Monday, September 30, 2013

My First Time: Lisa Borders

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.  Today’s guest is Lisa Borders, author of The Fifty-First State, published by Engine Books.  Her first novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, was chosen by Pat Conroy as the winner of River City Publishing’s Fred Bonnie Award in 2002, and received fiction honors in the 2003 Massachusetts Book Awards.  Lisa’s short stories have appeared in Kalliope, Washington Square, Black Warrior Review, Painted Bride Quarterly and other journals.  Her essay, "Enchanted Night" was published in Don't You Forget About Me: Contemporary Writers on the Films of John Hughes.  She has received grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Somerville Arts Council and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and fellowships at the Millay Colony, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Hedgebrook and the Blue Mountain Center.  She teaches at Boston’s Grub Street.  More information on Lisa and her work is available at

My First Writing Teacher/Mentor

Fifth grade could have been one of the worst years of my life.  My father had died when I was nine, at the end of fourth grade; my teacher that year hadn’t been particularly sympathetic, and most of my classmates treated me with either indifference or hostility.  This was the 1970s; nobody had talked to the other kids or prepared them for how to deal with a grieving classmate.  During the months my father was ill and then after he died, I started eating everything in sight, and so I entered fifth grade heavier than I’d ever been, and feeling uncomfortably different from my classmates.  And of course, I missed my father with a depth I wouldn’t fully appreciate until I was older.

After a difficult summer, I felt a trepidation when school started that fall that I’d never felt before.  I’d always loved school, but that year, I wished I didn’t have to go.  I was afraid my classmates wouldn’t be nice; afraid my teacher wouldn’t be nice.  And then I met Mrs. Hill.

On the first day of class, we had to fill out information sheets about our parents--their names, where they could be reached in case of emergency.  This was the kind of small thing that could nearly undo me--having to indicate that my father had died.  For the space where I was supposed to write my father’s name, I wrote, “deceised.”  I still remember the misspelling; I can still see the form.  Later, after Mrs. Hill had had a chance to look over the forms, she took me aside.

“I’m sorry about your Dad,” she said.  “I had the same problem.  Mine died when I was thirteen.”

I hadn’t met anyone else whose father had died when they were still a kid.  Up until that point, I’d had the odd sense that I was the only child such a thing had happened to.  What did it say about me, that I was the only kid in the world whose father had died?  It sounds silly now, but the world was so much smaller in those pre-therapy, pre-internet days.  And so, when Mrs. Hill told me that her father had died, it changed everything.  I wasn’t the only weirdo in the world whose father had died.  There were others.  The two of us, at least.

That alone would have made her special to me, but there was more--much more.  Once she discovered that I loved to write, she became my first real reader, and my biggest fan and champion.

I’d started writing poetry in second grade, when I was seven.  I know because the poem I wrote at that age--and got published in my grammar school’s newspaper--was entitled “My First Poem.”  I kept all of my poems in a spiral notebook; by eighth grade, I’d filled every page and went through several more in high school.  But it wasn’t something I told most people.  Up until that point, only my mother knew that I wrote--but she didn’t often ask to read my poems, and I only occasionally offered.

Mrs. Hill learned about my secret poetry practice because of an assignment she gave us: to keep a “personal notebook.”  We had to make an entry each night.  The entry could be anything.  For students who liked art, it could be a drawing.  For others, it could be a brief story about their day.  We could talk about a movie we’d seen, a book we’d read.  At first, I didn’t know what to write, but soon, I started writing poems for my entries.

The part that I find truly amazing is that Mrs. Hill would write brief comments in our personal notebooks--every day.  For the entire class. I don’t know how she did it.  As the year went on, she went from simply complimenting my poems--this was, after all, an exercise largely designed for self-expression, not something to be graded--to offering feedback.  I remember a poem where I broke the meter and rhyme in the last stanza; she pointed this out.  Since I wasn’t familiar with those concepts, she brought me in a book that explained them.  When I wrote a poem that went on for several pages, and had characters and dialogue, she suggested I turn it into a short story.  As an adult, I would discover that fiction was my genre; Mrs. Hill was the first person to suggest the switch to me.

As the school year drew to a close, I wanted to give Mrs. Hill a special gift.  I went through all of my poems and picked out the ten or so I thought were the best.  I decided to call the collection “Moods.”  My mother donated a dozen or so pieces of her best stationery for the cause, and I meticulously copied the poems in my best, fanciest fifth grade script.  My Mom helped me punch holes in the margin, and we threaded gold cord through to hold the book together.  This was my first book, and only one copy ever existed.  Mrs. Hill’s smile when I gave her the booklet kept me warm all summer.

I wouldn’t find another teacher who took such a personal interest in my writing until I was in high school.  But while I was still in grammar school, in sixth grade, seventh and eighth, I would visit Mrs. Hill between periods, or after school.  I continued to show her my poems.  And when I graduated from eighth grade, she gave me my own special gift: marble bookends, each with a carved dove affixed.

“You should take good care of those,” my Mom said later.  “I think they were expensive.”

I still have them.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Familiar by J. Robert Lennon

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

2.  Blame yourself first, circumstance second, your partner last of all.
Familiar by J. Robert Lennon

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Pop of King: Essential Novels in the Stephen King Canon

Last night, in one of my many dreams, I found myself talking passionately to someone about the literary merits of Stephen King.  A copy of The Stand, thick as a slab of concrete, sat on a table between us.  I placed my hand on top of the The Stand, leaned forward, and barked, "Stephen King is the Charles Dickens of our times!"  I'm certainly not the first one to bring up that comparison, but I think it's a valid one.  King is not only one of the most popular authors in our modern culture, he's had a longevity on the shelves that is truly breathtaking.  I expect there will be a public mourning when he passes, just as readers rent their garments upon hearing news of Dickens' death.  This week saw two major events in King's life: he celebrated his 66th birthday last Saturday, and then three days later, he released his newest novel, Doctor Sleep.  In honor of those two milestones, guest blogger Brandon Engel gives us

The Top 5 Must-Read Stephen King Novels

Love him or hate him, there’s no disputing his stature as one of the most influential pop novelists of our time.  From his first novel Carrie about an outcast, telekinetic high-schooler, to Doctor Sleep, a long-awaited sequel to The Shining, Stephen King has left an indelible mark on the world of literature, film, and television.  Several of his novels have been adapted for screen.  Some have been superb, while some have left much to be desired.  Even in the instances where a film does capture the essence of a King novel, rarely, if ever, has a film surpassed the quality of his novels.  Much attention is dedicated on the web to film adaptations of his novels, but let us revert back to the novels themselves.  His back-catalog is indeed extensive, as King has nearly 60 books to his credit.  But there are a few titles with which everyone should familiarize themselves.  Here are the 5 Stephen King books everyone should read.

The Shining (1977): King’s classic novel about the bizarre, demoralizing spiritual presence in the Overlook Hotel, a remote lodge in the middle of Colorado.  Jack Torrance is a temperamental writer, overcoming a drinking problem, who has signed on to serve as caretaker for the Overlook during the harsh, Colorado winter.  Along for the ride are Jack’s wife Wendy, and telepathic son Danny, who has keen insight into the bizarre spiritual presences in the hotel.  Danny meets the hotel’s cook Dick Halloran, who is also endowed with psychic abilities, and the two of them form a special bond.  Jack’s frustrations, coupled with cabin fever, and the corrosive influence of the ghosts in the hotel, drive him mad.  Danny summons Dick for help, as Jack goes insane, and pursues his wife and children through the hotel with a roque mallet.  The topiary animals outside of the hotel spring to life!  It’s a highly imaginative tale, and one that King used to exorcise his own alcoholic demons.

Carrie (1974): King’s classic novel about a young, socially outcast girl with psychic powers who lives with a mother who is an overbearing, religious zealot.  Carrie is ridiculed without mercy by her peers in the girl’s locker room when she panics in the shower after seeing her own menstrual blood for the first time.  As if the ordeal wasn't troubling enough, Carrie’s mother chastises her when she returns home.  The girls who taunted Carrie are punished, and one takes it upon herself to get revenge.  One of the girls who teased Carrie, named Sue, feels remorse for teasing Carrie, and arranges to have her boyfriend, a popular jock, escort Carrie to the prom.  While at the prom though, Carrie is the victim of a cruel practical joke which leaves her drenched in pig’s blood on stage during the prom--which, beyond being grotesque for the most obvious reasons, is also a sort of sinister joke about menstruation.  Carrie then uses her telekinetic power to decimate her entire town, starting with the high school prom.

Christine (1983): Arnie is an impotent teenage nerd who is bullied, and shy around girls.  He first sees Christine as a dilapidated old Buick in a state of total disrepair.  Arnie makes conversation with the car’s owner, a crude, rumpled old man, and ultimately purchases the car for $250.  Arnie’s friend Dennis tries to persuade him against buying the car, but it’s no use.  The car is possessed, and also serves as some sort of portal through time.  Arnie’s whole persona changes.  He becomes an aggressive, “greaser” tough guy, and starts dating the most attractive girl in school, Leigh.  We learn, after a gang demolishes the car, that Christine has bizarre regenerative powers, and can restore herself if damaged.  Christine is intent on killing anyone who tries to come between her and Arnie--including Leigh.  This killer car trope is one that Stephen King would revisit a few times in his career, but Christine stands head and shoulders above his other efforts.

Dolores Claiborne (1992): Dolores Claiborne is a foul-mouthed New England woman, who has become the stuff of local lore, with rumors abounding that Claiborne had murdered her husband years earlier.  For decades, Claiborne has provided in-home care for her client Vera Donovan, a wealthy old woman.  When Vera dies, the whole town suspects Claiborne murdered her, but Dolores insists she did not.  She does, however, 'fess up to police that she killed her husband years earlier, on the night of a total solar eclipse, to protect the couple’s daughter, whom Joe had been molesting.  This one is remarkable structurally, in that it plays out as one continuous narrative, with no breaks.  The novel reads like the transcription of the titular character’s testimony given to police.  While he doesn’t shy away from the scatological (a staple of King’s work, for better or worse) King still manages to treat certain taboos with a surprising level of depth and sincerity, if not subtlety.

Firestarter (1980): Andy and Victoria were a couple who met in the 1960s when they were test subjects in experiments with a highly effective psychoactive drug conducted by The Shop, a secretive government agency.  The drug equips the couple with psychic powers, which they pass on to their daughter, Charlie.  She is pyrokinetic, meaning she is endowed with the ability to start fires with her mind.  The full extent of her powers is unknown, and members of The Shop want to capture Charlie, so that they may study her.  Shop agents torture and murder Victoria in an effort to extract information from her about Charlie.  They relentlessly pursue Charlie and Andy, even recruiting ex-Vietnam agent John Rainbird, whose intention is to ultimately kill Charlie.  Will Charlie escape?  Will she be forced to learn the full-extent of her strange power?  Read on, Constant Reader.

Brandon Engel is an entertainment blogger whose favorite authors include Kurt Vonnegut, Oscar Wilde, Stephen King and James Baldwin.  Follow him on twitter: @BrandonEngel2

Friday, September 27, 2013

Friday Freebie: Rivers by Michael Farris Smith and Archangel by Andrea Barrett

Congratulations to Lara Smith, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: After Her by Joyce Maynard.

This week's book giveaway is a fiction duet.  One lucky reader will win hardback copies of both Rivers by Michael Farris Smith and Archangel by Andrea Barrett.

I've already written about Rivers here at the blog and said the opening lines were a prime example of why this novel is sitting very high atop my mountain of books to be read (aka Mt. NeveRest), but as a reminder, here's the publisher's jacket copy:
Following years of catastrophic hurricanes, the Gulf Coast—stretching from the Florida panhandle to the western Louisiana border—has been brought to its knees.  The region is so punished and depleted that the government has drawn a new boundary ninety miles north of the coastline.  Life below the Line offers no services, no electricity, and no resources, and those who stay behind live by their own rules.  Cohen is one who stayed.  Unable to overcome the crushing loss of his wife and unborn child who were killed during an evacuation, he returned home to Mississippi to bury them on family land.  Until now he hasn’t had the strength to leave them behind, even to save himself.  But after his home is ransacked and all of his carefully accumulated supplies stolen, Cohen is finally forced from his shelter.  On the road north, he encounters a colony of survivors led by a fanatical, snake-handling preacher named Aggie who has dangerous visions of repopulating the barren region.  Realizing what’s in store for the women Aggie is holding against their will, Cohen is faced with a decision: continue to the Line alone, or try to shepherd the madman’s captives across the unforgiving land with the biggest hurricane yet bearing down—and Cohen harboring a secret that may pose the greatest threat of all.  Eerily prophetic in its depiction of a southern landscape ravaged by extreme weather, Rivers is a masterful tale of survival and redemption in a world where the next devastating storm is never far behind.

Like Ship Fever and Servants of the Map, Andrea Barrett's new book of "fictions," Archangel, centers on "five pivotal moments in the lives of her characters and in the history of knowledge."  The jacket copy goes on to tell us more about what we'll find between the covers:
During the summer of 1908, twelve-year-old Constantine Boyd is witness to an explosion of home-spun investigation--from experiments with cave-dwelling fish without eyes to scientifically bred crops to motorized bicycles and the flight of an early aeroplane.  In 1920, a popular science writer and young widow tries, immediately after the bloodbath of the First World War, to explain the new theory of relativity to an audience (herself included) desperate to believe in an "ether of space" housing spirits of the dead.  Half a century earlier, in 1873, a famous biologist struggles to maintain his sense of the hierarchies of nature as Darwin's new theory of evolution threatens to make him ridiculous in the eyes of a precocious student.  The twentieth-century realms of science and war collide in the last two stories, as developments in genetics and X-ray technology that had once held so much promise fail to protect humans--among them, a young American soldier, Constantine Boyd, sent to Archangel, Russia, in 1919--from the failures of governments and from the brutality of war.  In these brilliant fictions rich with fact, Barrett explores the thrill and sense of loss that come with scientific progress and the personal passions and impersonal politics that shape all human knowledge.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of both Rivers and Archangel, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 3, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 4.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Front Porch Books: September 2013 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, Amazon and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

The Facades by Eric Lundgren (Overlook):  I love a good noir mystery.  I also love Garrison Keillor's stories of strapping, oatmeal-fed Midwesterners holding fast to Rust Belt sensibilities.  And I've been known to nod approvingly at a David Lynch movie every now and then.  On the surface, Eric Lundgren's debut novel seems to check each of those boxes for me.  Take a look at the Jacket Copy:
Along the streets of the once-great Midwestern city of Trude, the ornate old buildings lie in ruin.  Shrouded in disappointment andnostalgia, Trude has become a place to "lose yourself," as one tourist brochure puts it: a treacherous maze of convoluted shopping malls, barricaded libraries, and elitist assisted-living homes.  One night at Trude's opera house, the theater's most celebrated mezzo-soprano vanishes during rehearsal.  When police come up empty-handed, the star's husband, a disconsolate legal clerk named Sven Norberg, must take up the quest on his own.  But to discover the secret of his wife's disappearance, Norberg must descend into Trude's underworld and confront the menacing and bizarre citizens of his hometown: rebellious librarians, shifty music critics, a cop called the Oracle, and the minister of an apocalyptic church who has recruited Norberg's teenage son.  Faced with the loss of everything he loves, Norberg follows his investigation to the heart of the city and through the buildings of a possibly insane modernist architect called Bernhard, whose elaborate vision will offer him an astonishing revelation.  Written with boundless intelligence and razor-sharp wit, The Facades is a comic andexistential mystery that unfolds at the urgent pace of a thriller.
On a side note, don't you just love how the book's cover neatly divides the suburban homes into dark and light? Kudos to Keith Hayes for the design.  Blurbworthiness: “This is a detective novel that owes as much to Haruki Murakami and Italo Calvino as to John D. MacDonald and James M. Cain.  The Facades belongs to the same subgenre as Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn: detective novels influenced as much by Kafka as they are by Chandler.”  (The New Yorker)

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Atlantic Monthly Press):  Someone (Leo Tolstoy perhaps?) once said:  “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” Aminatta Forna's new novel satisfies at least one half of that literary axiom--the "arrival of a stranger" part (and I'm willing to bet there are journeys of a spiritual sort in these pages, too).  The Hired Man opens with Laura and her children driving in to the Croatian village of Gost and it takes off from there, propelled by Forna's lucid, readable prose.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Duro is off on a morning’s hunt when he sees something one rarely does in Gost: a strange car.  Later that day, he overhears its occupants, a British woman, Laura, and her two children, who have taken up residence in a house Duro knows well.  He offers his assistance getting their water working again, and soon he is at the house every day, helping get it ready as their summer cottage, and serving as Laura’s trusted confidant.  But the other residents of Gost are not as pleased to have the interlopers, and as Duro and Laura’s daughter Grace uncover and begin to restore a mosaic in the front that has been plastered over, Duro must be increasingly creative to shield the family from the town’s hostility, and his own past with the house’s former occupants.  As the inhabitants of Gost go about their days, working, striving to better themselves and their town, and arguing, the town’s volatile truths whisper ever louder.
Blurbworthiness: “A masterful novel by a gifted writer lays bare the secrets and scars of past conflicts...[Forna] reveals her story at a pace of measured suspense until it reads like a slow-burn thriller.  Her prose quietly grips us by the throat and then tightens its hold.  It is storytelling at its most taut.” (The Independent)

If I'd Known You Were Coming by Kate Milliken (University of Iowa Press):  There's always something exciting about discovering a fresh voice in fiction that spanks you hard across the face with vibrant language.  While I haven't had time to read all of its pages, Kate Milliken's debut collection If I'd Known You Were Coming seems to have the kind of energy and urgency that will make me sit back at the end and say, "Man, I was spanked but good by this book!"  Take, for instance, the Opening Lines to the first story, "A Matter of Time," which left me wishing I could stop all the clocks in my life so I could sit down and spend the rest of the day with this book:
      A hinge or a latch or some goddamn thing had rusted out and now the front door kept swinging open like an invitation.
      This was when things were better than they had been, but still bad enough Lorrie was sure it couldn't get any worse.  This was in Calabasas, in the five-room bungalow with the small square back porch that was partly detached, leaving a gap wide enough to catch a foot.  The bungalow with the little kidney-shaped pool with the cracked floor, empty, leaving only a slick of green pointing toward the drain.  This was on the other side of a head-high block wall, on the outside of a sprawling new development and just blocks from a mall--a mall, for god's sake.  On the weekends a line of cars snaked past the front windows, waiting to pull into the mall parking lot.  It was watching all those people, in their rip-sleeved t-shirts, trapped in their cars, looking sweaty, drumming their steering wheels, that made Lorrie all the more restless.
      "It's only a matter of time," Marty would say.  He wanted more, too.
I love the specificity of the details in these paragraphs: the treacherous gap on the porch, the green slime slick in the pool, the sweating mall-bound drivers with their ripped shirts.  Milliken puts me right there in that five-room bungalow with Lorrie and Marty.  Blurbworthiness: "The startling, darkly beautiful stories of Kate Milliken will make you uncomfortable, disquieted, suspicious, even weirdly aroused—and you will be left with the realization you don't know everyone you thought you knew, the equivalent of a camera pressed through the bedroom blinds of the couple next door.  She never flinches, but you will."  (Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon)

Trees in Paradise by Jared Farmer (W. W. Norton):  I was hooked on this book from the first line of the publisher's blurb: "California now has more trees than at any time since the late Pleistocene."  Really?  How is that possible?  Granted, my experiences in California have been confined to the concrete jungles of L.A. and San Francisco, but verdant landscapes are not the first things that come to mind when I think of that particular state.  I'm fascinated to see how Jared Farmer shows the history of a people by way of the natural world.  Here's the full Jacket Copy:
California now has more trees than at any time since the late Pleistocene.  This green landscape, however, is not the work of nature.  It's the work of history.  In the years after the Gold Rush, American settlers remade the California landscape, harnessing nature to their vision of the good life.  Horticulturists, boosters, and civic reformers began to "improve" the bare, brown countryside, planting millions of trees to create groves, wooded suburbs, and landscaped cities.  They imported the blue-green eucalypts whose tangy fragrance was thought to cure malaria.  They built the lucrative "Orange Empire" on the sweet juice and thick skin of the Washington navel, an industrial fruit.  They lined their streets with graceful palms to announce that they were not in the Midwest anymore.  To the north the majestic coastal redwoods inspired awe and invited exploitation. A resource in the state, the durable heartwood of these timeless giants became infrastructure, transformed by the saw teeth of American enterprise. By 1900 timber firms owned the entire redwood forest; by 1950 they had clear-cut almost all of the old-growth trees.  In time California's new landscape proved to be no paradise: the eucalypts in the Berkeley hills exploded in fire; the orange groves near Riverside froze on cold nights; Los Angeles's palms harbored rats and dropped heavy fronds on the streets below.  Disease, infestation, and development all spelled decline for these nonnative evergreens.  In the north, however, a new forest of second-growth redwood took root, nurtured by protective laws and sustainable harvesting.  Today there are more California redwoods than there were a century ago.
Blurbworthiness: “A breathtaking, dramatic, and insightful history of California as seen through the rise and fall of the state’s most iconic trees.  Beautifully written, every page is a revelation, bringing to vivid life the myriad ways in which California’s landscape was transformed by human greed and desire, often with disastrous results.  You will never think about a tree or the California Dream in the same way.”  (Eric Jay Dolin, author of When America First Met China)

Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll (Graywolf Press):  Norwegian writer Gaute Heivoll wastes no time in pulling readers right into the action of his novel, which is based on a true story.  Here are the Opening Lines:
      A few minutes past midnight on the morning of Monday, 5 June 1978, Johanna Vatneli switched off the kitchen light and carefully closed the door.  She took the four steps through the cold hall, opened the door to the bedroom a fraction, causing a strip of light to fall across the grey woollen rug they had spread over the bed, even though it was summer.  Inside, in the darkness, Olav, her husband, lay asleep.  She stood for some seconds on the threshold listening to his heavy breathing, then went into the small bathroom, where she let the tap run quietly, as she always did.  She stood bent over, washing her face, for a long time.  It was cold in there; she was standing barefoot on the rag mat and could feel the hard floor beneath her feet.  For a moment she looked herself in the eye.  This wasn’t something she usually did.  She leaned forwards and stared into the black pupils.  Then she tidied her hair and drank a glass of water from the tap.  Finally, she changed her knickers.  They were covered in blood.  She folded them and put them in a bowl of water to soak overnight.  She pulled a nightie over her head, and at that moment, in her abdomen, she felt a stabbing pain, the one that was always there but had worsened recently, particularly if she stretched or lifted something heavy.  It was like a knife.
      Before switching off the light she removed her teeth and dropped them with a plop into the glass of water on the vanity shelf under the mirror, beside Olav’s.
       Then she heard a car.
      It was dark in the living room, but the windows, strangely shiny and black, gleamed as though from a dim light outside in the garden.  She walked to the window and peered out.  The moon had risen above the treetops to the south, she saw the cherry tree, which was still in blossom, and had it not been for the mist she would have been able to see right down to Lake Livannet in the west.
      A car with no lights on drove past the house and continued at a slow pace along the road towards the collection of homesteads known as Mæsel.  The car was black, or perhaps red; she couldn’t tell.  Not moving at any great speed, it finally rounded the bend and was gone.  She stood by the window waiting for one, two, perhaps three minutes.  Then she went into the bedroom.
      ‘Olav,’ she whispered.  ‘Olav.’
      No answer.  He was in his usual deep sleep.  She hurried back into the living room, knocked into the chair arm, hurting her thigh, and reached the window in time to see the dark car returning.  It was coming out of the bend, and continued slowly past the living room wall.  It must have turned around by the Knutsens’ house, but no one was living there, they had travelled back to town the night before, she had seen them leaving herself.  Outside, she heard the crunch of tyres.  The low purr of the engine.  The sound of a radio.  Then the car ground to a halt.  She heard a door open, then silence.  Her heart was in her mouth.  She went back into the bedroom, put on the light and shook her husband.  This time he woke, but he didn’t get up until they both heard a loud bang and a tinkle of breaking glass from the kitchen.
      As soon as she entered the hall she smelt the pervasive stench of petrol.  She yanked open the kitchen door and was met by a wall of flames.  The whole room was ablaze.  It must have taken a matter of seconds.  The floor, the walls, the ceiling; the flames were licking upwards and wailing like a large, wounded animal.  She stood in the doorway paralysed with shock.  Deep within the wails she recognised–even though she had never heard it before–the sound of glass cracking.  She lingered there until the heat became too intense.  It was as though her face was being detached, dragged down from her forehead and over her eyes; her cheeks, her nose and mouth.
Hooked?  Intrigued?  Then you should be the first in line to get Before I Burn when it comes out in January.  Oh, you say you need a little more convincing?  All right, here's the Jacket Copy:
In 1970s Norway, an arsonist targets a small town for one long, terrifying month.  One by one, buildings go up in flames.  Suspicion spreads among the neighbors as they wonder if one of their own is responsible.  But as the heat and panic rise, new life finds a way to emerge.  Amid the chaos, only a day before the last house is set afire, the community comes together for the christening of a young boy named Gaute Heivoll.  As he grows up, stories about the time of fear and fire become deeply engrained in his young mind until, as an adult, he begins to retell the story.  At the novel’s apex the lives of Heivoll’s friends and neighbors mix with his own life, and the identity of the arsonist and his motivations are slowly revealed.

Glossolalia by David Jauss (Press 53): glos·so·la·lia, noun, gläs-ə-ˈlā-lē-ə, profuse and often emotionally charged speech that mimics coherent speech but is usually unintelligible to the listener and that is uttered in some states of religious ecstasy and in some schizophrenic states.  That may be how Mr. Webster defines the word, but when I open David Jauss' collection of "new and selected" short stories, I find some very intelligent, coherent and yet still emotionally-charged language.  Take, for instance, the Opening Lines to "Torque," the first story in the book:
The day after his wife left him, taking their three-year-old son with her, Larry Watkins took out his circular saw, attached the metal-cutting blade, and carefully sawed his 1974 Cadillac Fleetwood in half.  It was not an impulsive or crazy act, as his neighbors might have supposed.  He had spent almost four hours the day before making the proper measurements, drawing the cutting line with a magic marker, and chaining one bumper to the garage wall and the other to the Chevy so the two halves wouldn't spring together when he cut the frame.  And in a way, he had been planning this moment ever since 1985, when he came back to the U.S. after two years of guard duty and beer drinking for Uncle Sam in Germany.  To celebrate their release from the service, he and his buddy Spence had rented a limousine for an hour and cruised around Virginia Beach, drinking Scotch from the limo's bar and looking at girls through the tinted glass.  Spence was talking away about his plans: he was going to catch the next bus to Albany, marry his girl, and go to work in her father's office supply store.  Larry hadn't given much thought to his future, so when Spence asked him what he was going to do when he got back to Minnesota, he said the first thing that came to his mind: "I'm gonna get me one of these limousines."
Or this paragraph from the start of the titular "Glossolalia," winner of a Pushcart Prize:
That winter, like every winter before it, my father woke early each day and turned up the thermostat so the house would be warm by the time my mother and I got out of bed.  Sometimes I'd hear the furnace kick in and the shower come on down the hall and I'd wake just long enough to be angry that he'd woken me.  But usually I slept until my mother had finished making our breakfast.  By then, my father was already at Goodyear, opening the service bay for the customers who had to drop their cars off before going to work themselves.  Sitting in the sunny kitchen, warmed by the heat from the register and the smell of my mother's coffee, I never thought about him dressing in the cold dark or shoveling out the driveway by porchlight.  If I thought of him at all, it was only to feel glad he was not there.  In those days my father and I fought a lot, though probably not much more than most fathers and sons.  I was sixteen then, a tough age.  And he was forty, an age I've since learned is even tougher.
Based on these excerpts alone, Jauss seems to massage that same spongy part of my brain which is brought to life by the writings of Richard Ford and Raymond Carver.  I'm looking forward to the full literary ecstasy of Glossolalia.

Dark March by Colin Fleming (Outpost19):  The subtitle of Fleming's debut collection is "Stories for When the Rest of the World is Asleep."  From the looks of it, these are tales for the deep, dead, dark of night--fiction to be read in a solitary pool of lamplight.  They're fractured fairy tales, off-kilter fables, fabulist fiction in the vein of Calvino and Kafka.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
An island who becomes ambulatory and has adventures upon the land.  A frigate captain with a singularly artistic method of punishment.  Gulls who are players.  Crabs who crack wise.  A garage encrusted in blue crystals that harbors a secret.  Rival haunted forests fighting for top billing.  And a man who navigates that dream world known to anyone who has had a life pulled out from under them and a heart replaced with a question that has a beat of its own: What the hell is happening to me?  What the hell is happening to me?  What the hell is happening to me?  Dark March may be happening to you.  And probably some other things, too.
Blurbworthiness: "Colin Fleming is one of the truly exciting and significant writers of his generation."  (Richard Burgin, author of Hide Island)

BUtterfield 8 and The New York Stories by John O'Hara (Penguin Classics):  In my personal library, I have several stand-alone collections (Best American Short Stories, Big Little Books, Dell Mapbacks, and so on).  One of my most prized bookcases is chock-full of the black-spined Penguin Classics series (from Akhmatova to Xenophon).  There's something of a dark sexuality to the design of these volumes which really scratches my bibliophile's itch.  Now I'm happy to add John O'Hara to the collection (sandwiched between Pablo Neruda and Dorothy Parker--which is a very weird sandwich indeed): BUtterfield 8, with an introduction by Lorin Stein; and The New York Stories, with a foreword by E. L. Doctorow.  My only familiarity with O'Hara's works is the time I watched Elizabeth Taylor in the 1960 movie version of BUtterfield 8 and I don't remember it with any great clarity.  So, I'm very interested to participate in Penguin Classics' "John O'Hara revival," which began in May with a fabulous edition of his first novel, Appointment in Samarra.  By all accounts, O'Hara was a real son-of-a-bitch as a person and a bombast as a writer.  Still, I'm intrigued.... Here's the Jacket Copy for BUtterfield 8:
A masterpiece of American fiction and a bestseller upon its publication in 1935, BUtterfield 8 lays bare with brash honesty the unspoken and often shocking truths that lurked beneath the surface of a society still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.  One Sunday morning, Gloria wakes up in a stranger's apartment with nothing but a torn evening dress, stockings, and panties.  When she steals a fur coat from the wardrobe to wear home, she unleashes a series of events that can only end in tragedy.  Inspired by true events, this novel caused a sensation on its publication for its frank depiction of the relationship between a wild and beautiful young woman and a respectable, married man.
....and here's the Jacket Copy for The New York Stories:
Collected for the first time, here are the New York stories of one of the twentieth century’s definitive chroniclers of the city—the speakeasies and highballs, social climbers and cinema stars, mistresses and powerbrokers, unsparingly observed by a popular American master of realism.  Spanning his four-decade career, these more than thirty refreshingly frank, sparely written stories are among John O’Hara’s finest work, exploring the materialist aspirations and sexual exploits of flawed, prodigally human characters and showcasing the snappy dialogue, telling details and ironic narrative twists that made him the most-published short story writer in the history of The New Yorker.
Lorin Stein writes in his introduction to BUtterfield 8, "No one could call O'Hara unobserving.  On the topics of class, sex, and alcohol--that is, the topics that mattered to him--his novels amount to a secret history of American life.  So do his stories.  O'Hara may not have been the best story writer of the twentieth century, but he is the most addictive.  You can binge on his collections the way some people binge on Mad Men, and for some of the same reasons."  Okay, bring on the binge!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Enlightening Dark of the Cave: At the Bottom of Everything by Ben Dolnick

My praise of Ben Dolnick’s new novel At the Bottom of Everything begins with this scenario: It is 2 a.m. and I’m lying in bed, eyes snapped open like windowshades, unable to sleep because I’m thinking about Thomas and Adam, the main characters in Dolnick’s book.  I know, beyond any uncertainty, that I will flip back the covers, rise from that bed, and finish the book.

I’ve reached that point in the novel when—as sometimes happens with the best of novels—everything else in life (including sleep) falls away into unimportance and finishing the story becomes the supreme, uninterruptable task set before you.  Fifty pages from the end of At the Bottom of Everything, Adam has traveled to India in search of his childhood friend Thomas who is now lost, both bodily and in the corridors of his mind.  Both men are in their twenties and are trying to deal with a terrible accident for which they were responsible as reckless teenagers.  Guilt has wracked them each in separate ways and they drifted apart over the years—Adam (the novel’s narrator) is now a tutor who’s having sex with the mother of one of his students, and Thomas has seemed to disappear off the face of the earth.  His worried parents reach out to Adam in hopes he can track him down.  Though Adam resists being pulled back into Thomas’ life, he also knows it’s inevitable.  He tells us on the first page: “I’d spent the last couple of years (really the years since I was fifteen) ignoring the fact that Thomas needed me, as if his life were a flashing Check Engine light in the corner of my dashboard.”

That’s on the first page of the novel and by now, at 2 a.m. on a sleepless night, my own dashboard lights are blinking.  I am fully invested in the story, which at first meanders and ping-pongs back and forth between the present agonies of Adam’s love affairs and memories of his time together with Thomas when they were an unlikely couple at their school, “one of those pairs, like Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, that no one could quite believe in or understand.”

After more than 180 pages (of good, stellar writing, I might add), At the Bottom of Everything has turned a corner from interesting to compulsive.  I’m now in a go-kart rolling downhill, no helmet, fingers white-knuckling a steering wheel.  To experience the final pages of Dolnick’s novel is to read at a jarring, tooth-rattling pace.

Adam has tracked Thomas to a cave in India where, apparently, he has sojourned for spiritual enlightenment.  We’re guided into the cave and things really get tenser and bleaker inside as Adam ventures forward, the darkness pressing in like a clenched hand.  Dolnick likewise pressed me against the page with passages like this:
At some point maybe a hundred feet in, the cave, for what I could see of it, narrowed dramatically.  There was rubble and water around me, but the enterable part, now, was not much bigger than the space under a table.  Carved on a big rock next to this tunnel entrance was another of the little sitting figures from outside.  I’d thought that what I’d done already counted as searching the cave, but apparently to that point I’d only been milling around the lobby.  So in I went.  There are so few occasions for crawling in an adult’s life, I felt like I’d almost forgotten the mechanics of it.  Palm, palm, knee, knee, palm, palm, knee, knee.  It reminded me of crawling through the blue whale’s veins at the Natural History Museum.  When had that been?  The echoing breathing, the feeling of tininess.  I am not afraid of caves.  After fifty or so feet the tunnel took a turn, and to go on (I was now officially to the point where going on was easier than going back), I had to do a pull-up onto a little ledge, which I didn’t realize until I was back on all fours held a pool of water almost a foot deep.  “Oh, Thomas?  Thomas?  Can you hear me?  I hate you very much, Thomas.  You’re a motherfucking idiot, Thomas.  Can you hear me, you fucking moron?  I’m about to leave you.”  My knees and shins and hands were now soaked and freezing; I pulled on my sweatshirt, but that seemed only to make me heavier, not warmer.  To do a U-turn now would have entailed scraping the top of my head on the wall.   Only by making certain promises to myself could I keep from panicking completely: If it gets any narrower, I’ll turn around.  If it gets to where I’m not absolutely certain which direction the entrance is, I’ll turn around.  “I hate you so fucking much, Thomas, I really do.  I’m going to go home and I’m going to be clean and happy and you’re going to be fucking dead here, and it isn’t going to be my fault.  Are you happy now?  Are you purified?”
Purification is at the heart of At the Bottom of Everything, as is enlightenment. Dolnick subtly asks big questions: What is our responsibility to the lives of others?  Should we take it upon ourselves to rescue lost souls?  How do we forgive ourselves for bad deeds?  Is it ever possible to move on from the errors of our past?

As a guru tells Adam: “’Before the mind…can be…clear…the guilt must be…’  He made a gesture like someone pulling out a vegetable by the roots. ‘You act, but do not…understand.’”  Throughout the novel, Adam’s quest is to reach the point where he first understands, then acts; or, put another way, realizing the why of the what.  It’s fascinating to watch him go from a fretful live-wire sparking erratically, to someone who is more centered and accepting of his faults.

Though Adam’s parenthetical asides sometimes interrupt the flow of otherwise good sentences, there is a vulnerability to his character which drew me close to him during our brief, 239-page relationship.  I wanted, more than anything to see him pull out of the spiral of guilt—which Dolnick so wonderfully captures in these paragraphs:
      Remembering the accident, after spending a serious chunk of my life avoiding thinking about it, I’ve found myself wondering: So how did the guilt not kill me?  How did I manage to go to class or apply to college or to worry about girls or to do anything, really, other than pay secret visits to Mira Batra’s grave and weep?
      And the only answer I can give myself, which might not make particular sense, is that I think it did wreck my life, but maybe only in the way that the collapse of an underground water-pipe system would wreck the life of a city.  Which is to say: thoroughly but also, for a while at least, invisibly.
By the time he reaches India and he is stuck in that cave—which functions so well as metaphor, especially when his flashlight batteries die and the light goes out, “shrinks and closes in on itself like the last gulp of water down a bathtub drain”—when he is at this point, truly at the bottom of everything, that’s when I snapped awake and got out of bed.

At that point, finishing the novel became the most important immediate task at hand.  I had to get to the end and all I could think was, “Our Father who art in Heaven, please don’t let me die before page 239.”  I worried about a heart attack, a blood vessel bursting, an airplane engine randomly falling through the sky and crashing down onto the spot where I sat holding At the Bottom of Everything in my hands.

As you can see, I’m still here.  Thanks to two cups of coffee and a series of tooth-rattling sentences, I made it through to the satisfying end.  And I am a better man, a richer reader, for doing so.

Which is not to say I didn’t take a nap the next day to catch up on lost sleep.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Great Write Off

Picture me at 4 a.m. sitting at my desk, alternately staring blankly at my computer screen and then shooting off micro-bursts of words on the keyboard.  That's my rhythm.  Think, type, think, type.  My second-story office overlooks the street below.  My Butte neighborhood is dark at this hour.  Silent, still, holding its breath for the coming day.  But me, I need to stay ahead of that coming day.   Because I work a full-time day job (which I affectionately call the Paycheck Job), this is the best time—the only time—for me to get any meaningful writing done.  So, in the silence of any given pre-dawn morning along Argyle Street—a stillness rudely broken by the clicking keys on my laptop and Das Rheingold pouring from my speakers—this is where you’ll find me at work.

I write every day of every week (or I try to) but between now and Friday, I’ll be ratcheting up the pressure on myself because I’m writing for a good cause—namely, a fundraiser to support six non-profit organizations based in Michigan: Dzanc Books, Fiction Writers Review, 826michigan, The National Writers Series, and the Neutral Zone.  I’m on Team Dzanc, so any money raised will go toward the publisher’s many charitable endeavors, including its Writer in Residence Program, which places professional writers into classrooms to provide creative writing instructions to public school students who could not otherwise afford the opportunity.  I’ve written before about how Dzanc is simply one of the best champions of literacy and literary fiction in America today.  For a small sample of its titles, check out this previous edition of Front Porch Books.  I’m proud to be wearing the jersey for Team Dzanc in this year’s writing marathon.

How you can help
Go to Dzanc's Great Write Off page, scroll to the bottom to find my name and click on the Donate button and then fill out my name in the comment line provided in Paypal.  Of course, you’re free to sponsor any of the other Team Dzanc participants (like Matt Bell, Jac Jemc or Jason Ockert), but I do hope you’ll pledge on my behalf.  Why?  Because the more people who get behind me this week, the harder and faster I’ll write.  Lots of dollars means more wordy micro-bursts coming from the keyboard.

This week, I’m writing a short story (working title: “Bebout”) which is a semi-autobiographical account of my time in Army basic training.  I’m dedicating the words I write between now and Friday to the Great Write Off.  Whether or not I finish “Bebout” by the end of the week, rest assured your monetary pledges will fuel me all the way to the finish line.

What’s in it for you
When you donate, you'll receive a thank-you email with a donation receipt (Dzanc is a 501(c)3 non-profit, so your donations are tax deductible), along with the offer of a free eBook from the Dzanc catalog (all of their eBooks work on Kindle, Nook, PC/Mac, and all other reading devices).  In addition, anyone donating more than $100 will receive a one-year membership in Dzanc’s eBook Club (a $55 value).  AND everyone who donates will be entered in a random drawing after the Great Write Off is over, with one lucky winner receiving a full run of Dzanc titles from All Over by Roy Kesey through the forthcoming Neighbors of Nothing by the aforementioned Mr. Ockert.

But wait! There’s more...
Those are Dzanc’s incentives.  I’m adding a few more enticements of my own for anyone who pledges in my name:
  • Donate $20 and receive an original unpublished poem and whatever I'm able to finish writing on "Bebout" this week (with the understanding it will be in pretty rough shape)
  • Donate $50 and receive the poem, "Bebout," and an exclusive excerpt from Fobbit (cut from the final manuscript just before it went to press)
  • Donate $100 and receive the poem, "Bebout," the excerpt, and a signed copy of Fobbit
  • Donate $150 or more and receive all the prizes PLUS an ultra-cool Fobbit T-shirt, coffee mug and tote bag (as modeled by yours truly below)

Last year, The Great Write Off raised nearly $30,000 for participating organizations, thanks to the generosity of more than 100 participating writers and hundreds of donors.  My deepest appreciation to those who take a moment to join this year’s fundraiser.

Trailer Park Tuesday: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

Wake up, everybody!  The new Stephen King is here.  Doctor Sleep brings us back into the life of young Danny Torrance, the finger-wagging "Redrum" kid from King's 1977 novel The Shining.  Now a middle-aged alcoholic, Dan Torrance has drifted through life, trying to shake the demons that haunt him from the Overlook Hotel (where his axe-wielding father crumbled into madness one snowbound winter) and dealing with his psychic abilities (his "shining").  "Finally," as the publisher's jacket copy tells us, "he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him, and a job at a nursing home where his remnant “shining” power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying.  Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes 'Doctor Sleep.'  Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul and survival."   It's the usual King jazz riff of good versus evil.  Whether or not you dig it depends in large part on your personal history with King's novels.  I, for one, happen to dig it, Daddy-O, and can't wait to, um, dig into Doctor Sleep.  I posted a trailer for the novel earlier here at the blog, but this 30-second spot gives us a whole new set of disturbing images with which to decorate our nightmares: flies magnetically attracted to a man's face, silverware falling from a ceiling, a top hat blowing down the middle of a street, and, of course, the bloody scrawl of "Redrum" finger-painted on a wall.  This is primo King stuff, designed to rob us of our sleep.

Monday, September 23, 2013

My First Time: Susan Spann

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.  Today’s guest is Susan Spann, author of Claws of the Cat (Minotaur Books), the first of her Shinobi mysteries which feature ninja detective Hiro Hattori and his Portuguese Jesuit sidekick, Father Mateo.  Click here to read an excerpt from Claws of the Cat.  Spann is a transactional attorney and former law school professor whose practice focuses on publishing and business law.  Her hobbies include Asian cooking, fencing, archery, martial arts, rock climbing, and raising seahorses and corals in her marine aquarium.  You can find Spann online at, on Twitter and on Facebook.

My First Title (And Why I’m Glad It Changed)

A rose by another name might smell as sweet, but authors cringe at the thought of their books releasing under an altered title.

I did too, at first.  But now I’m glad.

And therein lies a tale.

My debut ninja detective novel, Claws of the Cat, was originally called Shinobi.  “Shinobi” is the Japanese pronunciation for a word most Westerners know as “ninja,” and since the book involves a ninja detective solving a murder in samurai-era Kyoto, it made good sense.  I loved the exotic sound of “Shinobi” and thought it was short and catchy enough to draw a reader’s eye.

My critique partners liked it.  My agent liked it.  Best of all, I could follow through with one-word Japanese titles for the subsequent books in the series.  I started Book 2 with the working title Kazu while my agent sent Shinobi on submission.

Shortly after the manuscript sold as part of a three-book deal, I received a politely-worded email from my editor at Minotaur, suggesting that I brainstorm “alternate titles.”

My sparkling, newly-under-contract world ground to a halt.

They wanted to what??

For the first few hours, I despaired.  I would never find a title that suited my novel as well as Shinobi.  This was the only title that would work.  Nothing else could capture the exotic, mysterious flair of a ninja detective.  Hope was lost!

Later that evening, I sat myself down and thought the issue through.  By morning, I realized my editor was right.  Shinobi worked for the series, but it sounded too foreign and possibly inaccessible—not at all like the fast-paced mystery I had written.  Brainstorming followed, but good ideas were few and far between.  It took me days to create a list of alternatives, and most of them truly stunk.

In fact, I felt worse than when I started.  I knew the title needed changing but didn’t know how to fix it.

However, once I filled my hourly quota of “title-based despair,” I shot off an email to my agent and another one to my writer friends, offering up my list of alternate titles and seeking help.

I received quite a few suggestions, but one in particular hit the mark exactly.

My list contained the name “Cat's Claw”–a translation of neko-te, the Japanese name of a weapon favored by female ninjas (aka, “kunoichi”).  The weapon appears in the book, so it had an interesting connection, and since my ninja detective has a kitten, “Cat’s Claw” also contained a hidden pun.  But I didn’t like it.

One of my critique partners emailed back: “Why don’t you flip that it Claws of the Cat?”

The heavens opened.  Unicorns danced.  A thousand ninjas rattled their swords in agreement.

OK, maybe not.  But I knew at once I had found my title.  My agent liked it.  My editor liked it.  Best of all, I liked it, too.  In fact, I liked it more than I liked Shinobi.  Claws of the Cat had the edgy vibe I wanted, and it gave me an excellent theme for the rest of the series.  The second book became Blade of the Samurai, and the third one Flask of the Drunken Master.

But for my editor’s “gentle nudge,” I would have clung to Shinobi forever, and would have done myself and my book a great disservice.  Shinobi remains a part of the series title, and I’m glad, but the experience taught me a very important lesson.

A rose by another name can smell as sweet–and, sometimes, a book by another title becomes a better and more compelling read.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sunday Sentence: At the Bottom of Everything by Ben Dolnick

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

Raymond was British; he looked to be about eighty, and he seemed to have dressed for a safari weeks or month ago and then not bothered to change.  Stray feathers of white hair flapped from the sides of his head; his glasses made his eyes look like things preserved in jars.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

My Library: Bill Roorbach Culls the Collection

Reader: Bill Roorbach
Location: Western Maine
Collection size: 3,000 books
The one book I'd run back into a burning house to rescue: I would not run into a burning building for a book.  The whiskey maybe.  And if my first edition of The Great Gatsby were next it, maybe I'd grab that.
Favorite book from childhood: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Guilty pleasure book: Candy by Terry Southern

I cleaned out my studio, everything including desk, shelves, chairs, bedroll (I'm a serious napper), and books.  Lots and lots of books, about 900--too many to keep in the new, ergonomically uncluttered space of my dreams--and including atlases and dictionaries and a seriously outmoded Columbia Encyclopedia that I love nevertheless, fifteen pounds if it's an ounce, endpapers red.  That joined the elite group of books that would stay, safely out of the way of my renovations in the long row of shelves under the windows.  Another group of keepers were headed to the house, where I'd have to make room for them.  The final group, the tough-luck crowd, were going to have to leave the property altogether.

Start there.

I filled one box by just a quick and expedient culling, no problem, about 40 books, wondering the while why we all want to keep making more of these things, a subject for another post.  I pictured Jim at Twice Sold Tales in town--he has a stern view of boxes full of books and certainly must be ambivalent when he sees one.  And he was going to see this one, and with luck several more.

In the house a couple thousand books to go through, maybe as many as three thousand, which was the size of Samuel Pepys library in an era when to own any book was a serious accomplishment.  And I must now and forever institute the rule he made for himself when his shelves were full: if a book comes into the house, a book must go out.  And if, say, 200 books from my studio are going inside, that means 200 books must leave.

My culling formula starts simple: If I've never read it and never will, it's gone.  That sounds straightforward enough, but I struggle even with such direct advice.  A fat biography of Jane Goodall can go, despite its authority.  Into the box, easy.  Any number of review copies of novels and Gulf War books and advice and joke books people bought me when I turned fifty.  Box, box, box.

But then it gets hard.  Of course, some never-read-it-never-will books get retained (this is a useful place for the passive voice, don't you think, as if I weren't involved with the decision to retain?).  Like The Apes of God by Windham Lewis.  I loved Tarr, which I read in college, though it has disappeared.  But I've just never managed to crack The Apes of God.  It's a Black Sparrow Press book, though, nice woodblock print on the thick-paper cover, good to hold, good to look at, and reminds me of Michael O'Brien, the professor who suggested it, a guy who would show up for class most mornings so hungover he could only rub his face and cough and mutter Irishisms.  By the end of the semester, class was meeting at the Chanticleer, a bar downtown in Ithaca, where the poor guy could feel at home and rail at us.  You're not fit to mind mice at a crossroads!

Another category is books I read and didn't like or hated, but have kept and carted around for years.  Gone!  One was called Manhood in America, which I reviewed for Newsday, back when they had a books section.  I really trashed the thing and the author, poor guy, a garble-tongued sociologist, wrote me several rounds of hate mail to which I replied politely.  I rubberbanded the galleys to the hardcover and dropped them in the box: gone, both guilt and paper!

Gift books.  I know who gave me each and have fond feelings in some cases.  So fond that some books remain in my shelves despite the horror of them.  Like The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, a Harvard linguist.  My mother gave it to me, all cross with it, asked me if I wouldn't read it and explain it to her.  I read a solid four pages and gave up, not because it was too abstruse but because it was just too glib.  It turned out she'd only read four pages, too, and wanted mostly just to get rid of the thing.  I'm keeping it--every time I cross its path I smile (she died five years ago)(I found several books with her lost, old-fashioned handwriting in them--in her day you always wrote your name and often an occasion).  And really, maybe I'll grow open enough to read it one day.

And (uh-oh) books by friends, of which I have a lot, many of them read in manuscript, some of them multiple times.  But a few never touched.  I mean, there are people you love who write things you don't--it's simple as that.  They do not go in the box.  But they slow me down, long looks at author photos, obsolete bio paragraphs, old times.  Often blurbs from myself on the back.  (Kind of my work, like wisdom teeth you keep in a little wooden case.)  Well, one went in the box... I won't mention his petty little famous name but he was a prick to me on a panel and that was it for him, and now his book, a relief, as every time I came across it: grrr.

Books by students.  A long shelf.  These, you really have to keep.  Many are self-published, most are inscribed, some are quite successful, not a few I've labored over as if they were my own, hours of painstaking work, tons of cheerleading, the blurbs again, what are you going to do?  You keep them, probably to be tossed when you die.  (Note deflective use of second person.)

25 years of The Paris Review.  I like the interviews, what can I say?  I could have as many or more years of many other lit mags I perpetually subscribe to, but there just isn't room.  Plimpton got the nod.  The others I gave away to students over the years.  Not a bad thing to do with books in boxes, by the way.  When I was done at Holy Cross after my wonderful experience as the Jenks Chair in Contemporary Letters (five years!), I left fifty or so books and journals on the bench outside my office and by the third morning only three books were left, all of them Norton anthologies.

But about 200 books came home with me, some of my very favorite books, truth be told, the stuff I brought with me, the stuff I taught from, and those books are still in boxes in the barn: no room at the inn.  But that's the point of this exercise--moving books out so books can come in.  I'll try to get many of those office books into my studio when it's ready.

Another category is books I haven't read but might just.  These include a lot of classics.  A lot.  Some I've been dragging around since college, too.  And books I really am going to read, too many of them for one lifetime, alas, but intention counts, especially for writers.  I'm going to make a special shelf for them so I can have a look before any trip to the bookstore, like looking in the fridge before you go buy groceries.  Though then again the books stay fresh.

The biggest category, of course, is books I've read and loved and want to have near me.  One of them is The Books in My Life by Henry Miller (is he still anybody's hero?).  In the first pages he advises never keeping a book, always passing it along.  I read it when I was nineteen and proceeded to give away all my books for many years, keeping only a valiant core, two boxes worth, that included The Books in My Life.  I've got a lot of biographies of writers (best way to find role models, and anti role models), filled two whole shelves bringing them all together in one place finally, something I've planned for years like a trip to Asia.

I would like to have all my Black Sparrow titles back.  Bukowski's Women, what happened to that?  There--I've mentioned Black Sparrow twice, and this must be meaningful.  One day I'll tell you about Fielding Dawson.

I stopped in at Twice Sold Tales to warn Jim I was coming.  He's got a practiced rap for this situation, stiffened visibly, drew himself up.  "It's your choice," he said.  "Bring 'em in.  But don't get mad at me if you don't like my offer.  They're your books, you do what you want with them if you don't like my price.  Take them to the Literacy Project book sale!"  He gets pretty dramatic.  But you know he still wants to look.  The horror in his face can't hide the gleam in his eye.

And I'm not after money so much as just a good home for these titles, some of which have lived with me years and nearly all of which will outlive me.

Up and to the bookstore!  Jim follows me to my car with a handtruck and loads my boxes, keeps 'em overnight, calls the next day: 30 bucks.  But I have to come take the books he didn't want.  Back at the store I take the cash and take my books back and Jim and I get to talking about a book I'd bought from him recently, We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich.  The woods she took to, back in the early 1940s, were very near here.  That discussion got us to a book called Nine Mile Bridge by Helen Hamlin, who lived a few years in much more remote woods up near the Allagash about the same time period.  So of course I took the book and gave him back a ten-dollar bill.  The book was marked fifteen, so I felt I'd got a deal.  And I will read it one day.  I will.

Bill Roorbach is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction, including the Flannery O'Connor Prize and O. Henry Prize winner Big Bend, Into Woods, and Temple Stream.  His latest novel, Life Among Giants, was published to resounding applause from critics and readers alike and landed on many Top Books of 2012 lists.  His work has been published in Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Playboy, The New York Times Magazine, Granta, and dozens of other magazines and journals.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.   Readers are encouraged to send high-quality photos (minimum 150 dpi) 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.

Author photo by Sarah A. Sloane

Friday, September 20, 2013

Friday Freebie: After Her by Joyce Maynard

Congratulations to Yvonne Jefferson, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson.  Three cheers also go out to Laurie Pitts who won the contest for the Fobbit audiobook.

This week's book giveaway is After Her, the new novel by Joyce Maynard (author of Labor Day and The Good Daughters).  On a personal note, After Her went to the highest elevations on my To-Be-Read mountain o' books (aka Mt. NeverRest) from the minute I read the opening lines of the novel recently released by William Morrow:
      A little over thirty years ago, on a June day just before sunset—alone on a mountain in Marin County, California—a man came toward me with a length of piano wire stretched between his hands, and the intention of ending my days.  I was fourteen years old, and many others had already died at his hands.  I carry the knowledge of what it is to look into a man's eyes and believe his face is the last thing I will ever see.
      I have my sister to thank that I am here to tell what happened that day.  Two times, it was my sister who saved me, though I was not able to do the same for my sister.
      This is our story.
Here's more about what you'll find in the rest of the pages of After Her: Summer, 1979.  A dry, hot Northern California school vacation stretches before Rachel and her younger sister, Patty--the daughters of a larger-than-life, irresistibly handsome (and chronically unfaithful) detective father and the mother whose heart he broke.  When we first meet her, Patty is eleven--a gangly kid who loves basketball and dogs and would do anything for her older sister, Rachel.  Rachel is obsessed with making up stories and believes she possesses the gift of knowing what's in the minds of people around her.  She has visions, whether she wants to or not.  Left to their own devices, the sisters spend their days studying record jackets, concocting elaborate fantasies about the mysterious neighbor who moved in down the street, and playing dangerous games on the mountain that looms behind their house.  When young women start turning up dead on the mountain, the girls' father is put in charge of finding the murderer known as the "Sunset Strangler."  Watching her father's life slowly unravel as months pass and more women are killed, Rachel embarks on her most dangerous game yet...using herself as bait to catch the killer.  But rather than cracking the case, the consequences of Rachel's actions will destroy her father's career and alter forever the lives of everyone she loves.  Thirty years later, still haunted by the belief that the killer remains at large, Rachel constructs a new strategy to smoke out the Sunset Strangler and vindicate her father--a plan that unexpectedly unearths a long-buried family secret.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of After Her, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Sept. 26, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 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 email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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