Wednesday, December 30, 2009

One Life to Give by Andrew Bienkowski with Mary Akers

One Life to Give: A Path to Finding Yourself by Helping Others
Andrew Bienkowski, with Mary Akers
The Experiment, January 2010

Unlike many “self-help” books, this one has an engaging narrative behind it, so not only are the bits of advice that form the core of each chapter extremely useful and insightful, but also the story of Andrew Bienkowski’s life will fascinate and move any compassionate reader. And the book isn’t a “self-help” so much as a “help-others” book or, more precisely, a “help yourself by helping others” book. It’s a blueprint for living a life that is less self-centered and is more about being involved in the lives of others than simply helping yourself.

One Life to Give, written by Andrew Bienkowski with Mary Akers, is divided into fourteen chapters, each one a separate lesson derived from Bienkowski’s life as a child when he and his family were exiled from Poland to Siberia. They endured incredible suffering that the book can only really hint at. But through the suffering and the sacrifices of others, Bienkowski learned. And so the reader learns about the concept of “Radical Gratitude”—taking nothing for granted and remembering all the things in our lives with which we are blessed. We also learn about Listening, Hope, Perseverence, Kindness, and Love. But these are not abstract lessons at all. They are concrete suggestions for living a more fulfilled life skillfully crafted by Bienkowski, a therapist, and Akers, a talented writer. The total package is one that will be hard to put down and even harder to forget.

One of the things I find so rewarding in the book is its blend of the spiritual—with concepts borrowed from many great traditions—and the practical, based on real experience. Sprinkled in with Bienkowski’s observations from his many years as a therapist (it’s inspiring to read about the progress made by real people in dealing with real problems) are stories about his difficult childhood in Siberia: how food was scarce, how his grandfather actually starved himself to death in order to leave more for the family, how strangers would offer help when it was least expected and most needed. But these experiences, rather than hardening the boy, taught him resilience, the power of gratitude and kindness, and the fundamental need for courage and generosity.

It’s a wonderful, inspiring story, beautifully written.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Art of Subtext by Charles Baxter

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot
Charles Baxter
Graywolf, 2007

If you're a writer, you'll find this book useful. Even if you've read other essays by Charles Baxter on craft, where you may have seen similar discussions, you'll appreciate having all of this thinking about subtext in one place. By subtext, Baxter seems to mean the conveying to a reader of information that is below the surface--not directly relevant to the plot--but that nonetheless deepens the reader's understanding. Methods include staging (power relationships, especially, can be conveyed by how the characters are placed on the "stage," but also other aspects of interaction will be shown by how the characters move vis a vis one another); desire (what the characters want and how they're affected by getting it or not getting it); silence/not listening (what isn't said is often as meaningful as what is); inflection (how something is said is as important as what's said); making a scene (letting characters do what we ourselves are too inhibited to do); and reading the face (not ignoring facial expressions).

As I'm about to begin the "final" draft of my novel, these are tips I'll be keeping in mind.

This book is part of Graywolf's The Art Of Series -- there are several other titles I'd like to see.

Work in Progress

I made a lot of progress on my novel while at VCCA, but over the last week I've made very little. Now, that week included shoveling out of a huge snowstorm, dealing with Christmas (although my way of dealing with Christmas is NOT to deal with it), and otherwise settling back into my life after two weeks away.

But I AM making progress, and getting very close to the end. In fact, I am right now looking at pages 275 and 276 of my old draft (the book has grown and that's now 298-299 in the new draft) and there is a delightful little scene between my protagonist and . . . a woman I've killed off in the new version. Oops. Now, there are some supernatural possibilities in the book, but resurrection isn't one of them. So that scene has to go. Cut! Except the scene explained something that still needs to happen, so we need a new scene. Add!

I. Will. Finish. By. New Years!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Inherent Vice
Thomas Pynchon
The Penguin Press, 2009

When I first read Gravity's Rainbow, I was blown away, probably because I'd never read anything like it. With each subsequent book by Pynchon that I've read--V., The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland--I've been less impressed. A few others I couldn't get past the first paragraph. But when Inherent Vice came out, I thought I should give him another try. I made it past the first paragraph, but almost didn't get past the second page, where I read the following sentence:
"They went in the front room and Doc laid down on the couch and Shasta stayed on her feet and sort of drifted around the place."
That "laid" should be "lay" of course. I've tried to defend the error on voice, but apart from some jumbled syntax, mostly in dialogue, this narrative doesn't make errors like this. I'm more forgiving of typos, which I occasionally see. This kind of mistake bugs me.

That aside, though, I had a hard time getting through this book. It dazzles. It entertains. It's wonderfully twisted. But I never felt like I cared. I just wanted it to be over.

The book is the story of Doc Sportello, a hippie private investigator who is tangled up in some serious messes--corrupt cops, corrupt real estate deals, corrupt casinos, drug deals, etc. He smokes a lot of dope, he has sex, he gets shot at and chased, etc. It's tripped-out L.A. noir, with a twist. Eventually, Doc figures out what's going on and the ending is satisfying, but I'm not sure it was worth the effort to get that far. I'm thinking I should have stopped after the second page.

Vote for the New Yorker Story of the Year -- Just 4 days left!

Please vote for your favorite New Yorker short story for 2009 by selecting one story from the poll in the right sidebar of this blog. Below you will find a list of the 10 finalists, along with links to the stories themselves and to the discussions of those stories right here on Perpetual Folly.

Polls close on December 31 at midnight!

March 23, 2009: “She’s the One” by Tessa Hadley -- PF Discussion

April 20, 2009: “A Tiny Feast” by Chris Adrian -- PF Discussion

April 27, 2009: “Vast Hell” by Guillermo Martínez -- PF Discussion

June 8 & 15, 2009: “Good Neighbors” by Jonathan Franzen -- PF Discussion

June 22, 2009: “Idols” by Tim Gautreaux -- PF Discussion

September 28, 2009: “Temporary” by Marisa Silver -- PF Discussion

October 5, 2009: “Victory Lap” by George Saunders -- PF Discussion

October 19, 2009: “Complicity” by Julian Barnes -- PF Discussion

November 2, 2009: “While the Women are Sleeping” by Javier Marías -- PF Discussion

November 30, 2009: “Midnight in Dostoevsky” by Don DeLillo -- PF Discussion

Sunday, December 27, 2009

LitMag Wave: Willow Springs 63

Is Willow Springs on your radar screen? It should be. The magazine has been around a long time--30 years--and it quietly publishes fine fiction, poetry, and reviews. Plus, it's in the Top 40 on my 2010 Pushcart Prize Rankings.

In addition to poetry by Kim Addonizio and others, Issue 63 includes three pieces of fiction: "Uniforms" by Robert Lopez is an excerpt from his new novel, recently published by Dzanc Books: Kamby Bolongo Mean River. The excerpt is in the voice of a boy with a problem who is happy to be wearing a uniform (although it isn't clear what that uniform is, it seems he might be in some kind of residential home or detention facility) because it's "one less thing to worry about." It's a compelling voice, and bodes well for the novel, I think. "Last Words of the Holy Ghost" by Matthew Cashion is a terrific coming-of-age story (I hate coming-of-age stories) about a kid who gets baptized in order to be allowed to date a girl, only to discover that the girl is using him. And the poor kid, Harold, also has to deal with his dysfunctional family: "His heart was a trout lying in the woods. A sun-baked trout whose mouth kept moving, spilling final words from the Holy Ghost." And then there's "Reduction" by Joseph Salvatore, about a woman who thinks she needs breast reduction surgery and the man who is trapped between his feelings for the woman and his rejection of traditional male role that he instinctively plays.

I also enjoyed the interviews. The first one is with the poet Lynn Emmanuel. The second is with Thomas Lynch, whose essays are widely read. (Note that many of the magazine's interviews are archived.)

There's a lot in this slim volume.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Humbling by Philip Roth

The Humbling
Philip Roth
HMH 2009

What to make of this very dark little book? I confess that I haven't been keeping up with my reading of Roth's works, including some like The Human Stain that have been very well received. But when shopping on Christmas Eve, I picked this one up -- a little light reading for the holiday! (It's a good thing I'm not prone to depression . . .)

The book is the story of Simon Axler, an actor in his mid-sixties who has a crisis. In performances of Macbeth and the Tempest, he suddenly can no longer act. Which, one supposes, suggests that Simon Axler can no longer pretend to be something he is not, which would be fine if only he knew who he was. Along comes Pegeen, the daughter of old friends and something of an opportunist, who uses Axler to experiment with heterosexuality after the devastating end of her longtime lesbian relationship. Axler allows himself to think that this is happiness, and he begins to make plans, except that in doing so he once again pretends to be someone he is not. As a result, the gods smack him down again.

Because of the allusions to great drama--Shakespeare, Chekhov, Miller, and others--a full understanding of this brief tragedy probably requires a reading of those works as well. The ending, especially, seems to depend on Chekhov, not only in what happens but also in the point of view shift.

Although Axler is sometimes engaging, he isn't terribly likable. No one in the book is very likable except possibly for the unstable woman Axler meets during his short hospitalization. And she's got problems, too. Another character, Pegeen's spurned lover Louise, is also unstable in a likable kind of way. It didn't bother me much that I didn't like Axler, though. What did bother me is the dialogue, in which these characters tend to make speeches to each other rather than converse. Maybe that's the point--there's probably a point--but it seemed less realistic than most contemporary fiction.

While the book probably won't be anyone's favorite, it's thought provoking and disturbing, which makes it worth the read.

Friday, December 25, 2009

LitMag Wave: Short Story, No. 6

It’s a shame about Short Story. In its short life—issue Number 6, Spring 2009, was its last—it published some very good stories and interviews with intriguing writers. In the last issue, for example, the editor’s interview with Elise Blackwell includes some useful insights into process:
“For me, a book often starts with a single image or idea or character. I let it marinate for a while, often a very long time. Once you start thinking about that, you notice things in the world that are related. You read a news story. You think of the character and you meet someone who shares a trait. This part of the process often takes a year or so, and I often do that while I’m working on another book.”
She also says, “A little research goes a long way,” which is a valuable lesson

I also enjoyed all of the stories in this issue. They all are a little quirky without being experimental, and they all leave a great deal of the story OUT, which is interesting. I think in the interest of thoroughness, short story writers (I’m thinking of myself here) sometimes include too much. These stories show that a writer doesn’t need to fill in all the holes.

In “At the DMV” by Lou Mathews, for example, we see Cyril Cleary at the DMV trying to get the name changed on his Drivers License. We know the problem with his name has to do with his departure from a religious order, but we don’t know much more, because it doesn’t seem terribly relevant to what the author is doing. Similarly, in “Woman with Mr. McElroy” by Joshua White, the reader wants to know more about the blind Mr. McElroy, but the truth is that we know just enough. If the author had included more details about the man’s childhood and his rivalry with his brother I would happily have read it, but it simply isn’t needed here. “Allan Mabry” by Michael Henson is similar. The title character (although in the story his name is spelled with only one ‘l’ so I have to think there’s a mistake in the title and table of contents) has hired a single mother and is repaid for his generosity by the son’s petty thievery. “Release Date” by James Barilla also leaves lots of questions unanswered. It tells of Gordon, found on the beach like any of the stray animals Mrs. Randall takes in, and like them he can’t tell her what his history is. And, finally, there’s “1947” by Simone Martel, a story that hints at a past that is never revealed.

Just when I’ve figured out what an editor likes in a story, it ceases publication!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The New Yorker: "Diary of an Interesting Year" by Helen Simpson

I suppose it’s possible to write an original, successful dystopian story, but this one doesn’t work. Or maybe it does exactly what it seems to be trying to do—show the consequences of ignoring global warming. In this story, an English couple in 2040 are struggling to survive—food and fuel shortages, foul weather, billeting of foreign refugees and troops—in the aftermath of the collapse of government, which in turn was caused by the Big Melt. Fearing for their lives and unable to put up with conditions, they flee north. Life on the road’s not so good either and the man is killed by another foreigner, who gets the narrator pregnant. The worst thing is to bring a child into this world and so the narrator has to take action, against the man first.

We’ve all read The Road. I don’t see that this adds anything to the equation except the female perspective including the problems of giving birth. If anything, this is bleaker than McCarthy's bleak novel. And if it is meant—since it came out during the Copenhagen summit—to be a call to action on global warming, it’s too easily dismissed as fantasy, even though it seems all to plausible to me.

It’s a fast, amusing, forgettable read.

December 21, 2009: “Diary of an Interesting Year” by Helen Simpson

LitMag Wave: Mid-American Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 1

I subscribe to a lot of literary magazines and I’m hopelessly behind in my reading. A 2010 resolution that I intend to put into practice immediately is to read the journals as soon as they come in, PLUS one from the backlog. I haven’t finished with the one that arrived yesterday, so let me start this new LitMag Wave with the older number:

Mid-American Review, Volume XXIX, Number 1. This isn’t even the most recent MAR, but it’s the one I grabbed off the pile so it’s the one I’ve been reading, and I like it a lot. Starting with the striking cover by Judith Vierow. Inside, I enjoyed the winner and editors’ choices from the 2008 Fineline Competition: Ryan Teitman’s “The Cabinet of Things Swallowed” is a sharp piece of flash fiction about fourth graders on a visit to a museum. Love the ending. No wonder it won! There are also two pieces from Alan Michael Parker’s collection of flash fictions, from which he read at the recent Winter Wheat Festival of Writing sponsored by MAR. He distinguishes flash fiction from prose poetry and while I agree with his distinctions, these pieces seem to me to be more prose poetry than flash fictions. But no matter; I very much like what he’s doing with the Reports from the Committee on Town Happiness.

Also notable in this issue is the story by Matthew Eck, “Ward No. 6?” about a writer who is hired by a prestigious university on the basis of fabricated publication credits. (I’m looking forward to Eck’s novel, which I just “won” in Rain Taxi’s annual fundraising auction.) I also liked Becky Hagenston’s “Anthony,” which is an odd story about a young girl who is sharing her body with a ghost, and “Girl With Two Hearts” by Sumanth Prabhaker. All of these pieces are off-beat, and so is the final story, Baird Harper’s “Two-Twenty-Two” about a teenager’s visiting, cross-dressing cousin.

Not to mention poetry, reviews, and several fine essays. Congratulations to the editors for an excellent issue.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Vote for the 2009 New Yorker Story of the Year

It's time to select the 2009 New Yorker Story of the Year. The process is a little different this year. In previous years I have nominated a top ten and then narrowed the list to five on the basis of reader feedback. This year I received reader feedback first in order to select a Top Ten, and the voting (in the poll in the sidebar at right) will include all ten stories.

Below are the top ten New Yorker stories of 2009 as determined by the readers of Perpetual Folly. The story title links to the date. The link following the author's name links to the discussion here at Perpetual Folly.

Vote! (Polls close at midnight on December 31.) [Note: votes in the comments section will NOT be counted; vote in the poll on the sidebar at right!]

March 23, 2009: “She’s the One” by Tessa Hadley -- PF Discussion

April 20, 2009: “A Tiny Feast” by Chris Adrian -- PF Discussion

April 27, 2009: “Vast Hell” by Guillermo Martínez -- PF Discussion

June 8 & 15, 2009: “Good Neighbors” by Jonathan Franzen -- PF Discussion

June 22, 2009: “Idols” by Tim Gautreaux -- PF Discussion

September 28, 2009: “Temporary” by Marisa Silver -- PF Discussion

October 5, 2009: “Victory Lap” by George Saunders -- PF Discussion

October 19, 2009: “Complicity” by Julian Barnes -- PF Discussion

November 2, 2009: “While the Women are Sleeping” by Javier Marías -- PF Discussion

November 30, 2009: “Midnight in Dostoevsky” by Don DeLillo -- PF Discussion

New Acquisitions: Where I Must Go by Angela Jackson

I'm digging my way back into my life, literally and figuratively. The drive across the mountain yesterday--once I got off the VCCA campus, which was complicated by snow and an inconsiderate driver--wasn't too bad, despite chunky ice in spots. As expected, though, my own driveway was impassable thanks to drifts both natural and plow-made. I pulled into the neighbor's drive, dived into the drift to retrieve a shovel from the garage, and started digging in. In about a half hour I'd cleared enough space to at least move my car to my own driveway, which I did. And since then I've cleared a little more and have also begun the figurative digging--the mail, mostly.

One bright spot in the mail was a package from Triquarterly Books (Northwestern University Press) with a signed copy of the acclaimed new novel by poet Angela Jackson. Where I Must Go, which looks like a terrific book. I'm not sure when I'll be able to get to it, but I'm looking forward to it.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

VCCA Report, Day 10

It's the last full day of my residency at VCCA. It's been an odd couple of days because of the snow event that began Friday evening and continued through last night. The snow finally stopped, leaving close to 2 feet on everything. It was fun to see the horses out in it (see the picture) and also a couple of runaway cows. It was not too hard to get back to the residence for dinner (actually, we'd had to make the trip for lunch, too, since the truck couldn't get out to the barns to deliver the food), and then many of us returned to work afterward. (More snow disruption--Barbara, one of the resident artists, is filling in for the regular kitchen staff.) The main event out there last night was the open studio presented by Katherine Sullivan (who was also here in 2007 when I was here). Her work is abstract but symbolic--I liked it a lot.

And today has been odd as people make preparations to leave. I got some work done this morning, but in the afternoon it was really hard to concentrate. So I got my studio organized for leaving tomorrow, I shoveled the snow away from my car so I can make my escape, and so. . . I'm ready to go. I'll probably work tonight and will definitely work in the morning (I'll be one of the last to leave again).

But this will be the last report. I'm calling it a residency.

Friday, December 18, 2009

VCCA Report, Day 8

I took this picture in the early afternoon on Friday while taking a walk--I figured it might be my last chance on this residency given the promised snow that was headed our way. Also saw a deer on this walk--usually happens once a residency, so I was due. At around 2:30 the snow started and by 4:00, when we were due at the office for the holiday party, it was already serious. A couple of inches, wind blowing, very cold. Etc. The party was nice (pictures on my facebook page), but i wanted to get back to my studio to do a little more work before dinner. Instead, I packed up the computer, my manuscript, and the books I might need--in case I can't get back out there tomorrow.

Dinner seemed subdued, as we all tried to adjust to the snowstorm reality and discussed whether we were going to trek back to the studios tonight or not. And I was not. I happily worked in my room for a while.

It's amazing how much snow has piled up already!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

VCCA Report, Day 7

Today is, um, Thursday. It's hard to tell sometimes, but I know because I had to run home today to give my "final exam" at the college where I teach, and tonight I've been fiddling with grades.

But earlier today I got some work done on the book, although I won't finish this draft during the residency as I'd originally hoped. That's okay. New target is Christmas, and then I'll work on revisions after that.

Aside from a lovely drive over the mountain on a beautiful day, the highlight was the presentations after dinner. First up was composer Matthew Barnson who played a CD of two pieces--a string quartet and part of a longer work for percussion that just premiered in Chicago this week. I especially liked the percussion piece which also uses space in an intriguing way. And then we saw two short films by David Licata. The first was "8 1/2 x 11" which is about a guy interviewing for jobs and the second, "Tango Octogenario" is about an elderly couple dancing the tango.

Two treats right after dinner!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Face in the Tree

VCCA Report, Days 5 & 6

Not much to report about Tuesday. I worked. I graded papers. I got a lot done but it wasn't a very exciting day.

Wednesday was pretty much the same. I worked. I did laundry. I took a walk in the woods. (Regarding the pictures: on the left is a picture called the Loch VCCA Otter--I saw a trio of otters playing in the lake on campus; on the right is Roadblock!--a large tree had fallen across the walking trail since I was here last year.) And now I'm working again.

To see more of the pictures I took on my walk today, go here: Today's VCCA Pictures on Facebook

Rain Taxi Benefit Auction

Check out the cool stuff available at the Rain Taxi Benefit Auction. As you probably know, Rain Taxi Review of Books is a wonderful source of information and reviews about books -- especially underreviewed books. It's a worthy cause to support.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

VCCA Report, Day 4

Monday was a good day, with few distractions. It was very wet from the rainy weekend, so I didn't walk in the woods. Just worked . . .

In the evening after dinner I read (research for the novel: Shamans, Housewives, and Other Restless Spirits, by Laurel Kendall) until it was time for the day's main entertainment: Open Studios.

I love Open Studios because I'm fascinated by the work of the visual artists. This was a group effort, which made it extra interesting. The fellows who were showing joined together to have oysters and champagne available, which sets a pretty high standard! The artists showing their work were Kate McGraw, Christy Georg, Chuck Webster, Dan Talbot, Christopher Domenick, and Patrick Shoemaker. All very different from one another. Good stuff!

And when I left that (I gather it went for a good long time, with music and the rest of the oysters), I graded a few papers. How exciting!

Monday, December 14, 2009

VCCA Report, Day 3

On Sunday morning we woke up to ice everywhere. Breakfast was limited--the kitchen regulars couldn't get in--and it was even tricky making the short walk out to the studios. After the sleet stopped, it rained. And rained. And rained. Which should have been conducive to work, but it just made me sleepy. Still, I got some work done.

In the evening we went over to Sweetbriar for the annual holiday dinner put on by the Dining Services there -- turkey, ham, all the fixings. We ate too much. Some of us did, anyway.

Although the rain had stopped, when we got back I didn't feel like going out to my studio to work so I graded papers. Made a lot of progress on that, so I feel like it's under control.

Now, if I can just keep the book moving forward . . .

Saturday, December 12, 2009

VCCA Report, Day 2

It was nice to see Chef Rhonda at dinner Friday night. She has made such a difference here! After dinner, there was a Fellows reading. First Ruth Kessler read some poems, including a couple of ekphrastic pieces, always appropriate when there are visual artists in the audience. And Patrick Somerville, author of the novel Cradle which came out this year, read from the new novel he's working on. People stayed around in the living room after that, but I headed back to my studio for more work.

My task for the evening was to type up the changes I'd made on the manuscript during the day and also to grade some papers. I have to do a few each day if I'm going to get them done on time. That done, I came back to the residence and found that the party was still going on. But I was too beat, so I headed to bed.

Today, Saturday, started out clear and cold. I worked all morning and most of the afternoon, taking a break to walk on the trail in the woods. There is lots of deadfall this year, and not much in the way of new art that I noticed (except for a yellow wire sculpture that adorns a few trees). Still, it's a nice walk in the woods.

After dinner I went back to the studio to type and grade. Looks like that's going to be the pattern for this residency!

Friday, December 11, 2009

VCCA Report, Day 1

I'm rewarding myself with a little internet break! I got here Thursday morning, after a beautiful drive over the mountain. I spent the afternoon organizing my studio and planning the work ahead. Some of those plans are just a schedule--how much progress I need to make each day--and some was a list of issues that I know I need to address in the current draft. (Name changes, tropes, inconsistencies, etc.) I should have had that done already, before coming to VCCA, but, well, I didn't. So I got it done.

After dinner, where I met many of the other current fellows, I came back to the studio to review some of the research I did some time ago. By then I was worn out.

Today I've been working steadily and got to the point I wanted to in editing, but will probably do more revision when I key those changes in tonight. (But, I hear we've got a reading tonight, so that might not all get done.) I was going to take a walk in the woods this afternoon, but the light is fading, so that's not going to happen either.

I did get to the office today to donate a copy of my book for the Fellows Library. I've been looking forward to that!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Do you know the way to VCCA?

I'm off to VCCA today. That's the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an incredible retreat for artists. "Retreat" never sounds right, though, because my visits there always provide me with a leap in productivity. No distractions--if I can keep my hands of the damn internet--and a wonderful, creative environment.

I'm near the end of my novel, and that's what I plan to work on there. I've got a complete draft--my fourth or so--and plans for what I do to complete it. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

NEA Literature Fellowships (Prose)

Congratulations to the recipients of the 2010 Literature Fellowships (Prose), especially my friends on the list. It's a great honor (and also a tidy, helpful sum of money).

The New Yorker: "All That" by David Foster Wallace

Is it safe to assume that this “story” is an excerpt from David Foster Wallace’s posthumous novel, The Pale King, due out in 2011? The voice seems consistent with other snippets of the novel I’ve seen, so even though The New Yorker doesn’t tell us this (they never do), that’s the theory I’m running with.

In which case, it doesn’t matter that this piece, as interesting as it is, doesn’t work as a story. Having said that, it’s enormously entertaining, in a David Foster Wallace sort of way. The narrator, an adult looking back at his childhood, is examining the source of his “reverence” for religion, and concludes that it derives from his parents’ tricking him into believing that his toy cement mixer was magic, that the giant mixing drum would turn but only when he wasn’t looking. The narrator relates his efforts to catch the truck off guard with stories his father told of trying to capture the tooth fairy. Except that he sees a difference – he didn’t want the magic to end, he only wanted to confirm its existence.

His belief in, or reverence for, the magic, is somehow connected to the voices he began hearing at about the same age, which he considers entirely normal:
“Nevertheless, the experience of the real but unobservable and unexplainable “voices” and the ecstatic feelings they often aroused doubtless contributed to my reverence for magic and my faith that magic not only permeated the everyday world but did so in a way that was thoroughly benign and altruistic and wished me well.”

Very nice, and makes the prospect of the novel all the more interesting.

December 14, 2009: “All That” by David Foster Wallace

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Big Blend Magazine

I am featured today in Big Blend Magazine, and if you scroll down to the bottom, just to the right of my picture, you can listen to me being interviewed by the hosts of Champagne Sundays (Big Blend Radio), Nancy and Lisa.

Beg, Borrow, Steal by Michael Greenberg

Beg, Borrow, Steal – A Writer’s Life
Michael Greenberg
Other Press, 2009

Many readers are likely to come to this book having read the Michael Greenberg’s much-lauded Hurry Down Sunshine, a 2008 memoir about his daughter’s breakdown. I haven’t read that book, but now that I’ve read Beg, Borrow, Steal I almost certainly will. He’s an engaging writer, with a style and approach that admit the existence of other people and the world around him. In other words, he’s not, at least in this book, the self-absorbed memoirist who gazes no further than his navel. I like that.

This book also appeals to me because of its structure. It consists of 44 short essays, each only about five pages long, dealing with some incident in the author’s life, usually something involving his family members or other people he’s come into contact with. The reader gets to know something about the writer through these vignettes, but the “writer’s life” is the context in which the writer finds himself, and that’s fascinating. In one chapter he writes of the rat problem in his New York City neighborhood and how he and the tenants of his building coped. In another he writes about his “inheritance” from an uncle and what it revealed about his relationship with his father. Another, “Kill What You Eat,” reminded me of Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma in its approach to the subject of getting to know your dinner. I especially liked the title chapter, “Beg, Borrow, Steal,” in which he deals with the consequence of having used acquaintances as characters in his earlier book – having, in effect, stolen their souls. Common problem for writers. We can relate.

If there is one chapter that’s a bit self-absorbed it’s “The Writer’s Stock Exchange,” but again writers will relate. The title refers to a book’s rankings on My own book isn’t selling so many copies that there’s much point in looking at these rankings, but of course I do anyway. I can tell, actually, from a movement in the rankings, when a copy has sold.

There’s a good deal more here, and it’s a book that is definitely worth the read.

The Literacy Site

The Literacy Site
Do you click every day? I do. First thing in the morning, I go The Literacy Site and click and then click on its affiliated sites: The Hunger Site, The Breast Cancer Site, The Child Health Site, The Rainforest Site, and The Animal Rescue Site. The whole process takes less than a minute and at no other cost to me I've contributed to all six important causes. I even get a reminder by email each weekday, with a link that makes getting started easy.

Click on the logo above, or go here:

Monday, December 07, 2009

Nice Words About In an Uncharted Country

Author Jana McBurney-Lin has some nice things to say about In an Uncharted Country at her blog: My Half of the Sky (which is also the title of her terrific novel set in Southern China).

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Champagne Sundays Radio Interview Today

I'll probably hold off on the champagne until after the interview, but I will be a guest on today's edition of Big Blend Radio's Champagne Sundays. The show runs from 2 - 5:00pm ET and I expect to be on starting at around 4:00. But if you miss the live interview, the show will be archived, and I'll share the link to that later. I'm looking forward to talking about my book, In an Uncharted Country on the show!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

New Books: Truth, Or Something Like It by Curtis Smith

Just got an advance copy of Curtis Smith's new book, Truth or Something Like It, forthcoming in March 2010 from Casperian Books. Look for a review in this space . . . eventually.

Saturday Snow Storm

This picture wasn't taken today, but it could have been. Lots of snow. It started at about dawn and it is still coming down (shortly after sunset). Normally, I wouldn't care. I'd relax, work or read, listen to music, and let the world spin. Couldn't do that today, though--too much going on.

First was the quarterly meeting of the Democratic Party of Virginia. I'm a member of the State Central Committee and since the committee doesn't often meet in Staunton I definitely wanted to be there. I also wanted to be there because I'm on the Resolutions Committee and we had put forward a resolution encouraging our Congressional Delegation to support the Public Option. And, finally, I wanted to be there because we were going to hear from Senators Warner and Webb and Governor Kaine as well as other elected officials. Unfortunately, the Senators were stuck in Washington, not by the snow but by the Senate Majority Leader who was keeping people in town to work on the health care legislation. Both of them spoke to us by video. Governor Kaine was there, though, and he gave a rousing talk, as did Congressman Tom Periello. Our health care resolution also passed, so it was a good meeting.

And in the afternoon I was headed over to Stone Soup Books in Waynesboro for the first annual Holiday Book Fair. Stone Soup is a bookstore and cafe spread throughout an old house, and in its short life it has become quite popular. This event, which was very nicely planned an publicized, brought together quite a few local authors. The idea was that we'd be scattered around the store with our books and that visitors would pass through and chat. And that's what happened, although the turnout (of both authors and visitors) was low because of the snow. (I had no trouble getting over there, but as I pulled in to park I skidded into the curb. The only damage, as far I've been able to tell, is that the hubcap popped off, but retrieved it so it isn't a real problem.) Despite the weather, I applaud the store for putting on this event--it's just the kind of outreach independent stores need to be doing. Thank you, Stone Soup!

Friday, December 04, 2009

From Winesburg, Ohio to Olive Kittteridge

This is a talk I gave on December 1, 2009 at Blue Ridge Community College, and, as you'll see if you watch it, it should really be called "From Dubliners to In an Uncharted Country," but I thought the other title sounded better.

HTML Giant Secret Santa

Ho Ho Ho. Last year, the "internet literature magazine of the future" HTML Giant organized a literary Secret Santa gift exchange. It seemed like a good idea, fun, promoted indie lit, etc. So I played, got assigned my giftee, sent something off (ordered from Dzanc Books, as I recall), and waited for my own Santa's gift to arrive. And waited. And waited. And waited. Finally I contacted HTML Giant's Ryan to see what went wrong, and he sent me some books as a backup to Santa (Good little elf!). Just a couple of days ago I got an email from my Secret Santa from last year, telling me that she'd just come across the package she'd been supposed to mail me a year ago! So that's finally on it's way--pretty funny, really--and I owe Ryan some books.

So, HTML Secret Santa is up and running again this year (using Elfster) and especially with the amusing ending to last year's mixup, I've signed on again. Join the holiday spirit! Support independent literature by gifting a small press book (or three) or a subscription to a lit mag! It's fun, it's easy.

If you sign up and want to order a signed copy of my book for your giftee, visit my website:

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Champagne Sundays

Please tune into Big Blend Radio's Champagne Sundays this Sunday, December 6. I will be interviewed (around 4pm ET, I think) about my book, In an Uncharted Country.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The New Yorker: "The Use of Poetry" by Ian McEwan

The contributor notes for this issue tell us that McEwan has a new novel, Solar, due out in the spring. And while once again the editors don’t tell us this, the fiction appears to be not a short story but an excerpt, or perhaps an extraction, from that novel. The “story” deals with a Physics Nobel Laureate whom we first see as an infant, although the events in these pages cover the time when he is an undergraduate at Oxford first becoming interested in the “physics of light.” Through a lot of exposition—there’s very little scene in the story—the reader learns about Michael Beard’s parents (he’s an only child, his parents’ marriage was loveless, his mother, who died of cancer, had a series of affairs), and then his arrival at Oxford. He meets Maisie—the first in a string of wives—and pursues and ultimately seduces her by digesting the work of Milton, the subject of her own studies. Unconventionally, for the time, they marry, but are already drifting apart and by the end of this excerpt she leaves him and the reader is a left with a flash forward to Michael attending her funeral.

So, this is decidedly not a short story, and although the book seems appealing (more than McEwan’s last book, On Chesil Beach), there isn’t much point to this excerpt. Having said that, the quotations from Milton seem far more relevant to the protagonist’s study of the “physics of light” than he seems to realize, and so the piece is interesting for that: “thou Celestial light/Shine inward, and the mind through all her powers/Irradiate, there plant eyes, all mist from thence/Purge and disperse, that I may see and tell/Of things invisible to mortal sight.”

There isn’t much point in analyzing the story further, since it isn’t a story, but it is fun to see this glimpse into the forthcoming novel.

December 7, 2009: “The Use of Poetry” by Ian McEwan

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Stone Soup Holiday Book Fair

Come out to Stone Soup Books this Saturday, December 5, from 2 - 5 pm to meet lots of local authors (including me!), buy their books, get their autographs, etc. It's going to be fun, and the bookstore is a great place to hang out.