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April 2, 2016

InterviewHeader

In a new interview with JD Fox at Mud Season Review, I reveal the connections among Jane Austen, Bernie Sanders, grandmothers and groupies.

Thanks to JD for some excellent questions that allowed me to rant so broadly. Potential readers should be forewarned: this is a somewhat alarming peek into the inner workings of a peculiar mind.

In the Season of Mud

March 21, 2016

A story of mine, “How I Found God in the Laundromat,” has just been posted at Mud Season Review:

http://mudseasonreview.com/2016/03/fiction-issue-18/

Many thanks to the editors there. And if you follow the link to look at my story, check out this month’s featured poetry, nonfiction, and art as well. The vagueness of the setting in my piece (an anonymous suburb) can be countered by the vivid Colorado landscape in Gretchen Comcowich’s nonfiction, “Garbage Heap Wonderland.”

I guess my story and its venue are both appropriate for the season, for these reasons:

  • The tale’s about a Bar Mitzvah boy bucking and moaning through his ritual ascension to “manhood.” It’s appropriate for Passover, coming up next month, when Jews tend to muse on what their religious identification means to themselves and to others.
  • We’re right in the middle of mud season, as my wife reminds me with curt emails about the clods my shoes have left on the rugs. And the boy in the story can be seen as trying to climb out of the mud he has created for himself.
  • Mud Season Review, an outgrowth of the Burlington Writers Workshop, lies in the heart of Bernieland, so I’ll dedicate this story to the Grumpy Grandpa who has energized the Democratic primaries this year.

 

IMG_20150916_190048019Here’s a photo from another standing-room-only book launch. I like that tall guy’s shirt, but I’ve got to start arriving early enough to grab a seat! Or I should remember to claim a chair before I linger at the wine table.

The book being celebrated, last night at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, PA, was A House Alive with Words by Patricia Zita Krisch (the person way up front in the red dress). Subtitled Stories from the ABC Program, a path to college for inner-city youth, it focuses on eight boys from the ABC House in Lower Merion Township, a well-to-do suburb of Philadelphia. Part of a national program called “A Better Chance,” ABC House takes academically talented, economically disadvantaged boys of color and houses
them together while they attend Lower Merion High School. Along with a home, the program provides academic and personal counseling and guidance. The goal is to get the boys into college and on the path to success.

A House Alive with WordsYou’ve heard of programs like this. Do they really work? Trained as a sociologist, Krisch understands the social and educational problems the kids face—such as being singled out, in a class of white students, to give the “African American view” on an issue—but she goes beyond those to portray each of the boys as an individual with his own experiences, insights, struggles, and delights. One of her significant observations is that the boys’ greatest resource turns out to be their group itself, the camaraderie they develop and the support they give each other.

Nationally, ABC graduates include well-known people like Tracy Chapman and Deval Patrick. But the program is not about making governors or Grammy winners, it’s about giving ordinary smart kids a chance at a successful life. Krisch’s “stories” from the program, including the tale of one boy who was kicked out, help us comprehend the scale of changes that will be needed for everyone to have a better chance.

The publisher’s site is here, and the book’s Amazon page here.

I’ve discovered that part of the art of promoting books is to post pictures of the large, rapt audience at the book launch. Last night I attended the launch celebration of a fine historical book, Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938–1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. The audience was indeed enthusiastic and numerous—standing room only in a spacious hall! Here’s a photo from my point of view:

Hoeber Book Launch #1

As you can tell, I converted the standing room only into sitting-on-the-floor room only. The author, Francis W. Hoeber, was giving a spirited presentation from somewhere behind those heads.

The heart of the book is a collection of letters between Hoeber’s father, who escaped Nazi Germany in 1938, and his mother, who was trapped in Germany for another year with her young daughter. These letters, which Hoeber discovered accidentally in his mother’s file cabinet many decades later, form a moving and detailed view of daily life under the Nazis and the complicated maneuvers that people performed to escape persecution. It’s one Holocaust story with a happy ending, in that all the main characters survive. Hoeber adds his own lucid commentary, rich with historical and personal information. Most of all, the book is enlivened by the personalities that emerge from the letters, including his mother’s acerbic wit. If wit were only as lethal as guns, that lady could have defeated the Nazis by herself.

Since the author is a friend of a friend, I did summon the energy to stand up after a while to see him:

IMG_20150909_181526732

That’s Frank Hoeber at the lectern with an image of his father on the screen. The volume has a number of interesting photos and facsimiles, and it’s nicely designed and printed.

For anyone who’s interested, here are some links:

On My Commitment

April 28, 2015

Rathalla Review 2014 Annual Issue: CoverNo, I haven’t been institutionalized yet, though my family would probably be happy for someone to arrange that.

The headline means that a printed copy of my story “Commitment” has arrived, embedded in the handsome 2014 annual issue of Rathalla Review, a selection of pieces that appeared in the online magazine during the year. I’m honored to have my work included, and it’s made me think once more about the print-vs.-electronic debate.

Though I’ve spent most of my adult life working on physical books printed on paper, I don’t mind reading on screen. Either way is fine. I doubt that e-books will make printed books obsolete, and I’m not worried about the matter. There are bigger issues in the world.

In deciding where to submit my writing, therefore, I tend to choose magazines that people I know will be able to locate and read. Literary magazines that appear only in print are generally seen by only a few hundred subscribers. I can tell my friends I have a story in such-and-such a journal, but they’re unlikely to buy a physical copy even if they can find one. (And I’m too poor to buy copies for all of them.) But if I say the story is free on a website, they’ll check it out. Advantage: electronics.

Still, it’s nice to get a print version as well, and it may survive long after websites are revamped and electronic links go dead. Paper is surprisingly durable for a thin, flimsy medium. There’s a reason we’ve used it for centuries.

I do not love the scent of glue, however. That’s one quality of a contemporary printed book I could do without. Old books that are smyth-sewn smell better as long as you brush off the dust first.

Postscript: After admiring the annual print issue in physical form, I discovered it’s also available online. Click the picture above to go to it. The electronic version has no smell whatsoever.

There’s a forthcoming novel I’m genuinely excited about.

(Stark revelation: People in the literary trades often pretend to be excited when they’re not. Imagine that! But in the above sentence I genuinely mean the word genuinely.)

I happened on the first chapter of this book almost two years ago, on the author’s website. I gave it the first-sentence test:

Once there was a girl who did everything wrong.

Hmm: Good premise, and the tone seems right. Serious, humorous and ironic at the same time. On, then, to the first few paragraphs:

Once there was a girl who did everything wrong. Take the time in 1963 when she took part in a wade-in to desegregate a public pool in Chester, Pennsylvania. She almost drowned. She had been the only white girl in the demonstration. When the crowd took the pool by storm, she flailed and sank, and she was pulled out by a lifeguard who forcibly detained her as her Negro comrades were loaded into vans. The police refused to arrest her. They said she should go home and learn to swim.

“Did she?” Tamara asked. She was sitting in the bathtub, with her knees drawn under her chin. The tub was ancient, and the faucet leaked enough to draw a dull brown line across the porcelain.

“Eventually,” Beth said. “Your daddy taught her.”

So it’s historical, including major political events and social conflicts. But it’s mainly personal, about human beings who “flail” and look ridiculous at times and have to interpret their misadventures for their children. Okay, I was hooked.

Waveland TitleNow that novel, Waveland by Simone Zelitch, has found its publisher, The Head and the Hand Press, and I’ve read the whole thing in galleys. It’s about a young white woman’s experiences during the Freedom Summer of 1964, and about her life afterward—working with the Movement, raising a biracial child conceived during that time, enduring the tragedies, breakups and breakdowns. It’s a complicated journey with many ups and downs and sideways slides.

As soon as Beth Fine arrives in Mississippi, she finds out how dull Freedom work can be: she’s assigned to shelve books and clean the floors. Eventually, though, she gets more involved in the field work, finds love and conflict in equal measure, and has her brushes with violence. When a gun under the bed is mentioned early in the book, you can be sure it will be fired at some point.

The novel jumps around in time, and scattered chapters give us three other points of view, widening our perspective on Freedom Summer, the Democratic convention of that year and the tensions pervading the Movement. Yet the book remains primarily Beth’s story. As it turns out, that phrase she uses to characterize herself, “the girl who did everything wrong,” is more than a joke about her social clumsiness and problems in judgment. She’s a person who can’t be dissuaded from doing what she feels must be done. She has a private sense—of justice, duty, love, whatever you want to call it—that impels her, and at key moments she can’t resist its demands even when her brain knows she’s courting disaster. At one point she quotes from Pascal: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” She’s stubborn, headstrong and often infuriating to the other characters. If we as readers fully engage with her, she should sometimes infuriate us too. Damn it, Beth, we want to yell, make the sensible choice! No such luck; she’s not going to listen, and that’s her virtue and her fault.

Simone Zelitch, as I discovered by reading her previous works, has a habit of writing provocative historical novels: The Confession of Jack Straw, about the English peasants’ revolt of 1381; Louisa, about two women who roughly reenact the biblical story of Ruth in post-Holocaust Europe and Israel; Moses in Sinai, about—well, the title explains it. Except for Louisa, released by Berkley, these were small-press books, as is the new one. They deserve a big-press readership.

In her next book after Waveland, an already completed novel called Judenstaat, Zelitch tackles an imaginary past—what might have happened after World War II if the Jewish state had been carved out of Germany rather than Palestine. This novel won her an NEA fellowship, and it has recently been signed by Tor/Forge, the Macmillan imprint known mostly for sci-fi and fantasy. It’ll be back to the big presses for this persistent, thought-stirring, hard-to-classify writer.

In the meantime, check out the girl who can’t do anything right. She’ll agitate and charm you in equal measure. If you want to order a copy before the official release date in May, The Head and the Hand Press is offering a prepublication deal.

IMG_0211On this snowy day in March, when my hometown Philadelphia is pretending to be Boston and Boston is pretending to be Baffin Island, I’m taking a break from shoveling two sidewalks (office and home) and inventing ways to torture the groundhog who predicted this weather.

Now would be a perfect time for reading a novel. Lately, though, I’ve been pondering the frequent reactions I get when I recommend a recent novel to friends or acquaintances.

Sometimes it’s a pained, put-upon look, as if I’d suggested they shovel the snow from my 100-foot driveway. (Strictly a metaphor; my driveway is only 6 feet.)

Sometimes it’s an unbelieving, disdainful grimace as if I’d offered tickets to a Justin Bieber concert.

Sometimes it’s even worse: a repulsed glare as if I’d dragged my friend to an expensive restaurant for a feast of earthworms, sycamore bark and raw mutton. (Metaphor again: Philly doesn’t boast such a restaurant—yet.)

The people I’m talking about are urbane, well-educated folk who must, at one time or other, have read a novel. Why does the idea repel them so much now? I’ve come up with several possible explanations.

  • Middlebrows like me, they need all their spare time for watching British costume dramas. Maybe, like me, they’re still trying to figure out why any eligible bachelors tolerate Mary Crawley.
  • Implying that a friend would read a book for fun is an insult, really. It’s like saying your haircut is so perfectly 1974.
  • Given the dire condition of the world, they may agree with Elena Ferrante’s character Franco Mari, a political activist who declares to his ex-girlfriend, “[T]his, objectively, is not the moment for writing novels” (from Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay).
  • They may see contemporary novels as gimmicky and trivial. Partly true.
  • They may see contemporary novels as wordy, opaque, unfocused and boring. Also partly true.
  • It’s a pain to read a lot of text on a phone, and what other way is there to read?
  • If the friend is male, he probably views novel-reading as beneath his serious manly dignity, like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice: “Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.”

Hmmm. …

You know, after all that, I’ve convinced myself it’s foolish to waste time on fiction. I think my companion has a better idea for a wintry afternoon.

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