Sunday, December 29, 2019

My Year of Reading: Best #SundaySentence of 2019

How many sentences did I read in 2019? Hundreds of thousands, probably tipping over into the millions. Of all the great lines in all the great books I read this year, there is one sentence to which I’ve returned more than once: lingering over it, savoring it, tumbling it over and over in my mind like a river scurries along a stone until it is a polished pebble. It’s not high-falutin’ philosophy or even shot-through with poetic lightning; no, it’s just a simple sentence from Inland by Tea Obreht, but one that makes me smile every time my eyes rest upon it.

In the coming days, I’ll have more to say about Inland and the rest of my favorite books of 2019, but I thought I would kick off the My Year of Reading series with this micro-level moment that illustrates why it was so fun to have my nose buried in books for these past twelve months.

Two breads, left to rise overnight, had burst out of their pans like dancehall girls leaning over the rail.

Inland by Tea Obreht

Friday, December 27, 2019

Friday Freebie: The Story of a Goat by Perumal Murugan

Congratulations to Albert Bowes, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Creatures by Crissy Van Meter.

This week’s contest is for The Story of a Goat by Perumal Murugan. Here’s what Parul Seghal, writing in the New York Times, had to say about the book: “[A] parable about village life, written with breathtaking and deceptive simplicity....Murugan traces the entire life of his little goat―her despair, her small acts of heroism, her longing―with Chekhovian clarity. Each sentence in [N. Kalyan] Raman’s supple translation is modest, sculpted and clean, but behind each you sense a fund of deep wisdom about the vagaries of the rains, politics, behavior―human and animal.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

As the novel opens, a farmer in Tamil Nadu is watching the sun set over his village one quiet evening when a mysterious stranger, a giant man who seems more than human, appears on the horizon. He offers the farmer a black goat kid who is the runt of the litter, surely too frail to survive. The farmer and his wife take care of the young she-goat, whom they name Poonachi, and soon the little goat is bounding with joy and growing at a rate they think miraculous for such a small animal. Intoxicating passages from the goat’s perspective offer a bawdy and earthy view of what it means to be an animal and a refreshing portrayal of the natural world. But Poonachi’s life is not destined to be a rural idyll—dangers can lurk around every corner, and may sometimes come from surprising places, including a government that is supposed to protect the weak and needy. Is this little goat too humble a creature to survive such a hostile world? With allegorical resonance for contemporary society and examining hierarchies of caste and color, The Story of the Goat is a provocative but heartwarming fable from a world-class storyteller who is finally achieving recognition outside his home country.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Story of a Goat, 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 post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 9, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 10. 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, December 25, 2019

The Ghosts of Christmas Pets

As I continue to work on my new book, a memoir whose working title is Happily, I take short, braced-for-sentimentality trips back through the journal which I’ve kept since the first days of my marriage to Jean and continued while raising our two sons Deighton and Schuyler, and our daughter Kylie. This year, I found a few apt moments featuring some of our former family pets and thought I’d share the amusing scenes with the rest of you.

For starters, there’s Ember, the most loveable and loving member of our current tribe of three cats. Here he is in a candid shot from yesterday with this year’s “Christmas Tree.” Since we’ll soon to be moving out of this grand old 4,000-square-foot Craftsman house into an apartment about one-tenth the size, we didn’t bother to unpack the Christmas ornaments or find a tree to put in the nearly-bare living room.

The cats are disappointed. What?! No sap-sticky branches to climb? No cotton-and-plastic ornaments to swat off the hooks? How dare we?!

Sorry, bud. You’ll have to settle for this tinsel-and-cardboard cone which is meant to evoke some sort of nostalgia for a Christmas circa 1971, I guess. Hate to disappoint, but 2019 will be remembered as Spartan Yuletide.

In the meantime, remember these other pets from Christmases long, long ago? Yeah, neither do I...

December 24, 1992

’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a hamster. That’s because Jean killed it.

Let me back up. Earlier tonight, I went to a neighbor’s house. They were desperate to get rid of their hamsters because the mother had been caught eating her babies. “Yeah,” the (human) husband said, “I came downstairs one day and my stomach kinda turned. She was biting one of ’em in half.”

So, full of pity (and also a little revulsion), I brought one of the beige babies home, put it in a cage, then went upstairs while Jean went about preparing the new home, spreading wood chips and rigging up the water bottle. When I came downstairs a few minutes later, she was holding the hamster in a cupped palm, a look of horror on her face. The hamster looked like a dustball she’d just found under the sofa. “I killed it...” she said in a hoarse, broken voice. “It jumped out of my hand and went ker-splat on the floor.”

I put my arm around her. “It’s okay, hon. We’ll go back to the guy and get another one tonight.”

“I have such bad luck with pets. I always kill them off.” Jean was remembering the goldfish that flipped out of the Crayola crayon aquarium onto the carpet last summer.

We did get another hamster tonight. Again tan, but this one’s eyes are still sealed shut from its birth-blindness. We love him and pray he makes it through the night.

December 10, 1995

We bought two zebra finches for Schuyler for Christmas – a male and a female. They’re small, flighty (pardon the expression) birds, drab gray/dun brown in color. The male has a dark tan patch on his cheeks. Their beaks are like large noses–imagine a Jimmy Durante schnozzola on a little bird and you’ll get the idea. You can’t miss the finches’ beaks because they define the entire face!

Schuyler says he’s naming them David and Jean because “they look like they’re in love.”

Yeah, the awwww factor is pretty thick in the house tonight.

Laura, Jean’s friend who we bought the birds from, says they must be fed and watered daily and that we can’t turn a light on suddenly or they could die from the shock.

Elsewhere in the journal, I find a conversation I once had with a wildlife biologist: “A pine grosbeak carries the scent of a pine tree, so if you hold one in your hands, it will smell like Christmas.”

When no one is looking, I take a tiny sniff of David and Jean. They smell like dust and worry.

December 23, 2005

We’re late in setting up the Christmas tree this year. Normally, I get everyone in the Christmas spirit a week after Thanksgiving. This year, of course, I wasn’t there to be able to spread the holiday spirit. I had a good excuse: I was busy fighting the “bad guys” over in Iraq.

This was the Christmas I thought I might not live to see, given the severity of mortar attacks on any given day during my tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Baghdad. But all that was behind me now; I’d returned home to Georgia five days ago to a burst of banners and balloons from my welcoming family, and we were all starting to settle back into our normal household routines. Now, Christmas was upon us.

I drag the artificial tree out of the cobwebby crawl space in the garage and pull it up the stairs into the house. I set it up, then straighten the fake branches. Jean, Kylie and I start hanging ornaments on the branches, stopping every now and then to get misty-eyed about particular ornaments as they brought back memories.

“Hey, Mom, remember when we gave this to Schuyler? He was really into Scooby-Doo that year, wasn’t he?”

“I think we got this one during that trip to Glacier National Park, didn’t we?”

“Remember when I cross-stitched this little thing? I formed the year out of the curlicues of smoke coming from the chimney.”

Suddenly, Jean let out an ear-splitting scream. I mean, a real window-cracker that hung and hung in the air. Kylie and I nearly dropped our ornaments. “What is it, hon? What’s the matter?” I rushed over to her side.

“It’s a—it’s a—ohmigod! There! Right there!”

I look to where she’s pointing. It’s a brown lizard lying on the floor beneath the tree, panting from fright. Jean had picked him up, thinking his brown tail was part of an ornament leftover from last year. The lizard crawled across the back of her hand, whereupon she launched it into flight halfway across the room.

Eventually, I caught it and dumped it outside; the lizard slinking away through the grass, little realizing how he’d suddenly gotten a starring role in the Abrams Christmas Legends storybook.

The next morning, we’re watching the TV news and there’s a short clip about a family in Pennsylvania who brought a live tree into their living room, set it up and decorated the thick piney branches. That night, the daughter was doing homework when she noticed something moving near the top of the tree. It was an opossum, roused from his sleep deep inside the branches. Fish and Game had to come out and trap it.

“Well,” Jean said with some amount of disappointment in her voice. “The possum trumps my lizard, I guess.”

“Don’t worry,” I reassured her, “There will be other Christmases and other animals.”

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Sunday Sentence: The Complete Poems of e. e. cummings

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary. Note: This week, I’m bending my own rules and posting not one, but three sentences I loved from the poetry of e. e. cummings I read this week, from three different poems. Consider them my Christmas gift to you.

The moon-lit snow is falling like strange candy into the big eyes of the
little people with smiling bodies and wooden feet

hard thick feet full of toes

*     *     *

The little moon
pinks into insignificance:a grouch of sun gobbles the east

*     *     *

       Do you believe in always,the wind
said to the rain
I am too busy with
my flowers to believe,the rain answered

from The Complete Poems, 1904-1962 by e. e. cummings

Friday, December 20, 2019

Friday Freebie: Creatures by Crissy Van Meter

Congratulations to Susan Freeman, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: the Big Holiday giveaway. With eleven books on their way, Susan has some great reading ahead of her.

This week’s contest is for Creatures by Crissy Van Meter. Contrary to the oft-quoted Clement C. Moore holiday poem, this Creatures is indeed stirring. Here’s what Kristen Arnett, author of Mostly Dead Things, had to say about the novel: “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....It’s one of the best novels I’ve read this year.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

On the eve of Evangeline’s wedding, on the shore of Winter Island, a dead whale is trapped in the harbor, 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, the narrative flows back and forth through time as Evie 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 weed, Winter Wonderland. Although her father 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 flashes of anger, Creatures probes the complexities of love and abandonment, guilt and forgiveness, betrayal and grief—and the ways in which our childhoods can threaten our ability to love 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.

If you’d like a chance at winning Creatures, 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 post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 26, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 27. 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, December 15, 2019

Sunday Sentence: The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell

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

So we went out of that great drawing room, and into another sitting room, and out of that, and then up a great flight of stairs, and along a broad gallery—which was something like a library, having books all down one side, and windows and writing-tables all down the other—till we came to our rooms, which I was not sorry to hear were just over the kitchens; for I began to think I should be lost in that wilderness of a house.

The Old Nurse’s Story by Elizabeth Gaskell

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Writing Lessons From a Fellow Outlier: Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien

Of all the books I read in 2019 (105 and counting, as of this writing), perhaps the one that surprised me the most was Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O'Brien.

Don’t get me wrong: I wasn’t surprised by the quality of writing to be found in the pages of the man who gave us The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato; nor was I startled to find a memoir about fatherhood from the man who has so beautifully described the horrors of war because ten years ago I heard Tim read from an early draft of Dad’s Maybe Book (a sweetly hilarious scene involving his son peeing into a bathroom wastebasket); nor was I shocked to find this new memoir loaded with pathos and tenderness and sentimentality that occasionally walks up to the line of overdoing it, then spits in Treacle’s face, because any reader who makes it through The Things They Carried without weeping surely carries a stone in their chest in place of a heart.

No, what really struck me afresh in Dad’s Maybe Book was how Tim O’Brien reveals himself to be a first-class writing instructor, one at whose elbow I would gladly sit with pen and notebook at the ready. I nearly wore out the highlighting feature on my Kindle marking all the paragraphs dedicated to writing advice and then jotting them down in my ongoing Commonplace Book.

At first, this new book feels like a bit of a departure for the man who wrote, in The Things They Carried, of a soldier who ties a puppy to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezes the firing device. There are some of those gruesome echoes of war here, yes, but O’Brien leaves most of the grim stuff off the page and concentrates on the messages of love he wants to leave his two sons. Tim came to fatherhood late in life: he was 56 in 2003 when his first son, Timmy, was born; his second son, Tad, came two years later. And so, facing the ticking clock of mortality, he set out to write a book not for us but for his sons. Maybe it will be a book, maybe it won’t, he muses. His wife Meredith assures him, “You don’t have to commit to an actual book. Just a maybe book.”

And here’s our first lesson: write a book for your readers, not for publishing glory (or vainglory, as is often the case). Even if it’s just two readersa little boy named Timmy and his brother Tadspeak directly to them from the page, not the faceless thousands who might grab your book from a display at a Hudson Booksellers in an airport terminal between flights. Write for your Tad, your Timmy, or perhaps your dead mother who needs to hear what you could never say while she was alive.

That’s Lesson Number One, class. Are you paying attention?

Here are many more nuggets of wisdom gleaned from Dad’s Maybe Book, randomly plucked from my Commonplace Book which I am sharing with you [insert your name here], my dear friend.

I write so slowly—how can I tell my kids all I want to tell them? Each of the scraps of paper on my desk seems to whisper, “Tell me, put me in, don’t forget me,” and yet this is only a maybe book, and I am only a maybe-writer, just as every writer was once a maybe-writer and just as every book was once a maybe book.

All of us, writers more than most, are left with the cruel and taunting illusion of memory. What we call memory is failed memory. What we call memory is forgetfulness. And if memory has failed—failed so colossally, failed so apocalyptically—how can we pretend to tell the truth? Is one small fraction of the truth the truth? Memory speaks, yes. But it stutters. It speaks in ellipses.

We lose our lives as we live them. Memory is a problem. Even more of a problem, much more, is that I am also at the mercy of my abilities as a writer, and at the mercy of recalcitrant, never-quite-right nouns and verbs. I am at the mercy of the bullying word “nonfiction,” which prohibits make-believe. I am at the mercy of my endurance, and at the mercy of the demagogic rhythm of a sentence, and at the mercy of a spectacular image just off the tip of my imagination.

Among the strange and bitter ironies that have visited me over these seven decades is the certainty that I will be remembered, if I am remembered at all, as a war writer, despite my hatred for war, despite my ineptitude at war, despite my abiding shame at having participated in war, and despite the fact that I am in no way a spokesman or a “voice” for the 2.6 million American military personnel who served in Vietnam from August 1964 to May 1975. In the eyes of many Vietnam veterans—probably a majority—I’m an outlier. I don’t fit in and never did. As far as I can tell, the bulk of those who fought in Vietnam are proud of their service. I am not. They generally believe their cause was just. I do not. Many profess nostalgia about their days in uniform. I do not. Many would do it all again. I would not.

To read as a writer is to read not only with attention to artistry. It is also to read with jealousy, with ambition, with disputation, with rivalry, with fellowship, with fear, with hostility, with celebration, with humility, with proprietorial vigilance, with embarrassment, with longing, with despair, with anger, with defensiveness, with pity, and with a wolf’s steady contemplation of its next meal.

The essential object of fiction is not to explain. Explanation narrows. Explanation fixes. Explanation dissolves mystery. Explanation imposes artificial, arrogant order on human contradictions between fact and fact. The essential object of fiction is to embrace and widen and deepen all that is unknown and unknowable—who we are, why we are—and to offer us late-night company as we lie awake pondering our universal journey down the birth canal, and out into the light, and then toward the grave. In a story, explanation is like joining a magician backstage. The mysterious becomes mechanical. The miracle becomes banal. Delight vanishes. Wonder vanishes. What was once surprising, even beautiful, devolves into tired causality. One might as well be washing dishes.

Bad and mediocre stories explain too much: how the wicked witch became so completely and irreparably wicked—abused as a child, no doubt. Bad and mediocre stories tidy up the world, sorting out the human messes of serendipity and tangled motive. Who among us truly understands the plot of his own life? Do you, Tad? Do you, Timmy? Do you truly understand your own swirling, half-formed, and contradictory motives? Who recalls more than a tiny fraction of his own life—last Tuesday, for example? And if we cannot recall our lives, how can we pretend to explain our lives? It is guesswork. Scantily informed guesswork at that.

To trust a story is to trust one’s own story, not someone else’s. To trust a story is to avoid the predictable, the familiar, the wholly logical, the already written, the movie you saw last week, the bestseller you read last month, and even that classic you nearly finished back in college. To trust a story is to trust your own imagination, not the imagination of some literary predecessor.

Do not impose symbols on your work. Let symbols grow in and from your work. If you write a sentence that contains a symbol merely to insert symbolism, hit the delete key and dip your computer in Clorox.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Gomer Pyle, Colonel Hogan, and Other Clowns of War

I have a new essay in an anthology, Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War, out today from the good folks at the Military Writers Guild. I’m honored to share these pages with the likes of authors Phil Klay, Thomas E. Ricks, Carmen Gentile, Hugh Martin, Kate Germano and many others. Here’s how my essay, “War is (Funny as) Hell,” begins:

There’s nothing funny about war.

Or is there?

Out of the horrible realities of the battlefield—the losses of limb and life, the trauma of watching a friend’s life bleed away, the permanent wreckage of the soul—out of all that, is it possible to dredge up a laugh, or even a wry smile?

I think so. And what’s more, I think we need to laugh at war. Soldiers do it all the time. They laugh during combat as a way to keep themselves and their sanity alive. Dirty jokes, insults, and sarcastic comments abound in the foxhole. To those who’ve never lain prone in a fighting position, or felt the hot burn of a bullet in the air around their heads, it might seem outrageous, asinine, or insensitive. For the ones whose boots are dug into the mud, however, laughter is essential.

I grew up mocking the military. It was a case of laughing at the Army, rather than with it. For the first eight years of my life, I lived in two small cities in Pennsylvania. In 4th grade, I moved to an even smaller town in Wyoming. Any military bases were miles away—sometimes, entire states. I don’t recall ever seeing an actual person in uniform.

In truth, however, I saw them every day. They lived in black-and-white worlds, marched down grey streets, and sometimes their crispy-creased khakis were fuzzy around the edges. I’m talking, of course, about the television shows I drank down like milk back in the 1960s. In particular, I Dream of Jeannie and Gomer Pyle. These were my first role models: the wound-tight astronaut and U.S. Air Force Capt. Roger Nelson, played by Larry Hagman, who finds a genie in a bottle, and later tries to hide his wish-granting girlfriend from his superiors back at headquarters. There was also Pvt. Pyle, played by Jim Nabors, a sweet-natured and naive gas station attendant from The Andy Griffith Show’s town of Mayberry, who joins the U.S. Marines. There, he meets his nemesis, the slow-burn, veins-popping Gunnery Sgt. Vince Carter, played by Frank Sutton, who is also a member of the Wound-Tight Club.

I can still see myself sitting cross-legged in my Batman flannel pajamas on the floor in front of our family television, a floor-model Zenith ornately clad in thick oak that must have weighed as much as our family sedan. I’d sit there watching slack-jawed country bumpkin Gomer frustrate the hell out of Sgt. Carter with his slow-as-syrup drawl, “Well, golll-ly, Sarge,” and I’d laugh and laugh and laugh. Those military leaders had a stick up their asses, and it was fun watching Gomer twist the stick with his bumbling innocence.

Those shows later included M*A*S*H and Hogan’s Heroes, set in a World War II prisoner-of-war camp—a sitcom that never should have worked, but somehow did. You may think Cold War-era television was inordinately polite and patriotic, but with programs like Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. and Hogan’s Heroes, it was also subversive. I didn’t realize it at the time, but these shows set the stage for the way I always root for the underdog. The little guys (the privates) always got their way while the higher ranks (the officers) came off looking like fools.

When I joined the Army in 1988, I had no inkling of what military life would be like. None of my family members had ever served; my father, uncle, and grandfather—Baptist ministers, all of them—had deferments. I never played with G.I. Joe toys, I didn’t read books about war heroes, and I couldn’t even have told you the difference between Colonel Sanders and a colonel in the Army. When I entered basic training, I hoped I could pass myself off as a sweet-souled Gomer, and prayed my Sgt. Carter wouldn’t be too rough on me.

The rest of my ramblings can be found in Why We Write, available now at Amazon. For those (like me) who would prefer to purchase the book from an independent bookstore, you can do so by calling Beaverdale Books in Des Moines, Iowa (they take orders by phone only: 515-279-5400). Shipping & Handling should be around $4. I’ve been assured that Why We Write will be available at other independent bookstores in January. I’ll post an update here when that happens.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Say Uncle by Becky Mandelbaum

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

I once lifted a picnic table over my head to cheer up a woman who was so sad she sometimes ate nothing but cabbage and Tic Tacs for days at a time.

Cry Uncle by Becky Mandelbaum

Friday, December 6, 2019

Friday Freebie: Big Holiday Giveaway

Congratulations to Carl Scott, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Current by Tim Johnston.

This week, I’ve donned a Santa Claus suit and put together a big, multi-book giveaway, just in time for the holidays. I have a stack of eleven books up for grabs. One lucky reader will win them all. Will it be you? Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey: It’s 1491. In the small village of Oakham, its wealthiest and most industrious resident, Tom Newman, is swept away by the river during the early hours of Shrove Saturday. Was it murder, suicide, or an accident? Narrated from the perspective of local priest John Reve—patient shepherd to his wayward flock—a shadowy portrait of the community comes to light through its residents’ tortured revelations. As some of their darkest secrets are revealed, the intrigue of the unexplained death ripples through the congregation. But will Reve, a man with secrets of his own, discover what happened to Newman? And what will happen if he can’t?

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott: A Vintage Classics edition of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved and influential story of the March sisters, which is once again a major motion picture. First published in 1868, and based on Louisa May Alcott’s own unusual family, the novel brought to life some of American literature’s most spirited female characters—and this edition has a fresh new cover to match the vibrancy of these heroines. Little Women has long been one of the most enduringly beloved classics of children’s literature, as popular with adults as it is with young readers. Generations have been entranced by the adventures of the four March sisters, each with their distinct and realistic virtues and flaws: tomboyish, ambitious Jo; frail and sweet Beth; beautiful, confident Meg; and artistic, willful Amy. With their patient mother, Marmee, they survive the hardships of the Civil War and the dramas and tragedies of family life.

Sugar Run by Mesha Maren: In 1989, Jodi McCarty is seventeen years old when she’s sentenced to life in prison. When she’s released eighteen years later, she finds herself at a Greyhound bus stop, reeling from the shock of unexpected freedom but determined to chart a better course for herself. Not yet able to return to her lost home in the Appalachian Mountains, she heads south in search of someone she left behind, as a way of finally making amends. There, she meets and falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother living in a motel room with her children. Together they head toward what they hope will be a fresh start. But what do you do with your past—and with a town and a family that refuses to forget, or to change?

Space Invaders by Nona Fernandez: Space Invaders is the story of a group of childhood friends who, in adulthood, are preoccupied by uneasy memories and visions of their classmate Estrella González Jepsen. In their dreams, they catch glimpses of Estrella’s braids, hear echoes of her voice, and read old letters that eventually, mysteriously, stopped arriving. They recall regimented school assemblies, nationalistic class performances, and a trip to the beach. Soon it becomes clear that Estrella’s father was a ranking government officer implicated in the violent crimes of the Pinochet regime, and the question of what became of her after she left school haunts her erstwhile friends. Growing up, these friends―from her pen pal, Maldonado, to her crush, Riquelme―were old enough to sense the danger and tension that surrounded them, but were powerless in the face of it. They could control only the stories they told one another and the “ghostly green bullets” they fired in the video game they played obsessively.

The Other End of the Line by Andrea Camilleri: A wave of refugees has arrived on the Sicilian coast, and Inspector Montalbano and his team have been stationed at port, alongside countless volunteers, to receive and assist the newcomers. Meanwhile, Livia has promised their presence at a friend’s wedding, and the inspector, agreeing to get a new suit tailored, meets the charming master seamstress Elena Biasini. But while on duty at the dock one late night, tragedy strikes, and a woman is found gruesomely murdered. Between managing the growing crowds at the landing, Montalbano delves into the world of garments, in the company of an orphaned cat, where he works to weave together the loose threads of the unsolved crimes and close the case.

The Edge of America by Jon Sealy: Bobby West is on the edge. As chief financial officer for a Miami holding company and a CIA front, he has overleveraged his business in the go-go 1980s financial culture. He turns to a deal-with-the-devil money laundering operation with a local gangster, Alexander French--a deal which quickly goes south when $3 million goes missing. Now Mr. French, a group of Cuban exiles, and an Israeli smuggler named Adriana Chekhov are all after Bobby West to pay up. With echoes of Iran-Contra and the Orwellian surveillance state, The Edge of America is a stunning thriller about greed, power, and the limits of the American dream.

Birthright (Poems) by Erika Dreifus: The poems in Birthright embody multiple legacies: genetic, historical, religious, and literary. Through the lens of one person’s experience of inheritance, the poems suggest ways in which all of us may be influenced by how we perceive and process our lives and times. Here, a poet claims what is hers as a child of her particular parents; as a grandchild of refugees from Nazi Germany; as a Jew, a woman, a Gen Xer, and a New Yorker; as a reader of the Bible and Shakespeare and Flaubert and Lucille Clifton. This poet’s birthright is as unique as her DNA. But it resonates far beyond herself.

Virginia Woolf by Gillian Gill: How did Adeline Virginia Stephen become the great writer Virginia Woolf? Acclaimed biographer Gillian Gill tells the stories of the women whose legacies—of strength, style, and creativity—shaped Woolf’s path to the radical writing that inspires so many today. Gill casts back to Woolf’s French-Anglo-Indian maternal great-grandmother Thérèse de L’Etang, an outsider to English culture whose beauty passed powerfully down the female line; and to Woolf’s aunt Anne Thackeray Ritchie, who gave Woolf her first vision of a successful female writer. Yet it was the women in her own family circle who had the most complex and lasting effect on Woolf. Her mother, Julia, and sisters Stella, Laura, and Vanessa were all, like Woolf herself, but in markedly different ways, warped by the male-dominated household they lived in. Finally, Gill shifts the lens onto the famous Bloomsbury group. This, Gill convinces, is where Woolf called upon the legacy of the women who shaped her to transform a group of men--united in their love for one another and their disregard for women--into a society in which Woolf ultimately found her freedom and her voice.

Mighty Justice: My Life in Civil Rights by Dorothy Johnson Roundtree and Katie McCabe: In Mighty Justice, trailblazing African American civil rights attorney Dovey Johnson Roundtree recounts her inspiring life story that speaks movingly and urgently to our racially troubled times. From the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina, to the segregated courtrooms of the nation’s capital; from the male stronghold of the army where she broke gender and color barriers to the pulpits of churches where women had waited for years for the right to minister—in all these places, Roundtree sought justice. At a time when African American attorneys had to leave the courthouses to use the bathroom, Roundtree took on Washington’s white legal establishment and prevailed, winning a 1955 landmark bus desegregation case that would help to dismantle the practice of “separate but equal” and shatter Jim Crow laws. Later, she led the vanguard of women ordained to the ministry in the AME Church in 1961, merging her law practice with her ministry to fight for families and children being destroyed by urban violence. Dovey Roundtree passed away in 2018 at the age of 104. Though her achievements were significant and influential, she remains largely unknown to the American public. Mighty Justice corrects the historical record.

This Particular Happiness by Jackie Shannon Hollis: Knowing where your scars come from doesn’t make them go away. When Jackie Shannon Hollis marries Bill, a man who does not want children, she joyfully commits to a childless life. But soon after the wedding, she returns to the family ranch in rural Oregon and holds her newborn niece. Jackie falls deep into baby love and longing and begins to question her decision. As she navigates the overlapping roles of wife, daughter, aunt, sister, survivor, counselor, and friend, she explores what it really means to choose a different path. This Particular Happiness delves into the messy and beautiful territory of what we keep and what we abandon to make the space for love.

What is Missing by Michael Frank: Costanza Ansaldo, a half-Italian and half-American translator, is convinced that she has made peace with her childlessness. A year after the death of her husband, an eminent writer, she returns to the pensione in Florence where she spent many happy times in her youth, and there she meets, first, Andrew Weissman, an acutely sensitive seventeen-year-old, and, soon afterward, his father, Henry Weissman, a charismatic New York physician who specializes in—as it happens—reproductive medicine. With three lives each marked by heartbreak and absence—of a child, a parent, a partner, or a clear sense of identity—What is Missing offers Costanza, Andrew, and Henry the opportunity to make themselves whole when the triangle resumes three months later in New York, where the relationships among them turn and tighten with combustive effects that cut to the core of what it means to be a father, a son, and—for Costanza—a potential mother.

If you’d like a chance at winning ALL THE BOOKS, 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. 19, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 20. 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, December 5, 2019

Front Porch Books: December 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.

Cargill Falls
by William Lychack
(Braddock Avenue Books)

Jacket Copy:  There is good reason why William Lychack’s writing has been called “Precise, exhilarating, sometimes wonderfully funny and always beautiful” (Margot Livesey). In prose you can practically feel moving in your hands, Cargill Falls takes you through a series of unforgettable scenes that coalesce into an extended meditation on the meanings we give—or fail to give—certain moments in our lives. The story begins when an adult William Lychack, hearing of the suicide of a childhood friend, sets out to make peace with a single, long-departed winter’s day when the two boys find a gun in the woods. Taking place over the course of just a few hours, this simple existential fact gathers totemic force as it travels backwards and forwards in time through Lychack’s consciousness and opens onto the unfinished business in the lives of the boys, their friends, parents, teachers, and even the family dog. Cargill Falls is a moving conversation with the past that transports us into the mysteries of love and longing and, finally, life itself. Brimming with generosity and wisdom, this is a novel that reveals a writer at the top of his form.

Opening Lines:  We once found a gun in the woods—true story—me and Brownie, two of us walking home from school one day, twelve years old, and there on the ground in the leaves was a pistol. Almost didn’t even notice. Almost passed completely by. Had to be the last thing we expected, gun all black and dull at our feet, Brownie almost kicking it aside like an empty bottle or little-kid toy.
       But then we saw what it was for real and got those shit-eating grins on our faces. We looked back to make sure no one else was coming. Nothing but skinny trees and muddy trail in either direction. Not even a bird chirping that we could hear. We held our breath to listen, everything so quiet we were afraid to move, whole world teetering as if balanced on a point.

Blurbworthiness:  “Cargill Falls is an immediate classic. At once essential and profound and hugely entertaining, the story of the two boys at the heart of this book, and the men they become, follows in the tradition of great coming of age stories like Stand by Me, and then twists and reinvents and does the tradition better, upending all that we know and expect. It’s rare to come across books like this. A writer hopes that once in his or her life he or she can write something so honest.”  (Charles Bock, author of Beautiful Children )

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’m a mega-fan of Lychack’s short story collection The Architect of Flowers, so this new short novel was an automatic add to the top of the To-Be-Read (TBR) stack that towers both physically (dead-tree books) and virtually (e-books) in my life. Any new Lychack book will roughly elbow other books aside, without apology. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a ride to catch to Cargill Falls where I’ll be following two young boys into the woods on a particular winter’s day.

Shakespeare for Squirrels
by Christopher Moore
(William Morrow)

Jacket Copy:  Shakespeare meets Dashiell Hammett in this wildly entertaining murder mystery from Christopher Moore—an uproarious, hardboiled take on the Bard’s most performed play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, featuring Pocket, the hero of Fool and The Serpent of Venice, along with his sidekick, Drool, and pet monkey, Jeff. Set adrift by his pirate crew, Pocket of Dog Snogging washes up on the sun-bleached shores of Greece, where he hopes to dazzle the Duke with his comedic brilliance and become his trusted fool. But the island is in turmoil. Egeus, the Duke’s minister, is furious that his daughter Hermia is determined to marry Demetrius, instead of Lysander, the man he has chosen for her. The Duke decrees that if, by the time of the wedding, Hermia still refuses to marry Lysander, she shall be executed . . .or consigned to a nunnery. Pocket, being Pocket, cannot help but point out that this decree is complete bollocks, and that the Duke is an egregious weasel for having even suggested it. Irritated by the fool’s impudence, the Duke orders his death. With the Duke’s guards in pursuit, Pocket makes a daring escape. He soon stumbles into the wooded realm of the fairy king Oberon, who, as luck would have it, is short a fool. His jester Robin Goodfellow—the mischievous sprite better known as Puck—was found dead. Murdered. Oberon makes Pocket an offer he can’t refuse: he will make Pocket his fool and have his death sentence lifted if Pocket finds out who killed Robin Goodfellow. But as anyone who is even vaguely aware of the Bard’s most performed play ever will know, nearly every character has a motive for wanting the mischievous sprite dead. With too many suspects and too little time, Pocket must work his own kind of magic to find the truth, save his neck, and ensure that all ends well. A rollicking tale of love, magic, madness, and murder, Shakespeare for Squirrels is a Midsummer Night’s noir—a wicked and brilliantly funny good time conjured by the singular imagination of Christopher Moore.

Opening Lines: We’d been adrift for eight days when the ninny tried to eat the monkey.

Why It’s In My Stack: I’m a fool for Shakespeare, I dig hardboiled crime fiction, and I need to laugh. I’m gonna tell the rest of the world to Puck off while I burrow into Christopher Moore’s latest pulpy production.

The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals
by Becky Mandelbaum
(Simon and Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals is in trouble. It’s late 2016 when Ariel discovers that her mother Mona’s animal sanctuary in Western Kansas has not only been the target of anti-Semitic hate crimes—but that it’s also for sale, due to hidden financial ruin. Ariel, living a new life in progressive Lawrence, and estranged from her mother for six long years, knows she has to return to her childhood home—especially since her own past may have played a role in the attack on the sanctuary. Ariel expects tension, maybe even fury, but she doesn’t anticipate that her first love, a ranch hand named Gideon, will still be working at the Bright Side. Back in Lawrence, Ariel’s charming but hapless fiancé, Dex, grows paranoid about her sudden departure. After uncovering Mona’s address, he sets out to confront Ariel, but instead finds her grappling with the life she’s abandoned. Amid the reparations with her mother, it’s clear that Ariel is questioning the meaning of her life in Lawrence, and whether she belongs with Dex or with someone else, somewhere else. Acclaimed writer Pam Houston says that “Mandelbaum is wise beyond her years and twice as talented,” and The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals poignantly explores the unique love and tension between mothers and daughters, and humans and animals alike. Perceptive and funny, moving and eloquent, and ultimately buoyant, Mandelbaum offers a panoramic view of family and forgiveness, and of the meaning of home. Her debut reminds us that love provides refuge, and underscores our similarities as human beings, no matter how alone or far apart we may feel.

Opening Lines:  It was midnight in Kansas, and the bigots were awake.

Why It’s In My Stack:  That first sentence!

In Our Midst
by Nancy Jensen
(Dzanc Books)

Jacket Copy:  Drawing upon a long-suppressed episode in American history, when thousands of German immigrants were rounded up and interned following the attack on Pearl Harbor, In Our Midst tells the story of one family’s fight to cling to the ideals of freedom and opportunity that brought them to America. Nina and Otto Aust, along with their teenage sons, feel the foundation of their American lives crumbling when, in the middle of the annual St. Nikolas Day celebration in the Aust Family Restaurant, their most loyal customers, one after another, turn their faces away and leave without a word. The next morning, two FBI agents seize Nina by order of the president, and the restaurant is ransacked in a search for evidence of German collusion. Ripped from their sons and from each other, Nina and Otto are forced to weigh increasingly bitter choices to stay together and stay alive. Recalling a forgotten chapter in history, In Our Midst illuminates a nation gripped by suspicion, fear, and hatred strong enough to threaten all bonds of love―for friends, family, community, and country.

Opening Lines:  Nina’s favorite moment was the hush, just before she pushed through the swinging door from the kitchen into the dining room of the restaurant, holding out her best Dresden platter, filled to its gold-laced edges with thin slices of fruitpocked Christollen, chocolate Lebkuchen, and hand-pressed Springerle in a dozen designs, fragrant with aniseed. Following close behind would be her husband Otto, bearing the large serving bowl brimming with Pfeffernusse, crisp and brown―each spicy nugget no larger than a hazelnut―ready to dip them up with a silver ladle and pour them into their guests’ cupped and eager hands. Next would come the boys, Kurt first, with two silver pitchers―one of hot strong coffee, the other of tea―and then Gerhard, carrying the porcelain chocolate pot, still the purest white and so abloom with flowers in pink, yellow, and blue that it seemed ever a promise of spring. Nina’s mother had passed it on to her in 1925, a farewell gift when she, Otto, and the boys―Kurt a wide-eyed three and Gerhard just learning to walk―had left Koblenz for the Port of Hamburg, bound for America.

Why It’s In My Stack:  I am drawn by the rich description of that hot meal coming through the swinging door into the restaurant―my mouth waters at the very words―which is such a pleasant scene...and one about to be destroyed by prejudice and hate.

Butch Cassidy
by Charles Leerhsen
(Simon and Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  For more than a century the life and death of Butch Cassidy have been the subject of legend, spawning a small industry of mythmakers and a major Hollywood film. But who was Butch Cassidy, really? Charles Leerhsen, bestselling author of Ty Cobb, sorts out facts from folklore and paints a brilliant portrait of the celebrated outlaw of the American West. Born into a Mormon family in Utah, Robert Leroy Parker grew up dirt poor and soon discovered that stealing horses and cattle was a fact of life in a world where small ranchers were being squeezed by banks, railroads, and cattle barons. Sometimes you got caught, sometimes you got lucky. A charismatic and more than capable cowboy—even ranch owners who knew he was a rustler said they would hire him again—he adopted the alias “Butch Cassidy,” and moved on to a new moneymaking endeavor: bank robbery. By all accounts, Butch was a smart and considerate thief, refusing to take anything from customers and insisting that no one be injured during his heists. His “Wild Bunch” gang specialized in clever getaways, stationing horses at various points along their escape route so they could outrun any posse. Eventually Butch and his gang graduated to train robberies, which were more lucrative. But the railroad owners hired the Pinkerton Agency, whose detectives pursued Butch and his gang relentlessly, until he and his then partner Harry Longabaugh (The Sundance Kid) fled to South America, where they replicated the cycle of ranching, rustling, and robbery until they met their end in Bolivia. In Butch Cassidy, Charles Leerhsen shares his fascination with how criminals such as Butch deftly maneuvered between honest work and thievery, battling the corporate interests that were exploiting the settlers, and showing us in vibrant prose the Old West as it really was, in all its promise and heartbreak.

Opening Lines:  Start at the end, they say.
       The last member of Butch Cassidy’s gang, the Wild Bunch, went into the ground in December 1961. Which means that someone who held the horses during an old-school Western train robbery, or had been otherwise involved with the kind of men who crouched behind boulders with six-guns in their hands and bandanas tied around their sunburnt faces, might have voted for John F. Kennedy (or Richard Nixon), seen the movie West Side Story or heard Del Shannon sing run-run-run-run-runaway—that is, if she hadn’t been rendered deaf years earlier during the blasting open of a Union Pacific express car safe. Her outlaw buddies were always a little heavy-handed with the dynamite.
       Yes—she. The Wild Bunch, which some writers have called the biggest and most structurally complex criminal organization of the late nineteenth century, came down, in the end, to one little old lady sitting in a small, dark apartment in Memphis. Laura Bullion died in obscurity eight years before the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, revitalized the almost-forgotten semilegend in which she had played a minor but authentic part.

Why It’s In My Stack: Like many of you, my depth of knowledge about Butch Cassidy is only as thick as a daguerrotype photo print and about as long as a two-hour movie. Leerhsen’s biography of the outlaw looks like a vibrant and entertaining way to go deeper.

The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon
by Jane Kenyon
(Graywolf Press)

Jacket Copy:  Published twenty-five years after her untimely death, The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon presents the essential work of one of America’s most cherished poets―celebrated for her tenacity, spirit, and grace. In their inquisitive explorations and direct language, Jane Kenyon’s poems disclose a quiet certainty in the natural world and a lifelong dialogue with her faith and her questioning of it. As a crucial aspect of these beloved poems of companionship, she confronts her struggle with severe depression on its own stark terms. Selected by Kenyon’s husband, Donald Hall, just before his death in 2018, The Best Poems of Jane Kenyon collects work from across a life and career that will be, as she writes in one poem, “simply lasting.”

Opening Lines: (“From Room to Room”)
       Here in this house, among photographs
       of your ancestors, their hymnbooks and old

       I move from room to room,
       a little dazed, like the fly. I watch it
       bump against each window.

       I am clumsy here, thrusting
       slabs of maple into the stove.

Blurbworthiness:  “The poems of Jane Kenyon are lodestars. I can think of no better way to navigate life than to keep her work close, as I have always done. It’s thrilling to now have this great parting gift from Donald Hall―his loving, intimate, discerning selection of the best of her poems.”  (Dani Shapiro, author of Inheritance)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Otherwise, Kenyon’s collection of “new and selected poems,” which was published shortly after her death in 1995, remains one of my absolute favorite collections by a poet, contemporary or otherwise. Like Dani Shapiro, I keep Kenyon and her lodestar words close to me and within easy reach. I don’t know how many of the “greatest hits” collected here will be new to me, but a return trip to her work is overdue.

The Splendid and the Vile
by Erik Larson

Jacket Copy:  On Winston Churchill’s first day as prime minister, Adolf Hitler invaded Holland and Belgium. Poland and Czechoslovakia had already fallen, and the Dunkirk evacuation was just two weeks away. For the next twelve months, Hitler would wage a relentless bombing campaign, killing 45,000 Britons. It was up to Churchill to hold his country together and persuade President Franklin Roosevelt that Britain was a worthy ally—and willing to fight to the end. In The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson (author of The Devil in the White City) shows, in cinematic detail, how Churchill taught the British people “the art of being fearless.” It is a story of political brinkmanship, but it’s also an intimate domestic drama, set against the backdrop of Churchill’s prime-ministerial country home, Chequers; his wartime retreat, Ditchley, where he and his entourage go when the moon is brightest and the bombing threat is highest; and of course 10 Downing Street in London. Drawing on diaries, original archival documents, and once-secret intelligence reports—some released only recently—Larson provides a new lens on London’s darkest year through the day-to-day experience of Churchill and his family: his wife, Clementine; their youngest daughter, Mary, who chafes against her parents’ wartime protectiveness; their son, Randolph, and his beautiful, unhappy wife, Pamela; Pamela’s illicit lover, a dashing American emissary; and the advisers in Churchill’s “Secret Circle,” to whom he turns in the hardest moments. The Splendid and the Vile takes readers out of today’s political dysfunction and back to a time of true leadership, when, in the face of unrelenting horror, Churchill’s eloquence, courage, and perseverance bound a country, and a family, together.

Opening Lines:  No one had any doubt that the bombers would come. Defense planning began well before the war, though the planner had no specific threat in mind. Europe was Europe. If past experience was any sort of guide, a war could break out anywhere, anytime.

Why It’s In My Stack:  Though I’ve yet to read any of Larson’s books (they’re all in my TBR pile!), his treatment of the Blitz looks like a good place to start. Bombs away and here we go!

Dressed All Wrong For This
by Francine Witte
(Blue Light Press)

Jacket Copy:  Robert Olen Butler, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, had this to say about the new collection of flash fiction by Francine Witte: “Dressed All Wrong For This is a splendid demonstration of the depth and range of the short-short story, an art form whose relevance and influence are rapidly growing in this digital age of compressed communication. Francine Witte brilliantly illuminates nuanced truths of the human condition in this collection, truths that could be expressed in no other way.”

Opening Lines:  She became like a fish out of it. Dizzy. Always dizzy. And dry.
       She would ready her arms for floating. Let them stretch out long and perpendicular. But nothing. Always nothing.
       She thought of how she got here. Days and days of scorching sunlight. And other obvious signs. In fancy restaurants, when conversation turned to global warming, for instance, she said she would rather talk about film.
          (From the opening story “When There Was No More Water”)

Blurbworthiness:  “With Dressed All Wrong For This, Francine Witte has created an illuminated manuscript of life at a slant: where we encounter a woman who loses her “husband weight,” Suzo the clown and his many wives, a shadow that takes matters into its own hands. Rarely does one come across a story collection so astonishingly original, language so fresh, and surreal writing so rife with what is real to us all.”  (Robert Scotellaro, author of Bad Motel)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’ll make this quick: Francine Witte writes with tectonic plates, pressing and squeezing words until they are compressed into gems. Her flash fiction short-short stories sparkle. I plan to pair Dressed All Wrong For This with Witte’s new poetry collection, The Theory of Flesh.

The Center of Everything
by Jamie Harrison

Jacket Copy:  For Polly, the small town of Livingston, Montana, is a magical ecosystem of extended family and raw, natural beauty governed by kinship networks that extend back generations. But the summer of 2002 finds Polly at a crossroads. A recent head injury has scattered her perception of the present, bringing to the surface events from thirty years ago and half a country away. A beloved friend goes missing on the Yellowstone River as Polly's relatives arrive for a reunion during the Fourth of July holiday, dredging up difficult memories for a family well acquainted with tragedy. Search parties comb the river as carefully as Polly combs her memories, and over the course of one fateful week, Polly arrives at a deeper understanding of herself and her larger-than-life family. Weaving together the past and the present, bounded by the brisk shores of Long Island Sound and the landscape of big-sky Montana, The Center of Everything examines with profound insight the nature of the human condition: the tribes we call family, the memories and touchstones that make up a life, and the loves and losses we must endure along the way.

Opening Lines:  When Polly was a child, and thought like a child, the world was a fluid place. People came and went and never looked the same from month to month or year to year. They shifted bodies and voices—a family friend shaved a beard, a great aunt shriveled into illness, a doctor grew taller—and it would take time to find them, to recognize them.
       Polly studied faces, she wondered, she undid the disguise. But sometimes people she loved disappeared entirely, curling off like smoke.

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’ve been looking forward to holding Jamie Harrison’s next novel in my hands ever since the release of The Widow Nash two years ago. Based on Harrison’s other work, The Center of Everything is bound to delight and satisfy. Side note: I made my home in Livingston for a brief, windy spell in the mid-1980s, so I automatically gravitate toward any book set there.

The Impossible First
by Colin O’Brady

Jacket Copy:  Prior to December 2018, no individual had ever crossed the landmass of Antarctica alone, without support and completely human powered. Yet, Colin O’Brady was determined to do just that, even if, ten years earlier, there was doubt that he’d ever walk again normally. From the depths of a tragic accident, he fought his way back. In a quest to unlock his potential and discover what was possible, he went on to set three mountaineering world records before turning to this historic Antarctic challenge. O’Brady’s pursuit of a goal that had eluded many others was made even more intense by a head-to-head battle that emerged with British polar explorer Captain Louis Rudd—also striving to be “the first.” Enduring Antarctica’s sub-zero temperatures and pulling a sled that initially weighed 375 pounds—in complete isolation and through a succession of whiteouts, storms, and a series of near disasters—O’Brady persevered. Alone with his thoughts for nearly two months in the vastness of the frozen continent—gripped by fear and doubt—he reflected on his past, seeking courage and inspiration in the relationships and experiences that had shaped his life. Honest, deeply moving, filled with moments of vulnerability—and set against the backdrop of some of the most extreme environments on earth, from Mt. Everest to Antarctica—The Impossible First reveals how anyone can reject limits, overcome immense obstacles, and discover what matters most.

Opening Lines:  I started thinking about my hands.
       That was my first mistake.
       After forty-eight days and more than 760 miles alone across Antarctica, the daily ache of my hands—cracked with cold, gripping my ski poles twelve hours a day—had become like a drumbeat, forming the rhythm of my existence.

Blurbworthiness:  “Suspenseful, soul-searching, and at times metaphysical as O’Brady endures an endless sheet of white and ice...The book is a testament to the human soul and the amazing feats we can accomplish with training, willpower, and the singular resilience of the mind. You will learn from and be inspired by it.” (Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Earlier this year, I traveled across the vast icy desert of Antarctica. I wasn’t alone: I was accompanied by Apsley Cherry-Garrard and his classic adventure book The Worst Journey in the World—a narrative of walking and sledding across the continent in the early 1910s with details so intense I braved frostbite to turn the pages. So, Antarctica has been on my mind a lot. O’Brady’s solo account is now perched near the icy peaks of my towering to-be-read mountain. I can’t wait to freeze again.

by Julia Alvarez
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  Antonia Vega, the immigrant writer at the center of Afterlife, has had the rug pulled out from under her. She has just retired from the college where she taught English when her beloved husband, Sam, suddenly dies. And then more jolts: her bighearted but unstable sister disappears, and Antonia returns home one evening to find a pregnant, undocumented teenager on her doorstep. Antonia has always sought direction in the literature she loves—lines from her favorite authors play in her head like a soundtrack—but now she finds that the world demands more of her than words. Afterlife, the first adult novel in almost fifteen years by the bestselling author of In the Time of the Butterflies and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, is a compact, nimble, and sharply droll novel. Set in this political moment of tribalism and distrust, it asks: What do we owe those in crisis in our families, including—maybe especially—members of our human family? How do we live in a broken world without losing faith in one another or ourselves? And how do we stay true to those glorious souls we have lost?

Opening Lines:  She is to meet him / a place they often choose for special occasions / to celebrate her retirement from the college / a favorite restaurant / and the new life awaiting her / a half-hour drive from their home / a mountain town / twenty if she speeds in the thirty-mile zone / Tonight it makes more sense / a midway point / to arrive separately / as she will be driving down from her doctor’s appointment / she gets there first / as he will be driving from home / he should have been there before her / she starts calling his cell / after waiting ten, twenty minutes / he doesn’t answer

Blurbworthiness:  “Ravishing and heartfelt, Afterlife explores the complexities of familial devotion and tragedy against a backdrop of a world in crisis, and the ways in which we struggle to maintain hope, faith, compassion and love. This is Julia Alvarez at her best and most personal.” (Jonathan Santlofer, author of The Widower’s Notebook)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I was blown away by the Prologue, whose opening lines I quoted above. It continues on in that fashion / fragments sliced by backslashes / for three pages / titled “Broken English” / the parts adding up to the whole. It reflects, in concrete form, the stuttering thoughts which swirl and dive-bomb our minds in times of grief. And it made me sit up and take notice that here was something fresh, something visceral, something that might make me cough up tears as the pages go on. (The rest of Afterlife is told in the “normal” way, sans backslash interruption.)