Category Archives: Fiction

How Much Fun Was That

LITTLE GALE GUMBO. 2 glasses of wine. Some chips and cheese. The perfect evening.

This wonderful book arrived on my doorstep Friday afternoon and I savored it all weekend, turning the last page last night just before turning out the bedside light.

I’m pretty sure the last time I got this caught up in a really well-written family saga must have been THE SHELL SEEKERS, which I read earlier this summer.  An older book (which I eventually realized I’d read before, long long ago) I was so caught up in the yarn of the story, the charming characters (strong women), the smooth shifts back and forth in time, and the mysteries to be solved, it was hard to put it down.  I was sad to see THE SHELL SEEKERS end.

I felt the same way about LITTLE GALE GUMBO.  What a pleasure it was.  Truly.  I hated to turn that last page, and I’m already wondering about a possible sequel?

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From a writer’s perspective, here’s an additional list of some things I appreciated about Erika’s work:

1.  The multi-sensory experience.  I could feel the bitter cold and the fog of a Maine island winter; I could smell the melting butter and sugar of every Praline; I tasted the gumbo and the red beans and rice, right down to their textures; I could hear the sisters voices so clearly – the headstrong (but underneath fragile) Dahlia, the sweetness and let’s-just-make-it-all-better heartbreak in Josie, Camille’s steady strength.

2.  The complexity.  The story is complex — all those romances and mysteries — but you never feel that way reading it.  There were so many times when I marveled at how well this story flowed, and I especially loved how much the author trusted her reader.  She knew when to give just enough information to let me figure things out for myself.

3.  Time sequencing.  For all of us who try to do it, we know how hard it is to make it flow naturally.  Erika made me feel like she was sitting on the porch, with no notes, telling me a story.  That’s how smooth it was.

4.  Sense of place and real characters.  I could feel what it might be like to be a girl in New Orleans, a girl sheltered from The Quarter and schooled in the arts of Creole cooking and voodoo.  I wanted to be the young Camille.  And the way they move to Maine (and how Maine is ‘chosen’) was so clever, but also perfectly in line with what the now-world-wise Camille would do.

5.  Elements of surprise.  I was pleasantly surprised many times by this story, so many secrets and happenings — which I can’t list because I don’t want to give them away! — which unfolded in unexpected ways that, after the fact, made perfect sense.  It’s hard to surprise a reader who’s trying to puzzle out what’s coming, but Erika pulled it off so well.

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This would be a perfect book club choice.  I can see a group of women serving up the recipes in the book on a cold winter night, glasses of wine in hand, discussing the trials and pleasures of the Bergeron women.  I’m a little afraid to try the Pralines, but I’d be willing to give them a shot.  Plus, I’m always looking for just the right opportunity to say the word etouffee.  Doesn’t that just sound delicious?

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Our Little Gale Gumbo

I just ordered my copy of LITTLE GALE GUMBO, a new novel by our very own Erika Marks.  I’m so excited to see this wonderful book finally – finally – come out into the world.  It’s been a pleasure to follow Erika’s road to publishing her first novel.  A labor of love, it’s been, and also years of dedication and hard work.

Click here to order your copy (on paper or Kindle).

Here’s a brief description.  Is it just me, or does this story sound like it would make for a great book club discussion?

Hoping for a fresh start, Camille Bergeron picked up her life–including her two teenage daughters, Dahlia and Josie–and left New Orleans for the quiet shores of Little Gale, an island off the coast of Maine. To share Creole spice with their islander neighbors, who at first were more suspicious than welcoming, the Bergeron family opened The Little Gale Gumbo Cafe. When Camille met Ben Haskell, a divorced local, and her daughters met his teenage son, Matthew, they knew that they had found a new home–and perhaps even a new family.

Today Dahlia’s free-spirited behavior is the stuff of legend on Little Gale, and Josie has grown up to become the island’s resident keeper of Creole traditions. But when a mysterious accident leaves Ben fighting for his life, the sisters must do everything in their power to protect and care for the man who has been more of a father to them than their real father ever was.

As a long-brewing storm of family conflict begins to break, Dahlia and Josie call Matthew home. Coming together in this time of crisis, they also must confront long held secrets and unrequited loves that will test the limits–and definition–of family.

The Art of Fielding

As much as I try to avoid the big hype books (until the hype is long dead, at least), I’ve made an exception for the current literary darling.

I first heard of THE ART OF FIELDING when, late on a Friday night, AmyG directed me to an article in the latest Vanity Fair she called “writer porn.”  And jesus people, who among us can pass up writer porn?

AmyG was right.  If you haven’t read this long and detailed piece about how THE ART OF FIELDING came to be, stop reading this post and get ye straight to the magazine and read Keith Gessen’s phenomenal essay.  (in the print magazine only, sorry)  I’ve never read a better, more detailed and intriguing drama about how a book was written, re-written, discovered, agented, edited, negotiated, sold, marketed and, finally, set out into the world.

The writer, Chad Harbach, is also a co-founder and editor of N+1, one of my favorite lit mags.  Here’s an 8 minute review on NPR’s All Things Considered.  Chad wrote this book long-hand; he says he finds writing on the screen paralyzing.  There’s a thought.  He’s got me thinking, this Chad Harbach character, thinking about baseball and expectations and writing and success and MOBY-DICK and tragedy and secrets and long sagas and the art of great story telling.

Who wants to read this with me?  

Strike Up The Band

Let’s end this week of executions and murder trials and a falling stock market on a joyful note, shall we?

I’m going way back and watching the first season of a 1978 TV series.  What a great soap opera Dallas was.  And guess what, it’s still damned good.

Come on, you know you loved the show and got happy when you heard the intro / theme song.

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Some new books arrived in a box on my doorstep:  The Art of Fielding, The Tragedy of Arthur, We The Animals, Life With a Star, and All the Names.

Like I need more books.

But then I do.

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And you know you’re not getting out of here without puppy pictures.

JoJo snuggling up to Lea, anyway she can. Persistence and sneakiness are fine traits.

A run for fun.

Sisters.

Witness the Execution

I did not sleep last night.  Before padding up the stairs to bed, I turned on CNN and watched those who’d witnessed the execution of Troy Davis step to the podium, big notebooks clutched to their chests.  I listened as each person give his or her account of Mr. Davis’s last hours, last minutes, seconds.  And though I don’t know Troy Davis or his family and I don’t really pray, I said a little prayer for them and weeped my way to bed.

I don’t believe in the death penalty.  Though I admit that, sometimes, when a horrific crime occurs — with witnesses and confessions and undisputed evidence —  I question myself.  OJ Simpson comes to mind.  Casey Anthony.  At 2 and 3 a.m. I was imagining little Caylee Anthony, abandoned in those dark woods, and her mother out in the sunshine living her life.  4 a.m.  5 a.m.  Troy Davis is dead.

In the Davis case, the key witnesses all recanted their testimony.  How do you put someone to death with that kind of doubt?  I can’t sleep, but I figure Casey Anthony is resting in a nice warm bed tonight, and maybe she wakes up thinking she might be due for a salon appointment, should she have eggs or cereal for breakfast?, what will she do with her day….

We have no idea what the hell we’re doing.

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This year my friend Charles McLeod published his first novel in the U.K., AMERICAN WEATHER, a brutal satire on our current way of life.  One of the big events in the book is a public, televised execution.  A fine new way to make millions!  Ask yourself, if significant money could be raised by advertising executions — to invest in our schools, get healthcare for children, to put the unemployed back to work — would you watch?

I’ve only read the first 30 pages of this book, but my husband finished it last week and I hope he leaves his comments here later.  You can read a review here.  This is the publisher’s description:

Meet Jim Haskin. He’s forty years old. He’s worth around thirty-five million. He runs his own San Francisco ad firm, American Weather. AmWe’s image is green, modern and forward-looking: if your product is upcycled or hydro or vegan, they’ll make you an ad. But behind the scenes, Jim manufactures ways to support the old captains of American industry; bleach, beer and guns. But all is not well: Jim’s wife, Denise, has been in a coma for over a year, a state brought on by a drug Jim helped promote. A live-in nurse, a former Salvadorian gang member, helps Jim tend to her. And Haskin’s only child, Connor, has been sent away to a boarding school three thousand miles away, after assaulting a student at his former high school. Orphaned at 14, Jim and his three closest friends grew up at Mr Hand’s Home for Well-Behaved Boys. All have profited from the American dream.

In 2008, on the brink of the Presidential election, the quartet finds themselves short on cash and look to Jim for a solution. The scheme he devises involves a Death Row inmate, pay-per-view television, and most of America’s major corporations. Everything is set for it to be his greatest achievement yet.

Have Title, Will Travel

Over the many lifetimes years I’ve been writing this book, it took ignoring it almost completely for the title to show up.  It felt a bit like walking in on a surprise party.  First, shock and disbelief.  Then letting loose enough to get in there and have some fun with it.

I’ve been working in my head, in my Moleskin notebook, and on the computer screen ever since.  Finding the title has helped me find my way.

This does not, however, mean I’m ready to reveal it.  Sorry folks.  I’ve learned too many times that, once I give up these kinds of prized details, said details slip off into an alien atmosphere and the faith is forever lost.  You’ll just have to trust me on this one.  For now.

I will say I found it in a poem.  Which reminds me that so many of my favorite books got their titles from the world of verse.  Here are just a few …

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Wallace Stegner’s CROSSING TO SAFETY (from these lines by Robert Frost)

   I could give all to Time except — except

   What I myself have held.  But why declare

   The things forbidden that while the Customs slept

   I have crossed to Safety with?  For I am There

   And what I would not part with I have kept.

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William Faulkner’s THE SOUND AND THE FURY  (from Shakespeare’s MACBETH)

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,

    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

    To the last syllable of recorded time,

    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

    Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

    And then is heard no more: it is a tale

    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

    Signifying nothing.

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Cormac McCarthy’s NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN  (from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”)

   That is no country for old men. The young

   In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

   – Those dying generations – at their song,

   The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

   Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

   Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.

   Caught in that sensual music all neglect

   Monuments of unageing intellect.

Read Like A Man

One of the best opening sequences I’ve ever read is in Denis Johnson’s TREE OF SMOKE.  The first few pages are a jolt into the quiet realities of war, as 18 yr old Seaman Apprentice William Houston Jr. stalks alone through a jungle in Vietnam.  Three years after first reading this, my heart still aches — and I mean literally here — just to think about it.  (If you never saw the NYT review, read it here.  I’ve rarely seen such worthy praise.)

That said, I never got going when I tried to read this 600 pager.  (I’ll spare you my list of lame excuses.)  Now Johnson has a new book out, a 128 page novella called TRAIN DREAMS, and all I can think about is going back and reading TREE OF SMOKE.  Yesterday I saw the review of TRAIN DREAMS in The New Yorker and it brought to mind all the reasons I picked up Johnson’s big Vietnam epic in the first place.  “Johnson’s fiction has always turned on questions of vision. His characters are often weirdly privileged noticers, for whom reality will confess slightly esoteric pigments and details.”  Weirdly privileged noticers.  And “realism in Johnson’s fiction often seems, like the Savoy Hotel, to be about to dribble away into a dream, and what brings it back from the looking-glass world is the exactitude of Johnson’s language.” 

I met Denis a couple of years ago when he visited my grad program (here’s a fun article about him).  He gave a big reading and then sat around the conference room table the next day and, for lack of a better phrase, shot the shit with about 10 of us.  I remember I asked him a couple of questions and, though I don’t recall his answers, I can still see him looking me right in the eye, answering seriously and at length and with appropriate flippancy.  Definitely a shy guy, but comfortable in, and even caustic about, his writing; a guy who seems not to care what anyone else wants from him; an artist who’s not all that comfortable talking about his “art.”  I left there wanting to read everything he’d ever written.  He’s one of those writers I think of when people ask, “should I go to an MFA program?”  Reading Denis Johnson is some damned good schooling.

I don’t know if I’m in the mood for another 600 pager just now, having recently finished Barbara Kingsolver’s THE LACUNA, but the arrival of Johnson’s latest serves as one of those kicks in the ass I often need.  First, I’m getting my hands on a copy of TRAIN DREAMS.  I can squeeze in 128 pages, right?  And second, I was looking at my shelf of “to read” books and most of them are by women.  Not to cause a feminist uproar here, but come on … maybe that’s one reason I’m a little bored with my reading list lately.  I need to hear a different voice.

What are your favorite “man” books?