Thursday, April 30, 2020

Here’s to Blithesome May (and e. e. cummings)

It’s the last day of National Poetry Month and I’ve been celebrating with poetry old (nineteenth-century poets) and new (Kwame Dawes, Eileen Myles, and M. L. Smoker to name a few). I’m also still thinking about the sometimes-tangled prosody of e. e. cummings whose Collected Poems dominated most of my 2019 in Verse. Today, I thought I’d say goodbye to April (you cruellest of months) and bid Hello to what the poet calls “blithesome May” in an excerpt from one of his earlier, more-accessible poems.

How’s the weather in your neck of the woods? Here in Montana, there were snowflakes swirling outside my fourth-floor apartment window a mere two weeks ago. So I’m more than ready for sun-showers and the burst of buds on the flowering trees in my neighborhood. For those of you, like me, who have been restlessly pacing the confines of quarantine, here’s a glimmer of meteorological hope from Mr. cummings, first published in The Cambridge Review in 1910 (in the month of May, naturally).

The Coming of May

We have wintered the death of the old, cold year,
We have left our tracks in the melting snow,
We have braved harsh March’s biting jeer,
And April’s gusty overflow.
And now, when Nature begins to grow,
And the buds are out, and the birds are gay
And all is well–above and below,–
Here’s to the coming of blithesome May.

Winter was good when he met us here,
With his sharp, clear days, and his flashing snow,
Bur we carried Winter out on his bier,
And buried him, many a month ago.
March was not hard with all his blow,
With April, Spring seemed on her way,
But we’ve reached the best at last, and so
Here’s to the coming of blithesome May.

Winter has ended his cold career,–
No more death, and no more woe,–
We’ve come at last to a different sphere,
With no more freezing, and–mistletoe.
Spring in coming was very slow,–
Altogether too much delay,–
But we’ve cheered her on from foe to foe:
Here’s to the coming of blithesome May.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Fresh Ink: April 2020 edition

Fresh Ink 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.

The Swallowed Man
by Edward Carey

Jacket Copy:  The ingenious storyteller Edward Carey returns to reimagine a time-honored fable: the story of an impatient father, a rebellious son, and a watery path to forgiveness for the young man known as Pinocchio. In the small Tuscan town of Collodi, a lonely woodcarver longs for the companionship of a son. One day, “as if the wood commanded me,” Giuseppe—better known as Geppetto—carves for himself a pinewood boy, a marionette he hopes to take on tour worldwide. But when his handsome new creation comes magically to life, Geppetto screams . . . and the boy, Pinocchio, leaps from his arms and escapes into the night. Though he returns the next day, the wily boy torments his father, challenging his authority and making up stories—whereupon his nose, the very nose his father carved, grows before his eyes like an antler. When the boy disappears after one last fight, the father follows a rumor to the coast and out into the sea, where he is swallowed by a great fish—and consumed by guilt. He hunkers in the creature’s belly awaiting the day when he will reconcile with the son he drove away. With all the charm, atmosphere, and emotional depth for which Edward Carey is known—and featuring his trademark fantastical illustrations—The Swallowed Man is a parable of parenthood, loss, and letting go, from a creative mind on a par with Gregory Maguire, Neil Gaiman, and Tim Burton.

Opening Lines:  I am writing this account, in another man's book, by candlelight, inside the belly of a fish. I have been eaten. I have been eaten, yet I am living still.

Blurbworthiness:  “A beautiful and dark meditation on fatherhood, mercy, redemption and the alchemy of isolation. Strange, moving and musical, it's a delight.” (A. L. Kennedy, author of Day)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Who knows how old I was when I first saw Disney’s Pinocchio: 4, 6, 7? I’m sure I still had a few baby teeth clinging to my gums when I first encountered the nose-growing puppet boy. And in all those years since that magic-tingled moment did I ever read the original story, as written Carlo Collodi? I cannot tell a lie: no, I haven’t read it...yet. But I’ve been meaning to and now with Edward Carey’s inventive re-telling, I think the time has finally come to trace those strings back to the puppet.

Miracle Country
by Kendra Atleework
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  Kendra Atleework grew up in Swall Meadows, in the Owens Valley of the Eastern Sierra Nevada, where annual rainfall averages five inches and in drought years measures closer to zero. Kendra’s family raised their children to thrive in this harsh landscape, forever at the mercy of wildfires, blizzards, and gale-force winds. Most of all, the Atleework children were raised on unconditional love and delight in the natural world. But it came at a price. When Kendra was six, her mother was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease, and she died when Kendra was sixteen. Her family fell apart, even as her father tried to keep them together. Kendra took flight from her bereft family, escaping to the enemy city of Los Angeles, and then Minneapolis, land of all trees, no deserts, no droughts, full lakes, water everywhere you look. But after years of avoiding the pain of her hometown, she realized that she had to go back, that the desert was the only place she could live. Like Wild, Miracle Country is a story of flight and return, bounty and emptiness, and the true meaning of home. But it also speaks to the ravages of climate change and its permanent destruction of the way of life in one particular town.

Opening Lines:  The valley lay dry that winter, and wind roared over the mountains.

Blurbworthiness:  “Can a book be both radiant with light and shadowy as midnight? Miracle Country can. I felt the thrill I once knew reading Annie Dillard for the first time. Kendra Atleework can really write. She flies with burning wings.”  (Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I am looking for a book that will describe human connection to the earth in glowing, lovely turns of phrase; Miracle Country, which has scooped up bucketloads of praise already, looks like it will be my conduit back down to dirt.

American Birds: a Literary Companion
Edited by Terry Tempest Williams and Andrew Rubenfeld
(Library of America)

Jacket Copy:  Featuring some of America’s greatest writers and poets, this landmark anthology is both a celebration of the birds around and above us and a field guide to the American soul. Americans have always been fascinated by birds and from the beginning American writers have captured this keen interest in a variety of genres: poems, journals, memoirs, short stories, essays, and travel accounts. Now, editors Terry Tempest Williams and Andrew Rubenfeld bring together the very best of this writing on America’s birds in an astonishing collection that encompasses the Aleutian Islands and the Florida Keys, the Maine woods to the deserts of the southwest—and our own gardens and backyards feeders. What better companion to a field guide to the birds of North America than these personal accounts of birds and bird watching by a Who’s Who of American literature? Put your binoculars aside and listen to the exquisite beauty of three Native American songs about birds, follow Lewis and Clark as they encounter new species on their journey across the continent, look over Audubon’s shoulder as he sketches in New Orleans, and join Emerson and Thoreau rambling around Walden Pond. Here too are Theodore Roosevelt as he recalls the birds of his New York childhood, Rachel Carson observing a skimmer on the Atlantic coast, and Roger Tory Peterson casting a keen eye on snail kites and limpkins in the Everglades. Add to this an impressive array of modern and contemporary poets celebrating the wonder of birds and the joys of bird watching, including Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Sterling A. Brown, Cornelius Eady, Mary Oliver, Linda Hogan, and Louise Erdrich. This chronological survey of how and why Americans have watched birds makes the perfect gift for both the serious birder and the backyard watcher, indeed anyone who’s ever been drawn by the wonder of birds.

Opening Lines:  What is the date? It doesn’t matter. What is the time? My shadow is by my side. It is early spring, the dried leaves of cottonwoods are a reminder of what has been. I am sitting on sand the color of my skin and it comforts me. The valley we live in is quiet—save for the buzz saw I can hear in the background. Somewhere someone is building something. The gathering clouds are alerting me not to be seduced for long by the glory of this day—a sky the color of lapis against the red rock cliffs is suddenly interrupted by the wing beats of ravens.

Blurbworthiness:  “Evocative and absorbing....All who read it will find their own favorites among the 74 appealing selections and will marvel at the many different ways to see, think about, describe, and cherish birds and their place in our lives.”  (The Urban Audubon)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Now that I’m locked up tight indoors, I find myself staring out the windows more and more, soaking in the natural world I can no longer touch. Chief among my window-gazing pursuits are long episodes of what my cats like to call Bird TV; in particular, the shows involving those coo-chuckling comedians, The Pigeons (airing daily outside my office window between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., Mountain Standard Time). Watching birds, reading about birds—it’s all fun entertainment on the fly.

by Callan Wink
(Random House)

Jacket Copy:  Callan Wink has been compared to masters like Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane. His short stories have been published in The New Yorker and have won numerous accolades. Now his enormous talents are showcased in a debut novel that follows a boy growing up in the middle of the country through those difficult years between childhood and adulthood. August is an average twelve-year-old. He likes dogs and fishing and doesn’t mind early-morning chores on his family’s Michigan dairy farm. But following his parents’ messy divorce, his mother decides that she and August need to start over in a new town. There, he tries to be an average teen—playing football and doing homework—but when his role in a shocking act of violence throws him off course once more, he flees to a ranch in rural Montana, where he learns that even the smallest communities have dark secrets. Covering August’s adolescence, from age twelve to nineteen, this gorgeously written novel bears witness to the joys and traumas that irrevocably shape us all. Filled with unforgettable characters and stunning natural landscapes, this book is a moving and provocative look at growing up in the American heartland.

Opening Lines:  Bonnie and Dar were sitting at the end of the dock at Bonnie’s parents’ lake house. Torch Lake stretched out in front of them, so blue it seemed impossible, unnatural, almost as if it had been dyed.

Blurbworthiness:  “Callan Wink’s characters are as real and vivid as if they’d stepped into your living room, uninvited, to tell their stories. His style is as clear, precise, and starkly poetic as the young Hemingway’s, but with a more droll sense of humor. This book is simply super—a deft, beautiful, deeply engaging read.”  (Brad Watson, author of Miss Jane)

Why It’s In My Stack:  An instant fan of Wink’s first book, a little-read collection of short stories called Dog Run Moon, I am looking forward to exploring more from this fellow Montana writer.

by Heidi Pitlor
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  Allie Lang is a professional ghostwriter and a perpetually broke single mother to a young boy. Years of navigating her own and America’s cultural definition of motherhood have left her a lapsed idealist. Lana Breban is a high-profile lawyer, economist, and advocate for women's rights with designs on elected office. She also has a son. Lana and her staff have decided she needs help softening her image in the eyes of the public and that a memoir about her life as a mother will help. Allie struggles to write Lana’s book as obstacles pile up: not enough childcare, looming deadlines, an unresponsive subject, an ill-defined romantic relationship on the verge of slipping away. Eventually, Lana comes to require far too much of Allie and even her son. Allie’s ability to stand up for herself and ask for all that she deserves will ultimately determine the power that she can wield over her own life. With the satirical eye of Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher and the incisiveness of Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, acclaimed writer Heidi Pitlor tells a timely, bitingly funny, and insightful story of ambition, motherhood, and class.

Opening Lines:  I once saw a woman in a library pick up a biography of Mother Teresa. A few seconds later, she returned it to its display, and next, she reached for a Kennedy nephew’s memoir. The title, The House that Uncle Jack Built, was printed in a faux handwritten scrawl above the nephew’s name, itself set in a bold Baskerville twice as large as the title. The book could have been called Why I Love Pants; it was the man’s last name that would move copies.

Blurbworthiness:  “Impersonation is the book we need now: an unflinching look at our current moment, and at questions few of us dare to ask. If our personas do good in the world, does it matter what we did to create them? How much hypocrisy are liberals willing to tolerate? Can women raise good men? Provocative, heartfelt, and often hilarious, this is a novel I'll be thinking about for a long time to come.”  (Anna Solomon, author of The Book of V)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Just a few sentences into the first chapter, I was hooked by the author’s firm, commanding grip on the narrative, with a promise of many more good things to come in its pages. For years, I’ve been familiar with Pitlor’s name as the editor for the Best American Short Stories anthology series (I’m reading the 2019 edition right now), so it’s high time I dove into her own fiction.

Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck
by William Souder
(W. W. Norton)

Jacket Copy:  This first full-length biography of the Nobel Laureate to appear in a quarter century explores John Steinbeck’s long apprenticeship as a writer struggling through the depths of the Great Depression, and his rise to greatness with masterpieces such as The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. His most poignant and evocative writing emerged in his sympathy for the Okies fleeing the dust storms of the Midwest, the migrant workers toiling in California’s fields, and the laborers on Cannery Row, reflecting a social engagement--paradoxical for all of his natural misanthropy—radically different from the writers of the so-called Lost Generation. A man by turns quick-tempered, contrary, compassionate, and ultimately brilliant, Steinbeck took aim at the corrosiveness of power, the perils of income inequality, and the growing urgency of ecological collapse, all of which drive fierce public debate to this day.

Opening Lines:  In the California winter, after the sun is down and the land has gone dark, the cool air slips down the mountainsides that flank the great Central Valley, settling over the fields and tules below.

Blurbworthiness:  “Brilliance follows brilliance in this illuminating biography of John Steinbeck. William Souder reveals his with a vibrant narrative and prose worthy of the master himself. Every page comes alive with the force of history, the wonder of place, and the friends, strangers, and dogs that shaped the sensibilities of the man who became the conscience of modern America.” (Jack E. Davis, author of The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea)

Why It’s In My Stack:  John Steinbeck is one of those cherished authors I like rather than love, admire rather than desire. So, when a new biography of the beloved writer comes along, my pulse doesn’t necessarily race, but it does settle into a steady thrum-thrum-thrum of heightened interest which accompanies any new book that opens the doors to reading about a stranger’s life. And when you add acclaimed biographer William Souder’s name to the mix, the pique factor shoots up even higher. I do love how the first line of his book is very Steinbeckian in its description of California’s landscape.

by Philippe Djian
(Other Press)

Jacket Copy:  In this electrifying psychological drama, two veterans readjusting to civilian life find their friendship tested when ugly truths come to light. After returning from combat to a quiet garrison town, Dan and Richard struggle in their different ways to regain a sense of normality. Dan, desperate to prove to his bourgeois neighbors that he isn’t the violent, unstable veteran they’d expect, sticks to a rigorous routine and keeps his head down. Richard, on the other hand, doesn’t resist his impulses, repeatedly flouting the law and spending money he doesn’t have. All the while, his home life is gradually falling apart—unbeknownst to him, his wife has been having an affair, and his teenaged daughter is becoming increasingly distant and even hostile. The arrival of Richard’s sister-in-law, Marlene—a woman with a reputation for sleeping around and bringing bad luck wherever she goes—threatens to destroy what little peace the two men have, calling into question their seemingly unbreakable bond.

Opening Lines:  It wasn’t the smartest thing to do. It might even worsen the situation, which wasn’t great to begin with. But since she refused to let him in or hear him out, he rammed open the door with his shoulder.

Blurbworthiness:  “Marlene reads like noir cinema mixed with a dream. A subtle and haunting book that I couldn’t put down.” (Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk)

Why It’s In My Stack:  After weeks of reading some heavy, thick-bound books like the biography of Thomas A. Edison and a history of the American Revolution, I think I am ready for something thinner, sexier, and more modern (not that the other books I’m reading are bad; no, they’re very good—it’s just that I want a breather from dense non-fiction in favor of quick-on-its feet fiction). I haven’t read Djian’s other novels, but Marlene might just be a good tour guide to those earlier works.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Sunday Sentence: Nebraska by Kwame Dawes

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

In truth, I have been reprimanded by my own guilt / for how easily have I silenced the noises of a world entering the terror of a dictatorship, / how I have pretended that in time it will pass—how I have carried in me the hope in / a constitution that says in another five years, the terrible order will change— / a kind of jubilee and yet I know that I am ignoring the bones scattered in the wake / of this horror, the deaths, the losses, the wounds, the debilitating wounds that will not heal; / how a generation of infants will have learned that the adults are allowed to sulk and scowl / in tantrums and no one is bold enough to do much about it—how the secret of the adult / is that we live in compromise each day, we seek our pleasures at the expense of others, / and this is enough for us as long as we remain silent.

from “Bones” in Nebraska by Kwame Dawes

Friday, April 24, 2020

Friday Freebie: Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him by Tracy Borman

Congratulations to Paul Thomley, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles.

This week’s contest is for Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him by Tracy Borman. We hear a lot about the monarch’s wives, but what about the men surrounding Henry? As Booklist says of this week’s book: “[Borman’s] beautifully perceptive and dynamic reassessment of Henry VIII places emphasis, as the book’s subtitle indicates, not on the monarch’s infamous marriages but rather on the kaleidoscope of male figures both high- and middle-born who were drawn to the king throughout his life as moths circle a bright flame....Here in this highly engrossing biography, the notoriously larger-than-life English monarch, seen from an original and revealing perspective, lives anew in full and in the epic proportions he so well deserves.” Intrigued? Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

Henry VIII is best known in history for his tempestuous marriages and the fates of his six wives. However, as acclaimed historian Tracy Borman makes clear in her illuminating new chronicle of Henry’s life, his reign and reputation were hugely influenced by the men who surrounded and interacted with him as companions and confidants, servants and ministers, and occasionally as rivals--many of whom have been underplayed in previous biographies. These relationships offer a fresh, often surprising perspective on the legendary king, revealing the contradictions in his beliefs, behavior, and character in a nuanced light. They show him capable of fierce but seldom abiding loyalty, of raising men up only to destroy them later. He loved to be attended by boisterous young men, the likes of his intimate friend Charles Brandon, who shared his passion for sport, but could also be diverted by men of intellect, culture, and wit, as his longstanding interplay with Cardinal Wolsey and his reluctant abandonment of Thomas More attest. Eager to escape the shadow of his father, Henry VII, he was often trusting and easily led by male attendants and advisors early in his reign (his coronation was just shy of his 18th birthday in 1509); in time, though, he matured into a profoundly suspicious and paranoid king whose ruthlessness would be ever more apparent, as Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and uncle to two of Henry’s wives, discovered to his great discomfort, and as Eustace Chapuys, the ambassador of Charles V of Spain, often reported. Recounting the great Tudor’s life and signal moments through the lens of his male relationships, Tracy Borman’s new biography reveals Henry’s personality in all its multi-faceted, contradictory glory, and sheds fresh light on his reign for anyone fascinated by the Tudor era and its legacy.

If you’d like a chance at winning Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him, 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.

The Fine Print
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 May 7 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 8.

The Finer Print
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).

The Finest Print
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, April 23, 2020

My Library: Elizabeth Kadetsky’s Suitcase

While on a seven-month Fulbright Nehru fellowship to India this spring, Elizabeth Kadetsky (author of The Memory Eaters) initially packed light when it came to reading material. However, she notes: “I had a box of books shipped to me, and acquired many more, while also shedding books as I finished them. I wound up never finding an apartment on the fellowship, and traveling from place to place to stay in hotels and bed and breakfasts with three suitcases, one entirely filled with books. I got a lot of comments about how heavy it was!”

This is a slightly different My Library post than what we normally see here, but a library is a library is a library, whether it’s at home or abroad, right? Enjoy your armchair travels with Elizabeth as she adapts to being away from her home library for half a year....

Reader:  Elizabeth Kadetsky

Location:  New Delhi, India

Collection size:  At any given time, my traveling collection is about 15 books. When I finish a book, I photograph the pages that have my notes penciled in and give the book away to someone who I think will appreciate it. One of my recipients always gives me another book in return, though, so my suitcase never seems to get any lighter. Many of the books connect to my research topic as a Fulbright Nehru grantee, which is about the global trade in stolen antiquities and the unethical role of museums in supporting it. My five-year-old’s Tintin collection and his Harry Potter: The Philosopher’s Stone are also in there.

The one book I’d run back into a burning building to rescue:  Back home in Pennsylvania, I have a signed mass market paperback edition of Joan Didion’s Play It as it Lays published in 1972. I picked it up in a used bookstore not knowing that it was signed. The bookseller probably also didn’t know that it was signed; it still has the price that I paid for it written on the top right of the flyleaf, 65 cents. The inscription reads, “one day at davis”—which is so quintessentially Didion.

Favorite book from childhood:  Half Magic, by Edward Eager, first published in 1954. I recently picked it up again to read to my son, but the writing style was extremely mannered and British-ish, even though the author was American. Still, all the short stories that I wrote before the age of 12 involved someone discovering something that gave them magical powers (like the coin in Half Magic), but with a caveat (as in Half Magic, in which every desire is granted only halfway), so it had a big influence on me.

My guilty pleasure book:  The Raj Quartet, the four-novel series by Paul Scott about the independence of India, published between 1966 and 1975. I read the entire first volume, The Jewel in the Crown, on the plane to India during my first trip here in 1997. This series is often criticized for its focus on Westerners in India (Salman Rushdie complained that it depicts Indians as “bit players” in their own history), and that is a fair criticism. But, to me, it is the book that illustrates and the critiques the mindset of the British Raj better than any other. For an outsider American with no first-hand experience of colonialism, it provided a searing and justified dissection of everything paternalistic and offensive about British Imperialism in the subcontinent and the shoddy manner in which the British eventually “quit” India in 1947.

Elizabeth Kadetsky’s memoir-in-essays, The Memory Eaters, explores family illness, addiction, inherited trauma, and the secrets of her inherited past. She is also author of the memoir First There Is a Mountain, the short story collection The Poison that Purifies You, and the novella On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World. A professor of creative writing at Penn State and nonfiction editor at the New England Review, she is the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Program, MacDowell Colony, and Vermont Studio Center.

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

Monday, April 20, 2020

My First Time: Philip Cioffari

My First Time: A Long Time Coming

I’d waited many, many years before it happened—what I like to call, to borrow a term from baseball, a triple play. Mine was the literary/dramatic version. The year was 2005.

It’s easy now that my fifth novel, If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreaking Blues, is being published to forget or minimize the time and effort it took me to get here. As I’ve said, prior to the “triple play” I want to tell you about, I’d been writing a long time.

Upon completion of my doctorate in English, I began writing full time—that is, four to five hours a day, every day. It took me six years and many rejections before my first story was accepted by the Northwest Review, a literary journal published by the University of Oregon. I remember thinking, naively, that my literary career had finally begun, that my stories would be accepted on a regular basis from then on: no more rejections. How wrong I was. It took many rejections and another two years before my next story was accepted, this time by the Michigan Quarterly Review.

It’s probably safe to say that writers—artists, in general—are never satisfied. Though I went on to publish many stories over the years in both commercial magazines and literary journals, my true goal was to have a novel published. The novel, for as far back as I can remember, was what I considered to be the ultimate artistic achievement. It was the form I read in childhood and adolescence; and during college and graduate school my love for the genre blossomed into undying love. I loved the weight of the novel, the feel of it, the graceful arc of its structure and, of course—what all readers love—the way it creates for us another world that embraces us till the final page.

I don’t know how many “failed” novels I wrote over the years—at least a half dozen, I’m sure—and as time went on I began to consider the possibility that I might go through my entire life without realizing my goal. That possibility grew with each passing year.

In the meantime, I was doing all the things I believed a writer should do to improve his craft. I read as many novels as I could, re-reading my favorites again and again. I continued to write every day, I wrote and re-wrote the novels I was working on. I took evening classes in writing at the New School. I attended conferences and workshops, seeking all the feedback on my work that I could get.

At one of those conferences, the AWP Conference in Pittsburgh in the early 2000s, I was drifting through the book publisher’s section when, from across the room, I spotted a man fronting the booth for Livingston Press. He had a dark beard and wore a black jacket, black shirt and pants, black boots. His black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. His outfit and demeanor reminded me of Johnny Cash.

In one of those rare occurrences in a lifetime, I said to myself: that man is going to like my work. Believe me, I am not a person full of self-confidence, but for some reason I felt a moment of certainty in that room of book stalls.

So I approached him, asked him about the press, fingered several of the books on display. I was impressed by the books themselves and their cover designs. I asked him if I could send him some work and he said, “Yes, send me some stories.” Which I did. He wrote back to suggest I enter the nation-wide story collection competition the press ran each year. So I put some stories together and entered that year’s contest. By some stroke of good fortune, I managed to place second. No publication, but he encouraged me to apply again the following year. I re-assembled the collection, removing stories he seemed lukewarm about, replacing them with what I hoped were stronger pieces and that second time around I won the competition.

Thus, the first step of my triple play.

While all this was going on, I had two other projects I was simultaneously working on. One was a movie script I had been developing, and the other was a novel I was putting together using some of my stories as a stepping stone. Actually, the novel had been in progress for nearly ten years; I was at this point on my 20th draft.

A TV producer friend of mine read my script and suggested I direct the movie myself. At first I resisted, never having done a film before, but second only to getting a novel published was my goal of making a full-length feature film. So against all odds I forged ahead, put together a cast, a crew, and scouted locations.

In the midst of all this, I managed to complete a 21st draft of my novel, Catholic Boys. On a whim, to help fend off the discouragement I was feeling at the difficulty of making a movie, I sent it off to Joe Taylor, he of the Johnny Cash outfit, at Livingston Press. Within several weeks I heard back: he was accepting it for publication.

Step two.

The final step occurred when, having completed the filming and editing of the movie—Love in the Age of Dion—it went on to win (the first of several awards) Best Feature Film at the Long Island International Film Festival.

All of this occurred, after a lifetime of waiting, in the year 2005.

I mention all this to reinforce some age-old truisms. Perseverance does pay off. Just when things seem hopeless, hope—as if by wizardry—magically returns. As Woody Allen and others have said, ninety-nine percent of success is simply showing up. Show up often enough and who knows what might happen. Sometimes the most unlikeliest of things.

Philip Cioffari is the author of the novels If Anyone Asks, Say I Died from the Heartbreak BluesCatholic Boys, Dark Road, Dead End, Jesusville, The Bronx Kill, and the story collection A History of Things Lost or Broken, which won the Tartt First Fiction Prize, and the D.H. Lawrence Award. His stories have appeared widely in anthologies, literary journals and commercial magazines. He wrote and directed the independent feature film, Love in the Age of Dion, which won a number of film festival awards, including Best Picture at the Long Island International Film Expo, and Best Director at the NY Film & Video Festival. He is professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey. Click here to visit his website

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

Author photo by Ken Haas

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Sunday Sentence: Nebraska by Kwame Dawes

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

       This is a ritual of sin: after clearing a long
       path, behind me the pox of snow returns.

from “How I Became an Apostle” in Nebraska by Kwame Dawes

Friday, April 17, 2020

Friday Freebie: Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles

Congratulations to Laura Strachan, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Mastering the Process by Elizabeth George.

This week’s contest is for Simon the Fiddler, a new novel by Paulette Jiles (author of News of the World). Here’s what Booklist had to say about the novel: “Imbued with the dust, grit, and grime of Galveston at the close of the Civil War, Simon the Fiddler immerses readers in the challenges of Reconstruction. Jiles brings her singular voice to the young couple’s travails, her written word as lyrical and musical as Simon’s bow raking over his strings. Loyal Jiles readers and fans of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge will adore the author’s latest masterpiece.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

In March 1865, the long and bitter War between the States is winding down. Till now, twenty-three-year-old Simon Boudlin has evaded military duty thanks to his slight stature, youthful appearance, and utter lack of compunction about bending the truth. But following a barroom brawl in Victoria, Texas, Simon finds himself conscripted, however belatedly, into the Confederate Army. Luckily his talent with a fiddle gets him a comparatively easy position in a regimental band. Weeks later, on the eve of the Confederate surrender, Simon and his bandmates are called to play for officers and their families from both sides of the conflict. There the quick-thinking, audacious fiddler can’t help but notice the lovely Doris Mary Dillon, an indentured girl from Ireland, who is governess to a Union colonel’s daughter. After the surrender, Simon and Doris go their separate ways. He will travel around Texas seeking fame and fortune as a musician. She must accompany the colonel’s family to finish her three years of service. But Simon cannot forget the fair Irish maiden, and vows that someday he will find her again. Incandescent in its beauty, told in Paulette Jiles’s trademark spare yet lilting style, Simon the Fiddler is a captivating, bittersweet tale of the chances a devoted man will take, and the lengths he will go to fulfill his heart’s yearning.

If you’d like a chance at winning Simon the Fiddler, 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.

The Fine Print
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 April 23 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on April 24.

The Finer Print
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).

The Finest Print
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.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Friday Freebie: Mastering the Process by Elizabeth George

Congratulations to Phil Milio, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Prairie Fever by Michael Parker.

This week’s contest is for Mastering the Process by Elizabeth George, a plump volume of writing advice which would be perfect for all of you out there using this shelter-in-place time to finally work on that long-delayed manuscript (yours truly is still trying to get unstuck from first gear, or maybe I'm just low on gas...). As Lisa See, author of The Island of Sea Women and several other novels, says about Mastering the Process, “I have never before read a book about writing that is so thorough, thoughtful, and most of all, helpful.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...

As the author of twenty-four novels, Elizabeth George is one of the most successful—and prolific—novelists today. In Mastering the Process, George offers readers a master class in the art and science of crafting a novel. This is a subject she knows well, having taught creative writing both nationally and internationally for over thirty years. For many writers, the biggest challenge is figuring out how to take that earliest glimmer of inspiration and shape it into a full-length novel. How do you even begin to transform a single idea into a complete book? In these pages, George takes us behind the scenes through each step of her writing process, revealing exactly what it takes to craft a novel. Drawing from her personal photos, early notes, character analyses, and rough drafts, George shows us every stage of how she wrote her novel Careless in Red, from researching location to imagining plot to creating characters to the actual writing and revision processes themselves. George offers us an intimate look at the procedures she follows, while also providing invaluable advice for writers about what has worked for her—and what hasn't. Mastering the Process gives writers practical, prescriptive, and achievable tools for creating a novel, editing a novel, and problem solving when in the midst of a novel, from a master storyteller writing at the top of her game.

If you’d like a chance at winning Mastering the Process, 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.

The Fine Print
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 April 16 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on April 17.

The Finer Print
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).

The Finest Print
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, April 5, 2020

Sunday Sentence: “Anyone Can Do It” by Manuel Munoz

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

Sundays were always so peaceful, Delfina thought, no matter where you were, so serene she imagined the birds themselves had gone dumb.

from “Anyone Can Do It” by Manuel Munoz in
Best American Short Stories 2019