Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Soup and Salad: Jane Smiley on Why Fiction Matters, Staging Karl Ove Knausgaard, Staging The Other Woman, September Covers, Awards Season is Upon Us, Lauren Groff Finds the Joy, Joshua Mohr and His Three Strokes

On today’s menu:

1.  It’s been nearly a year since I served some Soup and Salad here at the blog, but I think it’s about time I resurrected this news-bite feature. To welcome its return, I thought I’d share some recent thoughts on the power and purpose of novels, brought to you by the never-uninteresting Jane Smiley, who writes at The Center for Fiction’s website,
The novel is not like any other form of art. It takes up a subject, makes use of a voice and exposes us to that subject and that voice for hours on end. If we want to, we can immerse ourselves in a subject and/or a voice endlessly, by reading one book over and over, by reading series of books, by reading all the books of a single author, by reading many books about a single subject. We can zip through Agatha Christie or we can toil through Ulysses, we can read through “100 Best” lists or rummage in the attic, keep up with bestsellers and Goodreads favorites. What we seek, I think, is the drip drip drip of another consciousness into our own, a set of images we could not imagine without those words, a gallery of worlds we may never have actually seen, but feel we have seen because an author has portrayed them.

2.  “My first thought was that it’s impossible. There’s no way. The novel, and the amount of thoughts and reflections in it, was too huge. My second thought was, I’d like to give it a try.” Bringing Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume, 3,600-word My Struggle to the stage.

3.  Speaking of theater, if you’re connected with the local arts group in your community, you might be interested in a nationwide staging of a work featuring women’s voices, organized by Victoria Zackheim, author of Faith: Essays from Believers, Agnostics, and Atheists. She recently emailed me with this description of the stage project:
In 2007, my book The Other Woman: Twenty-one Wives, Lovers, and Others Talk Openly About Sex, Deception, Love, and Betrayal was launched on the Today show. This collection of non-fiction/personal essays immediately became a Canadian national bestseller, was featured in People magazine and generated dozens of radio and television appearances around the country. Shortly before the launch, I selected five essays and wove them into The Other Woman, a dramatic, edgy, and sometimes humorous one-act play of ninety minutes. The night before the book’s national launch, the adaptation had a reading at the Players Club in Manhattan. Onstage were Kathleen Chalfant, Ellen McLaughlin, Penny Fuller, and Winslow Corbett, and author Connie May Fowler. The event was repeated in San Francisco, with equal audience enthusiasm. With the play now polished and bursting with energy, co-producer Cynthia Comsky and I have designed One Night/One Play, a reading to be presented in multiple theaters across the United States on Monday, November 9, 2015. Participating U.S. theaters will be part of a national media campaign directed toward the uniqueness of this one-night event. It is our hope that we’ll have experimental as well as traditional theaters, houses reflecting the wonderfully dissimilar communities that represent diversity in the US. In this reading, actors sit five abreast, the only props being five chairs and five music stands (on which scripts will rest). Stage directions and sound systems are at the discretion of the director. Actors are on script, so one rehearsal is sufficient. All participating theaters will receive a packet (electronic) of marketing and PR materials to support local promotions, including the bios and head shots of the five contributing authors. Our goal is to connect with theaters that engage with their communities. We will work toward multi-media coverage nationwide. If you join us for this exciting one-night project, we ask that you not alter the script and that you cast experienced actors. In terms of a financial arrangement, there is none. You will pay us nothing, nor do we pay you. Any proceeds you collect through ticket sales and/or donations remain with you. If you choose to present this reading as a fundraiser, we suggest a percentage be donated to a local women's shelter.
If you’re interested, email Victoria ASAP at

4.  I can always depend on The Casual Optimist to tickle my eyes with book cover designs. Here are some of my favorites from its recent gallery of September releases, including some non-U.S. covers I prefer...

 Design by Matt Roeser; illustration by Kikuo Johnson

Design by Justine Anweiler; photography by Jonathan Simpson 

Design by Erin Fitzsimmons
...and though it’s not included in the C.O. roundup, a visit to Erin Fitzsimmons’ website led me to this terrific cover for Mindy McGinnis’ new novel A Madness So Discreet:

5.  It’s awards season, and you know what that means: late-night reading sessions, tossing back cup after cup of hot coffee, rapidly flipping pages and stuffing sentences into your head as you race to keep up with all these highly-praised books. Or maybe that’s just me. At any rate, at least two lists, the Kirkus Prize finalists and the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 list, are already populated with residents of my ever-towering To-Be-Read pile (aka Mount NeveRest). I’ll see you on the other side of the coffee, my friends.

6.  One of those honorees, Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies), was recently interviewed at The Millions. Here’s a snippet from that conversation with Elizabeth Word Gutting:
I write almost everything by hand. It works out well for me because I can’t read my own handwriting, and so I don’t go back to read the drafts I’ve just written. I do a draft, and by the time I’ve finished it, I understand the foundational problems that are ruining the book. And then I just start over again. That way I’m building my idea of the world of the story, I’m building the characters. The things that I remember when I’m finished with one draft are the living details, and the living details are the ones that are meant to be in the story, that mean something. My drafting system is insane, and it’s very wasteful, and I’m frustrated for years and years at a time, but it ends up working out for me, because otherwise I would end up polishing foundationally problematic work. My impulse always is to spend all my time playing with words—that’s the most joyous part for me.

7.  I’ll leave you with five minutes of heartbreak. I don’t usually stomp my feet and insist you read something, but when I do, you can bet it’s important. So I’m stomping and insisting as I point you to this essay by Joshua Mohr (All This Life) about his three strokes:
     I roll over onto my stomach, a gesture that Ava interprets as an invitation to play and she’s straddling my back and yelling, “Hop on pop! Hop on pop!” which makes this moment of emergency seem ludicrous but also sort of perfect, the way a child can’t comprehend how grave and mortal things are.
     She keeps thumping her butt on my back and chanting, “Hop on pop!” and I crane my head around to see her as she bounces on me, and I say to Ava, “I don’t want to die.”
     It’s silly to say that to an 18-month-old, but I can’t stop myself, and maybe, there’s no better person to tell because she’s the reason I need to live.
Go here. Read it and weep.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Trailer Park Tuesday: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

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

If you read one book in October, make it City on Fire—and with its 944-page length, Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel may very well be the only book you read this month. It wouldn’t be time wasted. I’m halfway through it now and I’m here to tell you this book is a luxurious bath of words. City on Fire is big in all senses of the word: not just in page volume, but in the scope of its plot and the large cast of characters—every one of them interesting to some degree. When you start reading this novel, you are in its world...and there you stay until your eyes lift from the page. It is a full-immersion baptism of story. City on Fire reminds me, at times, of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities (but de-fanged of that book's satire) and Don DeLillo’s Underworld (though Hallberg confines himself to just one place and time: New York City in the mid-1970s). With the seamless dazzle of a Las Vegas magician, Hallberg juggles so many different plot threads—all of which will eventually tie together—that it feels like several books smooshed into one. Not only is City on Fire one of the best books of 2015, it has a rich, eye-bursting trailer featuring a couple of poetic passages from the Prologue, narrated by the author, and a collage of images that move so fast they can only leave a subliminal impression in your brain. Driving the video forward is a terrific new song called “My Reward,” written and performed by Hallberg’s friend Hamilton Leithauser of The Walkmen, along with bandmate Paul Maroon. Music, from punk to pop, plays an important role in the novel, so it’s only fitting that the trailer adds a nice sonic layer to the two-minute video. If you see only one book trailer in October, make it this one.

Monday, October 5, 2015

My First Time: Emily Ross

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 Emily Ross, author of the young adult mystery/thriller Half In Love With Death, forthcoming from Merit Press in December. Set in the 1960s, Half in Love With Death was inspired by the eerie, true story of serial killer Charles Schmid, aka “The Pied Piper of Tucson.” Kate Racculia, author of Bellweather Rhapsody, says, “Half in Love with Death is as dreamy and dark as the beautiful boy at the center of its twisty mystery.” Emily’s fiction and nonfiction have been published in Boston Magazine, Menda City Review, and The Smoking Poet. She is an editor and contributor at Dead Darlings, a website dedicated to discussing the craft of novel writing (where a version of this My First Time post first appeared). Emily is a 2012 graduate of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator program.

The First Time I Fell In Love (with Writing)

There wasn’t a specific moment when I realized I wanted to be a poet, novelist, or whatever. I would spend years working out those details. But there was a moment when I fell in love with writing.

It happened in third grade. My teacher was named Miss Gamrad. Behind her back everyone called her Miss Ramrod, because she was tall and thin, straight up and down. She had a triangular face, a wide unsmiling mouth, bulging eyes, and dark curls that stuck to the sides of her head. Except for the curls, she resembled a praying mantis, or rather a “preying” mantis, more than a ramrod, and she was mean. She was never mean to me, of course, because I was perfect, but other kids in the class weren’t so lucky. She especially liked to yell at Russell M, a boy I loved. Russell had an edge, a wise mouth, and a problem with subtraction. Miss Gamrad would frequently subtract him from the room. He spent a lot of time standing in the hall.

Outside of Russell the other thing that made her yell was lunch. Our six-room schoolhouse didn’t have a cafeteria. Lunch was brought in from another school miles away. The food arrived cold, and included such appealing entrees as salmon wiggle with peas on saltines. Miss Gamrad made sure that we finished every last bite. Fortunately my parents wrote me a note saying that I didn’t have to eat anything I didn’t like (yes, they were probably the world’s first helicopter parents). Russell wasn’t so lucky. His shirt cuffs were frayed and he wore shoes without socks. Everyone knew he was poor. On the rare occasions when he brought lunch, it was something weird like a cold fried-egg sandwich — with mustard! Miss Gamrad made it her personal mission to see to it that Russell got enough to eat.

On this particular day, she said none of us would be able to go out for recess until Russell finished his spinach. We watched as he forced small bites through his thin defiant lips. It took a while, but when the plastic tray was empty except for a pool of greenish water, Miss Gamrad smiled in triumph. And then Russell put his hand over his mouth, rushed past her, and vomited the spinach into a sink at the back of the room. As we crowded round and watched the food-flecked stream go down the drain, I’m surprised we didn’t all vomit. When Miss Gamrad was through cleaning it up, she announced that because of Russell we would miss recess. Instead we would have to write. There were groans. Not writing! Anything but that.

By now you’re probably thinking that on that afternoon I wrote my first story about Russell. I should have. I had a crush on him. I hoped he had a crush on me. He was a hard-scrabble, vomiting James Dean, in a tiny classroom in the middle of nowhere, perfect fodder for a budding young writer. But I didn’t write about him. I hadn’t yet figured out I could write about the world around me. Instead, as I sat in a room that smelled of Lysol and vomit, I wrote something called, What the Waves Tell Me. It wasn’t a poem, but it wasn’t really a story either. It was just something that I wrote on yellow blue-lined paper, and I couldn’t stop writing it. I wrote about sitting on a beach and how the waves told me a story. I moved to another beach and they told me another story. Then I moved to yet another beach, and they told me a different story. The words just kept just coming and there was no way I was going to stop them, because nothing had ever felt so right. When Miss Gamrad said to put our pencils down, I didn’t.

I would like to say that she had to tear the paper from my feverish hands, that I refused to give it to her and was defiant for the first time in my life, that Russell came to my rescue, read it, and fell instantly in love with me, but that would be the made-for-TV version of this. I ended things by simply making the tide go out. Today I can’t remember much of What the Waves Tell Me but I suspect there was a certain lack of plot, an absence of dramatic tension, too many multiplying existential beaches, but that doesn’t matter, because the feeling I got from writing it is still with me. It was as if a door had opened to a place I’d never dreamed was there. But it was there. It still is. And I keep coming back for more.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sunday Sentence: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

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

The coffee tasted like water colored brown with a crayon.

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Friday, October 2, 2015

Friday Freebie: Emma by Jane Austen (Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition)

Congratulations to Jonathan Butters, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.

This week’s book giveaway is the gorgeous new edition of Emma by Jane Austen, published by the fine folks at Penguin Classics. Even if you already own Emma (and if you don’t, why the dickens not?), you’ll want to add this dee-luxe, annotated edition to your shelf. Released in honor of the novel’s 200th birthday, it is handsomely packaged and comes with a new introduction and notes by Goucher professor Juliette Wells. I’m happy to offer one paperback copy to a lucky reader (sorry, international readers, U.S. only entrants for this contest). Read on for an interview with Professor Wells, describing some of the work she did in preparing this edition of Emma for publication.

When we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Emma, what in particular are we celebrating? What’s new about this edition?

We’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of Emma’s original publication, in London in December, 1815. The date of publication is a little confusing because “1816” was printed on the title page of the first edition of the novel, but it was actually released in December, 1815. I think this gives us the right to celebrate for a whole year! And what better way to celebrate than to re-read Emma, or read it for the first time? Our 200th-anniversary annotated edition has everything you need, all in one place, to help you appreciate this wonderful novel. You can immerse yourself in Austen’s world and also have, right at your fingertips, explanations of some of the elements of the novel that tend to trip up or puzzle today’s readers.

In the Austen canon, what would you say makes Emma special and unique?

Emma is special because it’s the capstone of Austen’s career as an author. She had already published three novels (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park), and she was at the very top of her game as a writer. She didn’t know it, of course, but Emma would be the last book she saw through to publication. When Austen died in July 1817, she left two essentially completed novels (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion), which her brother published at the end of that year. So Emma is the last Austen novel that was published in the exact form that she herself approved. Emma is also special because it’s the most perfect example of Austen’s particular genius as an author, which is (I think) to create a recognizable, engaging fictional world from the slenderest of materials. She writes about everyday life and ordinary people—you won’t find kings and queens in her novels, or ghosts or vampires. Her effects are wonderfully subtle.

What was the publishing process like when Emma was first published? How was the novel received critically? Was Austen as popular in her own day as she is today?

The publishing process was recognizable in some ways and very different in others. Austen didn’t have a literary agent; at that time, authors dealt directly with publishers. With Emma, she chose a new, more prestigious publisher—John Murray—than she had used for her three earlier novels, and she negotiated hard for a good contract with him. As authors are today, Austen was responsible for proofreading and approving copy before publication. Since being a published author was considered not so respectable for an unmarried woman, Austen chose to remain anonymous on her title pages throughout her lifetime. Emma identifies her as “the author of Pride and Prejudice.” Her identity wasn’t made publicly known until after her death. Like Austen’s earlier novels, Emma was praised by reviewers, who appreciated Austen’s ability to convey a very realistic fictional world. Austen wasn’t a bestseller in her day; then as now, thrillers, adventure stories, and romances outsold quiet literary fiction. But Austen did have the satisfaction of knowing, in her lifetime, that readers appreciated her work. In addition to reading reviews, she kept track of the responses of her friends and family, which offer a wonderful glimpse into what everyday readers of Austen’s own time thought of Emma. Some of what they liked and didn’t like may be very familiar to us!

One of your specialties as a professor of English is how Jane Austen’s work continues to appeal to people, how it remains at the forefront of pop culture conversation. Last year, Alexander McCall Smith updated Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies hits the big screen in 2016, and movie and TV versions of Austen continue to draw viewers. Why do you think we keep updating and adapting Austen? What are your favorite adaptations or updates, and what makes them successful?

Austen really is endlessly adaptable, much like Shakespeare! You can transpose her stories and her characters to other places and times, and they still work. My own favorite creation inspired by Austen is Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, from 1995. Clueless is a joy to experience, and smart too, much like an Austen novel. I’m also a big fan of Sense and Sensibility, also from 1995, for which Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay. Experiencing Austen through the eyes of a witty, thoughtful contemporary woman—it doesn’t get any better than that! I like Karen Joy Fowler’s novel The Jane Austen Book Club, from 2004, for the same reason—an experienced writer chooses to think about how Austen’s works matter to us today, and takes us along for the ride. Lost in Austen, the British miniseries from 2008, is also a big favorite of mine. A rabid Austen fan finds her way into the world of Pride and Prejudice and messes it up. It’s a hoot to see the Austen characters we know so well doing and saying things that they never would have done or said in the original novel. I think TV and movie adaptations of Austen are so popular for two main reasons. They’re beautiful to watch, no question. And they offer a respite—which a lot of people of all ages value—from the loud, fast, scary, stuff that much of mainstream entertainment is these days. The tricky part comes, sometimes, when someone knows and loves Austen through the films and then goes to pick up one of the novels, only to discover that the reading experience is a lot more complex and challenging than the viewing experience. I had those first-time readers of Austen very much in mind when creating this new edition of Emma.

What is it like to prepare a new edition of a book that’s so well-known and exists in many editions? What kind of research did you do? Did anything you learned during the process surprise you?

It was really important to me to create a truly new approach to Emma—a welcoming, reader-friendly approach. Excellent editions of Emma already exist for scholars and for devoted “Janeites.” With this anniversary edition, I wanted to open Austen up to people who hadn’t given her a try before, and to support their reading experience by using everything I know from years of teaching undergraduates and from talking with everyday readers. I certainly reached for plenty of scholarly and reference sources on my shelves, but I’d say my most important preparation was to have built up, over time, a sense of what readers are curious about and what frustrates them in their first encounter with an Austen novel. And, through my teaching, I’ve had a lot of practice at explaining historical concepts in an accessible way. I also had the huge pleasure of re-reading Emma myself, slowly, with pencil in hand, making lists of topics to cover in my contextual essays and marking words that would likely be unfamiliar to present-day Americans. By doing this, I developed a much deeper appreciation of Austen’s artistry with words. This surprised and delighted me—I would have said I appreciated her artistry plenty before! But it wasn’t until I was trying to figure out how to convey the meaning of a particular phrase that I realized how much meaning she packs in with her clever, economical word choices. Thinking about readers’ experience with Emma also shaped how the contextual material is presented in this new edition. In my experience, many ordinary readers, and even college students too, are put off by footnotes, or at best ignore them. So we decided instead to group topics together in contextual essays, which are easier—and, I hope, more fun—to read. Here too my experience explaining historical concepts And, there’s no question, the gorgeous cover by Dadu Shin is a beautiful invitation to pick up this Emma!

Click to enlarge
The illustrations for this edition are drawn from historical copies of Emma in the Jane Austen Collection at Goucher College, where you teach. Can you tell us more about that collection? What is it, exactly?

The Jane Austen Collection at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland began as the passion project of an alumna of the college from the 1920s, Alberta Hirshheimer Burke. Alberta loved, loved, loved Jane Austen’s writings and decided that her own purpose in life was to gather as much material as possible relating to Austen. So Alberta bought first and rare editions and even some manuscripts—such as letters in Austen’s handwriting—all of which she felt brought her closer to her beloved author. The images in our new edition reproduce turn-of-the-twentieth century illustrations of Emma by English and American artists, from books that Alberta owned, and which she bequeathed to her alma mater when she died in 1975. (Her manuscripts went to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.) Alberta also cared deeply about ephemera with an Austen connection, such as newspaper and magazine articles, which she preserved in ten overstuffed scrapbooks. So our Austen Collection at Goucher is a terrific resource for popular culture studies as well as book history.

As a college professor, what’s your favorite aspect of teaching Austen? Do you face any challenges in interesting students in her writings?

Absolutely the best part of teaching Austen is that so many students are enthusiastic about studying her writings. She is an easy sell! Shakespeare is the only other English writer who has a draw like hers. And Austen has the advantage that her life story as a woman writer is especially appealing. Many of my students are creative writers themselves and find Austen’s confidence and perseverance to be very inspiring. That said, I do often encounter people—students and ordinary readers—for whom Austen just seems unappealing. Maybe her novels seem girly; maybe they seem awfully full of privileged white people (not untrue); maybe the sentences or paragraphs are just too long. Stephen King said recently in a New York Times Book Review that he had never read any Austen, and I feel it’s a real shame that a great writer like him has missed a great writer like her! Maybe I’ll have to send him this new Emma and see if he can get into it. I love it that everyone who reads Jane Austen has her or his own ideas about what’s important and what’s interesting. Some readers gravitate towards her humor, while for others, the morality really resonates. Pretty much all of us can find at least one character who reminds us of someone we know—and we’re lucky if it’s a character who’s nice!

Do you think we have a modern-day equivalent of Jane Austen? Or do you have any “further reading” suggestions for Austen fans who’ve read all of her books a thousand times and are looking for something new?

I love to read contemporary novels and memoirs, and I always keep an eye out for hints that an author is influenced by or interested in Austen. I recently re-read Allegra Goodman’s novel The Cookbook Collector and really appreciated how she weaves in elements from Emma as well as from her more obvious place of inspiration, Sense and Sensibility. I also particularly like that Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic-format memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and the Dykes to Watch Out For comics, gives several shout-outs to Austen. Flyover Lives, Diane Johnson’s hybrid family history/memoir, includes a fascinating account of what Johnson’s foremothers in America were up to at the same time that Austen was writing about much more privileged women in England. I’d also warmly recommend the novels of Barbara Pym, a 20th-century English writer. Pym’s dry humor and close observation of everyday people ally her very closely with Austen. And it’s always rewarding to read, or re-read, 19th-century novels by authors who knew and loved Austen’s writings. In that category, I’d especially recommend Elizabeth Gaskell (start with Cranford) and George Eliot (outside of Austen, Middlemarch is my all-time favorite novel). And, finally, I’d say that Austen lovers are the best people to ask about what to read next! Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of shout-outs for the novels of Anthony Trollope, so I may have to get cracking on his enormous oeuvre...

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

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 8, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 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.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Everybody Read Now: The Middle on ABC-TV

Since it premiered in 2009, I have watched every episode of The Middle on ABC. I have laughed, cried and, when the truths about parenting hit a little too close to home, squirmed uncomfortably. Mike and Frankie Heck of Orson, Indiana represent the Everyfamily of modern America with their foibles and follies raising three children, Axl, Sue and Brick. They take imperfect parenting and turn it into classic comedy TV. Hilarious stuff, each and every week.

But I think the latest episode, “Cutting the Cord,” will always hold a special place in my heart for youngest child Brick’s impromptu pep rally dance as the new school “mascot,” Bernie the Bookmark. For those of you who’ve never seen The Middle (and if not, you better start binge-watching on Netflix now), a brief word of explanation: Brick, played by Atticus Shaffer, is the socially-awkward, but yet self-assured, nerd who would always rather be reading a book than dressing out for gym class (as he tells his brother Axl: “I don’t play sports. I don’t exactly have a ton of friends. I have books.”). He’s full of ticks (I call him “the Lap Whisperer”) and will defend his right to read to the death (“I’ve decided from now on, I want to spend every moment I can with the things I cherish most. So, I’ll be in my room with my books. Try not to bother me.”). But he may have reached his apex in Season 7, Episode 2 this week. Take a look and I think you’ll agree when I say, “Everybody read now!” is the new earworm for library lovers.

Apologies for the poor sound and video quality--I just grabbed this off my computer this morning; if you’re a Hulu subscriber, you can see the full episode here.

Monday, September 28, 2015

My First Time: Gayle Brandeis

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 Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, Dictionary Poems, and the novels The Book of Dead Birds, which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage, Delta Girls, and My Life with the Lincolns, which received a Silver Nautilus Book Award and was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Her essays, poems and short fiction have appeared in such places as The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Salon and The Nation. Gayle served as Inlandia Literary Laureate from 2012-2014. She teaches for Sierra Nevada College, the Incarcerated Student Program through Lake Tahoe Community College, and the low residency MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles.

My First Wardrobe Malfunction

I wrote my first poem when I was four years old:
Blow, little wind
Blow the trees, little wind
Blow the seas, little wind
Blow me until I am free, little wind.
A simple ditty, but I think I understood even then that writing can be like a wind that blows through us, making us spacious inside, setting us free. I was a shy, quiet girl; writing was the place where I could be most open and brave in my life—it still is, today. I published a neighborhood newspaper when I was 10—writing it gave me the courage to interview my neighbors, to sell subscriptions door to door. If I wasn’t doing something in service to my writing, I could barely make eye contact.

When my first book, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write, came out in 2002, I was thrilled, of course, but I was also terrified. In my heart of hearts, I was still that shy, quiet girl and the thought of being a public writer out in the world made me want to climb into a cave. I was grateful my first book event was going to be held at a venue where I felt deeply at home.

The Frugal Frigate—an independent children’s bookstore in Redlands, California, that also had “A Room of Her Own” featuring books by women— had opened when I was a student at the University of Redlands in the late 80s. It became a place of respite for me--I would go there to have a cup of herbal tea (free—much appreciated on my student budget) and daydream and read for pleasure; a welcome break from academia. When I found out I was pregnant my senior year, I bought What to Expect When You're Expecting there, and everyone at the store was very supportive at a time when I wasn't sure I'd be accepted as a young mother. The store continued to support me as I came in to browse the shelves with my little ones and talk to the owner about writing. Katherine, who had become a beloved presence in my life, offered to host my book launch, and I couldn't imagine a better place to usher Fruitflesh into the world.

In the car on the way to the event, I sang the alphabet song over and over at the top of my lungs to remind myself that my voice, which is normally pretty soft, can have volume. My family had just had dinner out and I was hoping my breath wasn’t too garlicky, hoping I hadn’t spilled anything on my new outfit, a wrap blouse and flowy matching skirt in the same lilac shade as the jacaranda flowers that bloom from my favorite tree.

Katherine had decorated the store beautifully, with a big bowl of strawberries as the centerpiece—appropriate, given the first line of the book is “A strawberry changed my life.” As people started to flow into the store—friends, my kids’ teachers, kind strangers—I began to feel more at ease. These people were here to celebrate, I realized, not judge. I felt buoyed by all the loving, encouraging faces beaming at me as I perched on the edge of a tall stool and started to speak.

Midway through my reading, I felt air on my stomach. I glanced down and noticed my wrap blouse had come unwrapped, and was dangling down the sides of my body like an open robe, leaving my entire torso exposed. I fought a wave of panic; even though Fruitflesh is all about tapping into the body as a source of creativity, I wasn’t all that comfortable sharing my own body in public. Thankfully I was wearing a bra—not an everyday occurrence back then—and I was able to think on my feet, not something I can always muster. “I guess I’m sharing more of my own fruitflesh than I had planned,” I said, and the audience laughed as I hastily tied my blouse back together. After that, the air was even more festive. I could barely get through the rest of the reading without laughing, and the audience laughed right along with me. My blouse was lopsided and possibly sweat-stained, but I didn’t care. One of the worst things that could have happened happened, and it just made the event all the more fun.

The shy, quiet girl still lives inside me, but I love giving readings now. I love connecting with readers, having conversations about stories and writing and life. My heart still pounds a little right before I take the stage, but I try to let that help me feel more alive instead of more nervous. And while some people at my book launch told me I should make wardrobe malfunctions part of every event, I make sure to leave the wrap blouses at home.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sunday Sentence: American Copper by Shann Ray

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

Her voice seemed dislodged from her mouth, as if the words were not connected to her or were not hers at all but rather small black birds that darted into the sky.

American Copper by Shann Ray

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Judging American Cuisine and Lassoing Unicorns: Edna St. Vincent Millay on Food and E. E. Cummings

Reading Savage Beauty by Nancy Milford in short sessions each day is like taking licks from one of those giant pinwheel all-day suckers you used to get as a kid at the county fair. Remember how you tried to discipline yourself to just twenty licks per day because you never wanted the beauty of that pastel-colored sugar to end? (Even though the sucker eventually grew furred with dust bunnies traveling through the air and became inextricably stuck to the top of your nightstand.)

So it goes with my sojourn through the life of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, minus the furred-over lollipop feeling. According to my Library Thing database, I started reading Savage Beauty on August 5, and it may well be another two weeks before I’m finished with the book. I’ll hate to see it come to an end. It is a literary sugar rush.

Milford not only expertly tracks the wild course of Millay’s life--and occasionally inserts herself, the biographer, in some of the most interesting sections--but she delivers exquisite passages from the poet’s poems, diaries and letters. Today, I thought I’d share a couple of them here at the blog. One is on food, and the other is about fellow poet E. E. Cummings.

In June 1932, while living in France, Millay was invited to give a reading at a home on the Left Bank, hosted by a woman named Natalie Clifford Barney, described by Milford as “rich, eccentric, tiny, seductive, and American.” The soiree was very bohemian. As one visitor put it, “No self-respecting American woman would be seen there. Oh no! Edith Wharton would never have come, never!”

Just before she read from her poems, Millay was drawn into conversation with a Frenchwoman named Lucie Delarue-Mardrus, who recounted her recent visit to the United States. “Wonderful country!” she exclaimed. “So alive, so vigorous! But such bad food!”

This kind of culinary critique didn’t sit well with Millay, who’d been raised in Maine, which may not have been the foodie nirvana it is today, but there were certainly bountiful meals to be had there back in the day. She bristled and began to put Mme. Delarue-Mardrus in her place, as described by Millay’s friend Allan Ross Macdougall, with a speech that was “at once a patriotic dithyramb and a gastronomic prose poem.” Even though I suspect it’s filtered through Macdougall’s enhanced retelling, it really is a beautiful take-down.
     In your travels, chere madame, did you ever taste the lobsters that come from the waters off the coast of my home state, Maine? Broiled or boiled and served with melted, fresh country butter, they are unforgettable. Did you have fish chowder made of haddock, Maine potatoes, onions, salt pork and rich milk?
     Were you ever introduced to Boston baked beans? I mean the kind baked in an old-fashioned crock. We cook them slowly and for long hours in the oven and serve them sometimes with such brown bread as can be found in no other part of the world.
     Did you ever have Cherrystones or Little Necks; and did you ever, by chance, taste a Provincetown clam pie made of the deep-sea Quahogs and a liberality of olive oil and garlic? Were oyster-crabs and whitebait ever set crisp before you? Did you taste soft-shell crabs, lightly sauteed, or drink the juice of the soft-shell crab? Were you ever a happy member of an old-fashioned clam-bake on a secluded New England beach?
     Then what of the other American dishes that are seldom to be met with elsewhere on the gastronomic globe? There’s the shad roe and the shad itself, both broiled; sweet corn and sweet potatoes; pumpkin pie and deep-dish blueberry pie; diamond-back terrapin done as the Baltimoreans do it in a rich Madeira stew, or as the Philadephians do it with egg-yolks, cream, and “sweet butter in a lordly dish.” Then there’s Philadelphia Pepperpot which has tripe in it, and that same city’s surprising mixture of tripe and oysters.
     There’s the Creole Jambalaya of New Orleans made with savory rice and shrimps almost as big as your French ecrevisses. We also have our native blueberries. And there are our cranberries and beach-plums which I used to gather on Cape Cod. We make delicious preserves from them. Oh, there are many other products and dishes native to states and regions of my country. If you have never tasted them, ma chere, you cannot in all fairness judge American cuisine…

Speaking of judging, the next year found Millay making recommendations to the Guggenheim Foundation on behalf of poets she felt were worthy--and, in the case of 39-year-old Edward Estlin Cummings, a man she admittedly disliked personally and called “fetid,” applicants who were worthy of damning with faint praise. Here’s part of what Millay wrote in her Guggenheim “recommendation” for Cummings: is a big talent in the hands of an arrogant, peevish, self satisfied, self indulgent writer. That is to say, here is a big talent in pretty bad hands.
     I am not one of those who stand for the untouchable holiness of the capital letter and traditional typography. So far as I am concerned, Mr. Cummings may do anything he likes with the alphabet, the English grammar, and the multiplication table, provided only the result of his activities be something interesting, and, after a reasonable period of application, comprehensible, to a reader of culture and brains. Mr. Cummings may not, however, I say, write poetry in English which is more difficult for me to translate than poetry written in Latin. He may, of course, write it. But if he publishes it, if he prints and offers for sale poetry which he is quite content should be, after hours of sweating concentration, inexplicable from any point of view to a person as intelligent as myself, then he does so with a motive which is frivolous from the point of view of art, and should not be helped or encouraged by any serious person or group of persons...
     But, unfortunately for one’s splendid hate which had assumed almost epic proportions, by no means all of Mr. Cummings poetry is of this nature. In these books which I have just been reading there is fine writing and powerful writing (as well as some of the most pompous nonsense I ever let slip to the floor with a wide yawn), and that this author has ability I could not deny; that he has more than that I gravely suspect.
     What I propose, then, is this: that you give Mr. Cummings enough rope. He may hang himself; or he may lasso a unicorn. In any case it is high time we found out about this man Cummings. Let us give him every opportunity to show us at once whether he is a genius, a charlatan, or a congenital defective,—and get him off our minds.

In the end, Milford tells us, Cummings got his Guggenheim.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Friday Freebie: Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Congratulations to Jim Mastro, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback, Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, Everyone Has Their Reasons by Joseph Matthews, and The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland.

This week, I’m pleased to give away a copy of the new novel by Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies. It’s been getting rave reviews from all corners of the literary map--like these, for instance:

“With Fates and Furies Lauren Groff goes many levels below the surface of a marriage, into a place that is perhaps as hard to reach as it is to describe, but Groff, a bold and marvelous writer, is able to do both. Because she’s so vitally talented line for line and passage for passage, and because her ideas about the ways in which two people can live together and live inside each other, or fall away from each other, or betray each other, feel foundationally sound and true, Fates and Furies becomes a book to submit to, and be knocked out by, as I certainly was.”  (Meg Wolitzer, New York Times-bestselling author of The Interestings)

“Even from her impossibly high starting point, Lauren Groff just keeps getting better and better. Fates and Furies is a clear-the-ground triumph.”  (Ron Charles, The Washington Post)

“One of the pleasures of reading Ms. Groff is her sheer unpredictability: She can inject her narrator’s voice at any time, turn a sentence into a small hurricane.”  (The New York Times)

“[Fates and Furies] is a stunning 360-degree view of a complex relationship…There’s almost nothing that [Groff is] not interested in and her skill set is breathtaking…It’s an incredibly ambitious work, she writes like her hands are on fire.”  (Richard Russo)

Read on for more information about the book...

Every story has two sides. Every relationship has two perspectives. And sometimes, it turns out, the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets. At the core of this rich, expansive, layered novel, Lauren Groff presents the story of one such marriage over the course of twenty-four years. At age twenty-two, Lotto and Mathilde are tall, glamorous, madly in love, and destined for greatness. A decade later, their marriage is still the envy of their friends, but with an electric thrill we understand that things are even more complicated and remarkable than they have seemed. With stunning revelations and multiple threads, and in prose that is vibrantly alive and original, Groff delivers a deeply satisfying novel about love, art, creativity, and power that is unlike anything that has come before it. Profound, surprising, propulsive, and emotionally riveting, it stirs both the mind and the heart.

If you’d like a chance at winning Fates and Furies, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 1, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 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.

Monday, September 21, 2015

New story in F(r)iction: “Thank You”

I have a short story in the new issue of F(r)iction, published by Tethered by Letters. I’m really proud of “Thank You” (not something I say about all of my work) and think it might be one of the strongest things I’ve written since Fobbit. It’s a very short story, but it expresses a lot of my conflicted feelings about the Iraq War and the ways Americans have reacted to it. It can also be challenging to read, style-wise, as you can see by this punctuation-less excerpt:
Thank you Thank you for your service Thank you for going Thank you for coming back Thank you for not dying Thank you for taking the bullet, the mortar round, the shrapnel that is making its way to your heart by micromillimeters every year Thank you for eating that god-awful food gritted with sand so we don’t have to Thank you for eating Thanksgiving dinner on a paper plate

I send my own “Thank you”s out to editor D. M. Hedlund for taking on this admittedly tough story and for giving it a beautiful showcase in the magazine, and to artist Travis Mercer who brought the story to life with such pen-and-ink razzle dazzle (that’s just a small detail from the page you see at the start of this blog post); you need to buy a copy of the magazine to fully appreciate his talents.

Speaking of which, you should all buy a copy of F(r)iction, and not just for my little pissant story. The new issue of the literary journal is bursting with words and colorful artwork. There are stories by Justin Hocking, Eric Lundgren, Marie Helene-BertinoJosie Sigler and many others. The whole issue is a thing of beauty, starting with the cover art.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sunday Sentence: City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

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

Indeed, a store detective with a rodential little moustache had trailed him from outerwear to menswear to formalwear. But perhaps this was providence; otherwise Mercer might not have discovered the chesterfield coat. It was gorgeous, tawny, as though spun from the fine fur of kittens.

City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

Friday, September 18, 2015

Friday Freebie: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback, Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, Everyone Has Their Reasons by Joseph Matthews, and The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland

Congratulations to Ginger Heatwole, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott.

This week’s giveaway is another big box o’ books which will be delivered into the hands of one lucky reader. Up for grabs are five novels designed to provide hours of reading pleasure: Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekback, Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton, The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman, Everyone Has Their Reasons by Joseph Matthews, and The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland. Read on for more information about each of the books.

Wolf Winter is set in Swedish Lapland in 1717. Maija, her husband Paavo and her daughters Frederika and Dorotea arrive from their native Finland, hoping to forget the traumas of their past and put down new roots in this harsh but beautiful land. Above them looms Blackåsen, a mountain whose foreboding presence looms over the valley and whose dark history seems to haunt the lives of those who live in its shadow. While herding the family’s goats on the mountain, Frederika happens upon the mutilated body of one of their neighbors, Eriksson. The death is dismissed as a wolf attack, but Maija feels certain that the wounds could only have been inflicted by another man. Compelled to investigate despite her neighbors’ strange disinterest in the death and the fate of Eriksson’s widow, Maija is drawn into the dark history of tragedies and betrayals that have taken place on Blackåsen. Young Frederika finds herself pulled towards the mountain as well, feeling something none of the adults around her seem to notice. As the seasons change, and the “wolf winter,” the harshest winter in memory, descends upon the settlers, Paavo travels to find work, and Maija finds herself struggling for her family’s survival in this land of winter-long darkness. As the snow gathers, the settlers’ secrets are increasingly laid bare. Scarce resources and the never-ending darkness force them to come together, but Maija, not knowing who to trust and who may betray her, is determined to find the answers for herself. Soon, Maija discovers the true cost of survival under the mountain, and what it will take to make it to spring.

In Past Crimes, when his estranged grandfather is shot and left for dead, an Army Ranger must plunge into the criminal underworld of his youth to find a murderer and uncover a shocking family secret in this atmospheric and evocative debut thriller. Van Shaw was raised to be a thief, but at eighteen he suddenly broke all ties to that life and joined the military—abandoning his illicit past and the career-criminal grandfather who taught him the trade. Now, after ten years of silence, his grandfather has asked him to come home to Seattle. But when Van arrives, he discovers his grandfather bleeding out on the floor from a gunshot to the head. With a lifetime of tough history between him and the old man, Van knows he’s sure to be the main suspect. The only way he can clear his name is to go back to the world he’d sworn to leave behind. Tapping into his criminal skills, he begins to hunt the shooter and uncover what drove his grandfather to reach out after so long. But in a violent, high-stakes world where right and wrong aren’t defined by the law, Van finds that the past is all too present...and that the secrets held by those closest to him are the deadliest of all. Edgy and suspenseful, rich with emotional resonance, gritty action, and a deep-rooted sense of place, Past Crimes trumpets the arrival of a powerful talent in the mold of Dennis Lehane, Robert B. Parker, and John D. MacDonald.

Set in the ruins of a future America, The Country of Ice Cream Star tells the story of fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star and her nomadic tribe who live off of the detritus of a crumbled civilization. Theirs is a world of children; before reaching the age of twenty, they all die of a mysterious disease they call Posies—a plague that has killed for generations. There is no medicine, no treatment; only the mysterious rumor of a cure. When her brother begins showing signs of the disease, Ice Cream Star sets off on a bold journey to find this cure. Led by a stranger, a captured prisoner named Pasha who becomes her devoted protector and friend, Ice Cream Star plunges into the unknown, risking her freedom and ultimately her life. Traveling hundreds of miles across treacherous, unfamiliar territory, she will experience love, heartbreak, cruelty, terror, and betrayal, fighting with her whole heart and soul to protect the only world she has ever known. Guardian First Book Award finalist Sandra Newman delivers an extraordinary post-apocalyptic literary epic as imaginative as The Passage and as linguistically ambitious as Cloud Atlas. Like Hushpuppy in the film The Beasts of the Southern Wild grown to adolescence in a landscape as dangerously unpredictable as that of Ready Player One, The Country of Ice Cream Star is a breathtaking work from a writer of rare and unconventional talent.

At a time when the issues of identity, immigration, and class remain both universally important and enormously controversial, Everyone Has Their Reasons is an accessible and captivating tale of one boy’s historically famous experience in the extraordinary setting of roiling pre-WWII Paris. On November 7, 1938, a small, slight 17-year-old Polish-German Jew named Herschel Grynszpan entered the German embassy in Paris and shot dead a consular official. Three days later, in supposed response, Jews across Germany were beaten, imprisoned, and killed, their homes, shops, and synagogues smashed and burned—Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Based on the historical record and told through his “letters” from German prisons, this novel begins in 1936, when 15-year-old Herschel flees Germany, and continues through his show trial, in which the Nazis sought to demonstrate through his actions that Jews had provoked the war. But Herschel throws a last-minute wrench in the plans, bringing the Nazi propaganda machine to a grinding halt and provoking Hitler to postpone the trial and personally give an order regarding Herschel’s fate.

In The 3rd Woman, the United States and China have struck a shocking bargain: in return for forgiving trillions in debt, the People’s Republic of China—now the world’s dominant global superpower—has established a permanent military presence on US soil. Years of decline have left America economically vulnerable, and evidence of China’s cultural and political dominance is everywhere. Journalist Madison Webb is obsessed with exposing the lies and corruption that have corroded her once great society. When her sister is savagely murdered, the police insist it’s an isolated crime. But Madison suspects the cops are hiding something. Digging for answers, she discovers her sister’s death may be one of many...and part of a dangerous conspiracy. Even though her life is on the line, Madison refuses to give up on the story. And sooner or later, she will have to confront the consequences of exposing the powerful forces intent on hiding the truth.

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.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Sept. 24, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 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, September 17, 2015

Bird by Bird: Shaping a Story at High Desert Journal

Q:  When is a hawk a vulture?
A:  When it’s a character gone under the knife of revision in my short story.

I’m happy to announce the current issue of High Desert Journal features a short story of mine, along with work by David Allan Cates, Pam Houston, and many others. Now called “Vulture,” my story once started out in life as “Hawk.” Thanks to the astute suggestions of editor Charles Finn, I rewrote the earlier short-short story about an injured woman having a stare-down contest with a raptor into something which hopefully has a little more depth and, pardon the expression, meat on its bones.

“Hawk” was previously featured in a “Visions and Voices” show at the Imagine Butte Resource Center here in Butte, Montana, in which visual artists and writers exchanged work, creating new pieces based on what they received from the other person. In other words, the writer gave a piece of prose to the artist, who then disappeared into the studio to create something inspired by that poem or story; the writer, in turn, received a sculpture or painting from the artist and went to the keyboard to bring the visual to life verbally.

I was lucky to be paired with Christine Martin, who truly has a knack for creating jarring intersections between man and the natural world, primarily centered around death and decay. Her painting “Fox Hawk” inspired me to write a story about a woman going over a list of regrets in her life after she’s in a car accident. The hawk waits patiently for the woman’s last breath.

Fox Hawk by Christine Martin

When it came time for the story to go to print in High Desert Journal, however, Charles Finn pointed out that a hawk might not be the right bird for this story, that it was mainly a scavenger of small rodents like field mice, and that it was improbable for a hawk to do the things I had it doing in this story. After giving it some thought, I agreed, and--not wanting to break any biological laws--I transmogrified the hawk into a vulture. Symbolically, I think a vulture works better, as well--especially after Charles emailed me with this trivia: “A group of vultures is called a committee, venue or volt. In flight, a flock of vultures is a kettle, and when the birds are feeding together at a carcass, the group is called a wake.”

I’m pretty happy with how the story turned out (or as happy as any self-critical writer can be) and I hope you like it as well.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Kris Dinnison’s Library: The Married Shelves of Bibliophiles

Reader:  Kris Dinnison
Location:  Mid-Century Modern house in Spokane, Washington
Collection size:  No idea. Oodles.
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  An oversized edition of The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe, illustrated by Gustave Dore.
Favorite book from childhood:  Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.
Guilty pleasure book:  Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. I know it’s a classic, but the guilty pleasure part is how many times I’ve read it. It’s embarrassing the number of times I go back to this story.

Before my husband, Andy, and I were married, we both worked at bookstores, so each of us already had a fair number of books when we combined households. After twenty-four years together, we have almost fully merged our book collections. There’s one shelf in the house that’s just mine, and a few that are just his, but mostly they co-exist.

Our tastes overlap in many places, but our philosophies about which books to hold on to are fairly different. Andy is a true bibliophile, who loves the object both for its connection to his life and for the idea of it as an object. For a select few authors he’s a collector who pays attention to things like signed editions and damaged dust jackets, but most of the books that come into our house through him he just wants on the shelf for reasons of his own.

I tend to only hold onto books that I have an emotional connection with. If a story was important to me as a kid, or it changed my world-view in some way, or a valued friend gave it to me as a gift, I will keep it. But many of the books I read pass through my hands and on to someone else. Once I’ve read them I don’t necessarily need to own them.

That said, there are a few writers whose books I will always want on my shelf: Isabelle Allende, Jess Walter, Pete Fromm, E. M. Forster, Jane Austen, J. D. Salinger, and Kelly Link. With these authors and a few others, I’m more like my husband: I want to carry both the story and the object with me through my life. The bulk of these books, plus quite a few other authors Andy feels similarly about, live on a large bookshelf that holds primarily hardback literary fiction.

Of course after so many years reading together, the books that should probably live on that shelf have outgrown the space available, so there are more places hardback literary fiction lives, but this shelf is the cream of our bookish crop.

Another place Andy and I have both cultivated interest as well as a habit of acquisition is in the area of children’s books. I worked at a children’s bookstore right out of college, so much of my limited disposable income went toward irresistible picture books or gripping middle grade novels. Andy also had an affinity for these books, often collecting particular illustrators or authors that appealed to the ten year-old boy who lives inside him. And we are both drawn to kids’ books that have an edge, things that are creepy, weird, or slightly (and especially unintentionally) scary get extra points.

About three years ago we moved from a 1908 foursquare into a mid-century modern house that we love. However, as much as we loved the clean lines and simplicity of the modern look, there was a certain aesthetic, especially around our books and the furniture that held them, that we weren’t quite ready to give up. So for the first time in our married life, we created an actual library, dedicating an entire room to books. Now to be clear, we still have books and bookshelves throughout the house as we always have, but most of the books we own reside in the library now. This is a room we use for drinking bourbon and reading on a fall evening, or sitting late at night talking with a couple of good friends. It feels completely different from the rest of our house, which makes it a wonderful surprise for people seeing it for the first time.

There is one shelf in the house that is solely mine. It’s in my office where I do most of my writing, and it holds a rotating mélange of books. Some of them are books on writing, some are reference books, and some are books I’m using for research for a current or pending writing project. Because I write Young Adult books, a few volumes on that shelf are YA writers who’ve inspired me, including David Levithan, Chris Crutcher, Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Rainbow Rowell, and Maggie Stiefvater. I keep them there as a visual reminder of what I aspire to, of the kinds of powerful stories I hope to tell and the thoughtful, well-crafted writing I want to use to tell them.

The final shelf I want to mention is a built-in wall of shelves in our bedroom. This shelf has become our “to-read” pile, except in our case it’s an entire wall of books. I know this is crazy, but it’s also a wonderful reminder of all the amazing stories I have to look forward to if only I will put down the computer or phone or remote control. To the left-ish are the books I’ve got on deck, to the right-ish are the ones Andy’s looking forward to. But books move from side to side as we finish or share or say “You’ve got to read this one.” It’s the last thing I see before I go to sleep, and the first thing I see when I wake up. I can’t imagine a more beautiful way to decorate my house or my life.

Kris Dinnison spent nearly two decades as a teacher and librarian, while dreaming of becoming a writer. She lives in Spokane, Washington, with her husband and two cats named Raymond and Moon Pie. Her first novel, You and Me and Him, was released in July 2015 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Click here to visit her website.

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