Friday, May 31, 2019

Friday Freebie: Prairie Fever by Michael Parker

Congratulations to Maureen Wanket, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: To the Bones by Valerie Nieman.

This week’s giveaway is for Prairie Fever, the new novel by Michael Parker (author of The Watery Part of the World). Here’s what Joan Silber, author of Improvement, had to say about the novel: “What a terrific book this is, wonderful and strange...a whole family acting out what can and can’t be forgotten, against the backdrops of prairie and range—characters so magnificently and sometimes comically stubborn I really couldn’t put the book down. And what other novel has a character writing letters to a dead horse? I was completely taken by this book.” Keep scrolling for more information on Prairie Fever and how to enter the contest...

Set in the hardscrabble landscape of early 1900s Oklahoma, but timeless in its sensibility, Prairie Fever traces the intense dynamic between the Stewart sisters: the pragmatic Lorena and the chimerical Elise. The two are bound together not only by their isolation on the prairie but also by their deep emotional reliance on each other. That connection supersedes all else until the arrival of Gus McQueen. When Gus arrives in Lone Wolf, Oklahoma, as a first time teacher, his inexperience is challenged by the wit and ingenuity of the Stewart sisters. Then one impulsive decision and a cataclysmic blizzard trap Elise and her horse on the prairie and forever change the balance of everything between the sisters, and with Gus McQueen. With honesty and poetic intensity and the deadpan humor of Paulette Jiles and Charles Portis, Parker reminds us of the consequences of our choices. Expansive and intimate, this novel tells the story of characters tested as much by life on the prairie as they are by their own churning hearts.

If you’d like a chance at winning Prairie Fever, simply e-mail 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 June 6, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 7. 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 e-mail address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Monday, May 27, 2019

A Birthday in a War Zone

Happy Friggin’ Birthday to me.

When it’s your birthday and you’re in a war zone, the day is just another day in the year’s long trudge of days. Unless you really work hard at it, in a selfish manner, there is nothing special about your “combat birthday.” No mother is there, just outside the door of your hootch, waiting for the lights to dim and everyone to fall silent before she enters bearing the candlelit cake while starting the group singing with a slow drawled “Haaaaa-ppy Biiiirthday to you...” There is no son or daughter to climb into your lap to hand you a clumsily-wrapped mess of a present. There is no wife to call you at work and mysteriously insist you cancel the rest of the day’s appointments because she has a surprise for you.

No, when you’re at war in the desert, it’s just you and the sand and the heat and the distant thud of falling mortars. No one notices you. No one pays attention to the day, your day. It’s not like the big red-letter holidays of Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter where they go apeshit filling the dining facility with cardboard decorations, ice sculptures and floral centerpieces. When you grab lunch on your birthday, there are no streamers or balloons or conical hats with rubberband straps for you to wear while you eat. No, it’s just “Here’s your chili-mac, now move along, bub.”

In 2005, I “celebrated” my birthday in a war zone. On May 27, I was in my fourth month of living at Camp Liberty, our home away from home at the edge of Baghdad, where I served with the Third Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Georgia. My wife and three children were all back there at our home tucked among the trees just south of Savannah; I wouldn’t see them for another six months. So, yes, a certain trace of bitterness crept into my journal entry for that day...

May 27, 2005: Happy Friggin’ Birthday to me.

Worked my ass off all day long—answering e-mail, updating the Media Release log and the weekly Video News reports—and hoped to let myself get off early because, well you know, it’s my friggin’ birthday. But no, I’m my own worst enemy and made myself stay until 7:30 at night, as is my usual workaholic custom. I brought dinner back to my hootch—a cheeseburger, potato chips and a slab of cement-colored cake (I pretended it was a birthday cake, but it didn’t quite come close). Then I pulled out my laptop and watched one of my favorite movies, Days of Heaven. I’d been saving it for a special occasion and I guess my friggin’ birthday was the best time as any. The movie filled me with equal parts joy and melancholy, as always. It was the perfect cocktail of emotion on this strange day.

Earlier in the day, during a break from work when there was a lull in the action around headquarters, I walked to the other side of the Forward Operating Base to get some so-called “casual pay.” Getting money from the Army while you’re over here at war is a simple matter of going over to the Finance Office (located two miles from where I live, over by the Camp and prayer, side by side). There, you fill out a form with your name, rank, unit, social security number, and how much you want to “withdraw” (up to $300 per month). At that moment, I just wanted to have the lumpy feel of tightly-rolled dollar bills in my pocket. It would be tangible proof of what I was doing over here: wages for my work. Green money, red money, blood money for oil—it all spends the same at the PX. Call me cynical, but it’s my birthday and I’m at war and I’ve earned the right to be bitter.

I drove over to Finance, filled out my form, then took a seat against the wall to wait for my turn at the window. Two guys, apparent strangers to each other, sat down next to me and started up a conversation. I listened.


“Hey, how are you?”

“Good. You?”



“You live here at Liberty?”

“Been here about three weeks cuz I had medical problems. I came here from Balad. You like it here?”

“This place ain’t so bad. I hear they got three swimming pools.”

“Man, you ever been to Balad?”

“No. Why? Izzit better?”

The Balad guy blew out a “hell yeah” hiss of breath between his teeth. “They got everything this place has got, only it’s all squished together. Everything’s within walking distance—the PX, the gym, the dining facility. Their rec center up there is in an old airplane hangar—it’s huge. They got hundreds of X-Boxes. When I was there, about 150 guys were having a Halo tournament. It was crazy, man.”


The other guy said, “Still, this is a whole helluva lot better than it was the first time around.”

“You were here in 2003?”

“Yeah. You?”


“So you know what I’m talking about. Now they got so many amenities here, it almost makes you want to come back. Or never leave.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Depends on what you do.”

“Yeah, that’s true. I should say, if you’ve got a support job in the Army and never go outside the wire, if you’re one of them Fobbits, then you’ve got life good. Some dudes nowadays, they stay inside buildings all day long. They just go from air conditioning to air conditioning. It’s all inside the wire for those motherfuckers, man.”

Sitting next to them, I stayed very, very quiet.

“Back in the day, there was no wire.”

“Yeah, everything was outside the wire. No matter what your job, you were out in the shit.”


“So, what do you do?”

“Bradley gunner.”

A low whistle of commiseration/admiration.

“Yeah, I’m going outside the wire every day—especially now that we’ve got so many guys on leave. We’re doing 12 out, 12 in.”

“They won’t let my unit take our Bradleys out anymore. They say the Bradleys tear up the streets too much.”

“Yeah, I suppose. We’ve got to change tracks like once a month. But we’ve gotta go out, all on account of we had an M1114 get blown up a few weeks back. Got hit with a big IED. Blew that fucking humvee completely upside down. Landed on its roof. Killed the gunner.”

“That’s all? Nobody else was hurt?”

“The driver and the TC walked away from it. I should say, they crawled away. Pretty extensive burns all over their bodies. They’re back in the rear now. Lucky bastards. Ever since that, though, there are no M1114s allowed outside the wire.”

My number was called and I reluctantly left my eavesdropping to go to the counter for the casual pay. I couldn’t shake the image of those two guys from the flipped humvee, bodies aflame, skin crackling and turning black, lungs searing, uniforms shredding off their bodies, pulling themselves across the road with their arms and elbows. As I tucked my hard roll of money into my pocket, I thought to myself, “Holy crap, am I one lucky son of a bitch or what?”

Later, my mother emailed me from oceans and time zones away and it was my last, best gift of the day:

       I remember this day 42 years ago very well. It was my due date—I had no idea if you were a boy or girl but I was kind of hoping for a boy for our first and maybe only child. It took almost six years before you were conceived and we had just about given up hope. I went to the hospital around 10 a.m. —no labor pains, no water broke, I was to be induced and was already beginning to dilate. They broke my water and labor started. I said goodbye to your Dad at the admitting desk and didn’t see him again until after you were born at 11:19 p.m. It was a long labor—the cord was around your neck and it kept pulling you back. I had a local, saddle block anesthesia but at the end they had to knock me out so I was not awake for your birth. Things are quite different today—that’s how it was in the 60’s. You came into this world screaming and did a lot of it until you were 7 months old—but YOU WERE WORTH IT!!!! I love you so much! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Angel Bones by Ilyse Kusnetz

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

       And dragonflies, always dragonflies

       transforming our human breath
       into a winged thing―

       dragonflies who carry us
       partway to heaven, where our

       words whisper to angels
       astride their light-encrusted saddles.

“Butterflies, Bees, Dragonflies” from Angel Bones by Ilyse Kusnetz

Friday, May 24, 2019

This Memorial Day, Will Everyone Please Be Quiet, Please?

In a perfect world, Memorial Day would be as quiet as the grave. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a country that, for the most part, observes the “holiday” with noisy, raucous patriotism. We “celebrate” the day with doorbuster sales at the local mall, the staticky sizzle of meat on the grill, and the exuberant yelp of our winterpale bodies hitting the beach for the start of Summer Living. That’s all well and good―nothing wrong with shouting hosannas to the sun―but to be true to the spirit and intent of Memorial Day, we should all shut up on Monday. At least for something longer than the obligatory moment of silence where we bow our heads while standing in a flag-fluttering cemetery.

Let it be known that I am just as guilty as many of the rest of you. Over my many Memorial Days, I have yelled, I have frolicked, I have grilled. But after serving twenty years in the Army, I’ve come to a deeper appreciation for what the day really asks of us: a somber, sober reflection of the true cost of war. Instead of woo-hooing over my three-day weekend, maybe I should be boo-hooing over a grave. At the very least, I should close my eyes and watch the war dead parade past on the screen of my eyelids, specifically the people who were killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan during 2005, my year in-country. When you personally know some of those dead-and-buried warriors, Memorial Day takes on a whole new meaning.

Earlier this year, while I was reading Ben Fountain’s excellent book Beautiful Country Burn Again, I came across a passage which I immediately bookmarked and saved with the intent to share it on this particular weekend. Though the book primarily concerns itself with the 2016 presidential campaign which ended with us (not me!) electing our own President Noisemaker, the chapter “Doing the Chickenhawk with Trump” conclude with the following paragraphs (including an unexpected mention of my own Fobbit):

Since when did it become not just acceptable but expected that politicians orate on Memorial Day? Who gave them permission to speak for the violently dead? Come Monday we’ll be up to our ears in some of the emptiest, most self-serving dreck ever to ripple the atmosphere, the standard war-fantasy talk of American politics, complete with sentimentalist purlings about heroes, freedoms, the supreme sacrifice. Trump will tell us how much he loves the veterans, and how much they love him back. Down-ticket pols will re-terrorize and titillate voters with tough talk about ISIS. Hemingway, for one, despised this kind of cant, his disgust borne out in a famous passage from A Farewell to Arms, in which the wounded veteran Frederic Henry reflects:
There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of the places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
Here’s a proposition: We stand a better chance of understanding something about ourselves and our wars if we tune out the politicians, for one day at least, and turn our attention to a certain kind of writer: namely, the man or woman who experiences war firsthand, then devotes heart and soul to finding the correct words, the true words, for describing the reality of the thing. Crazy, right? Maybe you think I’ve been smoking that good Texas dope? The very idea, ignoring Hillary and Trump and instead reading a poem by Brian Turner or Kevin Powers, or a passage from Youngblood or Fobbit or Green on Blue. But a country going on its fifteenth year of war would seem obliged to use every tool at hand for making sense of its situation. And if looking at poems and novels seems like a radical act, that in itself might be a clue to the problem.

Or how about silence. In an era where language has been so mangled and abused, maybe the sanest thing we can do is reserve some space for silence. The National Moment of Remembrance Act puts this notion into law, encouraging a minute of silence at three p.m. local time on Memorial Day. At least then we would be spared someone trying to sell us something–cars, appliances, political agendas, war–for as long as the silence lasted, and that alone seems like a mercy. It’s hard to hijack silence, and maybe that’s the point.

*     *     *     *

You can read the full essay, which originally appeared in The Guardian in May 2016, here. Read the essay, sure, but I also urge you to buy the book. What Ben has to say in these pages is important. For more about Beautiful Country Burn Again, you can also check out this Bill Moyers interview with Ben Fountain.

Friday Freebie: To the Bones by Val Nieman

Congratulations to Phil Milio, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Paper Wasp by Lauren Acampora.

This week’s giveaway is for the new novel by Val Nieman, To the Bones. Here’s what Small Press Picks had to say about the book: “In Valerie Nieman’s thrilling, genre-bending novel To the Bones, the richly rendered setting is inseparable from characters’ fears, strengths, and weaknesses and from nearly every tragedy and triumph in the story...The novel takes place in Redbird, West Virginia, run for generations by a coal-baron family, the Kavanaughs, whose evils run far deeper than their exploitation of the land and its people. The Kavanaughs seem to draw dark, otherworldly powers from the coal, and from the land itself. And these powers appear unstoppable, until a few townspeople, and an outsider with some otherworldly powers of his own, try to fight back-often, with deadly Stephen King’s masterpiece The Dead Zone, Nieman’s novel insightfully portrays the complications of possessing unexpected powers, which rarely are unmitigated blessings.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

Darrick MacBrehon, a government auditor, wakes among the dead. Bloodied and disoriented from a gaping head wound, the man who staggers out of the mine crack in Redbird, West Virginia, is much more powerful—and dangerous—than the one thrown in. An orphan with an unknown past, he must now figure out how to have a future. Hard-as-nails Lourana Taylor works as a sweepstakes operator and spends her time searching for any clues that might lead to Dreama, her missing daughter. Could this stranger’s tale of a pit of bones be connected? With help from disgraced deputy Marco DeLucca and Zadie Person, a local journalist investigating an acid mine spill, Darrick and Lourana push against everyone who tries to block the truth. Along the way, the bonds of love and friendship are tested, and bodies pile up on both sides. In a town where the river flows orange and the founding—and controlling—family is rumored to “strip a man to the bones,” the conspiracy that bleeds Redbird runs as deep as the coal veins that feed it.

If you’d like a chance at winning To the Bones, simply e-mail your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on May 30, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 31. 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 e-mail address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Some Advice from Anthony Trollope to Parents Sending Their Children Out Into the World

At eighteen years of age, a fledgling with fresh feathers, I left the nest and ventured into the hard, teeth-snapping world of semi-adulthood. College.

One late summer day in 1981, my father drove me to the University of Wyoming in Laramie. As the car pulled away from my home at the start of that six-hour drive, I watched my mother diminish in the rear view mirror. Her tiny waving hand―no bigger than a Barbie doll’s―grew smaller and smaller. And then, no bigger than an ant, she turned back into the house and closed the door.

This was the moment separating my Before and my After.

What must my mother have been thinking? How hard did she struggle not to cry? Or did she give herself over to damp cheeks? And my father, blithely and stoically chatting about the weather and the grazing antelope and my class schedule, what did he think? What did he feel? What did he not say during the silences of those six hours in the car?

He helped me carry the boxes and luggage up to my dorm room in White Hall. I unfurled my bedspread―the one that had covered me every night since junior high―across the bed. I plugged in my lamp, I hung up my shirts, I looked out my twelfth-floor window at the campus. The full weight of responsibility settled on my shoulders: I was on my own.

My father cleared his throat. It was time for him to start back on the drive home―my old home now. He snapped a few photos of me lying on my rumpled bed, looking at my wall locker, trying out my new life. And then he was gone.

While my two years of undergraduate study as a theater major at the University of Wyoming were not exactly, as Anthony Trollope would say, “full of dissipation,” I will say some of my oats, both wild and domestic, were sown during those semesters in the high plains of Laramie. These were the two years when I began exploring, hesitantly and shyly, my new After.

Speaking of Trollope (for we should always be speaking of Trollope), I recently regaled myself once again with the glories of his writing. Which is to say, I read The Small House at Allington. In its pages, Trollope introduces us to a young man of earnest business, Johnny Eames. He, too, was auditioning for adulthood.

I won’t go into all the details of Mr. Eames’ story of love hoped for and love rejected and love almost regained which Trollope unfolds in these pages (you should all read The Small House at Allington for yourselves because it is delicious), but I want to point you mothers and fathers of fledglings flying off to college (or to a new job or perhaps off on a gap year) to this passage in which young Eames, who was older than me by only two or three years at the time of our oat-sowing, becomes aware of his pending responsibilities as an adult:
Much of the feeling and something of the knowledge of manhood was coming on him, and he was beginning to recognize to himself that the future manner of his life must be to him a matter of very serious concern. No such thought had come near him when he first established himself in London. It seems to me that in this respect the fathers and mothers of the present generation understand but little of the inward nature of the young men for whom they are so anxious. They give them credit for so much that it is impossible they should have, and then deny them credit for so much that they possess! They expect from them when boys the discretion of men,—that discretion which comes from thinking; but will not give them credit for any of that power of thought which alone can ultimately produce good conduct. Young men are generally thoughtful,—more thoughtful than their seniors; but the fruit of their thought is not as yet there. And then so little is done for the amusement of lads who are turned loose into London at nineteen or twenty. Can it be that any mother really expects her son to sit alone evening after evening in a dingy room drinking bad tea, and reading good books? And yet it seems that mothers do so expect,—the very mothers who talk about the thoughtlessness of youth! O ye mothers who from year to year see your sons launched forth upon the perils of the world, and who are so careful with your good advice, with under flannel shirting, with books of devotion and tooth-powder, does it never occur to you that provision should be made for amusement, for dancing, for parties, for the excitement and comfort of women's society? That excitement your sons will have, and if it be not provided by you of one kind, will certainly be provided by themselves of another kind. If I were a mother sending lads out into the world, the matter most in my mind would be this,—to what houses full of nicest girls could I get them admission, so that they might do their flirting in good company.

Postscript: Personally-speaking, I did find a nice girl and I did my flirting in good company. We’re still flirting after thirty-five years.

Monday, May 20, 2019

My First Time: Steven Wingate

My (Second) First Time on Social Media
or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Like Facebook

My first book, the short story collection Wifeshopping, came out in 2008 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt at a time when having a social media presence was fast becoming a necessity for authors. Back then, Facebook had only 200 million users (it’s now 2.38 billion) and Twitter had only 6 million (it’s now 330 million). I didn’t have a social media presence then, didn’t invest enough time and energy into the platforms to take advantage of their power and reach, and I paid for it. I watched other writers embrace them and launch amazing careers, and I promised myself that when I got another chance at a book, I’d be better at social media.

Just over a decade after my first book, I had a second first time. My debut novel Of Fathers and Fire, the latest entry in the Flyover Fiction series from the University of Nebraska Press, came out this April, and in the run-up to it I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to generate a real social media presence. I looked at other writers who’d perfected social media and knew I couldn’t match them post for post, tweet for tweet. But I knew I had to be better at it, because social media is built into the job description of “writer” today. If you don’t do it, your chances of succeeding in the business plummet.

But the fact is, I don’t enjoy being on social media enough to create the kind of vortex I need for it to move the needle on my writing career. I’m on Facebook and Twitter, sure, but I’ve never become a citizen of the social media ecosystem the way those who use it most successfully are. I can get on for a few minutes at a time before I wear out, overwhelmed by the constant righteous indignation and shameless virtue signaling. Then, too soon to make it work for me, I’m fed up and logged off.

What to do, then, about promoting a new book? As I planned to send Of Fathers and Fire out into the world, I looked for ways to be a more assertive businessperson without relying completely on spending my personal time immersed in social media. I did lots of content marketing, writing articles and guests posts (like this one) that matched my novel’s subjects or covered the literary life in general. Since I didn’t have a broad social media following of my own, my logic went, the venues I published in would help me get my name out there. This piggybacking would undoubtedly work better if I had a Twitter mob and a platoon of Facebook followers to share those pieces, since social media is all about building vortexes. But at absolute worst, I’ve made connections at new venues like LA Review of Books and Stand Magazine, while strengthening my connections with existing ones like Fiction Writers Review. Being in more places also helps build my online portfolio of nonfiction, which will continue to open up fresh venues long after my new book’s release.

I’ve also invested in my book financially, knowing that my university press—as much as I love it—doesn’t have the resources to compete for media attention with giant multinational conglomerate presses. You only get one first novel, and I want to make mine count by getting as many people to hear about it as I can, even if it costs me money. Instead of focusing exclusively on book sales, I think of my novel as a ticket to the races. It lets me into conversations that I couldn’t be in before, and its primary function is the long-term building of a brand.

Fortunately I have a day job, and this kind of investment is possible for me; I realize that’s a privileged situation to be in, and it won’t be open to every writer. By investing in advertising and promotions on top of what my press can do, I make sure that more people know about my novel and about me. That means they can hire me to do workshops and talk about writing to their college students and conference attendees—which can be a major boost to a writer’s income, since one visiting gig can equal a boatload of single book sales.

My investment has been strategic in its outreach to indie booksellers and the readers who frequent their stores. I went to the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute, which got my book in front of indie booksellers nationwide. I bought an ad in Shelf Awareness for Readers, which put my book directly in front of indie bookstore aficionados. I went to the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association’s Spring Conference and advertised directly to booksellers in that region, as well as to the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. Just like readers can’t read a book they’ve never heard of, indie booksellers can’t stock a book they’ve never heard of, either.

Since I don’t have a multinational conglomerate behind me, I have to build my brand brick by brick. This is a long game that may take years to come to fruition, and every day I question whether my investment of time and money will be worth it. When all is said and done, I might have flushed a bunch of both down the drain. Ideally all my work will at least bring me to the break-even point and pave the way for later books to get into the hands of readers more smoothly. If I don’t get to the break-even point, then I won’t make the same mistakes on my next book. But having thrown energy and resources into this one, I’ve got skin in the game and lots of motivation to stand behind what I’ve written.

People don’t tell you this when you finish a book, or even when you publish it, but I’m telling you right now: getting behind your book and launching out into the world can help you love it just as much as writing it can. The kinds of love are different, no doubt about it. But they both work, and they’re both necessary.

Steven Wingate’s works include the novel Of Fathers and Fire, published by the University of Nebraska Press in April 2019 as part of its Flyover Fiction series, the digital memoir daddylabyrinth, which premiered at the Singapore Art/Science Museum in 2014, and the short story collection Wifeshopping, which won the 2007 Bakeless Prize in fiction from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. He is an associate professor at South Dakota State University and associate editor at Fiction Writers Review.

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.

Author photo by Kate Heiberger

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe? by Brock Clarke

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

Like most ministers, my mother had looked as if she were made in the winter, for the winter.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Front Porch Books: May 2019 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.

Cold Country
by Russell Rowland
(Dzanc Books)

Jacket Copy:  Montana, 1968: The small town of Paradise Valley is ripped open when popular rancher and notorious bachelor Tom Butcher is found murdered one morning, beaten to death by a baseball bat. Suspicion among the tight-knit community immediately falls on the outsider, Carl Logan, who recently moved in with his family and his troubled son Roger. What Carl doesn’t realize is that there are plenty of people in Paradise Valley who have reason to kill Tom Butcher. Complications arise when the investigating officers discover that Tom Butcher had a secret―a secret he kept even from Junior Kirby, a lifelong rancher and Butcher’s best friend. As accusations fly and secrets are revealed one after another, the people of Paradise Valley learn how deeply Tom Butcher was embedded in their lives, and that they may not have known him at all. With familiar mastery, Russell Rowland, the author of In Open Spaces and Fifty-Six Counties, returns to rural Montana to explore a small town torn apart by secrets and suspicions, and how the tenuous bonds of friendship struggle to hold against the differences that would sever us.

Opening Lines:  Roger Logan followed his father Carl, stepping out into the cold dead of Montana winter. It was midnight, and the dry air was black and odorless, cut by a thin slice of moon. The snow gave the ground and eerie glow. Roger slipped a little, the black loafers that were the only shoes he owned sliding on the snow.

Blurbworthiness:  “I can’t think of an easier pick for a book club than a page-turning murder mystery with multifaceted characters, a profoundly satisfying ending, and plenty to induce a spirited debate! In Cold Country, Russell Rowland places his finger on the pulse of a small Montana ranching community and the outsiders hoping to set up a home there. Writing in the tradition of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and McCarthy, Rowland’s powerful style fools with its simplicity, and he often turns his eye toward the harsh realities of daily living (stitching the wounds of livestock, facilitating a birth, disciplining a child) to uncover beauty, tenderness, and meaning. As he digs deep into the hearts of his characters, we recognize our own tangled relationships, the burden of the secrets we keep, our own prejudices, our fears of being alone, unloved, or unwanted. Like the land he writes about, this book will leave you humbled, wrestling, and in awe.” (Susan Henderson, author of The Flicker of Old Dreams)

by Téa Obreht
(Random House)

Jacket Copy:  In the lawless, drought-ridden lands of the Arizona Territory in 1893, two extraordinary lives collide. Nora is an unflinching frontierswoman awaiting the return of the men in her life—her husband, who has gone in search of water for the parched household, and her elder sons, who have vanished after an explosive argument. Nora is biding her time with her youngest son, who is convinced that a mysterious beast is stalking the land around their home. Lurie is a former outlaw and a man haunted by ghosts. He sees lost souls who want something from him, and he finds reprieve from their longing in an unexpected relationship that inspires a momentous expedition across the West. The way in which Nora’s and Lurie’s stories intertwine is the surprise and suspense of this brilliant novel. Mythical, lyrical, and sweeping in scope, Inland is grounded in true but little-known history. It showcases all of Téa Obreht’s talents as a writer, as she subverts and reimagines the myths of the American West, making them entirely—and unforgettably—her own.

Opening Lines:  When those men rode down to the fording place last night, I thought us done for. Even you must realize how close they came: their smell, the song of their bridles, the whites of their horses’ eyes. True to form—blind though you are, and with that shot still irretrievable in your thigh—you made to stand and meet them. Perhaps I should have let you. It might have averted what happened tonight, and the girl would be unharmed. But how could I have known? I was unready, disbelieving of our fate, and in the end could only watch them cross and ride up the wash away from us in the moonlight.

The Obsoletes
by Simeon Mills
(Skybound Books)

Jacket Copy:  The Obsoletes is a thought-provoking coming-of-age novel about two human-like teen robots navigating high school, basketball, and potentially life-threatening consequences if their true origins are discovered by the inhabitants of their intolerant 1980s Michigan hometown. Fraternal twin brothers Darryl and Kanga are just like any other teenagers trying to make it through high school. They have to deal with peer pressure, awkwardness, and family drama. But there’s one closely guarded secret that sets them apart: they are robots. So long as they keep their heads down, their robophobic neighbors won’t discover the truth about them and they just might make it through to graduation. But when Kanga becomes the star of the basketball team, there’s more at stake than typical sibling rivalry. Darryl—the worrywart of the pair—now has to work a million times harder to keep them both out of the spotlight. Though they look, sound, and act perfectly human, if anyone in their small, depressed Michigan town were to find out what they truly are, they’d likely be disassembled by an angry mob in the middle of their school gym. Heartwarming and thrilling, Simeon Mills’s charming debut novel is a funny, poignant look at brotherhood, xenophobia, and the limits of one’s programming.

Opening Lines:  Our bus driver was a robot. Ask any kid on Bus 117. Not that any of them had for sure seen a real robot before Mrs. Stover. (That they knew about, anyway.) But that didn’t stop them from whispering a mountain of evidence against her.
       “She doesn’t eat. Not even the day after Halloween when I gave her a Twix just to see if she’d eat it. She didn’t.”
       “Mrs. Stover drinks too much coffee, just like a robot.”
       “And her hair. It’s wires. It just sits up there.”

Blurbworthiness:  “Alternating between antic comedy, freak-out horror, and existential angst, The Obsoletes does the seemingly impossible: it makes the joys and terrors of adolescence seem fresh and new.”  (J. Robert Lennon, author of Broken River)

Suicide Woods: Stories
by Benjamin Percy

Jacket Copy:  Benjamin Percy is a versatile and propulsive storyteller whose genre-busting novels and story collections have ranged from literary to thriller to post-apocalyptic. In his essay collection, Thrill Me, he laid bare for readers how and why he channels disparate influences in his work. Now, in his first story collection since the acclaimed Refresh, Refresh, Percy brings his page-turning skills to bear in Suicide Woods, a potent brew of horror, crime, and weird happenings in the woods. A boy in his uncle’s care falls through the ice on a pond and emerges in a frozen, uncanny state. A group of people in therapy for suicidal ideation undergoes a drastic session in the woods with fatal consequences. A body found on a train and a blood-soaked carpet in an empty house are clues to a puzzling crime in a small town. And in a pulse-quickening novella, thrill seekers on a mapping expedition into the “Bermuda Triangle” of remote Alaska are stranded on a sinister island that seems to want them dead. In story after story, which have appeared in magazines ranging from the Virginia Quarterly Review and Orion Magazine to McSweeney’s and Ploughshares, Percy delivers haunting and chilling narratives that will have readers hanging on every word. A master class in suspense and horror, Suicide Woods is a dark, inventive collection packed to the gills with eerie, can’t-miss tales.

Opening Lines:  The forest is hardwood, and the branches of the oaks and sycamores are bare except for the crows, hundreds of them, all huddled like little men in black jackets. Together they make a strange music—muttering to one another in rusty voices as they click their beaks and rustle their feathers and claw at the bark—that can be heard a quarter mile away, across a snowy cornfield, where Ray stands on a frozen pond.

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts
by Kate Racculia
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jacket Copy:  Tuesday Mooney is a loner. She keeps to herself, begrudgingly socializes, and spends much of her time watching old Twin Peaks and X-Files DVDs. But when Vincent Pryce, Boston’s most eccentric billionaire, dies—leaving behind an epic treasure hunt through the city, with clues inspired by his hero, Edgar Allan Poe—Tuesday’s adventure finally begins. Puzzle-loving Tuesday searches for clue after clue, joined by a ragtag crew: a wisecracking friend, an adoring teen neighbor, and a handsome, cagey young heir. The hunt tests their mettle, and with other teams from around the city also vying for the promised prize—a share of Pryce’s immense wealth—they must move quickly. Pryce’s clues can't be cracked with sharp wit alone; the searchers must summon the courage to face painful ghosts from their pasts (some more vivid than others) and discover their most guarded desires and dreams. A deliciously funny ode to imagination, overflowing with love letters to art, from The Westing Game to Madonna to the Knights of the Round Table, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts is the perfect read for thrill seekers, wanderers, word lovers, and anyone looking for an escape to the extraordinary.

Opening Lines:  The Tillerman house was dead. Over a century old, massive and stone, it lay slumped on its corner lot, exposed by the naked December trees and shrubs growing wildly over its corpse. It was ugly, neglected, and, despite its size, withered; a black hole of a house.

Blurbworthiness:  “Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts is so much fun it should be criminal. A mystery hidden in a game, hidden in a romp around Boston, with intrigue, a little romance, and a ghost? Perfection. Racculia has a gift for both humor and creating deeply relatable oddballs. Genuinely funny, whip-smart, and at times profound, it is a novel that reminds us both of the pure joy of play, and the importance of finding people who matter.”  (Erika Swyler, author of The Book of Speculation)

Blood Fire Vapor Smoke
by Shann Ray
(Unsolicited Press)

Jacket Copy:  A cycle akin to the seasons of a life, Blood Fire Vapor Smoke asks questions of the ancient struggle between life and death amidst landscapes new and old. Does ultimate forgiveness answer to ultimate violence in the world? What is the nature of grace? Who determines the fates that move us? A collection of stories opening upon the inner world with the abandon and gravity involved in personal and collective responsibility, the book responds to the present age of enragement, and the collapsing binary of two hungers: violence and forgiveness. Blood Fire Vapor Smoke considers the human myth of regeneration through violence, and the aftermath of loneliness, love, and yearning found in a more merciful expression of human existence. Violence is caught by love, and changed, transcended, and transformed into a yearning for restoration, atonement, and the fusion embodied in the true power of community, humility, and greater humanity. The characters in each of the four sections of this collection of stories and one long poem, pass through thresholds of knowledge and responsibility. Asking not what life owes them, but what they may receive from life, and in the end, just how they are responsible for life, those who people this collection cross into unforeseen places of mystery, mercy, and grace. In Blood Fire Vapor Smoke, beyond our inevitable compulsions toward violent ends, healing calls, beckoning us toward a crossroads where we turn and face one another, finding the beauty and strength to serve and love one another again.

Opening Lines:  The first man ran north hard under cover of night, fast along riverbed and up climbing the forested bulk of land over land, up rock faces and out upon the serrated edge of snow-laden cirques and down again descending into valleys and further down low upon the valley floor, into a daylight that pierced all as he ran through pinch of canyon walls and out again over open plains crumbled at the far edge by timber and stone, down in the night to the heart of the great forest and out finally over a wide expanse of grey rock, bold line of trees along the Big River below, the man who ran more animal or wind than man, bent to the far place of snow and skyborne earth, bent with abandon to Ten Mountain House.
       Like shadow the second man followed the first, desiring him dead.

Blurbworthiness:  “The beauty of the language, the collection’s historical range, and Ray’s reach for—sometimes prayer for—mercy and compassion in the face of horrific violence, his insistence on the solace of beauty, make this a brave and worthy book of stories. It feels restless, not just because it moves among different physical settings, but because it moves from what can read as historical fiction to an intimate and contemporary mode, and because Ray works to see a driving masculinity prismatically. This restlessness, the unwillingness to conceive of a singular answer to the question of what nourishes the appetite for violence—in the kitchen, in theatres of war, in alleyways in ravaged cities—across the centuries and across continents, is true and inventive. The collection feels like a genuine inquiry in which salvation and damnation, wickedness and blessedness merge...a hard book to write, hard won, and risky.”  (Noy Holland, author of I Was Trying to Describe What It Feels Like)

Imaginary Friend
by Stephen Chbosky
(Grand Central Publishing)

Jacket Copy:  Single mother Kate Reese is on the run. Determined to improve life for her and her seven-year-old son, she flees an abusive relationship in the middle of the night with Christopher at her side. Together, they find themselves drawn to the tight-knit community of Mill Grove, Pennsylvania. It’s as far off the beaten track as they can get. Just one highway in, one highway out. At first, it seems like the perfect place to finally settle down. Then Christopher vanishes. For six awful days, no one can find him. Until Christopher emerges from the woods at the edge of town, unharmed but not unchanged. He returns with a voice in his head only he can hear, with a mission only he can complete: Build a tree house in the woods by Christmas, or his mother and everyone in the town will never be the same again. Soon Kate and Christopher find themselves in the fight of their lives, caught in the middle of a war playing out between good and evil, with their small town as the battleground.

Opening Lines:  Don’t leave the street. They can’t get you if you don’t leave the street.
       Little David Olson knew he was in trouble. The minute his mother got back with Dad, he was going to get it. His only hope was the pillow stuffed under his blanket, which made it look like he was still in bed. They did that on TV shows. But none of that mattered now. He had snuck out of his bedroom and climbed down the ivy and slipped and hurt his foot. But it wasn’t too bad. Not like his older brother playing football. This wasn’t too bad.
       Little David Olson hobbled down Hays Road. The mist in his face. The fog settling in down the hill. He looked up at the moon. It was full. The second night it had been full in a row. A blue moon. That’s what his big brother told him. Like the song that mom and Dad danced to sometimes. Back when they were happy. Back before David made them afraid.
       Blue Moon.
       I saw you standing alone.

Blurbworthiness:  “Imaginary Friend is a sprawling epic horror novel that hearkens back to the classics of the 1970s Golden Age, but, like Stranger Things, with a twinkle in its malevolent eye. Enormous, scary fun.” (Dan Chaon, author of Ill Will)

by Jon Clinch
(Atria Books)

Jacket Copy:  Young Ebenezer Scrooge and Jacob Marley are very different in temperament when they meet in the gloomy confines of Professor Drabb’s Academy for Boys, but they form a bond that will endure for the rest of their lives. As years go by, with Marley’s genius for deception and Scrooge’s brilliance with numbers, they build a shipping empire of dubious legality and pitiless commitment to the slave trade, concealing their true investments under the noses of the London authorities. Circumstances change, however, when beautiful Belle Fairchild steps into Ebenezer’s life and calls into question the practices that made him wealthy. Under the influence of a newfound passion, Ebenezer tries to turn Scrooge & Marley’s business toward better ends, but his partner is not ready to give up his unsavory past or easy profits so quickly. Ignoring the costs to themselves and those around them, the two engage in a shadowy war against each other, leading to an unforgettable reckoning that will echo into their futures.

Opening Lines:  Sunrise, but no sun.
       The merchant ship Marie tied up at the Liverpool docks hours ago, beneath an overcast sufficient to obliterate the moon and the stars—and now that dawn has arrived conditions have not improved. The fog over the Mersey is so thick that a careless man might step off the pier and vanish forever, straight down.
       But Jacob Marley is not a careless man.

The Dutch House
by Ann Patchett

Jacket Copy:  Ann Patchett, the New York Times bestselling author of Commonwealth and State of Wonder, returns with her most powerful novel to date: a richly moving story that explores the indelible bond between two siblings, the house of their childhood, and a past that will not let them go. “Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?” I asked my sister. We were sitting in her car, parked in front of the Dutch House in the broad daylight of early summer. At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to begin an enormous real estate empire, propelling his family from poverty to enormous wealth. His first order of business is to buy the Dutch House, a lavish estate in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves. The story is told by Cyril’s son Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled from the house where they grew up by their stepmother. The two wealthy siblings are thrown back into the poverty their parents had escaped from and find that all they have to count on is one another. It is this unshakeable bond between them that both saves their lives and thwarts their futures. Set over the course of five decades, The Dutch House is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite every outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives they return to the well-worn story of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, the relationship between an indulged brother and his ever-protective sister is finally tested. The Dutch House is the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love and forgiveness, of how we want to see ourselves and of who we really are. Filled with suspense, you may read it quickly to find out what happens, but what happens to Danny and Maeve will stay with you for a very long time.

Opening Lines:  The first time our father brought Andrea to the Dutch House, Sandy, our housekeeper, came to my sister’s room and told us to come downstairs. “Your father has a friend he wants you to meet,” she said.
       “Is it a work friend?” Maeve asked. She was older and so had a more complex understanding of friendship.
       Sandy considered the question. “I’d say not. Where’s your brother?”
       “Window seat,” Maeve said.
       Sandy had to pull the draperies back to find me. “Why do you have to close the drapes?”
       I was reading. “Privacy,” I said, though at eight I had no notion of privacy. I liked the word, and I liked the boxed-in feel the draperies gave when they were closed.

Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe?
by Brock Clarke
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  With the comic unpredictability of a Wes Anderson movie and the inventive sharpness of a John Irving novel, author Brock Clarke introduces readers to an ordinary man who is about to embark on an absurdly extraordinary adventure. After his mother, a theologian and bestselling author, dies in a fiery explosion, forty-nine-year-old Calvin Bledsoe’s heretofore uninspired life is upended. A stranger shows up at the funeral, claiming to be Calvin’s aunt Beatrice, and insists that Calvin accompany her on a trip to Europe, immediately. As he and Beatrice traverse the continent, it quickly becomes apparent that his aunt’s clandestine behavior is leading him into danger. Facing a comic menagerie of antiquities thieves, secret agents, religious fanatics, and an ex-wife who’s stalking him, Calvin begins to suspect there might be some meaning behind the madness. Maybe he’s not the person he thought he was? Perhaps no one is who they appear to be? But there’s little time for soul-searching, as Calvin first has to figure out why he has been kidnapped, why his aunt disappeared, and who the hell burned down his house. Powered by pitch-perfect dialogue, lovable characters, and surprising optimism, Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe? is a modern-day Travels with My Aunt, a novel about grabbing life, and holding on―wherever it may take you.

Opening Lines:  My mother, Nola Bledsoe, was a minister, and she named me Calvin after her favorite theologian, John Calvin. She was very serious about John Calvin, had written a famous book about him―his enduring relevance, his misunderstood legacy. My mother was highly thought of by a lot of people who thought a lot about John Calvin.

Blurbworthiness:  “Brock Clarke’s Who Are You, Calvin Bledsoe? is a wild ride of a book, a story in which anything and everything can happen, and mostly does. This is a book of many trips—across oceans, back to the past, and, most profoundly, into the infinite deep space of the human heart. Brock Clarke has given us a wonderful novel that bursts with all the meaty stuff of real life.”  (Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk)

by JP Gritton
(Tin House)

Jacket Copy:  It’s 1988 and Shelley Cooper is in trouble. He’s broke, he’s been fired from his construction job, and his ex-wife has left him for their next door neighbor and a new life in Kansas City. The only opportunity on his horizon is fifty pounds of his brother’s high-grade marijuana, which needs to be driven from Colorado to Houston and exchanged for a lockbox full of cash. The delivery goes off without a hitch, but getting home with the money proves to be a different challenge altogether. Fueled by a grab bag of resentments and self punishment, Shelley becomes a case study in the question of whether it’s possible to live without accepting yourself, and the dope money is the key to a lock he might never find. JP Gritton’s portrait of a hapless aspirant at odds with himself and everyone around him is both tender and ruthless, and Wyoming considers the possibility of redemption in a world that grants forgiveness grudgingly, if at all.

Opening Lines:  I’ll tell you what happened and you can go ahead and decide. This was about a year ago, around when the Big Thompson went up. That fire made everybody crazy. A billboard out toward Montgrand reads: HE IS RISEN. And I wasn’t ever the churchgoing type, but seeing fire wash down the mountain in a crazy-ass wave made me think twice about All That. Like maybe He’s already here, and maybe you can read Him in flame and flood.

Blurbworthiness:  “From its first assured sentence to its last, Wyoming marks the debut of a gifted storyteller. This is a compassionate novel, for all its violence and despair, an authentic, pitch-perfect portrait of an America too often caricatured or ignored. There are hard truths here, grit and cruelty, but JP Gritton’s fine prose is nuanced enough, generous enough, to keep his troubled narrator’s humanity, his beating heart, apparent at every turn.”  (Alice McDermott, author of The Ninth Hour)

Friday, May 17, 2019

Friday Freebie: The Paper Wasp by Lauren Acampora

Congratulations to Lara Maynard, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Courting Mr. Lincoln by Louis Bayard.

This week’s giveaway is for the new novel by Lauren Acampora, The Paper Wasp. One lucky reader will win a new hardcover copy of the novel, a story of two women's dark friendship of twisted ambition set against the backdrop of contemporary Hollywood. Here’s what Kirkus Reviews had to say about The Paper Wasp: “This is the Los Angeles of weird cults and day-drunk stars, of struggling documentary filmmakers and mysterious but powerful directors...Utterly bizarre and completely bewitching, this twisted, delicious tale will grab you from the first page and hurl you over the edge.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

In small-town Michigan, Abby Graven leads a solitary life. Once a bright student on the cusp of a promising art career, she now languishes in her childhood home, trudging to and from her job as a supermarket cashier. Each day she is taunted from the magazine racks by the success of her former best friend Elise, a rising Hollywood starlet whose life in pictures Abby obsessively scrapbooks. At night Abby escapes through the films of her favorite director, Auguste Perren, a cult figure known for his creative institute the Rhizome. Inspired by Perren, Abby draws fantastical storyboards based on her often premonitory dreams, a visionary gift she keeps hidden. When Abby encounters Elise again at their high school reunion, she is surprised and warmed that Elise still considers her not only a friend but a brilliant storyteller and true artist. Elise’s unexpected faith in Abby reignites in her a dormant hunger, and when Elise offhandedly tells Abby to look her up if she’s ever in LA, Abby soon arrives on her doorstep. There, Abby discovers that although Elise is flourishing professionally, behind her glossy magazine veneer she is lonely and disillusioned. Ever the supportive friend, Abby becomes enmeshed in Elise’s world, even as she guards her own dark secret and burning desire for greatness. As she edges closer to Elise, the Rhizome, and her own artistic ambitions, the dynamic shifts between the two friends—until Abby can see only one way to grasp the future that awaits her.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Paper Wasp, simply e-mail your name and mailing address to

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

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

Monday, May 13, 2019

Valerie Nieman’s Library: The Many-Chambered Heart

Reader:  Valerie Nieman
Location:  Greensboro, NC
Collection Size:  About 1,650
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  My uncle Jerry went back into a lightning-struck house to rescue his father’s books, (after first carrying him out of the fire, as he was disabled.) I guess that story means I’d have to grab those once-rescued volumes of Mark Twain (see below) and Emerson and Tennyson. Oh! Of course, the brass-bound 1860 Bible, inscribed in spidery sepia ink with a mother’s poetic benediction to “My Dear Son” as he went to war. It was used for my parents’ wedding and the funerals of my mother’s parents.
Favorite book from childhood:  Jack London’s stories—a volume I bought at a school book fair. Still have it. And Girl of the Limberlost. I was a solitary child wandering the woods, so this book spoke to me—but finding it online in recent years, I was appalled at the prose. Still, it gave me encouragement in my expeditions. Also Huckleberry Finn, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and books about horses and nature including Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
Guilty pleasure book:  Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Counting the Books

Too many books? Never!

Well, maybe.

I’ve spent a life accumulating, sorting, sifting, giving, receiving. Now with retirement in sight, I weigh each book I buy, thinking how many I soon will have to let go.

They are all over the house, in the wood-paneled “den” where I work, in the living room, the bedroom, the spare bedroom, the former office. At work, they fill two tall bookcases, including one that will kill me if an earthquake happens to hit Greensboro while I’m sitting at my desk.

Until I took on this assignment to write about my library for The Quivering Pen, I’d never counted them. I moved from West Virginia to North Carolina in 1997 with 32 back-breaking boxes of books in my collection, that much I know, and in the words of Jacob Marley, “You have laboured on it, since.” The ponderous boxes of books are many, many more in number now.

For this photo essay, I could have tidied up and organized, given my bookshelves the artificial gloss of Instagram faces, but decided to stick with the gritty reality. The photos don’t show it, but there is organization, of a sort.

In my working area, I have 70-plus books of poetry in the first of two maple bookcases my mother made for herself while working at Ethan Allen in Jamestown, New York. They are 1950s vintage, honey-brown, like buckwheat honey. Then there are 110 (probably half the total, the rest being hidden in crates) of the “contributor copies” of journals and anthologies where I’ve appeared, and copies of my books. On the credenza, 23 books for ready reference. On the antique iron plant stand, 34 books in the on-deck circle for reading. On the fireplace side shelves, 38 antique books that once inhabited the upstairs den at my parents farmhouse in Randolph, New York, with the copperplate signatures of relatives three generations back. A dozen books stacked on the coffee table and a big pile of journals on a little stool. Almost 300 books just in the den.

The living room—what old-timey people would have called the parlor, as it’s used just for guests—has a number of coffee-table books and my favorite volume for inspiration, The Book of Symbols, left open for browsing.

The guest bed room is home to the matching bookcase Mom made at the “splinter factory,” with 50-plus books chosen for the enjoyment of guests, as well as a few journals.

The “library” was once my writing room. When I divorced, I changed things around, moving my writing space into the den, where I can lounge by the fire and where a blank wall before my desk keeps me from getting lost in the outside view.

Not counting extra copies of my own books, I’d say there are close to 900 books in this room, going all the way back to the Little Golden Books my parents bought me, when times were tough but there was always a quarter for a book. Butterflies. The Forest. I have double-decked layers of paperbacks starting with the first ones I bought for myself off the Rexall drug store revolving book rack: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, Dune by Frank Herbert.

The top shelves are filled and over-stacked with signed books bought at readings over the years. Many of these writers have become good friends. Some I’ve never seen again, but their voices come back when I open their books.

The lower shelves house the full set of Mark Twain in green cloth bindings, bought after my maternal grandfather got to know him on a train trip, my go-to reading during long summers as the books were readily available in “the den.” I read Tom Sawyer, of course, I read every volume, and for a while was enamored with the two-volume life of Joan of Arc. And the complete 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, noteworthy as the last edition published with signed articles. It’s all there, the onionskin pages intact, except for the map of New York State that I pulled out for a grade-school project. Yes, I was once a book vandal, to my shame.

Along with all these beloved books, the shelves house bits of memorabilia— a horseshoe crab tail found on an Oak Island beach when my parents lived near there. Sand dollars. Stones from mountain walks and from St. Martin and from the pebbly plage at Nice. A pair of long, narrow dressmaker’s shears. A rabbit that I wood-burned into a piece of plywood for a long-ago Christmas present for my father. Interesting stamps. A plastic bass lure I plucked from a snag at Cassadaga Lake.

At work, I’ve lined the back portion of my desk with copies of my publications, and then filled two tall bookcases with literature that I might use in classes, but also books that I just like to look at, and through. Friends. Also textbooks, of course, and the academic detritus of tenure portfolios and faculty handbooks. I’d estimate 375 books.

Books come to me, novels sent in for reviewing at the newspapers where I’ve worked, books from a former boyfriend who was moving and needed to downsize, books bought at church book sales, books left by friends or traded, even a few books rescued from the street side trash. And so many books have left me, especially books that I’ve lent to students, knowing most would not come back. Two copies of Breece D’J Pancake’s stories went that way. The students needed them more than I did.

It’s daunting to think of the cull to come, how I’ll try to find homes for many of these books. People don’t seem to want physical books as much. Old volumes are sold by the linear foot, and by the color, for people to use as interior decoration. Some will go to my nephew, some to friends, some perhaps to a college collection.

Lately, I’ve been accumulating e-books, handy while traveling although not as satisfying as a book in the hand.

Too many books? Never.

Appalachian heritage is the common thread binding Valerie Nieman’s wide range of writing, from mainstream fiction to horror, and both lyric and narrative poetry. Her latest novel, To the Bones (West Virginia University Press), is a genre-bending satire of the coal industry and its effects on Appalachia. Her third poetry collection, Leopard Lady: A Life in Verse, was published in fall 2018. Nieman’s writing has appeared widely in journals and in numerous anthologies, including Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods and Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology. She teaches workshops at John C. Campbell Folk School, NC Writers Network conferences, and many other venues. A graduate of West Virginia University and Queens University of Charlotte and a former journalist, she now teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.