Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sunday Sentence: The Door That Always Opens by Julie Funderburk

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

               white butcher paper
               the tongue wrapped
               separate from the heart

The Door That Always Opens by Julie Funderburk

Friday, December 2, 2016

Friday Freebie: The Just-in-Time-for-the-Holidays Big Box of Books Giveaway

Congratulations to Lisa Murray, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch.

This week’s contest is for another clear-the-shelves Big Box of Books which should make just about any reader smile. I gathered up several new releases, as well as a few older books from my personal library, for this latest giveaway. Some are hardcover, some are paperback, and all are in new (or nearly new) condition. ONE lucky reader will win THIRTEEN books just in time for the holidays. Will it be you? Keep reading for more information about each book...

Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington:  Welcome to Spencerville, Virginia, 1977. Eight-year-old Rocky worships his older brother, Paul. Sixteen and full of rebel cool, Paul spends his days cruising in his Chevy Nova blasting Neil Young, cigarette dangling from his lips, arm slung around his beautiful, troubled girlfriend. Paul is happy to have his younger brother as his sidekick. Then one day, in an act of vengeance against their father, Paul picks up Rocky from school and nearly abandons him in the woods. Afterward, Paul disappears. Seven years later, Rocky is a teenager himself. He hasn’t forgotten being abandoned by his boyhood hero, but he’s getting over it, with the help of the wealthy neighbors’ daughter, ten years his senior, who has taken him as her lover. Unbeknownst to both of them, their affair will set in motion a course of events that rains catastrophe on both their families. After a mysterious double murder brings terror and suspicion to their small town, Rocky and his family must reckon with the past and find out how much forgiveness their hearts can hold.

Civilianized by Michael Anthony:  After twelve months of military service in Iraq, Michael Anthony stepped off a plane, seemingly happy to be home--or at least back on U.S. soil. He was twenty-one years old, a bit of a nerd, and carrying a pack of cigarettes that he thought would be his last. Two weeks later, Michael was stoned on Vicodin, drinking way too much, and picking a fight with a very large Hell's Angel. At his wit's end, he came to an agreement with himself: If things didn't improve in three months, he was going to kill himself. Civilianized is a memoir chronicling Michael's search for meaning in a suddenly destabilized world. “Michael Anthony writes with emotional clarity, dark wit, and unpremeditated honesty. But what stayed with me most, I think, were the quiet punches to the gut: That to kill oneself, one must not only feel like dying, but like killing, and the feelings could not be farther apart. That what messed with him most was not the brutality of his foes but the moral bankruptcy of certain commanders. That it is not so much the intensity of combat that derails a soldier but the flatness of its absence. I won't soon forget this book.” (Mary Roach, author of Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War)

Huck Out West by Robert Coover:  Our leading postmodernist novelist turns his iconoclastic eye to a great American classic in this sequel to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. At the end of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, on the eve of the Civil War, Huck and Tom Sawyer decide to escape “sivilization” and “light out for the Territory.” In Robert Coover’s Huck Out West, also “wrote by Huck,” the boys do just that, riding for the famous but short-lived Pony Express, then working as scouts for both sides in the war. They are suddenly separated when Tom decides he’d rather own civilization than leave it, returning east with his new wife, Becky Thatcher, to learn the law from her father. Huck, abandoned and “dreadful lonely,” hires himself out to “whosoever.” He rides shotgun on coaches, wrangles horses on a Chisholm Trail cattle drive, joins a gang of bandits, guides wagon trains, gets dragged into U.S. Army massacres, suffers a series of romantic and barroom misadventures. He is eventually drawn into a Lakota tribe by a young brave, Eeteh, an inventive teller of Coyote tales who “was having about the same kind of trouble with his tribe as I was having with mine.” There is an army colonel who wants to hang Huck and destroy Eeteh’s tribe, so they’re both on the run, finding themselves ultimately in the Black Hills just ahead of the 1876 Gold Rush. This period, from the middle of the Civil War to the centennial year of 1876, is probably the most formative era of the nation’s history. In the West, it is a time of grand adventure, but also one of greed, religious insanity, mass slaughter, virulent hatreds, widespread poverty and ignorance, ruthless military and civilian leadership, huge disparities of wealth. Only Huck’s sympathetic and gently comical voice can make it somehow bearable.

Napoleon’s Last Island by Thomas Keneally:  The bestselling author of Schindler’s List and The Daughters of Mars returns with a remarkable novel about the friendship between a quick-witted young woman and one of history’s most intriguing figures, Napoleon Bonaparte, during the final years of his life in exile on St. Helena. In October 1815, after losing the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte was banished to the island of Saint Helena. There, in one of the most remote places on earth, he lived out the final six years of his life. On this lonely island with no chance of escape, he found an unexpected ally: a spirited British girl named Betsy Balcombe who lived on the island with her family. While Napoleon waited for his own accommodations to be built, the Balcombe family played host to the infamous exile, a decision that would have devastating consequences for them all. In Napoleon’s Last Island, “master of character development and period detail” (Kirkus Reviews) Thomas Keneally recreates Betsy’s powerful and complex friendship with the man dubbed The Great Ogre, her enmities and alliances with his remaining courtiers, and her dramatic coming-of-age. Bringing a shadowy period of history to life with a brilliant attention to detail, Keneally tells the untold story of one of Europe’s most enigmatic, charismatic, and important figures, and the ordinary British family who dared to forge a connection with him.

Into the Sun by Deni Ellis Béchard:  When a car explodes in a crowded part of Kabul ten years after 9/11, a Japanese-American journalist is shocked to discover that the passengers were acquaintances—three fellow ex-pats who had formed an unlikely love triangle. Alexandra was a human rights lawyer for imprisoned Afghan women. Justin was a born-again Christian who taught at a local school. Clay was an ex-soldier who worked as a private contractor. The car’s driver, Idris, was one of Justin’s most promising pupils—and he is missing. Drawn to the secrets of these strangers, and increasingly convinced the events that led to the fatal explosion weren’t random, the journalist follows a trail that leads from Kabul to Louisiana, Maine, Québec, and Dubai. In the process, the tortured narratives of these individuals become inseparable from the larger story of America’s imperial misadventures. In this monumental novel, Deni Ellis Béchard draws an unsentimental portrait of those who flock to warzones, indelibly capturing these journalists, mercenaries, idealists, and aid workers. More importantly, Béchard vividly brings to life the city of Kabul itself, along with the people who live there: the hungry, determined, and resourceful locals who are just as willing as their occupiers to reinvent themselves to survive.

The Muralist by B. A. Shapiro:  When Alizée Benoit, an American painter working for the Works Progress Administration, vanishes in New York City in 1940, no one knows what happened to her. Not her Jewish family living in German-occupied France. Not her artistic patron and political compatriot, Eleanor Roosevelt. Not her close-knit group of friends, including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Lee Krasner. And, some seventy years later, not her great-niece, Danielle Abrams, who while working at Christie’s auction house uncovers enigmatic paintings hidden behind works by those now-famous Abstract Expressionist artists. Do they hold answers to the questions surrounding her missing aunt? “B. A. Shapiro captivated us in 2012 with her addictive novel The Art Forger. Now, she’s back with another thrilling tale from the art world.” (Entertainment Weekly)

The Wind Twirls Everything by Francine Witte:  Francine Witte’s book of flash fiction/prose poems gives us two wonderful things. The first is her nimble and effortless use of story, form, and technique. This collection of 25 short form vignettes shows us how quickly a skilled writer can create place, character, conflict, and move a story to a stratifying conclusion. Witte who is also a poet and a playwright applies these two forms into interesting, fast moving short stories. Her technique is effortless and invisible, but central to making these stories move forward. The second gift of “The Wind Twirls Everything” is her reflection on love, clueless good hearted men, place, and family. The men who populate her stories “try” to do the right thing, they are not without heart and soul, but still they do manage to stumble. Into this mix are the women who love, long for, or try to stay away from them. This collision of interests and abilities gives the stories in this collection their strong core. She is quick and nimble as she riffs around a variety of topics: a chair, a love, a city, a time, a man, a woman....What a treat to see Witte bob and weave structure, pacing, and story with such alacrity. How wonderful to read stories that run no more than 350 words in length contain so much heart, humor, yearning and meaning. (from a review by Charles P. Ries)

The Midwife by Katja Kettu:  Orphaned into an unforgiving foster home and raised as an outsider, Weird-Eye shoulders her unflattering nickname. She relies on her vivid imagination to sustain her work as a midwife bringing newborns into the world while World War II overruns her native Finland, desecrating life. She finds herself drawn to the handsome, otherworldly Johannes Angelhurst, a war photographer working for the SS. To be near him, Weird-Eye—whom Johannes lovingly calls Wild-Eye—volunteers to serve as a nurse at the prison camp where he has been assigned. From the brutality of the camps to the splendor of the aurora borealis above the Arctic Sea, The Midwife tells of a stormy romance, the desolate beauty of a protective fjord, and the deeply personal battles waged as World War II came to an end.

The Pavilion of Former Wives by Jonathan Baumbach:  A man and woman carry out an unusual courtship through a series of letters that gradually strip away their facades. A husband and wife argue about an infidelity that may never have happened. A liaison that hinges on a lost car ends before it begins when dreams influence reality. And a man confronts the specters of his failed relationships in the mysterious Pavilion of Former Wives. In 14 thematically linked stories, Jonathan Baumbach explores the sour and bitter sweetness of relationships just beginning and already over, and the frailty that love makes of us. A staple in the literary scene for over 40 years, Jonathan Baumbach is the author of 14 books of fiction, including You, or The Invention of Memory, On The Way To My Father’s Funeral: New and Selected Stories, and B, a novel. He has published over ninety stories in Esquire, Open City, Boulevard, and elsewhere, and his fiction has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Prize, and The Best of Tri-Quarterly.

The Forgetting Time by Sharon Guskin:  What would you do if your four-year-old son claimed he had lived another life and that he wants to go back to it? That he wants his other mother? Single mom Janie is trying to figure out what is going on with her beloved son Noah. Noah has never been ordinary. He loves to make up stories, and he is constantly surprising her with random trivia someone his age has no right knowing. She always chalked it up to the fact that Noah was precocious―mature beyond his years. But Noah’s eccentricities are starting to become worrisome. One afternoon, Noah’s preschool teacher calls Janie: Noah has been talking about shooting guns and being held under water until he can’t breathe. Suddenly, Janie can’t pretend anymore. The school orders him to get a psychiatric evaluation. And life as she knows it stops for herself and her darling boy. For Jerome Anderson, life as he knows it has already stopped. Diagnosed with aphasia, his first thought as he approaches the end of his life is, I’m not finished yet. Once an academic star, a graduate of Yale and Harvard, a professor of psychology, he threw everything away to pursue an obsession: the stories of children who remembered past lives. Anderson became the laughing stock of his peers, but he never stopped believing that there was something beyond what anyone could see or comprehend. He spent his life searching for a case that would finally prove it. And with Noah, he thinks he may have found it. Soon, Noah, Janie, and Anderson will find themselves knocking on the door of a mother whose son has been missing for eight years. When that door opens, all of their questions will be answered. Gorgeously written and fearlessly provocative, Sharon Guskin’s debut explores the lengths we will go for our children. It examines what we regret in the end of our lives and hope for in the beginning, and everything in between.

Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons:  THE PAST...Caught behind the lines of Hitler’s Final Solution, Saul Laski is one of the multitudes destined to die in the notorious Chelmno extermination camp. Until he rises to meet his fate and finds himself face to face with an evil far older, and far greater, than the Nazis themselves. THE PRESENT...Compelled by the encounter to survive at all costs, so begins a journey that for Saul will span decades and cross continents, plunging into the darkest corners of 20th century history to reveal a secret society of beings who may often exist behind the world’s most horrible and violent events. Killing from a distance, and by darkly manipulative proxy, they are people with the psychic ability to use humans: read their minds, subjugate them to their wills, experience through their senses, feed off their emotions, force them to acts of unspeakable aggression. Each year, three of the most powerful of this hidden order meet to discuss their ongoing campaign of induced bloodshed and deliberate destruction. But this reunion, something will go terribly wrong. Saul’s quest is about to reach its elusive object, drawing hunter and hunted alike into a struggle that will plumb the depths of mankind’s attraction to violence, and determine the future of the world itself. “Carrion Comfort is one of the three greatest horror novels of the 20th century. Simple as that.” (Stephen King)

The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester:  The Professor and the Madman, masterfully researched and eloquently written, is an extraordinary tale of madness, genius, and the incredible obsessions of two remarkable men that led to the making of the Oxford English Dictionary--and literary history. The compilation of the OED began in 1857, it was one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. As definitions were collected, the overseeing committee, led by Professor James Murray, discovered that one man, Dr. W. C. Minor, had submitted more than ten thousand. When the committee insisted on honoring him, a shocking truth came to light: Dr. Minor, an American Civil War veteran, was also an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane. This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell:  From award-winning writer David Mitchell comes a sinewy, meditative novel of boyhood on the cusp of adulthood and the old on the cusp of the new. Black Swan Green tracks a single year in what is, for thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, the sleepiest village in muddiest Worcestershire in a dying Cold War England, 1982. But the thirteen chapters, each a short story in its own right, create an exquisitely observed world that is anything but sleepy. A world of Kissingeresque realpolitik enacted in boys’ games on a frozen lake; of “nightcreeping” through the summer backyards of strangers; of the tabloid-fueled thrills of the Falklands War and its human toll; of the cruel, luscious Dawn Madden and her power-hungry boyfriend, Ross Wilcox; of a certain Madame Eva van Outryve de Crommelynck, an elderly bohemian emigré who is both more and less than she appears; of Jason’s search to replace his dead grandfather’s irreplaceable smashed watch before the crime is discovered; of first cigarettes, first kisses, first Duran Duran LPs, and first deaths; of Margaret Thatcher’s recession; of Gypsies camping in the woods and the hysteria they inspire; and, even closer to home, of a slow-motion divorce in four seasons. Pointed, funny, profound, left-field, elegiac, and painted with the stuff of life, Black Swan Green is David Mitchell’s subtlest and most effective achievement to date.

If you’d like a chance at winning ALL THE BOOKS, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 8, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky readers on Dec. 9. 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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Trailer Park Tuesday: Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch

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

     This is where your lost toys went, the one the dog chewed, the one your mother threw out without asking when you left home, the ones you always wondered about.
     The island says: bring me your lost, your scorned, forgotten masses, bring me your maimed and ridiculous, bring me so much as a finger or a toe and I’ll take you in. Be you ever so grotesque or beauty sublime, it’s all the same to me. Everyone’s allowed in. Doesn’t matter who you were or what your story, doesn’t matter what state you’re in. You could’ve been smashed to smithereens, even your broken bits are welcome here.
From these opening sentences onward, Orphans of the Carnival, the new novel by Carol Birch, asks us to look beyond the superficial, beneath the skin, below the grotesque. These are particularly pertinent words in this new nation under Trump. We may label the unfamiliar ones among us “freaks,” but aren’t we all deformed in some way or another? Orphans of the Carnival centers around Julia, a 19th-century woman with an “utterly unusual face,” who is put on display in a touring show. The trailer, with its soft carnival music and flickering questions, offers a good tease of the book without giving too much away. In the end, this minute-long video does make me want to “look closer.”

Monday, November 28, 2016

My First Time: Linda Kass

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 Linda Kass, author of Tasa’s Song, a novel that Amber Dermont (The Starboard Sea) calls “a lasting tribute to life during wartime, including the hardships and triumphs that define the true nature of grace and resilience.” Early in her career as a journalist, Linda worked as a magazine reporter and correspondent for regional and national publications, such as TIME and The Detroit Free Press. Her debut novel, Tasa’s Song, inspired by her mother’s life in eastern Poland during World War II, was published in May by She Writes Press. “A Book in Concert” will continue this December at the Columbus Museum of Art, and next March at the Jewish Community Centers in both Miami and Boca Raton, Florida.

My First Book in Concert

Driving in my car one morning in April 2015, shortly after signing a contract for my first novel Tasa’s Song with She Writes Press, and thinking about my book’s protagonist, a violin prodigy, I had a sudden thought to call my friend Chas Wetherbee. I’ve known Chas since 1995, shortly after we both joined the Columbus Symphony Orchestra—I as a trustee and Chas as first violinist and concertmaster. Ten years later, Chas moved to Colorado and co-founded Carpe Diem String Quartet, an internationally acclaimed and boundary-breaking ensemble whose members include a violist from Tacoma, Washington, and a second violinist and a cellist, both from Boston. The group returns to Columbus several times a year for a chamber series that I attend whenever possible.

The timing of my call to Chas was perfect—he would soon be in Columbus for a concert performance and suggested we meet for breakfast. I told him about the novel I’d just completed, that it was headed for publication a year hence, and that it was filled with music. He said to bring my manuscript.

That fateful meeting was the genesis of what became “A Book in Concert” and my first large public reading for my novel.

A story about growing up and falling in love during the gathering storm of World War II, Tasa’s Song was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland. Because the fictional Tasa Rosinski is a talented violinist, music weaves its way throughout the narrative. I explained to Chas I had referenced so much music for the novel that I created a musical playlist to keep track of it all. He agreed to review the manuscript for technical correctness, and then wondered aloud if we might collaborate. He told me that programming for Carpe Diem’s 10th anniversary finale concert in Columbus, planned for late May of 2016, had not been finalized. The timing aligned well with the May 3, 2016 release of my novel. Pairing my reading of scenes from the novel with the very music described or evoked could yield a powerful expression, Chas suggested, greater than what either art form could achieve on its own.

“So, does Tasa have a song?” Chas asked. I said no, her “song” is her journey of hope, her story. “I could compose her song,” he replied. I was dumbfounded.

By August of 2015, Chas sent me a list of composers in my playlist that the quartet wanted to play for this concert so we could finalize the program in time for the season brochure. I combed through my manuscript for the exact right scene, placing my selections in a particular order and creating brief introductions to contextualize each scene. This way an audience who had not read the book could follow along with the narrative and the music it engendered. We settled on seven scenes followed by seven musical selections—a two-hour program with one intermission. And the program would open with Chas Wetherbee playing his four-minute composition, “Tasa’s Song,” based on the novel’s main character and her harrowing, yet hopeful, journey amid a world war.

For most of the year that followed, we left the script alone, communicating more frequently as we got closer to the May concerts. But then, in early May, I lost my beloved mother, the inspiration for Tasa and my novel. An even deeper significance inserted itself into our program. The world premiere was held on May 20, 21 and 22, 2016—three stirring performances transforming a reading of Tasa’s Song into “A Book in Concert.”

The concerts, and the fellowship with Carpe Diem, became a source of comfort to me at a time of loss. As I began to read aloud at the first evening’s show, I found a voice I would use throughout the weekend readings. A natural rhythm followed, as my words, and the scenes they depicted, seamlessly fused into yet another kind of musical expression, at times whimsical, then filled with melancholy, melodic then dissonant. I heard the artful Paganini resonating off their strings, breathing life into Tasa’s musical inspiration and aspiration. As Carpe Diem played the energetic Czardas, Tasa’s first public recital as a solo violinist performing Zigeunerweisen by Sarasate came to life—complete with frolicking gypsies! I felt the tension of Soviet oppression in the dissonant notes of Shostakovich’s String Quartet no. 8 in C Minor. And in Tales from the Vienna Woods, I imagined the gaiety of the peasants dancing the waltz, losing themselves as I did, in the art itself.

In the months since, the voice I discovered for these early concerts has stayed with me for all my readings of Tasa’s Song. As I stand at a podium, whether in Chicago or Brooklyn or Columbus, and begin to speak, a memory filled with rhythm and vibrancy returns to carry my words with music.

Author photo by Lorn Spolter

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Sunday Sentence: The Kid by Ben Bradlee Jr.

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

“He is as loose as red flannels on a clothes line, but as beautifully coordinated as a fine watch when he tenses for action.”

Sportswriter Dick Cullum on Ted Williams
quoted in The Kid by Ben Bradlee Jr.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Friday Freebie: Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch

Congratulations to Martha Burzynski, Matthew Schlieper and Terry Pearson, winners of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk.

This week’s contest is for Orphans of the Carnival by Carol Birch. Keep scrolling for more information about the novel.

From the Booker short-listed author of Jamrach’s Menagerie comes the extraordinary, moving, and unsettling tale of a woman, branded a freak from birth, who becomes an international sensation but longs for genuine human connection.
London had the best freaks, always had. The Egyptian Hall, the Promenade of Wonders, the Siamese twins, pinheads, midgets, cannibals, giants, living skeletons, the fat, the hairy, the legless, the armless, the noseless, London had seen it all. In the Hall of Ugliness the competition was stiff. But no one had ever seen anything quite like Julia...
Pronounced by the most eminent physician of the day to be “a true hybrid wherein the nature of woman presides over that of the brute,” Julia Pastrana stood apart from the other carnival acts. She was fluent in English, French and Spanish, an accomplished musician with an exquisite singing voice, equally at ease riding horseback and turning pirouettes—but all anyone noticed was her utterly unusual face. Alternately vilified and celebrated, Julia toured through New Orleans, New York, London, Berlin, Vienna, and Moscow, often hobknobbing with high society as she made her fame and fortune. Beneath the flashy lights and thunderous applause lies a bright, compassionate young woman who only wants people to see beyond her hairy visage—and perhaps, the chance for love. When Julia visits a mysterious shaman in the back alleys of New Orleans, he gives her a potion and says that she’ll find a man within the year. Sure enough, Julia soon meets Theodore Lent, a boyishly charming showman who catapults Julia onto the global stage. As they travel the world, the two fall into an easy intimacy, but the question of whether Theo truly cares for Julia or if his management is just a gentler form of exploitation lingers heavily with every kind word and soft embrace.

If you’d like a chance at winning Orphans of the Carnival, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 1, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky readers on Dec. 2. 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, November 24, 2016

Giving Thanks for Books

At this uncertain and unsteady Thanksgiving, I am grateful for many things: family, health, a stable job, and the food I’m about to eat in T-minus two hours. Somewhere on that list, though, are the thousands of books which line my basement walls. They are my comfort, my inspiration, and my escape hatch (down which I frequently find myself sliding these days). Where would we be without the music of words?

Bookish recently asked several authors (including yours truly) to name the one book for which they’re thankful. I could have plucked any number of books from my shelf. I mean, just a casual perusal yields this harvest of books which have comforted, inspired, etc. over the years: A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor, The Collected Stories of Raymond Carver, Rabbit, Run by John Updike, Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware, Rock Springs by Richard Ford, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer, and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. I could go on and on, but Bookish demanded a single book and so I tried to narrow it down as best I could. My response:
Just one book? Impossible. Narrowing it down to just one shelf of my nearly 40 shelves? Next to impossible. Maybe I could pick just one author out of the dozens who’ve held sway over my imagination for 50 years? Doable, but still difficult. Okay, okay, okay… (takes deep breath, stares long and hard at his library) I’ll choose… David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. I could have easily picked ten others from my Dickens shelf (one of the longest in my library), but I’ll settle on this bursting-at-the-seams bildungsroman about a thinly-disguised C.D. as D.C. who makes his way from abused waif to accomplished author over the course of three inches of pressed and bound pages. I am particularly thankful for Dickens’ masterful marriage of plot and character whose happy union always sharpens both my imagination and my pen—never more so than in the personages of Betsey Trotwood, Steerforth, all the Peggotties, Mr. Micawber, Dora, David and, oh, the shudder-worthy Uriah Heep. David Copperfield is a triumph! And God bless us, everyone! Oh wait, that’s from another favorite of mine.

What books are on your most-thankful list? Let me know in the comments section below.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

My First Time: Michelle Gilliam

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 Michelle Gilliam, a Registered Nurse and the author of Roman Rescue. She began writing poetry, flash fiction, and short stories in 2003, but it was the gargantuan task of a novel that thrilled her the most. She has three sons and spends her time with biological and church families, watching her sons’ college football games, traveling, and not least, reading and writing. Roman Rescue is her first novel. Michelle lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.

My First NaNoWriMo

My first participation in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Montha challenge to write 50,000 words in one month) helped me get started on my novel, Roman Rescue. Attempting to write 50,000 words, creating a character, and building scenes is challenging. But not nearly as hard as taking care of three boys, getting them to their football practices at 6 p.m., and then picked up at 8 p.m., bathed, fed, homework completed, and tucked into bed all by a decent time (it was probably 10 p.m., later than I would have liked). After that, I would sit down and try to write 2,000 words. I have to be honest, I skipped some days, but when there were no football days, I would write 5,000 words. Some days you just can’t get it done. Those you love and care about have to come first.

So what was I doing all day? I’d just started going back to college. I quit my nursing job and went back to school full-time. My goal was to be out of school and complete my homework everyday by 3:30, so school would not take away time with my family. But when I decided to do NaNoWriMo, it interfered with that goal and I had to get my husband on board. So essentially I watched no TV for one month (which was quite freeing). I only wrote at night, not to interfere with the boys’ schedule or school. Since it was only a month, my husband was very supportive. By the end of the month my writing friend and I had both hit our 50,000 words and the beginning of Roman Rescue was born.

No matter what we attempt as mothers: getting a house sold, going back to school, working full-time, or writing a novel, we should feel free to dream big. If we are not sacrificing our love for our familyinstead putting the burden on ourselves, sacrificing sleep, TV, or even foodthen we need to go after our dreams and teach our children to do the same by actions and not just words.

My boys would work out to that song, “What doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger.” Well, I use some of that weight-pumping motivation to work out my brain and leap out there and try. If you don’t try you can’t ever fail. What? Yeah! That’s right. As Ed Catmull, President of Pixar said. “Failure is a necessary part of learning.”

We are not born into the world knowing everything. Once we become adults, we don’t magically know it all either. It continues to be just like the first step in walking, first you have to pull up and get off your butt. With a little help from my friends (I love that song), they pushed me to pull up. I hope you find the strength today to do just that. No matter what your dream is, and when you fall back down, do it again.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sunday Sentence: Anthony Trollope by Victoria Glendinning

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

Mrs. Grantly deferred to Archdeacon Grantly at the dinnertable but spoke her mind beneath the bedclothes.

Anthony Trollope by Victoria Glendinning

Friday, November 18, 2016

Friday Freebie: The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk

Congratulations to Diane Turner, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Honor Was Mine by Elizabeth Heaney.

This week’s contest is for the new novel by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk, The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things. Here is what Scott Blackwood, author of See How Small, had to say about the book: “Can we ever let our children go? That’s the question that Courtney Elizabeth Mauk asks in her riveting novel The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things. Heartbreaking in its close observation of how each person’s grief is a world unto itself, Mauk’s novel plunges us into loss but also reveals—in tense, evocative prose—the ways grief connects us through its filaments of need. We learn what it’s like to miss something so intensely—through fragments of past conversations that mingle with the present and, in one exquisitely drawn scene, through the brushing of an absent daughter’s hair—that we can almost cross that thin, forbidden membrane that separates the living and the dead.” I have three copies of The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things to give away to three lucky readers. Will you be one of them? Keep scrolling for more information about the novel and how to enter the contest...

Set against a layered Manhattan landscape, The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things explores a fractured family through the alternating perspectives of the mother, father, and brother of a young woman during the aftermath of her disappearance. A year of silent but collective anguish culminates in the fateful thirty hours after a body with a striking resemblance to hers is found, and we see her buttoned-up Upper West Side family spiral in different, dangerous directions: Her mother, Carol, nearly comatose by day, comes alive at night in a vigilante-like attempt to track down her daughter’s killer. Her brother, Ben, once the “good kid,” adopts her bad habits along with her former friends who may have been complicit in her death. And after failing to keep his family from splitting apart, her seemingly stoic father, Drew, finally allows himself to crack. In her third novel, Courtney Elizabeth Mauk presents a nuanced character study and offers a jolting and unforgettable portrait of a family’s struggle to survive.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 24, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 25. 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, November 17, 2016

Front Porch Books: November 2016 edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. 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: many of these books won’t be released for another 2-6 months; I’m here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. 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.

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple
by Jeff Guinn
(Simon and Schuster)

I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing when I first heard the news about the mass suicide in the jungle of a country I’d never heard of, but I can tell you that when I opened up our family’s copy of TIME magazine later that week in late 1978, it was the first time I’d ever seen a bloated corpse. Hundreds and hundreds of bodies, swollen and straining against the confines of clothing, lay on the ground like trees toppled by a hurricane. That hurricane had a name: The Rev. Jim Jones. I was 15 years old and, looking at those photos, I was both sickened and fascinated. Two words volleyed like a ping-pong ball through my head: Why? How? Why? How? In his new book, Jeff Guinn (author of Manson and Go Down Together) takes us to the jungle. The Jonestown madness will probably be hard to stomach, but I don’t think I’ll be able to look away.

Jacket Copy:  In the 1950s, a young Indianapolis minister named Jim Jones preached a curious blend of the gospel and Marxism. His congregation was racially integrated, and he was a much-lauded leader in the contemporary civil rights movement. Eventually, Jones moved his church, Peoples Temple, to northern California. He became involved in electoral politics, and soon was a prominent Bay Area leader. In this riveting narrative, Jeff Guinn examines Jones’s life, from his extramarital affairs, drug use, and fraudulent faith healing to the fraught decision to move almost a thousand of his followers to a settlement in the jungles of Guyana in South America. Guinn provides stunning new details of the events leading to the fatal day in November, 1978 when more than nine hundred people died—including almost three hundred infants and children—after being ordered to swallow a cyanide-laced drink. Guinn examined thousands of pages of FBI files on the case, including material released during the course of his research. He traveled to Jones’s Indiana hometown, where he spoke to people never previously interviewed, and uncovered fresh information from Jonestown survivors. He even visited the Jonestown site with the same pilot who flew there the day that Congressman Leo Ryan was murdered on Jones’s orders. The Road to Jonestown is the definitive book about Jim Jones and the events that led to the tragedy at Jonestown.

Music for Love or War
by Martyn Burke
(Tyrus Books)

Okay, I’ll admit I’m hooked by the idea of torturing the Taliban with a life-sized cardboard cutout of a high-kicking Liberace in satin short shorts. The rest of Martyn Burke’s new novel sounds splendidly absurd, too.

Jacket Copy:  Danny, a Canadian sharpshooter, and Hank, in the U.S. Army, have been stationed in Kandahar, but they are in Los Angeles, desperate to find the Hollywood psychic who will reveal the whereabouts of the women they love. Danny is searching for Ariana, the girl he fell in love with in Toronto in the last years of the twentieth century; Hank is searching for Annie Boudreau, known in the tabloids as “Annie of the Boo Two”twins who were briefly in the gravitational pull of Hugh Hefner. From Grenadier Pond in west-end Toronto, to Afghanistan, to the Malibu colony in LA, the novel follows these moments in the lives of Danny and Hank, revealed by a masterful storyteller and commentator on American culture. When in the mountains of Kandahar, Danny and Hank torture the members of al Qaeda and the Taliban with the music and a larger-than-life-size cardboard reproduction of Liberace in satin short shorts, high-kicking as if on Broadway.

Opening Lines:  According to what we’ve been told, the source of all knowledge is somewhere just south of Sunset Boulevard. The problem is that Danny has lost the address.

Blurbworthiness:  “Music for Love or War is slash-and-burn funny, but also unexpectedly touching and wise. Few writers can take you in one breath from the hills of Afghanistan to the gates of the Playboy mansion, and make you believe every crazy word. Martyn Burke has that special talent.”  (Carl Hiaasen, author of Razor Girl)

Bad Dreams and Other Stories
by Tessa Hadley

By now, I’ve accumulated five different books by Tessa Hadley on my shelves (Married Love and Other Stories, Clever Girl, The London Train, The Past, and, just the other day, Bad Dreams and Other Stories). Each time there’s a new addition to the Hadley shelf, I hear that inner voice chiding me: You really must read this and Let’s get going with this one and What are you waiting for, you stupid oaf? After getting Bad Dreams and taking a look at that first line, I think it’s time. I really must learn better obedience to my inner voice.

Jacket Copy:  The award-winning author of The Past once again “crystallizes the atmosphere of ordinary life in prose somehow miraculous and natural” (Washington Post), in a collection of stories that elevate the mundane into the exceptional. The author of six critically acclaimed novels, Tessa Hadley has proven herself to be the champion of revealing the hidden depths in the deceptively simple. In these short stories it’s the ordinary things that turn out to be most extraordinary: the history of a length of fabric or a forgotten jacket. Two sisters quarrel over an inheritance and a new baby; a child awake in the night explores the familiar rooms of her home, made strange by the darkness; a housekeeper caring for a helpless old man uncovers secrets from his past. The first steps into a turning point and a new life are made so easily and carelessly: each of these stories illuminate crucial moments of transition, often imperceptible to the protagonists. A girl accepts a lift in a car with some older boys; a young woman reads the diaries she discovers while housesitting. Small acts have large consequences, some that can reverberate across decades; private fantasies can affect other people, for better and worse. The real things that happen to people, the accidents that befall them, are every bit as mysterious as their longings and their dreams.

Opening Lines:  Jane Allsop was abducted when she was fifteen, and nobody noticed.

Blurbworthiness:  “It is impossible to overstate how much I admire the work of Tessa Hadley; her mastery of the smallest gestures on the page is breathtaking and her ability to weave a symphonic whole time after time thrilling. Every story in this collection is beautiful, precise, expansive, and a joy.”  (Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney, author of The Nest)

Flight Path
by Hannah Palmer
(Hub City Press)

I live in Butte, Montana, a city whose east-side neighborhoods were largely chewed and swallowed by steam shovels digging an open-pit copper mine back in the 1950s. Meaderville, East Butte, and McQueen now lie buried beneath rubble and toxic mine water. It is a painful scar for many old-timers here in our western Montana city: memory swallowed by progress. And so, Hannah Palmer’s memoir about her own childhood neighborhoods disappearing under the expansion of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport sounds like the familiar death-tolls from a big iron bell. Not only that, but I have a personal connection to Palmer’s section of Atlanta: Forest Park was where I lived when I first joined the Army in the late 1980s. Now I’m wondering how much of my cramped apartment just off I-75a place where my own sons have their childhood memorieshas survived the wrecking ball.

Jacket Copy:  In the months leading up to the birth of her first child, Hannah Palmer discovers that all three of her childhood houses have been wiped out by the expansion of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Having uprooted herself from a promising career in publishing in her adopted Brooklyn, Palmer embarks on a quest to determine the fate of her lost homes—and of a community that has been erased by unchecked Southern progress. Palmer’s journey takes her from the ruins of kudzu-covered, airport-owned ghost towns to carefully preserved cemeteries wedged between the runways; into awkward confrontations with airport planners, developers, and even her own parents. Along the way, Palmer becomes an amateur detective, an urban historian, and a mother. Lyrically chronicling the overlooked devastation and beauty along the airport’s fringe communities in the tradition of John Jeremiah Sullivan and Leslie Jamison, Palmer unearths the startling narratives about race, power, and place that continue to shape American cities. Part memoir, part urban history, Flight Path: A Search for Roots beneath the World’s Busiest Airport is a riveting account of one young mother’s attempt at making a home where there’s little home left.

Opening Lines:  Despite protests from the Kirkwood Neighbors’ Organization and bad press in the local paper, they bulldozed the house where I lost my virginity.

Blurbworthiness:  “A book about a tiny patch of land that manages to say something large and meaningful about the American experience. The home where Hannah Palmer grew up was erased by growth. It wasn’t supposed to exist anymore. She sets out to resurrect it.”  (John Jeremiah Sullivan, author of Pulphead)

by Ali Smith

The opening lines of Ali Smith’s new novel are a breathless cascade of words that lead me to the next paragraph and the next and the next... Autumn is the first of a projected quartet of seasonal novels from the author of Hotel World and How to be both. As one reviewer said, Winter can’t come soon enough.

Jacket Copy:  From the Man Booker–shortlisted and Baileys Prize–winning author of How to be both: a breathtakingly inventive new novel—about aging, time, love, and stories themselves—that launches an extraordinary quartet of books called Seasonal. Readers love Ali Smith’s novels for their peerless innovation and their joyful celebration of language and life. Her newest, Autumn, has all of these qualities in spades, and—good news for fans!—is the first installment in a quartet. Seasonal, comprised of four stand-alone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as are the seasons), explores what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative. Fusing Keatsian mists and mellow fruitfulness with the vitality, the immediacy, and the color hit of Pop Art, Autumn is a witty excavation of the present by the past. The novel is a stripped-branches take on popular culture and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means.

Opening Lines:  It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature. So an old old man washes up on a shore. He looks like a punctured football with its stitching split, the leather kind that people kicked a hundred years ago. The sea’s been rough.

Blurbworthiness:  “Elisabeth Demand is a thirtysomething lecturer in London with a wryly detached view of the modern world. It is the time she spends with 101-year-old former neighbour Daniel Gluck, both in the present and the past, that really hits home—their strange companionship giving Smith the chance to muse on the nature of love, art, life and, well, what the referendum has done to Britain....Given this is the first of a quintet of season-based novels that explore time, Winter can’t come soon enough. Smith is at the very peak of her powers.”  (Ben East, The National)

by Kate Southwood
(W. W. Norton)

As a number-one fan of Kate Southwood’s debut novel, Falling to Earth, the arrival of her new book on my front porch (actually on my Kindle via Edelweiss) is cause for celebration. In my review of Falling to Earth, I said it was “the start of a very promising career.” Evensong is Wish Fulfillment at its best.

Jacket Copy:  For readers of Olive Kitteridge and Housekeeping, Evensong is a novel about the deep undercurrents of love and regret in one Midwestern family. Margaret Maguire: a widow and grandmother, home from the hospital in time for Christmas, is no longer able to ignore the consequences of having married an imperious and arrogant man. Despite her efforts to be a good wife and mother in small-town Iowa, her adult children are now strangers to one another, past hope of reconciliation. Margaret’s granddaughter could be the one to break the cycle, but she can’t do it without Margaret’s help. It’s time to take stock, to examine the pasteven time for Margaret to call herself to account. By turns tenacious and tender, contrary and wry, Margaret examines her life’s tragedies and joys, motivations and choices, coming to view herself and the past with compassion, if not entirely with forgiveness. Beautifully rendered and poignantly told, Evensong is a realistic portrait of a woman searching for tranquility at the end of her days.

Opening Lines:  Garfield closed the door without a sound.
     Maggie Doud, he said, before he turned to face me where I stood at the foot of his bed. He’d undone his tie and top button on the way up the stairs. He came toward me then saying, A bundle of myrrh is my well-beloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts, and I had no more notion of whether he meant it to be sacred or profane than I knew where he’d gotten ahold of a Protestant Bible, and when I whispered, What would the priest say? he smiled a little and kept coming.

Blurbworthiness:  “In Evensong, Kate Southwood has given us a novel filled with an epic life, that of a woman whose fierce and vivid memories encompass a truly American story of mothers, daughters, the struggle for love and independence, the way women fight to keep their true selves when the world tries to etch them away. Unforgettable.”  (Susan Straight, author of Highwire Moon)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Trailer Park Tuesday: Looking for Betty MacDonald by Paula Becker

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

Before Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor took up a pitchfork on Green Acres, before Ma and Pa Kettle were down on the farm, before Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray went to the country for romantic shenanigans, there was Betty MacDonald and her chickens. As a newlywed, Betty followed her husband to Washington state where, on the Olympic Peninsula, they set about fulfilling his lifelong dream of being a chicken farmer. Over the years, Betty gathered enough fish-out-of-water tales (or, perhaps, “chicken out of egg” stories?) to put them all in a book. The Egg and I, published in 1945, was a huge success, selling one million copies within the year. This led to the 1947 film starring Colbert and MacMurray, the Ma and Pa Kettle spin-offs, andindirectlythe Green Acres sitcom in the 1960s. Which came first: the sitcom or the egg? The egg, of course. But author Paula Becker wanted to go beyond the shell and find out what was inside that egg. The result is a new biography, Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I. Oh yes, one of the bigger surprises to me was the fact that the creator of the Kettles and the lovable Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle from the children’s book series were one and the same. I’m adding Looking for Betty MacDonald to my must-read list because, as with any biography I read, I want to explore a new life and slip into a stranger’s skin. I think the journey will be worth it. As Becker notes in the trailer for her book, “Betty MacDonald deserves to be found.”

Monday, November 14, 2016

My First Time: Allen Morris Jones

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 Allen Morris Jones, author of A Bloom of Bones. Here’s what Mark Spragg (author of An Unfinished Life) had to say about the novel: “Allen Jones’s A Bloom of Bones is simply riveting. Always lyrical, often wise, filled with vitality, and the promise that love and loyalty can surmount the darkness in our lives. I couldn’t put it down.” Allen is also the author of Last Year’s River (a book I personally loved), A Quiet Place of Violence, and The Best of Montana’s Short Fiction (co-edited with William Kittredge). He has also published more than one hundred short stories, articles, essays, and poems. He began his twenty-year career in publishing as editor of the magazine Big Sky Journal before going on to work as an acquisitions editor for the Lyons Press and as publisher of his own small book house, Bangtail Press. He lives in Montana with his wife and young son, and has recently returned to work as editor of Big Sky Journal. Click here to learn more about Allen and his work.

My First Bad Review

In a modern American context—the context of Horatio Alger capitalism, of everybody gets what they deserve—few narratives are as off-putting as failure. Nobody wants to hear about it, the same way that nobody wants to hear about your recent colonoscopy. Failure is all around us in our culture but nonetheless embarrassing. I couldn’t cut it, I got the shit kicked out of me, I’m not good enough, I went broke. Where’s the box office?

Kurt Vonnegut famously couched the rise and fall of narrative as a line chart, up and down with the good and bad fortunes of the protagonist. People are suckers for Cinderella wherein the protagonist starts at the bottom (shoeless, and at the mercy of stepsisters) and her fortunes gradually improve until, after a couple of setbacks, she’s at the top, glass slippers and all. That story line never gets old.

The obverse of this narrative is the freefall toward flatline. Starting at the top and just taking a nose dive. You hardly ever see that happen in narrative, and with good reason. It’s boring as hell, and makes you depressed.

My first novel, Last Year’s River, was published in 2001 by Houghton Mifflin, a noble publisher. My agent had sold it the year before for the fabled six-figure advance. My entire life, I’d wanted to be nothing but a novelist, and with this book, with this advance, I’d arrived, man. In the Vonnegut-esque arc of my personal narrative, the line is a gradual ascendancy toward Last Year’s River, peaking on a sunny summer day in July 2001 when my flight banked over the Statue of Liberty. I was traveling to mid-town to meet my editor and agent. And can there possibly be anyone happier than a first-time novelist flying into New York to meet his agent and editor?

Then the book was published. A week after 9/11. I drove to Portland for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show, and gave a brief talk to a mostly-empty room. A few days later, the first review appeared. This was the first professional critique of my work, and it came from Kirkus, an infamously cranky publication. They gave a brief summation of the plot, and then ended with a zinger. “Slow and pretentious, if occasionally affecting.”


Hiding my trauma, I wrote to friends that I found the review curiously apt, as I was myself slow, pretentious, and only occasionally affecting. Other reviews came in, most of them quite positive. My photo was in People magazine. The book was included by Barnes & Noble in their Discover Great New Writers program. It was nominated for a Spur Award. But some part of me never really got over that first review. Rather than being mollified by later, more positive notices, I found myself feeling sorry for those critics who liked their books slow and pretentious. And after the sales figures started to come in—not bad, pretty good, just not up to the advance—I thought, well, of course. It’s slow and pretentious, and oh yeah, only occasionally affecting. From the peak of New York, my career tipped over into the downslope. I didn’t realize it while it was happening. My editor had promised to publish anything I wrote, then proceeded to reject my next three projects. He had his reasons, but that didn’t lesson the devastation. Having thus been hauled out to the curb by my existing publisher, there came to be an odor around me and my work. Everybody could smell it but me. Other editors were less interested. Self-pity is cold comfort, but it is a comfort. I was a novelist who couldn’t sell a novel. My career was just beginning; my career was over. Dave Eggers had sold A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius for $100,000, less than what I’d been paid for Last Year’s River. Piker, I thought. Jonathan Safran Foer got close to half a million for Everything is Illuminated, but he sold it to the same publisher. We shared a publicist. I was in the ballpark.

Until I wasn’t anymore.

Cue the inspirational montage.

In the intervening years, I’ve made most of my living as a full-time editor, books and magazines, both on staff and under contract. I’ve sat with other editors around a board room table, discussing the relative merits of this manuscript or that—do we accept or reject. And while the excellence of the work is always an essential aspect of the discussion—“So, is it any good?”—it’s usually only one aspect. Author platforms, antecedent and comparison titles, special sales possibilities…so often the quality of the work itself is lost among other considerations. A long work of fiction is a kind of herniated extrusion of a writer’s own personality and preoccupations, and so I naturally took it personally when my own work was rejected. In fact, and as I’ve come to learn, the rejections were the farthest thing from personal.

As I write this, fifteen years after Last Year’s River, I have a new agent, and my second novel, A Bloom of Bones, is in the midst of meeting the world. It’s being released by Ig Publishing, a small house looming large, in nobility if not lineage. Like so many other smaller publishers, it’s driven by the passions of one or two personalities, and is thus a more or less direct reflection of their devotion to literature. And while I’m resisting the temptation to look for redemption in old failures, I will say, in all honesty, that I wish Ig Publishing, or a house like them, had published Last Year’s River fifteen years ago. Knowing then what I know now, I would have gladly given up the meaty advance in exchange for an editor who was willing to nurse the career along, introduce it to a handful of devoted readers and be pleased with the modest profits that might result. Those editors are few and far between, but they are out there.

The line chart is inching back up. In so many ways I’ve exceeded my previous spike. Knocked for a loop, limping and grinning around wobbly teeth, I’m back up off the canvas. I’m married to a woman I love, and we have a five-year-old little boy. I’m editor of a magazine that allows me to collaborate with some of the finest writers in the West. I’m publisher of my own small press. I’m often dumbstruck by my good fortune. The fiction I’m writing now, although there’s not nearly as much of it, is considerably better than what I was churning out all those years ago—better by some orders of magnitude. It has something to do with empathy, and a greater awareness of the power relationship between individuals. On my corkboard, I have a note to myself. “Love your characters. Every one.”

Kirkus just reviewed A Bloom of Bones. And they liked it. Indeed, they loved it.

Which shouldn’t matter to me, but oh it does. It does.