Recent Work By Jason Chambers, Jonathan Evison, Dennis Haritou, & Jason Rice

DH: I am trying to imagine the excitement, the growing sense of astonishment, that Noah Eaker,  the editor of The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, must have felt when reading this manuscript. Did he stop reading and stand up in his chair, unable to proceed without taking a pause for breath or to pull himself together?

That’s more like me than Noah. Perhaps editors have an objective detachment that’s akin to that developed by physicians. Perhaps they read with cold objectivity, not because they don’t care but so their unbiased judgement can be of the most benefit to their writers.

The Tiger’s Wife weaves back and forth over many decades in war-torn, former Yugoslavia. And I say “war-torn” as if it were part of the name of Yugoslavia, like you would say “New York”. This is not an area of the world that most Americans know much about. But you’ve imagined enough to get you started if you think of a collection of rich and diverse East European cultures, very old, and very Orthodox or Muslim, held together after World War II by the brute force of the state under Marshall Tito. Post-Tito, this family of communities, full of internal tensions, languages, and rituals, breaks apart, and people die where before they managed at least to tolerate each other or actually be good neighbors and friends. And a whole unified world vanishes, as if you were to take a venerable Grandfather clock and smash it to the ground.

We find, in this tragic and now fragmentary country, a grandfather and his granddaughter, Natalia, both physicians.

Tea Obreht has helped unify her complex plot by playing off these two central characters. The grandfather has died, mysteriously, away from home while on an unaccounted-for trip, odd in itself for a man of his age. Natalia undertakes a quest to find the locale of his death, an obscure village called Zdrevkov, in order to recover his personal effects. This whole novel is an eloquent ritual of mourning.

These personal belongings are secured in a blue pouch which Natalia must not open. Her grandmother tells her if she opens that bag she shouldn’t bother to come home. Grandmother already suspects that Natalia knows more about her grandfather’s death than she’s telling. I very much enjoyed the evasive telephone call between grandchild and grandmother, the grandmother accusing Natalia of keeping something back and Natalia stalling for time, making her grandmother more suspicious.

Why can’t Natalia open the blue pouch of personal effects? Well, because you have to wait for 40 days after the death so that the spirit of the deceased person can move on. If her grandfather’s personal items are displayed, his restless spirit might be attracted to them as tokens of his earthly life and miss his safe dispatch to the other world.

But Natalia is a scientist, a practicing physician. This reminds me of the last novel I read, the wonderful You Lost Me There, by Rosecrans Baldwin, a very different kind of story. But they are similar in showing the collision of the scientifically trained professional, the member of an intellectual elite, with regular people. It can seem like advanced Martians confronting Medieval peasants. And I remember Robertson Davies, the great and greatly underrated Canadian writer, remarking in the first volume of his Cornish Trilogy that the medieval mind and the contemporary mind co-exist in the same brain. We don’t lose anything. The earlier historical consciousness just moves down to the basement and lives there, like a feral cat taking shelter where it can.

Natalia and her friend Zora, also a doctor and an old school chum, volunteer to travel into the hinterland to offer medical aid to an orphanage run by monks. She and Zora will stay at a farmhouse with a vineyard. In the vineyard they will encounter a band of nomadic laborers who are searching among the vines for a deceased relative they were forced to bury there on an earlier trip  The body, or what must be left of it, is interred in a suitcase. They must recover the body because their children are falling sick. The workers believe, after consulting an old wise woman, that the children are dying because of bad karma from their abandoned relative. What they really need to retrieve is the dead man’s heart, to be buried at a crossroads so the spirit can be transported to the other world. The doctors’ offer of aid for the suffering children is refused.

It’s an extraordinary collision, between this whacked-out magical thinking and a dedication to hard-nosed empiricism so solid that you feel you might trip over the rocks on the mountain paths that the characters climb. It’s miraculous that Tea Obreht can write both ways at once, write as a realist and as a teller of fantastic, A Thousand Nights and a Night tales. But she’s writing about such an amazing country, as Christian and European as it is Turkish and Ottoman. After I wrote a review of The Tiger’s Wife adaptive short story in the New Yorker, I had a beer with Noah, a great honor for a blogger, and I recommended Kazantzakis, especially the Report to Greco, as a good way to find an entry point into the East European world that Tea Obreht is writing about and is also the part of the world that my family hails from.

I can’t write just one post about Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. I’m probably going to pull a Mengestu and write three. Like Dinaw Mengestu, Tea Obreht is one of the now-celebrated, 20 under 30 writers that Farrar is publishing in anthology and that have been featured in the New Yorker. JR has talked about that anthology on the blog. I have read three of those 20 writers so far. Not enough.

Noah, I’d like another beer. I’d love to know about your experience in editing this extraordinary work. I bet that’s a story in itself. The Tiger’s Wife is bound to be one of the most distinguished of next year’s releases. It will be published in March by Random House.

JC: I met Eric Rickstad a few weeks back, when he started following me on Twitter, believe it or not. I read his fantastically brutal book Reap something like a decade ago and, if you are into stories in the Tom Franklin – Poachers – Donald Pollack – Knockemstiff – Russell Banks – Affliction mode you ought to go ought and find a copy. When you read the County Fair scene you’ll be happy you did.

Here’s what Eric had to say about what turned him into a reader and writer.

When We Fell In Love – Eric Rickstad

I could make a good long list of crushes that come close to the real thing, but in the end rise only to the equivalent of steamy backseat makeout sessions. Writers who moved me in one way or another, that made me want to do what they did: stir readers with images conjured with words. It was magic. Mystery. The writers who strike me most don’t make me want to just keep reading them, they make me want to put their book down and write.

I could go back to Roald Dahl’s Danny, Champion of the World or Stephen King’s Night Shift, Poe or O’Connor’s collections. If you’d asked me in third grade, I suppose I would have said I loved the Encyclopedia Brown series. The Great Brain. There were the serious affairs with Hemingway and Faulkner and Welty and the experimentations with Kesey and Vonneguet and Philip Dick, JG Ballard… the list is long. I’ve since fallen for Proulx and McCarthy and Deb Eisenberg. But, as Robert Hayden wrote in his poem “Those Winter Sundays”:What did I know, what did I know/ of love’s austere and lonely offices?

When I truly fell in love with a writer I was in a beat up convertible 1970 VW Bug, primer gray, my sister’s boyfriend’s prize possession. It was the summer of 1978 and the writer was not a novelist, or a short story writer, or a poet. Not technically. Though his words resonated with more life and romance and tragedy and pain and moodiness than anything I’d ever read. His stories were the best I’d found, told with a conviction that reached me even at the age of 12. I fell in love with storytelling, and the urge to tell my own stories the second my sister’s boyfriend popped in the 8 track of Born to Run and I heard the first few notes of “Thunder Road” and then the lyrics

The screen door slams/ Mary’s dress waves / Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays.

I saw Mary. I saw her dress. I felt her aloneness. The narrator’s aloneness and desperation and sincerity. As the album continued, I felt the earnestness and vulnerability and fleetingness of youth and love and promises. I felt the hot sun and the dark nights. The complete freedom simply of driving with no place to go. The windows rolled down. I’d never yet even lived any of this myself. But the words, more than the music, reached me. The pain in them. The lust and sadness. The struggle. The triumph. The loss. I did not know then but I see now that album connected with me because of a sense of loss in myself, but also the need to search. My father had left my mom and three sisters and me when I was eight and that void was filled by Springsteen’s words somehow. I bought the album and I played it over and over and over again. And I’d crack it open, the jacket was one that opened, with the lyrics on the inside of the cover, and I’d read as I listened. Each song was a short story unto itself. They conjured vividly and concretely images that haunted me. I did not know who Springsteen was. I was too young to know about his stint on TIME and Newsweek  in the same week or of his carrying the mantle of Dylan. Hell I didn’t even know who Dylan was. But imagery like

Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge / Drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain


The poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all / They just stand back and let it all be

Or from the song “Backstreets”:

Remember all the movies, Terry we’d go see / Trying in vain to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be / When after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest…

they cut to the quick with the spare beauty and lyricism and simple truths.

For my money, no short story, not Joyce’s “Araby” or Updike’s “A&P” or Hemingway’s “Indian Camp”, or Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Bananafish“, sums up the moment of lost youth as succinctly, poignantly, or heartbreakingly.

No matter what other words a writer may use, how he or she may put it, the loss of youth comes at the moment of realizing we’re just like all the rest. It’s crushing. Staggeringly so. It makes one feel weak and small and disillusioned. To look around and recognize that all the ways you’ve tried to walk or talk or dress differently are in part what make you the same. You’re the same in the ways you try so hard to be someone you are not. And it is in vain.

I went on to get every album up till then. And I found in them all gems. In the following years, I’d go to sleep listening to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and “Nebraska” and “The River”.

Songs such as “Stolen Car”, “Atlantic City” and “Meeting Across the River” had all the economy of Hemingway, the American Gothicism of Flannery O’Connor, and the poignancy of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.

Much later, I learned in an interview Springsteen did with Walker Percy’s nephew in the magazine DoubleTake, that Springsteen was more influenced by novels and books than by other music. “Films and novels and books, more so than music, are what have really been driving me since then.” He’d steeped himself in the work of Flannery O’Connor, Bobbie Ann Mason, and Steinbeck. These were all writers I’ve come to love. I guess I am predisposed to a certain kind of storyteller who is able to tell stories of violent and desperate and lonely people with a certain quiet lyricism. I try to do that in my own writing, my novels and short stories. When I am writing at my best, I don’t have to try. Springsteen’s stories were the first that made me want to do it, to write. To reach out that way. I’m sure there are many others who can say the same thing. The lyrics hold up today for me as much if not more than they did then.

Eric Rickstad Springsteen said in that DoubleTake interview, “Songwriting allows you to suggest the passage of time in just a couple of quiet beats. Years can go by in a few bars, whereas a writer will have to come up with a clever way of saying, ‘And then years went by. . . .’ Songwriting allows you to cheat tremendously. You can present an entire life in a few minutes.”

And that’s what he does best, as well as any novelist. He presents entire lives in a few minutes.

I think he has it wrong though. He never cheated anyone with his storytelling.

Bio: Eric Rickstad is the author of the novel Reap, a New York Times Notable Book first published by Viking/Penguin. His short stories and articles appear in many magazines. His latest novel Found is forthcoming in 2011.

DH: Barcelona is a city I can imagine leaving…for the beach. If Barcelona is in the mind ofJames Salter, then the reader can be set down in the streets of the city, even if they’ve never been there. As for my friend JC, who recently set off for BerlinZurich and Vienna, he can have them.

Malcolm is asleep. His steel rim glasses, which he doesn’t need, lie on a table by the bed. He’s compared to the keel of a ship. What I’ve noticed right off in my first JS story is that the writer is a master of the suggestive fact…of facts that have vaporous ghosts of abstractions clingiing to them as if the facts could be haunted.

There are priorities in what Salter wants to talk about. I notice that JS goes on for about half a page, associating M with images of strength…steel glasses (one), he doesn’t need them (two), body parts like the keel of a ship (3).

It’s only after we’ve been though half a page of Malcolm asleep that we are introduced to Nico, his partner. She’s already awake and has gone out to the terrace after her bath. Since I’m myth-saturated, I associate Malcolm with the sleeping Eros…Eros is often depicted in art as sleeping. It’s very dangerous to wake him. It’s not necessary for Salter to have thought of this at all. But the myth helps me to see something…that Malcolm is being presented as a god and maybe, I’m wondering, to Nico he is one.

I’m indebted to Salter for the slow elevator approach to storytelling. Nico goes down the slow elevator of her building to get Malcolm a morning coffee from a restaurant. Can you guess that Malcolm likes it black? “Solo” he says. And that Nico is getting it for him and likes getting it for him?

There was a time in my life when I was on a slow elevator off Spring Street in Soho a great deal. Christ, that elevator took forever. It must have been a hundred years old. But I understand about slow elevators. JS has a great line: as the lift drifts down from floor to floor, it’s like Nico is passing through decades of her life. In my opinion, you have to be in midlife to appreciate a slow elevator.

The slow elevator approach to story telling…you see, we’ve passed down another floor in my post. You don’t discover how the reality of another person changes right away. It happens slowly, like a play, scene by scene. I’m paraphrasing Salter here. This is what Nico is thinking. Reminds me of that Boulez piece, Pli Selon Pli…fold after fold.

Salter goes on to introduce fold after fold of cognitive dissonance until “the story” can’t take it anymore and breaks up into a sputtering coda of non sequiturs. I’m a great fan of having the structure of a story buckle with the sense of what’s happening.

Let’s all go to the beach. Who doesn’t want to go to the beach? So JS sends his characters and his readers to the beach at Stiges. But S introduces a new character, Inge, Nico’s friend from when she was going solo, as the agent of dissonance.

It’s awesome how the great JM piles on pleat after pleat of disturbance, all of it MINOR, but the effect is to overwhelm.

First off, it’s genius to have Malcolm encounter Nico’s old girlfriend, Inge, from her unattached days. This excavates Nico’s old personal history…rarely a positive experience for anyone. Shows the boyfriend what you were like before he met you.

Here are some folds for you: They go to the beach in Inge’s car. She doesn’t realize it’s a piece of junk, Malcolm drives but Inge leans over to use the horn uselessly when they get stuck in traffic. Even though Inge owns a piece of shit, she talks about owning a Mercedes someday…several. She is overweight but wears a dress that’s too short. She talks about the boys in a bar not being able to buy you a dinner. She wants to run on the beach in front of expensive villas so she can be ogled. She berates her boyfriend who she called at 5 in the morning because he didn’t call her back the previous night. She dreams that every guy who lays her for one night may want to marry her.

It’s genius that Nico becomes emotionally exhausted and falls asleep on a couch in the restaurant she selects for the trio afterward. The real nightmare occurs when she wakes up, groggy I would think, and sees Inge in a tete a tete with her boyfriend.

I’ve mentioned just a few of the minor key measures that shadow this less than five page story. It’s called ‘Am Strande Von Tanger’ and it’s in Modern Library’s wonderful reissue in cloth of James Salter’s collection “Dusk and Other Stories”.

DH: I. The sentences are swift, declarative. Like Joseph Roth used to say about Vienna under the Emperor Franz Joseph, the then-famous “Vienna walk”. See The Radetzky March (1932) for the reference. But who gets to be New York? Who gets to be Vienna.? That changes. But there will always be one. Just like there will always be a Grand Hotel. Do you know that one?

And then we get “the last rank in the armies of law” below the clever junior partners who are below the full partners who dined at the Century Club. August seniors who couldn’t urinate and those who couldn’t stop. I’ve only paraphrased Salter’s sentences. But notice how the last sentence, even in paraphrase, stops at “stop”. And we get not “the law” which would put us in a cable police procedural, but just “law” which means it’s your crowd. We also get that they were living in apartments with funny furniture and sleeping until noon on Sundays. Hierarchy, irony, swiftness, secularism, style, power, money, stacked vertically: New York. Just one paragraph.

II. Frank and Alan catalog the available girls at the firm and the girls that they wish were. It’s a catalog like they are petty Don Giovanni’s. JS is always providing us with poetic sequences in the form of these lists. It’s like the modulating chords in a Mozart symphony. The listings transition you.

The period in this list of “girls”…and I’m using the word in the text…is Brenda. And the guys end up at her apartment, too late for a party. Knock out image: rolling around the walls kissing as the dusk settles in. The sense of New York apartment light: for most diffuse, bouncing off a thousand buildings and two rivers before it gets to you. Brenda has the same kind of furniture her mother had, sits in the same kind of chair, only she does everything her mother wouldn’t. Exchange of office news: “Jane Harrah got fired.” Brenda said. “That’s too bad. Who is she?”

III. Frank and Alan jump-start to the next level by being more unscrupulous than their own management. They form a partnership and steal a lucrative client away from their own firm. The case settles out of court and their fee is a percentage of the deal, millions. They don’t get prosecuted for this. I don’t know if that’s possible. But Salter implies that the dumb shits got lucky and got away with it. It’s like they stumbled into a fortune at Las Vegas. It’s unethical but now they are rich.

This third part of the story transitions to the continent where the guys seem to be giving the worse kind of imitation of eurotrash. It’s always Frank in the lead with Alan as the follower. I appreciated how well JS sets up this relationship, this tacky friendship, so the reader sees a dynamic…not just two guys blowing away thousands on credit cards in Europe, spending themselves into boredom. Buying people too, in this case a young woman, a student they pick up, throwing thousands in gifts at her as if it were just so much shit.

The uselessness of inappropriate wealth. The waste. They are still the guys from the office. On the make for the girls. They haven’t learned anything. And they are even stupider than they were before. But here’s a great throwaway line from Venice: “On the curtained upper floors the legs of countesses uncoiled, slithering on the sheets like serpents.”

You’ll find pleasures both sacred and profane in the short stories of James Salter. But you are encouraged to be a connoisseur of the word if you want to appreciate them. This is a discussion of ‘American Express’ from James Salter’s collection, “Dusk and other stories”.

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DH: I wanted to see how much trouble I could get into on the blog without the Guys throwing me off it. So I am going to start an occasional series on major works of poetry. I have come up with a really stupid title, as you can see, but that’s the first title I thought of, so I am going to use it.

Every activity that’s worthwhile in life is competitive. That’s the Greek in me talking. Reading is a form of competition as well. Reading poetry is a skill that you should have, like being able to swim. But being able to use a paddle board to get across the pool is not swimming. You can swim when you can do laps on your own. Likewise, if you haven’t read long poems then you haven’t read poetry. And if you don’t read poetry, then you are reading like a cyclops. You may think you are seeing with two eyes but you are only using one.

Some intelligent readers run away from poetry like they are afraid they’ll catch the plague from verses. But verses are not infected fleas. Reading is a competitive skill and reading poetry is like track and field. It’s like running the hurdles. You are presented with multiple challenges that you’ve got to dispatch in a hurry. You’ve got to feel great about your performance if you can do it.

Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive in Connecticut in the middle of the 20th century. Don’t think that his company were philistines and didn’t know they had one of America’s greatest poets working for them in the insurance game. They knew all right. I figure they didn’t yell at WS when they caught him writing verses at his desk but looked the other way.

I can only give a few hints of what’s in “The Comedian as the Letter C. It’s like lighting a candle in a dark empty ballroom and trying to see to the other side. But I can make a few suggestions to get you started. Then you’re on your own.

Stevens larger poems are argumentative. This helps you follow them. The argument here is right in the first line. “Nota: man is the intelligence of his soil, the sovereign plot”. At first I typed “soul” for “soil” and had to backtrack to correct my mistake. But that’s a mistake I bet WS was tempting me to make. He most certainly means soil and not soul.

His central character is Crispin, an average guy, the kind who putters around in the garage and watches cable TV all weekend. The language is dense and ravishing: silentious porpoises, waves that were mustachios. Crispin is all at sea, literally and otherwise.

You take an ordinary guy like me, so used to the prosaic that his very self becomes a budgie in a cage and put him at the peak of the Columbia River Gap. No wonder I freaked out. No wonder Crispin freaks out when at sea or in the tropics. He’s blasted by the raw fuse of nature. Stevens’ lines coil like vines, they’re amazing. You’ve never read verse so absurdly luxuriant. Don’t let it throw you. Crispin is being thrown when he’s exposed to the density of the nature that he is a part of but has forgotten. The lines of the poem try to throw you so you can understand how C felt.

By section four, about halfway, through this six section poem, WS inverts his argument. “Nota: his soil is man’s intelligence.” In poetry you sense the larger rhythms of language. “Comedian” presents you with a huge chunk of language data. When WS inverts his master line, it’s like the tide has turned. What happens to Crispin, the huge dope, when he is is hit with the massive force of nature, hit with the source of what he is. Can he grasp it? Does he learn anything? Can you take this poem? Either you drown the poem with your own self, with your own reckoning of what this massive language beast is, or the poem drowns you. Jump into that pool and see what happens to you.

I never went back to the Columbia River Gap, incidentally.

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JE: Yeah, I plan on reading Freedom, and no, I probably won’t read Jodi Picoult‘s next book, but you know what? She’s totally right about the industry ghettoizing a lot of female fiction.

Exhibit A: Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters. JC, I think you specifically mentioned in your coverage how bad the cover was. Soli writes a gritty, dark, thought-provoking, badass Viet Nam novel that is “literary” by any standard, and St. Martin’s puts some hot chick in a red blouse at the beach on the cover. What the hell? The galley I received had the menacing silhouette of a helicopter on it—what was it the Vietnamese called those copters, whispering death? What happened to that plan? How did we go from whispering death to some MILF on the beach? Who’s the marketing stooge that convinced everybody this change was a good idea? The prevailing wisdom seems to be that women (80% of everybody’s readership) don’t like gritty, they don’t like dark, they can’t handle thought-provoking. Well, who the hell is buying Freedom, or The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet, and why don’t they have covers that look like spa brochures?

Exhibit B: Maria Semple’s dark, hilarious, acerbic debut, This One is Mine. Is that a pink bon-bon on the cover? Really? Is that a fucking joke? I read that book twice–where did they get a pink bon-bon? Seriously, marketing people, what’s with the double standard? I know a TON of writers, and almost every female author I know has got a crappy cover design– either it’s wispy, or floral, or it looks like a tampax ad, or there’s a MILF in a red blouse on the beach. Really, how far have we come since the Bronte Sisters?

DH: Yeah, book marketing is primitive. They don’t know their audience and, guess what, they don’t WANT to know their audience. The big houses all want to appeal to the same crowd, the great unwashed masses, no matter what the book is, because that group is BIG. And they want that group to actually exist because that group is easy.

But people aren’t that simple. Novelists know that. Once you really pay attention to readers you realize that they break down into all sorts of diverse types. Indie bookstores already know this.

But I’m in a fighting mood so I have to fight even JE’s assertion that he’s a white guy. Out in the material world, that JR loves to depict in his fiction, yes, that’s true. But in the imaginative soul of the book reader, you can be anybody you want. And that’s one objective of reading: become who you aren’t.

But you have to have the skills to do that. You have to know something about how plots are paced and character presented. You have to own some of the skills of a writer, even as a general reader. The best way to learn to read is to learn to write.

When you work with book clubs, or blogs, you realize that you can encourage my favorite mythical animal, the “general reader” to leave their comfort zones and explore.

But for all my talk about telling JE to read like he’s not a white guy, or not even a guy, I have to admit that we are all in our personal orbits either as writers or readers. I won’t read Freedom. I know Franzen is a distinguished artist but I don’t feel inspired to read him. I would read him like it was my duty to literature and I can’t read like that. Another reason not to read a book? Because the writer is on the cover of Time magazine. Read what you like.

Some advice that I haven’t been asked to give to marketers: Treat the “general reader” like they are a special market. There is a whole field in marketing on selling to the affluent, on appealing to what that market is looking for.Well, the general reader is affluent too. But it’s their minds that are affluent, maybe not their pocketbooks. But that’s a more interesting kind of affluence.

JR: The argument JE presents is old news. The lowest common denominator is being marketed to, simple as that. What appeals to the masses? 5 million copies of Lost Symbol went on sale in one day, how do you get into the mainstream? You print 5 million, and you buy the market, like The Passage. Doesn’t matter if the book is good or not, it’s everywhere. Girls? AM Homes, Dana Spiotta, Deborah Willis, Zadie Smith, all enjoyed kick ass covers for their books, look at White TeethMusic for TorchingEat the Document, fuck, those are great covers, and great books, probably some of my favorite ever, (except I think On Beauty is a masterpiece, and it has a gilded flowered look on the cover, but that speaks to the underlying theme of the book). Emily St. John Mandel, both books were great, and had good, not great covers, but she’s at Unbridled, so…Atmospheric Disturbances has a great literary cover, and all of the books I’ve just mentioned, have sold well, in the crowd their meant to sell in, what Philip Roth calls “the literary 85k”, that’s who publishers market to when they sell a literary novel. The rest, the books that are supposed to be movers and shakers and get reviewed in People magazine, well, they’re going to get the Tampax look. Soft, and easy to slide between your legs while you sip that $9 latte.

I don’t give a flying fuck about the mainstream, it’s meaningless. Literary novels is where I sleep, and those books are essentially “mine”, and I own the bragging rights, because in general, they don’t get reviewed. The Imperfectionists and Mr. Peanut, they’re from two great writers, and had weird covers, but shit, Rachman’s book is about the death a newspaper, why wouldn’t it sell? Oh, right, I know it sold, like fucking hot cakes. No one knew about that book, I mean no one, before it went on sale. Franzen has written two great books in my estimation, the sister part in The Corrections is one of the finest pieces of fiction I’ve ever read. Period. Freedom is about people who suck. If you want to escape, read Jodi Piccoult, she trucks in the masses, she tells stories about sick kids and people with cancer, over coming odds greater than themselves. Rachman talked about the death of a historically vital venue for passing on information and the funny people who made it. Who can identify to that? I didn’t feel sorry for them. I felt like I was there with them in Rome, I don’t sign on to Jodi Piccoult’s books because I’m not looking to get on the fucking sympathy truck and watch someone prevail over the tough shit that life doles out. Boo fucking hoo…tissues are in aisle six, next to the diapers and tampons, just down the aisle from the dump of Jodi Piccoult’s latest mashed potato sandwich.

JC: JE, I was stuck on The Lotus Eaters for a couple weeks before I finally cracked it, and then only because I had said I would. I mean, the book arrives in the mail directly from Tatjana Soli, who is very nice and a brilliant writer, btw, and I think Christ what have I gotten myself into. Back when I was a buyer, if a rep had put that cover in front of me, I would have said things that would have made them blush. So uncreative – like a leftover cover from Polynesian Vacation – … and ultimately, such a betrayal of the book that it represents. I would have liked your galley Jonathan, because the book is a hell of a lot closer to Hemingway (note her WWFIL from this summer) and Tim O’Brien, than towhatever book cover they “modeled” to get this one. It’s a war novel, and a good one. I must have missed the beefcake on the cover of Matterhorn.

That’s the thing about covers. Cliches aside, everyone is affected by a good bookcover. I’ll wager everyone reading this could list at least a handful of books they purchased exclusively for the cover, not knowing a thing about it. I’ll bet even marketers do that! So why would you publish a book that you are supposedly proud of, that is a unique product, that you want to find its audience and give it a cover that already dots the shelves, or that doesn’t reflect that story’s unique proposition. If you think it’s just like a thousand other books out there already, then why bother? You can probably be as inspired designing and marketing cereal boxes or baked beans.

Women authors, a lot of them anyway, do get pigeonholed. The success of chick lit has ghettoized them into genre books. Pretty soon they’ll have their own section in the stores, like mysteries, sci fi, etc. The question is, do you want your books there or fiction? What if the books in chick lit sell better? Does that change the equation?

The thing is – it won’t break my heart if the NYT doesn’t review and front cover Franzen and Chabon’s every book – and I like those guys. I’m perfectly happy to have those books replaced by novels by women. There are lots of books worthy of marketing and publicity. I’d be pissed if they were replaced by Jodi Picoult.

JC: Yesterday, 3G1B posted JR’s review of Natasha Vargas-Cooper’s book Mad Men Unbuttoned, which, along with her fantastic blog (seriously…check out the supercool archive on The Footnotes of Mad Men), details the characters, themes, and societal shifts as depicted in the series. JR recently had the opportunity to ask her a few questions.

Jason Rice: So. Mad Men. It covers an incredibly fertile period, not only advertising but of human evolution. Right? Not to mention the microscope it puts over fashion, human habits, good and bad, never mind advertising.  Do these men make the times they live in, or does time shape them?

Natasha Vargas-Cooper: Ooo, you almost tricked me into using the word ‘symbiotic’ but I’ll resist! I think there is something eternal in watching men push against the established margins when the right historical moment presents itself (Hello, Russia!). Though this is a precise moment when culture, commerce, sex, power, money all converge in a uniquely American way and these guys really took the moment by the balls.

JR: This is a great looking book, Mad Men Unbuttoned.  Can you tell me what got you interested in bringing this out into the world?

NVC: It’s like, someone made a TV show about your favorite band and you know or want to know the story behind the songs. That’s what it was like when I saw Mad Men. But the band was called, ‘MIDCENTURY AMERCAN HISTORY’ Each reference was like a note I couldn’t get out of my head. People were also really excited to talk about the show and so I was like, HEY! Let’s dance!

JR: I love how your voice isn’t just a tour guide through the advertising campaigns used on the show, but has a kind of therapist’s tone, especially when Betty Draper uses “lesbian”, you try to understand her upbringing, and where she went to school, and how it wasn’t a mistake by the show’s creators to introduce that term in her vernacular.  Striking this tone must have been hard, how much did you pull back, push, and massage this book into its current state?

NVC: I aim to be engaging! I did make it a point to never be flip or condescending towards a topic. I cut anything I felt neutral about, it was either transcribe the thoughtfulness and intensity of the show on to paper or don’t bother.

JR: You break this book into nine parts, and eviscerate each detail of the show as they are reflected by the ads and the time the show is set. When you wrestle a period piece like Mad Men, is it possible to look around at certain things, like sex, or drugs, even the hippies of the 60’s and wonder how do I figure out what to talk about? Draper and Co, are about to drift into that time period, drugs sex, and free love, and all that comes with it. JFK is already in the pine box, so to speak, what’s next for them to experience? And how far can the show really go? I’d watch it until 1980.

NVC:1968 is going to dropkick these guys! Nevertheless, it’s not the aesthetics that hook people or necessarily the era (though they help) but the richness of the characters and all their muted dramas. I think they’ve shown in the first two episodes of the new season that the culture is moving too fast for these guys to keep up with. Only the young like Pete and Peggy could stay afloat and even they will face a reckoning. I’d imagine they’re going to stay in the decade because it’s such a fundamental time in our development as country. It’s the starting point for our modern ethos and culture, it’s when we became full-time consumers!

JR: Could a Mad Men-like show exist now? What advertising campaigns would you pick, say, if you made a show set in Seattle, Washington, right now? Would the Draper role be played by a woman? How would you handle Internet marketing, Twitter, Facebook, cell phones, downloads of music, is it impossible to cover everything now?

NVC: Mad Men would be really boring if Don Draper was played by a woman! Women can’t go around finger banging ladies in restaurants then telling their wives they look like a whore in a bikini! Part of Mad Men’s appeal is that it’s pre-sexual revolution, the gender roles are oppressive, sure, but they are also sharply defined. It’s such unapologetic masculinity that gives the show such vitality. It also could not take place today because the stakes are not nearly as high seeing as how fractionalized consumer markets are, additionally, no product brand or outlet has the authority that these guys did 40 years ago.

JR: I love the shape and design of this book.  It’s images and colors are carved with great care.  I feel like nothing is over looked, from the Marlboro Man advertisement campaign to the paintings on Bert Cooper’s walls. The creator Rubicon called Mad Men “John Cheever on television”. Is that accurate?

NVC: I buy that! It’s certainly a visual novel. No question that Mad Men is high-art –and it’s accessible. Also, it seems so obvious now, but of course, 12 part serialized dramas seem like a perfect way to delve into characters and tease out all the pathos – why didn’t we do this before the Sopranos?! Mad Men fulfills the full potential of the medium.

JR: There seem to be a million times more distractions for the average person today. Where do people get their ideas to buy things? Amazon.com? TMZ? What their starlets wear to the gym? What kind of special Yoga classes Brad Pitt takes when he’s on location? How do trends form today? From where? Or, where do you think they come from?

NVC: If I knew why people bought things I would not be in the publishing industry. But I do think consumers get a bad name! American consumers are a most sophisticated and savvy lot.  Empires do have the benefit of breeding discerning shoppers.

JR: I love this book. I take it with me everywhere. It helps that I love the show. What are your favorite and least favorite parts of Mad Men?

NVC: My favorite part of the show is watching Don Draper try to navigate through all the moral morass. The self-indulgence and consequent emotional wreckage he creates for himself and the people close to him. I think the compulsion to assert individuality against history, family, work is compelling. My least favorite part is that I know that the writers are pulling all the right levers and presenting us with this very attractive package called Don Draper but that he has a rotted core. When you identify with Don, which I find myself doing often, you’re identifying with a monster so that’s (exquisite) torture!

JR: Thank you Natasha.

NVC: My pleasure!

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JE: For my buck, Unbridled Books has one of the best editorial voices of any shop in the business. We’ve talked about Emily St. John Mandel, Jacob Ritari, and a number of other Unbridled authors here on the blog in the last few years, and it’s a very strong bet that we’ll be talking about more in the near future–to wit, John Addiego, whose Tears of the Mountain launches this month (his last effort The Islands of Divine Music was most excellent). I have to say, in addition to admiring their editorial voice, I’m impressed by the muscle this little shop can put behind their titles. Unbridled can play with the big boys–in fact, the big boys could take a few notes. When the Three Guys decided to start a companion series to our When We Fell In Love series aimed at editors instead of writers, Fred Ramey at Unbridled was one of the first people that came to mind. Take it away, Fred.

What Lasts

There is much more to our publishing history that I’d like one day to tell, but because one circle that revealed itself in 1993 is moving into another rotation, it seems a good idea to make a record. Doing so just might shed light on what Greg Michalson and I—and our remarkable marketing and sales team—do at Unbridled Books. We’ve all been together for a long time.

In the early 1990s, I was publisher and Greg executive editor at MacMurray & Beck, an independent publisher of commercial fiction and memoir. Through a strange sequence of events in 1999, M&B’s backlist became the property of MacAdam/Cage, another independent publisher (more on that below). We later would be known for releasing some remarkable debut novels: Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue, William Gay’s The Long Home, Patricia Henley’s Hummingbird House (which was a finalist for the National Book Award), Frederick Reuss’s Horace Afoot (a NYT Notable), Steve Yarbrough’s The Oxygen Man, many others. But the moment I’m talking about here was before those books arrived, right at the beginning of our efforts to publish the best fiction we can find.

In 1993, reading an issue of The Missouri Review—Greg was also editor of TMR in those days—I came upon an extraordinary autobiographical essay by a woman who called herself Candida Lawrence. The voice in the essay was as honest and unconventional—and modern—as any I have ever read. We got in touch with the author and discovered that the essay was part of a lengthy account of her pseudonymous life as a non-custodial parent who, thirty years earlier, had snatched her young children from their father. Soon, we published the first long segment of that manuscript—Reeling & Writhing, which describes Lawrence’s marriage and the tortuous custody battle. It ends with her taking the children, teaching them to answer to new names, and running with them across the country.

Anyway, when Greg and I began to search for fiction, we were contacted by a woman who had been a reader for Lawrence’s manuscript. That writer’s name was Cathryn Alpert, and her extraordinary novel bore the title, Rocket City. We published that riotous debut in 1995 as the third work of fiction on our list. By the time it had run its course, Rocket City had been lauded by James Crumley, Anne Lamott, Alison Baker, Stephen Dixon, and virtually every major review outlet in the country. I sold the paperback rights to Marty Asher at Vintage in our first major subrights deal. Rocket City was a B&N Discover pick and made The Feminist Bookstore News; even Entertainment Weekly highlighted the book—or, at least, its strange opening line: “Three melons and a dwarf sat in the front seat of Marilee’s ’72 Dodge, but the cop was not amused.”

From the start, Greg and I have had two goals in our publishing program—to find new voices, debut novelists, and to publish authors throughout their careers. A goodly number of the writers we first released at M&B—or at BlueHen/Putnam during our brief stay there—are with us now at Unbridled: Frederick Reuss, Rick Collignon, Timothy Schaffert, Susann Cokal, Masha Hamilton, Lise Haines, Marc Estrin. We’re proud that they’ve stayed with us. Who we publish has always mattered to us as much as how we publish them.

Here’s the circle: A few weeks ago, Candida called to tell me that Cathryn Alpert had suddenly, unexpectedly died. It took a while for me to catch my breath. Though I had not spoken to her in many years, I remembered Cathryn as vital and funny and strong—and extraordinarily tall. Rocket City made everyone laugh; 15 years on, I discovered it has 50 customer reviews at Amazon. Although there was never a second Alpert novel, Rocket City is one of the debuts we’re most proud to have published over all these years. But the Vintage paperback is out of print, and the book has been sitting quietly in the warehouse of MacAdam/Cage.

And so I called the folks at MacAdam/Cage and, after a few friendly exchanges, secured the paperback and digital rights to Rocket City. We will release an Unbridled trade paperback edition—and e-book—of Cathryn Alpert’s single, classically outrageous novel early in the fall of 2011. We’re doing this because our conviction doesn’t waver that the books we publish deserve to be read for a long time. We’re doing it for the same reason that we have re-released backlist novels by several of our authors (Elise Blackwell, Schaffert, Collignon, Estrin). We’re doing it from an old-fashioned belief in our authors’ careers and in the value of our colophon(s)—all of them, past and present.

This year Greg and I have published two novels by authors who were with us before we began Unbridled in 2004. In the spring we re-published Rick Collignon’s engaging masterwork, A Santo in the Image of Cristóbal García. And in September, we released Frederick Reuss’ latest, A Geography of Secrets, which Library Journal has called “masterly” and Booklist says is “deeply evocative…often beautiful.” Reuss and Collignon are both, quite simply, extraordinary writers.

Their being here with us at Unbridled Books—and our long-term relationships with so many such remarkable authors—means a great deal to us.

I have a foot-wide river stone in my garden that is carved with two words, two words and no punctuation:  What Lasts . That’s the title of a chapter in the first novel Greg and I ever published, Laura Hendrie’s award-winning Stygo. I always thought it funny to have those words carved in stone, but I keep the river rock where I can see it every morning as a reminder that what lasts is what we want to do, what we’ve always done, what we continue doing.

— Fred Ramey

unbridled books

DH: I’m going to share my reactions to the short stories of Shirley Jackson’s classic collection The Lottery. I want to understand why these stories are considered classics. And I want to do my small bit to rescue these stories from high school reading lists, where they frequently appear, by discussing them on a blog. Why? Because I never liked anything in school that I was required to read. I only enjoyed a book if I read it on my own.

The first sentence is wonderful because no opportunity is lost to set up a complex situation that contains considerable propellant. There’s always a risk that the set-up will bore the reader before the storyteller can get to the good stuff. But here it’s all good stuff.

A guy is tipsy at a party but knows the house he is in well enough to lurch toward the kitchen. He’s pretending to get ice but he really wants some space to pull himself together. You know, therefore, that he feels vulnerable. What reinforces this feeling of vulnerability is that he a familiar guest but not really one of the family. He can’t just pass out on the couch. That’s why he’s headed for the kitchen to pull himself together.

We get all this in sentence number one. A less skillful writer would take a paragraph or two to set this up. Moreover, this situation is not just mechanical plot wheels turning.This setup seduces the reader. The staggering drunk makes us feel drunk, questioning our perceptions of what’s going on.

SJ’s stories are not very strong on closely observed detail. They have the sketchiness of folktales or fairy tales, also the same sort of ritual quality. The mise-en-scene just presents the essential details, the bare minimum. If that’s all Jackson could do then these stories would be mediocre. It’s J’s ability to do psychological warfare in her characters’ heads and in the heads of her readers that makes her fiction interesting.

In the kitchen, the guy encounters the Other in the form of the young daughter of the house, doing her homework. His social awkwardness in talking to the girl, being drunk and wondering what you say to a young kid anyway, colors the dialogue that occurs, tints all the sentences between them with an air of uncertainty. A great lesson in writing dialogue, SJ has set up the encounter between the drunk guest and the daughter so that ANYTHING they say to each other is much more likely to be emotionally charged. The characters just don’t talk. They talk in a situation that is already interesting to the reader, already seductive. Now Shirley Jackson sort of stumbles the conversation into a mid-twentieth century vision of the apocalypse, then stumbles it back again to a mundane party in some anonymous suburban living room. You’ve been brilliantly set-up. That’s why when SJ delivers the punch, you really feel it.

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Dear Corporate Publisher,

Since last year was the worst year in publishing history—that is, the worst year since the year before—I’ve got a few questions for you (along with some unsolicited advice):

Are you publishing all of your authors, or are you just printing most of them? Because if you’re just printing most of them, why bother? Why not re-allocate all those printing and shipping costs into marketing the books you’re actually publishing? Just a thought.

Does the reading public really need a million titles per year? Wouldn’t it be a little easier to sort out the growing demand for a hundred thousand? Don’t get me wrong, I like eclectic, I like many voices, but it seems to me a hundred thousand is a lot of voices. You only published fifty thousand in 1990, and as I recall, the industry was in better shape.

Instead of acquiring books at the budget deadline (books which you have no real intention of marketing beyond a little co-op for 90 days to fill table space at the chains—where your titles are gathering dust in a warehouse, as the demand stacks up at independents), why not re-structure?

Why not give all your titles the benefit of marketing support, publicity budgets, tour budgets? Do you think they might sell more than a thousand copies? Do you think you might have less returns?

Why not make your sales reps lives easier by cutting your catalog in half? Maybe that would allow your reps to push your backlist—after all, you’ve already printed the books, already paid the advances? Hey, and that’s another way to fill those invaluable brick-and-mortar stores without publishing a million titles per year. Maybe if you marketed your books, instead of letting them sit heavy in the chains, you wouldn’t have to pay all that postage on all those returns? Just a thought.

Why not teach your publicists to take bloggers seriously? Have you noticed that newspapers are dying out? Have you noticed that a lot of book blogs are generating serious traffic in the maven market—the one market most helpful in creating advance buzz? Oh wait, and it doesn’t cost you anything! The bloggers come to you, offering to promote your books (because they already know about them because their ear is more to the ground than your publicist), and yet, often as not, you don’t even reply to their e-mails, or interview requests. Maybe you should be aggressively profiling these people and offering them swag? Maybe you should be pitching them. Just a thought.

Why not hire better graphic designers? Most cover designs suck. I’m sorry, but if I have to look at the sweaty withers of another horse running into the sunset, another vintage lampshade, another goddamn dog, I’m gonna’ shoot myself!

Why not boldly target new audiences, instead of mourning the loss of the ones you’ve already alienated? The reason I ask is this: I wrote a book, it sold modestly well due to the forces of luck and a lot of sweat, but I must’ve heard a thousand times: I gave your book to my niece so-and-so, and she loved it—and she /never/ reads. I’m serious, I hear it all the time.

Maybe we could make books cool again. There’s a lot of cool books being written, but nobody’s making them cool (see sweaty horse withers, and publicist with no faith in blogs).

Maybe “Reality Hunger” is more like a “Big Mac Attack.” Maybe you shouldn’t publish books that feed this hunger. Maybe you should just stick to your guns and believe in the tried-and-true novel—put your best foot forward, so to speak, and quit pandering.

Maybe you should start dictating markets again.

I know, I know, you’ve got answers for all these questions, corporate publisher. You’ve got your best practices, you’ve got your market research, but you haven’t got any balls.



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DH: Iris Murdoch, the mid-20th century British novelist, was the true inheritor of the great Victorian tradition of moral psychologists. Her complex stories turn on questions of what’s the right thing. Only in contrast to today’s dogmatic moralists, who are so convinced that they know exactly what you should be doing, IM wrote stories where good and evil are real but meant to be puzzled over.

In The Sacred and Profane Love Machine an extra-marital affair rivals in legitimacy the marriage it is undermining. In A Fairly Honorable Defeat, a gay relationship and a straight marriage are both under threat. One will go down. Which deserves to survive and why?

Most readers today remember Iris Murdoch as the brilliant writer whose mind was darkened by Alzheimer’s. But I prefer to remember the writer who has influenced Zadie Smith. And I think we should remember those we love in their best times, in their salad days, since there is no need to memorialize sadness.

Open Road Media has recently made ten works of Iris Murdoch widely available for download. The one that caught my eye was The Philosopher’s Pupil, which was the first Murdoch novel that I read. It’s my recommendation in our new series: Three Guys One Download. Next month, another of the Guys will recommend a download.

When this gem arrived I thought, “oh cool, I’ll read this someday”, like I do with almost all non-fiction that comes my way. Once I picked it up, and it’s got a great feel to it, weight, touch, even smell, I knew I was going to be sucked in.  I’ve been dragging my feet in finishing it, like any good book, you don’t want it to be over, and this is no different. There are books about television shows, some with pictures, and not much else, and others that sort of brush over the television show with little or no substance. Natasha Vargas-Cooper, or NVC as I call her, (my interview with her will run tomorrow) has done a spectacular job with this delectable and incredibly engaging examination of a television show that has renewed my faith in the medium, by honestly examining the advertising campaigns that shape Don Draper and Mad Men, and how they effect the world we live in. Or how Don and Co. shaped our lives.

I skipped Mad Men the first season, and was I sorry. When I finally did catch up it took my two years to fully absorb Don and Betty Draper, the boys at Sterling Cooper, Pete and Roger, and “girl”, who all took up a place in my mind like a good friend who knows just what I like. I was shocked by NVC’s canny knack at capturing not only what Draper and Co. feels or is affected by, but she develops a magnetic vernacular in detailing the moments in culture which are created by the advertisement campaigns these men develop. In this year’s season premiere, Don takes to task the makers of a swimsuit, and throws them out of the office when they won’t conform to his risqué advertisements, which are basically soft porn. When Don snaps his fingers, snap, snap, snap, “lets go, I mean it, get out of here.” I was floored. How could a man who develops ideas that will slip weave their way into the coils of the common man and woman be so callous with clients, especially since this season Don has started a new agency. How? Because he’s a risk taker and a reckless man, to know Don is to quote him, “live like there’s no tomorrow, because there probably isn’t.”

Draper is trying to get around how bad smoking can be for you, by dismissing the statistics, really, he throws them away, and sticks to “it’s toasted” a line he tries to sell the cigarette maker he’s been tasked to promote.  Don smokes like a chimney, and it’s a form of his masculinity that is on display, his ability to smoke and look good doing it, plus it’s his crutch, for when he has nothing to say, or doesn’t want to say anything. Don never passes up an opportunity to keep his mouth shut and NVC explains this parallel nicely, and in essence defines Draper.

Each section of this book covers something different from the early 60’s, movies, travel, skinny ties, Pete’s college look, and Jackie Kennedy’s interior decorating, just to name a few, and there is an accompanying essay with each picture. I especially like the section about John Cheever and how Draper’s life on the show is very much like a Cheever story. The creator of another AMC show called Rubicon, which is basically a low-fi espionage, referred to Mad Men as John Cheever on television.  By the time you get to the section on the counter culture of the 60’s and how it related to the show, you’ll remember (if you’ve seen this early episode) that Draper and his hippie girlfriend are falling apart, and Don comes to her pad for a quick fuck and a break from his job and life only to find her with a friend who is dropping out and doing drugs, a bohemian to be exact. The Man in the Fez Hat as he’s called is busting Don’s balls about his conformity and it gets around to a moment where Don is given to reflecting on life, which he can do at a moment’s notice, he tells the man to make something of himself, and this man says “Like you? You make a lie. You invent want. You’re for them, not us.” This man thinks all Ad Men are bullshit, Don is wise to it almost instantly, replying, “Well, I hate to break it to you, but there is no big lie. There is no system. The universe is indifferent.” The Man in the Fez hat replies, “Man, why did you have to say that?” It’s funny and it’s true, because the Man in the Fez hat has just been called on his bullshit. Don is capable of incredible insight, profound even, I know it’s the writing of the show, but I wonder did Don make the times he lived in, or did the times shape him? It certainly is up for debate, and with this wonderful work of art, NVC makes the case for both sides.  -JR

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I’m not sure what to make of Darin Strauss after reading this memoir.  To me it seemed like fiction, or at least at first glance it did.  Mr. Strauss has gone through a fairly traumatic event, and since it happened early in his life, he’s had time to process, and maybe figure out a way to deal with it.  He killed someone.  It was an accident, and it couldn’t be helped.  The writing here is crisp, sharp, cliché-free, and brutally honest.  It reminded me of the Stewart O’Nan novel Songs for the Missing.  By the end of Half A Life you realize you’re reading something that really happened, and it’s true, which makes it all the more potent. It’s published by McSweeney’s, and is on sale this month.

This novel took forever to make it my way, and it’s probably because I worship the movie.  Now that the adaptation of Never Let Me Go is about to grace the big screen, I think it’s a fine time to revisit this classic, as backlist sells.  I love how Anthony Hopkins was chiseled in my mind while I read this book, the clueless butler who is only serving his master, even though that master is a Nazi sympathizer.  The book is equal parts beauty and masterful writing; Ishiguro lets us see the butler, but only feel what he sees, not what the butler feels, because he’s void of emotion.  It took me years to finally read Remains of the Day, and it’s worth every second you spend with it.

Dogfight, A Love Story came to me right alongside other books that Random House wanted me to read, somehow this little gem shot to the top of the pile, because after I read the first few pages I couldn’t put it down.  The two brothers at the center of this story might remind you of a modern dayEast of Eden, but with lots of drugs, pitbulls and a scam involving a pocket full of chocolate…that all takes place in Queens, NY. You’ll love the urgency of Matt Burgess, the detail’s that might be overlooked by the common man, in this book, take your breath away.  There is a wonderfully vibrant scene around a dinner table, involving a baseball game and a pregnancy, which should leave you in awe.  As far as debut novels go, this one is great, and it confidently stands alongside The Imperfectionists and Mr. Peanut.



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JC: Johnny needs no introduction around here. All About Lulu was one of the first novels 3G1B covered, and JE became one of the earliest friends of the blog, eventually becoming the fourth/third in our collaboration. If you haven’t yet coerced someone into giving you a galley of West of Here, get to work on it, or you could wait and buy one and put a few bucks in his pocket. He’s got rabbits to feed. Here’s his WWFIL.

When We Fell In Love – Jonathan Evison

My old man was sort of a deadbeat at times, but he was (and is) a brilliant guy. He’s currently living off the grid in the mountains of southern Oregon, where, among other things, he hauls his feces around in a wheelbarrow. All of this begs a little explanation, but that’s not the purpose of my post. So, if you’re interested in my old man (and you may be by the time you finish this post), here’s a little more about him.

The point is, while my dad wasn’t around all that much to “father” me after the age of 9, he single-handedly led me to my destiny as a writer. He introduced me to storytelling. In my infancy, it was the oral tradition. In the darkness of my room before bedtime, he spun whole worlds for me out of thin air. He was masterful. His characters won my sympathy right off the bat. He understood tension. Pacing. Climax. For the most part, these stories comprised an ongoing serial concerning three orphaned tiger cubs and their adventures in the jungle. I’m guessing my old man liked Kipling.

Before long, we began inventing these “tiger stories” together. And in these dark delicious minutes before sleep, my fate as a storyteller was won—a fate which was to include twenty years of abject failure and near-starvation for the noble cause of storytelling, not to mention enough form rejections to wallpaper the Tacoma Dome. And ultimately, a little taste of victory. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

By six, I was on a steady diet of Dickens. My dad read me CopperfieldGreat ExpectationsLittle Dorrit. It didn’t take me long to realize that my family (and extended family in every direction) was “Dickensian.” We were a fantastically idiosyncratic lot. A great, shaggy, circus of a family. Bodybuilders. Inventors. Pianists who only played Christmas carols. We took in homeless people, adopted exotic pets, rode mini-bikes. We were flawed, but lovable. Inept but sympathetic. And our lives were filled with all manner of drama—of love, and loss, and at least one rabid squirrel monkey (no joke—she bit a guy in a Red Lion parking lot outside of Portland, but again I digress). To this day, Dickens feels almost as much as a father to me as my dad does (and that’s no blow to my dad). There’s a reason that Dickens appeals to children. His heroes (even those who were not children) were little people trying to navigate a big world which always seemed to have other plans for them.

At eight years old, my old man gave me Kurt Vonnegut Jr.‘s Breakfast of Champions. Thus, while my playground contemporaries were reading The Great Brain and Nancy Drew, I was learning about wide-open beavers and puckered assholes. Whatever else may have been lost on me, I was beginning to recognize the most noble functions of humor—to laugh in the face of adversity, to laugh at injustice and heartache and the hopeless vagaries of the corporeal world. I was learning about absurdity. It didn’t take me long to recognize the Dickens DNA in Vonnegut. The sympathetic characters. The humor. The sadness trickling quietly beneath the laughter. Soon Vonnegut felt like an uncle—specifically, the uncle who shows you the world that nobody else thinks you’re quite ready to see.

When I was seventeen, I met my next literary idol in John Fante, who came to me by way of Saroyan and Bukowski. Ask the Dust virtually cemented my status as a hopelessly young alcoholic misfit, determined to starve himself in the name of literature. While Vonnegut’s protagonists were puppets, and Dickens’ were well drawn cartoons, Arturo Bandini was the most fully realized, unfettered, intensely human character to ever tear my heart out and kick it down the stairs. Bandini was fear and arrogance, outrage and tenderness, lust and greed and vulnerability. Bandini, too, was a little character—but the big world which was forever at work on him was that of his own yearnings and passions and desperate desire to be loved.

I’ve fallen in love a half-dozen times since then, and had at least a dozen sordid affairs, but these three writers seem to have cast the longest shadow on both my work and my life so far. And while I’ve grossly neglected all of them in the past ten or fifteen years, not a solitary day has gone by that these writers didn’t feel like a substantial part of who I am as a writer and a person. I carry these dudes with me at all times.

DH: If you back-flip The Lovers by Vendela Vida you will find six blurbs. What the blurbs say is of no importance. Also of no importance is whether the authors of the blurbs have read The Lovers. There are no negative blurbs, which would be a crime against nature.

Four of the six blurbs are by writers I love: Francine Prose, Aleksandar Hemon, Julie Orringer and Zoe Heller. I circled the names of the other two, Miranda July and Stephen Elliott, so I would remember to read them.

Vendela hasn’t made writing this novel easy for herself. She keeps Yvonne, her principal, isolated for a remarkable amount of time. Is this a disastrous mistake? You write “John sat in his room.” or “John made coffee.” because you don’t know what the fuck to do with John.

Hawthorne wrote a chapter of “The House of the Seven Gables” that consists of a dead character in a room. I love the chances that great American literature can take.

The good double V makes Yvonne’s isolation the shoreline on which The Lovers pivots. Yvonne is a widow traveling back to Darca in Turkey, where she spent her honeymoon,  to reestablish a living tie to her husband, Peter. They were Vermont schoolteachers. Peter died, parked, in a hit and run.

Yvonne has pulled out the plug since her husband’s death. I love Vida’s small, insistent psych-outs, like gnats buzzing around your ears. You try to brush them away but you also wonder if it’s just your imagination. Because Yvonne has disconnected herself, she’s set up for a pattern of confusions.

Y is a highly competent teacher but she’s caught teaching the same lesson twice to the same class. Her principal urges her to take vacation time and VV implies he’d be happy to have Yvonne on vacation permanently. She arrives at the small Darca airport from Istanbul and waits around for her pickup, a stranger in alien territory, thinking that there’s been some terrible mix-up about her email-made arrangements. We’ve all been through the missed connection. But Yvonne feels at sea congenitally so it doesn’t take much for her to fear she is sinking.

Yvonne’s rented vacation house has a history. Yvonne walks through the three floors plus basement, trying to put together the decor combination of tackiness and affluence. Who lives here? Why is there a hook in the ceiling above the bed in the master bedroom? There are porn pictures under the couch and sex toys left out in another bedroom upstairs. But you have to sleep somewhere. Choose. The reader becomes the character if there is no other character. There’s no one else to identify with. The reader will always identify with someone or they will put the book down.

I’ve talked to Caitlin Macy about her skilled use of the unreliable narrator. I should have added at the time that CM’s narrators think they are reliable. Jason Rice has told me that it’s not possible to fathom intentions. That’s one reason for the methodically observed detail of speech and behavior in his powerful fiction. The good Johnny Evison has told me how characters struggle for self-realization, how there’s a wall or a quirk (struggling with my own words here) that can hold them back. And in two posts I’ve written about James Salter, I’ve talked about his slow-elevator technique of storytelling. How writing doesn’t spill the beans all at once, anymore than you can transition in the blink of an eye from the tenth floor of a building to the lobby in a hundred year old lift. Now from the splendid Vendela Vida, as I try to piece together a model of writing, I see these techniques internalized in one central character attempting to escape from mourning.

I’m such a lucky guy to be blogging. I can ask some of the most talented writers how to write, directly, and even ask them follow-up questions. Especially if I try to ply them with beer. It’s like I’m walking along the strand, tripped up by beautiful seashells, not knowing which to pick up.

If you flip over The Lovers from the pantheon of blurbs side and look closely at those words and “Vendela Vida”, you’ll find a font of seashells. They play an important role in the story. Also, in the lower right hand corner of the cover, you’ll see a dark silhouette of a boy facing you, eyeless, standing in the surf. That is the story. Of course I noticed that VV has picked a lead character’s name that has a “v” in it…and a “Y” that has a “v” on its roof.

In page after page of sensitively observed detail, psyching-out expertise and growing, owl-like shadows that have you dreading what the next page may bring, dreading what may happen as much as Yvonne, Vendela Vida shows us how to write a novel. I’m saying this with great respect, deference even, for distinguished art…but I don’t care who her husband is. I’d rather read Vendela Vida than Dave Eggers. Taste.