Friday, November 29, 2019

Friday Freebie: The Current by Tim Johnston

Congratulations to Jenn Phalen, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Still Come Home by Katey Schultz.

This week’s giveaway is for The Current by Tim Johnston, author of Descent. Here’s what The New York Journal of Books had to say about his new novel: “Tim Johnston has given us the gold standard of lush narrative description—captivating, mesmerizing, stunning. It's doubtful you'll ever read a more beautifully written book than The Current.” I have a new paperback copy of the novel to give away to one lucky reader. Will it be you? Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

In the dead of winter, outside a small Minnesota town, state troopers pull two young women and their car from the icy Black Root River. One is found downriver, drowned, while the other is found at the scene—half frozen but alive. What happened was no accident, and news of the crime awakens the community’s memories of another young woman who lost her life in the same river ten years earlier, and whose killer may still live among them. Determined to find answers, the surviving young woman soon realizes that she’s connected to the earlier unsolved case by more than just a river, and the deeper she plunges into her own investigation, the closer she comes to dangerous truths, and to the violence that simmers just below the surface of her hometown. Grief, suspicion, the innocent and the guilty—all stir to life in this cold northern town where a young woman can come home, but still not be safe. Brilliantly plotted and unrelentingly propulsive, The Current is a beautifully realized story about the fragility of life, the power of the past, and the need, always, to fight back.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Current, 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 (or, two if you share the postsee below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 5, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 6. 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). P.S. Since I’m downsizing my own book collection, I’ll occasionally toss an extra book into package. If you aren’t interested in reading the extra “Freebie,” please consider donating it to your local little free library.

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, November 27, 2019

Where the Books Went

The books had become a burden.

That’s not a sentence I would ever have dreamed of writing when I was younger. “Younger” meaning eighteen months ago. Until recently, I went around saying things like “There’s no such thing as too many books, only too little time in which to read them.” I declared I would measure my coffin according to the number of volumes I could squeeze inside its piney confines. Part with my books? You might as well cut my arm off with a rusty saw.

And yet, the timbers of my Craftsman home in Butte, Montana groaned under the weight of paper and ink. The shelves lining the walls of my basement had long since been filled, and over-filled—like a corpulent guest at Thanksgiving dinner who, after the turkey and the stuffing and the sweet potatoes and the cranberry sauce and the gravy, greedily cuts just One More Slice of Pumpkin Pie. With whipped cream.

The books were every-frickin-where in the 4,000-square-foot house: there were piles in the bathroom, stacks in the breakfast nook, and a haphazard litter of titles to be shelved weighing down the polished-wood bar in the basement. My collection, which had been built and curated over the past thirty years of my life, was out of control. It was the literary version of The Trouble with Tribbles.

Books came into the house, but none went out. I was saturated and oversaturated. By my estimate, and according to my Library Thing catalog, my shelves were stuffed with more than 13,000 books. The real “trouble,” of course was the fact that I could not stop buying books. I am, I guess, part magpie: I cannot resist a new, shiny object. I was a bookaholic in much the same way that many people struggle with grape and grain; I had to start avoiding bookstores like twelve-steppers vow never to step foot inside a bar again. As an author who frequently goes on book tours, this was impossible. But I tried to control myself. I tried, I really tried.

And failed.

It was a slowly-dawning awareness, but eventually, I reached—and passed—my breaking point. Long ago, I had crossed the line when I had more books than I could possibly read in my lifetime (in truth, more books than the most secluded hermit could ever read). A speed-reading course wouldn’t even make a difference. The tipping point came when my wife and I made the decision to put the house on the market and move into smaller quarters. The original plan was to live in our new 25-foot RV. We would travel the country and Live Small. We’ve since tapped the brakes on that idea—not entirely ruling it out, but not committing to that miniaturized lifestyle, either. (Plus, the house in Butte still hasn’t sold, so we’re biding our time here in Montana for now.) We had an estate sale and sold more than 80 percent of our worldly goods; we’re now living in this oversized house with just a sofa, a bed, two nightstands, and just a few sticks of furniture. Our three cats spend their days chasing dust bunnies and listening to the echoes of their meows bounce off the bare hardwood floors. (And no, before you ask, we’re not marching to the beat of Marie Kondo and all those decluttering books which currently clutter the aisles of bookstores; this is a long-brewing, personal decision which has nothing to do with popular trends.)

Everything, from the camcorder bought in 2010 to the massive antique wardrobe in the upstairs bedroom, was sold. If my wife could part with her pewter salt-and-pepper shaker collection, I knew I, too, needed to make my own hard sacrifices. The books had to go. But where?

For the past year, I had been carting fat bookbags to Second Edition Books in Butte where the owner, Ann, bought somewhere around 1,000 books (and God bless her for her generosity and patience with my bi-weekly trips into her store where I continually ask, like a scratched record, “Can you take any more off my hands?”).

But off-loading at the used bookstore was just one slice of the Thanksgiving-feast pie. After separating out the ones I wanted to keep—

[Oh, excuse me, did you think I would get rid of all the books? If so, you obviously don’t know me. It was an emotionally-difficult culling process, but I picked and I chose, I sorted and set aside, I boxed and then unboxed and re-boxed indecisively. Eventually, I preserved about 1,000 of my most treasured volumes. I kept all of the Flannery O’Connor; ditto with Dickens, Hemingway, Richard Brautigan, Lewis Nordan (you can have my Nordan collection when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers) and Raymond Carver, along with a handful of my favorite living authors—though I won’t name names to avoid any hurt feelings from someone who didn’t make the cut. I saved my Dell mapbacks collection and my Big Littles. I held on to a small shelf of beloved children’s books. I kept my Penguin Classics and all my Library of America volumes.]

The survivors of the Great Book Culling of 2019
I carried The Keepers to an upstairs bedroom and though they lined an entire wall, removing them from the basement only made a minor dent in the overall collection. How, and where, could I possibly unload a lifetime’s worth of books? The answer came in the most unexpected of ways.

My friend Christine Martin, board director of the local non-profit organization The Root and Bloom Collective, was at my house in late summer to buy several of my bookcases (the ones which had been recently emptied of their contents) and, knowing of my book “burden,” she looked at the rows and rows of spines and said, “You know, we might be interested in buying some of these from you...”

“We?” I said.

“The Root and Bloom. We’re in the early stages of building our own library and some of these books would make a good start for what we want to do.”

“Some?” I said, teasingly (but also seriously). “What about all? Would you be willing to take all of them?”

“Oh.” She stared at the two hundred tons of paper, ink and glue. “Well....Let me talk to our board and directors and see what they say.”

*     *     *

They said yes.

And so, the next week Christine returned with empty boxes and a few volunteers from the Root and Bloom to help pack what she later estimated were 180 boxes. “No one had to go to the gym that week,” she told the local TV news station.

For several days, the basement of my house was noisy with the rumble of heavy books dropping into cardboard boxes and the shrieks of packing tape sealing the flaps. Christine and her small army, the Book Brigade, arrived early each day and spent hours pulling, sorting, and cramming. I popped in on my lunch hour to check on their progress and I always went away feeling a little bad: my burden had become their burden. The sheer number of books was overwhelming and I felt sorry for the Book Brigade and their sweat-damp faces and sore muscles.

But eventually, everything was boxed up and carted off. I felt only relief.

That soon turned to joy when Christine told me of her plans for the books: “These will be the start of a new library we’re establishing at the Jacobs House. We’re going to call it the Edwin C. Dobb Memorial Peace Library.”

I had to turn away for a minute. Suddenly, there was a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.

*     *    *

Before his all-too-soon death this past July, Ed Dobb was one of the best word-slingers to ever come out of Butte, Montana. His articles about the troubled history of this copper-mining town, “Pennies From Hell” and “Dirty Old Town,” are revered as masterpieces of journalism; they’re the yardstick against which everything else written about Butte is measured. Ed was also the co-producer of the terrific documentary film Butte, America. The blood that flowed through Ed’s veins was the color of pennies.

Ed emailed me out of the blue one day in 2010, one year after I’d moved to the Mining City and shortly after my interview with Tom McGuane appeared in New West magazine. The subject line of the email was “Comparing Pens” and it opened like this:
Hey, David, I enjoyed your interview with McGuane in New West. Also noted with delight that you’re living in Butte. Clearly you’re mad....What sort of unspeakable crimes would condemn you to such a desolate place?....Doubtless you’ve now heard the old joke: One of the best things about living in Butte is that Montana is close by. I think how a person responds to the quirky, often forbidding island ruin of Butte says a lot about a person’s character and sensibility.
I leaned closer to my laptop screen. I’d found a kindred spirit, someone who removed his rose-colored glasses before sweeping his eyes across the scraped and scarred landscape of this town. Ed loved Butte, but he also understood its complexities: the ugly and the lovely.

Ed sent me more essays to read, including this one about cold-water swimming which began:
Although I had been swimming on and off since moving from southwest Montana back to San Francisco in mid-January, my new season officially started on April 17th, the day I turned 60. It was a bright afternoon, the sun partially obscured by high thin clouds, gusts churning the surface of Aquatic Park, a manmade cove bounded by curved piers on the waterfront. That’s where I swim, along with others whose notion of a swell time is plying chilly San Francisco Bay while wearing nothing but a cap and a Speedo. And chilly it was that day—water about 55 degrees, or 30 degrees cooler than the average municipal pool. Whatever pleasures await the cold-water sea swimmer—and they are incomparable, even, at times, transcendent—reaching them entails a certain amount of discomfort. Every swim begins with a double leap—the physical act of plunging into the water, the mental act of deliberately submitting to pain.
Going back over that article now, half a year after Ed died at 69 of complications from a heart condition, I read it as metaphor. Ed was writing about swimming, yes; but—and I hope he’ll forgive me for stretching his words—he could easily have been writing about the process of shedding my beloved books: the icy shock of the decision to rid myself of what I’d once held so dear, deliberately subjecting myself to the pain of loss.

But now, as Christine told me of Root and Bloom’s plan for the books, I realized it wasn’t loss and grief I should be feeling, but happiness and comfort. My 30-year library would have a new life and find new readers and, best of all, it would carry my friend’s name and legacy with it into the future. I couldn’t have planned a better fate for the books.

*     *    *

Two months after the last box was packed and carried out the front door, I paid my books—my former books—a visit at the Jacobs House. Many of them were still in their cartons, stacked like a small mountain range in the middle of the floor; but enough had made their way onto the shelves—my old bookcases—for me to browse. I tilted my head and ran my eyes across the familiar spines. “Hello, old friends,” I whispered. “It’s good to see you again.”

I restrained myself: I did not shake the shelves and sweep the books into my arms and carry them out the door. Instead I felt a pang of guilt for holding them in a miser’s grip for all those years, knowing I could never read even a fraction of the collection—no, not even a snowflake on the tip of the iceberg’s worth—before I died. Now, other visitors to the Edwin C. Dobb Memorial Peace Library would have the chance to read what I built and saved over the decades.

I went back to Ed Dobb’s article on swimming in the icy waters near Alcatraz and his words took on fresh meaning:
How long it takes for the body’s internal heat to counteract the penetrating cold varies widely, depending on several factors—metabolism, conditioning, overall acclimation, how hard one swims. But whether the interim is measured in seconds or minutes, a kind of alchemy is at work, converting the forbidding into the ecstatic. What makes the shift possible is conviction, the belief that eventually the sting will recede, the shock replaced by something that cannot be experienced anywhere else.
What I once feared most—losing my books—had been converted to joy. A new refrain ran through my head: It is better to share than to hoard.

I was at peace with my loss.

Ed Dobb swimming toward Alcatraz

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

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

I learned about a lot of things in medical school, but mortality wasn’t one of them.

from Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Friday, November 22, 2019

Friday Freebie: Still Come Home by Katey Schultz

Congratulations to Lisa Murray, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Now You See Them by Elly Griffiths.

This week’s giveaway is for Still Come Home by Katey Schultz, author of Flashes of War. I was privileged to read an early copy of this novel and wrote this at the time: “Katey Schultz’s debut novel Still Come Home is a remarkable book, impressive in its breadth and depth of story, engaging with its finely-drawn characters, and breathtaking in its pace. I know of few authors writing about war these days who can so skillfully balance both sides of the conflict with equal grace. Katey Schultz gives true heart and dignity to both the so-called ‘enemy’ and the ‘friendly’ forces of the American troops. Still Come Home made me think long and deep about how we humans all too often lose sight of our humanity during war. The characters in these pages remind us how complicated and anguishing decisions can be on both sides of the battle-lines.”

I have one signed copy of the novel to give away to one lucky reader. Will it be you? Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

The three characters in Katey Schultz’s novel are each searching for the best way to be, the best way to live--all the while fighting cultural, societal, and political forces far beyond their control. As their paths intersect over the span of three days, Still Come Home explores how their decisions will forever alter each other’s lives. Aaseya, an ambitious, educated Afghan girl, struggles to walk the line between social disgrace and faith that her hometown of Imar can unharden and heal. Though she cannot bear her older husband, Rahim, a child, and she suspects her sister-in-law played a part in her family’s murder, Aaseya maintains self-reliance and dignity by rebelling against the misogyny and violence surrounding her. Second Lieutenant Nathan Miller blames himself for the death of a soldier under his command and worries that his constant absence from his North Carolina home has permanently damaged his marriage. Though he believes his final mission is purely about “winning hearts and minds,” nothing could be further from the truth. As he leads Spartan Platoon to the remote village of Imar, a dangerous plot, much larger than the mission itself, unfolds. When Rahim learns that the Taliban, whom he reluctantly works for, are hatching this violent plan, conflicting loyalties to country, to enduring peace, and to his young wife take all three down a road that will change their lives forever. Exploring the tensions between loyalty to self and loyalty to country, Still Come Home reveals how three vastly different lives meet this challenge head-on, learning first-hand that remaining true to one’s self is the only way to survive, no matter the cost.

If you’d like a chance at winning Still Come Home, 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 (or, two if you share the postsee below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 28, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 29. 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). P.S. Since I’m downsizing my own book collection, I’ll occasionally toss an extra book into package. If you aren’t interested in reading the extra “Freebie,” please consider donating it to your local little free library.

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

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien

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

Like a suit of clothes that may fit beautifully on one man but too snugly on another, I have come to believe that Worthington—or maybe the rural Midwest in general—made my dad feel somehow limited, squeezed into a life he hadn’t planned for himself, marooned as a permanent stranger in a place he could not understand in his blood.

from Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien

Friday, November 15, 2019

Friday Freebie: Now You See Them by Elly Griffiths

Congratulations to JT O’Neill, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: We Love Anderson Cooper by R. L. Maizes.

This week’s giveaway is for Now You See Them by Elly Griffiths. It’s the fifth book in the Magic Men series, a mystery that follows detective Edgar Stephens and the magician Max Mephisto as they investigate a string of presumed kidnappings in the swinging 1960s. Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

The new decade is going well for Edgar Stephens and his good friend the magician Max Mephisto. Edgar is happily married, with children, and promoted to Superintendent. Max has found fame and stardom in America, though is now back in England for a funeral, and a prospective movie job. Edgar’s new wife, though—former detective Emma—is restless and frustrated at home, knowing she was the best detective on the team. But when an investigation into a string of disappearing girls begins, Emma sees her chance to get back in the action. She begins her own hunt, determined to prove, once and for all that she’s better than the boys. Though she’s not the only one working toward that goal—there’s a new woman on the force, and she’s determined to make detective. When two more girls go missing, both with ties to the group, the stakes climb ever higher, and Max finds himself drawn into his own search. Who will find the girls first? And will they get there in time?

If you’d like a chance at winning Now You See Them, 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 (or, two if you share the postsee below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 21, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 22. 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). P.S. Since I’m downsizing my own book collection, I’ll occasionally toss an extra book into package. If you aren’t interested in reading the extra “Freebie,” please consider donating it to your local little free library.

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.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

My First Time: Katey Schultz

The First Time I Read My Story to a Veteran

I’d been in Sitka, Alaska all of twenty-four hours and had already fallen in love with its deep, dark winter—the way the snowpack held the moon’s reflection and the old growth spruce draped their boughs like the tired arms of towering women. I would live on this island in the North Pacific for five weeks and to kick-off my writing residency through The Island Institute, I was asked to read from my work-in-progress at the public library.

By this point in my career, I’d had a handful of short stories published, won a few flash contests, and read in front of fewer than ten audiences. I didn’t have a book out, and very few people knew that they’d come to see a civilian woman writing about military culture. My characters, often speaking in first person point of view, donned burqas or hefted AKs. They complained about broken NVGs and POS you-name-its. They used the language of the Global War on Terror fluently: haji, raghead, infidel, militant, freedom, patriot, terrorist. But they also used the universal language of humanity: “Since my brother died, I cannot taste my tea. Since my brother died, I cannot taste anything;” or, “My brothers, my fellow Marines, the way the moon cast a blue light across their bodies. It made them look holy. More than anything, it made them look dead.”

About thirty seconds before start time, the director of the residency whispered in my ear. “Oh good,” she said. “He’s here.”

I looked around. Almost forty folks had shown up and for those of you who know Alaskan culture, let me just say no one was wearing heels. These were my kind of people! But wait, what had the director just said?

“Who’s here?” I asked.

“Brian. He just got home from Iraq three days ago.”

I gulped. So this was how I would go down, in The Last Frontier at a public library, wearing long johns underneath my Levi’s.

But before I continue I should pause to tell you this: it wasn’t the content or point of view in my stories that worried me. I knew my stories were about the tiny moments and impossible decisions that make us human—regardless of ethnicity, gender, politics, or experience. What worried me was getting the facts right. I didn’t know a single veteran, I’d never served, never been to the Middle East, and I wasn’t from a military family. I’d researched to the best of my ability, but this would be the first time I read my fiction in front of anyone as close to the current conflicts as Brian.

It probably would have been easier for me to write fiction putting penguins on Mars, but I didn’t care about penguins on Mars. What I cared about were the men, women, and children fighting battles and enduring hardships in wars that somehow had little day-to-day impact on my own life, “back home.” How could that be possible? And what did it feel like to be put into a situation where you could do everything right, but still be wrong? Where following orders or cultural customs could cost you your life? Where not following them could, too?

“Are you ready?” the director asked. “We need to get started.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Just one thing. Where’s Brian sitting?” She pointed him out. A tall, late-twenties-something, man with dark hair and molasses brown eyes. He sat dead center, four rows back, alert.

The reading itself went smoothly. I was in the zone. No needling voices of doubt or tongue-twister flub-ups slowed me down. And after thirty-five minutes, the director seamlessly guided the audience into Q&A. Brian was the first to raise his hand. I was all nerves and pounding heart and syllables by then, but nodded in his direction, inviting him to speak.

“I just got back from Iraq, and I was wondering where you served?”

I exhaled. “I didn’t,” I said.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for showing this so believably. It’s like you were there. You had me completely convinced.”

And from that moment on, I never looked back.

Brian’s acceptance would later grow into what I now lovingly refer to as “my war lit family.” Writers like Matt Gallagher, Teresa Fazio, Kayla Williams, James Moad, Jesse Goolsby, Shannon Huffman Polson, David Abrams, Charlie Sherpa (aka Randy Brown), Andria Williams, Pete Molin, Brian Turner, Helen Benedict, and Ben Busch (to name only a few) have welcomed me into their fold, helped me complete a second book, and refused to put up walls where so many could have been built. The United States Air Force Academy opened its classrooms to me and its cadets opened their minds to my work. The William Joiner Institute for the Study of War & Social Consequences let me Skype in to a classroom of veterans. TOLO News translated my interview live, in Dari, and broadcast it in Jalalabad and beyond, as I spoke to them from a classroom thousands of miles away.

But before all that, was Brian, whose comment was the highest compliment I could have received.

Katey Schultz is the author of Flashes of War, which the Daily Beast praised as an “ambitious and fearless” collection, and Still Come Home, a novel. Honors for her work include the Linda Flowers Literary Award, the Doris Betts Fiction Prize, IndieFab Book of the Year, a Gold Medal from the Military Writers Society of America, four Pushcart nominations, and writing fellowships in eight states. Her fiction set in Afghanistan and Iraq has been studied by university students and literary organizations from Germany to the United States Air Force Academy. She lives in Celo, North Carolina and is the founder of Maximum Impact, a transformative mentoring service for creative writers that has been recognized by both CNBC and the What Works Network.

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 10, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien

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

Not to speak was a kind of speaking, at least in our family, and sometimes it was more powerful speaking than speaking itself.

from Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien

Friday, November 8, 2019

Friday Freebie: We Love Anderson Cooper by R. L. Maizes

Congratulations to John Smith, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: King of the Mississippi by Mike Freedman.

This week’s giveaway is for We Love Anderson Cooper by R. L. Maizes. I started reading this collection of short stories earlier this week and I fell in love with Maizes’ writing style and her oddball characters from the first page. You know who else loved this book? Jill McCorkle, author of Life After Life, that’s who. Here’s what she had to say about it: “The title story in We Love Anderson Cooper will break your heart in all the best ways and it will also make you laugh; such is the blueprint for all that is ahead in this stunning collection. R.L. Maizes has such a gift for taking us where we’ve never been, yet reminding us of what we know about love, grief, a place of belonging.” I have a new hardbound copy to give away to one lucky reader. Will it be you? Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

In We Love Anderson Cooper, characters are treated as outsiders because of their sexual orientation, racial or religious identity, or simply because they look different. A young man courts the publicity that comes from outing himself at his bar mitzvah. When a painter is shunned because of his appearance, he learns to ink tattoos that come to life. A paranoid Jewish actuary suspects his cat of cheating on him―with his Protestant girlfriend. In this debut collection, humor complements pathos. Readers will recognize themselves in these stories and in these protagonists, whose backgrounds are vastly different from their own―we’ve all been outsiders at some point.

If you’d like a chance at winning We Love Anderson Cooper, 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 (or, two if you share the postsee below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 14, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 15. 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). P.S. Since I’m downsizing my own book collection, I’ll occasionally toss an extra book into package. If you aren’t interested in reading the extra “Freebie,” please consider donating it to your local little free library.

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 7, 2019

Front Porch Books: November 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.

Barn 8
by Deb Olin Unferth
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  Two auditors for the U.S. egg industry go rogue and conceive a plot to steal a million chickens in the middle of the night—an entire egg farm’s worth of animals. Janey and Cleveland—a spirited former runaway and the officious head of audits—assemble a precarious, quarrelsome team and descend on the farm on a dark spring evening. A series of catastrophes ensues. Deb Olin Unferth’s wildly inventive novel is a heist story of a very unusual sort. Swirling with a rich array of voices, Barn 8 takes readers into the minds of these renegades: a farmer’s daughter, a former director of undercover investigations, hundreds of activists, a forest ranger who suddenly comes upon forty thousand hens, and a security guard who is left on an empty farm for years. There are glimpses twenty thousand years into the future to see what chickens might evolve into on our contaminated planet. We hear what hens think happens when they die. In the end the cracked hearts of these indelible characters, their earnest efforts to heal themselves, and their radical actions will lead them to ruin or revelation. Funny, whimsical, philosophical, and heartbreaking, Barn 8 ultimately asks: What constitutes meaningful action in a world so in need of change? Unferth comes at this question with striking ingenuity, razor-sharp wit, and ferocious passion. Barn 8 is a rare comic-political drama, a tour de force for our time.

Opening Lines:  A nest. Built of 14-gauge galvanized wire mesh, twenty-five thousand water nipples, a moss of dander and feed. Six miles of feed trough runs down rows, up columns. Staggered tiers rise ten feet high into the shape of the letter A, the universal symbol for mountain. Wooden rafters, plywood walkways. Darkness. Sudden light. Three hundred thousand prehistoric eyes blinking. The entire apparatus ticking and whirring and clanking like a doomsday machine. Above it the purr, coo, and song of a hundred and fifty thousand birds at dawn.

Blurbworthiness:  “Like Flannery O’Connor, Deb Olin Unferth does things entirely her own way, and that way is impossible to describe....This very funny and absurd novel is also as serious as the world.” (Zachary Lazar, author of Vengeance)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’ve been meaning to read Unferth for a number of years, so I recently added her 2011 memoir Revolution to my to-be-read pile. A few days later, an advance copy of Barn 8 arrived in the mail and I thought to myself “Egg-cellent timing!” And lord lord lord, that cover! If I don’t read it soon, I fear that bird will peck my eyes out.

by Crissy Van Meter
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  On the eve of Evangeline’s wedding, a dead whale is trapped in the harbor of Winter Island, the groom may be lost at sea, and Evie’s mostly absent mother has shown up out of the blue. From there, in this mesmerizing, provocative debut, Evie remembers and reckons with her complicated upbringing in this lush, wild land off the coast of Southern California. Evie grew up with her well-meaning but negligent father, surviving on the money he made dealing the island’s world-famous strain of marijuana, Winter Wonderland. Although he raised her with a deep respect for the elements, the sea, and the creatures living within it, he also left her to parent herself. With wit, love, and bracing ashes of anger, Creatures probes the complexities of love and abandonment, guilt and forgiveness, betrayal and grief—and the ways in which our ability to love can be threatened if we are not brave enough to conquer the past. Lyrical, darkly funny, and ultimately cathartic, Creatures exerts a pull as strong as the tides.

Opening Lines:  There is a dead whale. It rolls idly in the warm shallows of this island, among cartoonish sea animals with tentacles, suction cups, and goopy eyes. There are squawking birds leaking nearly colorless shit, and we are concerned with an unbearable odor and the must-be sharks circling nearby.

Blurbworthiness:  “Creatures is the kind of beautiful book that makes you want to lick the salt from its pages. It’s so physically present you can feel the waves hit your body, smell the sea life, hear the roar of the ocean as your hair whips around your face in the breeze. Crissy Van Meter has written a book about the complexities of love and families, yes, but it’s also a careful look at intimacy through the lens of a person learning and relearning how to love the people who continually let us down. It’s inventive and surprising. The text is tactile; a punch to the heart. It’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year.”  (Kristen Arnett, author of Mostly Dead Things)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’m a sucker for bloated whales and lean prose.

Everywhere You Don’t Belong
by Gabriel Bump
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  In this powerful, edgy, and funny debut novel about making right and wrong choices, Gabriel Bump gives us an unforgettable and lovable protagonist, Claude McKay Love. Claude is a young black man in search of a place where he can fit; born on the South Side of Chicago, he is raised by his civil rights-era grandmother, who tries to shape him into a principled actor for change. After a riot consumes his neighborhood, Claude decides to escape Chicago for another place, to go to college, to find a new life and identity. But as he discovers, there’s no escaping the people and places that made him.

Opening Lines:  “If there’s one thing wrong with people,” Paul always said. “It’s that no one remembers the shit that they should and everyone remembers the shit that doesn’t matter for shit.”
       I remember Euclid Avenue. I remember yelling outside our window, coming in from the street. Grandma put down her coffee. I remember Grandma holding my ankle, swinging my two-year-old self out the front door, flipping me right-side up, plopping me down next to the Hawaiian violets, plopping herself down next to me. I remember awe and disbelief.
       Dad was on the curb, wrestling another man. He had the man’s head, the man’s life and soul, between his thighs.
       Upstairs, above our heads, Mom screamed for the men to stop, to regain their senses, civilize themselves.
       “You’re friends!” Mom yelled. “You go to church!”
       “Say it again,” Dad told the man.
       “I’m sorry,” the man told Dad.
       “Sorry for what?” Dad asked the man.
       “Sorry for saying you look like Booker T. Washington,” the man told Dad.
       Dad unsqueezed the man. Chicago Cops came speeding down our street before Dad’s loafer could unhinge the man’s teeth.

Blurbworthiness:  “In Everywhere You Don’t Belong, Gabriel Bump completely, beautifully, and energetically illuminates the heretofore unrecognized lines connecting Ellison’s Invisible Man to Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. This is a startling, original, and hilarious book.”  (Adam Levin, author of The Instructions)

Why It’s In My Stack:  This novel has been getting a lot of buzzwhich I started noticing after I got my advance copy, read those opening lines and couldn’t pull myself away from that image of one man’s shoe unhinging another man’s teeth. By that time, the novel already belonged to my TBR pile.

The Silent Treatment
by Abbie Greaves

Jacket Copy:  By all appearances, Frank and Maggie share a happy, loving marriage. But for the past six months, they have not spoken. Not a sentence, not a single word. Maggie isn’t sure what, exactly, provoked Frank’s silence, though she has a few ideas. Day after day, they have eaten meals together and slept in the same bed in an increasingly uncomfortable silence that has become, for Maggie, deafening. Then Frank finds Maggie collapsed in the kitchen, unconscious, an empty package of sleeping pills on the table. Rushed to the hospital, she is placed in a medically induced coma while the doctors assess the damage. If she regains consciousness, Maggie may never be the same. Though he is overwhelmed at the thought of losing his wife, will Frank be able to find his voice once again—and explain his withdrawal—or is it too late?

Opening Lines:  From above, Maggie looks to have everything under control. She deposits the tablets onto the dinner plate with her usual fastidious care. If anything, she moves through the motions of breaking the coated capsules free from the foil with even greater precision than usual, tipping the blister slowly so as to enjoy the sharp clanging sound that announces each one hitting the ceramic. Anything to break the silence.

Blurbworthiness:  “Not so much a case of ‘he said/she said’ as ‘he didn’t say/she didn’t say,’ this moving debut unpicks the secret selves of Maggie and Frank to reveal the tragic miscommunications of their broken family. It’s a pleasure to read such a stylish and confident new voice—readers are going to love discovering Abbie Greaves.”  (Louise Candlish, author of Our House )

Why It’s In My Stack:  I have been married to the same wonderful woman for thirty-six years. We love each other to the ends of the earth and beyond, but I’ll be the first to admit there have been times when angry, hurt silences stretched between us, as vast and impossible to cross as a dry desert.

Dad’s Maybe Book
by Tim O’Brien
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jacket Copy:  In 2003, already an older father, National Book Award–winning novelist Tim O’Brien resolved to give his young sons what he wished his own father had given to him—a few scraps of paper signed “Love, Dad.” Maybe a word of advice. Maybe a sentence or two about some long-ago Christmas Eve. Maybe some scattered glimpses of their rapidly aging father, a man they might never really know. For the next fifteen years, the author talked to his sons on paper, as if they were adults, imagining what they might want to hear from a father who was no longer among the living. O’Brien traverses the great variety of human experience and emotion, moving from soccer games to warfare to risqué lullabies, from alcoholism to magic shows to history lessons to bittersweet bedtime stories, but always returning to a father’s soul-saving love for his sons. The result is Dad’s Maybe Book, a funny, tender, wise, and enduring literary achievement that will squeeze the reader’s heart with joy and recognition.

Opening Lines: Dear Timmy,
       A little more than a year ago, on June 20, 2003, you dropped into the world, my son, my first and only child—a surprise, a gift, an eater of electrical cords, a fertilizer factory, a pain in the ass, and a thrill in the heart.
       Here’s the truth, Timmy. Boy, oh, boy, do I love you. And, boy, do I wish I could spend the next fifty or sixty years with my lips to your cheek, my eyes warming in yours.

Blurbworthiness:  “A bountiful treasury of fatherly advice, memoir, literary criticism, history, political commentary, and a dash of magic and miracles…There are smiles and tears awaiting the reader on every page of this often emotionally charged book, and enough wisdom in it about what it means to be a parent, and a decent human being, to fuel many hours of personal recollection and reflection.” (BookReporter)

Why It’s In My Stack:  If you have to ask this, then you don’t know the depths of my love for Tim O’Brien. And if, based solely on those sweet and tender opening lines, you think this is a departure from the author’s celebrated Vietnam stories, then you need to turn directly to Chapter 3 where two-month-old Timmy cries non-stop through the night, leading O’Brien and his wife to desperately pop Xanax while trying to soothe the inconsolable infant back to sleep with a dirty-lyric rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” The scene is as harrowing, funny and as wisely-told as anything to come out of O’Brien’s Vietnam War. I started reading Dad’s Maybe Book late last night, when I myself was having trouble sleeping; I stayed awake, with pleasure. This might just be the best thing I read this year.

Barker House
by David Moloney

Jacket Copy:  David Moloney’s Barker House follows the story of nine unforgettable New Hampshire correctional officers over the course of one year on the job. While veteran guards get by on what they consider survival strategies—including sadistic power-mongering and obsessive voyeurism—two rookies, including the only female officer on her shift, develop their own tactics for facing “the system.” Tracking their subtly intertwined lives, Barker House reveals the precarious world of the jailers, coming to a head when the unexpected death of one in their ranks brings them together. Timely and universal, this masterfully crafted debut adds a new layer to discussions of America’s criminal justice system, and introduces a brilliant young literary talent.

Opening Lines:  I work alone on the Restricted Unit in the Barker County Correctional Facility in New Hampshire. It’s a semi-circular room, the curved wall lined with nine cells. Most of the day, the inmates press their faces to scuffed windows, silent. There are no bars. The architects went with rosewood steel doors. Rosewood: the color of merlot.
       On Tuesday and Saturday mornings I supervise inmates while they shave in their cells. We don’t leave them alone with razors.

Blurbworthiness:  “At a time when mass incarceration is increasingly a feature of American life, David Moloney’s Barker House is a great and important book. Without romanticizing, demonizing, or candy-coating the work of his corrections officers, this novel-in-stories offers an experienced insider’s view of their lives, in stainless-steely prose that easily matches the best of Raymond Carver and John Fante.” (Tony Tulathimutte, author of Private Citizens)

Why It’s In My Stack:  While excellent shows like Orange is the New Black have helped shatter the stereotypes of grim-faced, robotic turnkeys, an in-depth literary treatment of prison guards is a rarity. The fact that Moloney himself worked as a correctional officer for many years lends an air of authenticity to his stories.

by Blake Gopnik

Jacket Copy:  To this day, mention the name “Andy Warhol” to almost anyone and you’ll hear about his famous images of soup cans and Marilyn Monroe. But though Pop Art became synonymous with Warhol’s name and dominated the public’s image of him, his life and work are infinitely more complex and multi-faceted than that. In Warhol, esteemed art critic Blake Gopnik takes on Andy Warhol in all his depth and dimensions. “The meanings of his art depend on the way he lived and who he was,” as Gopnik writes. “That’s why the details of his biography matter more than for almost any cultural figure,” from his working-class Pittsburgh upbringing as the child of immigrants to his early career in commercial art to his total immersion in the “performance” of being an artist, accompanied by global fame and stardom—and his attempted assassination. The extent and range of Warhol’s success, and his deliberate attempts to thwart his biographers, means that it hasn’t been easy to put together an accurate or complete image of him. But in this biography, unprecedented in its scope and detail as well as in its access to Warhol’s archives, Gopnik brings to life a figure who continues to fascinate because of his contradictions—he was known as sweet and caring to his loved ones but also a coldhearted manipulator; a deep-thinking avant-gardist but also a true lover of schlock and kitsch; a faithful churchgoer but also an eager sinner, skeptic, and cynic. Wide-ranging and immersive, Warhol gives us the most robust and intricate picture to date of a man and an artist who consistently defied easy categorization and whose life and work continue to profoundly affect our culture and society today.

Opening Lines:  Andy Warhol died, for the first time, at 4:51 P.M. on the third of June 1968. Or that was the grim verdict of the interns and residents in the emergency room of Columbus Hospital in New York. Some twenty minutes earlier, the artist had been shot by Valerie Solanas, a troubled hanger-on at his famous studio, the Factory, which had recently moved to a new spot on Union Square. During the half hour it took for the ambulance to arrive, Warhol slowly bled to death. By the time the patient was dropped at the hospital, a few blocks away, the young doctors in the E.R. couldn't find a pulse. There was no blood pressure to speak of. The patient's color was newsprint tinged with blue. By any normal measure, this thirty-nine-year old Caucasian, five foot eight, 145 pounds, was D.O.A.

Blurbworthiness:  “John Lennon and I once hid from Andy in a closet at the Sherry-Netherland hotel. I wish I’d known him better. This fantastic new biography makes me feel that I do. It really reveals the man—and the genius—under that silver wig.”  (Elton John, rock god and author of Me)

Why It’s In My Stack:  My familiarity with Andy Warhol stems from only three things: my reading of Edie by Jean Stein thirty-seven years ago, watching the motion picture I Shot Andy Warhol in 1996, and—yeah, yeah—the canvases of soup cans and Marilyn Monroe. I want to learn more about the enigmatic man and Gopnik’s biography looks like a good place to start.

Attention Servicemember
by Ben Brody
(Red Hook Editions)

Jacket Copy:  Shortlisted for the Aperture-Paris Photo First Book Award, Attention Servicemember is Ben Brody’s searing elegy to the experience of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brody was a soldier assigned to make visual propaganda during the Iraq War. After leaving the army, he traveled to Afghanistan as an independent civilian journalist. Returning to rural New England after 12 years at war, he found his home unrecognizable—even his own backyard radiated menace and threat. So he continued photographing the war as it exists in his own mind. Inspired by military field manuals, Attention Servicemember invites viewers through an evolving and often wickedly funny creative process—some pictures are intimate snapshots, some are slick jingoistic propaganda, others are meditative and subtle tableaus. Writing from an intensely personal perspective, he also offers an insiders’ view of the military, the media, and their contentious but symbiotic partnership. Anyone wondering how we wound up trusting serial liars and arguing about fake news should take a closer look at the cognitive disconnection in Baghdad and Kabul during the height of the wars. With a darkly engaging design treatment by Kummer & Herrman, Attention Servicemember is a powerful passport to that world.

Opening Lines:  In 2002, when Americans were expressing their newfound nationalistic fervor by supporting the invasion of Iraq, I resolved to photograph the brewing war. There was nothing for me to do in my hometown. The girl I’d been seeing had broken up with me again. We’d met at college, but I dropped out after a year to learn photography and sell cannabis to art students.
       I was 22 and thought the Iraq War would be a pivotal moment for my generation, as Vietnam was for my parents’ generation. I was skeptical, and assumed this war was as likely to achieve its objectives as Vietnam did. Almost all of my friends and family thought I was a fool for going. Because I had no money and had failed my only photojournalism class, I thought joining the Army as a combat photographer was the only way I could get to Iraq. I wanted to learn what my own country was all about, while also satisfying my naïve instincts about the steps a boy must take to become a self-determined adult. My Army recruiter didn’t believe the job of combat photographer existed. I told him I’d seen it in the catalog. Photographing the wars would be the next 15 years of my life.

Why It’s In My Stack:  Full disclosure: Ben Brody is a friend of mine. More than that, he is a fellow veteran with whom I had the pleasure of serving during the Iraq War. Ben and I deployed together with the 3rd Infantry Division in 2005 and I worked in the task-force headquarters public affairs office which oversaw Ben’s brigade public affairs shop. So, yes, I have a deep personal connection to this book. I have only skimmed the opening pages and while I’m very much looking forward to leafing through the rest of the photographs and textual interstices, I am also a little nervous about doing so because this reading experience will be like looking through a photo album of a particular time in my own life that I don’t often like to revisit, a reluctant trip down memory lane. This book is personal to me, as it will be for the soldiers Ben and I served with. But for everyone else, I urge you, in the strongest of terms, to buy this book for a look at the war you never saw from your living room. But be careful: these pages are bound to draw blood. Go here to see sample photos.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Shriek and Thunder of War: Arthur Machen’s “The Bowmen”

Early this morning, as chilly wraiths of fog haunted the hills outside my window, I read the final spooky selections in Ghost Stories: Classic Tales of Horror and Suspense, edited by Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger. As I said earlier at the blog, it is one of the best anthologies of supernatural stories I’ve ever read, impeccably edited and vibrantly alive in its impact (unlike most of its sheet-draped characters).

The next-to-last story in the book is “The Bowmen” by Arthur Machen, which first appeared in The (London) Evening News on September 29, 1914. While it’s a little less “ghostly” than its companions in this book, it is nonetheless a short, vivid reading experience, plunging the reader right into the horrors of World War One—specifically, what became known as the Great Retreat from Mons, the long withdrawal to the River Marne in August and September 1914 by the British Expeditionary Force and the French Fifth Army after their defeat by the Germany army during the battles of Charleroi and Mons in August of that year.

Machen (who also penned The Great God Pan) wrote his short story soon after, dashing it out quickly in pseudo-journalism fashion which some later claimed read like war propaganda. To the author’s surprise, “The Bowmen” took on a life of its own and led to some surprising results for Machen, which you can read about elsewhere.

I was unaware of any this backstory to the story when I read it this morning—and frankly, it matters little to me. What impressed me was how Machen described the battle scene in all its gory, gritty detail. As we approach Veterans Day and our thoughts turn once again to members of the military—in rote, semi-annual fashion (see also: Memorial Day)—I thought it would be good to remind ourselves that war was, is, and will always be, HELL.

Here’s your daily dose of combat, courtesy of Arthur Machen:

All the morning the German guns had thundered and shrieked against this corner, and against the thousand or so of men who held it. The men joked at the shells, and found funny names for them, and had bets about them, and greeted them with scraps of music-hall songs. But the shells came on and burst, and tore good Englishmen limb from limb, and tore brother from brother, and as the heat of the day increased so did the fury of that terrific cannonade. There was no help, it seemed. The English artillery was good, but there was not nearly enough of it; it was being steadily battered into scrap iron.

There comes a moment in a storm at sea when people say to one another, “It is at its worst; it can blow no harder,” and then there is a blast ten times more fierce than any before it. So it was in these British trenches.

There were no stouter hearts in the whole world than the hearts of these men; but even they were appalled as this seven-times-heated hell of the German cannonade fell upon them and overwhelmed them and destroyed them. And at this very moment they saw from their trenches that a tremendous host was moving against their lines. Five hundred of the thousand remained, and as far as they could see the German infantry was pressing on against them, column upon column, a grey world of men, ten thousand of them, as it appeared afterwards.

There was no hope at all. They shook hands, some of them. One man improvised a new version of the battle-song, “Good-bye, good-bye to Tipperary,” ending with “And we shan’t get there.” And they all went on firing steadily. The officers pointed out that such an opportunity for high-class, fancy shooting might never occur again; the Germans dropped line after line; the Tipperary humorist asked, “What price Sidney Street?” And the few machine guns did their best. But everybody knew it was of no use. The dead grey bodies lay in companies and battalions, as others came on and on and on, and they swarmed and stirred and advanced from beyond and beyond.

“World without end. Amen,” said one of the British soldiers with some irrelevance as he took aim and fired. And then he remembered—he says he cannot think why or wherefore—a queer vegetarian restaurant in London where he had once or twice eaten eccentric dishes of cutlets made of lentils and nuts that pretended to be steak. On all the plates in this restaurant there was printed a figure of St. George in blue, with the motto, Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius—“May St. George be a present help to the English.” This soldier happened to know Latin and other useless things, and now, as he fired at his man in the grey advancing mass—300 yards away—he uttered the pious vegetarian motto. He went on firing to the end, and at last Bill on his right had to clout him cheerfully over the head to make him stop, pointing out as he did so that the King’s ammunition cost money and was not lightly to be wasted in drilling funny patterns into dead Germans.

Buy Ghost Stories to read the rest of “The Bowmen” (and all the other great selections contained therein).

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Tuesday Tune: “Town Underground” by Christy Hays

As anyone who has pranked around with interstate mileage signs will tell you, Butte, Montana is frequently the butt of jokes. Sometimes it deserves to have the “e” removed, and sometimes it doesn’t. When traveling on the interstate between Bozeman and Missoula, it’s easy to bypass this city, but those who pull off the nearest exit will find a place worth a linger...if only long enough to drive past the large mansions built by mining tycoons, eat a greasy pork chop sandwich, or stare into the emerald depths of a toxic lake. Once a glorious metropolis and now mired in depression, Butte can be a puzzle and a befuddlement and a reminder that things don’t always turn out the way we’d hoped.

Butte is a boomtown gone bust when the last of its copper mines ceased production decades ago. Now, a little more than 30,000 scrappy souls still stubbornly cling to the memories of its glory days, back when it was the largest city between Chicago and San Francisco around the turn of the 20th century. Though it’s fallen onto economic hard times and many of the once-grand buildings in its historic district are empty brick shells painted with pigeon droppings, there are some people here who refuse to let it die. They steadfastly paint rouge on the cheeks of the corpse every day. I don’t blame them, for I, too, want to believe Butte will someday rise from its coffin and dance an Irish jig in the streets again—maybe not in the same way it did back when Charlie Chaplin performed live matinees in the theaters uptown and Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis on a dirt runway south of town, but perhaps there’s a chance a re-animated Butte could boogie in the 21st century with renewed vigor.

I’ve lived here for eleven years—the longest my feet have ever been planted in one place—and I’m still trying to figure this city out. Psychologically and physically, it’s a mess of contradictions (and, yes, I’m braced for a wave of hate mail from those who can only see the rouge and not the dead cheek). I swing both ways on the love-hate scale nearly every day.

No one has captured the yin-yang of Butte in as compact and poetic a manner as singer-songwriter Christy Hays and that’s why I’m briefly reanimating Tuesday Tune (my own corpse of a blog feature) today in honor of her song “Town Underground.”

Hays is a newcomer who divides her time between Austin, Texas and Butte, where she purchased the family home of the late Edwin C. Dobb, a Butte native who went on to write for National Geographic and Harper’s Magazine before his untimely death this past summer. Hays is in the midst of turning the old miner’s cottage into an artist residency (visit her Instagram account here) and though I can’t speak authoritatively about the afterlife, I’m pretty sure Ed Dobb is smiling at the thought. For starters, his spirit hovers like mist over the lyrics of “Town Underground” (more on that in a minute).

Dobb’s tour de force of creative non-fiction was “Pennies From Hell,” a clear-eyed portrait of Butte published in Harper’s in 1996. Dobb opened that essay with the sad-but-true story of the snow geese that landed on the city’s toxic lake, the Berkeley Pit, which is full to the brim with deadly mining waste a half-dozen blocks north of my house:
Rust-colored, reeking of sulfur, and surrounded by corroded earthen terraces so sterile they appear incandescent in strong light, the 600-acre lake that rests within the man-made cavity known as the Berkeley Pit looks nothing like a refuge, though it must have seemed like one to the ill-starred flock of snow geese that stopped there while passing through southwestern Montana last November. It is uncertain how many birds eventually rose from that bitter pool and flew over the rooftops of Butte, the town that borders and embraces this former strip mine, continuing their winter migration from Arctic Canada to California, but at least 342 of them did not. That is the number of carcasses Pit monitors found drifting in the lake and washed ashore in the weeks following the flock’s stopover.
I have often stood (safely) on the rim of the Berkeley Pit and marveled at how it glows when the right slant of light falls on its terraced slopes. I can see why it was a magnet pulling the geese to its surface. It is gorgeous and it is gross. It was the source Butte’s economic life for decades, and it was the pool of death for hundreds of birds.

Christy Hays, channeling the spirit of Ed Dobb (as well as that of another “Ed from Butte,” poet Ed Lahey) bottles all of Butte’s ironies in her lyrics to “Town Underground” when she sings:

There’s a town that I found
It’s empty and proud,
It’s filthy, it’s grand, and it’s boring.

When I first heard her sing those words, I was driving down the snow-cluttered streets of Butte, past the pawn shops and the pot shops, tucked ass-to-elbow among the casinos and banks. An elk head peered over a pickup truck’s tailgate, tongue lolling as it winked at me with dead eyes. Just ahead, the orange terraces of the Berkeley Pit shone in all their terrible beauty.

Hays’ voice (which reminds me of Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin in their finest, gentlest moments) continued to pour through my speakers as she reached the chorus and I turned into my driveway:

Maybe I’m wrong to love it so much,
It’s bound to disappoint me like love does

All I can say in response is “Yes, yes, yes.”

I have only love, and no disappointment, when it comes to “Town Underground” (the rest of her 2018 album, River Swimmer, is just as great). Christy Hays has written a pitch-perfect love/hate/tolerate letter to this crazy mixed-up town and I will be pressing repeat on her song as often as I can for as long as I live here, still breathing and still above-ground.

Visit her website to learn more about her music.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The First Time I Found a Title For My Novel

What you’re seeing here is the very first photo of Fobbit when it lived on a thumb drive and was called Fobber.

I recently stumbled across this image on my computer and it was as unrecognizable to me as a grainy ultrasound photo is to parents after their child is finally born, weaned, and raised to be a walking, giggling toddler. For starters, that name, that work-in-progress title! How wrong-headed could I have been?

I imagine I wrote the term “Fobber” on a slip of a Post-It note and bound it in tape to the thumb drive even before I’d left Iraq in December 2005, back when the manuscript was still a messy jumble of words and when—then, as now—I struggled with the correct grammatical usage of “that” and “which.” In its infant years, Fobbit suffered from an identity crisis, starting with its title.

Some of you are perhaps wondering about the definition of either of those words. That’s okay; before I joined the Army in 1988, I couldn’t have told you the difference between a military colonel and Colonel Sanders. For the un-militarized, a Fobbit is someone in a war zone who rarely goes “outside the wire” into the “real war.” It’s a portmanteau that (or “which”?) marries Forward Operating Base (FOB) with J. R. R. Tolkien’s Hobbits who, as those who’ve read The Lord of the Rings know, were reluctant to leave the safety of their shire. In another time and another war, Fobbits were known as pogues or REMFs (whose full meaning rhymes with “rear echelon brother truckers”). I know all about the derogatory slang term because, between January and December of 2005, I was a Fobbit with the 3rd Infantry Division serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. As I wrote of my main character (a thinly-veiled version of yours truly) in the novel published by Grove/Atlantic in 2012,
As a Fobbit, Chance Gooding Jr. saw the war through a telescope, the bloody snarl of combat remained at a safe, sanitized distance from his air-conditioned cubicle. And yet, here he was on a FOB at the edge of Baghdad, geographically central to gunfire. To paraphrase the New Testament, he was in the war but he was not of the war.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back to that baby photo of the novel. The sight of it on my computer the other day prompted me to look up my errant use of the word “Fobber” in my journal and that sent me tumbling down a rabbit hole of memory. Here is the first time I ever typed the word in my diary:

February 6, 2005:  I read a newspaper story today featuring some Louisiana Guardsmen who were out on street patrols in Baghdad when their Bradley Fighting Vehicle was hit and two of their comrades died. In it, these hardcore infantrymen said they had nothing but scorn for the soldiers who never ventured outside the wire. They called them “Fobbers,” as in ones who never leave the FOB (Forward Operating Base). As far as I’m concerned, they can sneer in my direction and label me a Fobber all they want—if I have the opportunity to stay hunkered down inside the camp up there, I plan on staying there. I don’t need to see all the tourist sites of downtown Baghdad. I’d rather be a living Fobber than a dead hard-charger. Cowardly? No, just smart (and determined to return to my family in one piece). Hey...possible title for this book (if it ever makes it that far): Fobber: the Diary of a Soft Soldier.

Reading that now, I wither with mortification in much the same way I did when my mother trotted out the family photo album to show my fiancée nude photos of me taking a bath at four years old. I don’t know how I could have lived with myself if my first book had been called “The Diary of a Soft Soldier.”

I went back to my journal, flipped forward a half-dozen months and found the moment near the end of my deployment when I started to realize maybe I wasn’t using the correct term after all....

September 12, 2005:  I hear about some hardcore battalion commander with too much time and money on his hands who had a bunch of uniform patches made at his own expense. They looked just like Ranger tabs, but said “Fobbit.” He also had some that had “REMF” and “POAG” (another derogatory for us Fobbers).

But still, I persisted in using the incorrect term, even after I returned stateside and started taking my first toddler steps toward writing what would eventually become the correctly-termed Fobbit. Truth be told, if I had not been an actual Fobbit, if I had been an infantry soldier patrolling the streets, I would have probably been calling myself by the right name from the get-go. After all, it was an infantryman who first let the word “Fobbit” (and not “Fobber”) fall from his lips (I am guessing the reporter who wrote that story of the Louisiana National Guard soldiers misheard the word, tangled on the tongue in a Southern accent). I should have gone straight to the source of the river of slang.

March 7, 2006: Mark this day! I think I might have—maybe, possibly, perhaps—gotten a start on my novel today. Tentatively calling it Fobber and tentatively starting it out with this sentence: “They were Fobbers because, at the core, they were nothing but marshmallow.” More to follow…

Somehow, miraculously, that first sentence (with the exception of the wrong F-word) survived all the way to publication.

But still I called my characters Fobbers, even as the fire of writing the novel waxed and waned. I was now living in Maryland during my final year in the Army when I was assigned to the U.S. Army Public Affairs office in the Pentagon (the ultimate Fobbit job).

As I leafed through my journal the other day, my curiosity about the use of the word “Fobber” had become something deeper: now I was on a journey to rediscover the writer I had been, with all his aches and joys, when he was deep in the process of wrestling with words.

July 9, 2008:  Whatever belly-fire I had for Fobber has vanished. I had been doing so well up until about three weeks ago: rising every day at 4:30 a.m., going for a morning run, then coming in and sitting down to work on the novel, getting in a solid hour’s writing on the book before I have to take the train in to the Pentagon. Now, I still rise at 4:30, but I accomplish nothing. I meander across my desk like a nomad. I read e-mail, download music, putter with household chores. All the while, the words—still at that same stopping place—stare back at me from the laptop’s screen. The cursor blinks. I do not advance, I do not pile more words into the vast blank space—or, if I do, the sentences are limp, vague, and ultimately go nowhere. Even this, writing in the journal, is a means of distraction to keep me from my work.

I flipped ahead in my diary (of a soft soldier) to the year after I retired from the Army and was living in Montana and started a new career with the Bureau of Land Management (where I still work to this day). I clicked the search bar for the next instance of “Fobber.”

August 9, 2009:  My enthusiasm for Fobber started to go into a tailspin today. Engines screaming, smoke streaming past the cockpit, ground rushing up at me, I was only able to pull up out of it when I decided to look to the past for inspiration. For years, I’ve been making flirty eyes at Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead on my bookshelf, the white words on the black spine of the hardback calling to me, but have never had the time to start reading it. Today, I decided the day had come. I’m fifty pages into it and I know this is the right book for me to read right now. Mailer’s narrative moves like a camera across his big cast of characters—something which I’d been fretting about with Fobber. Mailer reassures me in his growly voice: You can do this. I tinkered a little more with what I’ve already written. I'm still not totally happy with it, but at least I’m sitting down at the keyboard and trying my best.

I drew inspiration from Norman Mailer as I pounded away at what I was now thinking was an Impossible Novel. Here is what I wrote in my journal one day while I was fretting over the tone and scope of Fobber/Fobbit. I remember worrying about whether I had the authority to write about war in all its gory glory when I’d spent my entire year bathed in air-conditioning and sipping lattes at my desk. Mailer reassured me I was on the right path:
When you talk about the difference between real experience and the experience you put into a book, you touch on perhaps the single most basic difficulty. For some young writers it’s very disturbing not to tell the story exactly the way it happened. For others it’s equally disturbing to tell it the way it happened. They want to exaggerate it. They want to make it larger. That could be good or bad. If you are truly an ambitious writer it’s not necessarily so bad to exaggerate, because that enables you to dare to take on themes larger than yourself.....I had a lot of experience in the war, but it was not as intense as the experience of the people who were the characters in my book [The Naked and the Dead]. Nonetheless, it was close enough so I could extrapolate a bit. I could exaggerate to a degree, because I had a sense of what the outer possibilities were, as you do when you get a little bit of combat. You get a very good idea of what a lot of combat might be like. Not necessarily a true idea, but a bigger idea. I came late to my outfit in the Philippines, and most of those guys went over for a couple of years already. They had been in other campaigns, so I picked up all the stories of battles that they had been in before I ever joined them. So you could say The Naked and the Dead was on the one hand realistic, and on the other hand it was an exaggeration of experiences I had.
I wrote in my journal: Someday, when I’m being criticized for not telling it like it was in Fobber, I’ll pull out this quote to remind myself that what I’ve done is okay.

This was no longer an investigation into why I’d mistitled my novel; it was an autopsy of my insecurities and all the fears and doubts I’d had while working on the book. Norman Mailer gave me permission to tell a war story in my own way, through my own lens of a stay-back, stay-safe soldier. I will forever be grateful to him for writing The Naked and the Dead which served as a brightly-lit lamppost on my path as I worked on the book from my home in Montana. I needed his words of encouragement because my writing days were a rollercoaster of peaks and valleys. Mostly, as my journal now reminded me, I seemed to live in the valleys.

August 31, 2009:  Fobber continues apace. I rise at 4:30 every morning, work out on the elliptical for 45 minutes, then sit down and write for anywhere between one and two hours. Some days, it’s writing; other days, it’s just typing. Today, I was distracted and the words had a hard time coming. Tomorrow will be better. Today’s total word count: 60,324.

October 14, 2009:  A piss-poor Fobber day. Got up at 4:20, as usual. Showered right away without working out, since I have to be to work early this morning. Got coffee, came downstairs and was immediately distracted by the Internet. Mindless surfing for far too long drained the batteries and so I only typed (wouldn’t even qualify it as “wrote”) 51 words today. Overall, the word count stands at 93,923.

October 25, 2009:  While I’m typing a particular funny scene in Fobber, I get a “Breaking News” e-mail from the Washington Post reporting on two suicide car bomb attacks in Baghdad: “At least 132 people were killed and 520 wounded…The blasts, which the Interior Ministry said were carried out by suicide bombers, detonated under a pale gray sky, shattering windows more than a mile away. Broken water mains sent water coursing through the street, strewn with debris. Pools of water mixed with blood gathered along the curbs, ashened detritus floating on the surface. Cars caught in traffic jams were turned into tombs, the bodies of passengers incinerated inside. The smell of diesel mixed with the stench of burning flesh. ‘Bodies were hurled into the air,’ said Mohammed Fadhil, a 19-year-old bystander. ‘I saw women and children cut in half.’ He looked down at a curb smeared with blood. ‘What’s the sin that those people committed? They are so innocent.’” There’s nothing particular funny about this kind of déjà vu. I squirm while writing similar scenes in Fobber. How can I make readers laugh about the U.S. in Baghdad while blasts are still cutting children in half? I can only hope my intent is in the right place.

January 23, 2010:  After nearly a month’s hiatus from Fobber, I was back at it again yesterday. I’m on the home stretch now and getting impatient, but still overwhelmed by all that needs to be done in the months and months of rewrites. After today’s three-hour session, the word count stands at 143,774. Pages: 479.

January 29, 2010:  Fobber word count: 153,230. Page count: 510. Yes, I’ve been writing like a motherfucker lately.

February 19, 2010:  I’ve hit a dry spell. Work on Fobber has stalled during the past two weeks. I’ve been distracting myself—mostly with the Internet—and have not been writing, which in turn has sent me into a spiraling depression. I know what I should be doing, but I don’t do it. I hem, I haw, I mope. Last night in bed, I said to Jean, “Tomorrow will be the day. I have to do it. To paraphrase that song in Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town: Put one word in front of the other and soon you’ll be walking across the page.” Today, I am determined.

And then, finally—after five years of typing the wrong word—I got it right. The novel received a new title and wore it like a tailored jacket. Here is the day when I typed “Fobber” in my journal for the last time:

March 27, 2010:  Today, a revelation—which must surely lead to a revolution. I have a daily Google News alert which sends me links to mentions of the word “Fobber” in news articles, webpages, and blogs. Today, one of the links led me to a blog where an infantry soldier, scorning the REMFs of today’s war, defined a “Fobber” as someone who moves from FOB to FOB—completely distinct from a “Fobbit” (a soldier who stays in the protection of the FOB, either willingly or unwillingly). Doing my own Google search, I discover that Fobbit is the common term for the people who populate my novel. Damn! I’m glad I caught that before it was too late. But now, I must rename everything and get my head trained in the right direction. Fobbit it is from now on. Of course, some agent or publisher will probably come up with a better title when the day arrives.

As some of you know by now, my bleeding-agony struggle eventually had a happy ending. Neither my agent nor my editor had any qualms about calling the book Fobbit (unlike the tug-of-war we went through over what to call my second novel, Brave Deeds. But that’s another story for another day...).

Now, the only thing that remains of “Fobber” is an old baby photo of a book that was still wondering what it wanted to be when it grew up. I look on it now and smile at that thumb drive with a mixture of pity and amusement.

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.