Thursday, September 30, 2010

New Books In The Bookstore

Our tiny bookstore housed its usual collection of Great American fiction, poetry and non-fiction this summer. One of the new books I bought and am excited to read is Michael Jaime-Becerra's This Time Tomorrow. Booklist's Deborah Donovan writes "Packed with details of his characters’ barely scraping-by existence, Jaime-Becerra’s heartfelt debut brings an entire community vividly to life." The book sold out after Michael's powerful reading this summer. As a debut novelist, selling hard copies is tremendously important and, in this economy, tremendously difficult. I was so pleased that Michael's writing inspired so many, but equally impressive was the willingness of the Community to support such an important new work of fiction from a talented new novelist.

Michael Jaime-Becerra grew up in El Monte, CA, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles. He received his MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and currently teaches creative writing at University of California, Riverside. His short story collection, Every Night Is Ladies' Night, was named to lists of the years' best books by The Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle. It was awarded a California Book Award, the Silver Medal for a First Work of Fiction. Michael lives in El Monte, CA.

I will be adding more about our new authors and books very soon!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

A Poem

The Layers
by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked so many lives
Some of them my own
And I am not who I was
Though some principle of being abides
From which I struggle not to stray
When I look behind as I am compelled to look
Before I gather strengths to proceed on my journey
I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon

And the slow fires trailing from the abandoned campsites
Over which scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings

Oh I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections
And my tribe is scattered
How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind the manic dust of my friends
those who fell along the way, bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn, exalting somewhat with my wings intact
to go wherever I need to go
and every stone on the road precious to me

In my darkest night when the moon was covered and I roamed through wreckage
A nimbus clouded voice directed me, “Live in the layers. Not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art to decipher it, no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written.

I am not done

with my changes.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Tribal Gatherings

Glen David Gold, the author of Sunnyside and Carter Beats the Devil, opened with a speech that reminded us all of why we are here. His story about the U.S. troops stationed in Russia during Napoleon's invasion in 1812 relayed the underlying sense of urgency felt by fiction writers in these times. Glen elaborated on the rarely discussed U.S. history that involved fifty eight thousand American troops facing an army of more than a million. They endured one very cold winter before the retreat.

“Don’t worry if you don’t remember this,” he joked, “the Russians still do.” 

Supposedly the men took to singing a jovial, albeit eerie marching tune, “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here…”

Did I mention Glen David Gold has a good singing voice? He does. He also has great insight into what it feels like to be a writer at this particular intersection of time and place. Through the cathedral windows, wind shook the aspen leaves and odd shaped clouds pointed down from the sky looking mysteriously like eggs lined up in a grayish carton. Weather accents the words here. Yesterday we saw a giant rainbow.

Glen told another story about how his fear of flying developed in early 2002, which is the year that I think many of us developed a similar phobia. One memorable flight that year happened to be on a plane with a very large group of cheerleaders—that was the good news. Just after landing, however, all of the girls on the right side of the plane began squealing and pointing causing the other half of the girls to rush out of their seats and run over to the windows. A plane lay stranded on the runway, tipped to one side, fire flaring out of the windows. An ominous scene for sure, but it was during this pandemonium that Glen noticed that one of the members of the cheerleading squad was not at the windows pointing and shrieking.

The chaperone of the squad was sitting in her seat reading a novel. The novel that had her so engrossed despite the surrounding chaos happened to be his wife’s novel, The Lovely Bones.

If "Why do we write?” was ever a question, then the answer was revealed in this moment on the plane. Even when everything appears to be falling apart around us, refuge can be found. Catharsis even.

Isn’t that reason enough?

Afterward, the room was dark except for a row of colored paper lanterns. I passed through the office on my way to the car. "We're here because we're here because..." streamed through my mind. The picture of Oakley Hall hanging above Brett’s desk caught my eye. A dialogue bubble is Scotch taped to the glass that says, “Try not to fuck up!” These are mantras to live by.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Luis Alberto Urrea

It's always a great pleasure to see my two favorite book worlds collide on the pages of Bookshop Santa Cruz Readers' Summer Guide. We are excited that Luis Alberto Urrea will be joining us for this summer's fiction conference. A 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist and National Book Award winner, Urrea is the best-selling author of 13 books of fiction and non-fiction and his latest novel, Into the Beautiful North, also comes Highly Recommended as a "good-humored road novel" by the book aficionados at Book Shop Santa Cruz.

Into the Beautiful North, released this month in paperback, tells the story of three young Mexican women living in a small town where all the men have immigrated to the United States. Inspired by a film (The Magnificent Seven), they hire a gay escort to help them cross the border.  Their plan is not to leave their homeland forever, but rather to get the men to return to Mexico. Library Journal describes the novel as "surprising, inventive, and very funny...while the politically charged undercurrent of the novel pulses with a compassionate vision of future."

I loved the historical, mythical drama of The Hummingbird's Daughter, published in 2005, with the unforgettable Teresita, who was described in The New Yorker review as "a mestiza Joan of Arc." Urrea is one of those crossover authors who can satisfy the erudite critics of The New Yorker while at the same time appeal to readers like my beloved sister, who is primarily a fan of the romance genre, and my dear friend, who has succumbed to years of self help and parenting books. Both my sister and friend loved The Hummingbird's Daughter, as did the editors of the The New Yorker.

In The Devil's Highway, Urrea recounts the non-fiction story of a group of Mexican Immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, an account which is exceptionally poignant given today's political climate.

For more information about Luis Alberto Urrea and his books visit the author's website.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Anne Lamott

I'll call this student Doug, a 20-year-old community college student with a criminal record, who can rattle off analysis of books and art and current events more masterfully than several faculty members I've encountered recently, but I can see, by his spotty attendance and the look in his eyes, that Doug is hooked on drugs. Oh, he'd never admit this to me, himself or anyone else—at least not yet—but I know and, ultimately, he knows, the truth.

And yet our relationship—as instructor and student—is based on the denial of this truth, which I find puzzling and disconcerting. One thing I know for sure: Doug will fail my class and, this late in the semester, after so many missed assignments, I'll be surprised if I even see him again.

I know this about Doug because I was a college student in the late 80s, an extraordinarily drug infested time to come-of-age—if you need to be reminded of this fact go check out the ridiculously obscene, hilariously funny movie Hot Tub Time Machine. In the 80s drugs were as prevalent as kegs at a frat party and, as the night wore on and the taps ran dry, much more easily procured.

I know my boundaries in the role of college instructor, but what would I do if Doug was my son? What would I do if I was a recovering addict and my child was hiding an addiction from me?

Leave it to Anne Lamott to explore this difficult terrain in her new novel, Imperfect Birds .

"To crudely paraphrase Tolstoy," writes Julie Meyerson in her NYTs review of the novel, "all addicts’ families are alike, and when it comes to teenage drug abusers they’re unnervingly alike, right down to the last battering detail."

Imperfect Birds is now at the top of my summer reading list. I am sure that part of the reason I want to read this book is to help me process the sadness of witnessing such a capable kid drift away from his own potential. The confidence I have in Anne Lamott's restorative powers also characterizes her ability as a writer. She is one of those writers we turn to time and time again knowing that, no matter how tough the problem, she will help us through.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Paperbacks to the People

The Smithsonian published an interesting article tracing the lineage of paperback novels way back to the moment when soon-to-be Penguin Founder Allen Lane was searching for a good read in a train station after spending the "weekend in the country with Agatha Christy" during the Great Depression. Lane's failed search combined with his worry about the hard hit publishing industry, and the still sizzling memories of his weekend with Agatha (okay, so the sizzle part wasn't in the Smithsonian article) inspired Lane to come up with the idea of a 'dimestore' novel. Wallah! The paperback book was born.

The article explains how Lane's employer, a British publishing house, opted not to back his idea, so Lane started up Penguin with his life savings—creating portable, high quality fiction at a cost that enabled mass market consumption. Lane's concept of printing and distributing great fiction for the "price of a pack of cigarettes" took off. Authors like Hemingway and Christy enjoyed widespread audiences and more and more people found reprieve from trying times by reading great fiction. As the constraints of the Great Depression faded, the portable paperback industry continued to flourish even as war wreaked havoc on the international scene. The article cites a touching 1945 Saturday Evening Post report of an injured World War II soldier reading Willa Cather in his foxhole.

The publishing world and the public have reaped the benefits of Lane's inspiration ever since and, the article points out, our century's sequel to the Great Depression has also inspired a profound publishing incarnation—the paperless book:

"Allen Lane stated that he “believed in the existence…of a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price, and staked everything on it.” Seventy-five years later, we find ourselves in a situation not unlike Lane’s in 1935. Publishers are facing plummeting sales, and many are attempting to launch new models, chasing the dream to be the next Penguin. New e-readers have been unveiled recently, including the iPad, Kindle and Nook. Digital editions are cheaper than paperbacks—you can buy the latest literary fiction for $9.99—but they come with a hefty start-up price. The basic iPad costs $499, and the two versions of the Kindle are priced at $259 and $489. Not exactly the price of a pack of cigarettes—or, to use a healthier analogy, a pack of gum."

The Smithsonian article makes a very good point: the cost of electronic gadgets required to read electronic books doesn't fit the mass distribution model of Lane's inexpensive paperback and really fails to offer any substantial change to publishing in our own dismal economic times. Although I had hoped that Apple's iBooks application would open up the book world to the masses, in much the same way the paperback did, despite heading up a company whose March 2010 stock market value surpassed $200 billion, Steve Jobs has opted to keep his iBooks application to himself, and those who can afford the IPad's hefty price tag. Maybe Jobs needs a sizzling weekend with Agatha for more inspiration.

Read the Smithsonian Article for more...

Friday, March 19, 2010

For David Foster Wallace Fans...

Genus comes to mind whenever I think of David Foster Wallace. For a glimpse inside the workings of his brilliant mind, check out the new Harry Ransom Center's online archive collection at the University of Texas at Austin website where you can look inside digitized versions of books and manuscripts from DFW's private collection. The scrupulous annotations made throughout some of his favorite books reveal the deep connection DFW had to making meaning of texts, but also how one of the greatest writers of our time viewed American fiction as a genre worthy of deep reflection on form, style and substance.

The majority of the DFW materials is being processed and organized and will be available to the public in fall 2010, according to the Henry Ransom Collection website, but there are a few preliminary documents ready for previewing right now, such as DFW's personal commentary on the reviews page of Don Delillo's Players. DFW's handwritten comments range from "Eat shit off a wooden stick" to "recondite somantics" and "Office drudgery: a room full of mold eyes" and cue us into his keen awareness of reviewers and their tendencies, but most dominate on the page is his unmistakable sense of humor—a tone that DFW would be the first to point out as ironic given the darkness of depression that plagued his life and led to his tragic death. Zoom in a couple of times on the image and you will be surprised, startled and awed by the wit and intelligence driving his candid commentary. Also on digital display will be his painstaking writing process as recorded in the margins and line edits of his working manuscripts, handwritten notes, childhood writing, a copy of his dictionary with words circled throughout and his heavily annotated books by Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, John Updike and more than 40 other authors.

The Community of Writer's beloved Michael Pietsch, Executive Vice President of Little, Brown and Company, was DFW's editor on his 1000 page manuscript Infinite Jest and is quoted on the website as saying,"Little, Brown and Company is happy to donate all of our correspondence and internal memos relating to 'Infinite Jest,' 'Brief Interviews with Hideous Men' (1999), 'Oblivion' (2004), 'A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again' and 'Consider the Lobster' to the Ransom Center. David's letters are delightful to read in themselves, and we hope that scholars will benefit from finding his notes to his editors and copy editors in the same archive with his draft manuscripts, journals and other correspondence."
If you are a DFW groupie, be sure to bookmark this site:
David Foster Wallace Collection

Saturday, February 27, 2010

ZZ Packer

I had never heard of Z.Z. Packer when I first read her short story Brownies, but  after reading this story, I read her collection and then several of her non-fiction articles, and now she is one of my favorites. Brownies is one of those stories you cannot read only once. You must read through a second time powered by a disturbing sense of awe. You must read it a third time to figure out how the hell she produced such a masterpiece. And you read it a fourth time a year later just to relive that emotional wallop yet again.

Here is the first line of Brownies:
"By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909."

And thus the hilarious, poignant and startling story about a troop of Brownies as summer camp begins.

But this collection isn't one to stick to one subject or point of view. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere roams emotional terrain far and wide.

"Opportunities," my father says after I bail him out jail. He's banging words into the dash as if trying to get them through my thick skull, "You've got to invest your money if you want opportunities" writes Packer in Ant of the Self, which was the second story she had published in The New Yorker, and is written from the point of view of a young boy who gets talked into going to the Million Man March by his delinquent father.

The title story is told from the point of view of an African American freshman during her first year at an Ivy League campus and another powerful story, Speaking in Tongues, is told from the point of view of a 14-year old Alabama runaway on the streets of Atlanta.  In just a few pages Packer renders worlds taunt with the emotional resonance that novelists strive to achieve in hundreds of pages. The variety leaves you breathless, never quite knowing what this writer is going to throw at you next.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is one of those books that you won't loan out because someday you will reach for it again, and it would be too great a loss if it wasn't there.

Not many writers can claim The New Yorker among their first publication, but before Z.Z. Packer's debut collection of short stories was first published she had not only appeared in the New Yorker (twice), but also Harper's, Ploughshares, Zoetrope and the 'late' great Story. Rumor has it Z.Z. is currently working on a novel about the Buffalo Soldiers. We'll have to ask her all about it this summer.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sue Miller

I don't understand how they do it. How do they write so many damn novels? I just tried to count and I got dizzy. 

I read Sue Miller's debut novel, The Good Mother, a couple of years ago and I became an instant fan.

If you liked Crazy Heart, you'll like this story about Anna, a recently divorced Mom, whose choice of boyfriends isn't nearly as bad as Bad (in Crazy Heart), but that fact doesn't save her from a turn of events that darkens the undertones of this novel, and offers disturbing insights into motherhood and relationships rarely captured in fiction. The beauty of this book is found in Miller's depiction of Anna and her three-year-old daughter's vulnerability after Anna falls for an artist, whose lifestyle tests the boundaries of acceptability. Our evaluation of Anna is shaped by our own notions of what defines a "good mother," and as Anna's trust in her lover increases, we are forced to navigate this definition in increasingly difficult terrain. The tension crescendos as we witness this "good mother" pay a ruthless price. 

I highly recommend this novel and reading it again after watching Crazy Heart makes for an interesting comparison that would lead to a great book club discussion.

"SUE MILLER'S [Lost in the Forest]secures her place in the company of writers like Anne Tyler and Alison Lurie, whose best books pull off the trick of being highly readable even as they lend a certain gravitas to contemporary domestic realism. These narratives convince us that the worlds they depict, albeit separate and specific and small, bear a weight of truth and meaning that complements the bigger, more self-important canvases of a Tom Wolfe or a Jonathan Franzen. Less concerned with identifying the larger patterns of our increasingly manic, morphing society, they address a subject that evolves as slowly as the human species: the intrigue of familial and romantic love. "
                                       —By KATHRYN HARRISON, NYT Books

Oprah's Pick ....

And her most recent...modeled after Clinton's escapades, but even more timely in the wake of what seems to have become a trend of infidelity in politics.


Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Jason Roberts

Something terrible has happened to my eyesight in the last couple of years. A trip to the optometrist revealed this development is just another one of the many horrors related to the inevitability of aging. Bad eyesight, that is destined to only get worse. How lovely.

I'll never forget how the optometrist peered into my eyes with that funny looking headlamp strapped to his forehead, squinting as he said, "I'm surprised you've gotten away with not wearing glasses for this long." He flicked off the light and stared at me in a peculiar way. "It must be difficult for you to put on your eye make-up," he commented with a wry smile.

I responded that I'd never noticed any real difficulty in that department, but thanks for the concern.

His amusement at my expense became clear when,  after arriving back in my car with newly purchased over-the-counter reading glasses, I peered into the rear view mirror for a closer look. At that moment I learned why some people pay to have their eyebrows plucked. Thankfully, I have a good sense of humor, without it I would have most definitely burst into tears at the realization that I had been walking around in public (for how long now?) with eyebrows that look they'd been ravaged by insects.

Well, if you think it's difficult to pluck eyebrows with diminished vision, just try traveling around the world without any vision at all. That's what Jason Roberts so deftly illuminates in
A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became the World's Greatest Traveler

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this vibrant biography of James Holman (1786–1857), Roberts, a contributor to the Village Voice and McSweeney's, narrates the life of a 19th-century British naval officer who was mysteriously blinded at 25, but nevertheless became the greatest traveler of his time. Holman entered the navy at age 12, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. When blindness overcame him, Holman was an accomplished sailor, and he engineered to join the Naval Knights of Windsor, a quirky group who only had to live in quarters near Windsor Castle and attend mass for their stipend. For many blind people at the time, this would have been the start of a long (if safe) march to the grave. Holman would have none of it and spent the bulk of his life arranging leaves of absence from the Knights in order to wander the world (without assistance) from Paris to Canton; study medicine at the University of Edinburgh; hunt slavers off the coast of Africa; get arrested by one of the czar's elite bodyguards in Siberia; and publish several bestselling travel memoirs. Roberts does Holman justice, evoking with grace and wit the tale of this man once lionized as "The Blind Traveler." (June)

If you need a great book, and an inspiring story to get you going. Read this one.

To read more reviews and interesting commentary about books and life in general check out Jason's website. Jason is also a brilliant musician. Next time you're up in Squaw and you are wondering who Jason Roberts is, he's the guy playing the stand up bass.


National Book Critics Circle Award
#3 Nonfiction Bestseller
S.F. Chronicle (No. California)

A Best Book of the Year:
Washington Post
San Francisco Chronicle
Kirkus Reviews
Saint Louis Post-Dispatch
Rocky Mountain News (Denver)
School Library Journal


Thursday, January 28, 2010

For those of you tuning in from Los Angeles...

Please attend this night of readings, music and dancing to raise money for medical aid to Haiti. The evening will feature readings from Will Alexander, Gloria Alvarez, Tisa Bryant, Percival Everett, Sesshu Foster, Veronica Gonzales, Jen Hofer, Doug Kearney, Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson, Abel Salas; plus live music from Ceci Bastida and Domingo Siete and DJ sets from Glenn Red, Concise, and Gomez comes alive. It will all get started at 8pm this coming Saturday at TrĂ³pico de Nopal Gallery in Echo Park. All the money raised will go to Partners in Health, which has been providing free medical care to Haiti's poor for the last two decades.
The details: Saturday January 30, 2010 at 8 p.m. TrĂ³pico de Nopal Gallery 1665 Beverly Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90026 -  $10 at the door (more if you can spare it!)
If you won’t be able to attend Saturday, please consider donating directly to Partners in Health.

I discovered this post on a really GREAT literary book blog. Check out Mark Sarvas's The Elegant Variation.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Victoria Patterson

Congratulations to past participant Victoria Patterson for winning The Story Prize in Fiction! I'm very much looking forward to reading this provocative collection of short stories set in Orange County.

Here are a few of the many positive reviews...

From the SF Chronicle

By Michael Leone

In "Drift," Victoria Patterson's extraordinary collection of interlinked stories, she introduces us to an unexpected Newport Beach, where many flounder among the shimmering beach vistas and yacht-clogged harbors of Orange County. Most of Patterson's characters are outcasts, alienated - sometimes intentionally - from family and friends. They are teenagers, waiters, divorcees, transvestites, vagrants, adulterers, alcoholics and drug addicts, but the reader will feel something for each of them.

The rich who inhabit these stories - a man who fired his brother from the family business, only to have him commit suicide; a soused widow who preys on the pity of the customers who frequent the posh restaurant established by his wife's fortune - have little self-worth and, despite their bursting bank accounts, not much stability or courage. Almost all resent their self-absorbed parents. "I used to imagine Dad had a timer on his shoulder," one character says. "I had sixty seconds to say what I wanted before I lost his attention."

Patterson gives us a John Wayne, but he bears no relation to his real-life prototype; perhaps, in gentle mockery of the Duke, who plowed Newport Bay in his yacht, the cowboy who appears in these pages is a homeless skateboarder suffering from brain damage. Thus, "Drift" is a portrayal of the American Dream as hangover.

The prose is so accomplished, so effortlessly nuanced and suggestive, that more than once I had to check Patterson's bio to make sure this was her first book. (It is.)

Read more

From The Los Angeles Times

The female characters in this debut collection inhabit some of the more disorienting landscapes in Southern California -- Newport Beach and environs. Waitresses, single mothers, teenagers -- their bodies are often described in the language of Cubism: planes and angles and unreliable, shifting surfaces. The proportions of things, from utensils to emotions, often fail to fit the environment -- the hallways and beaches and temporary living spaces meant to contain Victoria Patterson's characters. Light glows in their blond hair as though it is trapped; sexuality and cannibalism are discussed in tandem; punishments and guilt often come long after the character's transgressions. Things are out of sync, making these stories infinitely disturbing. What happened to childhood? Is numbness the most a girl can hope for? "She wonders how she will function this day, the next, and all the days that follow." Even wondering, in this memorable collection, is a form of prayer.

- Susan Salter Reynolds

Starred review from Publisher’s Weekly

Patterson illustrates how deceiving initial impressions can be in her dark debut, a collection of 13 interconnected stories. At first glance, the characters seem to be blessed, living in tony Newport Beach, Calif., but Patterson quickly scrapes off the glitter, examining the complicated lives of Rosie, a confused teenage girl; John Wayne, a brain-damaged, homeless stoner; Anne, a lesbian psychologist in love with Rosie's mother; Melody, a trophy wife cheating on her husband, Henry Wilson, who has a secret of his own; and Joe/Christina, a transvestite. The majority of the stories feature Rosie, a nerdy teenager whose attempts to make sense of her life lead her down increasingly self-destructive paths, though she remains touchingly aware of others' suffering. In “Winter Formal: A Night of Magic,” Rosie and a seemingly perfect blonde princess have a nightmare evening; in “The First and Second Time,” Rosie violently loses her virginity. Later, in “Joe/Christina,” Rosie, now an alcoholic community college student, finds an unlikely savior in the local transvestite. Patterson's unflinching account of the seedy side of a real-life Xanadu is frightening, immersive and wonderfully realized. (June)
You can read more about the book on Victoria's Website

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Edward P. Jones

Winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize, The Known World centers on a black slave owner, Henry Townsend, but instead of flushing out only one man's story, the novel zeros in on several unique narrative vantage points formerly "unknown" in literature, and history. With his careful weave of narrative, place and time, Jones illuminates the many dimensions and complexities that existed in the antebellum South.

An excellent interview with Jones on the Harper Collins website offers us a peek inside the head of this brilliant writer. Not only does the interview reveal the seeds of inspiration for the book, but also offers insights into the novel’s unique form.

There is a touch of the supernatural in events [in the novel]. How do you explain these incidents in the larger scope of your novel?

I was raised among a people who believe that if a person is killed on a city street, the blood of that person will show up on that spot every time it rains. Even years and years later. I was raised to believe that one's hair should be taken from combs and brushes and burned (my mother did it in an ashtray) because the hair could somehow get out into the world where birds could find it, make a nest of the hair, and give the person headaches. Those people believed you shouldn't rest your hands on the top of your head because it will shorten your mother's life.
Given all that, it's easy to create a situation where lightning runs away from a man because the lightning doesn't think it's time for the man to die. The cow with all the milk came from hearing law school friends talk in the 1970s about a court case where a man sued his neighbor to get back a cow he had sold him after the cow began producing milk again. So the supernatural events are just another way of telling the story by someone who grew up thinking the universe did weird things all the time.

Your account of antebellum Manchester County, Virginia, is by no means linear; you weave different strands of the story together and return to them at various phases of the novel. Why did you choose this format for your book?

I always thought I had a linear story. Something happened between the time I began the real work in January 2002 of taking it all out of my head and when I finished months later. It might be that because I, as the "god" of the people in the book, could see their first days and their last days and all that was in between, and those people did not have linear lives as I saw all that they had lived. What Tessie the child did one day in 1855 would have some meaning for her 50, 75 years later. She might not be able to look back and see that moment, but her creator could. That, perhaps, is why she says something about the doll her father made for her to Caldonia and Fern in September 1855 that she will repeat on her deathbed, some 90 years later; she might not even remember the first time she uttered those words, but I can't afford to forget if I'm trying to tell the truth.

Women in The Known World wield roles of extraordinary power, whether assuming the typically male responsibilities of the plantation like Caldonia Townsend; educating the illiterate like Fern Elston; inspiring violence, passion, and grief, like Celeste and Minerva; or creating art that transcends the brutal realities of slavery, like Alice Night. How important was it to you to give voice to women's experiences of slavery in this work?

I didn't set out with any agenda. When you are raised by a woman who had it hard and you are sensitive to how hard a life she had, you don't necessarily look around and think of women as fragile creatures, whether slave or otherwise. You develop the belief that they can "make a way out of no way." The hardy women of today had predecessors, I'm sure. It would have been insane for me, of course, to write a novel about a black woman who was president of the U.S. in 1855, or even a senator. But a black woman who becomes the head of a plantation due to the premature death of her husband who was helped along the way by the wealthiest white man in the county, that is believable. It is also believable that Fern Elston could make part of her living by teaching free black children; there were educated black women back then, and not all of them would choose to stay in the shadows, especially one with Fern's temperament. And no doubt there had to be people like Celeste who tried in their small way to fight something they were forced to live under; perhaps she, of them all, understood how Moses got to be that way: He was not born hating the world, she would have said. And I suppose Alice would have said that as well, had she not been so focused on escaping alone.

All Aunt Hagar’s Children

New York Times Bestseller and Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, Jones's latest collection includes five stories that were first published in the New Yorker. If you are an admirer of the short story, you will be stunned by the fine art displayed here.

Lost In The City

Lost In The City was a National Book Award Finalist and won the PEN/Hemingway Award—not bad for a first publication. Set in Washington D.C., this collection of short stories delves into the lives and communities occupying the space outside the spotlight in the nation’s capitol. Here again, Jones reveals the emotional epicenter of humanity.

You can also read The First Day, published in The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. It is one of those stories that you read and reflect on and reread and reflect on again.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Lucille Clifton

My heart is sad for the Haitians. Sometimes only poets can speak for us in times like these...
Here are a couple of stanzas from our beloved Lucille Clifton:


lighten up

why is your hand
so heavy
on just poor


this is the stuff i made the heroes
out of
all the saints
and prophets and things
had to come by

new bones

we will wear
new bones again.
we will leave
these rainy days.
break out through
another mouth
into sun and honey time.
worlds buzz over us like bees,
we be splendid in new bones.
other people think they know
how long life is
how strong life is
we know.

(Excerpted from Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir)

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Alice Sebold

Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones will open in theaters on January 15th. Directed by Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings and King Kong) and co-written by Fran Walsh (Jackson's wife and co-producer) and Phillipa Boyens, the film adaptation features A-List stars, including Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci and Susan Sarandon. I'd highly recommend reading the book before seeing the movie. The book has so many subtle layers that it will be interesting to examine how its depth is transferred to the big screen. In an interview with The Daily Record Jackson agrees that despite his extensive film experience, The Lovely Bones was not an easy novel to adapt. "It's an incredible book that hits you emotionally when you read it, but it isn't structured as a film," he states, "it was a challenge figuring out how to reorganize the events to make them more film-friendly. It really was the hardest thing we've done in our lives." Click here to read The Daily Record article.

I agree with Jackson that The Lovely Bones is an "incredible" book and I'm very much looking forward to comparing the book with the film version. In fact, The Lovely Bones would make a great choice for a book club. Wow! What a great idea. I'm going to suggest a book club/movie combo night to my book club right now...

Here's my brief description of the book that you are more than welcome to copy and send to your fellow book clubbers:
Susie Salmon disappears on December 6, 1973, but instead of leaving the reader to wonder about her whereabouts, Susie's thoughts haunt the pages of the book, fading in and out as her family survives the horrific aftermath of her murder. Susie's presence offers a birds-eye-view of a family coping with unspeakable loss while at the same time conveys the eeriness of a young girl able to view her own murderer. Surprisingly reassuring, Susie's narrative offers a glimpse into the possibility of afterlife rarely found in modern literature.

“If you stop asking why you were killed instead of someone else, stop investigating the vacuum left by your loss, stop wondering what everyone left on Earth is feeling,” she said, “you can be free. Simply put, you have to give up on Earth.”

"This seemed impossible to me.”

But more than rumination over a tragic death, this novel explores the internal drives that fuel relationships, family and sex, in all of their destructive and desultory capacities. Despite its quiet insistence on Heaven, the story centers on the fallibilities that make up life on Earth.

Alice Sebold’s memoir shares her experience of surviving rape. The book spent 22 weeks on the Times paperback Bestseller list.

And Alice's latest novel...
The Almost Moon

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sandra Scofield

Publishing seven widely acclaimed novels is a feat in itself, but Sandra Scofield’s accomplishment is accentuated by the fact that she did not begin to write novels until she was 40-years-old. Since her first publication in 1988 (Gringa),which won the New American Writing Award, Sandra has been a finalist for the National Book Award and received the American Book Award (Beyond Deserving). Her work has also repeatedly appeared on the NYT’s New and Notable lists.

In 2005, Sandra decided to try her hand at writing a memoir.

Here is what she has to say about making the switch:

Q: You found writing memoir to be quite different, then, from writing fiction?

A: Much more than I ever imagined! It’s much harder to impose order. You think, well, I’ve got all this “material,” I won’t have to invent. What you forget is that invention has many faces. First of all, memories are fallible and fragmentary and they float in pictures more than in story, so you do have to invent, in the sense that you have to find a way to put things together coherently. But you don’t know how to put them together if you don’t know what they mean. You have to figure out what the images are telling you; how they connect to events. I kept seeing this picture of myself on a bus in October 1958, running away from the nuns in Fort Worth to go back to my mother in Odessa. I knew it was significant, though that particular image never appears in the book. What it told me was that my desperation to return to her was part of the sinew of my story: She had been declining, I was losing her, because I wasn’t with her. That gave me the key to seeing my whole childhood. I thought I was my mother’s prop.

Secondly, in memoir you’re stuck with a story your history gives you. You don’t have the license to invent in the old, fictional way: you can’t leap to making up things to fill the holes or change the shape of an event. You don’t alter chronology to make a dramatic arc tighter. At least I don’t think you do. What you do instead is dig deeper, into whatever artifacts you have, or you go to the library, or you just confess that you are making a best guess. Readers accept that. I think it makes them trust you. And it teaches you new ways to fashion a story.

To read more of this interview click here to visit Sandra's website.

Becoming Catholic was one of my mother’s notions. A “notion” set her apart from her hard-working kin; it was an impulse that sprang from eccentricity, a torque in her self-perception. She didn’t seem to know who she was.” —Occasions of Sin

“Scofield makes vivid the repressive 1950s, especially for Catholics, specifically for women...a deeply reflective and heartrending account conveying all that is lost when a child loses her mother.” —Booklist

Sandra is a regular Staff Member at the Community of Writers and she also teaches in the Iowa Summer Writing Festival.

Her craft book gets at the heart of one of the most challenging aspects of writing fiction:

I found all of her seven novels on the AbeBooks website

Monday, December 21, 2009

Richard Ford

Rumor has it that Richard Ford threw the final Galley of his latest novel in the fire one week before it was due back to the publisher. The unidentified, unverifiable source (yes, this is pure insider gossip) claimed that Richard said:

This is too much damn work! This is the last fucking novel I will ever write!

Or something to that effect.

Anyone who has ever written a novel would certainly agree with Richard, no doubt. But the idea that Richard Ford—a Pulitzer Prize, Pen/Faulkner Award winning author whose work has been translated into 16 languages—still thinks that it is hard to write a good novel, well, that’s just absolutely terrifying.

The Lay of the Land is the manuscript Richard threw into the fire that night. It was also a NYT Book Review Best Book of the Year, but even more telling is the fact that you can give this 485-page book to a man who doesn’t read fiction and he will read it all the way to the end in less than 48 hours (I do have a verifiable source for this fact).

Simply put: The Lay of the Land is a really good read.

And so are his other books

The Pulitzer Prize Winner:

This book will be Reissued in January 2010. It's about infidelity and golf...hmmm that sounds familiar:

And his first novel:

Richard has also won the PEN/Malamud Award for his short fiction:

This is a great collection put together by Richard...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Louis B. Jones

If you are old enough to feel nostalgic over the wheat field that's now a Kentucky Fried Chicken or the old Victorian on the corner that's now a strip mall, then you'll understand the underlining of this novel.

But more than about what's physically gone, California's Over ruminates over emotional change—the kind of growing up angst that we all encounter when the shadow that we have formerly occupied shifts, and we are revealed. The greatness of this book is found in it's ability to tackle this nostalgia satirically. "Having James Farmican for a father was like inheriting a fortune in Confederate currency," Peter, an aspiring writer, complains about his deceased father, a renowned Berkeley Poet.

From the Book Jacket:

California's Over leads us down an unmarked road to the coast and then deep into the rotten, labyrinthine house where James Farmican, the famous poet, shot himself to death years ago, leaving behind a legacy of adulation and bankruptcy. Now his family is leaving, and the young narrator — who calls himself Baelthon — has been hired to haul the furniture onto the lawn and sort through the attic and basement. But as Baelthon excavates, he also discovers layers of family mystery and comedy and cruelty, all of it piled too deeply for anyone to sort out: the unexplained disappearance of Farmican's ashes, the unfinished novel that may actually be his suicide note, the opera about cannibalism that his son is writing to rescue himself from obscurity, and, finally, the family's migration to the Nevada desert to claim their inheritance.

And Baelthon discovers Wendy, Farmican's sixteen-year-old daughter, who keeps her checkers pieces taped to the board where she and her father left them before he died. Emerging from her chrysalis of baby fat and self-loathing, Wendy is destined to be both the love of Baelthon's life and the object of his betrayal.
Twenty-five years later, from the perspective of mid- and middle-class life, Baelthon recalls the mistaken selves he and the Farmicans once inhabited. What he doesn't expect — or think he deserves — is the redemption and abiding, against-all-odds love that await him.

“Louis B. Jones's third novel, ''California's Over,'' is a satirical elegy for the age of dime-store Zen, when the pop songs were all about watching clouds go by and pot's reputation for killing motivation was actually a selling point.”
— By Walter Kirn, New York Times

"In Louis B. Jones, as in no other writer working today, a sense of moral outrage, that rare thing, is yoked, oddly and with extraordinary power, to a thrilling gift for lyrical prose."
— Michael Chabon, author of Kavalier and Clay

"The people are so human and written with so original a cunning that they are virtually worlds in themselves."
— Richard Eder

"Louis B. Jones is a skillful satirist, who sees all, knows all, but who is never cruel."
— Newsweek

Because of their experience in worlds so different from our own, scientists often completely miss the 'norms' represented by modern life. I worked for a collection of Astronomers once, and let me tell you if they could write fiction, I'd read it just to get inside their heads. Luckily, Louis is brilliant enough to convey the wacky wisdom of a person who is accustomed to looking at the world through the lens of energy waves and particles. What makes this book so funny is the juxtaposition between two neighbors—one a physicist and the other a failed father and pizza shop owner—neither of whom are remotely close to 'normal.'

From the Book Jacket
Particles and Luck is the story of one night, two men, and an invisible third force that had brought these two men together. Mark Perdue and Roger Hoberman have nothing in common — except the joy of adjoining yards. Mark is a whiz-kid physicist who knows that the "genius" stature and the endowed chair at Berkeley that have been accorded him are bits of dumb luck. Roger is the owner of a pizza franchise whose luck has turned dumb — in financial and marital distress, he has been denied child-visitation rights but not babysitting obligations.

Roger and Mark have just been notified of a claim of adverse possession on their property, effective the next day. Particles and Luck is the story of the Halloween night they spend together trying to imagine how this threat will materialize. Camped out amidst pieces of Roger's Naugahyde furniture, warmed by a pile of Kingsford briquettes, marking boundary lines with Oakland Raiders pennants — this will be a night unlike any other night in contemporary fiction. Loony, humane, and transcendently wise, Particles and Luck is an irresistible comedy of manners and epistemology.

One experiences the characters with shifting feelings of tenderness and exasperation, hope and despair. Hilarious ... gracefully written...[Jones] has created a quirky but wholly real work in which to examine themes of fate and coincidence in a seemingly effortless manner."
— Chicago Tribune

"A lovely and invigorating novel...a domestic farce and social satire. Jones writes [an] engaging novelistic equivalent of a unified field theory -- in this case, a link between the human heart and the behavior of subatomic particles."
— Richard Eder, Los Angeles Times

"Jones is the real thing -- a writer with something to say and his own way of saying it."
— Scott Turow

"What a smart novel "Particle and Luck" is. How good of Louis B. Jones to remind us what a beautiful land -- a terra linda -- we live in, and to remind us of the beautiful universe beyond."
— Carolyn See, New York Times Book Review

Friday, December 18, 2009

Alan Cheuse

Alan Cheuse is an all around literary aficionado. Whether commentating on NPR, editing anthologies, writing reviews or charting the “searing, tragic, heart-breaking and hilarious business of being alive” in his own widely acclaimed novels, Alan operates at the center of 21st Century literati. This year Alan was also selected, along with Pulitzer Winner Junot Diaz and (One of my Favorites) Jennifer Egan, to judge the 2009 National Book Award in Fiction. (2009 Winner: Colum McCann)

To Catch the Lightening, winner of the 2009 Grub Street National Book Prize in Fiction, is Alan's latest work of fiction. The book imagines the life of Edward Curtis, early American photographer, and his experiences capturing Native America tribes on film. “Bankrolled by J.P. Morgan, befriended by Teddy Roosevelt, and a towering figure in his own right, Curtis's epic work consumes his life.

Four pages into the new Alan Cheuse novel and you'll know you're reading a Great American Novel. The Real Deal, not some publisher's-hyped product of the season. To Catch the Lightning is where you should plan on spending your lingering fall afternoons, watching the leaves turn.
—Rick Kleffel, book reviewer and radio host on KUSP-FM Santa Cruz

Budget to tight for traveling this winter? Vicarious travel has been my latest favorite past time. Alan takes us on a journey where exotic terrain makes for a lovely backdrop for musings over culture, history and the human spirit. This personal exploration pushes the limits of "travel" writing and teaches us just how far we can go when we take the time to absorb more than scenery as we travel.

A Trance After Breakfast

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Amy Tan

There are some authors for whom no introduction is necessary. Amy Tan is one of those authors. Since her reputation proceeds her, I will proceed without adding further hoopla.

I will say that if you have a friend or relative who has read all of the Amy Tan books, or most of them anyway, then they will love reading about the connections between character and inspiration along with the story of the author's life in Amy's Memoir, The Opposite of Fate.

For those who have not yet experienced this master story teller, I suggest starting with the Joy Luck Club and continuing right on through her collection.

And for the little ones...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

NYT Best Books

Guess which one of our past participants just made the Top of the List of NYT Best Books for 2009?

Congratulations Maile Meloy on this huge accomplishment!

Check out the official list in print on December 13.

By Maile Meloy

"In an exceptionally strong year for short fiction, Meloy’s concise yet fine-grained narratives, whether set in Montana, an East Coast boarding school or a 1970s nuclear power plant, shout out with quiet restraint and calm precision. Her flawed characters — ranch hands in love, fathers and daughters — rarely act in their own best interests and often betray those closest to them."
—NYT Editors

Scroll down to October 14th to see a complete listing of Maile's books.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Anthony Swofford

War has been on my mind lately as I grapple with the concept of President Obama's recent decision on Afghanistan. At least the tendency to glamorize, sensationalize, patronize and otherwise glorify the notion of war, and what it really means, has passed. "Grim" seemed to be the media preferred description of the President's announcement. How shockingly appropriate.

Anthony Swofford may have written Jarhead in another era, but his account also departs from the flag waving 'Rambo' action and adventure style standard. Swofford offers us an entirely different perspective of war, one well worth reflecting on as we send off another 30,000 troops.

We have no real way of guessing which contemporary authors will survive the test of time and be placed on the reading lists of the future, but one good indication of your chances of obtaining legendary status is getting picked up by the esteemed faculty in the world of University academia. Chances are you have a few decades of readers to look forward to if these Literary aficionados catch on to your best qualities. Anthony Swofford is one of those authors. Stacey Peeples, University of North Carolina, and Geoffrey Wright, Stamford University, both wrote articles on teaching Jarhead in last month's edition of the PMLA (the English Department’s Bible) promising a renewed interest by scholars and students alike—and providing a real testament to Swofford’s great accomplishments in the realm of war literature.

Signed Copies

I don’t have many signed copies of books mainly because when you work in the bookstore you facilitate the signing and you witness all that infectious enthusiasm oozing from the authors and the fans and it’s all so lovely—every moment a Kodak moment— [no really!]— all that love and exuberance for the art and form and greatness and mutual adoration for the mysteriously powerful world we call ‘literary,’ but at the end of the long night, after the lights fade and the folding chairs are all stacked in the corner, when the author is bleary eyed, and only the most steadfast volunteers and weariest staff remain, when it comes to this time—the time to ask for the autograph—you just feel like a real dolt. You know what I mean? How can you ask for one more term of endearment, one more authentic note from an already worn out, over used slogan?

You can’t.

So why did I ask Anthony Swofford? Well, it’s not every day you meet an ex-Marine number one, especially when you live in Santa Cruz. I think they have unfriendly signs posted at the county line or something, I’m not sure, but I do know a military man is as rare a sighting as a mountain lion around here. You know they exist, but they prefer to remain anonymous. Of course, I loved his books—that's a given. I think the main reason I asked is because Anthony Swofford and I had something important in common—no not the fact that both of our books topped the Bestseller Lists for months prompting an “International Sensation” media declaration, only Anthony holds this distinction. And no it wasn’t the fact that both of our books were made in to movies featuring A-list stars—Anthony again.

Okay, I’ll tell you. It was the year 1998 and Anthony Swofford and I were both Squaw Valley Community of Writer’s work waiver participants! Isn’t that exciting? Anthony reflected on this fact as I rung up his books in the store one night after his reading. He was even kind enough to say, “Oh, yah, I think I do remember you.”

Uh huh, right.

I remember. His job was to take out the garbage, which doesn't sound too exciting, but he said the chore did lead to a close encounter with a black bear. "That was fun," he said. My job was to distribute supplies like toilet paper and soap, which led to encounters with bathrooms. "Not so fun," I told him. "Yah," he agreed.

There never seems like an appropriate time to ask, so I seized this awkward moment to segue into the familiar question: By the way, can I get you to sign my book for me?

I still felt like a dolt, but it was worth it. I will forever cherish my Anthony Swofford signed copy of Jarhead.



I have enjoyed putting together our little bookstore up in Squaw Valley over the past four years. We love our bookstore and it has been your support that makes it all possible, so Thank You!

I have received many requests for an online SVCW Bookstore. Some who miss us when they are away, and others who are just tired of lugging all those hardcovers around on airplanes. There are also those writers who are honest about being broke and needing to purchase books at Amazon's discounted prices. As fellow writers, we understand your pain!

For these reasons I thought it would be fun to try our hand at a SVCW Books and Authors blog. I will track down our authors and past participants and post their books, news, reviews and information and link our SVCW books to Amazon. Ten percent of every book purchased through our blog will help support the bookstore. I am looking forward to building an online archive of the outstanding collection of books represented by authors who frequent the Community of Writers.

Thanks for visiting our Community of Writers blog!

Community of Writers Onsite Bookshop Manager