Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Trailer Park Tuesday: American War by Omar El Akkad

Near the beginning of American War by Omar El Akkad, Sarat Chestnut tells us she is, among other things, a hoarder of postcards and a chronicler of war. These two elements of the narrator’s life converge in the very first paragraph:
When I was young, I collected postcards. I kept them in a shoebox under my bed in the orphanage. Later, when I moved into my first home in New Anchorage, I stored the shoebox at the bottom of an old oil drum in my crumbling tool-shed. Having spent most of my life studying the history of war, I found some sense of balance in collecting snapshots of the world that was, idealized and serene.
Many of us feel like we’ve lived with war our entire lives (and, indeed, some high school students have known nothing but a numbing cycle of battle and blood, battle and blood), but Sarat lives in a world nearly 60 years in the future when war has been joined by plague, flood, and refugee camps as threats to the American way of life (whatever that’s turning out to be these days...). Emily St. John Mandel, author of Station Eleven, says American War “has an air of terrible relevance in these partisan times.” She knows what she’s talking about since Station Eleven is also a terribly relevant prediction of our apocalyptic future. In the trailer for American War, Akkad says when he wrote the novel, he little imagined we might very well be living in the prologue by the publication date (next month). Still, little in American War should come as a surprise to readers. “Nothing in this book hasn’t happened,” Akkad says. “It just happened to other people and it happened far away.” We should no longer go around in our comfortable American bubble, falsely safe in thinking “it can’t happen here.” American War delivers battle and blood to our front porch, then rings the doorbell.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Sunday Sentence: We Come to Our Senses by Odie Lindsey

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

Men go to war to be men worth a damn.

“So Bored in Nashville” from
We Come to Our Senses by Odie Lindsey

Friday, March 17, 2017

Friday Freebie: Beauty and the Beast, edited by Maria Tatar

Congratulations to Tisa Houck, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Weight of This World by David Joy.

This week’s contest is for the new Penguin Classics edition of Beauty and the Beast, edited by Maria Tatar. If you’re making plans to see the new Disney movie starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, this collection of “Classic Tales about Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World” will be the perfect literary companion to get you in the mood. Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

Beauty and the Beast, one of our most beloved and elemental fairy tales, has been told in versions from across the centuries and around the world. The Penguin Classics version is being published to coincide with Disney’s live-action 3D musical film starring Emma Watson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Audra McDonald, Kevin Kline, Stanley Tucci, and Emma Thompson. Nearly every culture tells the story of Beauty and the Beast in one fashion or another. From Cupid and Psyche to India’s Snake Bride to South Africa’s “Story of Five Heads,” the partnering of beasts and beauties, of humans and animals in all their varietycats, dogs, frogs, goats, lizards, bears, tortoises, monkeys, cranes, warthogshas beguiled us for thousands of years, mapping the cultural contradictions that riddle every romantic relationship. In this fascinating volume, preeminent fairy tale scholar Maria Tatar brings together tales from ancient times to the present and from a wide variety of cultures, highlighting the continuities and the range of themes in a fairy tale that has been used both to keep young women in their place and to encourage them to rebel, and that has entertained adults and children alike. With fresh commentary, she shows us what animals and monsters, both male and female, tell us about ourselves, and about the transformative power of empathy.

If you’d like a chance at winning Beauty and the Beast, 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. Sorry, this week’s contest is only open to U.S. addresses. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on March 23, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 24. 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, March 16, 2017

Front Porch Books: March 2017 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.

Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult
by Bruce Handy
(Simon & Schuster)

As I grow older, I’ve noticed myself traveling backwards through the books of my life. Don’t get me wrong: I love a Lee Child or a Celeste Ng or a George Saunders as much as the next guy, but there’s just something about Dr. Seuss or The Borrowers or Where the Red Fern Grows that flips a switch and floods my head with golden beams of nostalgia. Bruce Handy seems to share my love for retro kid lit, so the 11-year-old David Abrams (who still cartwheels through empty rooms inside this 53-year-old body) simply cannot wait to fall into the pages of this book. Let the wild rumpus reading begin!

Jacket Copy:  In 1690, the dour New England Primer, thought to be the first American children’s book, was published in Boston. Offering children gems of advice such as “Strive to learn” and “Be not a dunce,” it was no fun at all. So how did we get from there to “Let the wild rumpus start”? And now that we’re living in a golden age of children’s literature, what can adults get out of reading Where the Wild Things Are and Goodnight Moon, or Charlotte’s Web and Little House on the Prairie? In Wild Things, Vanity Fair contributing editor Bruce Handy revisits the classics of every American childhood, from fairy tales to The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and explores the back stories of their creators, using context and biography to understand how some of the most insightful, creative, and witty authors and illustrators of their times created their often deeply personal masterpieces. Along the way, Handy learns what The Cat in the Hat says about anarchy and absentee parenting, which themes are shared by The Runaway Bunny and Portnoy’s Complaint, and why Ramona Quimby is as true an American icon as Tom Sawyer or Jay Gatsby. It’s a profound, eye-opening experience to reencounter books that you once treasured after decades apart. A clear-eyed love letter to the greatest children’s books and authors from Louisa May Alcott and L. Frank Baum to Eric Carle, Dr. Seuss, Mildred D. Taylor, and E.B. White, Wild Things will bring back fond memories for readers of all ages, along with a few surprises.

Blurbworthiness:  “Brilliant, revelatory, and endlessly entertaining. I’ve read these books a thousand times, but only now do I finally understand them.”  (Lev Grossman, author of the Magicians trilogy)

Ash Falls
by Warren Read
(Ig Publishing)

A murderer escapes from jail and heads toward his hometown, the titular Pacific Northwest community of Ash Falls. Tension in the town simmers, comes to a rolling boil, overflows the pot and spills with a hot flash into the reader’s lap. Oh, yes, yes, yes: Ash Falls intrigues and tantalizes, pulling me closer and closer into its grip. I cannot escape.

Jacket Copy:  A routine prisoner transfer on a rural highway ends with the bus upside-down in a ravine, the driver dead of a heart attack, and convicted murderer Ernie Luntz on the loose, his eyes fixed on the mountain range in the distance, over which lies his hometown of Ash Falls. Set in a moss-draped, Pacific Northwest mountain town, Ash Falls is the story of a closely connected community both held together and torn apart by one man’s single act of horrific violence. As the residents of Ash Falls—which include Ernie’s ex-wife and teenage son—wait on edge, wondering if and when Ernie Luntz will reappear, they come to discover that they are held prisoner not by the killer in the woods outside their town, but by the chains of their own creation. A tension-filled, multi-character exploration of collapsed relationships, carefully guarded secrets and the psychological strain of living in a place that is at once both idyllic and crippling, Ash Falls is a picturesque and haunting novel that belongs beside the work of such classic contemporary American writers as Kent Haruf, Leif Enger, Smith Henderson and Ron Carlson.

Opening Lines:  He came out of the cage just before dawn and moved quickly down the corridor lined with dozens still asleep, their deep, gouging breaths and heavy snores pushing him on his way. He was dressed in state-issued jeans and a t-shirt under a thin, denim jacket. He wore running shoes, and the men shadowed him as if he were a child, one stationed on either side of him, so close their arms brushed against his as they walked past all the others, down the concrete steps and through three separate rooms, out the metal doors and into the morning chill.
      It hadn’t occurred to Ernie that the sky on the outside of the wall could look so different from the one that spooned out over his cell window. This was the kind of sky that went on forever, reaching in all directions, billowing black and gray cotton, pinhole stars pushing through where they could. He’d had weeks to consider what a move like this could mean for a guy like him, a guy who had done what he’d done. But Christ almighty, the breaking day was surely something to behold from the outside. Before the men ducked him into the back seat, he took in one more breath of the brand new air.

Blurbworthiness:  “Warren Read’s Ash Falls is a rare, multi-faceted treasure: at once a gripping narrative of tragedy and its aftermath and a psychologically rich portrait of small-town life in the contemporary rural West, the novel is above all a nuanced exploration of isolation and the solace of intimacy. All his characters—from an aging mink farmer, to a middle-aged pot dealer, to a single mother, to a gay teenager with an escaped convict for a father—are so real and complex I sometimes forget I haven’t encountered them in the actual world. This is a book to read, read again, and pass on to all your literature-loving friends.”  (Scott Nadelson, author of Between You and Me)

The Last Kid Left
by Rosecrans Baldwin
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

A car crashes into a giant sculpture of a cowgirl. Two dead bodies are found in the trunk. I’ll just stop right there because that alone is enough to put Rosecrans Baldwin’s new novel near the top of my ever-growing To-Be-Read pile (aka Mount NeveRest).

Jacket Copy:  The Last Kid Left begins when a car smashes into a sculpture of a giant cowgirl. The police find two bodies in the trunk. 19-year-old Nick Toussaint Jr. is arrested for murder, and after details of the crime rip across the internet, his 16-year-old girlfriend, Emily Portis―a sheltered teen who’s been off the grid until now, her first romance coinciding with her first cellphone―is nearly consumed by a public hungry for every lurid detail, accurate or not. Emily and Nick are not the only ones whose lives come unmoored. A retired police officer latches onto the case. Nick’s alcoholic mother is thrust into an unfamiliar role. A young journalist who left her hometown behind is pulled into the fray. And Emily’s father, the town Sheriff, is finally forced to confront a monstrous secret. The Last Kid Left is a bold, searching novel about how our relationships operate in a hyper-connected world, an expertly-portrayed account of tragedy turned mercilessly into entertainment. And it’s the suspenseful unwinding of a crime that’s more complex than it initially seems. But mostly it’s the story of two teenagers, dismantled by circumstances and rotten luck, who are desperate to believe that love is enough to save them.

Opening Lines:  Nick Toussaint Jr. clutches a handle of tequila by the neck. A pair of Range Rovers swing around him, playing tag in the rain.
      An orange moon hangs slightly low over New Jersey.
      He mashes the gas pedal. A surge of acceleration fills the hollow in his gut.
      Two bodies lie still in the back.

The Red-Haired Woman
by Orhan Pamuk

On the surface, Orhan Pamuk’s new novel bears some similarities to Ron Carlson’s 2007 novel Five Skies: a story of blue-collar labor populated with rich characters. I loved Five Skies very much. So, I’m ready to dig deep beneath the surface of The Red-Haired Woman.

Jacket Copy:  On the outskirts of a town thirty miles from Istanbul, a master well digger and his young apprentice are hired to find water on a barren plain. As they struggle in the summer heat, excavating without luck meter by meter, the two will develop a filial bond neither has known before—not the poor middle-aged bachelor nor the middle-class boy whose father disappeared after being arrested for politically subversive activities. The pair will come to depend on each other and exchange stories reflecting disparate views of the world. But in the nearby town, where they buy provisions and take their evening break, the boy will find an irresistible diversion. The Red-Haired Woman, an alluring member of a traveling theatre company, catches his eye and seems as fascinated by him as he is by her. The young man’s wildest dream will be realized, but, when in his distraction a horrible accident befalls the well digger, the boy will flee, returning to Istanbul. Only years later will he discover whether he was in fact responsible for his master’s death and who the redheaded enchantress was.

Opening Lines:  I had wanted to be a writer. But after the events I am about to describe, I studied engineering geology and became a building contractor. Even so, readers shouldn’t conclude from my telling the story now that it is over, that I’ve put it all behind me. The more I remember, the deeper I fall into it. Perhaps you, too, will follow, lured by the enigma of fathers and sons.

Not Constantinople
by Nicholas Bredie
(Dzanc Books)

Strangers (American ex-pats) in a strange land (Turkey) are themselves “invaded” by a family who take up residence in their Istanbul apartment. That’s just the starting point for Nicholas Bredie’s debut novel. From there, Not Constantinople spins into hilarity when a get-rich scheme bonds the two factions together.

Jacket Copy:  Fred and Virginia, two expatriates living in Istanbul and working at the university, come home one night to find their apartment occupied by a family of Greeks. Barred by a quirk of Turkish law from evicting them, Fred comes to a strange kind of understanding with their new squatters; looking to make his fortune before returning to the States, he starts a paper-writing racket with the Greek patriarch, selling term papers to his own university students. Between get-rich schemes and run-ins with Kurdish separatists, Fred watches the transformation of his new city as historic neighborhoods are gobbled up by greedy developers and the city’s rapacious elite. Lauded by T.C. Boyle as “utterly charming,” Not Constantinople is the story of a region in transition and the uncertainty of life in a foreign country.

Opening Lines:  Fred called the police twice. The strangers in the apartment just stared as he dialed. When Fred tried to explain in English, the police hung up. The second time, he tried saying “There are strangers in our apartment” in Turkish. After conferring with one another, the police said yes, there are. It wasn’t the first time his phrasebook had failed him.

Blurbworthiness:  “In spare, understated prose, our author captures the privileged aimlessness and corrupted romanticism of the contemporary white American expatriate. Bredie is a sly and unsparing writer for the post-Hemingway set, revealing a world of travel that is stripped of illusions and glamour.”  (Viet Nguyen, author of The Refugees)

Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays From a Nervous System
by Sonya Huber
(University of Nebraska Press)

I have a very low pain threshold. As in, a quarter-inch paper cut can send me into teeth-clenching, eye-squeezing agony. Just ask my wife—she has a whole suitcase of eye-rolling, head-shaking stories she could tell. So yeah, I’m a wimpy baby when it comes to cuts, bruises, broken bones and stomach aches, but there are many people in this world who bravely swallow their pain on a daily basis, biting down on leather straps to endure much deeper stabs of bodily torment than those caused by my little paper cut. Like author Sonya Huber who lives in “a body with the city-buzz of pain always in the background.” We read, in part, to slip into the minds and bodies of others. In this instance, sinking into Huber’s essay collection might hurt, but I expect it to be enlightening and to give me a much-needed dose of empathy. I’m really looking forward to reading Pain Woman Takes Your Keys. As long as I don’t get any paper cuts while turning the pages.

Jacket Copy:  Rate your pain on a scale of one to ten. What about on a scale of spicy to citrus? Is it more like a lava lamp or a mosaic? Pain, though a universal element of human experience, is dimly understood and sometimes barely managed. Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, and Other Essays from a Nervous System is a collection of literary and experimental essays about living with chronic pain. Sonya Huber moves away from a linear narrative to step through the doorway into pain itself, into that strange, unbounded reality. Although the essays are personal in nature, this collection is not a record of the author’s specific condition but an exploration that transcends pain’s airless and constraining world and focuses on its edges from wild and widely ranging angles. Huber addresses the nature and experience of invisible disability, including the challenges of gender bias in our health care system, the search for effective treatment options, and the difficulty of articulating chronic pain. She makes pain a lens of inquiry and lyricism, finds its humor and complexity, describes its irascible character, and explores its temperature, taste, and even its beauty.

Opening Lines:  Pain moved into my body five years ago. It wasn’t the whack of an anvil or the burn of a scraped knee. This pain sat warmly on the surface of my hands up to my elbows like evil, pink evening gloves, with a sort of swimming cap clenched on my head, with blue plastic flowers at the base of the neck, and a nauseating blur in the eyes. At other times the pain was a cold ache at the knuckles, with a frazzle in the stomach and a steady and oblong ache from hip to hip across the pelvis. It was a rigid, curled twang in the toes like the talons of a predatory bird.  (from “The Lava Lamp of Pain” )

Blurbworthiness:  “This is an important book, a necessary book, a book that, in the right hands, could change how our medical establishment deals with pain. These essays are at once vulnerable and fierce, funny and smart, unflinching and dappled with stunning metaphor.”  (Gayle Brandeis, author of Fruitflesh)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Trailer Park Tuesday: Blitzed by Norman Ohler

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

There are many words we can use to describe Third Reich Nazis: thugs, torturers, murderers, exterminators. Now, thanks to Norman Ohler’s new book, we can add one more: pill-popping drug fiends. It’s a subject that rarely, if ever, comes up when we talk about Germany’s powerful elite in the 1930s and 40s. “I think historians have been afraid to touch it,” Ohler says in the video for Blitzed (a marvelous title full of double meaning). I like this trailer for several reasons, including the fact that even though the majority of the two-minute running length is little more than Ohler talking to the camera, instead of the traditional interview filmed in a safe, sedate studio, he’s shown out on a busy street buffeted by gusts of windthe kind of place where a Nazi drug deal might have gone down 80 years ago. “We don’t look at how drugs shape history,” Ohler notes. And that’s very true. “Adolf Hitler, Tweaker” is not something you’ll find in too many history textbooks. When he was told Nazis “took loads of drugs,” Ohler thought it would be a good idea for his next novel. But after doing research in the archives, he discovered the truth was stranger than fiction. Though it would be wrong to solely blame meth for Nazi atrocities, surely the drugs played some sort of role in what happened during World War Two. As Ohler dug deeper into the subject, the book gradually came together. And now, as of last week, we can all go get Blitzed in the bookstore.

Monday, March 13, 2017

My First Time: Deborah Willis

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 Deborah Willis, author of The Dark and Other Love Stories, published by W.W. Norton (U.S.) and Penguin Random House (Canada) on Valentine’s Day 2017. Her first book, Vanishing and Other Stories, was nominated for a Governor General’s Award, called one of the best books of 2010 by NPR, and chosen for the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers series. Her stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Virginia Quarterly, Lucky Peach, and Zoetrope. She lives in Calgary, Canada, and is currently working on a novel. Please visit deborahwillis.ca for more information about her work.

My Many Firsts

First Contract

For a few days after signing my first book contract, I was terrified every time I walked down the street. I lived in Victoria, BC, an idyllic island city where I could walk to work every day of the year. But now I felt a sense of danger as I crossed streets and ambled along sidewalks: what if I got hit by a car or run over by a bus and I died before my book was published?

This was one of innumerable anxieties that struck me after that life-changing first of getting a book deal. I was 26 years old and overwhelmed by my own good fortune. Maybe it’s my Jewish background, as we are the worriers of the world, but I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. I felt so wildly lucky to get a book contract that I figured something equally terrible would soon befall me, to bring my world back into balance. I figured I’d probably die, or at the very least, lose my legs. That only seemed fair.

Fortunately, I didn’t die. I didn’t lose any limbs. I stayed alive, and I spent the following year writing, reading and working at a bookstore. That year still stands as the most productive of my life. My editor had pointed out that all my stories shared a similar theme of vanishing or abandonment, and once I had this idea in mind, I found that I could write more fluidly than ever before. Previously, it had taken me about five years to complete eight decent stories. (I wrote plenty of bad ones in that time too.) But in that one year after signing the contract, as I floated around in a cloud of elation and dread, I wrote five more stories, one after another. Usually I wrote up to thirty drafts to get a story right, but these stories arrived like gifts, almost fully formed. I sent my editor the completed manuscript on the very day of the deadline in my contract.

“I think you’re the only writer who’s ever met her deadline,” said the production assistant in an email.

“We’re allowed to miss our deadlines?” I replied. I was as green as the West Coast grass upon which I fearfully tread.

First Day of Work

But let’s back up. How did I get this book deal? Where did this contract that I signed come from? To talk about those firsts, I have to talk about my first day at the bookstore where I worked. That Monday, I woke up early enough to change my outfit several times, trying to find the right balance of presentable and casual, then walked downtown and stood outside the front doors to Munro’s Books.

“You don’t have keys yet?” said one of my new co-workers as he opened the door. “We’ll have to get you some.”

Keys? I didn’t expect to get keys to the store on my first day. But not only was I given keys, I was also taught the alarm code, and the code to the safe. That’s how much my boss, Jim Munro, trusted his staff. Jim was close to 80 years old at the time, and had been in the book business for decades. He ran one of the most successful bookstores in Canada, a store that was named one of the most beautiful bookstores in world by National Geographic.

Jim gave his staff profit shares and paid above minimum wage because he felt that a bookstore needed to hire and retain talented, book-loving staff. He was unfailingly generous and saw no division between himself and his employees, and this created a sociable, caring environment. As one co-worker said to me during my first week on the job, “You’re part of our family now.”

First Real Money

It was a couple of years after I started working at Munro’s that one of my stories won a fiction prize in a literary magazine, PRISM International. I had been sending stories out to magazines for years, winning some contests and losing others, getting some acceptances and some rejections—the normal course of things when you’re a beginning writer.

This particular publication was a big deal for me, the first time I’d made any real money from my writing: the prize for the short-story contest was $2,000 (and I now wish that I’d spent it on something more memorable than rent and groceries). Most thrillingly, Munro’s Books carried the magazine, so in a small way, my words were now on the shelves. I told a couple of friends at the store about this, and soon, nearly everyone on staff had heard about the publication—rumors travel fast in families—and even my boss, Jim, had read it. I didn’t know Jim very well at this point. I liked him, and I appreciated that he treated his staff so well, but wondered what he would think of the story. There were almost six decades separating us, so I didn’t expect that he would feel a connection to my fiction. What if he thought it was dumb or silly or just plain bad? What if he hated it?

Then I got called into his office.

I don’t remember our conversation exactly, only that Jim loved the story. And when Jim loved something, I soon learned, his enthusiasm was boundless—he was the kind of person who once paid for a free outdoor opera concert, wanting everyone in town to be able to enjoy the music he loved. And now he adored the story I’d written in the same generous, joyful way. So he bought up all the copies of the magazine that we carried on the shelf and started handing them out to anyone with a functioning set of eyeballs. One of the people he gave it to was someone who dropped by the store and who happened to work for Penguin Canada.

Jim Munro
First Phone Call

A few months after that magazine publication, I got home from work one evening and noticed the green, blinking light on my answering machine. The message was from Nicole Winstanley, who was then editor at Penguin (and who is now Vice President and Publisher at Penguin Random House). She had read my story and liked it. She wanted to see more.

To understand how unprepared I was for this call, you need to know that I didn’t have a manuscript, or anything even close; when Nicole asked to see more of my work, I sent her several separate documents, one for each story, all formatted differently. I was oddly calm because I expected nothing. But Jim kept saying that he thought I’d hear from Penguin in a few weeks or months.

“Just you wait, kid,” he’d say. “You’re going to get a book deal.”

I didn’t believe him. I knew very little about the publishing business but felt pretty sure that the industry was made up of important people who wanted to keep nobodies like me out. One thing I knew for certain was how hard it was to convince publishers to take a chance on a new writer, especially a writer of short stories, so I had “planned” (or prepared myself for) many more years of rejection. Many more years of working at the bookstore, quietly writing stories and quietly sending them out. I was shocked when I got a call from Nicole a few months later, saying that she loved the stories I’d sent her. Saying that if I was willing to write some more, she would be willing to publish them as a collection.

First Time for Everything

The rest is a long series of firsts: the first time I saw my own book on the bookstore shelves, my first book launch, the first time my book was reviewed in a newspaper, the first time I did an interview, the first time I experienced excitement and horror upon realizing that people I knew—friends and ex-boyfriends and parents—were going to read my words.

I felt, the whole way along, like an imposter, like I had somehow stumbled into someone else’s beautiful life. I continued to worry that I would lose my legs.

Second Time for Everything

In the years since that first book was published, Jim retired from the bookstore at age 87. In keeping with his habit of treating his employees like family, he gave his business to his staff. (Yes, you read that correctly. He gave his business to his staff.) The current owners continue to run Munro’s Books with pride in their independence, care for each other, and a deep love for books. I no longer work there—I’ve moved to another city and a different day job—but whenever I visit, I feel almost dizzy with gratitude that I was once a “Munroid.”

This year, I’ve published a second collection, The Dark and Other Love Stories. Writing a second book was torturous, as most writers know, but publishing and promoting the book has been more enjoyable than the first time around. Instead of wondering when God will smite me, I’ve tried to acknowledge my privilege, appreciate my good fortune, and understand that I’m not an imposter—I truly wrote the book, and that’s what matters. In short, I’ve tried to have more fun this time, because I can imagine Jim saying, “Enjoy it, kid!”

I have to imagine him saying that because Jim passed away, surrounded by family, just a couple of months before the publication of The Dark. His death was a shock that affected many of us deeply—he changed so many lives. I’m happy to know that before he died, he read every story in my new book; he and I kept in touch over the eight years that I worked on the second collection, and I would send him stories when I’d finished them. He always seemed to “get” my stories, and always encouraged me to continue writing. And now that I work as a first reader for a publishing house, I believe that every writer needs someone like Jim in their life—that for any fiction to find its way in the world, it needs to stumble upon its ideal reader. That person could be an editor or a friend or magazine publisher. For me, that person was Jim Munro, which is why I dedicated my second book to him.

Sometimes I imagine that he benevolently haunts the bookstore he loved so much, and so has seen my new collection on the shelves. I imagine that he knows the dedication is my way of saying what I couldn’t possibly have said enough when he was alive: Thank you, Jim.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Hourglass by Dani Shapiro

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

In this soft, summer light, everyone on the boat is as beautiful as they will ever be.

Hourglass by Dani Shapiro

Friday, March 10, 2017

Friday Freebie: The Weight of This World by David Joy

Congratulations to Rhian Ellis, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: All Grown Up, the new novel by Jami Attenberg.

This week’s contest is for The Weight of This World by David Joy. Here’s what Eric Rickstad, New York Times-bestselling author of Lie in Wait, had to say about the novel: “The Weight of This World is a savage and heartbreaking tragedy. David Joy writes with a deep wisdom, compassion, and respect for the psychic and physical wounds, the pain and anger and sadness that at once shackle his broken characters and hurl them toward choices and outcomes that linger with the reader long after the last page is read. Most impressive, Joy has written about the cost of loyalty based in childhood friendships that no longer exist in the adult world, and how sacrifices made out of the love for another can lead to the ruin of the self.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

A combat veteran returned from war, Thad Broom can’t leave the hardened world of Afghanistan behind, nor can he forgive himself for what he saw there. His mother, April, is haunted by her own demons, a secret trauma she has carried for years. Between them is Aiden McCall, loyal to both but unable to hold them together. Connected by bonds of circumstance and duty, friendship and love, these three lives are blown apart when Aiden and Thad witness the accidental death of their drug dealer and a riot of dope and cash drops in their laps. On a meth-fueled journey to nowhere, they will either find the grit to overcome the darkness or be consumed by it.

Be sure to check out David Joy’s contribution to the “My First Time” series published earlier this week here at the blog.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Weight of This World, 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. Sorry, this week’s contest is only open to U.S. addresses. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on March 16, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 17. 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.

Monday, March 6, 2017

My First Time: David Joy

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 David Joy, author of the new novel The Weight of This World. His first novel, Where All Light Tends to Go, debuted to great acclaim and was named an Edgar Award finalist for Best First Novel. His stories and creative nonfiction have appeared in Drafthorse, Smoky Mountain Living, Wilderness House Literary Review, Pisgah Review, and Flycatcher, and he is also the author of the memoir Growing Gills: A Fly Fisherman’s Journey. He lives in Waynesville, North Carolina.

This Caravan Rolls On

January 1 was my deadline and I already knew I was going to miss it because who the hell gets anything done over the holidays. Nevertheless, I was doing everything I could to finish up my second novel. It was three days before Christmas and my editor sent me an email with some kind of warning in the subject line about the first trade review coming in for my debut and needless to say it wasn’t good.

The general rule of thumb is that thin-skinned folks won’t last long in this industry. You hear that all the time coming up. A hundred rejections to a single acceptance, and that’s if you’re lucky. What I can tell you is that it’s one thing to persist through a mountain of form rejections and another altogether to sign a book deal with a Big Five publishing house, get shoved onto the biggest stage in the world, and stand there bound and gagged while folks hurl rocks at your head like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” That may be a bit hyperbolic but the reality is that I’d prefer to have rocks chucked at my head. Sticks and stones I can deal with. Broken bones aren’t new to me.

That first review was absolutely debilitating. I had nothing else to go on. The novel wasn’t even out yet. I didn’t have past success to lean against. That was it. I was days away from deadline on my second manuscript and I had no clue what happened if you missed deadline. All I knew was this: my first novel sucked ass and if that book sucked ass then that probably meant the next one was going to suck ass and so what the hell was I doing anyways? Suddenly everything I was working on seemed like an absolute waste of time.

Here’s the thing, looking back, that book didn’t suck ass. Matter of fact, a whole lot of people loved it. Where All Light Tends To Go was an Edgar finalist for first novel, was hailed “Remarkable!” by the New York Times, and was longlisted for one of the richest and most prestigious literary awards in the world. The reality is that I should’ve known that then. One of my literary heroes, Daniel Woodrell, had already praised the book. But for whatever reason we tend to hand the megaphone to the one asshole telling us we suck when the rest of the coliseum is cheering us on.

Artists tend to be a pretty self-deprecating lot. “You’re your own worst critic,” as they say, and for the most part they’re right. Sure, there are some artists with egos that have gravitational fields, writers who think they’re the next Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson. We all know them, and we know they’re assholes. But most of us tend to be pretty introverted. A lot of us suffer from depression and anxiety, and some, like me, drink a little more than we should. So it makes sense why we hand the megaphone to the naysayers. It’s because they confirm our own worst fears. We start to believe we suck. There’s a person screaming we suck. 1+1=2. And so I guess they’re probably right.

Lucky for me, I had good friends who had already been down that road and who are a hell of a lot smarter than I am who were able to pick me up out of the ditch. In the back of my second novel, The Weight Of This World, the book I wound up finishing not long after deadline, there’s a cryptic acknowledgement that reads, “To Ace and George for pouring me a drink when I was lying in the mud.”

I reached out to two friends and here’s the advice that got me through the woods. First I reached out to New York Times bestselling author Ace Atkins who asked simply: “When’s the last time you bought a book because of something you read in that magazine?” to which I answered, “Never.” The other person I reached out to is one of the finest short story writers in America, a fellow by the name of George Singleton. George explained that it was like driving down a dirt road and you come upon a little run-down singlewide trailer and as you pass all of these little yappy dogs come piling out of the yard, racing around your car barking, biting at your tires. He asked whether you stop or keep going then answered his own question by telling me, “The little dogs will always be barking but this caravan rolls on.” It’s that same sort of Teddy Roosevelt idea of “the man in the arena,” but like all Southern writers, George said it better.

I guess the reason I’m writing this is because I’ve been at this game long enough now to know for a fact that I’m not alone. Not long after that first book came out, a dear friend of mine had a memoir come out from another Big Five publisher, and I remember one day she called me almost in tears because of a review she’d read on Amazon. In a lot of ways her memoir is about motherhood and so when this person attacked the book they really just wound up explaining why they thought my friend was a shitty mother. It’s easy to understand why that would hit home, but here’s how it played out.

While we’re talking on the phone I jump online on my laptop and look at the review she’s talking about and sure enough it’s bad. But then I double-clicked the reviewer’s avatar and was invited inside a museum of one star reviews. “Swiss Army Knife: One star, plastic toothpick broke off between my molars”; “Tube socks: One star, elastic wore out because of large calves”; “Hair dye: One star, my widow’s peak is still lipstick red”; “Flip flops: One star, toe-thong doesn’t hold on foot that lost big toe to cotton gin.”

My friend’s memoir was brilliant. It truly was. She’s one of the most talented writers I know and that book wound up becoming a New York Times bestseller, despite what the Swiss Army Knife lady might’ve thought. We have to be very careful who we hand the megaphone. They may very well spend most of their time reviewing toilet paper and hemorrhoid cream (those two being quite literally what I found when I double-clicked the account).

Here’s what I’m getting at. Everyone likes different things and that’s perfectly okay. What one person thinks is brilliant, another might believe is the dumbest thing they’ve ever read. That’s what makes the world go ’round and lucky for us we live in a time of extraordinary options. Some people don’t like livermush or fried bologna sandwiches. That’s great. I think they’re idiots.

Right now, head over to Goodreads, look up your favorite book of all time, and read the one-star reviews. William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying has 5,969 one-star reviews at the time I’m writing this, and it’ll probably surpass 6,000 by the time this essay publishes. The other day I was giving five stars to a book I absolutely loved and while I was doing that I could see a one-star review that started, “This book needed and editor.”

The Weight Of This World hits shelves on March 7 and I know right now that some people are going to love it, some people are going to hate it, and the vast majority of people will go on living their lives without ever knowing anything about me or the book I wrote. That’s okay. Deep down, I know the book’s good and so none of that other stuff really matters. I can’t do a thing about it anyways.

But when that old feeling comes and I start to doubt myself, something that’ll inevitably happen, I’ll remember what George said about those dogs. I’ll remember the toilet paper lady and I’ll pray that she found a remedy for those hemorrhoids. I’ll head over to Goodreads and read one-star reviews of The Holy Bible, a book that one critic noted had an “inconsistent narrative; main character seems fickle,” and I’ll laugh till I feel better.

Author photo by Ashley T. Evans

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Goodnight, Beautiful Women by Anna Noyes

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

(This week's #SundaySentence is dedicated to Jean, the most beautiful of women)

Before they were married, before Jenny, he was certain that he’d love her face in old age, that their job as lovers was to love each other’s faces in all their forms.

“Safe as Houses” from Goodnight, Beautiful Women by Anna Noyes

Friday, March 3, 2017

Friday Freebie: All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

Congratulations to Katrina Roberts, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: The Dark and Other Love Stories by Deborah Willis.

This week’s contest is for All Grown Up, the new novel by Jami Attenberg. Keep scrolling for more information about the book...

From the New York Times best-selling author of The Middlesteins comes a wickedly funny novel about a thirty-nine-year-old single, childfree woman who defies convention as she seeks connection. Who is Andrea Bern? When her therapist asks the question, Andrea knows the right things to say: she’s a designer, a friend, a daughter, a sister. But it’s what she leaves unsaid—she’s alone, a drinker, a former artist, a shrieker in bed, captain of the sinking ship that is her flesh—that feels the most true. Everyone around her seems to have an entirely different idea of what it means to be an adult: her best friend, Indigo, is getting married; her brother—who miraculously seems unscathed by their shared tumultuous childhood—and sister-in-law are having a hoped-for baby; and her friend Matthew continues to wholly devote himself to making dark paintings at the cost of being flat broke. But when Andrea’s niece finally arrives, born with a heartbreaking ailment, the Bern family is forced to reexamine what really matters. Will this drive them together or tear them apart? Told in gut-wrenchingly honest, mordantly comic vignettes, All Grown Up is a breathtaking display of Jami Attenberg’s power as a storyteller, a whip-smart examination of one woman’s life, lived entirely on her own terms.

If you’d like a chance at winning All Grown Up, 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 March 9, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 10. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your 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.