Monday, December 4, 2023

2023: Best Books (I Read)


Time for my annual list, along with the accompanying list of caveats: these are, simply put, the best books I read over the course of the year. I try to narrow things down to 10ish books, which is awfully hard. I definitely read (and ADORE!) books by my writer friends , but I try to keep those books off this list. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it, that ALL lists are subjective. In my personal definition of “best,” I mean some magical alchemy of this book at this time that hit me this way. The order is chronological, so don’t spend time parsing out why one book is first, another last. Also, I had to eliminated some VERY EXCELLENT books to keep my list tidy, and YES, I feel terrible about doing so.


Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty (short stories)

This collection of stories is perhaps my most recommended book of the year, tied with The Disappeared (below). I read a lot of linked story collections this year. I especially love loosely linked stories that feel in conversation with each other vs. stories marching out a plot. These are set on and around a Native community in Maine, and yes, there’s much heartbreak and hardship, but mostly there’s perseverance and depth and compassion. I defy anyone to slide on by that first story without feeling gripped by the throat. Highly accomplished collection, and if you want to feel depressed, I’ll drop in that the author was 31 years old when this book was published.


The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist Abortion Service by Laura Kaplan (nonfiction)

An immersive, well-organized account of the underground women’s collective in Chicago known as “Jane” that provided safe (but illegal) abortions before Roe v. Wade. Maybe not the most elegantly written book, but given the vastness and complexities of the topic, it does an excellent job at ferreting out the group’s historical origins and at helping us understand why these women would risk so much to help other women eliminate an unwanted pregnancy. The tone is very matter-of-fact, which does make for some grim moments.


King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild (nonfiction)

I don’t know enough about African history, and this book does an excellent job showing the horrors of colonialism as seen through the Belgians’ exploitive rampage through the Belgian Congo (now known as The Democratic Republic of the Congo), in East Africa. Greed, abuse, hearts of utter darkness…and some folks along the way who stood up to try to correct the situation as best they could. Reads like a novel…and if only it were fiction. (Also, given exploitative mining and other abuses continuing in the DRC, if only this were all in the past.)


Deer Season by Erin Flanagan (novel)

This book (and its foreboding cover) called to me from the shelves of the Elliot Bay Book Company while I was in Seattle for AWP. Billed as a “literary mystery,” a teenage girl goes missing and everyone leaps to conclusions about the intellectually disabled farmhand. My Iowa-girl-self loved that the book was set in Nebraska with tiny midwestern details I appreciated. And the sense of place was powerful—close-knit? Or utterly claustrophobic? Alternating POVs worked perfectly which is hard to pull off IMO.


Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker (short stories)

Stories set in Washington, DC…given my most recent book of stories set in DC, how could I not be intrigued? Complex, nuanced, well-observed, these stories show us Black culture in the city, starting with a story that prickled the hair on the back of my neck. The final story was a lovely echo and elegy to DC that made me nostalgic and homesick, though I’ve never known that place or been part of that community. For old-time DC folks, there’s a wonderful novella in which Len Bias plays a role. (IYKYK: no happy ending there.)



Tinkers by Paul Harding (novel)

I believe that books come along at the right time. Of course, I’d heard of this book, the small press book “no one heard of” that won the Pulitzer in 2010, but I hadn’t felt the desire to read it until A) seeing a random tweet talking about how excellent it was; followed by B) finding a nice copy for sale for $2 at the annual used book sale I attend. Wow! A stunner. I’m not always a big fan of densely lyrical books, but I was promptly won over. The “plot” of thinking back over a life makes Tinkers feel more like a poem than a novel—in a good way. I wish I’d been able to read this short novel in a day, as I imagine that would be a richer experience, but alas. Here’s one of my favorite lines: “The wonder of anything is that it was made in the first place.” Very aggravating to think of mainstream publishers passing on this masterpiece!



Family Happiness by Laurie Colwin (novel)

I’ve long adored Laurie Colwin’s food writing and her short stories and am among the legions who wish she had lived much, much, much longer than her 48 years. In shuffling around books when arranging my new shelves, I came across Family Happiness, which I couldn’t remember reading. In the mood for a New York-y story (which hers almost inevitably are), I dug in. What a quietly subversive book about a woman who’s expected to be and beloved for being “perfect.” Yet, she’s having an extra-marital affair. Yet, the reader is GLAD she is! Yet, her life is so amazing and she loves her husband! How to write a resolution that will be true to this emotionally complicated set-up? Laurie Colwin is brave. Bonus: lots of food!



The Disappeared by Andrew Porter (short stories)

What an exquisite collection! Each story was virtually perfect. Infused with longing and existential loss, with cigarettes and wine, with mid-life couples searching for something. That description may speak to a certain similarity, but I found that each story felt separate and unique. As noted above, this was probably one of my two most recommended books of the year.


Barbarians at the Gates: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar (nonfiction)

You can’t expect to “know” my new home of Winston-Salem, NC, without understanding the role Reynolds Tobacco and the company’s founder, R.J. Reynolds, played in creating the town. Streets, schools, hospital wings, etc…it feels like everything is named after Reynolds or people who ran the company after the founder died. As I grappled with learning this history, every single person I spoke to told me to read Barbarians at the Gates. The 500+ page-length scared me off initially, but once I picked it up, this book MOVES. It’s about tobacco and Winston-Salem, but mostly it’s about corporate greed and Wall Street and how the financial things that went down in the go-go eighties are still reverberating today. (Only the language changes: today we say, “private equity firm,” not, “corporate raider.”) This town has not forgiven F. Ross Johnson for packing up the company’s headquarters, for setting in motion the leveraged buyout to haul in a bajillion dollars…and I better understand why not now, despite the cash payout many locals and employees got from having to sell their stock in the takeover.



Mama Said by Kristen Gentry (short stories)

Linked stories set in Louisville, Kentucky, about the members of a tangled Black family, about staying vs. going, about loving each other when it feels hard to do so. If you’re trying to write a story with a large cast of characters,  “A Satisfying Meal,” set during two stressful Thanksgivings, will show you how to do it well. Also, how is it possible that a bat swooping through the house is horrifying and perfectly comic?



Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia by Peter Pomerantsev (nonfiction)

Published in 2014, this must be one of the most prescient books around. The author, son of Russian emigrees, settled in London, but moves to Russia for nine years as the country is settling into itself after the break-up of the USSR. Jillionaire oligarchs, pretty blonde models, an elaborate web of corruption and bribery…we think we know about all that. Beyond is a surreal life that mirrors reality television (the author’s a filmmaker, working for state-sponsored networks), where the story is always shaped, forming and reforming, and no one knows what the truth is, or really cares. Reading this was a window into the rise of authoritarianism and nationalism and wealth funneling to a few—in Russia, because that’s where the book takes place. But really, right here and right now.


Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (novel) & Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway by Robin Black (nonfiction)

This was a sublime reading experience! I had never read Mrs. Dalloway (I know, I know). I’ll admit that reading stream-of-consciousness is not necessarily the thing I most wanted to do at the end of a long day, but perseverance was rewarded. This book, “about” a day in 1920s London, in which a woman throws a party and a war veteran dies by suicide, shows that the ordinary can be extraordinary, because this book is really “about” life and loss and mental health and regrets and PTSD and love and thwarted love and London and time and about a million more things. Woolf doesn’t need me to note she’s a master of this complicated POV, even as she makes it look simple. I’ve also read Ulysess (a fact I love wedging into conversation!), and comparing the two is ridiculous…this book is by far the greater achievement IMO. A short time after finishing the novel, I read Robin Black’s nonfiction book, an appreciation of and exploration of Mrs. Dalloway, character and novel. Black writes as a writer, looking closely at craft and authorial choices. Even more importantly, she writes as a reader, bringing in her own experiences through passages of memoir to explore how and why a book, this book, might connect us across time. Juxtaposing these two books was a most excellent way to end a lovely twelve months of reading!

But before I go:

Once a week, I schedule writing by hand in a secluded spot, and I always start my session by reading several poems to align my mind. It’s clarifying to copy down lines and phrases I love in my little notebook. I thought I’d share the books I’ve been dipping into during this past year of writing/reading. I’ve found much inspiration in these pages and am deeply grateful for and in utter admiration of poets.


Fixed Star by Suzanne Frischkorn

The Badass Brontes by Jane Satterfield

Thresh & Hold by Marlanda Dekine

All These Hungers by Rick Mulkey

I Done Clicked My Heels Three Times by Taylor Byas

What Light Leaves Hidden by Terry Kennedy


Here’s to continued excellent reading in 2024!



Monday, November 13, 2023

TBR: All Things Edible, Random and Odd: Essays on Grief, Love and Food by Sheila Squillante

 TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


All Things Edible expresses the complexities of unresolved relationships, the importance of shared experiences, and how family and food make us who we are.


Which essay did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which essay gave you the most trouble, and why?


I had such fun writing “The Greenland Shark” because I borrowed the format from a Wikipedia entry and included much more research than is typical of my largely memoiristic essays.


“On Crying” was toughest to write because I was still raw from my mother’s death from cancer earlier that year. While there are many essays in the book about my father’s death, they were all written years later, when I had emotional and narrative distance. I cried through the writing of “On Crying,” and I cried the only time I’ve read it out loud.



Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


This book has taken 20 years to find a publisher. This is not an exaggeration. The earliest of these essays was written in 2003. When I began, I expected it would be what I was calling a “mosaic” memoir focused only on my relationship with my father, who died when I was in college, through the lens of food and the meals we shared (when it was hard to share much else). But the memoir market is fickle, and agents and publishers kept telling me it was too fragmented/episodic. Too much like a linked short story collection when it needed to be more like a novel in terms of development and arc. Well, that’s not and clearly never was going to be what this book is. While it was painful to keep getting told the writing was beautiful but the project unsellable over and over, in the end I’m glad it took the time it did to find a home because it allowed me to capture a much richer, more expansive portrait of my life. And most of it still through the lens of food. It’s a far better book for having been made to wait.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


“Don’t write what you know; write what you’re willing to discover.”—the poet Yusef Komunyakaa


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


Humor surprised me. I don’t think of myself as particularly funny? And certainly the subject matter throughout is pretty heavy. So, it was a nice surprise to find, and be told others found, moments of lightness or laughter.


How did you find the title of your book?


My publisher, Christoph Paul of CLASH Books, finally found the title, which is shared with the lead essay in the book, and which we both love. But, funny thing: it’s also the name of the blog I started when I first began writing about food and my father back in the early 2000’s. So, pre-destined!


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?


Oh yes! Come in hungry because we’ve got manicotti, meat ragu, fermented shark, lamb shanks, chana daal, Christmas cookies coated with Elmer’s Glue and at least three kinds of turtle soup. [See excerpt link below for a recipe within an essay!]












Monday, November 6, 2023

TBR: I Would Meet You Anywhere by Susan Kiyo Ito

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


My book is about being biracial, adopted and Japanese American, seeking my birth family but discovering even more about identity, family and belonging.


What boundaries did you break in the writing of this memoir? Where does that sort of courage come from?


I broke a decades-long boundary of secrecy, of being held to the idea that I had no right to tell this story. I wrote a poem at the age of 20, called “Living In Someone Else’s Closet,” about the being my birth mother’s most deeply held secret. That feeling has pervaded my life for over 40 years and I finally felt that I needed to break out.

The courage, if it can be called that, came in large part from feeling that enough was enough. I am now in my sixties. I’m a grandmother. And to be tethered to someone else’s historic shame from the 1950s – I just couldn’t do it anymore. At the same time, I respect my birth mother’s need for privacy, and I did my best to maintain her anonymity in telling this story.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


It took so much longer (30 years!) than I had ever imagined. When I first began it, in 1992, my MFA thesis advisor suggested that I was too much in the middle of it, and it might need some time to marinate before I was ready to share it with the world. My husband tried to reassure me by reminding me that Frank McCourt was 65 when he published Angela’s Ashes, and I had an absolute tantrum. There was no WAY I wanted that to happen to me. But in hindsight, it’s better for me, and I truly believe it’s a better book. I wrote so many different versions of it over the years. I wrote it as a novel, but in trying to disguise it, my own voice and story were muffled. I’ve written memoir versions in many formats. Thousands and thousands of pages, and many years.


One of the highs has been my publisher’s immense patience and belief in me. We started a conversation around this book about ten years ago and they never pushed me, only encouraged and supported me. It took much longer than I ever expected to get to this final draft, but they never gave up on me or told me it was taking too long. I feel like this was a tremendous gift.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


“Write what scares you.” I kind of love and hate and also fully believe this. This is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


How long it took, and that the arc of the story kept moving further and further. But when it was finally finished, I knew it.


How did you find the title of your book?


I had a number of really terrible or confusing titles, and none of them felt right to me. But the title comes from the opening chapter, from the moment before I met my birth mother. I started thinking a rhyme, kind of along the lines of Green Eggs & Ham: “I would meet you in a box. I would meet you with a fox. I would meet you.. anywhere.”


My writing group suggested it to me after I’d submitted the final manuscript, and the publisher agreed that it was the best one. I love it because it starts out in reference to my birth mother, but throughout the book, the “I” and the “you” shift in meaning. Sometimes it’s about myself and how I come to understand my sense of identity. Sometimes it’s about my adoptive family, or my paternal birth family. It’s about my newborn grandchild. It’s so many things, and I feel like it encompasses the whole story.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


Haha, there’s a lot of ice cream references in this book, specifically coffee chip ice cream (Haagen-Dasz!) and hot fudge sundaes. This story once existed as a solo performance show called The Ice Cream Gene, and I used to serve coffee chip ice cream after the show!  Sushi and sashimi also appear more than once. Here’s a recipe for my favorite salmon: (which we caught on a family fishing trip the day before my wedding)


Ito Family Salmon

Large salmon filet

Teriyaki sauce (either bottled or homemade)

Furikake, any flavor


Slather filet generously with teriyaki sauce (our favorite is Soy Vey’s Very Very Teriyaki, but any can be used, or a combination of soy sauce and sugar, to taste).

Sprinkle liberally with furikake

Roast in 425 oven for 20 minutes or until thickest part of salmon is done. Can also be wrapped in tin foil and broiled on a gas or barbecue grill.

Serve with white sushi-grade medium grain rice.









Monday, October 23, 2023

TBR: Piano in the Dark by Nancy Naomi Carlson

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


We don’t expect an elevator pitch from a poet, but can you tell us about your work in 2-3 sentences?


I’m so glad you mentioned that poets don’t really do elevator pitches, as the answer to “what’s this book about” is often nebulous. To borrow verbiage from the jacket copy, this book “fixes upon one of the few defenses we have to confront the body’s betrayals—our words…though in the end, even the world’s last word ‘forgets its name…has no word for this forgetting…” In a world scarred by pandemics, wars, and violent tribalism, the givens are gone—'talismans we clung to, believing/ we might be spared in some way/ by marking our doors/ with our own sacrificial blood.’”


What boundaries did you break in the writing of this book? Where does that sort of courage come from?


I’ve never before been asked this question, but YES, boundaries were broken on many fronts in the making of this book. Perhaps the biggest one was my decision to include a subtle theme of abortion in a poem, and a not-so-subtle poem about abortion itself. I hoped my story of making the decision to abort a pregnancy with a known inherited birth defect, not compatible with life, might help others understand why a woman might choose this option. With my day job training clinical mental health graduate students, we talk about how trust is key to any counseling relationship, and I felt that by including this topic near the end of the book I may have banked up enough trust from the reader to be willing to consider what I had to say about the topic.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


I am very fortunate to have developed a close and meaningful relationship with Naveen Kishore, the founder and publisher of Seagull Books, located in Kolkata, and distributed by the University of Chicago Press, who not only has published the majority of my nine translations, but also my second full-length collection of poems, An Infusion of Violets (Seagull, 2019). We consider one another “family,” and when I approached him with this third full-length poetry volume, he enthusiastically agreed to publish it. Honestly, I can’t think of any lows here, and I never considered any other press.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


There are so many mantras running through my head. “The more you write the more you write” gets me through any writer’s block I may experience. Regarding managing expectations, I embrace the “don’t expect it” approach. For example, if you expect you’ll get something published/win a prize or a grant/ be invited to speak somewhere and it doesn’t come to pass, you can end up crushed, and sometimes to the point of never “putting yourself out there” again. If you expect something and it happens, you’re delighted, but since you expected it, the pleasure is somehow muted. If you don’t expect something and it doesn’t happen, you’re disappointed, but the disappointment is also muted, since you expected it wouldn’t happen. The greatest “high” for me is not expecting something that actually materializes!


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


Yes, this piece of advice also resonates with me. If you don’t discover something by the end of a poem, neither will the reader, and they might suspect you knew the ending before you’d even gotten into the poem. Similarly, they say the last poem of any book is the orchestration of the poems—how they unfurl over the course of the book. I’ve always considered myself a poet who explores dark themes, so the fact that I wrote several upbeat poems during the pandemic really surprised and pleased me. There’s even a poem about joy!


How did you find the title of your book?


Titles are one of the most difficult things for me to write. They need to be “in the same key” with everything that follows. I believe it was Ellen Bryant Voigt who said a title for a poem must be like a hat that fits every line. I originally was drawn to “Warden Heart” as a title, as it appeared in one of my poems and I remember Stanley Plumly particularly liking it for that poem, but in the end, I landed on “Playing Piano in the Dark” which turned into “Piano in the Dark.” The title comes from the poems, where I mention how my mother would play Chopin nocturnes for me as lullabies, and how Chopin himself preferred to play piano in the dark, even with an  audience present. (I could never do this, as I am never able to memorize any piano pieces I play, nor even poems I’ve written.) Since Piano in the Dark is dedicated to my mother, who died during the pandemic, I felt the title worked on a variety of levels.


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book?


Hmmm….well, there’s “My Goyishe Ex-Husband,” with “For eighteen years he was the chosen/ one to knead the challah dough:/ yeast and sugar dissolved in a tepid bath,/ oil mixed with eggs, flour sifted on top./ Flour dusted his hands like pollen…”















Monday, October 16, 2023

TBR: Melt With Me: Coming of Age and Other ‘80s Perils by Paul Crenshaw

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


How the fears of the 1980s—nuclear war, serial killers, Satanists—got inside those of us who lived through it, and how those fears are not only reflected in the pop culture of the time—the music and movies and video games—but we still carry them around with us today.   


Which essay did you most enjoy writing?


“Choose Your Own Adventure for ‘80s Kids” was a lot of fun to write, at least until the end. I started thinking about all the dangers that supposedly existed in the ‘80s, like quicksand, strangers in vans, Satanists, drug-pushers hiding out in the park. I asked Twitter and got many of the same answers. It seemed we had all heard the same stories, that these fears had become collective, as if so many of us shared them.


I also learned how many of those fears were unwarranted. The Satanic Panic, which I write about in the 2nd essay, was based on fear, inaccurate reporting, and false allegations. I’ve never once seen a drug-pusher in any park, and it seems quicksand is incredibly rare in nature, and actually quite easy to extract yourself from, allaying all those ‘80s fears of drowning, or suffocating—I was never sure which it would be. 


So I spent a lot of time playing with those fears. Like watching a horror movie for entertainment. It seemed we were always being told to watch out for strangers in vans. That at anytime someone could grab us off the street. The nightly news was always talking about nuclear war, and we knew, even at our small ages, that a nuclear war would end everything.


But I know now the Satanic Panic was a moral panic, caused by a too-quickly changing world. We were learning about all the dangers out there: the serial killers and Satanists and Soviets, so every news story stuck. Every child custody case became an abduction. Every drug story was repeated again and again until parents were seeing drug-pushers in every park.


In that atmosphere, it almost seemed inevitable that the world would end. That someone we knew would be kidnapped. Acid rain would fall from the sky. The missiles would, finally, start to fly. So I made all the choices bad, the way it seemed we had little hope in a world waiting for the end.


The real choice comes at the end, though.


[See below for a link to this essay.]


 Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


Some of the essays are older, written before I even had the idea for a collection. “Left Turn at Albuquerque,” for example, was dropped from my first collection, because it didn’t quite fit in with the other essays, so I shelved it. But then I wrote a few more essays—“The Full Moon,” comes to mind, as well as “Candy Cigarettes”—and started to see a pattern.


The last two essays I wrote were “Choose Your Own Adventure for ‘80s Kids,” and “The Satanic Panic.” I had planned for the whole collection to be about the Cold War and our nuclear fears, but after those two essays I realized there was a lot more fear going around—or maybe a better way to say it would be that the fear of nuclear war made us so much more afraid of everything else as well.


So, very late in the game, I slightly shifted the focus, going from mainly a fear of nuclear war, to a fear of everything. The Cold War is the big shadow over everything, but there were all these other fears as well. I don’t really have a high or low publication story, but it was strange to be very nearly finished, and then rethink the whole thing again, with publication already in sight.


 What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


To me the only piece of writing advice that matters is to keep writing. Without that, no other advice really means anything. Voice, structure, whatever—doesn’t matter if you aren’t writing. My undergrad professor, Michael Gills, told me writing had to be a habit, just like smoking or drinking—something you can’t quite quit. I’ve always remembered that. It’s a workmanlike attitude toward writing that felt like the correct way to approach it—if I just worked hard enough, I would make it. That was important for me as a young writer, the idea that persistence will get you there, because at the time I certainly didn’t have anything going for me except persistence.


 My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


I say this only a little jokingly—I’m surprised we survived the ‘80s. I am answering these questions on the morning of September 11th, [2023], which I briefly mention in the essay “When Buckwheat Got Shot.” That essay is a list of all the tragic events we watched, either live or on replay shortly afterward—the Challenger disaster, the Berlin Wall coming down, the First Gulf War. The Oklahoma City bombing, the Atlantic Olympic bombing, 9/11, the “Shock and Awe” of the Second Gulf War.  


What surprises me is how so many of us share a collective memory—the same fears and hopes and dreams. It surprises me how many tragic events we have all witnessed. It surprises me how many of us are messed up because of all the things we’ve seen in our short lifespans, and it surprises me that many more of us are not also messed up.


But what is the most surprising—and I realized this through the process of writing, because while I am writing about our collective ‘80s fears, there is hope in the writing process—is that I still remain hopeful. Why else write, if there’s no hope?  


How did you find the title of your book?


The title comes from the Modern English song “I Melt With You.” It’s a song about a couple making love as nuclear war begins. I’m not asking the reader to make love to me, but what is more intimate than the end of the world?


We’re also in this together. If one of us melts, we all melt. I am asking the reader to relive all the meltdowns of the 80s—the wars and rumors of wars, the shows and movies about the end of the world, the way the nightly news told us all the things to be afraid of. How the pop culture we consumed kept us afraid. How those fears are still inside us today.


That last part is the most important.






ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR PILE:,guy%2C%20how%20Bugs%20Bunny%20cartoons


READ AN ESSAY FROM THIS BOOK, “Choose Your Own Adventure For ’80s Kids”:





Monday, October 9, 2023

TBR: Brutalities by Margo Steines

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


My book is about the roughest things I’ve done to and with my body. It’s also about the nature of pain, and about masculinity and power, all of which is explored through my past experiences with various forms of violence and extremity: weird sex, compulsive athletics, farming for people who are not farmers, fighting in cages, sex work, interpersonal violence, chronic illness, pregnancy. Together, they describe an interface of roughness and tenderness, and a complicated sort of triumph over the desire to suffer.



Which “character” did you most enjoy creating? Why? And which “character” gave you the most trouble, and why?


That’s a hard question, because it’s nonfiction, so I didn’t create any characters per se. But if you’re asking which human person I most enjoyed rendering in two dimensions on the page, it would definitely be my boyfriend, N. The era of our lives that the book covers was such a magical and tender and special time for us, and he really represented a fundamentally new way to connect with a person, for me. And he is such a specific and impressive person, so bringing all of his highly idiosyncratic practices and ways of being to the page was really a delight, a chance to share with the reader this person that I am so delighted by.


In terms of the second question I suppose it would be my ex, who is named Dean in the book. I had to do a lot of grappling with how I wanted to present him—I don’t think he is an evil person, and I wish him no harm, but also he harmed me deeply and irrevocably and, in many cases, intentionally. So there was no way to write him truthfully without including some of the harms he caused, and I felt a strange sort of desire to protect him from those truths. Which probably is a topic for therapy, but you asked. On a craft level, though, working to show nuance—to say, this is not a terrible person, this is a person who treated me terribly—felt like the biggest ask of the book, and arguably one of the most important ones.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


Well I did not get to purchase the vintage lifted Bronco that I had been hoping to squander my advance on, so I guess that’s a low? I don’t know, I’ve had a pretty great experience so far and the team of people working on the book, from my editor to my publicists, have been amazing. Working with my agent has definitely been a high—he has been such a steady source of guidance and good taste from day one and I really trust his sense of care for the book. Writing a book is such a lonely and self-oriented thing, especially a book about yourself, that having an ally like that really feels very good. I think now I’m in a place where I’m kind of bracing for the publicness of it all, and that’s obviously what I wanted—to be read, to be perceived, to reach people—but also it is fundamentally horrifying that I don’t get to choose WHICH people, you know?


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


I gotta give this one to “write how you talk.”


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


I was really surprised by how little I felt during the actual writing process. I write heavily about trauma, really painful shit that was devastating in the living and which people always imagine is like a tearfest to sit down and write about. And I just felt...nothing. And then later, after I had done most of my editing and the book felt like something that was now separate from me (I’ve birthed an actual child so I don’t really get into the book-birthing metaphors, but you get my drift), something in me just cracked. The idea of everything I have been through, everything I’ve put myself through, just suddenly felt so real and sad. I don’t know if it was the accumulation of it all, or that it felt separate from me for the first time, or maybe that I’m a parent now and I wasn’t when I started writing it, but I just felt so desperately sad over all the lost time, all the suffering, and a real sense of grief, of sadness and tenderness and care for my young self, settled around me. And that didn’t feel good, but it did feel sort of commensurate with the experiences.


How did you find the title of your book?


It’s the title of two of the essays in the book, and I’ve had the title rattling around my head for almost ten years. It came to me while I was sleeping and I can totally still remember waking up and being like, this is the name of a thing I have to make. Which is....not an experience I have a lot. Usually I write something and either pull a title from a line, or just sort of land on one. I’ve never just had it come to me like this. And so I gave it to an essay (which later became two essays in a split series), but it always felt like it was a bigger title than just the essay. And then I forgot about it and I was struggling to title the book—I had a working title that was okay, but I kept feeling embarrassed when I said it out loud, which didn’t feel like a good sign—until I remembered that moment waking up with the title just sitting in my mind.











Sunday, October 1, 2023

TBR: Mama Said: Stories by Kristen Gentry

TBR [to be read] is a semi-regular, invitation-only interview series with authors of newly released/forthcoming, interesting books who will tell us about their new work as well as offer tips on writing, stories about the publishing biz, and from time to time, a recipe. 


Give us your elevator pitch: what’s your book about in 2-3 sentences?


Mama Said is set in Louisville, Kentucky at the tail end of the crack epidemic and the rise of the opioid crisis. It follows three daughters–cousins in the same family–who come of age struggling against their mothers’ drug addictions. 


Which story did you most enjoy writing? Why? And, which story gave you the most trouble, and why?


I had a lot of fun writing “Animal Kingdom.” It’s set on Derby, back when you could still cruise through West Louisville. The Kentucky Derby on TV is big hats, mint juleps, and rich white people. Derby to me, and a lot of black Louisvillians, is cruising on Broadway, barbecues, and music. It’s basically a miles-long block party. Capturing that on the page required a lot of reminiscing on Derby days of my past and made me feel like I was back in Louisville in all of the energy and excitement though I was bundled up in my house or cupping a a mug of tea in a coffee shop in cold, gray Rochester, New York. 


Although it was also fun creating Bryce’s character, that man gave me truh-ble! Actually, my boyfriend and I got into a fight about Bryce’s character. I generally have a hard time writing male characters, so I always run them by him. I read him some bits and he said Bryce’s interaction with Angel wasn’t believable given his age (thirty), her age (seventeen), and the setting (half-naked girls shaking ass for men pointing camcorders). But I knew Bryce’s heart, as the old folks say, and I fought, quite literally, off the page with my boyfriend and on the page to bring that to life and make it real.


Tell us a bit about the highs and lows of your book’s road to publication.


It took me a looong time to write Mama Said. Fourteen years. Part of the reason why it took so long and what had happened was… (😂) that I didn’t really begin writing the collection until I left grad school. The book’s overarching mother-daughter conflict rooted in the mother’s addiction is pulled from personal conflict that played out between me and my mother. I’d avoided addressing that in my writing until my thesis deadline was approaching and I needed more pages to meet the minimum. I wrote what was at the top of my mind and ended up with the first draft of “A Satisfying Meal,” in which the protagonist, JayLynn, takes her boyfriend to Thanksgiving dinner and is mortified as her family’s dysfunction, that she could easily hide two hours away at school in Bloomington, Indiana, unfolds before both of them. 


Another reason why it took so long to write the book is because I wasn’t writing for months at a time. You know how people say you have to carve out your writing time and be ruthless about maintaining it? I was doing none of that. I let the responsibilities of my job as a professor completely take over my life–for years! There was no work-life balance. I often graded in the time I had scheduled to write because I was always behind on grading. 


Yet another reason why it took so long to write the book is because I’m a slow writer, largely because I’m a perfectionist. I don’t know why I put so much pressure on myself, especially in first drafts, when I know I’m going to revise the sugar honey iced tea out of it, but I do. I’m working on it. 


So it took a while to write but once the manuscript was ready, it only took three months before it was accepted at West Virginia University Press. 


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


Remember what I said above about people saying you have to carve out your writing time and be ruthless about it? What those people said, that’s my favorite piece of writing advice. 


Unfortunately, it has taken me years to understand that I have to schedule my writing time–whether it’s ten minutes or two hours–and guard it fiercely because no one but me is going to do it because no one but me cares about it (well, maybe they do. I’m a moody heifer when I’m not writing), and the work–whatever the work may be–will never stop and grant me the reprieve to write. 


My favorite writing advice is “write until something surprises you.” What surprised you in the writing of this book?


Many of the climactic moments in each of the stories surprised me because I don’t outline stories (maybe that’s another reason why it took me so long to finish the collection) and also follow this advice. I like to realize a character’s worst fear and see how they react. 


Patricia, the protagonist in “A Sort of Winning,” was an especially surprising addition to the collection. She came out of nowhere. I hadn’t been reminiscing about P.E. class in high school or P.E. teachers at all. I was minding my own business and BOOP! the opening scene of her watching the kids while they take a test popped up while I was writing, and I wanted to see where it would go. Patricia’s story offers another perspective of JayLynn that further complicates her character, and Patricia’s frustration with the way her terminally ill mother still swoons over her estranged husband adds variety to the collection’s mother-daughter conflicts. 


How did you find the title of your book?


The book’s title comes from the title story. In “Mama Said,” JayLynn is haunted by her depressed mother’s confession that she wishes she could drive off of the JFK Bridge. This disclosure from mother to daughter sends JayLynn reeling, unsure whether her time and effort should be spent at home helping her mother or on campus raising her plummeting grades. This uncertainty of how to navigate the world with their mother’s words and actions playing in their minds also plagues JayLynn’s cousins, Zaria and Angel. The conflict that the title story highlights is relevant throughout the collection so it seemed fitting as the book’s title. I also like the colloquial sound of Mama Said.  


Inquiring foodies and hungry book clubs want to know: Any food/s associated with your book? (Any recipes I might share?)


In “A Satisfying Meal,” there’s much ado about JayLynn’s mother’s greens, ”spiced with a soft heat and seasoned to the edge of too salty with enough jowl bacon that a bowl of them can be a satisfying meal.” Those greens described are my mama’s greens, and her recipe is simple. Throw some greens (what kind really doesn’t matter. Could be collards, kale, mustard, turnip or a mix of all of them), jowl bacon, water, and some salt in a pot and simmer until tender.


I learned how to make these greens myself, substituting cooked bacon and bacon grease for the jowl bacon and adding onion and yellow mustard. 


But I’m vegan now, so I use vegan chicken broth, onion, salt, and yellow mustard. I also don’t simmer them as long. You really don’t need to cook them more than thirty minutes.   












DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.