Thursday, June 30, 2016

Living in the Flux: The Glimmer Train interview with Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

I’ve been enjoying the latest issue of Glimmer Train Stories, reading it in small doses each day so I can stretch out the experience. (Full disclosure: one of my stories, “A Little Bit of Everything,” can also be found in these pages.) While many of the stories are outstanding, for me the real centerpiece of the Spring/Summer 2016 issue (#96) is Kevin Rabalais’ interview with Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly, the husband-and-wife team behind The Tilted World. Tom is also the author of the short story collection Poachers and the novels Crooked Letter Crooked Letter, Hell at the Breech, and Smonk; Beth Ann, a poet, is the author of Tender Hooks, Unmentionables, and Open House.

I thought I’d share some of my favorite portions of the interview because they have a lot to say about the writing process—especially doing research for historical novels (The Tilted World, Hell at the Breech, and Smonk are all set in times past). I’m at the very beginning of a writing project which is set here in my adopted hometown of Butte, Montana in the early 20th century, so Tom’s comments really resonated with me.

Here he talks about writing Hell at the Breech, which is set in Alabama in 1897:

When I read the newspapers of those times, I would get both high and low language. Whenever someone wrote an article for the paper, he was generally trying to show off. If they wrote for the paper, they were educated. So instead of writing that the passengers were “spitting” in the rail cars, the writer used the word “expectorating” just to show off a bit.

I think that a certain kind of research would only give you that surface quality. You have to go deeper into it and try to find diaries or letters. That’s where people talk the way they really talk. There, you’re catching people when they’re naked. You can look at old photographs and see the way people are stiff. Compare that with the way they sit on their own front porch. As a novelist, you need to write about your characters not as though they’re posing for that photograph but relaxing on their front porch.

*     *     *

Here’s Tom discussing Smonk, which he says is “my favorite of all my books and the one that sold by far the worst,” and how it compares with the composition of his earlier novel:

With Hell at the Breech, I started in the middle and wrote toward the end and then came back to the beginning. I did a first draft of Smonk in ten days, two hundred pages in ten days, and then it took me a year and a half to fix it. I’ve now learned that’s how to write a novel. Start and don’t look back until you get to the end, even if you know it’s all wrong. You can always fix it later, but you have to follow the momentum. You need to be able to judge the whole animal, which you can see and weigh as opposed to just having pieces of it. If you’ve got a whole big quilt, even if it’s missing pieces, you can still see how to fix the corners.

*     *     *

I’ll let Beth Ann have the last word. When Kevin Rabalais asked the couple “What keeps you both excited about writing and about literature?” she replied:

It’s the narrative impulse—simple, yet essential. That’s why we’re on earth. The world is this flux of events and noise. The writer’s job is to live in the flux but to perceive a shape in it, to find the story and to trace the arc of the human experience. Narrative gives shape and meaning to life.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Book Radar: Nancy Pearl, J. P. Monninger, William Jensen, Tara Ison, S. M. Stirling and Sarah Weinman

Book Radar rounds up some of the latest publishing deals which have caught my eye, gathered from reports at Publishers Marketplace, Galley Cat, office water-coolers and other places where hands are shaken and promises are made. As with anything in the fickle publishing industry, dates and titles are subject to change.

From Publishers Lunch, news of the following book deals...

Librarian Nancy Pearl’s GEORGE AND LIZZIE, a married couple have radically different understandings of what love and marriage should be. He grew up in a warm and loving family in Tulsa, Oklahoma, his father an orthodontist, his mother a stay-at-home mom; while she grew up as the only child of two famous psychologists who related to her more as an in-house experiment, than a child to love; it extends from their first meeting to more than a decade into their unlikely marriage. (Touchstone, publication in June 2017)

J. P. Monninger’s THE MAP THAT LEADS TO YOU, in which a recent college graduate traveling around Europe with her two best friends meets and falls in love with an enigmatic Vermonter a few years older than she is, who is following his grandfather’s journal to various cities around Europe. (St. Martin’s, publication in Summer 2017)

William Jensen’s CITIES OF MEN, pitched as Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool, Tobias Wolf’s This Boy’s Life and Richard Ford’s Canada. It’s billed as a Bildungsroman wherein a mother goes missing without explanation and her son sets out to find her. Along the way, the boy experiments with alcohol, violence, and vandalism, and he begins to truly know his father, a Vietnam veteran struggling with PTSD. Together, father and son drive around the hills of Southwest America in hopes of finding the most important woman in their lives.

Author of Rockaway and Ball, Tara Ison’s AT THE HOUR BETWEEN DOG AND WOLF, a coming-of-age novel of identity and the devastating consequences of war and prejudice, about a Parisian-Jewish girl who must hide out with French Christian villagers during World War Two, pitched in the vein of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. (Counterpoint, for publication in Spring 2017)

S. M. Stirling’s THE BLACK CHAMBER TRILOGY, set in an alternate history where Teddy Roosevelt regains the Presidency in 1912, kicking off a 20th century of even greater technological and social change than in our real timeline. (Ace, for publication in 2017 and 2018)

Editor of the anthologies Women Crime Writers and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives Sarah Weinman’s AMONG THE WHOLESOME CHILDREN, on the abduction and tragic life of Sally Horner, the real-life inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. (Ecco)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Fundamentals of Caring

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

As the end credits began to roll, I turned to my wife and said, “So, what did you think?” She shrugged and said, “It was okay for a feel-good movie.” “Yeah maybe,” I said, “but I felt good watching it.” It’s true that the new Netflix original movie The Fundamentals of Caring may not pluck a sentimental chord in everyone’s heart (my wife is a particularly tough critic) and it certainly has its flaws, but there are plenty of things to love about it, starting with the two leads, Paul Rudd as Ben Benjamin, a newly-certified caregiver and grieving father, and Craig Roberts as Trevor, the mouthy teenage boy with Duchenne muscular dystrophy who is Ben’s first client. Casting Paul Rudd in a movie is always a wise move for any filmmaker. He’s got a downbeat Everyman charm that can carry even the lamest script to the finish line (not that The Fundamentals of Caring’s script is lame). Rudd is matched note for note here by Craig Roberts, a sullen (but witty) teen who dreams of one day being either sexually-pleasured by Katy Perry or taking a road trip to see the World’s Deepest Pit...or, ideally, both at the same time. Third on his bucket list is being able to pee standing up at least once in his life. The Fundamentals of Caring follows the typical road movie playbook with snappy repartee between the driver and passenger, shots of a van traveling down a winding interstate at sunset, and the additional of other quirky passengers along the way (Selena Gomez as a runaway girl and Megan Ferguson as an “any-day-now” pregnant woman). But it’s the fundamental story which makes all the difference here. Based on Jonathan Evison’s novel The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (the movie circumcises the title for the syllable-challenged, apparently), this is really all about how Ben learns to forgive himself for past mistakes. I liked how writer-director Rob Burnett’s script slowly doled out the backstory, peeling away the layers of Ben’s grief little by little so that we never fully know what happened until the end of the movie. By the time Trevor tells Ben, “This is not about meit’s about you,” we realize we haven’t been watching a by-the-numbers road movie, but a road map on how to be a good parent. At that point, The Fundamentals of Caring took on a richer, deeper meaning. And yes, it made me feel pretty darn good about watching it.

Bonus: the original trailer for Jonathan Evison’s novel.

Monday, June 27, 2016

My First Time: Brandon Davis Jennings

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 Brandon Davis Jennings, an Iraq War veteran from West Virginia and the author of two Kindle Singles: Waiting for the Enemy and Battle Rattle. Brandon received his Master of Fine Arts in Fiction from Bowling Green State University, and his PhD. from Western Michigan University. His work has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Berkeley Fiction ReviewNinth LetterMonkeybicycle, Passages North and elsewhere. Brandon’s chapbook Waiting for the Enemy was Iron Horse Literary Review’s 2012 Single Author Chapbook Competition winner, and he is the 2013 winner of the Thomas J. Hruska prize in Creative Non Fiction. His first full-length collection of essays Operation Iraqi Freedom is My Fault is forthcoming later this year. Visit his website to learn more about his life and writing.

My First Time Never Happened

Back in the olden days, when I was still in my MFA at Bowling Green State University (a school I highly recommend to anyone foolish enough to want to be a writer), my submission strategy was to scour Duotrope for every magazine that existed and then shotgun-blast my terrible stories at every magazine that accepted simultaneous submissions; this is not an approach I recommend (nor employ any longer). An additional recommendation is that you should not write a story about a man who lives on a hair farm built on one of the earth’s ass cheeks. Even if the character’s name is Harry Moon, do not do it. That story, “Moon Gold,” the one about the hairy crack farmer, was never published despite being submitted to a number of journals; thank God. But if it had been, it wouldn’t have been my first time that never happened; which is what this is all about.

The story that was accepted at a now defunct journal was titled, “Derrick is a Big Man.” It’s about a pararescue guy and his buddies who were on leave and drinking their asses off in a dormitory. Why pararescue? I picked a job I’d never done and then used details about that job to build metaphors and add a layer of intrigue that I did not possess the skill to construct with a job like custodian or a dorm manager: not without adding some fantastical elements like the ass crack of the earth, for instance. I can’t make a mop exciting. I know because I’ve tried.

Some good things happened for me because of “Derrick is a Big Man;” it won me the Devine Fellowship at BGSU my second year and it was the story I submitted in my packet to Western Michigan University where I was accepted and where I then completed my PhD. Both of those things happened after the story was accepted for publication in a print magazine that is now defunct; a print magazine that defuncted (sic) before my story saw the light of day.

At one point while that story drifted in the purgatory between acceptance and publication, the editor emailed to tell me that the funds for the print magazine had dried up, but that they’d love to publish my story online. We have readers for you online, he wrote. I immediately said no to that proposition. Why? Because I wanted to hold a book in my hands that had my story in it. Why did I want that? Because everyone I’d ever talked to at the time thought publishing electronically was subpar. A story online was online because there is limitless space there (which is not true; Google it). Editors and readers care less about your story because it’s just going up online; editors don’t need to worry about editing or proofing online stories because they can go online and fix the mistakes anytime they get a wild hair or they can leave errors as they stand because no one is going to read the story anyway; it’s online. People hate reading stories on screens and stories published online will just fade into the abyss with all the other stories online, and your career will disintegrate right along with all those unread, unedited stories.

So I said, Nah, dude. No thank you. I will not allow you to destroy my career and my life by publishing my story online. I was a mighty MFA student with zero publication credits and zero prospects and zero confidence who told that editor of the now defunct journal that I was taking my story back, and that I’d seek publication in some other print magazine. I was sorry about the state of his print journal because if his print journal died, then surely his journal was doomed outright; no magazine could survive by being online alone. Everyone knew something that ridiculous would never happen. It was as likely as Antarctica breaking apart and falling into the ocean in huge chunks.

For more than a year I was embarrassed by this not-first-time. I’d told friends and family that a story of mine was getting published moments after I’d received the acceptance in the mail. I might have waited an entire minute after I’d ripped open the letter and seen that what was inside wasn’t another form rejection that to add to the stacks of form rejections in my already overfull filing cabinet before I called my friends. People congratulated me. I drank beers and cracked jokes because I was on my way. My one short story that was going to be published in a print magazine that no one had ever heard of was going to be the thing that turned my life around. I wasn’t going to be, as it were, a virgin anymore. But as you’re already aware, I was wrong. Just like the kid in Stuart Dybeck’s “We Didn’t,” I was not about to get what had at one time seemed inevitable. For months I waited to hear from the editor about when the magazine would be released and when to expect my contributor’s copies that I would stand on my coffee table to do my bragging for me. Yet no word came. After a couple months, people started to ask questions. “When’s your story coming out? What’s the name of that magazine again? Are you gonna call and ask them what the deal is? Aren’t you worried that something weird is going on?”

Yeah I was worried and angry and scared that people would think I’d just made it all up. My whole life had gone from Job’s life pre-God and Devil’s bet to a life much like Harry Moon’s at the end of his story “Moon Gold” where he and his entire farm end up covered in shit after he strikes “gold” in the valley between the earth’s cheeks (how else could that story have ended?) And this all started before I had a chance to say no. The unknown that accompanies submitting work for publication is something I’ve become more familiar with over time, and I am more numb to it now, but back then, the thought that someone would accept my story for publication and then never publish it seemed like a horror story. You work on something until it nearly consumes you, send it to some faceless god like an offering, and then you’re supposed to just put it out of your mind until they tell you they do or do not want to publish that thing. (In the case of agents, they might not tell you that they even received that thing: something that also took some getting used to.) And there’s no point in going much farther into this spiral of terror because, as you know, the editor did finally contact me, and then I did finally tell him no. And ultimately the story was never published in any magazine: print or electronic. On a hard-drive it remains, only remembered on rare occasions such as this when I wax nostalgic about the anxieties wedded to the world of submitting things that you love while hoping against hope that whoever is on the receiving end of your submission doesn’t send you back an email that says something like: “Every joke falls flat, and I hope your character isn’t named Derrick because this story is about the war for oil.” An aside is that I once submitted a poem and the rejection said that it didn’t have the “ness” of a poem. I won’t argue that the poem was good, but that kind of rejection is as full of ness as they come.

So why write about this not-first-time as my first time? There’s not a whole lot of good in talking about this writing game if we don’t talk about the parts that are most frustrating and how we overcame those frustrating parts. And sometimes those frustrating parts are caused by beliefs that are imposed on us by others, and not beliefs that we agree with if we take a few minutes to evaluate those beliefs ourselves. I cannot say for a fact whether or not having that story published online would’ve been good or bad for my writing career. And that not-knowing bothered me for a long, long time. It doesn’t now, though; which is not to say that other not-knowings have been as easy to overcome.

I feel lucky (some might say blessed.) I’ve had stories published in journals that I can hold in my hands and have a bookshelf where I keep them, so I can look at them if I am feeling particularly miserable about my current writing progress (I doubt this ever stops recurring regardless of one’s success). But I have also published electronically, and I feel just as good when I see a story or essay of mine online as I do when I hold one of them in my hands. If I didn’t feel that way, then I wouldn’t have two Kindle Singles right now. The main character in both of those books is Derrick Vezchek, a version of the character in my never-published “Derrick is a Big Man.” Those Kindle Singles might have never happened if “Derrick is a Big Man” had been published back when my first time never happened. Because that story was never published I was able to write new and better stories about that character. Some of those stories were published in print magazines individually. Then Iron Horse Literary Review published them as a chapbook called Waiting for the Enemy, and then when, by the grace of God, that chapbook sold out, it might have died like so many chapbooks do. Instead of accepting that, I submitted the chapbook to Kindle Singles, and it is now available online and will be until Amazon or the internet dies.

Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “Don’t write a novella.” I heard it a lot. Why? Because where on earth are you gonna get it published? There are a few novella contests (I was lucky enough to judge one of them last year), but novellas are tough to publish in part because they just aren’t economical for most publishers. And that sounds stupid to most artists because “it’s not about the money” (which is true until it is about the money). I’ve told people a million times that a story is as long as it needs to be, and I believe that. But I also know that is bad advice for someone trying to get a book deal. And what happened to me? Because I was so focused on a collection of essays that I didn’t have the energy to finish my second novel, I ended up with a novella. If I’d been afraid of electronic publications, that novella would be sitting on my hard-drive, maybe forever. Instead of that, I went back to Kindle Singles and they published the novella, Battle Rattle, a novella about Derrick Vezchek. What’s even more thrilling about it for me, is that it became a best-seller: which, sadly, does not mean I made a million (or even a thousand) dollars.

“Derrick is a Big Man” was my first time that never happened, and it made me anxious for a long time. I got it over, and eventually I published other stories in journals that are not defunct, and I had interactions with editors and a couple agents that were positive and inspiring. Because I am the luckiest man I know, my supportive and encouraging wife framed both Waiting for the Enemy and the issue of Crazyhorse where my first published essay “Operation Iraqi Freedom is My Fault” appeared. I am proud of those physical artifacts, but I am also proud that when someone types my name into the search bar on Google or Amazon they can find my work, and they can read the things published online. Because some of my work exists online, a couple of my essays were found and then translated into Czech. And because Amazon published Waiting for the Enemy, Eike Schönfeld, (translator of the likes of J. D. Salinger, Jonathan Franzen, and Kathryn Mansfield), is translating my chapbook into German. How could that have happened for an agentless goofball like myself without electronic publications?

I’m glad I grew up as a writer in this transitory period, and I’m glad that I didn’t choose the side of stubbornness over progress because it’s mostly been good to me. I’m excited that print and electronic publications are able to coexist in a way that so many people told me wouldn’t be possible. And I am glad my first time never happened. Because if it had, I may not have been as driven to write better stories and essays. “Moon Gold” might have been the end of my writing career, and what a crappy ending that would’ve been.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

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

The fiddle players rosined their bows, and the piano player lightly touched the keys, and the bass player made his big fat strings talk in a deep, low voice, and then they exploded—and the music they played was like a giant bucket of water poured over a great tree, fully leaved, the notes dividing and dispersing themselves down, gradually growing smaller and smaller, joyously running, bouncing, flowing down, down, down from leaf to leaf as if racing one another.

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler

Friday, June 24, 2016

Friday Freebie: We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

Congratulations to Renata Birkenbuel, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie giveaway: This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison.

This week’s book contest is for the new novel by Matthew Norman, We’re All Damaged. Catherine McKenzie, author of Hidden and Smoke, had this to say about the book: “In We’re All Damaged, Matthew Norman has crafted a fast-paced, funny, and touching story. Comparisons to Jonathan Tropper and Nick Hornby will be made, and deservedly so, but Norman’s voice and characters are fresh and all his own. A winning novel that is sure to make you laugh, cry and nod in recognition as all the best books do.” Read on for more information about We’re All Damaged...

Andy Carter was happy. He had a solid job. He ran 5Ks for charity. He was living a nice, safe Midwestern existence. And then his wife left him for a handsome paramedic down the street. We’re All Damaged begins after Andy has lost his job, ruined his best friend’s wedding, and moved to New York City, where he lives in a tiny apartment with an angry cat named Jeter that isn’t technically his. But before long he needs to go back to Omaha to say good-bye to his dying grandfather. Back home, Andy is confronted with his past, which includes his ex, his ex’s new boyfriend, his right-wing talk-radio-host mother, his parents’ crumbling marriage, and his still-angry best friend. As if these old problems weren’t enough, Andy encounters an entirely new complication: Daisy. She has fifteen tattoos, no job, and her own difficult past. But she claims she is the only person who can help Andy be happy again, if only she weren’t hiding a huge secret that will mess things up even more. Andy Carter needs a second chance at life, and Daisy—and the person Daisy pushes Andy to become—may be his last chance to set things right.

If you’d like a chance at winning We’re All Damaged, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on June 30, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on July 1. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Soup and Salad: James Joyce Illuminates Karl Ove Knausgaard, Matthew Norman on Every Writer’s Worst Nightmare, What’s in a Publisher’s Name?, RIP Lois Duncan and Jack Fuller

On today’s menu:

1.  “I longed to get away. What I wanted was to write, and I resolved to read this marvelous work and be illuminated by all its radiance.” In his introduction to the new Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Karl Ove Knausgaard (My Struggle) writes about how the Irish writer’s masterpiece shone a light on his life and career:
Even now, 27 years after I first read the book, its moods come back to me. The rain-drenched school buildings in the dusk, the circumambient sound of children’s voices, the dull thud of a foot striking a ball, the heavy arc of the ball in the dismal air. The smell of cold night in the chapel and the hum of prayer. The family gathered together on Christmas Day, waiting for the dinner to be served; the fire burning in the fireplace, candles lighting up the table, the bonds and conflicts that exist between the people seated around it. The father, who talks with strangers in bars and tells the same stories every time. The narrow, filthy lanes in which the prostitutes huddle, the yellow gaslights, the smell of perfume, Stephen’s trembling heart. And the birds at evening, circling above the library, dark against the blue-gray sky, their cry “shrill and clear and fine and falling like threads of silken light unwound from whirring spools.”
It’s been a number of years (too many) since I read Portrait. Thanks to Penguin and Knausgaard, I hope to return to its pages soon. To echo the novel’s concluding lines: “and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

2.  At Lit Hub, novelist Matthew Norman (We’re All Damaged) writes about every writer’s worst nightmare: a room full of empty chairs at a reading...
I don’t know exactly what I was expecting to find inside that bookstore. I’m not an idiot. I knew that I wasn’t The Beatles getting off that plane in San Francisco. No one was going to be throwing underwear at me or bursting into tears. But, surely someone was going to be there, right? Book people? A Hopkins creative writing class? My coworkers? My friends? But then it dawned on me that my book had only been out for about 72 hours and no one had any reason to have any idea who in the hell I was. And then something else dawned on me—something far worse. I hadn’t really told anyone about the reading. I’d posted something about it on Facebook, but that was about the equivalent of shouting the date and time of my reading out my open car window on I-95 in a rainstorm. A lone microphone stood in the café. Lined up there before it were five rows of startlingly empty chairs. My literary career had started.

3.  Book Riot gives the backstory behind some publishers' names, including a few of my favorites like Dzanc Books:
Pronounced “Da-Zaynk”, the not-quite 10-year old Michigan literary powerhouse (books, a monthly magazine, classes, writers residencies) took its name from the initials of the five children of co-founders Steven Gillis and Dan Wickett had between them: Anna, Zach, Chase, Nasstassja, and Dalton with letters moved around to form something that almost looked like a word.
and Tin House:
The power forward of the Rose City’s writing community began as a bi-coastal magazine operation in 1988 with two of its founders based in New York and its managing editor living in a literal tin house on the city’s northwest side. That same building (“to be honest, it’s corrugated zinc oxide,” a Tin Housian told me) now houses the operations of the magazine, book publishing unit and acclaimed summer writing workshops and the unbreakably sealed story of Tin House’s other potential names. “Those are buried under the Tin Garage. Along with the bodies.”

I was saddened to hear of two writers’ deaths this weektwo authors whose orbits had briefly, peripherally touched mine in recent years...

4a.  To any young reader growing up in the 1970s and 80s, the name Lois Duncan will probably be familiar as someone who trailed icy fingers down the knobby spines of our backs. The author of I Know What You Did Last Summer, Killing Mr. Griffin, and many others wrote about sinister threats to teenagers and managed to tap directly into our deepest adolescent fears; she was like the darker sister of Judy Blume. Three years ago when I put out a call on Facebook for suggestions on what to read next, I was surprised to receive a personal email from Mrs. Duncan:
     Dear David Abrams,
     Of course, the book I’d like for you to read next is my book, One to the Wolves: On the Trail of a Killer, about the murder of daughter Kaitlyn Arquette. It has just been published as an e-book by Planet Ann Rule and can be downloaded to Kindles, Nooks, etc.
     I’ve written over 50 books, and am best known for fictional suspense novels. This time the horror story is a true one. The heroine was our own child and I was not able to manipulate the plot to produce a happy ending.
     Lois Duncan
Sure, it was what some might call “shameless self-promotion” (though I say there’s no shame in trying to spread the word about something you worked long and hard to produce; it’s a noisy world out there and it’s hard to be heard); but I was struck by the little twist she even managed to put at the end of a simple email. I think I was also so stunned to receive a message from one of my childhood idols that I never wrote back (nor, more to my self-disappointment, did I read One to the Wolves) and now I’m sorry to have let that moment slip by. Lois Duncan passed away on June 15 at age 82. At The New Yorker, Carmen Maria Machado wrote a beautiful tribute to the author she first discovered in 1997 when she was eleven:
     That was the summer when—tan, smelling of chlorine, stippled in mosquito bites and goose bumps from the air-conditioning, just on the verge of puberty—I discovered Lois Duncan. Her books’ dramatic titles, such as “Summer of Fear,” “Killing Mr. Griffin,” “Gallows Hill,” drew me in, and their taglines sealed the deal. I wedged as many as could fit into my bag. Horror novels had been banned in my family since I was seven, when an older kid on the bus let me borrow his copy of “Night of the Living Dummy,” and it gave me such terrible nightmares that I insisted on sleeping with the lights on for a week. So, when my mother picked me up from the library, I pleaded my case. Most of them had been written in the nineteen-seventies, I told her. (I had checked.) How scary could they be?
     Very, of course. The climax of “Gallows Hill”—in which a girl’s classmates believe her to be a witch and gather on a hilltop to hang her—was so thrilling that I literally trembled. (Only when it was over did I notice that, while I was reading, I’d moved to the arm of the couch and perched myself there.) I picked up “Summer of Fear” next: a teenager’s beautiful cousin moves in with her family after a terrible tragedy and begins to steal the protagonist’s life. After that, “Killing Mr. Griffin,” about a group of high-school students who accidentally kill their English teacher. Then “Daughters of Eve,” in which a teacher runs a feminist organization to instruct her students about the poison of regressive gender roles—but her message of empowerment is tinged with something sinister.
     These novels weren’t scary in a way that I recognized. They walked a delicate line between impossibly terrifying and terrifyingly possible. Duncan has sometimes been grouped with writers like Christopher Pike or R. L. Stine, but her novels lack the comic, pulpy luridness of their work. Her prose is unfussy and clean. She centered her books on young women, and her writing considers themes that have come to obsess me as an adult: gendered violence, psychological manipulation, the vulnerability of outsiders. She writes about folie à deux and mass hysteria, doppelgängers, sociopathy, revenge. She portrays psychic powers and past-life regressions with a kind of realism; she recognized that even a supernatural evil must have a human heart.

4b.  I knew Jack Fuller was terminally ill. Greg Michalson, his publisher and friend, had arranged for Jack to write something for this blog in order to help get a little more visibility for what would turn out to be his last book, the just-released One From Without. But then I got this note from Greg: About his “my first time” blog post for you: Jack’s health has taken a steep turn for the worse and he entered hospice care yesterday. But I spoke with both him and his wife—he’s going to try to dictate this piece about his time in Vietnam with Stars & Stripes, if he’s able. I know he very much wants to do this. Though I’m not sure how this will work. That’s why, when I did receive Jack’s essay, “Finding My Novel,” five days later, I knew the high cost of the words he’d written. I don’t think I’ve ever published anything here at The Quivering Pen with more respect and appreciation. Jack Fuller passed away earlier this week at age 69. The notice at Shelf Awareness included this tribute from Greg Michalson:
The passing of Jack Fuller is inexpressibly sad and difficult. Our hearts go out to his family. It was a tremendous privilege to know and be allowed to publish this man, whose brilliant writing may only be exceeded by his intellectual curiosity and good will toward his fellow man. His interests, like his career, had a breathtaking scope. A conversation with Jack was always profound and entertaining. He was truly one of the good guys, someone who tried to make the world that much better. We’re glad we were able to launch into that world his final novel, a masterpiece which he said took him a lifetime to be ready to write.
I’ll leave the last word to Jack, in these closing lines from the essay he wrote for this blog as he recounted the struggle to put his thoughts about his Vietnam War experience on paper:
     Perhaps a year passed. I did not have a story in mind, just a faint, restless, buzzing in my head, something that wanted out. Then one night, while I was studying in an underground library, all of a sudden the story came to me. Every movement of every soldier in it was clear in my mind. The geography of the village was so sharp that somewhere in my papers there is still the map I drew that night, which did not change over the years I wrote and rewrote and rewrote the novel.
     When I started writing that night, I had no idea who these men were, moving through the village. I did not know where they came from, what else they had done in the Army, anything about them. And so I started with whatever I could with each of them, and worked from there.
     Many things remained unclear to me even as I worked deep in the story. But the importance of this story itself never failed me. It was at least a decade before I saw the book in print. It was actually my second book to be published. But it was the one that I would never let go.
     The picture of those grunts in the village is still as vivid to me as it was that night, underground, in the library, reflected from my experiences at Stars and Stripes.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

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

In person Dr. Proudie is a good-looking man; spruce and dapper, and very tidy. He is somewhat below middle height, being about five feet four; but he makes up for the inches which he wants by the dignity with which he carries those which he has.

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope

Friday, June 17, 2016

Friday Freebie: This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison

Congratulations to Mike O’Brien, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie giveaway: Orient by Christopher Bollen.

This week’s book contest is for a new paperback copy of This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison. The highly-acclaimed novel has many admirers, including Ben Fountain (author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) who said, “This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! has all the wonderful snap and sizzle we've come to expect from Jonathan Evison’s work, and as much heart as any novel I’ve read in recent years. Jonathan packs an entire lifemany livesinto this fine book, and does so with the empathy and insight of a writer at the top of his game.” Read on for more information about the book...

With Bernard, her husband of fifty-five years, now in the grave, seventy-eight-year-old Harriet Chance impulsively sets sail on an ill-conceived Alaskan cruise that her late husband had planned. But what she hoped would be a voyage leading to a new lease on life becomes a surprising and revelatory journey into Harriet’s past. There, amid the overwhelming buffets and the incessant lounge singers, between the imagined appearances of her late husband and the very real arrival of her estranged daughter midway through the cruise, Harriet is forced to take a long look back, confronting the truth about pivotal events that changed the course of her life. And in the process she discovers that she’s been living the better part of that life under entirely false assumptions. In This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! Jonathan Evison has crafted a bighearted novel with an endearing heroine at the helm. Through Harriet, he paints a bittersweet portrait of a postmodern everywoman, her story told with great warmth, humanity, and humor. Part dysfunctional love story, part poignant exploration of the mother-daughter relationship, nothing is what it seems in this tale of acceptance, reexamination, and forgiveness.

If you’d like a chance at winning This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on June 23, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 24. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Monday, June 13, 2016

My First Time: Richard Hawley

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 Richard Hawley, author of the new novel The Three Lives of Jonathan Force. His previous books include The Headmaster’s Papers, The Headmaster’s Wife, and Greeves Passing. Richard Hawley was born in 1945 in Chicago and attended suburban public schools in Arlington Heights, Illinois, before attending Middlebury College, where he completed his B.A. in political science. He went on to graduate studies at Case Western Reserve University, where he earned an M.S. in Management Science and a Ph.D. in political philosophy. In the fall of 1968 he began teaching at Cleveland’s University School, an independent college preparatory school for boys. His essays, articles and poems have appeared in dozens of literary, scholarly, and commercial journals, including The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, American Film, Commonweal, America, Orion, and The Christian Science Monitor. For ten years he taught fiction and non-fiction writing at The Breadloaf Writers Conference in Vermont, and he continues to teach developing writers in a variety of settings.

My First Lost Manuscript

Today the quickest way to dismiss another person on the street is to call him a “loser.” But the truth of the matter is that all of us are seriously lost at crucial junctures in our lives. Moreover, the depth and extent of our lost-ness is directly proportional to the saving value of what we find next. A good start to recovering soulfulness might be to recognize ourselves for the “losers” we periodically must be.

A few years ago I found myself a big loser. Not incidentally, this occurred at a time when I was especially full of myself. It was spring break at the school of which I was Headmaster, and I had planned a solo vacation to Europe. The trip was to begin with some school business in London, then a first-ever trip to Amsterdam where a much anticipated train ride down the Rhine would take me to Munich to visit a few former students, then another leisurely train to Paris for a few days, then home.

The prospect of this trip–the distance, the strangeness, the solitude, the fabled cities–thrilled me. Moreover, the actual experience unfurled before me with an eerily satisfying perfection. The meetings I attended, connections I made, the striking look and feel of things matched my preconceptions of them with an almost déjà vu precision. I remember the agreeable realization as I was leaving my hotel in London with the collar of my dark overcoat turned up against the cold, that I felt like Harry Haller, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, moving anonymously between great cities.

As I anticipated, the greatest pleasure was the trains. For some reason, the sleek, velvety smooth trains I rode were nearly empty. I had an enclosed six-passenger compartment to myself on every leg of the trip. I lounged alone in the elegant dining cars with their wonderfully heavy plates and cups and silver. Outside the window, ancient winter light cast a steely sheen on the Rhine and helped convey the stony weight of the castles standing sentinel high over its banks. Exactly, I mean exactly, as I had thought.

Perhaps my sense of isolation, even my powers of observation, were heightened by the fact that I was in the process of writing–actually finishing–a novel. The novel told the story of a marriage from three different points of view, and I was very full of this story, and, again, of myself, as I penned page after page into my hardbound writing book, now and then looking up, as if in a dream, at window framed views of the Rhine Valley in late winter. By the time I left Munich, I had finished the novel, way ahead of schedule. I had placed my married lovers in a mythic structure, and my heart felt as if it were dissolving into that great form as I inscribed my final words. Moreover–blessedly–I could read it all over, savor it, on the all-day train from Munich to Paris.

In the compartment of that train, a few minutes before my arrival in Paris, I awoke from a nap. I began to straighten up and pull my things together. I had spread papers and books over the seats, and I clearly recall deciding to keep the magazines I had bought in London. The last item zipped into my bag was the Robertson Davies novel I was reading. No need, I felt, to keep the newspapers, and so I left them strewn on the seats.

I had not been to Paris in twenty-five years, but its settled, elegant whiteness came familiarly back to me. Yet again this trip felt as much a dream as waking reality. It was dark outside when I arrived at my hotel. As I unpacked my bag, I remember trying to name or classify what I was feeling, how I had been feeling since I awoke on the train. It was a good feeling, almost intoxication. I felt slowed down, full–and this was it!–too full of good things. When I had taken everything out of the bag and spread it over the surface of the bed, I knew. There was a terrible current at the back of my head, a sickening flash behind the eyes. There was no manuscript book. It was not there. A year and a half’s work.

Later I could be seen at the concierge’s station in the hotel lobby. An observer would have noted a tense, concerned man asking about how to contact the Lost Properties department at the Gard de L’Est. But earlier, as I stood over my belongings, my palms running horribly over the empty ribbing of my open bag, I was insane. For twenty minutes, like a robot, I placed all my belongings in the bag, zipped it up, then unzipped it and took them out again. Each time I did this my manuscript book was missing.

I was in Paris for three days, but I was not really, wholly there. I willed myself outside, to walk, to observe, once or twice a day to eat. I made, for me, elaborate, thoroughgoing attempts to recover my novel, and I must say the authorities were wonderfully, touchingly responsive. But I never for a second believed I would find it, despite its impressive heft and my name and address on the flyleaf. All I can recall is walking the peopled boulevards in the slanting sunlight of late afternoons, feeling something like a sack of feathery ashes where my heart and innards had been.

It was lost! I had lost it. I was a loser. Weeks, months passed, and I would still dissolve into this state of loss–I can feel it now, as I remember and write. Slowly, aggravatingly, I began honestly to ask myself why, not how. (How was obvious; it was under the newspapers.) Why? What did I need to lose? This book? The story it told? Myself as a writer? Myself who dreams on trains? Myself who feels too full, too full of himself? I will never know, nor does knowing matter. But I feel, still feel, the enormity of that loss. I have felt less, and for less time, at the death of beloved persons. And my loss was a kind of death. I would say that it was unbearable, but I bore it, bear it. I am not a crier, but when I lost my story–to me so nuanced, so surprising, seemingly pulled out of me rather than created–my deep interior cried and cried. I did not cry out, I cried in. And this is who I am now, the kind of writer I am, a person who died a bit and felt it, who knows this, too.

Author photo by M. A. Watson

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Sunday Sentence: The Warden by Anthony Trollope

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

He took such high ground there was no getting on it.

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

Friday, June 10, 2016

Friday Freebie: Orient by Christopher Bollen

Congratulations to Paul Clark, Jane Rainey and Carl Scott, winners of last week’s Friday Freebie giveaway: One From Without by Jack Fuller.

This week’s book contest is for a paperback copy of Orient, a novel by Christopher Bollen. Amazon named it a Best Mystery of 2015 and Philipp Meyer (author of The Son) said it was like “The Great Gatsby meets Donna Tartt. Suspenseful, beautifully written, and wonderfully atmospheric, Orient is that rare treat that is both a page-turner and a book you will want to savor.” Read on for more information about Orient...

A gripping novel of culture clash and murder: as summer draws to a close, a small Long Island town is gripped by a series of mysterious deaths—and one young man, a loner taken in by a local, tries to piece together the crimes before his own time runs out. Orient is an isolated town on the north fork of Long Island, its future as a historic village newly threatened by the arrival of wealthy transplants from Manhattan—many of them artists. One late summer morning, the body of a local caretaker is found in the open water; the same day, a monstrous animal corpse is found on the beach, presumed a casualty from a nearby research lab. With rumors flying, eyes turn to Mills Chevern—a tumbleweed orphan newly arrived in town from the west with no ties and a hazy history. As the deaths continue and fear in town escalates, Mills is enlisted by Beth, an Orient native in retreat from Manhattan, to help her uncover the truth. With the clock ticking, Mills and Beth struggle to find answers, faced with a killer they may not be able to outsmart.

If you’d like a chance at winning Orient, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on June 16, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 17. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Front Porch Books: June 2016 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, independent bookstores, Amazon and other sources. Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books. In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss. Note: many of these books won’t be released for another 2-6 months; I’m here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released. I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall
by Matt Bell
(Soho Press)

Let the bells ring! There’s a new Matt Bell book in town (or will be when the marvelously-titled A Tree or a Person or a Wall is released in September). I look forward to the release of new work by the author of Scrapper and In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods with all the fervor of the devout listening for cathedral bells on a Sunday morning calling them to worship. To stretch this metaphor to its end, let me just say this collection of short fiction is the answer to our prayers.

Jacket Copy:  A Tree or a Person or a Wall gives us Matt Bell at his most inventive and uncanny: parents and children, murderers and monsters, wild renditions of the past, and acute takes on the present, all of which build to a virtuoso reimagining of our world. A 19th-century minister builds an elaborate motor that will bring about the Second Coming. A man with rough hands locks a boy in a room with an albino ape. An apocalyptic army falls under a veil of forgetfulness. The story of Red Riding Hood is run through a potentially endless series of iterations. A father invents an elaborate, consuming game for his hospitalized son. Indexes, maps, a checkered shirt buried beneath a blanket of snow: they are scattered through these pages as clues to mysteries that may never be solved, lingering evidence of the violence and unknowability of the world. A Tree or a Person or a Wall brings together Bell’s previously published shorter fiction—the story collection How They Were Found and the acclaimed novella Cataclysm Baby—along with seven dark and disturbing new stories, to create a collection of singular power.

Opening Lines:  Even before the man with rough hands brought the boy to the locked room, even then there was always already the albino ape sitting on the chair beside the nightstand, waiting for the man and the boy to come.

Compartment No. 6
by Rosa Liksom
(Graywolf Press)

How about some chilly Russian literature for your summer reading? Rosa Liksom’s highly-acclaimed novel looks like it will be just the ticket. From the outside at least, Compartment No. 6 looks like it will marry the snowy vistas of Doctor Zhivago with Chekhovian intimacy on the relationship between two strangers in a train compartment. Liksom’s book, which is making its American debut in a translation by Lola Rogers, was previously published in 2011 in Finland and won the Finlandia Prize.

Jacket Copy:  In the waning years of the Soviet Union, a sad young Finnish woman boards a train in Moscow. Bound for Mongolia, she’s trying to put as much space as possible between her and a broken relationship. Wanting to be alone, she chooses an empty compartmentNo. 6.but her solitude is soon shattered by the arrival of a fellow passenger: Vadim Nikolayevich Ivanov, a grizzled, opinionated, foul-mouthed former soldier. Vadim fills the compartment with his long and colorful stories, recounting in lurid detail his sexual conquests and violent fights. There is a hint of menace in the air, but initially the woman is not so much scared of or shocked by him as she is repulsed. She stands up to him, throwing a boot at his head. But though Vadim may be crude, he isn’t cruel, and he shares with her the sausage and black bread and tea he’s brought for the journey, coaxing the girl out of her silent gloom. As their train cuts slowly across thousands of miles of a wintry Russia, where “everything is in motion, snow, water, air, trees, clouds, wind, cities, villages, people and thoughts,” a grudging kind of companionship grows between the two inhabitants of compartment No. 6. When they finally arrive in Ulan Bator, a series of starlit and sinister encounters bring Rosa Liksom’s incantatory Compartment No. 6 to its powerful conclusion.

Opening Lines:  Moscow hunkered down into a dry, frozen March evening, sheltering itself from the touch of an icy sun setting red. The girl boarded the last sleeping car at the tail end of the train, found her cabincompartment number sixand took a deep breath. There were four bunks, the higher two folded against the wall above. There was a small table between the beds with a white tablecloth and a faded pink paper carnation in a plastic vase. The shelf at the head of the beds was full of large, clumsily tied parcels. She shoved the unprepossessing old suitcase that Zahar had given her into the metal storage space under the hard, narrow bunk and threw her small backpack on the bed. When the station bell rang for the first time she went to stand at the window in the passageway. She breathed in the smell of the train: iron, coal dust, smells left by dozens of cities and thousands of people. Travelers and the people with them pushed past her, lugging bags and packages. She touched the cold window and looked at the platform. This train would take her to villages of exiles, across the open and closed cities of Siberia to the capital of Mongolia, Ulan Bator.
     When the station bell rang the second time she saw a muscular, cauliflower-eared man in a black working-man’s quilted jacket and a white ermine hat and with him a beautiful, dark-haired woman and her teenage son, keeping close to his mother. The woman and the boy said goodbye to the man and walked arm in arm back towards the station. The man stared at the ground, turned his back to the icy wind, pinched a Belamorka, lifted it to his lips and lit it, smoked greedily for a moment, stubbed the cigarette out on the sole of his shoe, and stood there, shivering. When the station bell rang for the third time, he jumped on the train. The girl watched him walk towards the back of the car with swinging steps and hoped he wasn’t coming to her cabin. She hoped in vain.

Blurbworthiness:  “This unlikely couple...accompany one another across the plains as if progressing through a film by Andrei Tarkovsky.”  (Svenska Dagbladet)

The Loved Ones
by Sonya Chung
(Relegation Books)

As a long-time admirer of Sonya Chung’s whip-smart editorial work at The Millions and Bloom, I was happy to see the front-porch arrival of her new novel, The Loved Ones. I have not had the chance to read beyond the first few pages, but I have the sneaking suspicion that The Loved Ones, due to hit bookstores in October, is bookstore-vigil, be-first-in-line, and call-in-sick-to-work worthy. Read on to see why you should put the novel at the top of your must-read list...

Jacket Copy:  In this masterful novel of inheritance and loss, Sonya Chung (Long for This World) proves herself a worthy heir to Marguerite Duras, Hwang Sun-won, and James Salter. Spanning generations and divergent cultures, The Loved Ones maps the intimate politics of unlikely attractions, illicit love, and costly reconciliations. Charles Lee, the young African American patriarch of a biracial family, seeks to remedy his fatherless childhood in Washington, DC, by making an honorable choice when his chance arrives. Years later in the mid-1980s, uneasy and stymied in his marriage to Alice, he finds a connection with Hannah Lee, the teenage Korean American caregiver whose parents’ transgressive flight from tradition and war has left them shrouded in a cloud of secrets and muted passion. A shocking and senseless death will test every familial bond and force all who are touched by the tragedy to reexamine who their loved ones truly arethe very meaning of the words. Haunting, elliptical, and powerful, The Loved Ones deconstructs the world we think we know and shows us the one we inhabit.

Opening Lines:  The boy was six, the girl nine. Their father, Charles Frederick Douglass Lee, was himself one of five children; each had looked after the next while Charles’s mother worked night shifts and his grandmother worked days at the same corner store owned by a cousin. He’d come up fine and didn’t believe in babysitters. It was his wife, Alice, who insisted the girl was not old enough to be left alone with the boy. “What if there’s an emergency,” Alice Lee said to Charles. She often made statements in the form of questions. She said “emergency” in a near whisper.

Blurbworthiness:  “Sonya Chung’s prose is elegant, sparse, and heartbreaking in a way that reminds one of Elena Ferrante or Clarice Lispector. In this novel of two very different but interconnected families both named Lee, she tells the story of love against the twin inheritances of shame and grief. This book is a complication of the immigrant narrative in a way that is long overdue and necessary. A gorgeous and important second novel.”  (Nayomi Munaweera, author of What Lies Between Us)

Half Wild
by Robin MacArthur

After reading Jodi Paloni’s wonderful They Could Live With Themselvesshort stories set in VermontI find myself jonesing for more literature about the Green Mountain State. Robin MacArthur’s Half Wild looks All Great. I can’t wait to start exploring the terrain populated by her characters. Reviewers have compared her style to Raymond Carver, Annie Proulx, Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Weltyhigh praise indeedso that seals the deal for me.

Jacket Copy:  A powerfully authentic new literary voice debuts with stories that carve out a distinctive vision of the wildness and beauty of rural Vermont. Spanning nearly forty years, the stories in Robin MacArthur’s formidable debut give voice to the hopes, dreams, hungers, and fears of a diverse cast of Vermonters—adolescent girls, aging hippies, hardscrabble farmers, disconnected women, and solitary men. Straddling the border between civilization and the wild, they all struggle to make sense of their loneliness and longings in the stark and often isolating enclaves they call home—golden fields and white-veiled woods, dilapidated farmhouses and makeshift trailers, icy rivers and still lakes rouse the imagination, tether the heart, and inhabit the soul. In “Creek Dippers,” a teenage girl vows to escape the fate that has trapped her eccentric, rough-living mother. “Maggie in the Trees” explores the aftershocks of a man who surrenders to his passion for a wild, damaged woman—his longtime friend’s partner. In “God’s Country,” an elderly woman is unexpectedly reminded of a forbidden youthful passion and the chance she did not take. Returning to her childhood house when her mother falls ill, a daughter grapples with her own sense of belonging in “The Women Where I’m From.” In striking prose powerful in its clarity and purity, MacArthur effortlessly renders characters cleaved to the land that has defined them—men and women, young and old, whose lives are inextricably intertwined with one another and tied to the fierce and beautiful natural world that surrounds them.

Opening Lines:  “You want to jump in the creek?” my mother asks. It’s a Tuesday night in late July and we’re on the porch drinking Myers’s rum doused with lemonade. She’s wearing cut-off cargo pants and a Grateful Dead T-shirt full of holes; her cracked toenails are the chartreuse of limes.
     “No,” I say, to which she snorts and throws her cigarette butt into the wet grass, where it hisses before losing its flame. Mist rises from the field. Baby grasshoppers pop. Clouds drift.
     I don’t want to go down to the creek with my mom. Nor do I want to be living here at sixteen in this deciduous/coniferous northeastern no-man’s-land of Vicksburg where we were both born, forty square miles of intersecting roads, intersecting streams, failing farms, and rocky ledge.
     Populated by ghosts and animals and lonely women. Frickin' heaven, my mom calls these woods.

Blurbworthiness:  “MacArthur writes with the ear of a musician and a classic, pure command of the short story form, like a dispatch from Eudora Welty in the great north woods.”  (Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Almost Famous Women)

Froelich's Ladder
by Jamie Duclos-Yourdon
(Forest Avenue Press)

I can say, without hesitation, that Froelich’s Ladder is the most unusual book to come across my desk this past month. Too few novels these days involve ladders (not to mention the world’s fourth-tallest ladder!) and there’s certainly a lack of Confederate Army assassins, general store magnates and “unfortunately-named” girls named Lotsee in our contemporary literature. There is, indeed, a lot to see in this novel set in the fog-shrouded Pacific Northwest.

Jacket Copy:  Froelich nurses a decades-old family grudge from his permanent perch atop a giant ladder in this nineteenth century madcap adventure novel. When he disappears suddenly, his nephew embarks on a rain-soaked adventure across the Pacific Northwest landscape to find him, accompanied by an ornery girl with a most unfortunate name. In their encounters with Confederate assassins, European expatriates, and a general store magnate, this fairytale twist on the American dream explores the conflicts between loyalty and ambition and our need for human connection, even at the highest rungs.

Opening Lines:  It was November 1851 when Harald and Froelich arrived in Oregon Country. Disembarking at Fort Astoria, they journeyed inland by foot, hiking over the Cascades in a gale that swept off the ocean like an enormous push broom.

Blurbworthiness:  “From the first page to the last, Froelich’s Ladder brims with color, intrigue, and verve. At once a fantastical, madcap adventure and a poignant meditation on independence and solitude, it’s the kind of book that captivates you quickly and whisks you high into the atmosphere. I was in thrall to the surreal Oregon landscape, populated by tycoons and grifters, cross-dressers and hungry clouds. This debut is clever, irreverent, and ultimately unforgettable.”  (Leslie Parry, author of Church of Marvels)

The Girl in Green
by Derek B. Miller
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Wars are never fully left behind on the battlefield, are they? They’re carried home like burrs in a soldier’s clothing. And they prick and scrape the skin for years and years and years. In Derek B. Miller’s new novel, a soldier and a journalist each witness a terrible attack during Operation Desert Storm and carry those burr-like images with them long after they return home....until another war comes along and they finally have to confront their feelings about what they saw. As an author of a novel about Operation Iraqi Freedom, I get a steady flood of war literature cascading across my desk each month. The Girl in Green has managed to rise above the tidethanks to the tantalizing story and the promise of the opening lines on the first pageand I’ve put it near the top of my summer-reading pile.

Jacket Copy:  From the author of Norwegian by Night, The Girl in Green is a novel about two men on a misbegotten quest to save the girl they failed to save decades before. In 1991, near Checkpoint Zulu, one hundred miles from the Kuwaiti border, Thomas Benton meets Arwood Hobbes. Benton is a British journalist who reports from war zones in part to avoid his lackluster marriage and a daughter he loves but cannot connect with; Arwood is a midwestern American private who might be an insufferable ignoramus, or might be a genuine lunatic with a death wishit’s hard to tell. Desert Storm is over, peace has been declared, but as they argue about whether it makes sense to cross the nearest border in search of an ice cream, they become embroiled in a horrific attack in which a young local girl in a green dress is killed as they are trying to protect her. The two men walk away into their respective lives. But something has cracked for them both. Twenty-two years later, in another place, in another war, they meet again and are offered an unlikely opportunity to redeem themselves when that same girl in green is found alive and in need of salvation. Or is she?

Opening Lines:  Arwood Hobbes was bored. Not regular bored. Not your casual, rainy-day, Cat in the Hat-style bored that arrives with the wet, leaving you with nothing to do. It wasn’t post-fun or pre-excitement bored, either. It was, somehow, different. It felt rare and deliberate, entire and complete, industrial and inescapable. It was the kind of bored that had you backstroking in the green mist of eternity wondering about the big questions without searching for answers. And it wasn’t in short supply, either, because it was being dispensed like candy on Halloween to Arwood and others like him at Checkpoint Zulu at the rim of the Euphrates Valley, in the heart of Iraq, by the world’s largest contractor of boredom: the United States Army.
     How long had he been bored? How long was he destined to be bored? Arwood couldn’t even muster the motivation to care as he melted over his machine gun under the hot, hot sun that was pressing down on the sandy sand around him without a raindrop in sight and no one offering to cheer him up.
     The M60 machine gun was the perfect height for leaning on. It was probably the perfect height for firing, too, but Arwood had no proof of that because he hadn’t fired the gun since qualifying on it, and there was nothing to aim at because everything was far away, apart from a camel; and while he did point the gun at the camel for a while, it ultimately seemed a mean thing to do, so he stopped. That was eons ago. Nothing fun like that had happened since. Even the camel had gone away.

by Alice Hoffman
(Simon and Schuster)

I’ll round out this month’s list of Most-Highly-Anticipated Books with the happy news that Alice Hoffman has a new novel on the horizon. Faithful will arrive in bookstores in November. And legions of the faithful shouted, “Amen!”

Jacket Copy:  From the New York Times bestselling author of The Marriage of Opposites and The Dovekeepers comes a soul-searching story about a young woman struggling to redefine herself and the power of love, family, and fate. Growing up on Long Island, Shelby Richmond is an ordinary girl until one night an extraordinary tragedy changes her fate. Her best friend’s future is destroyed in an accident, while Shelby walks away with the burden of guilt. What happens when a life is turned inside out? When love is something so distant it may as well be a star in the sky? Faithful is the story of a survivor, filled with emotion—from dark suffering to true happiness—a moving portrait of a young woman finding her way in the modern world. A fan of Chinese food, dogs, bookstores, and men she should stay away from, Shelby has to fight her way back to her own future. In New York City she finds a circle of lost and found souls—including an angel who’s been watching over her ever since that fateful icy night.

Opening Lines:  In February, when the snow comes down hard, little globes of light are left along Route 110, on the side of the road that slopes off when a driver least expects it. The lights are candles set inside paper bags, surrounded by sand, and they burn past midnight. They shouldn’t last for that amount of time, but that’s part of the miracle. On the second anniversary of the accident, a gang of boys creep out their windows and gather at two in the morning to see if Helene’s mother, Diana Boyd, drives along the road replacing each melting pool of wax with a fresh candle. They’re hoping to reveal a con in process and dispel the myth of a miracle, but after keeping watch for a while the boys all flee. In the early morning hours, safe in their beds, they wonder how much of the world can never be understood or explained.