Monday, December 17, 2018

Favorite Books (I Read) of 2018

As usual, this list is taken from the books I’ve read during 2018. Who cares what year a good book was published, really? I believe in buying lots of books and then letting them rise to the surface at the right time. I also believe in keeping this list to 10ish, so I’ve forced myself to be ruthless. What are the books I urged onto other people? The books that haunt me months later?

One difficulty with my list is that I try to keep it free of books written by my friends, which feels more honest to me, but I am lucky to have SO MANY accomplished and prolific writer friends! Also, in this age of social media, is someone I know from Facebook a “friend” or a friend? What if I met someone once at an event…are they my friend/“friend” and therefore excluded from my list? My imperfect solution is to keep a separate, unranked list of books I loved that I read this year that were written by my friends (below) and hope no one hates me. Also, I did let one book blur the “friend”/friend line to sneak onto the first list.

Presented in random order:

Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson: I read this in a single morning and ached all day for these young girls. 

The Power, Naomi Alderman: Smart, dark, well-constructed…and a book you’ll want to discuss immediately with someone as you turn that last page. If you have a book club, this one should be required reading!

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones: This author is a dazzling reader/presenter of her work, so catch her if you can; this book is utterly absorbing, about a newlywed African-American man accused of a crime he didn’t commit and what happens to a fledgling marriage.

You Think It, I’ll Say It, Curtis Sittenfeld: What delightfully dark and modern humor. Each story felt complete yet I longed to read more, more, more. Spin each of these stories off into a novel, please.

Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond: This non-fiction book made me queasy because the author totally—with verve and vigor—nailed each and every awful thing about the football industrial complex…yet I still find myself shouting, “Get him!” at my TV screen on Sunday afternoons this autumn. Thought-provoking in the best way.

Eleven Kind of Loneliness, Richard Yates: A reread of this classic story collection. I wrote in my book journal, “Like stepping into an Edward Hopper painting,” and I’m pretty sure saying more than that won't create a clearer picture of these bleak and human stories.

The Great Believers, Rebecca Makkai: About the AIDS crisis in Chicago in the 80s and a totally immersive book that will break your heart even as you can’t stop turning the pages. There’s a modern storyline interwoven, ensuring that we feel the ripple effects of this tragic epidemic.

Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn: Creepy, complicated characters doing creepy, complicated things. I found the TV show to be addictive, but the book topped the show. Really, I suggest checking out both.

Calypso, David Sedaris: Deep and hard exploration of family and loss. Yes, he’s funny, of course. But he’s so much more, and that final revelation will mule-kick you in the gut. I’d read many of these pieces previously in The New Yorker but encountering them arranged with an arc in mind gave new resonance. Also, I didn't think much about the title until I did, doing some minor research, and there's more and deep resonance with this choice.

Educated, Tara Westover: A memoir about a girl who grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon family in Idaho, so beyond convention that the youngest kids never went to school. Yet the author manages to extricate herself from this insular world. Harrowing and relentless and brutal in its honesty: yet the author never neglects to treat even the villainous people with compassion and humanity. Extraordinary. If I had to select one book that was my favorite of the year, right this minute it would be this one. (Runners-up are The Great Believers and An American Marriage.)

The Perfect Nanny, Leila Slimani: I loved how the author of this novel captured the nuances of the uncomfortable relationship the domestic “employer” has with the domestic “employed,” the trickiness of outsourcing family labor traditionally done by women. There’s a dramatic and horrible opening…yet in my mind that almost isn’t even the point of this chilly and chilling book.

Descent, Tim Johnston: Depending on the kind of reader you are, you’ll pick this up for the literary cred and stay for the suspense, or vice versa. In any event, this book delivers both, multiplied by 1000, as a family deals with the abrupt disappearance of teenage daughter/sister. I defy you to close this book once you reach the last third! (This is the “friend” book that I fudged into this section because, well, just because I’m in charge here! And because I was reading it on an airplane and was GRATEFUL the plane had to circle for 20 extra minutes so I could finish reading it!)


How to Sit, Tyrese Coleman: A hybrid mix of fact and fiction, these stories and essays left me breathless, and not just because the author was in one of my fiction workshops at Johns Hopkins, but because the writing is that assured. (A debut!)

Second Shift, essays, Susan Tekulve: Travel and food explored with a nuanced, observant eye, evoked in exquisite language.

Monsoon Mansion, Cinelle Barnes: A ravishingly assured debut memoir by one of our Converse MFA grads who grew up in dire circumstances in the Philippines and who found a way to survive to tell the tale, elegantly. (A debut!)

Sad Math, poems, Sarah Freligh: The type of poetry I love most of all, accessible yet resounding with heartfelt depth, like the continued quiver of a tuning fork.

The Second O of Sorrow, poems, Sean Thomas Dougherty: The Rust Belt gets so much clear-eyed, deeply honest love here that it’s impossible not to see beauty, not to feel an endless ache.

The Promise of Failure, John McNally: A smart and honest memoir/craft book about the author’s (and our) ongoing struggles with the writing life and how failure fits into that life (and any life, really).

The Incurables, Mark Brazaitis: Tough linked short stories about tough people trained to be stoic; the title story is especially incredible.

Crumb-Sized, poems, Marlena Chertock: Don’t let the science motif intimidate you; these poems are personal, revealing, and stunning. And a gold star for the lovely book design!

This Could Hurt, Jillian Medoff: I think the workplace is under-represented in literary fiction, especially when I see the riches available when one of the primary characters is a sharp-eyed female corporate boss lost in New York City’s rat race.

The Accidental Bride, Janice Harayda: When you want a totally light-hearted, amusing & charming but also SMART book about wedding woes!

First Comes Love, Marian Winik: A harrowing & deeply honest memoir about being in love with the wrong person who is also exactly the right person.

Carry Her Home, Caroline Bock: Linked stories about grief and family and a New York of the past. (I first met the author in one of my classes at Politics & Prose!) 

The Balcony, Jane Delury: France, the French, and lots of food! For some that might be all you need to hear! For the rest, this novel-in-stories is an elegant evocation of a house in France and its complex history. (A debut!)

Monday, December 10, 2018

TBR: We Can Save Us All by Adam Nemett

TBR [to be read] is a new feature on my blog, 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?

Welcome to The Egg, an off-campus geodesic dome where David Fuffman and his crew of alienated Princeton students train for what might be the end of days: America is in a perpetual state of war, climate disasters create a global state of emergency, and scientists believe time itself may be collapsing. Funded by the charismatic Mathias Blue and fueled by performance enhancers and psychedelic drugs, a student revolution incubates at The Egg, inspired by the superheroes that dominate American culture. As the final superstorm arrives, the students toe the line between good and evil, deliverance and demagogues, the damned and the saved. 

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

I really enjoyed writing Haley Roth, the female protagonist of the book, probably because she was the most challenging to write. She’s both the moral center of the book and yet she operates in a moral gray area, but ultimately she’s the heart of the story and maybe the one true superhero. She’s funny and complicated and resilient and an all-around badass. I credit my editor, Olivia Taylor Smith, for encouraging me to add a substantial number of pages—mostly from Haley’s POV—fairly late in the editing process. I think this freedom to write and push for a longer book not only made Haley’s character more compelling, but really brought the whole story together in an important way.

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

The book took 12 years—nearly 13 by the time of this writing—to reach publication, so there was a large quantity of both highs and lows. I wrote a piece of flash fiction in late 2005 that got published in an anthology called The Apocalypse Reader. This first taste of publication was a huge high that gave me the confidence to turn the short story into a novel. I wrote most of the first draft during my MFA program at California College of the Arts (my MFA experience was another highlight) and finished it at a Vermont Studio Center residency in 2008. I spent a few years revising and tightening it up, and then began looking for an agent in 2011. It took a long time to find representation, and this was a low…but also an important part of the process. Each time I got a rejection, it usually came with thoughtful feedback on how to revise, plus an offer to resubmit. So I’d spend months or sometimes years making these revisions—typically major revisions of the story structure and how we move through time in linear vs. nonlinear ways. Eventually after losing track of each other four years earlier, I got signed by Noah Ballard at Curtis Brown in early 2017. He and I did one more big revision and then he sold the book to The Unnamed Press in late 2017, at which point I did another pretty substantial revision with Olivia. Working with Unnamed has been a massive high—the kind of personal attention and support that’s come with an independent press, their appetite for “challenging” material that doesn’t fit neatly into a particular mold, and they’ve generated a lot of publicity and brought the book out to a wider readership than I ever imagined. It took a while, but I feel extremely lucky to have landed with my agent and my publisher.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I’m not sure who said this originally (I should probably find out) my one of my CCA mentors, Tom Barbash, relayed a piece of advice: a great day of writing is one where you get your character from the kitchen to the living room. That’s it. For me, writing is very incremental, just consistent/persistent effort to get a few more pages and then do the same thing again the next day and the next and then go back and fix that and push a little further. That piece of advice helped me realize the discipline necessary to work as a writer. Joyce Carol Oates (my undergraduate thesis advisor) also once told me, “You might be just masochistic enough to be a real writer,” so I think that stuck with me and plays into how I perceive the writing process, for better or worse.

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

That it actually got finished and published. And that real other human beings are now reading it and enjoying it! It’s what I’d always dreamed about, but still!

How do you approach revision?

I approach revision as a natural part of the writing process, one and the same. I’m producing new paragraphs and pages, and I’m getting rid of old ones that don’t sound as good this week as they did two weeks ago. I think time plays an important role—what feels great the night it’s written may not work so well two weeks later, and for me it’s important to allow for that fermentation period to see if something ends up being right. But I also love the revision process—some writers dread it—so I don’t mind reworking things for months and years, because I’m constantly learning new things throughout this process—about the story and about myself and what I actually believe.

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

The main food from my novel that jumped to mind is a Batman sheetcake, and that probably won’t work for these purposes. So I’ll mention a traditional survival superfood that shows up in the book: pemmican. You can read about pemmican online, but it’s kind of the OG energy bar, and can be consumed for years or decades if stored properly. It’s based on dried meat, a bit like jerky, except it also contains fat and typically some kind of dried fruit or nuts, so it’s a more complete food source that survivalists claim to be able to live on for weeks. Recipes online vary, and I’m no expert, so Google around a bit. But here’s the basic idea and two recipes I stole, one with lean meat and one with already-dried meat, both from 




Recipe # 1
  • 4 cups lean meat (deer, beef, caribou or moose)
  • 3 cups dried fruit
  • 2 cups rendered fat
  • Unsalted nuts and about 1 shot of honey

Meat should be as lean as possible and double ground from your butcher if you do not have you own meat grinder. Spread it out very thin on a cookie sheet and dry at 180 degrees F for at least 8 hours or until sinewy and crispy. Pound the meat into a nearly powder consistency using a blender or other tool. Grind the dried fruit, but leave a little bit lumpy for fun texture. Heat rendered fat on stove at medium until liquid. Add liquid fat to dried meat and dried fruit, and mix in nuts and honey. Mix everything by hand. Let cool and store. Can keep and be consumed for several years.


Recipe # 2
  • 2 lbs dried beef (see recipe 1 for drying instructions)
  • 1.5 cup raisins
  • Beef suet

Grind meat to fine pulp in a blender. Now add in the raisins. Chop this mix enough to break up the raisins and mix in well. Melt the suet to a liquid and pour into the mixture, using just enough to hold the meat and raisins together. Now allow this to cool slightly. Put this into a pan and let it cool completely. Next, cut the pemmican into strips, then divide it into bars of about 4” long by 1” wide. Bag these separately and you can store them for several months.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

New Piece of Flash Up on Cleaver Magazine!

I drafted this in my prompt writing group, when the words we wrote to were, first, “winter” and then 15 minutes later, “distance.”

Here’s the opening:

Like you’re supposed to hate winter, with its cold and mountains of snow and how slip-walking on ice is a bitch and all that shit. Honestly, I love it. Honestly, I’d move to Alaska or the Arctic Circle or the South Pole if anyone would let me. In another life, I’d beg to be a penguin. Or a polar bear, except they’re going extinct. Jase is staring at me like he always does when I’m not talking, like I’m supposed to entertain him with “scintillating” chatter 24/7, and whenever I’m not doing that I’m only a girl who’s failing in some deep and significant way.

Only about 800 more words to go, so you might as well read the rest, here.

Monday, December 3, 2018

TBR: Suitcase Charlie by John Guzlowski

TBR [to be read] is a new feature on my blog, 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?

One day in 1956, a suitcase with a chopped-up, blood-drained little boy is found on a street corner in Chicago.  Then another is found on another street, and then a third and a fourth and on and on.  Two Chicago Police Department detectives – guys with their own personal traumas – are assigned to solve these crimes. 

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

The characters I enjoyed the most are the two cops: Hank Purcell and Marvin Bondarowicz.  I loved reading gritty, noir detective novels like Mickey Spillane when I was a kid and James Ellroy’s take on that genre when I was in my 30s and 40s, and I tried to pack as much of that into the novel as I could with a twist.  It’s no longer 1960 or 1980, so I tried to give a 21st century spin to 50s noir.  My main cop is Hank Purcell who is not only hard-boiled to the max, he’s also a loving father, a terrific husband, and a WWII vet walking around with all those PTSD memories.  There’s an emotionality and a gloom to him that mixes nicely, I think, with the noir world he inhabits.  I also like Marvin.  He’s ultimate noir.  Although Jewish, he doesn’t respect Jewish people or anybody else he runs across whether they’re black, white, Puerto Rican, straight or gay.  Mixed with this meanness of his is a tendency to be very, very funny.  The recent Kirkus review of the book highlighted this aspect. 

The most trouble?  The villain.  The guy who butchers these kids.  The book is loosely based on a series of actual murders that occurred in Chicago in 1956 and 1957.  I was around 9 when these took place, and they taught me that the world was a place to fear.  Writing about the villain brought back a lot of those memories of when I was a kid and I would be sitting on a stoop in my old neighborhood with my pals and we would start talking about Suitcase Charlie.

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

The low?  The book was accepted by a small publisher who at first did a great job of promoting the book.  Sales were good, reviews were good, amazon reviews were good.  Then I gave the publisher the second Hank and Marvin mystery, Little School Boys.  The publisher was having trouble at that point with sales and eliminated promotion.  I didn’t know this when I signed the contract.  There was no promotion of any kind.  I shouldn’t tell you this but the novel sold about a dozen copies.  There were no reviews. Nothing.

When I complained, the publisher said, if you don’t like it buy yourself out of the contract for the two novels.  I did. 

The happy ending to this is that I almost immediately found another publisher, Kasva Press.  The press is very hands on, very committed to making the republishing of Suitcase Charlie a great experience for me and my readers.  Kasva has also committed itself to the publicaiton for the next two Hank and Marvin mysteries:  Little Altar Boys and Murder Town.  And they’ve also agreed to publish my novel about two German lovers in WWII, Road of Bones.  I had this novel with another small publisher also.  The publisher kept putting the novel off from one year to another.  Originally it was supposed to appear in 2012.  And it never got published although I was under contract.  Ugh.

What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

I’ve got two pieces of advice:
  1. Always be writing.
  2. You don’t need any stinking writing advice.

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

For me the novel was a fantastic time machine.  Suitcase Charlie is mainly set in the neighborhood I grew up in in Chicago, the Humboldt Park area where I lived from 1954 to 1975.  Writing the novel allowed me to go back in time and visit people I knew and loved as a kid and places that meant so much to me, the park, the schools, the street corners where I played. 

How did you find the title of your book?

That was the easy part.  That’s what we called the serial killer who was killing kids in Chicago and dumping their bodies in the parks when I was a kid.  We pictured him walking with a suitcase down the street at night and just dropping it here or there.  A lot of times, we’d be sitting on a stoop at night talking or joking or singing, and one of the boys or girls would look down the street and see somebody carrying a bag or a suitcase, and say Suitcase Charlie, and we would know fear.

By the way, the guy who did a number of these murders was finally captured but it wasn’t until the early 1990s.

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

There is a discussion of czarnina, a traditional Polish duck’s blood soup in one of the early chapters.  A suspect has some in his refrigerator, and it makes him look really really suspicious to my two cops.  I would give you the recipe, but the soup is just too disgusting.  It requires about 4 cups of duck’s blood. 




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