Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sunday Sentence: The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene

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

She was very young and blond and unnecessarily arrogant: she looked like a child who has got nothing she really wants and so is determined to obtain anything, whether she likes it or not.

The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene

Friday, May 25, 2018

Friday Freebie: The War Bride’s Scrapbook by Caroline Preston

Congratulations to Sylvia Danforth, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie, a bundle of books by and about Montanans: Come West and See by Maxim Loskutoff, Arbuckle by Russell Rowland, The Weight of an Infinite Sky by Carrie La Seur, and The Bluebird Run by Greg Keeler.

In honor of Memorial Day, this week’s contest is for the latest in the “scrapbook novels” by Caroline Preston: The War Bride’s Scrapbook. As long-time readers of the blog may remember, I am a big fan of Caroline's previous book, The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt. Those pages burst into life with postcards, sheet music, wine labels, playing cards, charm bracelets, gum wrappers, swatches of fabric, photographs and ads for freckle cream to tell the story of a Jazz Age ingenue. As I wrote then, “The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt is subtitled A Novel in Pictures, but it really should be called A Novel of Ephemera.” The same holds true for The War Bride’s Scrapbook. Keep scrolling for more information about the books and how to enter the contest...

Lila Jerome has never been very lucky in love, and has always been more interested in studying architecture and, more recently, supporting the war bond effort on the home front. But in the fall of 1943, a chance spark with a boarder in her apartment sets Lila on a course that shakes up all of her ideas about romance. Lila is intoxicated by Perry Weld, the charismatic army engineer who’s about to ship out to the European front, and it isn’t long before she discovers that the feeling is mutual. After just a few weeks together, caught up in the dramatic spirit of the times and with Perry’s departure date fast approaching, the two decide to elope. In a stunning kaleidoscope of vibrant ephemera, Lila boldly attempts to redefine her life in America as she navigates the heartache and longing of a marriage separated by ocean and war. In her second scrapbook novel after the lauded Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt, Caroline Preston has once again pulled from her own extraordinary collection of vintage memorabilia, transporting us back to the lively, tumultuous 1940s and introducing us to an unforgettable, ambitious heroine who must learn to reconcile a wartime marriage with a newfound self-confidence.

If you’d like a chance at winning The War Bride’s Scrapbook, 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 remains open to entries until midnight on May 31 at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 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, May 24, 2018

Michael A. Ferro’s Library: A Love-Hate Story

Reader:  Michael A. Ferro
Location:  Rural Ann Arbor, Michigan
Collection Size:  About 1,000
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  The first advance readers copy that I received of my debut novel, Title 13. And I’d probably push a smoldering old lady out of my way to get to it, too.
Favorite book from childhood:  Any of the Calvin and Hobbes collections (I proudly had them all) or the novelization of Star Wars. I wrote a really lousy essay comparing the film and the book back in the 4th grade and had to read it in front of the class. I can still recall the horrible playground beating I took soon after.
Guilty pleasure book:  Jack Handey’s The Stench of Honolulu. I so often go back to it when I need to feel good. Also, any of the novels by former The Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder. There’s no literary merit to them like with other humor writers such as Ian Frazier, but damn, they’re about as funny as any book can be.

Libraries: a Love-Hate Story

The only thing I hate about libraries is how they are not inside my house or right next door, so I decided to change that. When I fancy reading a particular book, I want to crack it open the moment the urge strikes me—not long after I’ve checked if it’s available at my local library and I put it on hold and go drive through a massive thunderstorm to pick it up and I get a flat tire so I have to get out to fix it only to have some goofy driver hugging the curb drive right through a massive ocean of standing water creating a small tsunami that sweeps me up and plunges me down into the sewer ditch below.

No thanks. I’ll just buy all my books and make my own library at home, thank you very much.

I should also admit here that I’ve had a bit of a contentious relationship with each of the libraries in every city I’ve lived in. And by that, I mean that I am horrible at returning books on time. I have accumulated an embarrassing amount of late charges in my life, usually to the point of those threatening letters arriving in the mail demanding money. You’re probably asking yourself: How does one person amass so many charges through mere minuscule late-return fines? Well, you see, that’s my other problem: I can never just get one book.

I’ve lived in various places across the Midwest and everywhere I go, I always used to scope out the local library soon after settling in. I would try to start by just checking out one or two books, but that quickly turned into the max limit of twenty or so at one time. Now, multiply the ten cents or so per day late charge for twenty books, then factor in weeks on end of being reluctant to return said books, and you’ve got yourself a modern-day literary extortion scheme. I’ve had my kneecaps threatened by bookish loan sharks more times than I care to admit. In fact, that’s usually how I know when it’s time to pack my wares and skip town. Some folks lose their jobs or destroy their marriages—I look out my window and see an angry mob of librarians waving letters of overdue payments, shouting blasphemes about credit scores and collection agencies.

Yes, I am an idiot.

Obviously I’m exaggerating a bit, but let’s just say it’s best for all parties considered if I own my own books. With that in mind, I turned the first floor of my house into a library. When I moved in, I only had a few bookshelves and roughly 500 books, but since then, I’ve loosened my belt quite a bit. Having all that empty space down there was just too tempting, so I had to build more bookshelves. And, of course, once I had more bookshelves, I needed more books. Today the count stands somewhere around 1,000 books. Now, I can do this because I don’t have a wife or children, you see; there’s no need to have a playroom for my goopy kid and no wife who needs a room of her own for a personal yoga studio—it’s all mine, and with this pigheaded attitude, it will be all mine for many, many years to come.

As is the case with anyone who has their own personal library, there are a few books that stand out to me as being some of the most important. I’ve included a photo here of a stack of books that have rewired my brain in some way or another. These are the books that changed my life and made me want to become a writer. As you’ll be able to tell from this selection, it’s quite an odd grouping of titles.

My own debut novel, Title 13, is an eclectic mishmash of satire and emotional realism that follows the oft-absurd story of a young alcoholic named Heald Brown who lives in downtown Chicago and works for the federal government. And while there’s plenty of postmodern, literary tragicomedy within the pages, much of the novel also centers around the brutal realities of addiction and the divisive nature that has consumed our society and poisoned our culture in a broken modern America. Keeping that sense of dichotomy in mind, perhaps it’s not so surprising when I study this stack of books and note the clear line between literary, postmodern fiction, and absurd humor stories and essays.

Oh, and there’s also a photo of some of my old New Yorker magazines from my 15-plus years of subscribing that I just can’t throw away because I’m a pretentious dweeb who’s convinced I will be able to read them cover-to-cover someday.

Michael A. Ferro's debut novel, Title 13, was published earlier this year. He has received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train for their New Writers Award, won the Jim Cash Creative Writing Award for Fiction, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Michael’s writing has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies. Born and bred in Detroit, Michael has lived, worked, and written throughout the Midwest. He currently resides in rural Ann Arbor, Michigan. Click here to visit his website.

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.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Articles of War by Nick Arvin

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

It was a curious thing, that in the time between the shots and the echo of the shots a man could die, that so monumental an event could occur in so trivial a passage.

Articles of War by Nick Arvin

Friday, May 18, 2018

Friday Freebie: Montana Bundle (Come West and See by Maxim Loskutoff, Arbuckle by Russell Rowland, The Weight of an Infinite Sky by Carrie La Seur, The Bluebird Run by Greg Keeler)

Congratulations to Shannon Feagans, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Daphne by Will Boast.

This week’s contest is for a stack of books set in my beloved state of Montana. One lucky reader will copies of the following books: Come West and See by Maxim Loskutoff (whose cover is already in the running for one of my favorites of 2018), Arbuckle by Russell Rowland, The Weight of an Infinite Sky by Carrie La Seur, and The Bluebird Run by Greg Keeler. Keep scrolling for more information about the books and how to enter the contest...

In an isolated region of Idaho, Montana, and eastern Oregon known as the Redoubt, an armed occupation of a wildlife refuge is escalating into civil war. Against this backdrop, twelve stories of ordinary lives explore the loneliness, fragility, and heartbreak inherent to love. Families feel the far-reaching shockwaves of displacement and division. A mother makes a hard choice for her sons when their father goes to lead a standoff with the federal government. An unemployed carpenter joins a militia after his wife leaves him and the first airstrikes raze the streets of his hometown. A former soldier raises the daughter of a dead comrade in a bunker beneath an abandoned farm. Ranging from the cities to the small towns of the West, and imbued with its own brand of radical empathy, Loskutoff’s fiction is both timely and timeless. Come West and See surges with rage, longing, and fear, and offers startling insights into the wounds of the American people.

When Catherine Boland meets a shy young ranch hand at the bank where she works, she has no idea that he just took part in a recent vigilante hanging that she has been very outspoken about. And although George Arbuckle was not a willing participant in that hanging, he worries that once Catherine learns about his participation, he will lose her for good. This is just the first of the challenges facing this young couple in late 19th century Montana. Arbuckle, the third book in a trilogy about a ranch family in southeastern Montana, also takes on issues of rape, abortion, and the difficulty of developing a happy life in the early homesteader days.

In The Weight of an Infinite Sky, the critically acclaimed author of The Home Place explores the heart and mystery of Big Sky Country in this evocative and atmospheric novel of family, home, love, and responsibility inspired by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The only son of a cattle rancher, Anthony Fry chafed against the expectation that he would take over the business that had belonged to his family for generations. While his ancestors planted deep roots in the unforgiving Montana soil, Anthony wanted nothing more than to leave Billings for the excitement, sophistication, and culture of city life. After college he fled to New York, hoping to turn his lifelong love of the theater into a career. But New York wasn’t the dream Anthony thought it would be. Now, with the unexpected death of his father, Anthony suddenly finds himself back in the place he swore he’d left behind. While the years have transformed the artistic dreamer, they’ve also changed Billings. His uncle Neal, always the black sheep of the Fry family, has become alarmingly close with Anthony’s mother, and a predatory mining company covets the Fry land. Anthony has always wanted out of Montana, away from his father’s suffocating expectations. Yet now that he may be freed from the burden of family legacy, he’s forced to ask himself what he truly finds important: answers that will ultimately decide his fate.

The Bluebird Run is a monumental collection of 180 new sonnets by Montana poet, memoirist, artist and musician Greg Keeler. Ranging from humorous flights to poignant meditations on loss, love, aging and the fate of humanity in the face of looming environmental and social crises, the poems showcase a highly lauded writer at the peak of his abilities. “If these sonnets were trout steams, they’d be full of rainbows and cutthroats alike.” (William Pitt Root)

If you’d like a chance at winning the big bundle of Montana books, 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 remains open to entries until midnight on May 24 at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 25. 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.

Front Porch Books: May 2018 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of new and forthcoming booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. 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, but they’re definitely going in the to-be-read pile.

The Mercy Seat
by Elizabeth H. Winthrop
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy: An incisive, meticulously crafted portrait of race, racism, and injustice in the Jim Crow era South that is as intimate and tense as a stage drama, The Mercy Seat is a stunning account of one town’s foundering over a trauma in their midst. On the eve of his execution, eighteen year old Willie Jones sits in his cell in New Iberia awaiting his end. Across the state, a truck driven by a convict and his keeper carries the executioner’s chair closer. On a nearby highway, Willie’s father Frank lugs a gravestone on the back of his fading, old mule. In his office the DA who prosecuted Willie reckons with his sentencing, while at their gas station at the crossroads outside of town, married couple Ora and Dale grapple with their grief and their secrets. As various members of the township consider and reflect on what Willie’s execution means, an intricately layered and complex portrait of a Jim Crow era Southern community emerges. Moving from voice to voice, Winthrop elegantly brings to stark light the story of a town, its people, and its injustices. The Mercy Seat is a brutally incisive and tender novel from one of our most acute literary observers.

Opening Lines: When Lane comes out of the gas station store, the dog is waiting for him. It sits in the dusty crossroads, alert and eager, ears pricked and black tongue stiff between its panting jaws. It looks like some kind of ridgeback-pit bull mix, all sinewy muscle and worried brow, like the one he’d had as a kid until his father one day shot her in the cane fields out back, damned if he’d shelter a dog who, during domestic contests, favored the woman of the house. The dog hadn’t died right away; Lane had fixed her up as best he could and made her a bed out in the woodshed, where he’d brought her food and water and tended to her wound until she’d disappeared a few days later, likely wandered off to die

Blurbworthiness: “The lives of these characters mesh in the events surrounding the execution, and their points of view cycle through short chapters that build tension as midnight draws near. Winthrop’s carefully structured novel is a nuanced, absorbing, atmospheric examination of how racism tears at the whole of society.” (Booklist)

by Christina Dalcher

Jacket Copy:  Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, Vox is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter. On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denialthis can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her. This is just the beginning. Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard. But this is not the end. For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

Opening Lines:  If anyone told me I could bring down the president, and the Pure Movement, and that incompetent little shit Morgan LeBron in a week’s time, I wouldn’t believe them. But I wouldn’t argue. I wouldn’t say a thing.
       I’ve become a woman of few words.

Furnishing Eternity
by David Giffels

Jacket Copy:  David Giffels grew up fascinated by his father’s dusty, tool-strewn workshop and the countless creations it inspired. So when he enlisted his eighty-one-year-old dad to help him build his own casket, he thought of it mostly as an opportunity to sharpen his woodworking skills and to spend time together. But the unexpected deaths of his mother and, a year later, his best friend, coupled with the dawning realization that his father wouldn’t be around forever for such offbeat adventures—and neither would he—led to a harsh confrontation with mortality and loss. Over the course of several seasons, Giffels returned to his father’s barn in rural Ohio, a place cluttered with heirloom tools, exotic wood scraps, and long memory, to continue a pursuit that grew into a meditation on grief and optimism, a quest for enlightenment, and a way to cherish time with an aging parent. With wisdom and humor, Giffels grapples with some of the hardest questions we all face as he and his father saw, hammer, and sand their way through a year bowed by loss.

Opening Lines:  He was sleeping when I arrived, a half-shape through the sun-warmed porch screens, an impression, familiar and calm. It was late spring in Ohio, and the yard surrounding him was dappled with afternoon leaf shadows. A rubbery hum droned from the highway beyond the dense screen of pines and the high stockade fence. Birds chirped. One cloud dragged the sky like Linus’s blanket.
       He was sleeping. I could see him from the driveway as I slowed to a stop and shifted into park. His old straw hat rose and dipped softly where it rested on his belly. I sat there for a long moment in the beige leather driver’s seat, watching through the windshield, engine still running, wondering if I should disturb him.
       After a lifetime of driving crap cars, most of which had held the specific purpose of hauling building materials and guitar amplifiers, I had—in what I guess I’ll have to concede is middle age—cashed out a very small windfall to buy this seven-year-old Saab turbo convertible. Such a car would seem to imply, if not outright midlife crisis, at least the illusion of leisure. I could have left him alone, put the top down, and gone for a drive in the country.
       But I don’t go for country drives. Relaxation is not a part of my family’s DNA. We spend much of our time trying to outwork each other. My father may have been napping, but it was not a matter of leisure so much as the fact that he was eighty-one years old and had spent the morning chainsawing a fallen tree. So I shut off the engine, pulled out the key, and reached over to the passenger seat for a shaggy folder of notes and sketches, including a couple of drawings from an old Mother Earth News article, freshly printed from the Internet: “Learn How to Build a Handmade Casket.”

Blurbworthiness:  “Father and son bond over a lugubrious building project in this sweetly mordant saga of death and carpentry…Giffels treats heavy themes with a light touch and deadpan humor, drawing vivid, affectionate portraits of loved ones in the richly textured setting of Akron, Ohio. The result is an entertaining memoir that moves through gentle absurdism to a poignant meditation on death and what comes before it.” (Publishers Weekly)

by Andrea Kleine
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jacket Copy:  Every other weekend, Hope and Eden—backpacks, Walkmans, and homework in hand—wait for their father to pick them up, as he always does, at a strip-mall bus stop. It’s the divorce shuffle; they’re used to it. Only this weekend, he’s screwed up, forgotten, and their world will irrevocably change when a stranger lures them into his truck with a false story and smile. More than twenty years later, Hope is that classic New York failure: a playwright with only one play produced long ago, newly evicted from an illegal sublet, working a humiliating temp job. Eden has long since distanced herself from her family, and no one seems to know where she is. When the man who abducted them is up for parole, the sisters might be able to offer testimony to keep him jailed. Hope sets out to find her sister—and to find herself—and it becomes the journey of a lifetime, taking her from hippie communes to cities across the country. Suspenseful and moving, Eden asks: how much do our pasts define us, and what price do we pay if we break free?

Opening Lines:  It was embarrassing to take the bus, but it was doubly embarrassing to hand the driver a coupon that had been cut out of the back of a Cheerios box. My father ate Cheerios for breakfast every day except Sundays, and then he ate eggs. When my parents divorced, back when I was ten, my father moved from Charlottesville out to the country, sort of toward DC but sort of toward the mountains, and fixed up an old house. My sister, Eden, and I took the Greyhound bus to visit him every other weekend because neither our father nor my mother was willing to make the ninety-minute drive each way. My mother insisted it was our father’s responsibility. Our father thought he was paying my mother more than enough for child support, considering she had a decent job and he never had to pay Eden’s mom, Suriya, anything. He tried to bargain with my mother to drop us off at a shopping mall halfway, but she refused. He drove us the first year and a half until he spotted the bus coupons on the back of the Cheerios box, and then he never picked us up or drove us home again.
       Eden always let me give the tickets to the bus driver. I was excited at first that she let me do it, since she was two years older, but when I realized I had been duped into having the uncool job, she said, “No givebacks.” I had to go on the bus first and hand over the tickets, and Eden could wait and lag behind, distancing herself from me and the embarrassing Cheerios coupon. Her preferred seating arrangement was to have her own two seats and she would sit wherever she wanted, forcing me to move closer to her if she sat too far away. If I tried to sit down next to her, she would say, “Hope not,” which was her way of politely saying “Fuck off,” since my name is Hope.

Blurbworthiness:  “Among the many reasons to read the fierce and wonderful Eden are its sly structure, its delicious pacing, its humor, its meditation on the strange, indelible phenomenon of being a sister, and its abiding interest in the ways tragedy defines us and the ways it doesn’t. What I love most is the way these elements conspire to deliver a fresh and moving portrait of an artist. A spirit sister to Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Eden tells the bounteous, searching, sorrowful, invigorating story of what it is to make a life out of making art.” (Maud Casey, author of The Man Who Walked Away)

Mirror Shoulder Signal
by Dorthe Nors
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  Sonja is ready to get on with her life. She’s over forty now, and the Swedish crime novels she translates are losing their fascination. She sees a masseuse, tries to reconnect with her sister, and is finally learning to drive. But under the overbearing gaze of her driving instructor, Sonja is unable to shift gears for herself. And her vertigo, which she has always carefully hidden, has begun to manifest at the worst possible moments. Sonja hoped her move to Copenhagen years ago would have left rural Jutland in the rearview mirror. Yet she keeps remembering the dramatic landscapes of her childhood―the endless sky, the whooper swans, the rye fields―and longs to go back. But how can she return to a place that she no longer recognizes? And how can she escape the alienating streets of Copenhagen? In Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, Dorthe Nors brings her distinctive blend of style, humor, and insight to a poignant journey of one woman in search of herself when there’s no one to ask for directions.

Opening Lines:  Sonja is sitting in a car, and she’s brought her dictionary along. It’s heavy, and sits in the bag on the backseat. She’s halfway through her translation of Gösta Svensson’s latest crime novel, and the quality was already dipping with the previous one. Now’s the time I can afford it, she thought, and so she looked for driving schools online and signed up with Folke in Frederiksberg. The theory classroom was small and blue and reeked of stale smoke and locker rooms, but the theory itself went well. Besides Folke, there was only one other person Sonja’s age in the class, and he was there because of drunk driving, so he kept to himself. Sonja usually sat there and stuck out among all the kids, and for the first aid unit the instructor used her as a model. He pointed to the spot on her throat where they were supposed to imagine her breathing had gotten blocked. He did the Heimlich on her, his fingers up in her face, inside her collar, up and down her arms. At one point he put her into a stranglehold, but that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst was when they had to do the exercises themselves. It was humiliating to be placed in the recovery position by a boy of eighteen. It also made her dizzy, and that was something no one was supposed to find out.

Blurbworthiness:  “Mirror, Shoulder, Signal explores the otherwise unspoken misery of getting a driver’s license, and uses the experience to tease out the secret humiliations that we all suffer but never name. No writer is more haunted by history—the personal, the local, the international—than Dorthe Nors and it’s all here, delivered with her customary economy and grace.” (Jarett Kobek, author of I Hate the Internet)

How To Be a Good Creature
by Sy Montgomery (illustrated by Rebecca Green)
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jacket Copy:  Understanding someone who belongs to another species can be transformative. No one knows this better than author, naturalist, and adventurer Sy Montgomery. To research her books, Sy has traveled the world and encountered some of the planet’s rarest and most beautiful animals. From tarantulas to tigers, Sy’s life continually intersects with and is informed by the creatures she meets. This restorative memoir reflects on the personalities and quirks of thirteen animals—Sy’s friends—and the truths revealed by their grace. It also explores vast themes: the otherness and sameness of people and animals; the various ways we learn to love and become empathetic; how we find our passion; how we create our families; coping with loss and despair; gratitude; forgiveness; and most of all, how to be a good creature in the world.

Opening Lines:  As usual, when I was not in class at elementary school, we were together. Molly―our Scottish terrier―and I were doing sentinel duty on the spacious, crew-cut lawn of the general’s house, Quarters 225, Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn, New York. Rather, Molly was keeping watch, and I was watching her.

Blurbworthiness:  “A truly beautiful book about life, family, loss, and love.” (Temple Grandin, author of Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals)

Another Life
by Theodor Kallifatides
(Other Press)

Jacket Copy:  “Nobody should write after the age of seventy-five,” a friend had said. At seventy-seven, struggling with the weight of writer’s block, Theodor Kallifatides makes the difficult decision to sell the Stockholm studio where he diligently worked for decades and retire. Unable to write, and yet unable to not write, he travels to his native Greece in the hope of rediscovering that lost fluidity of language. In this slim memoir, Kallifatides explores the interplay of meaningful living and meaningful work, and the timeless question of how to reconcile oneself to aging. But he also comments on worrying trends in contemporary Europe—from religious intolerance and prejudice against immigrants to housing crises and gentrification—and his sadness at the battered state of his beloved Greece. Kallifatides offers an eloquent, thought-provoking meditation on the writing life, and an author’s place in a changing world.

Opening Lines:  It was a difficult time. My latest novel had taken up all my strength. I was exhausted, and thinking of abandoning my writing: giving up on it, before it gave up on me.

by Alyson Hagy
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  A brutal civil war has ravaged the country, and contagious fevers have decimated the population. Abandoned farmhouses litter the isolated mountain valleys and shady hollows. The economy has been reduced to barter and trade. In this craggy, unwelcoming world, the central character of Scribe ekes out a lonely living on the family farmstead where she was raised and where her sister met an untimely end. She lets a migrant group known as the Uninvited set up temporary camps on her land, and maintains an uneasy peace with her cagey neighbors and the local enforcer. She has learned how to make paper and ink, and she has become known for her letter-writing skills, which she exchanges for tobacco, firewood, and other scarce resources. An unusual request for a letter from a man with hidden motivations unleashes the ghosts of her troubled past and sets off a series of increasingly calamitous events that culminate in a harrowing journey to a crossroads. Drawing on traditional folktales and the history and culture of Appalachia, Alyson Hagy has crafted a gripping, swiftly plotted novel that touches on pressing issues of our time―migration, pandemic disease, the rise of authoritarianism―and makes a compelling case for the power of stories to both show us the world and transform it.

Opening Lines:  The dogs circled the house all night, crying out, hunting. She knew they were calling to her. Beckoning. Working their churn. The world she lived in had become a gospel of disturbances, and the dogs wouldn’t let her forget that. In the morning, before she had even gone to the springhouse for milk, she saw a man waiting at the foot of her garden. It was how they did.
       Summer had spun away from them all. The creek banks were whiskered with a nickel-shine frost, and she could smell the cooking fires laid down by the ones who called themselves the Uninvited. Pig fat and smoke. Scorched corn. There were more people at the camp every week, staking out tarps, drying fish seined from the river. They were drawn to her fields at the end of their seasonal migrations because of what had happened there some years before, because of their beliefs. She did not know if they planned to stay for the winter.

John Woman
by Walter Mosley
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy:  A convention-defying novel by bestselling writer Walter Mosley, John Woman recounts the transformation of an unassuming boy named Cornelius Jones into John Woman, an unconventional history professor―while the legacy of a hideous crime lurks in the shadows. At twelve years old, Cornelius, the son of an Italian-American woman and an older black man from Mississippi named Herman, secretly takes over his father’s job at a silent film theater in New York’s East Village. Five years later, as Herman lives out his last days, he shares his wisdom with his son, explaining that the person who controls the narrative of history controls their own fate. After his father dies and his mother disappears, Cornelius sets about reinventing himself―as Professor John Woman, a man who will spread Herman’s teachings into the classrooms of his unorthodox southwestern university and beyond. But there are other individuals who are attempting to influence the narrative of John Woman, and who might know something about the facts of his hidden past. Engaging with some of the most provocative ideas of recent intellectual history, John Woman is a compulsively readable, deliciously unexpected novel about the way we tell stories, and whether the stories we tell have the power to change the world.

Opening Lines:  Lucia Napoli’s family name had been Tartarelli before her great-grandfather migrated from Naples to the Lower East Side. No one was certain how the name got changed. Lucia’s Aunt Maria said it was a drunken Irish customs officer on Ellis Island who mistook their origins for the name. Lucia’s great Uncle Christopher said his father, Alesio, introduced himself as Alesio from Napoli so often that the name stuck.
       Lucia didn’t care where Napoli came from. It sounded better than Tartarelli. There were pastries and breasts and something flip in the sound. She liked the way it brought her lips together. “Like a kiss,” she once told her girlfriends after her part-time shift as a filing clerk at Household Insurance Company.

The Summer She Was Under Water
by Jen Michalski
(Black Lawrence Press)

Jacket Copy:  It has been twenty years since Sam Pinski, a young novelist, has spent the Fourth of July weekend with her family at their cabin on the Susquehanna River. There, she must confront a chaotic history of mental illness, alcoholism, and physical violence, and struggle to find perspective in the pulse of things familiar and respite from the shame of the taboo relationship that courses through her. As she does, a subplot emerges: Excerpts are included from Sam's metaphoric novel in which a pregnant man tries to solve the mystery of his fertility and absolve himself of his past. Then tragedy strikes the Pinskis and they must draw together, tentatively realizing that they will continue to spin off in their own orbits unless they begin the hard work of forgiveness themselves.

Opening Lines:  “I think the car is on fire,” Eve says. Smoke tendrils curl out from under the hood of Samantha Pinski’s Volkswagen Jetta.
       “It’s just overheating,” Sam answers. They are at the precipice of the soft, winding dirt road that leads up to her family’s cabin on the hill. She flips on the heater and hot air from the engine pours into the interior like batter into a pan. “We’ll make it.”

Blurbworthiness:  “The Summer She Was Under Water introduces us to the vivid Pinskis, a family unwilling to be honest about its past and ill-equipped to alter its future. Jen Michalski movingly captures the way mother and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers jab at and dance around each other, alternately trying to soothe and to wound.” (Pamela Erens,  author of The Virgins and Eleven Hours)

Still Life With Monkey
by Katharine Weber
(Paul Dry Books)

Jacket Copy:  Duncan Wheeler is a successful architect who savors the quotidian pleasures in life until a car accident leaves him severely paralyzed and haunted by the death of his young assistant. Now, Duncan isn’t sure what there is left to live for, when every day has become “a broken series of unsuccessful gestures.” Duncan and his wife, Laura, find themselves in conflict as Duncan’s will to live falters. Laura grows desperate to help him. An art conservator who has her own relationship to the repair of broken things, Laura brings home a highly trained helper monkey―a tufted capuchin named Ottoline―to assist Duncan with basic tasks. Duncan and Laura fall for this sweet, comical, Nutella-gobbling little creature, and Duncan’s life appears to become more tolerable, fuller, and funnier. Yet the question persists: Is it enough?

Opening Lines:  Her long fingers caressed his check for a moment, as she traced her way down to his jaw, her cool touch just grazing the stubble of Duncan’s five-day beard. She studied his face, seeking his gaze. He met her eyes for an instant before looking away, strangely embarrassed by his inability to match the intensity of her insistent stare. Ottoline smacked little air kissed as she reached up to touch his face again, and he was surprised by the gentle precision of her tiny fingernails sorting through his whiskers as she investigated up the contour of his cheek from jaw to upper lip. She pressed two fingers to his lips, and he nearly kissed them, but he didn’t, and then she contemplated her fingertips, sticking out her tongue daintily for the tiny flake of something she had found on his lip. She nibbled at it contentedly while continuing to stare up at him, making a sweet, soft, peeping sound. She repositioned her springy little body constantly, and now she shifted again, peering up at his chin, plucking with fascination at the bristles that speckled his face. They had been alone together for five minutes.
       Ignore her, her trainer Martha has advised, before leaving them alone. Act as if you’ve seen a million monkeys and you’re bored by her. Let her be curious about you. Stay very still. Make no sudden movements. Duncan was very good at sitting still, and he was pretty much the master of being bored, too.

Blurbworthiness:  “Still Life With Monkey is a brilliantly crafted novel, brimming with heart. Pairing poetry with wisdom, this is a story about what it means to live, love, and grow.” (Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage)

If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi
by Neel Patel
(Flatiron Books)

Jacket Copy:  In eleven sharp, surprising stories, Neel Patel gives voice to our most deeply held stereotypes and then slowly undermines them. His characters, almost all of who are first-generation Indian Americans, subvert our expectations that they will sit quietly by. We meet two brothers caught in an elaborate web of envy and loathing; a young gay man who becomes involved with an older man whose secret he could never guess; three women who almost gleefully throw off the pleasant agreeability society asks of them; and, in the final pair of linked stories, a young couple struggling against the devastating force of community gossip. If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi examines the collisions of old world and new world, small town and big city, traditional beliefs (like arranged marriage) and modern rituals (like Facebook stalking). Ranging across the country, Patel’s stories―empathetic, provocative, twisting, and wryly funny―introduce a bold new literary voice, one that feels more timely than ever.

Opening Lines:  The Wi-Fi was out: that was the first sign. The second was that my dress was an eyesore.

Blurbworthiness:  “It’s possible that no one ever told Neel Patel that Indians in America are supposed to be a model minority. How else to explain these stories, full of terrible spouses, warring siblings, unapologetic liars, and naive kids, searching for happiness, love, or maybe just sex? In stories that are moving, thoughtful, entertaining, and discomfiting all at once, Patel upends what we think the experience of Indians in America looks like. It’s about time.” (Rumaan Alam, author of Rich and Pretty)

by Silas House
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  In the aftermath of a flood that washes away much of a small Tennessee town, evangelical preacher Asher Sharp offers shelter to two gay men. In doing so, he starts to see his life anew—and risks losing everything: his wife, locked into her religious prejudices; his congregation, which shuns Asher after he delivers a passionate sermon in defense of tolerance; and his young son, Justin, caught in the middle of what turns into a bitter custody battle. With no way out but ahead, Asher takes Justin and flees to Key West, where he hopes to find his brother, Luke, whom he’d turned against years ago after Luke came out. And it is there, at the southernmost point of the country, that Asher and Justin discover a new way of thinking about the world, and a new way of understanding love.

Opening Lines:  The rain had been falling with a pounding meanness, without ceasing for two days, and then the water rose all at once in the middle of the night, a brutal rush so fast Asher thought at first a dam might have broken somewhere upstream. The ground had simply become so saturated it could not hold any more water. All the creeks were conspiring down the ridges until they washed out into the Cumberland. There was no use in anyone going to bed because they all knew what was going to happen. They only had to wait.
       The day dawned without any sign of sun—a sky that groaned open from a black night to a dull, purpling gray of morning—and Asher went out to walk the ridge and get a full eye on the situation. The news wasn’t telling them anything worthwhile. He could hear the flood before he reached the top of the ridge. There he saw the massively swollen river supping at the edges of the lower fields, ten feet above its own banks, a foamy broth climbing so steadily he could actually see its ascent, and then he knew he had to go get Zelda.

Blurbworthiness:  “Southernmost is an emotional tsunami. The classic themes of great literature written about family life are upended here in a modern twist as a father and son flee one life in search of another; as estranged brothers separated by time and their judgement of one another seek redemption and through the women in their lives, antagonists in the struggle who become grace notes on the road to redemption. This is a story of faith lost and love found, and what we must throw overboard on the journey in order to keep moving. A treasure.”  (Adriana Trigiani, author of Kiss Carlo)

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Trailer Park Tuesday: Tin Man by Sarah Winman

If the trailer for Sarah Winman’s new novel Tin Man doesn’t reveal much about its plot, it certainly stuffs the viewer full of adjectives. Powerful. Remarkable. Exquisite. Perfect. The bar of expectation is raised to Olympic levels. Though I haven’t had a chance to read Tin Man (out today from G. P. Putnam’s Sons), my interest is indeed powerfully and exquisitely piqued. While the book trailer is poor on details, it’s rich in style. In particular, I love how it flows from one blurb to another, like a stream whose current gently tugs you onward—all of which led me to seek out more information about Tin Man, which in turn led me to this nice blurb from bookseller David Enyeart of Common Good Books in St. Paul, Minnesota: “Michael loves Ellis, Ellis loves Annie, and Annie loves them both. Yet Sarah Winman’s blistering novel Tin Man is anything but the usual love triangle. Instead, Winman asks us to consider what remains of love after its object is gone. She crowds this spare little book, set in London, Oxford, and the south of France, with vivid portraits of loss and mourning. At once terse and expansive, Tin Man is a firework flashing in the night—gone too soon but burned forever into the reader’s memory.” And what about the plot? Reader, I’m glad you asked:
Ellis and Michael are twelve-year-old boys when they first become friends, and for a long time it is just the two of them, cycling the streets of Oxford, teaching themselves how to swim, discovering poetry, and dodging the fists of overbearing fathers. And then one day this closest of friendships grows into something more. But then we fast-forward a decade or so, to find that Ellis is married to Annie, and Michael is nowhere in sight. Which leads to the question: What happened in the years between?

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

Monday, May 14, 2018

My First Time: Lisa Romeo

My First (Disastrous) Writing Retreat

There is a key scene at the end of my book, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, set at an acclaimed New England artist center, a place where I’d been awarded a grant and two precious weeks’ time to work in peace, away from house, husband, and children.

A few months before I applied to the center, where many writer friends told me they accomplished so much, I had completed a Master of Fine Arts degree in a low-residency program in southern Maine. Freeport and the Portland suburbs are not remote or isolated, but the area was enough of a calming switch from my home in the crowded, busy New Jersey suburbs 10 miles from Manhattan, that my time there felt slowed-down and sheltered.

I grew used to, and counted on, those on-site residencies, five times over two years. While I worked at home between semesters, amid the chaos of two growing boys while juggling part-time work as a public relations consultant and freelance writer, my eyes were on the calendar, counting down the months until I’d be back in Maine, where for 10 glorious days without cooking, chores, or chauffeuring, I could immerse myself fully in writing life.

And then, graduation.

And then, panic. What would I do without those residencies dependably dotting the calendar? My head pounded and my pulse quickened just thinking about the stretch of unbroken days that lay ahead at home, where I’d be writing in-between school runs, sports practices, scout meetings, and work obligations, for months, for years. I’d have to find a way to get away.

Writer friends told me about the great strides they made in their work while at an artist colony, writing retreat, or residency. I decided I’d have to go get me one of those. And I did—an invitation with financial support, to spend two weeks in the hills of northern New England. I’d have a bedroom in an old but quiet house with a few other artists, and a soundproof private writing studio in a modern new building.

For months, I looked forward to the retreat dates. Certain I would get an impressive amount of work done, I planned a typically overfull to-do list. I packed six notebooks filled with rough crappy drafts of essays for one book project, a half-baked anthology proposal for another, and ideas and notes for a half-dozen new essays.

Let me assure you, I get things done. A workaholic with a bit of a perfectionist streak and the practiced mien of a multi-tasker, there were few tasks I took on that didn’t come to fruition. Not that everything I wrote or proposed was wonderful or won acceptance; of course not. But if I decided to write X or submit Y, damn it, I wrote X and submitted Y. With two weeks to myself and no boys barging into my office ten times each afternoon, with no household or other work obligations, I’d surely accomplish all my goals.

But that’s not what happened.

It wasn’t the sub-zero January temperatures and daily snowfall that unsettled me; I’d lived in Syracuse and spent two winter residencies in Maine. It’s true that I didn’t care for the food. And though my room was comfortable and toasty, I could have done without the 5:00 a.m. start-up of a fleet of snow plows in the lot next door. But those were minor annoyances.

My writer’s studio however, was a dream—quiet, and elegantly appointed with much nicer furnishings than my home office, which was populated by dinged and dingy second-hand office furniture.

But when I sat in the very comfortable leather desk chair, all I did was flip from notebook to notebook, then pushed them aside. I’d open my computer, switch from document to document, then snap it closed. Even on day one, I spent several hours in the plush wing chair staring out the capacious window, watching a small river flow by, the snow falling, the fog creeping across the edge of the adjacent college campus.

By day two, I was catching up with TV shows, my computer propped on my knees in that same chair. Every few hours, I crept down the eerily quiet hallway to the shared mini-kitchen to make popcorn or heat a noodle cup; if not for the thin line of light under doors, I’d have sworn I was alone in the large building. Clearly the designers of the building—as well as the directors of the overall program—had thought of everything artists need: comfort, quiet, space, isolation.

By the third day I was distraught, guilty. I curiously noted that I just didn’t crave, or even need those things. It was too damned quiet! At home, I already had space—a room of my own. Sure, it wasn’t pretty, but it was mine, and comfortable enough. When the boys were at school or sleeping or playing quietly in another room (which pretty much summed up the times when I did most of my writing), my interruptions were really quite bearable. Yes, I love quiet, but the kind that punctuated periods of the normal hub-bub of family; I realized I didn’t need to be isolated from mine in order to write. On the contrary, for someone who writes personal creative nonfiction—memoir, personal essay, nonfiction narratives carved from my life—being surrounded by family actually worked to my benefit.

As the week unfolded, near paralysis set in. Not only did I miss the backdrop of family routines, noise, and even nonsense, I was learning something about how I write—or, more precisely, don’t write. Multi-tasking is one thing when it applies to multiple deadlines for clients or editors. But when it comes to my own creative work, I found I did best when writing one main thing at a time, with the occasional foray to just one other side project, something in nascent stage, to fiddle with when I need a break from the main work.

There I was with too many notebooks, too many files and competing projects I had vowed to make progress on, too many ideas screaming for attention. After three full days, I jettisoned the belief that I would get a huge amount of work done in several areas. Finally, I settled on making a solid start on one essay burning to be written; it would later turn out to be an anchor chapter in my book but of course I couldn’t know that then. I fussed around a bit with the anthology proposal, more as a worthwhile distraction/break from the essay.

Day four was productive, capped off by a private consultation with a renowned writer who had read one of my essays and offered excellent feedback—the kind that’s not only about the one piece, but from which you learn something profoundly important and elemental about your writing itself.

That was the only day I got anything substantial done. The food was beginning to rankle. My car battery died in the cold; not that I needed to go anywhere, but just knowing I couldn’t upset me. The snow plows growled me awake far too early each morning.

For two more days, I stared out that studio window. I mulled what I’d learned from the feedback session. I walked around, back and forth and back and forth, going nowhere. And stared and walked. And, I thought about my father. I even saw my dead father…walking into the distance, slipping between the pines. He was leaving me—after we’d “talked” for nearly three years since he’d passed away the first semester of my MFA studies.

That day I knew two things.

First, I would leave the next morning (as soon as AAA fixed my car battery). And I knew how I’d end any book I would eventually write about grief and my father: with that scene of Dad in the snow, the fog, the trees. I wouldn’t know for another seven years that that book would not be the essay collection I planned, but a more traditional narrative memoir—built from essays, including the one I was working on that week, which I finished over the next few months, back at home.

It would be incorrect to say I never needed more solo writing time. But I got lucky. My husband and both sons began spending a full week camping each July, and another four days on a scout trip each fall. In between, the soundtrack of my regular life fueled me. I found that what I had created for my own home writing environment was enough. And that staring out the window, taking walks, and some days not writing—but thinking deeply about the story and about what I may be avoiding writing about—can also push the work.

Finally, in 2016, I created a do-it-yourself retreat of my own, to kickstart my memoir manuscript, which would require that I first pull apart a dozen published essays to see what would survive, map out a chronology, and begin writing all the new material. I took myself to a remote part of far northern Maine in January and settled into a quiet bed-and-breakfast.

For seven days, from just after breakfast was cleared until around 7:00 pm, I worked at their large dining room table. It wasn’t completely quiet. The proprietors walked through or talked quietly nearby. Once in a while, another guest trekked in or out. The doorbell rang a few times. Delivery people came and went.

I broke once each day for lunch, and occasionally for a walk in the snow. I had coffee one day with a friend from my MFA program who lived nearby. I knew it was time to stop each evening when my elder son—now 22—wandered over from his nearby internship. In between, I wrote. The first day, I wrote the closing lines of Starting with Goodbye—about what I saw while looking out the window at that “failed” retreat years before.

Lisa Romeo’s first book is Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss. Her work is listed in Best American Essays 2016, has been nominated for additional Best American Essay and Pushcart Prizes, and published in the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Longreads, Brevity, Hippocampus, Under the Sun, and in essay anthologies. Lisa teaches with the Bay Path University MFA program, and completed her own MFA degree at Stonecoast (University of Southern Maine). She lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and sons.

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.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Articles of War by Nick Arvin

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

He wandered the crowded, churned sand of the beach, watched the ships slowly come and go, watched the formations of Allied planes pass overhead, their multitudinous drone burrowing into his bones, their glinting wings and bodies like the crosses of cemeteries.

Articles of War by Nick Arvin

Friday, May 11, 2018

Friday Freebie: Daphne by Will Boast

Congratulations to Lisa Murray, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Driest Season by Meghan Kenny.

This week’s contest is for Daphne, the debut novel by Will Boast released earlier this year. Here’s what Laura van den Berg, author of Find Me, had to say about the book: “Richly meditative and quietly suspenseful, Daphne breathes fresh vigor into timeless questions about love and risk―the unknowable cost of fully opening one’s heart to another. Will Boast writes beautifully about life’s daily moral gambles, and Daphne is an outright marvelous debut.” Keep scrolling for more information about Daphne...

Elegantly written and profoundly moving, this spellbinding debut affirms Boast’s reputation as a “new young American voice for the ages” (Tom Franklin). Born with a rare (and real) condition in which she suffers degrees of paralysis when faced with intense emotion, Daphne has few close friends and even fewer lovers. Like her mythic namesake, even one touch can freeze her. But when Daphne meets shy, charming Ollie, her well-honed defenses falter, and she’s faced with an impossible choice: cling to her pristine, manicured isolation or risk the recklessness of real intimacy. Set against the vivid backdrop of a San Francisco flush with money and pulsing with protest, Daphne is a gripping and tender modern fable that explores both self-determination and the perpetual fight between love and safety.

If you’d like a chance at winning Daphne, 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 remains open to entries until midnight on May 17 at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 18. 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.


Sunday, May 6, 2018

Sunday Sentence: The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope

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

It is good to be beautiful, but it should come of God and not of the hairdresser.

The Duke’s Children by Anthony Trollope

Friday, May 4, 2018

Friday Freebie: The Driest Season by Meghan Kenny

Congratulations to Susan LaBelle, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Eat the Apple by Matt Young.

This week’s contest is for the new novel The Driest Season by Meghan Kenny. Here’s what Josh Weil, author of The Age of Perpetual Light, had to say about the book: “The Driest Season settled over me like weather: sweeping in, wholly immersive, charged with coming change. In clear-eyed, chiseled prose that perfectly captures her novel’s hard-worn world and the powerful emotions churning through its people, Meghan Kenny manages, with wisdom and tenderness, to grapple with some of the greatest struggles of the human heart: grief and the gathering of oneself out of its dust, love and the loss that is ‘a space like an empty piece of sky’ following young Cielle around. A lingering power that, long after the last page of this moving story, follows me too.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book and details on how to enter the contest...

As her Wisconsin community endures a long season of drought and feels the shockwaves of World War II, fifteen-year-old Cielle endures a more personal calamity: the unexpected death of her father. On a balmy summer afternoon, she finds him hanging in the barn—the start of a dark secret that threatens her family’s livelihood. A war rages elsewhere, while in the deceptive calm of the American heartland, Cielle’s family contends with a new reality and fights not to be undone. A stunning debut, The Driest Season creates a moving portrait of Cielle’s struggle to make sense of her father’s time on earth, and of her own. With wisdom and grit, Kenny has fashioned a deeply affecting story of a young woman discovering loss, heartache, and—finally—hope.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Driest Season, 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 remains open to entries until midnight on May 10 at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 11. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Stories Behind the Brick Wall

Maternal Mental Health: We Can Do Better
by Ellen Notbohm

There’s always one.

In twenty years of genealogy work, I’ve seen it countless times. In every family’s tree, there’s one nobody will talk about. A disgrace best erased. The black sheep, the white raven. Bad apple, bad egg. Fallen angel.

In genealogy we call those zipped lips a brick wall. Too often, that brick wall is built with ferocious mortar and a shocking absence of context. That lack of context often comes with a ripple effect that speaks of society as a whole, and with a history that, far from buried with our ancestors, is still with us.

In my own family, the woman behind the brick wall was three generations back. Fifteen years ago, I felt a growing pull from within—I needed to know her. Only two people who might be able to tell me about her were still alive. One shut down the conversation with three curt words, “Don’t know anything.” The other politely refused, saying it had caused lifelong family strife she’d finally chosen to be done with.

Nevertheless, I persisted. Eventually a crumb of information came my way. The crumb puzzled, tantalized and tormented me, leading me down countless dead-ends. Then one otherwise unremarkable day, I stared at that crumb and saw it in a different way. Only then, through century-old public records and newspapers, did I discover the truth: my brick-wall ancestor had recurring postpartum psychosis.

Bit by bit, I learned her story. Imagine it, as I did:

A woman not yet out of her teens gives birth and falls into a long and terrifying episode of mental illness. Previously a gentle, creative and loving wife, she becomes withdrawn, angry, and violent.

There is no treatment, no compassion, no second chances, no rights as a woman or mother.

A faraway brother offers her a new home, a clean slate.

And what happens when, years later, a second chance does arise, one that shines brightly but briefly, and leads to only one, unthinkable option?

Imagine it, as I did. Law enforcement, the courts, and the medical profession—all male—pass judgment on her. In the court of law and the court of public opinion, many consider what we now know as a bona fide medical condition to be character defect, a choice, a failing.

Now picture what matters most to you: partner, child, home, health, autonomy, self-determination. Then imagine that in the face of the “treatments” and socials mores of the day, your postpartum illness could cost you all of that. You could be judged insane. You could be committed to a “luny” asylum.

I chose to tell my ancestor’s story in a novel, The River by Starlight, to be published May 8 in conjunction with Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month. I called my ancestor Annie, short form of Analiese, German for “grace.” Despite twelve years of research across a dozen states and provinces, I didn’t uncover the full story, and never would. But I had learned three things—that the subject had virtually never been discussed in historical fiction, and it was yet more rare to present the story not just from the woman’s point of view, but from her husband’s, and that that point of view could be just as anguished and tragic as the woman’s. And I learned that in the face of devastating misfortune she couldn’t control, one small, fragile-yet-fierce woman pulled forth incomparable, unforgettable resilience and tenacity.

Annie was that person. I tell her story because we need to know where we came from if we are to know where to go—if we are to believe that healing can be had, and that it’s the fundamental right of every woman who carries a child, whether to term or not. Lack of health care, women’s rights, gender inequality, double standards, stigma, societal judgment—these things are still with us, reverberating around us today, as inescapable as the untreated illness and consequences Annie faced.

Today, with Annie’s century-old story on the brink of going out into the world, a woman in a modern American city went to her doctor for a postpartum checkup. She asked about postpartum depression, for advice dealing with some episodes of irritability and anger she’d experienced. She made it clear, repeatedly, that she had no thoughts of hurting herself or her baby. A nurse, citing “standard procedure,” called the police, who escorted the young mother to an emergency room, where her clothes were taken, blood and urine samples taken, and a security guard assigned to her. She remained there until midnight when a social worker finally showed up, deemed the young mother didn’t need help, and discharged her with some photocopied information. The mother never saw a doctor, wasn’t offered treatment or follow-up. She left the hospital feeling “like a criminal . . . my spirit more broken than ever.”

That her story went viral and drew forth numerous other women with similar stories tells us that, despite the hundred years since Annie, our work has barely begun.

I wrote about Annie because I didn’t think she should be the one nobody would talk about. I want her to be the one everyone talks about—what her illness so unjustly cost her, what she refused to surrender, and what we owe all women who bravely undertake the risks and unknowns of motherhood.

I tell Annie’s story because it’s about time.

Ellen Notbohm is the author of the award-winning The River by Starlight (2018, She Writes Press). Her work has been translated into more than twenty languages and her articles have encompassed such diverse subjects as history, genealogy, baseball, writing and community affairs. Click here to visit her website. Ellen is an avid genealogist, knitter, beachcomber, and thrift store hound who has never knowingly walked by a used bookstore without going in and dropping coin. (Author photo by Andie Petkus)

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Want to win a copy of The River by Starlight? All you have to do is email your name and mailing address to

Put RIVER in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. This contest will remain open to entries until midnight on May 7, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. 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.