Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Best Books (I Read) in 2022

Let’s keep it simple this year: these are, simply, the best books I read in 2022 out of all those I read. As is my tradition, I narrow the list to about 10 or so. I often add a separate list of excellent books I read by some of my writer friends, but I decided doing so stresses me out, as I have lots of awesome writer friends, and I know I could (should??) easily spend ALL my time reading their books…yet I don’t, which probably makes me, what, a bad art friend?? So, you’ll see some special categories at the end, but I’ll keep the praise for my friends’ books private this year.


In a secret order known only to me (well, in chronological order of when I read these books):


The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy: Short and brilliant. The intensity of my reading experience was aided by reading this in the deep winter, and shortly after suffering a horrific bout of Covid. My introduction to this edition talked about how Tolstoy wanted to pare things away at this point of his writing life, and this book burrows down to perhaps the core of what it means to be human, living a life while knowing we will one day die. Given the title, there’s no surprise here, yet the ending revelation took my breath away. Here’s where I note that I also wrote this in my casual book journal: “Oh, and all the deep stuff with perfect descriptions and funny moments and observations.”


No Diving Allowed by Louise Marberg: I was lucky enough to be asked to write a blurb for Louise’s current book of stories, You Have Reached Your Destination, and once I read those, I raced to read these. Great dialogue, sharp endings (like, razor-wire sharp!), humor, and complicated people in complicated settings. As a fan of linked stories, I admired the linkage here: swimming pools! See, kids, if you’re a good enough writer, you truly can get away with anything!


*The Sum of Trifles by Julia Ridley Smith: A memoir in essays about the “stuff” we accumulate in our lives, what it adds up to, what it means, how we wrestle with its history. The author’s parents were antique dealers who died within a fairly short time span, leaving the author to tackle a house full of THINGS and a family full of complications. *I recommended this book to others at least 1000 times and bought some copies to give away, so I’m calling this my most recommended book of 2022.


Marrying the Ketchups by Jennifer Close: Sometimes you want a charming, funny book set in your beloved Chicago! Smart and sparkly, the sort of book that cheers you up instantly (especially if you root for the Cubs). I read avidly and happily, pretty much without stopping or worrying about the plot or trying to examine writerly tricks. I saw the author speak at the Gaithersburg Book Fair, paired with one of my favorite “smart & sparkly” authors, Katherine Heiny, so I had to give Jennifer Close a chance, and how happy I am that I did.


The Annie Year by Stephanie Wilbur Ash: This is a bit of a cheat, since I spent a Converse low-res MFA residency with this author (which may make us “friends”??), but because, like me, she also grew up in Iowa, I’m stretching my “no friends on the list” rule because I admired and enjoyed this quirky book so much and because Iowans have to stick together. It’s set in small-town Iowa and has one of the sneakiest, snarkiest, saddest, voicey-est first person POV narrators I’ve ever encountered. Masterfully done! Beyond the Iowa setting, I loved all the musical theatre jokes—and the humor in general. Warning: by the end, I was homesick for a pork tenderloin the size of my head.


Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions & Criticisms by Michelle Tea: A collection of essays that will make your brain fire along new synapses! Verve, sass, and an exploration/celebration of queer culture I confess to not knowing enough about: music, feminist festival controversy, a well-known San Francisco lesbian gang, and more. I bought this book at the AWP writing conference bookfair, sort of as a random purchase to support a press I wanted to support, and the person who took my credit card said, “Oh, I just LOVE Michelle Tea.” Me too!


Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: Is it really fair when a list includes TWO works by Tolstoy? This was a reread, and I was curious to see if the book would maintain its space on my “Best Books” bookshelf. YES. Yes, there are some slower sections, yes, Tolstoy was a terrible husband/person IRL. But the scope of this book is so massive and so specific to this segment of Russian culture—while also being universal to today, and, likely the years to come. The reader experiences society, religion, economy, class struggles—and all the complicated emotions that make humans human. Some of the scenes I found especially memorable were the peasants scything, the bees at the end, and Anna’s horrific breakdown. A book that left me feeling the awe of witnessing true artistic achievement.


Jackie & Me by Louis Bayard: A novel set in 50s DC about Jack Kennedy’s courtship of Jackie…if “courtship” is the right word for dumping her on ice and expecting your dear, gay friend to entertain her until you’re ready to settle down. I loved the old-timey DC details (Garfinckel’s!) and the Nick Carraway, outsider POV. What is the cost of giving up one’s own authentic life?  What does a “great man” deserve from us? Plus, sorry, but I’ll probably always be a little bit of a sucker for the Kennedys.


Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis: I once read half of this novel and then set it aside. But now, having read all of it, I’m not sure why/how I stopped reading before. One of the classic “campus novels”—poor, ambitious junior professor Jim is just not getting any breaks, and—surprise—he’s surrounded by nitwits and saboteurs. This book is HILARIOUS, with perhaps the single funniest scene I’ve read in my entire life, coming at the end, on a glacially slooooow, super-suspenseful bus ride. This book is dated, so one does have to—ahem—overlook some pretty crummy stuff. I managed to do so, but I understand that some may choose otherwise.


Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro: Another reread, for a book club. Same reaction as when I read this way back when: WOW. At least half of the blurbs on the back of my edition call this a “perfect novel” and about half of the writers commenting on the FB post I wrote about the book also called it a “perfect novel” and by the time my book club meeting was over, a majority show of hands also agreed it’s a “perfect novel.” Make what you will of all that. 😊 The use of the unreliable, first person narrator is perfection; using the trope of the English butler is smart, offering important and nuanced commentary about money and class; and the depiction of a man coming to a certain point in his life and being forced to question everything is a heartbreaker.


Come Back in September: A Literary Education on West Sixty-Seventh Street, Manhattan by Darryl Pinckney: If you’re read my list before, you know that one of my favorite genres is the Venn diagram where NYC and writers meet, especially if there’s a well-defined historical time period and/or a literary clique and/or a young person discovering themselves. Here we’ve got the perfect bullseye, with this impressionistic memoir of a young (black) (gay) man getting a vast (and enviable!) literary education from writer/critic Elizabeth Hardwick (ex-wife of poet Robert Lowell), who starts in the 70s as his teacher and ends as a beloved friend in the 80s. This loose (but brainy) writing style maybe is not for everyone, but I fell into it and eventually it didn’t matter that I didn’t recognize the name of every famous writer/publication/downtown personality mentioned: I let the whole thing sweep over me and simply wished I were there.


Special categories:


Here are two collections of short stories that I loved. Because I’ve decided to excuse myself from having to read EVERY story in a collection, I feel funny adding them to my larger list because technically I didn’t finish these books entirely. (Why are there so many stupid rules here? Who runs this enterprise?)


We Were Angry by Jennifer S. Davis

Proof of Me by Erica Plouffe Lazure


Lest you think I don’t read poetry, here are a few collections I loved this year. (Yes, I can LOVE a book of poems despite not reading every single poem in it! Yes, I know this is an act of chaotic evil! Yes, these are poets I know IRL that deserve attention!)


89% by Sarah Cooper

Fixed Star by Suzanne Frischkorn

Reparations Now! by Ashley M. Jones


Finally, here are some books I wrote blurbs for, so look for these books in 2023:


Our Sister Who Will Not Die by Rebecca Bernard (stories) (already out!)

The Company of Strangers by Jen Michalski (stories)

Set Adrift: A Mystery and a Memoir by Sarah Conover (CNF)

Bookish People by Susan Coll (novel) (already out!)

Bone Country by Linda Nemec Foster (prose poems)


Cheers, and here’s to another happy year of reading in 2023!


Monday, December 5, 2022

TBR: The Glassmaker’s Wife by Lee Martin

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?


A pinch of white powder, a scorched paper, a community eager to assign guilt, an apothecary’s imagination, a young girl’s first steps into the tangles of revenge, a life waiting for her on the other side. Based on the true story of Betsey Reed, who was accused of poisoning her husband in 1844, The Glassmaker’s Wife is a story of the contradictions and imperfections of the human heart that lead people to choices and the consequences they’d do anything to be able to escape.



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


I enjoyed the character of Eveline Deal, the hired girl who told the coroner’s jury she saw Betsey Reed put a pinch of white powder into her husband’s coffee. I liked finding the complicated layers of Eveline’s character. She’s fifteen and caught up in Betsey’s glamor while at the same time overly sensitive to her criticism. This relationship stands at the heart of the book, and I was interested in what drew Betsey and Eveline together and what threatened to break them apart. Eveline’s testimony is driven in part by vanity even though she loves Betsey—dare I say she loves her to death. The challenge with writing these characters lay in the fact that I was writing about people who really lived, and I felt an obligation to strike a healthy balance between what was factually known about them and what I wanted to imagine in the interest of making a more compelling story.



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


This novel has gone through more drafts than probably any of my other books partly because of how slowly the writing comes when doing a historical novel—every detail must be authentic—and partly because it took me awhile to successfully imagine the inner lives of the main characters. The book was eight years in the making.



What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


From Isak Dinesen, who said, “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” I love this because it puts the emphasis on the process rather than on the result. It reminds us to pay attention to what we love, the moving of words about on the page. If we can do that, the journey will take us to where we’re meant to be. 



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


I guess what always surprises me: the resilience of love in the face of all that threatens it, which is to say, Eveline and Betsey each gets herself into a situation that comes with great consequences, but somehow love survives. Not without a cost, of course, but Eveline knows, in spite of the ugliness she wrought, there will always be “the fragile, beautiful charms of a life.”


How did you find the title of your book?


Betsey Reed was a mysterious woman—a healer, and herbalist, a great beauty who wore veiled bonnets, and, so some would said, a witch. One of the liberties I took with fact was to have her married to a glassmaker. That gave me my title.



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


Since we’re talking about a novel that features glassmaking, how about I offer the following recipe for making what’s commonly called sugar glass or candy glass, which is used to decorate sweet treats like Murdered Cupcakes.


Sugar Glass:


  • 2 cups granulated white sugar
  • 3/4 cups of water
  • 2/3 cups light corn syrup
  • flavoring oil, if desired


  1. In a medium saucepan add in the sugar, corn syrup, and water.
  2. Insert the candy thermometer and bring to a boil. Stir constantly until the thermometer reaches 300 degrees.
  3. Once at 300 degrees, remove from heat and transfer immediately to a baking pan (lined with parchment paper).
  4. Allow it to sit until hardened (about 2 hours on the counter or 30 min in the freezer). Make sure to cover it while it sits.
  5. Once hardened lift the pan up and drop straight down to crack the glass. Repeat until you have fragments at a desired size.

Murdered Cupcakes:


  • ¼ cup Butter or Margarine, room temperature
  • ¾ cup granulated Sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1-1/4 cups gluten-free Flour mix...I used Bob's Red Mill
  • 1-1/2 tsp Baking Powder
  • ¼ tsp Salt
  • 1 tspn white Vinegar
  • ½ cup Milk
  • 1 tsp strawberry flavoring
  • 5-10 drops red food coloring...for effect
  • Some candy glass and cream cheese icing.


  1. Make candy glass. Set aside.
  2. Preheat oven to 350⁰.
  3. Place paper baking cups in 12 muffin tins.
  4. Cream the Butter or Margarine and gradually add Sugar.
  5. Add egg and beat well. Set aside.
  6. Combine dry ingredients and stir.
  7. Add ⅓ of dry ingredient mixture to butter and sugar mixture, mix.
  8. Combine Milk, Vinegar, Food Coloring and Flavoring, and add ⅓ of milk and flavoring mixture to other mixture, mix well.
  9. Alternately add ⅓ of dry ingredients and ⅓ of milk and flavoring, mixing well between additions.
  10. Fill cupcake cups about ½ to ⅔ full.
  11. Bake for approximately 12 - 14 minutes.
  12. Once cupcakes are baked set them aside to cool. While they cool make the frosting.
  13. Frost cupcakes leaving about 1/2 cup of frosting off to the side.
  14. In a microwave safe bowl place the 1/2 cup of unused frosting into the microwave for 30 seconds. Remove from microwave and add in 3-5 drops of red food dye. Stir smooth.
  15. Using a butter knife drip the red frosting on top of the frosted cupcakes to create blood splatter.
  16. Stick in the fridge for 10-15 minutes to allow that to set.
  17. Remove from the fridge and insert candy glass into the top of each cupcake. About three slices fits nice without overwhelming the cupcake.
  18. Grab edible blood and drip over the decorated cupcakes.
  19. Serve!


 READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: https://leemartinauthor.com/


READ MORE ABOUT THIS PUBLISHER: https://www.dzancbooks.org/


ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: https://www.dzancbooks.org/our-books/glassmakers-wife




Monday, November 14, 2022

TBR: Ships in the Desert by Jeff Fearnside

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?


Ships in the Desert is a series of linked essays based on my four years of living along the Great Silk Road in Central Asia. Centered around a personal trip I took to the dying Aral Sea as well as my time as an educator in Kazakhstan, the book explores issues of environmental degradation and religious intolerance, presents some of the fabulous history of the region and its people, and reflects on personal and social change once I return to the States.


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


My favorite to write was the title essay, “Ships in the Desert.” It started as a travel narrative of the trip I took to see the dying Aral Sea in person, but as it progressed, I began seeing connections to water issues around the globe, particularly in the U.S. The more research I did, the more I was pulled into the story of corruption, greed, and environmental mismanagement behind the Aral’s demise. It’s utterly tragic and also fascinating in the way tragedies can be, for they not only show us the darker side of ourselves, they allow opportunities for us to respond with the better parts of ourselves. I didn’t enjoy writing the essay so much as I felt compelled to write it because while, yes, it can paint a bleak picture of the climate predicament we’re in right now, it also makes it clear there are options we can choose to help make things better.


This was also the essay that gave me the most trouble! It’s a very long essay—more than 15,000 words long—and intricate, with a lot of moving parts. Piecing it all together was fun, and yet it was also a huge challenge. Not surprisingly, it took the longest for me to write of all the essays in the book. I was updating it right up until before it went to press because I wanted it to include the very latest information I could find.


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


I can’t say this was a low really, but it was a challenge I think a lot of writers face: I had a book I felt was topical and really believed in, but it took time to find a publisher—it was four years exactly to the day from when I first sent it out to when I sent it to the publisher who accepted it, the Santa Fe Writers Project. In between, it received a lot of positive comments from editors at some really good presses, which kept me going and kept me aiming high. But everything comes in its own time, and as it turns out, it was a blessing it was picked up when it was. Had it been accepted earlier, it might have been released during the first two years of the pandemic when pretty much everything was shut down. Coming out in 2022 proved perfect, because I’ve been able to do a lot more events of the kind that just weren’t being done a year or two ago.


As to a high, that’s easy: I’m thrilled my book was picked up by the SFWP, whom I love working with! I’ve learned so much about the publishing biz from them, it’s been like taking a master class. Not only that, there’s such a sense of energy and positivity that emanates from them. They think big, too, and I like that. And they’ve got your back. You know that if they publish your book, it’s because they believe in it as much as you do.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


This isn’t something I’ve read or heard a single person say but rather is a combination of several different pieces of advice I see as acting together: Don’t overthink when you write. Try as much as possible to write from a deep inner place of spontaneous imagination. Don’t edit yourself, not at this stage. Just keep digging and try to get at the hot, honest emotional core of whatever you’re writing about. You can iron out the rough edges and make changes later. That’s what the editing stage is for. But a writer’s initial job is to dive below the surface of things, and that means quieting the mental chatter and writing from the center—from the heart, yes, but also from the gut.


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


As much as I knew about the Aral Sea disaster before beginning the book, it was still a surprise for me to learn just how extensive the disaster was, and to learn exactly the reasons for it. I could have just tried to encapsulate all that into a manageable bit of background and kept on with the travel narrative I had begun. But instead, I took that surprise and expanded on it. There was a ton of scientific research on the Aral, and many short articles on the subject, but surprisingly little of length written in a more accessible format. I decided to take time to gather many disparate pieces of information together and stitch them into a cohesive whole that would not only tell a story but also relate the science behind it and ultimately show why it matters.


How do you approach revision?


While, for me, producing a lively, spontaneous first draft is the heart of the writing process, revision is the blood that feeds the heart. If all goes well, you’ll have a wildly beating organ clamoring for life, and revision is how you keep that life going while also shaping it into something viable. It’s not a process to be rushed. I spend significantly more time revising than anything else in the writing process. I’m very methodical about it, in stark contrast to how I draft. Perhaps this strikes a yin and yang kind of balance and that’s why it works, at least for me. After typing a first draft on the computer, I print it for revision—I have to see it on the physical page. I’ll go through it page by page, marking it up as I go. When I’m in this stage, I usually think about it all the time, and so I’ll keep revisiting the manuscript, adding new edits that occur to me throughout the day—long walks and hot showers seem to be especially conducive to producing good ideas. When the entire manuscript is marked up to the point where it’s beginning to get a little messy, I type my changes into the computer, making sure to number that version as the latest draft. Then I print it and go through the process again. And again. As many times as is necessary to get it right.


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


Food culture is an inextricable part of life in Central Asia! So even though my book is about very different topics, food inevitably makes a few appearances. While I don’t specifically mention this, one of my favorite dishes is selyodka pod shuboy, which translates as “herring under a fur coat.” My wife learned how to make it from her grandmother in Kazakhstan, though it’s popular all throughout the countries of the former Soviet Union. I’ll provide a link to a recipe in a minute, but first I want to make a comment on the fish portion of this dish: In Kazakhstan, the pickled herring used is salty. I never heard of anyone pickling fish with sugar, as is common here in the States. So if you want an authentic taste, try to find the salty kind if you can. It might be hard if you don’t live in a big city with a good European or Asian market. Don’t use the herring in jars that you see in grocery stores, especially the herring in cream sauce—those are loaded with sugar! In a pinch, we’ve used herring filets in oil in a tin. I often smoke my own fish, too, usually salmon, which makes a wonderful substitute.


With that said, the recipe I want to pass along comes from a favorite restaurant near us, Kachka in Portland, Oregon. They use a ring mold to shape it, but my wife and I like this dish so much, we triple the portions and make it in a large glass baking dish! Anything to help build up the layers and keep everything together will work.


Here’s the link: https://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/herring-under-fur-coat




READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: https://www.jeff-fearnside.com/



ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: https://www.amazon.com/Ships-Desert-SFWP-Literary-Awards/dp/1951631153/


READ AN ESSAY, “After Us, Even Flood”:  https://www.terrain.org/2022/nonfiction/after-us-even-flood/





Monday, November 7, 2022

TBR: Seed Celestial by Sara R. Burnett

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?


Seed Celestial covers topics from climate change, women's issues, immigration, and gun violence, and it does it, I hope, with humility and compassion. Through the mother-daughter relationship, this book celebrates the wonders and the journey of bringing children into this world even as it grapples with its increasing disorder and disconnect. I think it encompasses a lot of what many of us are feeling right now – anxiety, uncertainty, and awe in our moment.



Which poem/s did you most enjoy writing? Why?


I think I most enjoyed writing Cherchez la Femme and the Demeter poems. I remember clearly writing Cherchez la Femme because I was so full of anger and outrage at the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearing.  I remember texting with a friend who told me the history of the phrase “cherchez la femme” and its meaning (find the woman). I had recently finished reading Terrence Hayes’s American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin. There’s a poem in that collection that begins with the line “But there never was a black male hysteria” and it’s just genius, that poem, the way it sheds light on systematic racism. It wasn’t a huge leap from there to think about that line in terms of systematic sexism. Because I had limited hour to two of childcare, I wrote the poem Cherchez la Femme quickly at a crowded, communal table at the library, and it was one of those rare moments for me where a number of things could have been happening around me, but I would have been oblivious to it. It felt so good to channel my anger into something. I also enjoyed writing the Demeter poems and those came easily for me as well. I’ve loved the myth of Demeter and Persephone since I read it in fourth grade. It felt very natural for me to apply that myth, which was how the seasons were explained in ancient times, to climate change. What if climate change was the ultimate revolt of Mother Nature against her children? And since it’s a mother speaking, it would have to be complicated. It would be a series.



And which poem/s gave you the most trouble, and why?


The poem that gave me the most trouble was Ethnic Arithmetic. It’s a contrapuntal poem (meant to be read three ways) and it was Afaa Michael Weaver at Bread Loaf who suggested that I put the original poem into that form. I wrote several attempts before I got it to where I wanted it.



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


This is my second earnest try at a manuscript. I had one a few years back that I sent out. I even got an acceptance for it, but it wasn't a good deal for me as the writer, and now I'm really glad I didn't publish then because only a few of those poems are still in the current manuscript.

Of this manuscript, Seed Celestial, I sent it out 68 times and was rejected over 40 times. (There are still some presses/prizes I haven't heard back from). At one point shortly before it got picked up for publication, I had a professional editor, Wyn Cooper, look at it mostly for that boost in self confidence that I needed to send it out. He gave me the "ok, good to go", a much-valued pep talk, and encouraged me to keep sending it out knowing the sobering mathematical odds of publishing a poetry book. But he had confidence and that helped me to keep at it.



What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


When you get stuck, read.  



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


Maybe the question is who surprised me. I think Lucretius surprised me. Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura provides the structure for the manuscript. I had read it in graduate school in my MFA program at the University of Maryland and loved it, but I don’t want to give the false impression that I have time with 2 kids under 5 to often dwell on ancient texts. It must’ve always been in my head and while I was struggling to order the manuscript, something nudged me to get the book off the shelf and re-read it. I did, and when I came back to the manuscript, there were key words from my highlights of Lucretius like seed, earth, animal, mother, and celestial that began to impose a shape on the poems. I wrote them on post-it notes and collected the sections. I debated many times about whether or not to include the quotes from Lucretius to open each of the 5 sections and I’m so glad I kept them in. All of this was practically and logistically very hard to do while 8 months pregnant with my second child and carrying for my then 2-year-old. The self-imposed deadline for putting the manuscript together was my son’s due date.



What’s something about your book that you want readers to know?


I wanted this book to be artistic, formally dexterous, and accessible. It’s important to me that people who don’t normally read poetry might be introduced to this book. I hope it resonates with readers of all types. The world can use more poetry.  I think it can speak across political divides to what unites us and we need more of that now.



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


I think any delicious Cuban food would be appropriate when reading this book.




READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: https://www.sararburnett.com/


ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK:  https://www.autumnhouse.org/books/seed-celestial/


READ A POEM FROM THIS BOOK, “Cherchez la Femme”:



Monday, October 31, 2022

TBR: Curing Season: Artifacts by Kristine Langley Mahler

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?


A coming-of-age book for everyone who came of age anywhere but home, Kristine Langley Mahler’s debut essay collection, Curing Season, pries apart the cracks of inclusion to experiment with the nature of belonging, memory, and place. After four years of adolescence in Pitt County, North Carolina, Mahler is still buffeted by the cultural differences between her pioneer-like upbringing in Oregon and the settled Southern traditions into which she could not assimilate. That yearning remains buried like a splinter as Mahler carefully tweezes out the artifacts of her adolescence, placing them beside the history of eastern North Carolina to study the narratives that have defined them both, trying to make room for outsiders in a place so old, million-year-old Megalodon shark teeth erupt from the creek beds every spring.



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


I really appreciate the opportunity to reflect upon which essay I most enjoyed writing—as a memoirist, I think it’s a given that memoirists all know we’re spelunking through the uncomfortable and often hard-to-face memories when we write, and I think that it can be easy to lose sight of the joy produced during that writing—not just the joy of re-surviving the moments, but the joy of playing with the text. Playing with the memories. Being delighted by the little details we almost forgot. At least it was that way for me as I wrote “Club Pines,” an essay framed into the houses of the girls from my old neighborhood. There were so many of them! I had to pull up a Google Maps image of my neighborhood and proceed down each street, reminding myself who had lived where, and I was startled to realize how many houses I actually had been inside. Once I’d identified them all, I metaphorically sat inside the girls’ old houses and free-wrote about what came to mind—what I still remembered after all these years (and it’s been about 25 years!). The details that trickled out were the emblems of how I had chosen to remember each girl. I actually laughed out loud when remembering certain details, wryly rolled my eyes at others, and yes—because it was inevitable—averted my eyes at the uncomfortable ones. But those emblems—those emblematic moments I could immediately recall upon simply seeing the fronts of their Google-Imaged houses—all taught me how I had viewed belonging and friendship, and recording the specificities of those girls and their houses and their friendships filled me with so much joy. It was always the details I collected like an adolescent magpie which had meant so much when I was a girl; it was always those details that satisfied my internal questions about whether I knew enough to belong.


Which essay gave me the most trouble? Let’s just say “A Pit Is Removed, A Hollow Remains” because as I was writing it, I kept thinking, “Am I allowed to do this? Can I really collage and modify this book of family histories? Are the citizens of Pitt County going to come for me?” Well, one way or another, I did it anyway!


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


I thought Curing Season was a different book! I had written an essay collection, originally titled Pull Me Through the Doorway, which was all about home and belonging. But I spent the summer of 2020 taking the old book apart and bringing together a large subcurrent: the essays about my adolescence in Pitt County, North Carolina. That fall, I tried pitching agents to no avail—kind of funny now, since this book is so clearly not an agent-style book. Once those pitches all failed, I steeled my courage and sent a query for Curing Season to the In Place imprint at West Virginia University Press—an imprint I had long-since held on my shelf as a dream press because their focus on books about place was EXACTLY my jam. In December 2020, WVU let me know they wanted to send my book out to be peer reviewed and would make a decision on whether they wanted to offer based on the feedback. I held my breath and in late February 2021, WVU Press shared the extraordinarily kind (and insightful!) peer reviews and made me an offer! Honestly, the way the reviewers saw Curing Season—the way they wrote about it, the way they understood it—made the decision extremely easy. If WVU Press could read and want my book after knowing how it was seen and understood by others, I knew they would know how to support it. I’m still on cloud 9!


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


Save it. Save all of it. Save the scraps you edit out because they don’t belong in a piece and use them as jumping-off points later, even if it’s just to keep yourself writing—I often reuse them as prompts to go deeper.


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


I was surprised by how many formal structures I ended up using in the essays within Curing Season. Subtitles and constrained forms, boxes and boxes scaffolding essays. I was surprised to discover that so many of these essays about Pitt County and my adolescence seemed to have REQUIRED me to use alternate forms to approach the subject matter. I wrote most of the essays in this book over a period of roughly five years (if I discount “Not Something That’s Gone,” which I worked on for twenty years) and didn’t know they were building toward something; to see the essays together, written into all these various constraints, revealed something to me that I hadn’t seen before: how much I both wanted to create structure out of that time and how much I felt constrained by the cultural structures I didn’t build!


How did you find the title of your book?


The title of Curing Season comes from a particular process for curing tobacco—eastern North Carolina is famous for growing tobacco, but also for its flue-curing process, which happens after the tobacco has been cut. The tobacco is hung in sheaves to dry, which are then tied to poles which are laid across the eaves of curing barns. A low fire is stoked and its heat is fed into the barn. It only takes about a week, nowadays, to complete the curing process of turning picked-tobacco into cigarette-ready tobacco. Those curing barns—or “curing shacks,” as I call them in the book, are some of my most vivid memories from driving around rural Pitt County with my family on Sundays after church. In my mind’s eye, almost none of the curing barns were still whole or being used. They were eaten alive by vines, by trees, by time, boards falling off and roofs caving in. The curing process and the curing shacks became emblems for me of what it took to belong to Pitt County—the shacks might be broken, they might be in disrepair, but the curing season itself spoke to the knowledge that something grown could be turned into something desirable. If it could stand the heat. If it could be cured. The metaphor wrote itself.


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


Lord, y’all can look for food in this book but I’ve got nothing other than Moon Pies and sweet tea to offer you. 4 bags of Luzianne steeping in 32oz of hot water for 3.5 minutes; stir in 1/3 C of sugar and ¼ C of lemon juice. But I prefer the old Nestea powder.











READ AN ESSAY, “Out Line”:



Monday, October 24, 2022

TBR: Souvenirs from Paradise by Erin Langner

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 mother died unexpectedly of breast cancer when I was nine years old. But it was only after traveling to the Las Vegas Strip obsessively when I was in my late 20s that I began to understand my grief surrounding that loss and what it’s meant to turn away from it for so long. This is the experience that I unpack in Souvenirs from Paradise, a collection of essays that use the tropes of the Strip—the themed mega-casinos, the impersonator shows, the Mafia history—to unearth the buried emotions that were driving my attraction to this strange place all along.



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


An essay called “The Tourist Guide” was the most fun and also one that I struggled with writing. It plays with the language and style of travel guides, particularly the New York Times “36 Hours” column. People often ask me for travel advice when going to Vegas, so some of the inspiration came from that—but also from asking myself, what would a travel guide look like if I were to write it for this particular book?


Travel guides often write from a removed voice in the second person and purport to reveal some kind of insider knowledge, even though they often recommend well-treaded activities and places. My challenge was to find a way to use that language and voice to understand my own “sightseeing” path while avoiding cliched writing on Las Vegas, which I did by considering the details of particular casinos that held meaning for me. I also pushed myself to interrogate how my grief made its way into my experiences with those details. Ultimately, I asked myself, what can “sightseeing” itself can really mean—how can it help us understand not just a place, but ourselves.


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

I knew from the beginning that the path to publication would be long because I was working on a collection of essays—I had many people warn me that essay collections are difficult to sell. But this is the writing form I most connect with, and so I committed to it with that reality in mind. A long process is fortunate in that it led me to connect with many people in the writing community over the years—our local writing center in Seattle Hugo House, various summer writing workshops that I participated in around the country, a writing group that formed out of one of those workshops in 2015 and continues today. I began reaching out to some agents in 2018 and did some substantial revisions after a few read the full manuscript but declined representation.


I tried reaching out to agents again in 2019, but once the pandemic hit in 2020 and everything felt so chaotic, I struggled to communicate the urgency of a book in query letters. So, I started turning more towards small presses that didn’t require agents. I submitted to some contests, and was once the runner-up, which was a disappointment since only the winner received publication. But it did encourage me to keep submitting, and I was eventually fortunate to have the manuscript selected for Zone 3 Press’s 2021 Creative Nonfiction Book Award by judge Wendy S. Walters.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


I once heard Zadie Smith speak about the way she avoids social media and instead uses those precious minutes when people often scroll through their phones to instead write. While I don’t succeed as often as I’d like, it’s something I strive towards when I find a few idle moments.


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


When I began writing this book, I thought it was about an obsession with Las Vegas. I didn’t think it was about grief, and vehemently denied that it was for about a year, until I realized that the threads about that aspect of myself were the ones my readers were connecting with most.


How did you find the title of your book?


The title was originally an essay title that changed during the revision process (now called “The Rat Pack Casino”).  The cohesion of the collection was important to me, so when I was organizing the book, I went back to an idea I had very early on, when I thought about anchoring each essay in an aspect of the Strip that people often associate with Las Vegas. Once time had allowed me to distance myself from the material, I recognized I had just turned those Vegas tropes on their heads in ways that had been unrecognizable while I was mining my experiences with grief. They had there been with me all along, and so I retitled all of the essays in order to surface the tropes more clearly for the reader—“The Mirage”, “The Bachelorette Party”, and so on. “Souvenirs from Paradise” was a title I hated to give up. But, I considered how the tropes became my own “souvenirs” of both my time in Vegas and the writing process. It felt like this idea could be applied to the whole collection.


“Paradise” also felt right for its meanings, as an abstract concept that can transform into different places at different points in our lives. But it also very concretely references the Strip’s location, which is technically in Paradise, Nevada.


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


The buffet is one of the most quintessential experiences on the Strip, in my opinion.  My favorite is the Bacchanal Buffet at Caesars Palace.




READ MORE ABOUT THIS AUTHOR: www.erinlangner.com


ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK: https://epay.apsu.edu/C20023_ustores/web/product_detail.jsp?PRODUCTID=940


READ AN EXCERPT, “Souvenirs from Paradise”: https://www.zone3press.com/books/view/souvenirs-from-paradise

Monday, October 17, 2022

TBR: Singer Distance by Ethan Chatagnier

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?


In 1960, Rick Hayworth sets out on a quest with his genius girlfriend Crystal Singer to display a giant mathematical equation in Arizona. It’s been thirty years since someone solved one of the proofs a Martian civilization carved into its surface, but Crystal believes she’s resolved its paradoxical contentions about distance. The book is part quest, part epic love story, and a meditation on the distances between planets and the distances between people.


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


Lucas Holladay is a minor character in the book, but was an absolute joy to write. I think of him as a low-rent Carl Sagan—Sagan’s talents as a communicator without his scientific bona fides. There was a real sense of play to writing his sections, and it was a joy working to inhabit that Sagan-esque sense of wonder. Rhea, a character from late in the book, was the most difficult to write. I’ll have to be a bit vague to avoid spoilers, but she could be neither too cynical or too optimistic, too open or too closed down, without throwing out the direction of the plot, so it was a challenge giving the right amount of personality to a character that needed to inhabit a middle ground.


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


Being on submission (when an agent shops the manuscript out to editors) was very psychologically difficult, as it is for many writers. You only need one more yes to know your book will be published, but you don’t know when that yes will happen. You don’t know if it will happen. The dream could die right there on the doorstep. SINGER DISTANCE was on sub for about four months, which is probably average in the scheme of things but felt endless and was full of wild swings from hope to despair.


One of the biggest highs has been the response from my blurbers. The whole blurbing process is known for being fraught, but my editor hustled very hard to get the book in the hands of the perfect early readers, and they connected with the book more strongly than I ever hoped. They got exactly what I was going for. It feels miraculous for any reader to receive your book exactly as you intended, and when they’re also writers you deeply admire—well, it's mind-blowing.


What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?


I love Blair Hurley’s advice about “touching the bear” from a Lit Hub essay, which is essentially about finding the wild, unexpected turns that drive a story into more intense terrain. She wrote about story draft she’d ended with a character sadly watching a bear meander by, and how much electricity and pressure was invoked when she asked the dangerous question, “what if he tried to touch the bear?”


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


For logistical reasons, I had my characters’ road trip ending near Flagstaff, Arizona. It was only when I got to those scenes that I discovered in my research that Flagstaff is the home of Lowell Observatory, which was founded by Percival Lowell. Lowell was one of the biggest advocates behind early the 20th Century theories of an inhabited Mars that inspired the novel, so that set off all kinds of unexpected resonances and intersections. That’s more of a research surprise than a writing surprise, but it’s a good lesson in the ways research can both expand and deepen the world you’re writing.


Who is your ideal reader?


I’ve thought about this a lot, as the book is a speculative-literary hybrid. You hope that your book appeals to both literary and science fiction audiences, and at the same time worry it’s too literary for science fiction readers and too speculative for literary readers. But I think there are many people who are looking for work that deals in the intersection and feels a humanistic wonder about the sciences. That’s who I most want this book to find. Watchers of Cosmos. Lovers of Carl Sagan. People fascinated by astronomy and particle physics. But also anyone who loves a good story.


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


Most of the book is made up of two cross country road trips along Route 66, so there’s not a lot of cooking in the book. I think the best way to celebrate the food of the book would be to take off on a long, lonely highway and treat yourself to a burger or a big diner breakfast. Bonus points if it’s on the Mother Road.




READ MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK: https://tinhouse.com/book/singer-distance-ebk/?tab=id_hardcover


ORDER THIS BOOK FOR YOUR OWN TBR STACK:  https://bookshop.org/books/singer-distance/9781953534439




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