Friday, June 28, 2013

Novel Contest for Writers From/Living In/Writing About the South

The Carolina Wren Press is now accepting submission for the Lee Smith Novel Prize:

“Carolina Wren Press will choose one unpublished novel to receive the Lee Smith Novel Prize, an award of $1,000 and publication in honor of esteemed Southern author, literary mentor, and teacher Lee Smith. The award will be presented to a novel by an author from, living in, or writing about the American South–authors need only meet one of these qualifications, not all three. It is our hope to find and promote novelists from the South and their novels and, in the process, to explore and expand the definition of Southern literature. Electronic submissions will be accepted from June 15, 2013 through October 15, 2013 via Submittable using the following link: Submissions must be original, previously unpublished novels, written by one person, in English, at least 50,000 words in length.”

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"You Should Read Some Jean Stafford": The Mountain Lion

Once, long ago, in my ancient MFA student life, someone said to me, “You should read some Jean Stafford stories.”  So, dutifully, I did, and I liked them enough—I remember some sharp social satire; many were published in The New Yorker, and her Collected Stories won the Pulitzer in 1970.  Her first novel, The Boston Adventure, was a best-seller.  These should seem like lifetime achievements of note, but unfortunately, what she seems most remembered for these days is her personal life.  She was married (complicatedly) to poet Robert Lowell, who wrecked up her face in a car accident in which he was driving; both of them were raging alcoholics.  Then she had a brief marriage to Oliver Jensen, an editor at Life, and finally to A.J. Liebling, also a New Yorker writer.  Apparently, this marriage was happy, but he died after fiveish years, and Jean Stafford stopped writing fiction (though she wrote non-fiction and reviews).  She died in 1979 and left her estate to her cleaning woman.

All this to say that when I was recently browsing remainders at Politics & Prose bookstore, a tiny bell dinged in my head when I saw an attractive New York Review of Books “Classics” edition of The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford (originally published in 1947).  That voice:  You should read some Jean Stafford.

The description on the back of the book was intriguing: 

“Eight-year-old Molly and her ten-year-old brother Ralph are inseparable, in league with each other against the stodgy and stupid routines of school and daily life; against their prim mother and prissy older sisters; against the world of authority and perhaps the world itself.  One summer they are sent from the genteel Los Angeles suburb that is their home to backcountry Colorado, where their uncle Claude has a ranch. There the children encounter an enchanting new world—savage, direct, beautiful, untamed—to which, over the next few years, they will return regularly, enjoying a delicious double life….” 

I bought the book, thinking it might be something interesting to read as I shape my next project in my head, which has to do a bit with double lives.  Of course, I buy lots of books and don’t always read them…but this one, in this elegant edition, with its old-fashioned font, called to me, and I jumped into it almost immediately.

It’s an amazing book!  Sharp and smart; vivid and complicated major characters; minor characters as well-drawn as anyone in the pages of Dickens; ominous and compelling landscape, both in California and in Colorado; a relentless writer unafraid to do truly awful things to her characters (one scene—and trust me, you’ll know the one I mean—made me shriek and cover my eyes); a well-managed structure that leads to the surprising yet inevitable ending; inventive language and observations; a plot that feels ominously meandering yet laser-like in its focus …I could go on and on.

And I admired the audacious choices the writer made…for example, in this edition there’s an Author’s Note (from 1971) and an Afterword.  Well, any reader knows not to read the Afterword first unless you want to find out what happens, but who would worry about reading an Author’s Note?  It’s only five paragraphs long, for goodness sake!  Within those five paragraphs, Jean Stafford tells us—directly—what happens to her beloved main character.  I was shocked!  At first I was quite irritated, but I had to think that this was the author’s intention:  so I read the book differently, knowing the outcome.  And—damn it!—I believe that made for a better book.  (But if you decide to read the book and DON’T want to know, definitely skip that Author’s Note, even though it starts out so sweetly with an anecdote about a carpenter building a new desk for Stafford.)

She also moves through a lot of time for a book that’s only about 200 pages long, getting through six or so years effortlessly and tidily.  And the point of view shifts and moves—sometimes within the paragraph—and that, too, feels effortless. 

My main point is this:  Oh, fickle cruel world….HOW CAN THIS BOOK HAVE BEEN FORGOTTEN?  As I was reading, without even trying, I thought of at least five students I’ve taught in the Converse MFA program whose work would have benefited from reading this book.  I’m putting it on my Favorite Books Bookshelf.  Thank goodness for that tiny voice from the past, giving me that nudge in the bookstore.  Thank goodness for a bookstore where I could browse, not knowing what I wanted until I saw it.

I’m not the only one who feels so passionately about The Mountain Lion, it turns out.  Here’s Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, in his series about books that are woefully neglected in modern times:

“…Autobiographical elements are always strong in Stafford's fiction, and there can be no question that Molly is herself, in essence if not all details. Certainly Stafford writes from the heart when she describes the feelings that Molly and Ralph have for their self-indulgent mother, for the pompous minister Mr. Follansbee (with his "cruel, smug face, his pince-nez on a black ribbon, the effeminate white piping of his vest") and for their mother's adored father, Grandfather Bonney, in whose portrait Ralph "read into his face vacuity and self-pride; he saw the plump hands as indolent and useless and believed that in a handclasp they would be flaccid."

“I can't remember when I first read "The Mountain Lion," though it was at least four decades ago, and I'll leave it to you to discover the story behind the title. It's a terrific book, witty and smart as Stafford always was, and kind in its treatment of these two strangely irresistible children….”

And here’s writer Sigrid Nunez on NPR, talking about The Mountain Lion for a segment called “You Must Read This”:

“Stafford drew much from her own early life for The Mountain Lion. Surely some of the novel's power comes from the fact that she wrote it — in just nine months — not long after her brother, Dick, was killed in an accident. As children they had been as close as Molly and Ralph.”

There’s an excerpt from the beginning of the book at this link.

This is the edition that beguiled me and now won’t let go.  I was in the used bookstore in Alexandria yesterday and ended up with a biography of Jean Stafford and a copy of The Boston Adventure.  Not that I’m obsessive or anything….

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

My Decadent Birthday Menu (Including the Recipe for Perfect Spaghetti Carbonara!)

Yesterday was my birthday, and, as usual, the celebration was rather food-centric.  I’m afraid I’m one of those obnoxious people who insists on wrapping a whole weekend around my birthday (regardless what day it is), simply so I have a ready excuse to eat fabulously and indulgently for as long as possible.  So here are some of the items:

~As a surprise, Steve ordered pastrami and corned beef from Katz’s Deli. (To be honest, I think this might have been more for him than for me.)

~Steve excels at making breakfast, so he often makes us nice weekend breakfasts anyway, but these two were especially fabulous as Saturday featured some Biscuitville biscuits we’d brought back from our recent trip south (they keep nicely in the freezer) and North Carolina sausage.  Sunday was my favorite:  Mexican eggs!  This breakfast also featured a wonderful tequila drink, the Kilted Pistolero.

~On my actual birthday, we stayed in Alexandria and went to The Majestic and had an incredible meal: plump onion rings, Caesar salad made tableside, scallops on a saucy and springy bed of mushrooms and artichokes for me, and a deboned chicken roulade stuffed with sausage on morels for Steve.  Coconut layer cake for him and cherry/strawberry tart for me. And I loved the drink I had from the tiki menu: Lani-Honi, made with Benedictine, rum, and lemon juice.   (Mine was served up, not over ice.)

~And, perhaps most indulgent of all, this is the dish I make for myself once a year, for my birthday.  It’s so rich and so perfect, like silk sliding around your mouth.  The recipe is from Cook’s Illustrated, and I’ve found their recipes to be very fussy, but very reliable.  If you follow their recipes precisely, the results are 99% worth the trouble. And if you think you don’t like spaghetti carbonara, I would humbly suggest that you’ve never had a good version.  It’s been my experience that most restaurants mess it up horribly.  So here it is, in all its bacon fat-raw egg-cheesy-winey-10,000 calorie danger and glory!  And special thanks to Steve, for enduring all the eating and helping me have a fabulous birthday weekend…next year, the actual day is on Tuesday, so I believe that will allow for a couple more meals….

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
½ pound bacon (6-8 slices), slices halved length-wise, then cut crosswise into ¼ inch pieces [A little larger is okay]
½ cup dry white wine
3 large eggs
¾ cup finely grated Parmesan (about 2 oz)
¼ cup finely grated Pecorino Romana (about ¾ oz)
3 small garlic cloves, pressed through garlic press or minced to paste
1 pound spaghetti
Freshly ground pepper

1.  Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position, set large heatproof serving bowl on rack, and heat oven to 200 degrees.  Bring 4 quarts of water to rolling boil in large Dutch oven or stockpot.

2.  While water is heating, heat oil in large skillet over medium heat until shimmering, but not smoking. Add bacon and cook, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and crisp, about 8 minutes.  Add wine and simmer until alcohol aroma has cooked off and wine is slightly reduced, 6-8 minutes. Remove from heat and cover to keep warm.  Beat eggs, cheeses, and garlic together with fork in small bowl; set aside. [It’s actually helpful if you do this ahead of time and let the eggs rest at room temperature for a short while.]

3.  When water comes to boil, add pasta and 1 tablespoon table salt; stir to separate pasta.  Cook until al dente; reserve 1/3 cup pasta cooking water and drain pasta for about 5 seconds, leaving pasta slightly wet. Transfer drained pasta to warm serving bowl; if pasta is dry, add some reserved cooking water and toss to moisten.  [I rarely need to do this.]  Immediately pour egg mixture over hot pasta, sprinkle with 1 teaspoon sea salt flakes or ¾ teaspoon table salt; toss well to combine.  Pour bacon mixture over pasta, season generously with black pepper and toss well to combine. Serve immediately.

4-6 servings. 

Note:  This is not the kind of recipe you can halve or double, so make this amount exactly. It’s best this first day, but leftovers are still good for lunch: let them sit at room temperature or heat VERY briefly in the microwave. You don’t want to heat even close to “hot.”

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Again, We Watch Tony Soprano Die

It’s still a surprise when a celebrity death hits me hard, though perhaps it shouldn’t be. There are people who can be a crucial part of our lives though our paths technically never cross and we’d probably have nothing to say to each other even if they did cross.  James Gandolfini—Tony Soprano—is in this category for me, and yes, 51 is waaay too young to die, but I’m pretty sure I’d also be sad if he were 90 or 100.  He—and that show—were revelatory and important for me; I might say that watching “The Sopranos” closely provides an excellent tutorial on how to write a novel.

Ah, of course…that’s the beauty of art, that it lasts, when we don’t.

In honor of James Gandolfini, and of Tony Soprano, I’m reposting my analysis of the controversial final episode, which was originally posted on June 11, 2007, the morning after that episode first aired:

The Story Arc of Tony Soprano
(Note: Don't read this if you haven't seen the final episode and plan to.)

Am I the only one? I didn’t see the ending of last night’s episode as ambiguous in the least. Tony was shot. He was shot as was adeptly foreshadowed in the first episode of the season, where he and Carmela visit Bobby and Janice in the lake house and there is a conversation that feels “important”: They’re sitting around the dock and Carmela and Tony talk about a toddler who recently drowned in a pool, “right there in front of everyone.” (Okay, not a direct quote, but a close paraphrase.) Janice, watching her daughter, freaks out, but they linger on the conversation a bit more. That’s the moment I suspected Tony was going to die “right there in front of everyone.”

That same episode also set us up with the massive gun that Bobby gives to Tony (happy birthday, brother-in-law!). There are references to the deer head (or was it a moose?) on the wall and how the animal didn’t know what hit him. This moment was also referred to in flashback in last week’s episode, where there was a moment of Tony and Bobby talking in the boat. “Like your friend on the wall,” Tony says, “Didn’t know what hit him.”

And more: The irony of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (how “American is that sentiment—remember, the episode was called “Made in America—as if the power of our belief can stop death). The increasing tension to the scene in the diner as Meadow can’t park (I totally sympathize with parallel parking woes!). The idle chit-chat about onion rings (tell me a circular shape is random—onion rings instead of fries). The nod to The Godfather movie as the spooky guy goes into the bathroom as Michael did, to get the gun. The feds closing in, the look on Paulie’s face as he and Tony part (what an actor; how does one make a face on demand that captures that anguish and emotion?).

All these details were chosen for a reason by the writer/director/creator, David Chase. To my mind, they were all leading to the inescapable—which was inescapable from the beginning, frankly. To be true to what has been established with Tony’s life and character, there were only a few possible outcomes: witness protection (not likely for Tony who’s believed in the Code throughout and never once wavered), jail, getting whacked, or, perhaps, continuing on..but only until one of those three things happens. Not many mob bosses get to retire and live ahppily ever after...just the way the job goes. So, to me, this episode was the definition of the “surprising yet inevitable ending.” I’m so distraught that I woke up to NPR reporting on the news that Tony didn’t get whacked, or my favorite guy on Slate magazine (thus far) comparing the ending to the choice in the short story, “The Lady or the Tiger?”—a cop-out that doesn’t offer an answer (this is an ongoing
discussion, and others will weigh in throughout the day). Viewers quoted in the Washington Post Metro section also didn’t get it: nothing happened, they complained, it was like David Chase’s joke on us. Even Tom Shales didn’t fully say that Tony got whacked, suggesting instead that we don’t actually know while allowing that the very next frame could have shown a massacre.

So—am I the only one who thought it was a brilliant ending, and true to the show and character to the end?

So be it. Maybe TV is an art form (and this show, anyway, is art) that needs to be spelled out visually in the way a short story or novel doesn’t: in written literature, things can and should be suggested and intuited. Or maybe I’m wrong and Tony lives on.

While I’m on the topic, I was reminded of the beauty of creating tension by adding a clock to a scene. When we see that there are only 5 minutes left to the episode, every detail in that diner scene becomes fraught. One of my favorite remarks on this subject is Alfred Hitchcock (sorry I don’t have a source for this; I found it several years ago and didn’t keep the attribution…my bad):

“Finally, a good film has suspense, not surprise. Hitchcock avoided the simple mystery films, where the main point of the movie is to find out who the killer is. … ‘Surprises’ last only a few seconds, but suspense can be sustained indefinitely. Hitchcock's favorite way of explaining this was to describe men playing a card game when suddenly a bomb in the room explodes. The audience is shocked for about five seconds. But show a bomb under the table with five minutes until detonation, and now the players' boring conversation about baseball becomes an urgent matter. Sequences in films like Dial M for Murder and Frenzy are compelling only because the audience knows who the killer is. Or, as Hitchcock puts it, 'The essential fact is, to get real suspense, you must let the audience have information' (Hitchcock 1973).”

The other components of my personal Sopranos evening were definitely unambiguous: my husband mixed up negronis, in honor Bobby’s remark last week about how he imagined the classy people riding the Blue Comet to Atlantic City sipping negronis, and I made the full, all-out version of Carmela’s Baked Ziti from the
Sopranos Family Cookbook: fantastic! (And lots of leftovers!)

I miss this show already. ###

[Here’s a nice write-up from David Remnick of the New Yorker, including a number of Tony’s greatest moments.]

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Day in the Marketplace

I spent the day organizing some submissions and feeling immersed in the business side of the writing life and thought I'd pass along some useful information:

1.  Poets & Writers offers a good database of literary journals with their reading period clearly listed.  I found the links to be a bit cumbersome, so I googled titles in a new tab when I was interested in reading more about a journal and then added it (or not) to my list.  Check it out.

2.  Here’s a (long) interview with agent Eric Simonoff, filled with interesting insights about the biz: 

"Do you think the short story collection is in a commercial renaissance?I certainly hope so. It’s a great American art form. In terms of WME’s ability to sell them in translation, we have a big foreign rights department, and we never sell translation rights to publishers. We reserve those rights to the clients and sell them internationally. There are territories that we find it very difficult to sell short stories in, in which it is very easy to sell novels. Some of the best short story collections do find a lot of foreign pickup, but it usually takes a certain amount of massaging to get publishers on board internationally.

"Domestically, I think publishers would still say that in the aggregate, novels far outsell story collections. Every year there are notable exceptions. The question is, how many? In recent years, between Daniyal Mueenuddin and George Saunders, and Junot Díaz, Nam Le, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edward Jones, there have been a number of commercially successful short story writers. But each year probably doesn’t allow more than four or five.

"In the case of George Saunders, or in the case of Sam Lipsyte, who’s a new client of mine—he used to be with Ira Silverberg, a friend and a phenomenal agent who left agenting—there’s a feeling almost of, “Now it’s time.” In the case of George Saunders, or in the case of Sam Lipsyte, who’s a new client of mine—he used to be with Ira Silverberg, a friend and a phenomenal agent who left agenting—there’s a feeling almost of, “Now it’s time.”

"You’d think that in a short-attention-span age, it’d be much easier to sell story collections than novels. Yet the initial investment a reader makes in establishing where he is in a fictional landscape is only made once in a novel, but is made ten times in a story collection. Short story collections ask a bit more of the reader than novels do.

"In literary fiction, there is usually work associated with figuring out where you are in each short story, who is telling the story, what the parameters of the world being described are. In a novel, once you get your feet wet in the first fifty pages or so, you can kind of glide on through."

3.  Thanks to writer Anna Leahy for steering me to this excellent article with advice about how writers should (and shouldn’t) use social media:

"Act like NPR
NPR provides great content 365 days a year. A few days a year it runs pledge drives. No one I know likes the pledge drives, but we tolerate them — and some of us even give money. Why? Because NPR has earned the right to promote its pledge drives by providing such great content. This is a good model for authors too: Provide such great content that you can promote your book when it’s done. If you do this very well, people may want to reciprocate for the value you’ve added to their lives by buying your book. So just imagine you are the producer of “Fresh Air” or “All Things Considered” and look for interesting content."

Monday, June 17, 2013

Barrelhouse Now Accepting Story Collection & Novel Submissions

Good news from the Barrelhouse website: this wonderful literary journal is expanding into publishing, and will be reviewing novel and short story manuscripts until July 15:

“It’s no secret that the Barrelhouse Editorial Squadron loves literary journals. However, we also love books, so we decided to start publishing them. No, Bring the Noise: The Best Pop Culture Essays from Barrelhouse wasn’t a fluke. We’re getting into the book publishing game for real, and to do that, we need to read manuscripts. Specifically, we need to read your manuscripts.

“Right now, Barrelhouse Books is looking for engaging, dynamic works of fiction (we plan on publishing books of poetry and nonfiction books in the future; check back later for more information). In terms of the selection process, the same editors who choose the fiction that goes in the magazine will choose the novels and short story collections we publish; that means it can’t hurt to read an issue or two of the journal, just to see if we’re on similar aesthetic pages. Basically we’re looking for smart, insightful novels and short story collections that are complex without being obtuse; the kind of stuff your intelligent, non-reader friends will love as much as your MFA classmates.”

Read the rest of the submission guidelines here.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Catching Waaaay Up: Converse Low-Residency MFA and Asheville, NC

Hmmm…I can barely remember the beginning of this most recent road trip to the Converse MFA program in South Carolina (and I’m already thinking ahead to the next venture, The Hambidge Center in Georgia in July), but surely I can scrape together a few quick notes:

--It all started with an amazing artisan pizza in Durham, NC, at Pizzeria Toro with my sister and her partner, Tanya Olson, celebrating the publication of her new book of poetry, Boyishly, which opens with one of the most haunting poems I’ve ever read.  I also had a great drink: a spicy mix of rye and the infamous hot ginger ale made by Blenheim’s.  

--And it seems impossible for me to spend the night in Durham without stopping at Biscuitville.  I was lured in by the new pimento-cheese & bacon biscuit, but I would recommend sticking with the basics:  sausage biscuit, hash browns, sweet tea.

--Despite the fortification of that excellent breakfast, I had to stop for lunch at Jimmy’s in Lexington, NC, for a “tiny” plate of chopped barbecue.  “Only give me a few hush puppies,” I begged, and luckily they translated a “few” to mean five, all of which I ate.  Oh, and that vinegar-based cole slaw didn’t stand a chance either.

--Working some health into the picture, I stopped at Abbott’s in Gaffney for a bag of peaches.  Inhaling the overwhelming perfume, I couldn’t help but sigh, “Ohhhhh, this smells so fabulous,” which inspired the teenage boy behind the counter to note, “First peaches of the season, ma’am,” and they were INCREDIBLE! Lovely to start each morning with peach juice dribbling down my arms into the dorm sink…and then walk to the cafeteria for more breakfast (biscuits and gravy day the definite highlight!).

--Okay, I was in Spartanburg to teach, not only to eat, and I was very pleased with the fiction workshop.  My co-teacher, Marlin (Bart) Barton, was as brilliant as ever, and with our class composed entirely of third and fourth semester students, I felt we discussed the work under review with a great deal of perception and insight.  I was pleased to introduce them to my collage exercises, and the results from their homework collages were really artful and surprising.  So—smart students and a very smart class!  I was sad to say goodbye on the last day, especially knowing that for many of them, this was their last workshop at Converse.

--My craft lecture was about the difference between writing short stories and novels, and I used The Great Gatsby as my model of the well-structured novel, and it’s always a joy to talk about that book.  I had seen the movie two days before heading to SC, so I felt prepared for all questions! 

--So many stunning readings, so I hate to single any out in particular, but I’m afraid I must note that our visiting poets/editors (and husband/wife) Jon Tribble and Allison Joseph set a new standard for what one might expect from a reading.  It’s a cliché, but truly: I laughed, I cried.  I think everyone in the room felt as though we were at An Event.  Jon and Allison shared new work and old favorites; the between-poem-patter was illuminating rather than distracting; the flow of work crescendoed beautifully; both were excellent readers; and both exuded personal intimacy and affection—for each other, for writing, for the audience—that I found moving.  Oh, and lots and lots of poems about food!  A wonderful evening.

--Two of our fabulous faculty read from new, hot-off-the-presses books:  Susan Tekulve from her novel, In the Garden of Stone, and Denise Duhamel from a book of poems, Blowout.  I’ve already read most of Blowout, which is amazing (you can read a sample here), and In the Garden of Stone will be my treat when I’m on residency in Georgia next month.

--I have a 40-page story that I spent more than a year working on, that I’m very proud of.  On the other hand, what can one do with a 40-page story?  So I decided to read from it at my reading.  How happy I was to share at least that little bit of it with a corner of the world and a wonderful audience.  And such an honor for me to read with the director of the MFA program, Rick Mulkey, who shared some exciting new poems he wrote while on sabbatical last fall.

--No cornbread salad in the dining hall, but we had lemon squares on more than one occasion.  And the key lime pie was excellent, too!  (Someone in the kitchen really understands “tart.”)

--Our visiting agent, Melissa Sarver from Folio Literary Management, was smart and generous with her time and offered interesting observations on the publishing biz.  She was also hopeful, mentioning a resurgence of interest in short story collections!

--After the residency, I met up with Steve in Asheville, NC, where he was at the tail end of a business meeting.  This will sound like such a hard life, but I joined him at the Inn on the Biltmore Estate, which is, simply put, a beautiful hotel in a beautiful setting.  We had a gorgeous view of the mountains; I was entranced, and spent more time than usual staring out the window. I walked around the grounds, finding various spots to sit in and read poetry when I could tear my eyes away from the mountains.  There was a casual buffet dinner that night where we were treated to truly excellent fried chicken—yes, in a hotel buffet!!!  Yes, really!  I would drive many miles for that chicken.  (Topped off with great mixed berry cobbler for dessert.)

--In Asheville, Steve and I toured Thomas Wolfe’s house, a rambling boarding house still containing many of the Wolfe’s family possessions, despite a fire in the late 1990s that did significant damage.  Sadly, the arsonist was never caught, though the woman leading the tour floated a theory that the fire was set by a descendant of one of the townspeople who were p.o.ed by Wolfe’s portrayal of the citizens and town.  We’ll see what happens, but at least I was inspired to buy Look Homeward, Angel. 

--Foodwise, we found some goodies in Asheville:  12 Bones Smokehouse, along the river, for pulled pork with jalapeno cheese grits, cole slaw, smoked potato salad, and buttered green beans—all of which were amazing, even the “buttered green beans” which were about as rich as dessert.  Oh, and for dessert:  a homemade strawberry pop-tart.  And for brunch, we went to Chestnut in the downtown area:  chicken and waffles!!!  Perfect balance of carbs and grease and salt and molassey sweetness—and a couple dabs of sausage gravy.  (Who invented such a clever combination?)

--Then it was off to the Grove Park Inn for the night where we stayed in THE VERY ROOM F. SCOTT FITZGERALD STAYED IN.  Yes, for real--!!!!!  In 1936 he stayed at the Inn to try to write while Zelda was in Highland Hospital there.  So, perhaps not the happiest time of his life—there was a misguided suicide threat while there—but we still felt the vibe in the room as we watched part of the Redford Gatsby movie, and I read out loud these fascinating Fitzgerald facts.  (He asked for a room that overlooked the entrance so he could check out the young women as they arrived…I sort of wish he had wanted a mountain view, but oh well.)

--And on home, finding another Biscuitville and introducing Steve to the joys of the burgers and the 40 flavors of milkshakes at Cook-Out!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Book Review: DEAR LUCY: A Developmentally Delayed Teenager’s Unique Perspective on Life

DEAR LUCY, a novel by Julie Sarkissian
Simon & Schuster, 352 pages 

Reviewed by Lorine Kritzer Pergament

                                    Everyone is asleep but me.
                                    I look quick in every room to see that nobody is
missing and nobody is. That is good because if someone
is missing I have to leave to go find them and then who
would get the eggs? Because they have never known a girl
who was as gentle with the eggs.
            I go down the stairs quiet like I am something without
any weight. I open the door in the dark and the cold sucks my
skin toward it. It is the morning but there is no sun yet, just
white light around the edges.
            It is time to get the eggs. Time for my best thing.

So begins Dear Lucy a first novel by Julie Sarkissian, a story about a developmentally delayed teenager whose unique perspective on life can be both endearing and frustrating to those with whom she interacts.
Lucy’s mother, whom we know only as “Mum mum,” after trying unsuccessfully to train her to behave like “normal” children and fearing that Lucy would alienate her new boyfriend, places Lucy with Mister and Missus, an older farm couple who care for girls in trouble. Also living with them is the pregnant Samantha, who befriends Lucy.
Missus always wanted to have a boy to emulate Mister, but when they couldn’t have any child, they adopted Stella, whom they adored. As Stella grew older, and Missus was depressed much of the time, Stella came to spend more time with Mister at the encouragement of Missus, who seemed to have an unconventional plan in mind for the family.  There are uncomfortable moments in the telling by Missus, who at times appears both naïve and manipulative. However, as a teenager, Stella ran away, thwarting Missus’ plan. Now she is putting great hopes into the upcoming birth of Samantha’s baby.
Samantha, who has rejected the baby’s father Allen as well as her own family, only wants to run away with the baby and Lucy, but Lucy is afraid that she’ll miss her mother coming to get her, so, with the help of Jennifer (a baby chick Lucy rescued), she tries to find Allen and reconcile the two so that he, Samantha, and the baby can be a “real” family.  The story is complicated by Rodger Marvin, a minister who gives bible lessons to Lucy. Lucy is torn between her instincts to find Allen and her fear of not “minding” the minister.
The chapters are variously written from the points of view of Lucy, whose voice opens the book; Missus; and Samantha, a successful device to allow the three characters’ stories to be relayed directly and to allow the reader to get a sense of the competing motives behind the actions of the three. The language of the chapters allows the reader to recognize each character. We get to know Mister through the varying descriptions by the women.
Although Lucy is challenged in many intellectual ways, she knows more than she thinks she does. She “feels” growing things, who speak to her. Jennifer, the rescued chick, at first appeared to be an imaginary friend. But in a scene where Lucy does manage to find her mother, Mum mum is horrified that Lucy is carrying “a filthy creature” in her pocket.  It is Jennifer who Lucy thinks is directing her to ignore the minister and to find Allen.
            Without revealing too much, I can say that Samantha does have her baby and that the book ends on an interesting note. It is well-crafted and a compelling read, and I hope to see more from this talented author.

Lorine Kritzer Pergament is the book review editor for Signature, a publication of the Women’s National Book Association, and reviews books at  She was an F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest winner, and her stories have appeared in Amazing Graces--Richard Peabody's recent anthology of Washington area women writers--Gargoyle, Bridges, and Penn-Union, among others.  Lorine is working on a novel, Triangulations, inspired by her grandmother’s experiences as a survivor of the infamous 1911 Triangle Waist Factory Fire.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Meet DC Writers!

An event announcement from Willona Sloan:

Wed., June 19, 6:30 PM - 8:00 PM
Cause PhilanthroPub (1926 9th St NW, Washington, DC. Near U Street Metro)
Meet writers, create new work, have a drink and grab some grub at this low-key writing happy hour. We'll do in-bar writing prompts and write fiction and nonfiction. Writers of all levels of experience welcome!
Space is limited. RSVPs required. Please RSVP at


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