Sunday, September 30, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Marlena by Julie Buntin

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

How can I describe the horrible pleasure of being not good?

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

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

After Beeman observed that Guinness tastes like burnt toast with cream, I resolved to try it for breakfast.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Marlena by Julie Buntin

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

What a luxury, the endless velvet of teenaged sleep.

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Friday, September 14, 2018

Friday Freebie: The Collector’s Apprentice by B. A. Shapiro

Congratulations to Paul Thomley, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger, An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena, and Tell Me You’re Mine by Elisabeth Noreback.

This week’s giveaway is for The Collector’s Apprentice, the new novel by B. A. Shapiro, author of The Art Forger. The Collector’s Apprentice will be released by Algonquin Books next month, but one lucky reader will have a copy of the book in their hands well before then. Will it be you? Keep scrolling for more information on the books and how to enter the contest. (Note: since I’ll be on the road next week for the South Dakota Festival of Books, I’m making this a special two-week contest.)

It’s the summer of 1922, and nineteen-year-old Paulien Mertens finds herself in Paris—broke, disowned, and completely alone. Everyone in Belgium, including her own family, believes she stole millions in a sophisticated con game perpetrated by her then-fiancé, George Everard. To protect herself from the law and the wrath of those who lost everything, she creates a new identity, a Frenchwoman named Vivienne Gregsby, and sets out to recover her father’s art collection, prove her innocence—and exact revenge on George. When the eccentric and wealthy American art collector Edwin Bradley offers Vivienne the perfect job, she is soon caught up in the Parisian world of post-Impressionists and expatriates—including Gertrude Stein and Henri Matisse, with whom Vivienne becomes romantically entwined. As she travels between Paris and Philadelphia, where Bradley is building an art museum, her life becomes even more complicated: George returns with unclear motives....and then Vivienne is arrested for Bradley’s murder. B. A. Shapiro has made the historical art thriller her own. In The Collector’s Apprentice, she gives us an unforgettable tale about the lengths to which people will go for their obsession, whether it be art, money, love, or vengeance.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Collector’s Apprentice, 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 Sept. 27, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 28. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Sunday Sentence: The Collected Stories of Diane Williams

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

There’s a Dick and Jane quality to the prose, if Dick and Jane had been forcibly drowned and then brought back to life, maybe starved for a while, induced with madness but warned, at pain of death, to conceal it.

~Ben Marcus, from the Introduction to
The Collected Stories of Diane Williams

Friday, September 7, 2018

Friday Freebie: The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger, An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena, Tell Me You’re Mine by Elisabeth Noreback

Congratulations to Phil Milio, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: One-Sentence Journal by Chris La Tray.

This week’s giveaway is for three new thrillers which should get your pulse pounding: The Banker’s Wife by Cristina Alger, An Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena, and Tell Me You’re Mine by Elisabeth Noreback. One lucky reader will win all three novels. Keep scrolling for more information on the books and how to enter the contest.

On an early morning in November, a couple boards a private plane bound for Geneva, flying into a storm. Soon after, it simply drops off the radar, and its wreckage is later uncovered in the Alps. Among the disappeared is Matthew Werner, a banking insider at Swiss United, a powerful offshore bank. His young widow, Annabel, is left grappling with the secrets he left behind, including an encrypted laptop and a shady client list. As she begins a desperate search for answers, she determines that Matthew’s death was no accident, and that she is now in the crosshairs of his powerful enemies. Meanwhile, ambitious society journalist Marina Tourneau has finally landed at the top. Now that she’s engaged to Grant Ellis, she will stop writing about powerful families and finally be a part of one. Her entry into the upper echelons of New York’s social scene is more appealing than any article could ever be, but, after the death of her mentor, she agrees to dig into one more story. While looking into Swiss United, Marina uncovers information that implicates some of the most powerful men in the financial world, including a few who are too close to home. The story could also be the answer to Annabel’s heartbreaking search--if Marina chooses to publish it. The Banker’s Wife is both a high-stakes thriller and an inside look at the personal lives in the intriguing world of finance, introducing Cristina Alger as a powerful new voice in the genre.

It’s winter in the Catskills and Mitchell’s Inn, nestled deep in the woods, is the perfect setting for a relaxing--maybe even romantic--weekend away. It boasts spacious old rooms with huge woodburning fireplaces, a well-stocked wine cellar, and opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or just curling up with a good murder mystery. So when the weather takes a turn for the worse, and a blizzard cuts off the electricity--and all contact with the outside world--the guests settle in for the long haul. Soon, though, one of the guests turns up dead--it looks like an accident. But when a second guest dies, they start to panic. Within the snowed-in paradise, something--or someone--is picking off the guests one by one. And there’s nothing they can do but hunker down and hope they can survive the storm.

Three women: one who believes she has found her long lost daughter, one terrified she’s about to lose her child, and one determined to understand who she truly is. Stella Widstrand is a psychotherapist, a happily married mother to a thirteen-year-old son. But when a young woman named Isabelle steps into her clinic to begin therapy, Stella’s placid life begins to crumble. She is convinced that Isabelle is her daughter, Alice. The baby that tragically disappeared more than twenty years ago on a beach during a family vacation. Alice is believed to have drowned, but her body was never found. Stella has always believed that Alice is alive, somewhere--but everyone around her worries she’s delusional. Could this be Alice? Stella will risk everything to answer that question, but in doing so she will set in motion a sequence of events beyond her control, endangering herself and everyone she loves.

If you’d like a chance at winning ALL THREE 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 Sept. 13, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 14. 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, September 6, 2018

Front Porch Books: September 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.

Beautiful Country Burn Again
by Ben Fountain

Jacket Copy:  In a sweeping work of reportage set over the course of 2016, New York Times bestselling author Ben Fountain recounts a surreal year of politics and an exploration of the third American existential crisis. Twice before in its history, the United States has been faced with a crisis so severe it was forced to reinvent itself in order to survive: first, the struggle over slavery, culminating in the Civil War, and the second, the Great Depression, which led to President Roosevelt’s New Deal and the establishment of America as a social-democratic state. In a sequence of essays that excavate the past while laying bare the political upheaval of 2016, Ben Fountain argues that the United States may be facing a third existential crisis, one that will require a “burning” of the old order as America attempts to remake itself. Beautiful Country Burn Again narrates a shocking year in American politics, moving from the early days of the Iowa Caucus to the crystalizing moments of the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and culminating in the aftershocks of the weeks following election night. Along the way, Fountain probes deeply into history, illuminating the forces and watershed moments of the past that mirror and precipitated the present, from the hollowed-out notion of the American Dream, to Richard Nixon’s southern strategy, to our weaponized new conception of American exceptionalism, to the cult of celebrity that gave rise to Donald Trump. In an urgent and deeply incisive voice, Ben Fountain has fused history and the present day to paint a startling portrait of the state of our nation. Beautiful Country Burn Again is a searing indictment of how we came to this point, and where we may be headed.

Opening Lines:  2016 was the year all the crazy parts of America ran amok over the rest. Screens, memes, fake news, Twitter storms, Russian hackers, pussy grabbers, Hillary’s emails, war, the wall, the wolf call of the alt-right, “hand” size, lies upon lies upon lies and moneymoneymoney—the more money, the more lies, is this politics’ iron rule?—they all combined for a billion-dollar stink of an election.

Blurbworthiness:  “Sometimes it takes a novelist to capture a world gone mad...With clarity of mind and the most observant of eyes, Fountain gives us a memorable and unique portrait American moment which is likely to shape us for far longer than any of us would like to contemplate.”  (Jon Meacham, author of The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels)

Southern Lady Code
by Helen Ellis

Jacket Copy:  The bestselling author of American Housewife is back with a fiercely funny collection of essays on marriage and manners, thank-you notes and three-ways, ghosts, gunshots, gynecology, and the Calgon-scented, onion-dipped, monogrammed art of living as a Southern Lady. Helen Ellis has a mantra: “If you don’t have something nice to say, say something not-so-nice in a nice way.” Say “weathered” instead of “she looks like a cake left out in the rain.” Say “early-developed” instead of “brace face and B cups.” And for the love of Coke Salad, always say “Sorry you saw something that offended you” instead of “Get that stick out of your butt, Miss Prissy Pants.” In these twenty-three raucous essays Ellis transforms herself into a dominatrix Donna Reed to save her marriage, inadvertently steals a $795 Burberry trench coat, witnesses a man fake his own death at a party, avoids a neck lift, and finds a black-tie gown that gives her the confidence of a drag queen. While she may have left her home in Alabama, married a New Yorker, forgotten how to drive, and abandoned the puffy headbands of her youth, Helen Ellis is clinging to her Southern accent like mayonnaise to white bread, and offering readers a hilarious, completely singular view on womanhood for both sides of the Mason-Dixon.

Opening Lines:  I have the reputation of living what Marie Kondo would call a “magically tidy” life. My tights are rolled like sushi, my tabletops are bare, my kitchen is so clean I could perform surgery in it. But I wasn’t always this way. When I was twenty-three, I left my New York City apartment with a panty liner stuck to my back.

Tacoma Stories
by Richard Wiley
(Bellevue Literary Press)

Jacket Copy:  On St. Patrick’s Day in 1968, sixteen people sit in Pat’s Tavern, drink green beer, flirt, rib each other, and eventually go home in (mostly) different directions. In the stories that follow, which span 1958 to the present, Richard Wiley pops back into the lives of this colorful cast of characters―sometimes into their pasts, sometimes into their futures―and explores the ways in which their individual narratives indelibly weave together. At the heart of it all lies Tacoma, Washington, a town full of eccentricities and citizens as unique as they are universal. The Tacoma of Tacoma Stories might be harboring paranoid former CIA operatives and wax replicas of dead husbands, but it is also a place with all the joys and pains one could find in any town, anytime and anywhere.

Opening Lines:  Pat’s Tavern, up on Twenty-First Street, not far from the old LaPore’s Market, had been the best college drinking establishment in Tacoma, Washington, a decade earlier, but by 1968, when I worked there, it had started its coast into oblivion, with Vivian Flanagan running it and finding people like me to tend bar. Vivian’s husband, Pat, had managed the tavern during its heyday, hiring College of Puget Sound athletes and tough guys like himself, but not long after the college became a university, Pat’s lost its cool and even on weekends wasn’t full. Still, a schooner of beer cost a quarter and I and my fellow bartender, Mary, often gave it away to friends on a two-for-one basis, so for those lucky few a schooner cost twelve and a half cents. Mary, a knockout, had curtains of hair falling down around her shoulders, while I kept a copy of Siddhartha in the pocket of an old army jacket, in the hope that it might help with my guise as a writer.

Blurbworthiness:  “It’s a strange and winsome feeling I have, reading Tacoma Stories, the blue sensation that Richard Wiley has made me homesick for a place I’ve never been, mourning the loss of friends I never had, in a life where each and every one of us is loved, however imperfectly. Think Sherwood Anderson inhabiting Raymond Carver’s Northwest and you’ll have a clear picture of Wiley’s accomplishment.”  (Bob Shacochis, author The Woman Who Lost Her Soul)

In Country
by Hugh Martin
(BOA Editions)

Jacket Copy:  Hugh Martin’s second full-length poetry collection moves within and among history to broaden and complicate our understanding of war. These poems push beyond tidy generalizations and easy moralizing as they explore the complex, often tense relationships between U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians. The speaker journeys through training to deployment and back again, returning home to reflect on the soldiers and civilians―both memories and ghosts―left behind. Filled with recollected dialogue and true-to-life encounters, these poems question, deconstruct, examine, and reintegrate the myths and realities of service.

Blurbworthiness:  “This is a poetry of small detail and large design. At one level, the guns, wasted terrains, and grinding dailiness of violence surprise and engage. The meticulous craft of detail allows the reader to become both witness and participant. But at a deeper level the true power and presence of this book, from poem to poem, lies in its offering of the unimaginable to imagination. These are certainly war poems, providing depth and texture to the category. But they are also proof of the hard-won accord that can exist between experience and language, which here lends a memorable force to so many of these poems.”  (Eavan Boland, author of A Woman Without a Country)

by Ling Ma
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  Maybe it’s the end of the world, but not for Candace Chen, a millennial, first-generation American and office drone meandering her way into adulthood in Ling Ma’s offbeat, wryly funny, apocalyptic satire, Severance. Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. With the recent passing of her Chinese immigrant parents, she’s had her fill of uncertainty. She’s content just to carry on: She goes to work, troubleshoots the teen-targeted Gemstone Bible, watches movies in a Greenpoint basement with her boyfriend. So Candace barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies cease operations. The subways screech to a halt. Her bosses enlist her as part of a dwindling skeleton crew with a big end-date payoff. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost. Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers? A send-up and takedown of the rituals, routines, and missed opportunities of contemporary life, Ling Ma’s Severance is a moving family story, a quirky coming-of-adulthood tale, and a hilarious, deadpan satire. Most important, it’s a heartfelt tribute to the connections that drive us to do more than survive.

Opening Lines:  After the End came the Beginning. And in the Beginning, there were eight of us, then nine—that was me—a number that would only decrease. We found one another after fleeing New York for the safer pastures of the countryside. We’d seen it done in the movies, though no one could say which one exactly. A lot of things didn’t play out as they had been depicted on-screen.
       We were brand strategists and property lawyers and human resources specialists and personal finance consultants. We didn’t know how to do anything so we Googled everything. We Googled how to survive in wild, which yielded images of poison ivy, venomous insects, and bear tracks. That was okay but we wanted to know how to go on the offensive. Against everything. We Googled how to build fire and watched YouTube videos of fires being lit with flint against steel, with flint against flint, with magnifying glass and sun. We couldn’t find the requisite flint, didn’t know how to identify it even, and before we tried using Bob’s bifocals, someone found a Bic in a jean jacket. The fire brought us through the night and delivered us into a morning that took us to a deserted Walmart. We stockpiled bottled water and exfoliating body wash and iPods and beers and tinted moisturizer in our stolen Jeeps. In the back of the store we found guns and ammo, camo outfits, scopes and grips. We Googled how to shoot gun, and when we tried, we were spooked by the recoil, by the salty smell and smoke, by the liturgical drama of the whole thing in the woods. But actually we loved to shoot them, the guns. We liked to shoot them wrong even, with a loose hand, the pitch forward and the pitch back. Under our judicious trigger fingers, beer bottles died, Vogue magazines died, Chia Pets died, oak saplings died, squirrels died, elk died. We feasted.
       Google would not last long. Neither would the internet. Or any of the infrastructure, but in the beginning of the Beginning let us brag, if only to ourselves in the absence of others. Because who was there to envy us, to be proud of us? Our Googlings darkened, turned inward. We Googled maslow’s pyramid to see how many of the need levels we could already fulfill. The first two. We Googled 2011 fever survivors, hoping to find others like us, and when all we found were the same outdated, inconclusive news articles, we Googled 7 stages grief to track our emotional progress. We were at Anger, the slower among us lagging behind at Denial. We Googled is there a god, clicked I’m Feeling Lucky, and were directed to a suicide hotline site. In the twelve rings it took for us to hang up, we held our breaths for someone else, some stranger’s voice confirming that we weren’t the only ones living, despite Bob’s adamant assertions. There was no answer.
       From this and other observations, it was deduced that we were alone, truly alone.

Blurbworthiness:  “Ling Ma has given us a terrifyingly plausible vision of our collective future, one in which our comforts have become pathology and our habits death―and, in her protagonist, a hero who doesn’t know if she should be seeking salvation or oblivion. And yet, somehow, Severance could easily be the funniest book of the year. It’s a brilliant, deadpan novel of survival, in this world and in the precarious world to come.”  (J. Robert Lennon, author of Broken River)

Perpetua’s Kin
by M. Allen Cunningham

Jacket Copy:  The author of the much-acclaimed #1 Indie Next Pick The Green Age of Asher Witherow returns with a masterful new work, epic in scope and yet intimate in its emotional power, about a family shaped as much by tumultuous world events as by each of its members’ long-kept secrets. Benjamin Lorn, sensitive son of an embittered Civil War veteran, comes of age in the tiny Iowa town of Perpetua where, in a single summer, he mourns the recent loss of his mother, falls in love, and uncovers a shameful family secret that sends him fleeing west. Tormented with this new knowledge, Benjamin seeks transcendence through the telegraph wires that have enchanted him since boyhood. Meanwhile the weight of a dark duty grows more and more pressing. Thus begins Perpetua’s Kin, M. Allen Cunningham’s enthralling multi-generational mystery, reworking of Hamlet, and profoundly contemporary exploration of the American experience as one family embodies it. Spanning much of North America over more than a century, from the 1820s Midwest through the American south of the Civil War, to World War II San Francisco, Cunningham’s novel is a powerful portrait of this nation’s violent heritage, our vulnerability to the vastness of our own geography, our chronic restlessness and desire for regeneration through technology, and the impossibility of escaping the history that forms us and, always, demands a reckoning.

Opening Lines:  Seeing she would not live out the night, Benjamin’s mother made it known in the household, so the young man found himself alone at her bedside. It was July the thirtieth. He would be twenty-three in about a week.
       She clutched his hand. Time had come sure enough. Her gaze once green seemed to swim with silverfish now.
       “Forgive your father,” she said. “Understand him.”

Blurbworthiness:  “Perpetua’s Kin blew me away with its stark, astonishing music. I’ve never seen the raw devastations of war brought alive in language so uncannily beautiful, so powerfully strange. This is a flat-out brilliant book.”  (Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks)

The Bus on Thursday
by Shirley Barrett
(FSG Originals)

Jacket Copy:  It wasn’t just the bad breakup that turned Eleanor Mellett’s life upside down. It was the cancer. And all the demons that came with it. One day she felt a bit of a bump when she was scratching her armpit at work. The next thing she knew, her breast was being dissected and removed by an inappropriately attractive doctor, and she was suddenly deluged with cupcakes, judgy support groups, and her mum knitting sweaters. Luckily, Eleanor discovers Talbingo, a remote little town looking for a primary-school teacher. Their Miss Barker up and vanished in the night, despite being the most caring teacher ever, according to everyone. Unfortunately, Talbingo is a bit creepy. It’s not just the communion-wine-guzzling friar prone to mad rants about how cancer is caused by demons. Or the unstable, overly sensitive kids, always going on about Miss Barker and her amazing sticker system. It’s living alone in a remote cabin, with no cell or Internet service, wondering why there are so many locks on the front door and who is knocking on it late at night. Riotously funny, deeply unsettling, and surprisingly poignant, Shirley Barrett’s The Bus on Thursday is a wickedly weird, wild ride for fans of Helen Fielding, Maria Semple, and Stephen King.

Opening Lines:  I was at work scratching my armpit. I was literally at my desk scratching my pit and I felt it and I freaked out and I didn’t tell a soul and normally I’m the kind of person to blurt out everything. So I guess I panicked from the word go.
       I had the mammogram first. I had several mammograms because they couldn’t get to it—it was in a really awkward spot. Also, apparently I was not relaxed enough.

Blurbworthiness:  “Shirley Barrett has crafted a quirky, one-of-a-kind, wild ride of a novel with demons, kangaroos, a missing schoolteacher, a remote town where things are strangely off-kilter, and a wonderfully bizarre cast of characters. The Bus on Thursday is a darkly funny and deeply unsettling novel you’ll devour in one sitting.”  (Jennifer McMahon, author of The Winter People)

A Winter’s Promise
by Christelle Dabos
Translated by Hildegarde Serle
(Europa Editions)

Jacket Copy:  Plain-spoken, headstrong Ophelia cares little about appearances. Her ability to read the past of objects is unmatched in all of Anima and, what’s more, she possesses the ability to travel through mirrors, a skill passed down to her from previous generations. Her idyllic life is disrupted, however, when she is promised in marriage to Thorn, a taciturn and influential member of a distant clan. Ophelia must leave all she knows behind and follow her fiancé to Citaceleste, the capital of a cold, icy ark known as the Pole, where danger lurks around every corner and nobody can be trusted. There, in the presence of her inscrutable future husband, Ophelia slowly realizes that she is a pawn in a political game that will have far-reaching ramifications not only for her but for her entire world.

Opening Lines:  In the beginning, we were as one.
      But God felt we couldn’t satisfy him like that, so God set about dividing us. God had great fun with us, then God tired of us and forgot us. God could be so cruel in his indifference, he horrified me. God knew how to show his gentle side, too, and I loved him as I’ve loved no one else.
      I think we could have all lived happily, in a way, God, me, and the others, if it weren’t for that accursed book.

Blurbworthiness:  “Dabos has managed the rarely seen triad of complex worldbuilding, nuanced character development, and enthralling plot, even making it look easy. Not a seam shows in this intricate narrative weave that centers on and empowers an endearingly bookish and clumsy anti-heroine without insisting she change.” (Kirkus Reviews)

The Collected Stories of Diane Williams
by Diane Williams
(Soho Press)

Jacket Copy:  The Collected Stories of Diane Williams brings together over three hundred new and previously published short fictions—distilled works of “unsettling brilliance” (Vanity Fair) that have rewritten the rules of the American short story. From Ben Marcus’ introduction to the book: “Diane Williams has spent her long, prolific career concocting fictions of perfect strangeness, most of them no more than a page long. She’s a hero of the form: the sudden fiction, the flash fiction, whatever it’s being called these days. The stories are short. They defy logic. They thumb their nose at conventional sense, or even unconventional sense. But if sense is in short supply in these texts, that leaves more room for splendor and sorrow. These stories upend expectations and prize enigma and the uncanny above all else. The Williams epiphany should be patented, or bottled—on the other hand, it should also be regulated and maybe rationed, because it’s severe. It’s a rare feeling her stories trigger, but it’s a keen and deep and welcome one, the sort of feeling that wakes us up to complication and beauty and dissonance and fragility.”

Opening Lines:  She said please. Her face looked something more than bitter, with hair which it turned out was a hat, which came down over her ears, which was made of fake fur, which she never removed from her head. She had glasses on. Everything she wore helped me decide to let her in.
       She wore flat black patent-leather shoes with pointed toes, with black stockings, wrinkled at the ankles, with silver triangles set in on top of the toes of the shoes to decorate them, and she had on a long black coat, and she was shorter than I am.
       Her skin was a bleak sort of skin, and there was no beauty left in her—maybe in her body.

Blurbworthiness:  “Her work is certainly odd, but it’s also poetic, passionate, and precisely crafted. Her strange voices linger in the mind. Part of the pleasure of reading Williams is you have no idea what’s coming next. Don’t fret. These marvelous stories do have a beginning, middle and an end—just not necessarily in that order.”  (Los Angeles Times)

The Good Neighbor
by Maxwell King

Jacket Copy:  Fred Rogers (1928–2003) was an enormously influential figure in the history of television and in the lives of tens of millions of children. As the creator and star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he was a champion of compassion, equality, and kindness. Rogers was fiercely devoted to children and to taking their fears, concerns, and questions about the world seriously. The Good Neighbor, the first full-length biography of Fred Rogers, tells the story of this utterly unique and enduring American icon. Drawing on original interviews, oral histories, and archival documents, Maxwell King traces Rogers’s personal, professional, and artistic life through decades of work, including a surprising decision to walk away from the show to make television for adults, only to return to the neighborhood with increasingly sophisticated episodes, written in collaboration with experts on childhood development. An engaging story, rich in detail, The Good Neighbor is the definitive portrait of a beloved figure, cherished by multiple generations.

Opening Lines:  Fred Rogers had given some very specific instructions to David Newell, who handled public relations for the PBS children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Rogers said he wanted no children—absolutely none—to be present when he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago. No children? How could that be? By the mid-1980s, Rogers was an icon of children’s television, known for communicating with his young viewers in the most fundamental and profound way. Why would he want to exclude them from a program showcasing his views on how they should be understood and taught?
       But Fred Rogers knew himself far better than even friends like Newell, who had worked with him for decades. He knew that if there were children in the studio audience, he wouldn’t focus on Winfrey’s questions, he wouldn’t pay heed to her legion of viewers, and he wouldn’t convey the great importance of his work. The children and their needs would come first. He couldn’t help it, never could help it. Decades before, Rogers had programmed himself to focus on the needs of little children, and by now he had reached a point at which he could not fail to respond to a child who asked something of him—anything at all.
       He asked David Newell (who also played Mr. McFeely, a central character on Rogers’s program) to be clear with Winfrey’s staff: If there are children in the audience, Fred knows he’ll do a poor job of helping Oprah to make the interview a success. But the message wasn’t received. When Rogers came before Winfrey’s studio audience on a brisk December day in 1985, he found the audience composed almost entirely of families, mainly very young children with their mothers.
       Winfrey’s staff had decided that after she interviewed Rogers, it would be fun to have him take questions from the audience, and maybe provide some guidance to mothers. And he certainly tried, telling them that to understand children, “I think the best that we can do is to think about what it was like for us.” But the plan didn’t succeed. As soon as the children started to ask him questions directly, he seemed to get lost in their world, slowing his responses to their pace, and even hunching in his chair as if to insinuate himself down to their level.
       This wasn’t good television—at least, good adult television. Everything was going into a kind of slow motion as Fred Rogers became Mister Rogers, connecting powerfully with the smallest children present. He seemed to forget the camera as he focused on them one by one. Winfrey began to look a little worried. Although she was still about a year away from the national syndication that would make her a superstar, her program was already a big hit. And here she was losing control of it to a bunch of kids, and what looked like a slightly befuddled grandfather.

Blurbworthiness:  “Mere pages into this beautiful account, tears began to roll down my cheeks as my heart remembered the kind and gentle manner of Mr. Rogers. Deeply researched, Maxwell King’s biography brings Rogers to life in small moments recalled by those who knew him best. Through a meticulous unspooling of his childhood, we learn why Fred Rogers—a child born into extreme wealth who could have done anything or nothing with his life—wound up of all things a child whisperer, a seer of the human heart, a builder of bridges constructed of unconditional love and acceptance. Reading King’s narrative, one cannot help but long for a time when children spent their afternoons watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood; one cannot help but sense that what we all need right now is an infusion of Fred Rogers’ enduring teachings back onto our airwaves and into our America.”  (Julie Lythcott-Haims author of How to Raise an Adult)

The Dead
by Christian Kracht
Translated by Daniel Bowles
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  In Berlin, Germany, in the early 1930s, the acclaimed Swiss film director Emil Nägeli receives the assignment of a lifetime: travel to Japan and make a film to establish the dominance of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi empire once and for all. But his handlers are unaware that Nägeli has colluded with the Jewish film critics to pursue an alternative objective—to create a monumental, modernist, allegorical spectacle to warn the world of the horror to come. Meanwhile, in Japan, the film minister Masahiko Amakasu intends to counter Hollywood’s growing influence and usher in a new golden age of Japanese cinema by exploiting his Swiss visitor. The arrival of Nägeli’s film-star fiancée and a strangely thuggish, pistol-packing Charlie Chaplin—as well as the first stirrings of the winds of war—soon complicates both Amakasu’s and Nägeli’s plans, forcing them to face their demons...and their doom.

Opening Lines:  There hadn’t been a rainier May in Tokyo for decades; the smudgy grayness streaking the overcast sky had been dimming to a deep, deep indigo day after day; hardly anyone could recall such cataclysmic quantities of water. Hats, coats, kimonos, uniforms had become shapeless and ill-fitting; book leaves, documents, scrolls, maps began to warp. There, a wayward, imprudent butterfly was struck down in midflight by rainstorms, down to the asphalt, whose water-filled depressions tenaciously reflected the luminous neon signs and paper lamps of restaurants at night: artificial light, cleaved and divided up by the arrhythmic pelting of endless downpours.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Dead is the beautiful, brilliant, and utterly mad novel that Thomas Mann would have written had he known the East like Yukio Mishima and loved his adopted Hollywood with the gusto of Nathanael West.”  (Joshua Cohen, author of Moving Kings)

by Dani Shapiro

Jacket Copy:  In the spring of 2016, through a genealogy website to which she had whimsically submitted her DNA for analysis, Dani Shapiro received the stunning news that her father was not her biological father. She woke up one morning and her entire history—the life she had lived—crumbled beneath her. Inheritance is a book about secrets—secrets within families, kept out of shame or self-protectiveness; secrets we keep from one another in the name of love. It is the story of a woman’s urgent quest to unlock the story of her own identity, a story that has been scrupulously hidden from her for more than fifty years, years she had spent writing brilliantly, and compulsively, on themes of identity and family history. It is a book about the extraordinary moment we live in—a moment in which science and technology have outpaced not only medical ethics but also the capacities of the human heart to contend with the consequences of what we discover.

Opening Lines:  When I was a girl I would sneak down the hall late at night once my parents were asleep. I would lock myself in the bathroom, climb onto the Formica counter, and get as close as possible to the mirror until I was nose to nose with my own reflection. This wasn’t an exercise in the simple self-absorption of childhood. The stakes were high. Who knows how long I kneeled there, staring into my own eyes. I was looking for something I couldn’t possibly have articulated—but I always knew it when I saw it. If I waited long enough, my face would begin to morph. I was eight, ten, thirteen. Cheeks, eyes, chin, and forehead—my features softened and shape-shifted until finally I was able to see another face, a different face, what seemed to me a truer face just beneath my own.

Blurbworthiness:  “Inheritance is Dani Shapiro at her best: a gripping genetic detective story, and a meditation on the meaning of parenthood and family. It raises profound questions about the quandaries and responsibilities engendered by our newfound ability to know what—and whom—we are made of.”  (Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad)

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Sunday Sentence: One-Sentence Journal by Chris La Tray

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

Every time I get outdoors,
     (up in the hills
     along the river
I feel like the world just gives and gives
and I'm not doing a damn thing
to give anything back.

One-Sentence Journal by Chris La Tray