Friday, November 30, 2018

Friday Freebie: Lullaby Road by James Anderson

Congratulations to Shane Tracy, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Big Holiday Giveaway.

This week’s giveaway is for Lullaby Road by James Anderson, author of The Never-Open Desert Diner. Here’s what The Mystery Tribune had to say about Lullaby Road: “James Anderson is definitely an author who can write. This lyrical and atmospheric novel takes readers to a unique place with characters of its own and embodies the author’s superb storytelling skills…It reads more like a literary take on a beautiful land unique setting filled with unusual and sometimes comical characters…In a genre saturated with tough-talking heroes in New York and LA, a vulnerable character like Ben Jones in a setting like the Utah desert is a welcome addition to the shelf of any reader looking for an exceptional mystery read.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest.

Winter has come to Route 117, a remote road through the high desert of Utah trafficked only by eccentrics, fugitives, and those looking to escape the world. Local truck driver Ben Jones, still in mourning over a heartbreaking loss, is just trying to get through another season of treacherous roads and sudden snowfall without an accident. But then he finds a mute Hispanic child who has been abandoned at a seedy truck stop along his route, far from civilization and bearing a note that simply reads “Please Ben. Watch my son. His name is Juan” And then at the bottom, a few more hastily scribbled words. “Bad Trouble. Tell no one.” Despite deep misgivings, and without any hint of who this child is or the grave danger he’s facing, Ben takes the child with him in his truck and sets out into an environment that is as dangerous as it is beautiful and silent. From that moment forward, nothing will ever be the same. Not for Ben. Not for the child. And not for anyone along the seemingly empty stretch of road known as Route 117.

If you’d like a chance at winning Lullaby Road, 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. This contest is open to U.S. addresses only. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 20, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 21. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Thursday, November 29, 2018

1,000 Books: Edward Abbey to Louisa May Alcott

In this season of gratitude, I have 1,000 reasons to be thankful for James Mustich. As the co-founder of the legendary mail-order catalog A Common Reader, Mustich knows a thing or a thousand about books. (Full disclosure, Jim was an early editor of mine when we worked together on a now-defunct blog about Agatha Christie, as well as the un-defunct Barnes and Noble Review). Those of us who have felt his influence in the literary world for decades already know this, but the rest of the un-Mustich-minded population can now welcome his excellent taste to their coffee tables with the publication of the massive, and massively-entertaining, 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, now out from Workman Publishing. If you are waffling about what to buy that book-obsessed person on your holiday gift list, then waffle no more: go buy this handsome volume and you can plant a big fat check next to that name on your list. I’ll save you an unhealthy dose of seasonal anxiety: this is the book to buy. Wrap it in paper as colorful as Oz’ Emerald City and tie it with bows that are as gilded as the edges of those fancy unread volumes of the Great Books in your father's library and place it it under a tree whose ancestors perhaps once gave their lives for this very book. Christmas = Done!

But...another book telling us what books to read? Sigh. Yes, yes, yes, we live in a list-obsessed Buzzfeed culture these days, and certainly there are already plenty of “books to read before you die” lists floating around out there (How many have you read? Take our quiz now!), and I am hardly the last one to preach about the saintliness of not wasting time on obsessively counting how many books one has and hasn’t read. Hell, this blog is, in one sense, an ongoing summation of my reading habits. I love to tally. And then, too, there is an undeniable authoritarian nature of lists in general: you must read these! We feel sadly incomplete if we don’t score at least 90 on those quizzes. Or maybe that’s just me.

Having said all that, I have happily embraced falling into the thick-paged delights of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. On October 31 of this year, I embarked on the kilo-volume journey, working my way, one book per day, through Mustich’s list. That puts me at a target date of July 27, 2021 for finishing this book (Note to Future Nitpickers: please don’t hold me accountable to that exact date; I need a little wiggle room for the interruptions of life, as well as the potential for burnout around the letter F). There is also the possibility that I’ll die before finishing this book. C’est la vie, shrugs the reader who, as he gets older, has found himself accelerating his reading speed in order to, impossibly, Read All the Books before he hits the grave.

I am about a month into this 1,000 Books project and I can say, unequivocally, that it is a pleasure to learn. Every day, I discover something new, or am reminded of the pleasures of books I’ve already read.

1,000 Books to Die Before You Read is organized alphabetically by the author’s last name, starting with Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire) and wrapping up 900 pages later with Carl Zuckmayer (A Part of Myself). There are 948 books which get individual entries; the other 52 are mentioned in the endnotes “More to Explore” and “Booknotes.” Selecting the titles could not have been easy: a combination Herculean and Sisyphean task, to be sure. As Mustich writes in his Introduction:
A book about 1,000 books could take so many different shapes. It could be a canon of classics; it could be a history of human thought and a tour of its significant disciplines; it might be a record of popular delights (or even delusions). But the crux of the difficulty was a less complicated truth: Readers read in so many different ways, any one standard of measure is inadequate. No matter their pedigree, inveterate readers read the way they eat: for pleasure as well as nourishment, indulgence as much as well-being, and sometimes for transcendence. Hot dogs one day, haute cuisine the next.
Haute dog challenge accepted, Mr. Mustich!

Lest you think I am just some literary lemming following one man and his recommendations over a cliff formed by an already too-high To-Be-Read pile, I can assure you that: a) I trust Mustich’s taste to the fullest degree; b) I love a challenge where my reading boundaries are pushed to classic works I might ordinarily shy away from (Hello, Aristotle?) ; and c) of the books he’s recommended and I have already started to read, I am reaping the promised rewards (I’m looking at you, Half of a Yellow Sun).

Truth be told, I need this 1,000-book list like I need an extra hole in my head (unless said hole was carved for an extra pair of eyes). As long-time readers of The Quivering Pen know, I already have a Reading Essentials list of my own. I first posted my Five-Year Plan to this blog on November 22, 2014. This means I have one more year left on my ticking clock (with every tock of the pendulum, I cringe in regret for time wasted on lame-ass books). As of today, I have read only 26 books on that 236-book list. I’ll never make it. So, I’m going to discard the five-year calendar and just say “before I die” at this point. Not only that, but since 2014, I have added just a couple more books to that original list:

Barth, John: Lost in the Funhouse
Barthelme, Donald: Sixty Stories & Forty Stories
Bender, Aimee: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
Brooks, Geraldine: March
Burgess, Anthony: A Clockwork Orange
Burnett, Frances Hodgson: The Secret Garden
Canin, Ethan: The Palace Thief
Dahl, Roald: The Collected Stories
Dana, Richard Henry: Two Years Before the Mast
Defoe, Daniel: Robinson Crusoe
Heinlein, Robert A.: Stranger in a Strange Land
Hitchens, Christopher: And Yet...
Jackson, Shirley: The Haunting of Hill House (read since adding to this list)
Johnson, Adam: The Orphan Master’s Son
Lovecraft, H. P.: The New Annotated Lovecraft
Lowry, Malcolm: Under the Volcano
Mansfield, Katherine: The Garden Party and Other Stories
Morrison, Toni: Song of Solomon
Muir, John: The Mountains of California
Norris, Frank: McTeague
Rhys, Jean: Wide Sargasso Sea
Roth, Philip: Portnoy’s Complaint
Salten, Felix: Bambi
Sayers, Dorothy L.: Gaudy Night
Shelley, Mary: Frankenstein (read!)
Smith, Alexander McCall: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
Stegner, Wallace: Big Rock Candy Mountain
Steinbeck, John: The Grapes of Wrath (read! er, “listened to” on audiobook this year)
Stoker, Bram: Dracula
Turgenev, Ivan: Fathers and Sons
Turow, Scott: Presumed Innocent
Walker, Alice: The Color Purple
Wharton, Edith: The Custom of the Country
Wouk, Herman: The Winds of War
Wright, Richard: Black Boy
Zola, Emile: Germinal

Like I said, just a couple of books to add to my quote unquote burden. As I began reading 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, I merged Mustich’s list with my own. To paraphrase Roy Scheider in Jaws, I needed a bigger boat.

Over the course of the next nearly three years, I will be documenting my checklist here at the blog and on my Facebook and Instagram feeds. I will briefly highlight each book, and include a few words from Mustich (in bold) about the title and as well as a photo of the book in my collection, when appropriate. As widely-read a person as I think I am, I’m finding several books and authors I’d never even heard of before Mustich introduced us. That, if nothing else, is one reason to give thanks for 1,000 Books!

Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Desert Solitaire evokes the paradoxical loveliness of the harsh, hostile landscape with awestruck exactitude and visceral intensity.

I first read DS in grad school too many years ago (my copy has vanished, but it was the same as the stock photo above which I pulled off the web). I loved Abbey’s rascally humor as well as the rich descriptions of nature. Methinks it’s time for a re-read.

by Edwin A. Abbott

A novel of mathematical whimsy...

Written in 1884, Flatland is a satirical novel about math. As such, since it’s all about numbers and geometry and I absolutely sucked at those subjects in high school, this is a book I would normally run away from, screaming and bleeding at the eyes. Nevertheless, enough people weighed in on it after I posted it to Facebook that I am convinced to give the numbers a try.

Things Fall Apart
by Chinua Achebe

It is as rich in human substance as Greek tragedy, and just as mysteriously powerful in its effect.

Another one I’ve read. Thanks, Graduate School Syllabus!!

My Dog Tulip
by J. R. Ackerley

When first published in England in 1956, Tulip was considered shocking because of what one reviewer called its “scatological and gynaecological detail.” But while the messy details are certainly present in abundance (Chapter Two, for example, is entitled “Liquids and Solids”), to be put off by them is to miss the forest for the trees. For it is precisely J. R. Ackerley’s frank, unashamed, and often hilarious discussions of his beloved Alsatian’s bodily functions, her insistent animality, which bring this particular dog to such vivid and unforgettable life.

As a longtime lover of “a boy and his dog” books (See Where the Red Fern Grows), I was surprised to learn about this memoir for the first time from Mustich’s book. Pleasantly surprised, I might add. I went online and ordered it right away, not in the least influenced by that marvelous cover from the 2009 animated movie (which I have also never seen). I can’t wait to be paws up on my back with this book.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams

Cleverly, brilliantly, gloriously, ingeniously, and at times profoundly silly.

This is where the 1,000 Books To Read Before You Die list starts to get a bit embarrassing. No, I have not read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but it’s been on my mind for years. And, hey, I knew enough about it to pose my copy of the book with some towels in my bathroom. Mustich says the novel is like P. G. Wodehouse in outer space. My kind of book! (Though, yeah yeah yeah, I also need to read Wodehouse himself...)

The Education of Henry Adams
by Henry Adams

A work of extraordinary eloquence and discernment.

I’ve read Henry Adams’ novel Democracy (pictured in the background), but not his Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography. As you can see, I have a vintage Armed Services Edition (given to troops during World War Two to carry in their pockets during combat) which I picked up in an antique store a few years ago. I have a bunch of those ASE titles, but have yet to read any of them. When I do, I’ll pretend hunkered down in a foxhole in a French forest somewhere. Because I’m weird like that.

Watership Down
by Richard Adams

One of the most phenomenal international bestsellers of the 1970s, Watership Down is an immersive saga that traverses great themes and feelings--courage, frailty, community, ecology, responsibility, love--while holding readers on the edge of their metaphorical seats. And oh, yes--it’s a 500-page novel about rabbits.

This book has been a part of my life since at least 1977, five years after it first came out, when I was constantly shelving it and checking it out to patrons at the Teton County Library in Jackson, Wyoming, back when I was a teenage librarian who was so in love with books that I dreamed of, among other things, concocting a men’s cologne called Pages (notes of rosemary, woodstove, and dust). I remember that hardbound copy of Watership was spine-broke and grimy from a thousand readers’ fingers, but still it circulated steadily until it was as limp and weak as sun-baked lettuce. And then came the movie, which I must have seen three or four times in my life. And, oh my!, don’t even get me started on the sentimental pleasures of Art Garfunkel’s song “Bright Eyes”! I don’t know where or when I got this battered paperback you see here (photobombed by Kindle the kitten), but it was before I started keeping track of my collection on Library Thing in 2006. All that being said, I’m sorry to report I haven’t actually read the novel.

Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Set in Nigeria during the decade culminating in the 1967-70 Biafran war, a secession conflict that left more than a million dead from violence and famine, Half of a Yellow Sun is at once a historical drama and a tale of family struggles and romances gone right and wrong.

After reading Mustich’s summation of the novel, I got so excited, I immediately marched myself up the hill to check out a copy from the Butte-Silver Bow Public Library. I was swept up in the story by page 3 and happily plunged onward. Unfortunately, previous readers had loved Half of a Yellow Sun half to death and a chunk of the first 30 pages, loosened by readers who like to spine-break, kept falling out into my lap. That is no way to enjoy a book. Undaunted, I returned the book to the library and downloaded a page-intact version onto my Kobo. Now I can hold Adichie’s massive, Dickensian world in the palm of my hand.

The Oresteia
by Aeschylus

If you seek between covers an education in the trials and tribulations, the hopes and fears, the terrors and triumphs of the human spirit, the majestic tragedies of the ancient Greeks are the place to begin, and perhaps the place to end as well.

The Oresteia is the trilogy of plays by Aeschylus, seen here in Volume 8 of the Harvard Classics “Five-Foot Shelf of Books” which I found in a garage sale here in Butte, Montana nine years ago. I should say “rescued” rather than “found" because most of the 51 volumes were water-damaged and rotting with mildew. I spread them out around the basement and for the better part of a week, the house smelled like an old tweedy English professor who’d been left out in the rain for too long. (Sadly, I was unable to save Volumes 7, 47 and 48.) As for the Greek plays, I’m marking these as “read” because I’m sure they were on my syllabus when I was a Theater major at University of Wyoming back in the early 80s and I’m pretty certain I read Agamemnon at the very least (though, truthfully, my memory is also a little tweedy and rain-soaked).

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
by James Agee and Walker Evans

Agee invests simple realities--and the struggling lives of sharecroppers--with beauty and moral gravity.

I had a Penguin Classics edition of Agee’s novel A Death in the Family perched on my own To-Be-Read list, but Mustich started twisting my arm in favor of Famous Men; and then on Facebook, fellow reader David Surface completely wrenched my elbow up toward my shoulder blades with this summation and I cried “Uncle!”: “This book is Agee’s Apocalypse Now, in that (like Coppola) he went into the jungle and wouldn’t come out. What was supposed to be a magazine article on sharecroppers turned into this huge, sprawling, genius mess of a glorious work of art that touches on politics, class, poverty, race relations, and (like all his work) human beings and our relationship to the holy. It’s unclassifiable, literally––walk into any B&N and try to find it; I’ve found it under Literature, Sociology, History, even Memoir and Biography (and, thanks to the other genius involved, Walker Evans, even Photography). There’s much in it that your eyes and brain won’t want or be able to deal with. It also contains several of the most heartbreakingly beautiful, angelic pieces of writing in the English language.” Pictured: my Library of America volume of Agee’s books.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
by Edward Albee

Fear and Loathing in the Living Room

Thanks (again!) to my early thespian training in Wyoming, I am not afraid to say I’ve read this play time and time again, until my brain was as hoarse as George and Martha’s voices yelling at each other over late-night drinks. Albee’s play is incredible in the way it treats the human condition. It stings, it burns, it insists we not look away from the mirror.

Little Women
by Louisa May Alcott

It is among the most cherished and popular children’s books of all time. Within its comfortable domestic compass, many readers first discover the import of the largest questions: Who am I, and who do I want to be?

I don’t remember where or when I got this 1924 copy of the novel--and it’s not the edition I read a few years ago when I realized I better see what all the fuss was about--but it’s in great shape after all these years and is a cherished member of my vintage books shelf. Ember (Kindle’s likewise photobombing brother) told me it has notes of oak and cherries in its aroma. I then turned and splashed him with a fingerful of my Pages cologne to show him what a real book should smell like.

Monday, November 26, 2018

My First Time: Jennifer Spiegel

Not My First Time

This is not my first time.

What did I think back then, seeing my name in print? Was I all blushing bride, bookish rube? Did I carry around ink and quill just in case a random fan asked for an autograph? Was I wearing a black beret, tilted strategically on the top of my head? Did I sleep in that beret?

Tell me I didn’t wear sunglasses inside.

What had I expected that first time? Accolades? A writer’s retreat in, say, Bora Bora?

I guess, in all honesty, I thought it would be easier. Someone—some successful writer guy—told me in so many words, “You only come out of the gate once.”

These words hurt. I wish I could say they didn’t. But I am haunted.

I love my first two books. I feel strongly about them; each marks and commemorates an epoch in my life. There’s something unrepeatable about their contents. When I was a kid—like seriously a young child—I declared to my mostly stable parents, “I want to live an episodic life.” Who knows what I meant? I had some kind of latent aversion to what I deemed “a white picket fence life.” Apparently, I craved emotional upheaval and heartbreak and mental terrorism. Thinking about my childish desires now, I cringe.

Ironically, I got a rather episodic existence after all. Long story.

The Freak Chronicles is one aspect of my youth (I’m An Expatriate!); Love Slave is another (I’m a New Yorker!). I seldom re-visit either work but when I do, I’m struck by a few things: I am not the woman who wrote either of those books, and I could not write them today (both were written several years before their publication in 2012). When I last dipped into Love Slave, it was like a museum piece to me. I read it and felt almost grateful for its detail and—I’m gonna say it about my own work—authenticity. Here was a souvenir of my early adulthood, and I could give it to my children someday. I nailed that epoch! And that’s what I like to through something (usually traumatic) and write about it later. Fictionalizing a truth and worrying over its detail.

But I’ve just published my third book: And So We Die, Having First Slept. It’s been six years since my big break. I’m this other woman. I’m forty-eight, almost forty-nine. I’ve been married for fourteen years (looooonnnnnnggggg episode—we keep renewing our contract, sorta like The Walking Dead). There are children involved.

I think, often, about leaving them my possessions.

When I die, what will my kids get?

I’ll leave souvenirs, books.

You only come out of the gate once...

Unless you do it in a different way.

I’m coming out again?

True, the Eccentric Writer Routine has lost much of its charm. (I still play it up at home. I am pretty weird.) I can no longer get away with certain behaviors. Any fashion statement is inevitably a bad fashion statement. It’s bitterly hard to be blasé or aloof or whatever-it-is I’m supposed to be these days as a sexy but earthy/strong but delicate/metoo-conscious middle-aged woman with humility, wit, and a book—especially when I’m just wondering what my kids are doing and if Tim managed to record Better Call Saul before we turn on The Great British Baking Show.

I am an Eccentric Writer.

But I’m not a cool Eccentric Writer.

And so, this gate I’m supposed to walk through AGAIN....It’s there. I see it. I’m approaching it. I’m weathered. I’m another woman.

Make way: Mom is a-coming.

There’s the Book Promo Hustle. To say that I’m jaded would be too strong, too fierce. I’ll only say that I worked with very talented people on my earlier books, and I had high hopes. I don’t think I was planning on economic prosperity (Tim was). Rather, I think I hoped that those gates would be left wide-open for me. Maybe I thought there would be people on the other side always beckoning me, calling out, “We want you! We want you!”

(In Tim’s head, it was like, “We’ll pay you! We’ll pay you!”)

A Note on My Husband Who Doesn’t Write: Tim is super supportive of my “career.” I really cannot complain. I joke—a lot—about how he’s my Sugar Daddy. There is absolutely no way I could write like I do under other circumstances. He has essentially given me a writer’s life. All of that said, you know what I was hoping for when I came out of that first gate? A little street cred. Some legitimacy. I wanted everyone to know—even him—that I’m Working Hard Here. Even though it looks like I’m sitting around on the couch with the dog, I’m writing books! I wanted to justify having a Sugar Daddy. That’s not cool to say, is it?

But now what do I want for my new book?

I don’t need the street cred. I’m past that. I Yam What I Yam, as Popeye once wisely said.

Rather, I want to commemorate another epoch. I want to fictionalize a piece of myself. I want to give it to my children.

I am overly-conscious of my own mortality: that’s where I am now. It’s all about my children.

And Tim.

I want to say to him: Here, I wrote you this book.

You can show it to the kids later.

Yes, I’m rather morbid. That’s another story involving cancer. Which is completely written in an unpublished memoir so talk to me if you’re interested. (Epoch Over, I hope.)

So is that all I want for my book? Am I looking for paparazzi and panel discussion invites?

No, but here is one other thing I want: I want to say a few things, and I’d like to say them well.

That’s what I want for this book.

I may end up repeating this line elsewhere: This is the book I wanted to write.

Should I add “right now”?

I’m in the process of writing a piece on Elena Ferrante, but I’ll say now that I guess I wish I could be somewhere between Marilynne Robinson and Elena Ferrante on the publishing front. I’d like to be wise and good like Robinson, and removed from my books like Ferrante. With the other two books I published, I was giddy—tripping over my own two feet—to be liked for my writer-self. Now, maybe a bit tempered, I admire the quiet morality of Robinson and the philosophical distance of Ferrante.

Alas, I’ll tell you the truth: I probably still want to be liked.

But I’d prefer if you just liked my book.

This is not my first time.

Jennifer Spiegel is the author of three books, The Freak Chronicles (stories), Love Slave (a novel), and And So We Die, Having First Slept (another novel). She’s also half of the book-reviewing team, Snotty Literati. For more information, please visit her at

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. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Sunday Sentence: Beautiful Country Burn Again by Ben Fountain

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

Fear is the herpes of American politics: the symptoms bloom and fade, but the virus never dies.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving Sweatpants

(This is what happens when you Google “Thanksgiving sweatpants”)
I know there is an unspoken rule
that holidays are a time to maybe
“dress up” a little, but tomorrow,
when I prepare to leave for my mom’s house
to indulge in a Thanksgiving feast,
I will pay her cooking my highest compliment
by dressing in sweatpants.

That’s one of my favorite pages from one of my favorite books I read this year: One-Sentence Journal by fellow Montana author Chris La Tray. I’ve been a fan of Chris’ blog for years, and in 2018 I am particularly thankful that his smart, pithy one-sentence summations of daily life have been bound between two covers for everyone to enjoy.

While my Thanksgiving Day wardrobe this year skews closer to jeans and a linen shirt (plus, because I’m cooking, comfortable shoes and an apron), I get what Chris is saying: feast day is a time to let it all hang out. I’m also sporting the latest in finger-bandage fashion today because, as I was slicing these Shingled Sweet Potatoes with Harissa on the mandoline, I slipped and cut my fingertip halfway to the bone. If they ask, I’ll just tell my guests around the table that I added a little salt and iron to the casserole dish. They’ll never know. Unless they read this blog post.

Cooking accidents aside, I’m right on schedule with the dinner. This year, I’m trying out something new with a dry-brined turkey, gluten-free stuffing, grilled asparagus, and this awesome Spicy Cranberry Sauce.

Now that I think about it, sweatpants might not be a bad idea.

I hope, dear reader, that your Thanksgiving feast expands your bellies, your hearts, and your minds. Feast on, my friends!

Sunday, November 18, 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.

Pots and pans were being batted around, or that was a lot of coughing I was hearing.
from “The Power of Performance” in
The Collected Stories of Diane Williams

Friday, November 16, 2018

Friday Freebie: BIG Holiday Giveaway for Book Lovers

Congratulations to Jennifer Spiegel, Jane Rainey, and Kara Shamy, winners of last week’s Friday Freebie: Shelf Life of Happiness by Virginia Pye.

It’s time once again for a big clear-the-shelves blowout giveaway for the Christmas season. This year, I’ve got 20 books up for grabs, including a signed copy of my most recent novel, Brave Deeds. One lucky reader will win the whole kit and caboodle. The selection is rather eclectic and there should be something for just about every reader on the list. Keep scrolling for more information about each book and how to enter the contest (in the interest of space, I am shortening the summaries, but please click on the titles to see the full plot description).

Brave Deeds by David Abrams
Spanning eight hours, this novel about the Iraq War follows a squad of six AWOL soldiers as they attempt to cross war-torn Baghdad on foot to attend the funeral of their leader, Staff Sergeant Rafe Morgan. As they walk, the group of American soldiers shows loyalty, bravery, and their own forms of human frailty as they persevere in what appears to be a doomed mission across hostile territory.

Metamorphica by Zachary Mason
In the tradition of his bestselling debut novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey, Zachary Mason’s Metamorphica transforms Ovid’s epic poem of endless transformation. It reimagines the stories of Narcissus, Pygmalion and Galatea, Midas and Atalanta, and strings them together like the stars in constellations—even Ovid becomes a story.

To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann
This is the story of Walter and his dangerously outspoken friend Friedrich Caroli, seventeen-year-old trainee milkers on a dairy farm in northern Germany who are tricked into volunteering for the army during the spring of 1945: the last, and in many ways the worst, months of the war. The men are driven to the point of madness by what they experience, and when Friedrich finally deserts his post, Walter is forced to do the unthinkable.

Isadora by Amelia Gray
In 1913, Isadora Duncan was known as much for her stunning dance performances as for her eccentric and salacious personal life—her lovers included poets, directors, and the heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. But when her two children drowned in Paris, she found herself taking on a role she had never dreamed of. Using the scaffolding of Isadora Duncan’s life and the stuff of her spirit, Amelia Gray’s breakout novel delivers an incredibly imaginative portrait of the artist.

Songs of Love and Horror by Will Oldham
As a performer, songwriter, and actor, Will Oldham has carved a singular path through the worlds of indie folk and cinema. Now, the elusive artist presents his poetic life's work: the lyrics to more than two hundred songs spanning the 1980s to the present, each with annotations that impart new meaning to his music.

Problematic: How Toxic Callout Culture is Destroying Feminism by Dianna E. Anderson
From Beyoncé’s Lemonade to The Force Awakens to the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, the entertainment industry seems to be embracing the power of women like never before. But with more feminist content comes more feminist criticism—and it feels as if there’s always something to complain about. Dianna E. Anderson’s incisive Problematic takes on the stereotype of the perpetually dissatisfied feminist. Too often feminist criticism has come to mean seeing only the bad elements of women-centric pop culture and never the good. Anderson suggests that our insistence on feminist ideological purity leads to shallow criticism and ultimately hurts the movement.

Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton
Philadelphia, 1883. Twenty-three-year-old Lilli de Jong is pregnant and alone—abandoned by her lover and banished from her Quaker home. She gives birth at a charity for wronged women, planning to give up the baby. But the power of their bond sets her on a completely unexpected path. Unwed mothers in 1883 face staggering prejudice, yet Lilli refuses to give up her baby girl. Instead, she braves moral condemnation and financial ruin in a quest to keep the two of them alive.

The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
Set in London of the 1660s and of the early twenty-first century, The Weight of Ink is the interwoven tale of two women of remarkable intellect: Ester Velasquez, an emigrant from Amsterdam who is permitted to scribe for a blind rabbi, just before the plague hits the city; and Helen Watt, an ailing historian with a love of Jewish history.

A Very English Scandal by John Preston
While Jeremy Thorpe served as a Member of Parliament and Leader of the Liberal Party in the 1960s and 70s, his bad behavior went under the radar for years. Police and politicians alike colluded to protect one of their own. But Jeremy Thorpe was a man with a secret. His homosexual affairs and harassment of past partners, along with his propensity for lying and embezzlement, only escalated as he evaded punishment. Until a dark night on the moor with an ex-lover, a dog and a hired gun led to consequences that even his charm and power couldn’t help him escape.

We’re Doomed. Now What? by Roy Scranton
We’re Doomed. Now What? addresses the crises of our times through a series of essays on climate change, war, literature, and loss, from one of the most provocative and iconoclastic minds of his generation. Whether writing about sailing through the melting Arctic, preparing for Houston’s next big storm, watching Star Wars, or going back to the streets of Baghdad he once patrolled as a soldier, Roy Scranton handles his subjects with the same electric, philosophical, demotic touch that he brought to his groundbreaking New York Times essay, “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.”

Brightly Burning by Alexa Donne
Alexa Donne’s lush and enthralling reimagining of the classic Jane Eyre, set among the stars, will seduce and beguile readers. Stella Ainsley leaves poverty behind when she quits her engineering job aboard the Stalwart to become a governess on a private ship. On the Rochester, there’s no water ration, more books than one person could devour in a lifetime, and an AI who seems more friend than robot. But no one warned Stella that the ship seems to be haunted, nor that it may be involved in a conspiracy that could topple the entire interstellar fleet.

Beside the Syrian Sea by James Wolff
Jonas works for the UK secret service as an intelligence analyst. When his father is kidnapped and held for ransom by ISIS gunmen in Syria, he takes matters into his own hands and begins to steal the only currency he has access to: secret government intelligence. He heads to Beirut with a haul of the most sensitive documents imaginable and recruits an unlikely ally: an alcoholic Swiss priest named Father Tobias.

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito
A mass shooting has taken place at a prep school in Stockholm’s wealthiest suburb. Eighteen-year-old Maja Norberg is charged for her involvement in the massacre that left her boyfriend and her best friend dead. She has spent nine months in jail awaiting trial. Now the time has come for her to enter the courtroom. How did Maja—popular, privileged, and a top student—become a cold-blooded killer in the eyes of the public? What did Maja do? Or is it what she failed to do that brought her here?

The Floating World by C. Morgan Babst
In this debut about family, home, and grief, C. Morgan Babst takes readers into the heart of Hurricane Katrina and the life of a great city. As the storm is approaching the Louisiana coast, Cora Boisdoré refuses to leave the city. Her parents, Joe Boisdoré, an artist descended from freed slaves who became the city’s preeminent furniture makers, and his white “Uptown” wife, Dr. Tess Eshleman, are forced to evacuate without her, setting off a chain of events that leaves their marriage in shambles and Cora catatonic—the victim or perpetrator of some violence mysterious even to herself.

Savage Country by Robert Olmstead
“The year was 1873 and all about was the evidence of boom and bust, shattered dreams, foolish ambition, depredation, shame, greed, and cruelty....” Onto this broken Western stage rides Michael Coughlin, a Civil War veteran with an enigmatic past, come to town to settle his dead brother’s debt. Together with his widowed sister-in-law, Elizabeth, bankrupted by her husband’s folly and death, they embark on a massive, and hugely dangerous, buffalo hunt.

Chroniques by Kamel Daoud
This engaging collection of essays showcases the extraordinary passion, insight, and range of Kamel Daoud, bestselling author of The Meursault Investigation. Whether he is criticizing political Islam or the decline of the Algerian regime, embracing the hope kindled by Arab revolutions or defending women's rights, Daoud does so in his own inimitable style: at once poetic and provocative, he captures his devoted followers with fresh, counterintuitive arguments about the nature of humanity, religion, and liberty.

The Big Sky Bounty Cookbook by Barrie Boulds and Jean Petersen
From mountain streams in the west to rolling prairies in the east, Montana's habitats and natural resources offer an abundance of culinary possibilities. The mountains provide the necessities for a delightful elk tenderloin with huckleberry demi-glace, while the prairie contributes to rattlesnake cakes with roasted red pepper remoulade. Chef Barrie Boulds and author Jean Petersen present locally sourced epicurean dishes that exude Montanan charm.

The Days When the Birds Come Back by Deborah Reed
June is in transition, reeling from her divorce, trying to stay sober, and faced with a completely stalled career. She returns to the beautiful Oregon coast where she grew up, and must decide what to do with her late and much-loved grandparents’ charming cedar-shingled home, a place haunted by memories of her childhood.

With You Always by Rena Olsen
In the wake of a painful breakup and struggling to prove herself at work, Julia feels adrift. When Bryce blows into her life, he seems like the perfect anchor. Handsome, charming, secure, and confident, Bryce brings out the best in Julia, sweeping her off her feet with attention and affection while grounding her with his certainty and faith. Together they embark on a path guided by the principles of his family and their church, each step a paving stone leading to happily ever after. But this is no fairy tale.

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu
A group of young girls descend on Camp Forevermore, a sleepaway camp in the Pacific Northwest, where their days are filled with swimming lessons, friendship bracelets, and camp songs by the fire. Filled with excitement and nervous energy, they set off on an overnight kayaking trip to a nearby island. But before the night is over, they find themselves stranded, with no adults to help them survive or guide them home.

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

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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Front Porch Books: November 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.

Veterans Crisis Hotline
by Jon Chopan
(University of Massachusetts Press)

Jacket Copy:  The twelve stories of Veterans Crisis Hotline offer a meditation on the relationship between war and righteousness and consider the impossible distance between who men are and who they want to be. A veteran working at the hotline listens to the stories men tell when they need someone to hear their voices, when they need to access a language for their pain. Two men search for the head of a decapitated Iraqi civilian so that they might absolve themselves of the atrocities of war, a Marine hunts for the man who raped his girlfriend, and a teenage son replaces his dead father on the battlefield. With a quick wit and offbeat humor, Jon Chopan takes us from the banks of the Euphrates to the bars and VFW halls of the Rust Belt, providing insight into the Iraq War and its enduring impact on those who volunteered to fight in it.

Opening Lines:  Sometimes, when they call the hotline, they want to talk to another vet. They ask for us specifically. They have this perception that only those who’ve seen war can understand the suffering born of it. As far as I can tell, this is a myth. It is, to my mind, like asking the criminally insane to cure one another.

Blurbworthiness:  “These twelve stories, each narrated by a different veteran of the Iraq war, divide evenly between the often near-hallucinatory events of that war and the accounts of life back home in its aftermath. Sometimes sad, sometimes horrifying, often hilarious―occasionally all three simultaneously―each story bears down on moments of such searing honesty that it lingers in the reader’s memory as urgently as it lives on the page. This is an unsparing, vital, and completely engaging work of art.”  (Sue Miller, author of The Arsonist)

The Nocilla Trilogy
by Agustin Fernandez Mallo
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  A landmark in contemporary Spanish literature, Agustin Fernandez Mallo’s Nocilla TrilogyNocilla Dream, Nocilla Lab, and Nocilla Experience—presents multiple narratives of people and places that reflect America and the world in the digital age of the twenty-first century. In the middle of the Nevada desert stands a solitary poplar tree covered in hundreds of pairs of shoes. Farther along Route 50, a lonely prostitute falls in love with a collector of found photographs. In Las Vegas, an Argentine man builds a peculiar monument to Jorge Luis Borges. On the run from the authorities, Kenny takes up permanent residence in the legal non-place of Singapore International Airport, while the novelists Enrique Vila-Matas and Agustín Fernández Mallo encounter each other on an oil rig. These are just a few of the narrative strands that make up Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy. Greeted as a landmark in contemporary Spanish literature, the entire trilogy has not been available in English until now.

Opening Lines:  Digital computers are superb number crunchers. Ask them to predict a rocket’s trajectory or calculate the financial figures for a large multinational corporation, and they can churn out the answers in seconds. Bet seemingly simple actions that people routinely perform, such as recognizing a face or reading handwriting, have been devilishly tricky to program. Perhaps the networks of neurons that make up the brain have a natural facility for such tasks that standard computers lack. Scientists have thus been investigating computers modelled more closely on the human brain.

Blurbworthiness:  “An encyclopedia, a survey, a deranged anthropology: Nocilla Dream is just the coldhearted poetics that might see America for what it really is. There is something deeply strange and finally unknowable about this book, in the very best way.”  (Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Alphabet)

The Gulf
by Belle Boggs
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  Marianne is in a slump: barely able to support herself by teaching, not making progress on her poetry, about to lose her Brooklyn apartment. When her novelist ex-fiancé, Eric, and his venture capitalist brother, Mark, offer her a job directing a low-residency school for Christian writers at a motel they’ve inherited on Florida’s Gulf Coast, she can’t come up with a reason to say no. The Genesis Inspirational Writing Ranch is born, and liberal, atheist Marianne is soon knee-deep in applications from writers whose political and religious beliefs she has always opposed but whose money she’s glad to take. Janine is a schoolteacher whose heartfelt poems explore the final days of Terri Schiavo’s life. Davonte is a former R&B superstar who hopes to reboot his career with a bestselling tale of excess and redemption. Lorraine and Tom, eccentric writers in need of paying jobs, join the Ranch as instructors. Mark finds an investor in God’s Word God’s World, a business that develops for-profit schools for the Christian market, but the conditions that come along with their support become increasingly problematic, especially as Marianne grows closer to the students. As unsavory allegations mount, a hurricane bears down on the Ranch, and Marianne is faced with the consequences of her decisions. With sharp humor and deep empathy, The Gulf is a memorable debut novel in which Belle Boggs plumbs the troubled waters dividing America.

Opening Lines:  The applications arrived, first in a trickle that Marianne could have read in an afternoon, then all at once, in alarming, mailbox-stuffing sheaves. She spent all day avoiding them, swimming in the Gulf of Mexico instead, or reading the stubby, water-damaged Judith Krantz and Stephen King novels she borrowed from the paneled-wood study. The applications covered every horizontal surface in her room: the oak-veneer bureau, the top of the boxy, old-fashioned television, the round Formica dinette table. They splayed across the second double bed’s glossy navy-and-orange bedspread, and blocked the heating and air vents that jutted out below the heavy floral curtains.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Gulf is a hilarious and healing novel for these polarized times. Reading it consumed my nights, and gave me hope.”  (Tania James, author of The Tusk That Did the Damage)

Look How Happy I’m Making You
by Polly Rosenwaike

Jacket Copy:  The women in Polly Rosenwaike’s Look How Happy I’m Making You want to be mothers, or aren’t sure they want to be mothers, or―having recently given birth―are overwhelmed by what they’ve wrought. Sharp and unsettling, wry and moving in its portrayal of love, friendship, and family, this collection expands the conversation about some of women’s most intimate experiences. One woman struggling with infertility deals with the news that her sister is pregnant. Another woman nervous about her biological clock “forgets” to take her birth control and confronts the reality of becoming a single parent. A new mother with postpartum depression finds comfort with a much younger man. A psychologist who studies infant laughter faces her best friend’s tragedy. Together, these twelve empathetic stories reveal pregnancy and new motherhood in all its anxiety and absurdity, darkness and wonder.

Opening Lines:  We are all in love with the baby. We, meaning the #4 bus community, weekdays at the seven o’clock hour, on our way to work and school and early morning errands. The baby wears a royal blue puffy jacket and a striped knit hat. He tracks our shopworn, overly articulated faces. Despite how we caper―tilting and bouncing our heads, scrunching our lips and wriggling our noses, working our hands into frantic waves―the baby gazes at us with his grave baby face. He is chary with his baby gift of a grin, a palm in the air, a mimic, obliging just often enough to lend hope to our campaigns.

Blurbworthiness:  “The world wants one story: pregnant glow, new mother tired but ever-grateful, ever-in-love. Without shying away from any of the transcendent and true beauty, Look How Happy I’m Making You shows us the many shadowed layers of pregnancy, miscarriage, birth and motherhood with an insistent bravery and searing honesty.” (Ramona Ausubel, author of Awayland)

The Patch
by John McPhee
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  The Patch is the seventh collection of essays by the nonfiction master, all published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is divided into two parts. Part 1, “The Sporting Scene,” consists of pieces on fishing, football, golf, and lacrosse―from fly casting for chain pickerel in fall in New Hampshire to walking the linksland of St. Andrews at an Open Championship. Part 2, called “An Album Quilt,” is a montage of fragments of varying length from pieces done across the years that have never appeared in book form―occasional pieces, memorial pieces, reflections, reminiscences, and short items in various magazines including The New Yorker. They range from a visit to the Hershey chocolate factory to encounters with Oscar Hammerstein, Joan Baez, and Mount Denali. Emphatically, the author’s purpose was not merely to preserve things but to choose passages that might entertain contemporary readers. Starting with 250,000 words, he gradually threw out 75 percent of them, and randomly assembled the remaining fragments into “an album quilt.” Among other things, The Patch is a covert memoir.

Opening Lines:  You move your canoe through open water a fly cast away from a patch of lily pads. You cast just shy of the edge of the pads—inches off the edge of the pads. A chain pickerel is a lone ambush hunter. Its body resembles a barracuda’s and has evolved to similar purpose. Territorial, concealed in the vegetation, it hovers; and not much but its pectoral fins are in motion. Endlessly patient, it waits for prey to come by—frogs, crayfish, newts, turtles, and smaller fish, including its own young. Long, tubular, with its pelvic fins set far back like the wings of some jets, it can accelerate like a bullet.

Blurbworthiness:  “McPhee delights in cracking open subjects, both ordinary and esoteric, and making them accessible to the layperson in works that testify to his virtuosity as one of the greatest living American essayists.” (Publishers Weekly)

Floyd Harbor
by Joel Mowdy

Jacket Copy:  The twelve linked stories in Joel Mowdy’s first book take place in and around Mastic Beach, a community on New York’s Long Island that’s close to the wealthy Hamptons but long afflicted by widespread poverty. Mostly in their teens and early twenties, the characters struggle to become independent in various ways, ranging from taking typical low-paying jobs—hotel laundry, janitorial, restaurant, and landscaping work—to highly ingenious schemes, to exchanging sexual favors for a place to stay. A few make it to local community colleges; others end up in rehab or juvenile detention centers. However loving, their parents can offer little help. Those who are Vietnam veterans may suffer from PTSD; others from the addictions that often come with stressful lives. Neighborhoods of small bungalows—formerly vacation homes—with dilapidated boats in the driveways hint at the waterways that open up close by. The beauty of the ocean beach offers further consolation, as does the often high-spirited temperament of youth. Joel Mowdy brings to his affecting collection both personal experience and a gift for discerning and lingering on the essential moments in his characters’ stories. He intimately and vividly illuminates American lives that too seldom see the light.

Opening Lines:  The bungalows on Neighborhood Road, Mastic Beach, had been summer homes, Fire Island a short drive from there via the Smith Point Bridge. Now bicycles built from parts huddled under lock and chain along the concrete stoop of Paul’s Bicycle & Shoe Repair. Their wheels caught clumps of dead leaves in the wind. Baskets of doll heads collected dust among spools of thread and balls of yarn in the neighboring unmarked craft stores, where bundles of cotton had been stacked like sandbags in the window display.

Blurbworthiness:  “Of course there’s no harbor in Floyd Harbor, a town untouched by Long Island’s affluence, and these intricately linked stories’ protagonists are dishwashers and salad boys and line cooks, and in rehab and awaiting court appearances; they’re kids from broken homes who left high school to start broken homes. They feel like they’ve never been anywhere, and striving for a little of the comfortable life they’ve glimpsed, they’re the kind of small-time schemers who do most of their thinking in the woods behind the Handy Pantry. But they’ve never given up on hope, and especially love, since it might stop them from rolling blindly through the rest of their lives, and they’re determined to hold out for some acknowledgment of their presence. Joel Mowdy writes beautifully about one part of America left behind in the great heartless scramble that constitutes our society.”  (Jim Shepard, author of The World to Come)

Funny Man
by Patrick McGilligan

Jacket Copy:  Funny Man is a deeply textured and compelling biography of comedy giant Mel Brooks, covering his rags-to-riches life and triumphant career in television, films, and theater, from Patrick McGilligan, the acclaimed author of Young Orson: The Years of Luck and Genius on the Path to Citizen Kane and Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light. Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy award–winner Mel Brooks was behind (and sometimes in front the camera too) of some of the most influential comedy hits of our time, including The 2,000 Year Old Man, Get Smart, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. But before this actor, writer, director, comedian, and composer entertained the world, his first audience was his family. The fourth and last child of Max and Kitty Kaminsky, Mel Brooks was born on his family’s kitchen table in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926, and was not quite three-years-old when his father died of tuberculosis. Growing up in a household too poor to own a radio, Mel was short and homely, a mischievous child whose birth role was to make the family laugh. Beyond boyhood, after transforming himself into Mel Brooks, the laughs that came easily inside the Kaminsky family proved more elusive. His lifelong crusade to transform himself into a brand name of popular humor is at the center of master biographer Patrick McGilligan’s Funny Man. In this exhaustively researched and wonderfully novelistic look at Brooks’ personal and professional life, McGilligan lays bare the strengths and drawbacks that shaped Brooks’ psychology, his willpower, his persona, and his comedy. McGilligan insightfully navigates the epic ride that has been the famous funnyman’s life story, from Brooks’ childhood in Williamsburg tenements and breakthrough in early television—working alongside Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner—to Hollywood and Broadway peaks (and valleys). His book offers a meditation on the Jewish immigrant culture that influenced Brooks, snapshots of the golden age of comedy, behind the scenes revelations about the celebrated shows and films, and a telling look at the four-decade romantic partnership with actress Anne Bancroft that superseded Brooks’ troubled first marriage. Engrossing, nuanced and ultimately poignant, Funny Man delivers a great man’s unforgettable life story and an anatomy of the American dream of success.

Opening Lines:  What made Melvin, the youngest of the Kaminsky kids, so darn funny? Later people said—he himself said—it was Brooklyn, the Depression, being Jewish and growing up in the shadow of Hitler. But there was also something about birth order and the family genes that contributed to “the strange amalgam, the marvelous pastiche that is me.”
       Before there was Mel Brooks there were the Kaminskys. The Kaminsky family formed their own little world in Brooklyn, the mother and four brothers living in humble circumstances, the brothers sharing the same bed and crawling over one another like a litter of adorable puppies in a cardboard box, as Brooks often said in interviews.

The Behavior of Love
by Virginia Reeves

Jacket Copy:  Doctor Ed Malinowski believes he has realized most of his dreams. A passionate, ambitious behavioral psychiatrist, he is now the superintendent of a mental institution and finally turning the previously crumbling hospital around. He also has a home he can be proud of, and a fiercely independent, artistic wife Laura, whom he hopes will soon be pregnant. But into this perfect vision of his life comes Penelope, a beautiful, young epileptic who should never have been placed in his institution and whose only chance at getting out is Ed. She is intelligent, charming, and slowly falling in love with her charismatic, compassionate doctor. As their relationship grows more complicated, and Laura stubbornly starts working at his hospital, Ed must weigh his professional responsibilities against his personal ones, and find a way to save both his job and his family. A love triangle set in one of the most chaotic, combustible settings imaginable, The Behavior of Love is wise, riveting, and deeply resonant.

Opening Lines:  Ed’s work keeps him late. Yesterday’s pile of incomplete tasks awaits him in his office, and today’s begins the moment he steps from his car. He never knows what the first thing will be, but it always meets him here in the dirt parking lot. Yesterday, it was Margaret wandering toward the Boulder River, whose waters have already drowned one patient. The day before, it was a six-year-old named Devin eating gravel. Today, it’s a young man bursting out the front doors of Griffin Hall, a white plastic chair over his head, a denim-clad orderly close behind. The orderly’s rubber club is raised. The boy drops to the ground and curls himself into a ball. The chair topples down the stairs and scatters a group of patients.

Recent Studies Indicate
by Sarah Bird
(University of Texas Press)

Jacket Copy:  When Sarah Bird arrived in Austin in 1973 in pursuit of a boyfriend who was “hotter than lava,” she found an abundance of inspiration for storytelling (her sweetheart left her for Scientology, but she got to taste a morsel of Lynda Bird Johnson’s poorly preserved wedding cake as a temp worker at the LBJ Library). Sarah Bird went on to write ten acclaimed novels and contribute hundreds of articles to publications coast to coast, developing a signature voice that combines laser-sharp insight with irreverent, wickedly funny prose in the tradition of Molly Ivins and Nora Ephron. Now collecting forty of Bird’s best nonfiction pieces, from publications that range from Texas Monthly to the New York Times and others, Recent Studies Indicate presents some of Bird’s earliest work, including a prescient 1976 profile of a transgender woman, along with recent calls to political action, such as her 2017 speech at a benefit for Annie’s List. Whether Bird is hanging out with socialites and sanitation workers or paying homage to her army-nurse mom, her collection brings a poignant perspective to the experience of being a woman, a feminist, a mother, and a Texan—and a writer with countless, spectacular true tales to tell us.

(On a personal and purely egotistical note, I’m especially interested in reading this essay collection because I get a little cameo at one point when Sarah relates the story of the time she passed out just before going on stage to interview Ben Fountain and me at the Texas Book Festival—a scary and embarrassing episode that she somehow turns into high wit.)

Opening Lines:  As a pathologically shy child driven by an insatiable curiosity about the world and the fascinating human creatures who inhabit it, I was simultaneously compelled by two deeply opposing forces: (a) I desperately desired to never have to speak to anyone outside of my immediate family and (b) I yearned to quiz every stranger who crossed my path.
       Only one profession had the power to grant both of these contradictory wishes. Writing.

Blurbworthiness:  “What sets Sarah Bird apart from other writers is the pure joy she gets out of her characters. And she laughs at herself—a lot. You can’t help but grin when you read her, no matter the topic.” (Skip Hollandsworth, author of The Midnight Assassin: The Hunt for America’s First Serial Killer)

by Maria Popova

Jacket Copy:  Figuring explores the complexities of love and the human search for truth and meaning through the interconnected lives of several historical figures across four centuries—beginning with the astronomer Johannes Kepler, who discovered the laws of planetary motion, and ending with the marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who catalyzed the environmental movement. Stretching between these figures is a cast of artists, writers, and scientists—mostly women, mostly queer—whose public contribution has risen out of their unclassifiable and often heartbreaking private relationships to change the way we understand, experience, and appreciate the universe. Among them are the astronomer Maria Mitchell, who paved the way for women in science; the sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who did the same in art; the journalist and literary critic Margaret Fuller, who sparked the feminist movement; and the poet Emily Dickinson. Emanating from these lives are larger questions about the measure of a good life and what it means to leave a lasting mark of betterment on an imperfect world: Are achievement and acclaim enough for happiness? Is genius? Is love? Weaving through the narrative is a set of peripheral figures—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Herman Melville, Frederick Douglass, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Walt Whitman—and a tapestry of themes spanning music, feminism, the history of science, the rise and decline of religion, and how the intersection of astronomy, poetry, and Transcendentalist philosophy fomented the environmental movement.

Opening Lines:  All of it—the rings of Saturn and my father’s wedding band, the underbelly of the clouds pinked by the rising sun, Einstein’s brain bathing in a jar of formaldehyde, every grain of sand that made the glass that made the jar and each idea Einstein ever had, the shepherdess singing in the Rila mountains of my native Bulgaria and each one of her sheep, every hair on Chance’s velveteen dog ears and Marianne Moore’s red braid and the whiskers of Montaigne’s cat, every translucent fingernail on my friend Amanda’s newborn son, every stone with which Virginia Woolf filled her coat pockets before wading into the River Ouse to drown, every copper atom composing the disc that carried arias aboard the first human-made object to enter interstellar space and every oak splinter of the floor-boards onto which Beethoven collapsed in the fit of fury that cost him his hearing, the wetness of every tear that has ever been wept over a grave and the yellow of the beak of every raven that has ever watched the weepers, every cell in Galileo’s fleshy finger and every molecule of gas and dust that made the moons of Jupiter to which it pointed, the Dipper of freckles constellating the olive firmament of a certain forearm I love and every axonal flutter of the tenderness with which I love her, all the facts and figments by which we are perpetually figuring and reconfiguring reality—it all banged into being 13.8 billion years ago from a single source, no louder than the opening note of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, no larger than the dot levitating over the small i, the I lowered from the pedestal of ego.