greatest good, as he finds a life and a future in a most unexpected place. In one way or another, all of these people are fighters and believers, survivors who find the strength to go on when faced with the truth of their mortality, and they are given vivid life in these stories, told with Ellen Gilchrist’s clear-eyed optimism and salty sense of humor. As a critic in the Washington Post wrote in reviewing one of the author’s earlier works, “To say that Ellen Gilchrist can write is to say that Placido Domingo can sing. All you have to do is listen.”

#1 New York Times bestselling author Sidney Sheldon’s most popular and enduring heroine—Tracy Whitney of If Tomorrow Comes and Sidney Sheldon’s Chasing Tomorrow—is back with another story of heart-stopping twists and breathtaking action. Once upon a time, Tracy Whitney was one of the best thieves in the business. Then she settled down, had a baby, and planned to spend the rest of her days quietly, living anonymously, devoted to her son. But tragic news has forced Tracy to face her greatest nightmare. Now, with nothing left to protect, she returns to the hunt—and she’s more dangerous than ever. Tracy is not the only woman with a dark and dangerous past. The world faces a new terror threat from a group of global hackers intent on the collapse of capitalism and private wealth and the creation of a new world order. When this group turn to violence, with deadly effect, the mysterious woman pulling their strings becomes the CIA’s public enemy number one. Only one clever and ruthless woman is capable of tracking down the terrorist: Tracy. But as Tracy discovers, the truth proves as elusive as her target. Hampered by corruption and enemies masked as allies, Tracy will be pushed to the brink, where she must face her darkest demons. But just how reckless will a person become when she have nothing left to lose?

Jonas Jonasson’s picaresque tale of how one person’s actions can have far-reaching—even global—consequences is written with the same light-hearted satirical voice as his bestselling debut novel, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. On June 14th, 2007, the King and Prime Minister of Sweden went missing from a gala banquet at the Royal Castle. Later it was said that both had fallen ill: the truth is different. The real story starts much earlier, in 1961, with the birth of Nombeko Mayeki in a shack in Soweto. Nombeko was fated to grow up fast and die early in her poverty-stricken township. But Nombeko takes a different path. She finds work as a housecleaner and eventually makes her way up to the position of chief advisor, at the helm of one of the world’s most secret projects. Here is where the story merges with, then diverges from reality. South Africa developed six nuclear missiles in the 1980s, then voluntarily dismantled them in 1994. This is a story about the seventh missile...the one that was never supposed to have existed. Nombeko Mayeki knows too much about it, and now she’s on the run from both the South African justice and the most terrifying secret service in the world. She ends up in Sweden, which has transformed into a nuclear nation, and the fate of the world now lies in Nombeko’s hands.

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