Monday, December 14, 2009


Walking to Gatlinburg, my new Civil War novel, seven years in the works, will be officially published on March 2. I will be launching the WORLD PREMIER of the novel in Hardwick, VT, at the Galaxy Bookshop on the evening of March 2nd with my new slide show, “Transforming History into Fiction: the Story of a Born Liar.” (We all know who the born liar is.)

Please watch my website, after January 1, for regular entries about Walking to Gatlinburg, including a posting of the first chapter, updates of my book tour itinerary, reviews, outrageous journal entries from the nationwide tour, etc.

In the meantime, happy holidays and good reading from northern Vermont’s cold, snowy, and ever-so-beautiful “Kingdom County.”

Monday, December 7, 2009

Recently, I mentioned to a writer friend that while I have always loved to write, and started writing baseball and fishing stories at six or seven, I live to read. (“Read a thousand books, write one,” the adage goes.)

With my new Civil War novel, Walking to Gatlinburg, coming in the spring of 2010 – please watch for the “official” announcement in “The Kingdom Journal” on Dec. 15 – and the first draft of my forthcoming memoir, The Great American Book Tour, completed – this fall has been an especially good time for me to catch up on my own reading.

Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic and Pete Dexter’s Spooner are flat-out the funniest new novels I’ve read since A Confederacy of Dunces. In both instances there’s a powerful undertow of sadness, as well, but Russo and Dexter aside, what’s become of the old-fashioned, no-holds-barred American comic novel? Where’s Mark Twain when we need him most?

William Trevor’s Love and Summer exceeds even my high expectations. There’s a drifter in Trevor’s novel – an unemployed librarian and household retainer – who is at once one of the strangest and most memorable characters in contemporary fiction.

After searching for thirty years for a Canadian novel I loved and gave away, whose title and author I’d forgotten, I found Richard B. Wright’s Farthing’s Fortunes through Abe Books Book Sleuth link. It’s a hilarious, picaresque story in the tradition of Little Big Man, and I liked it every bit as much the second time around, three decades later.

My most important literary discovery was an unpublished manuscript by a deceased author. Beverly Jensen, an actress who died in 2003 of cancer, left a wondrous story collection called The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay. Set in Maine and New Brunswick, and spanning much of the twentieth century, The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay chronicles the rough-and-tumble lives of Beverly’s mother and aunt, Idella and Avis. Wildly hilarious and profoundly moving, Beverly’s book defines character-driven fiction at its best. Of it, Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge) has written, “The story of these two sisters, Idella and Avis, travels from Canada to New England, but mostly it travels through their lives and hearts, and it will travel through your heart, as well."

I’m delighted to report that, through an extraordinary effort on the part of Beverly’s husband, Jay Silverman, Beverly’s writing teacher, the acclaimed novelist Jenifer Levin, author and former Houghton Mifflin editor Katrina Kenison, and a number of other family friends, The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay will be published early this coming summer by Viking. I would rate Beverly Jensen’s unforgettable sisters right up there with Ruby and Ada of Cold Mountain. You’ll see why in a few months.

More on December 15 when I make the official birth announcement of Morgan Kinneson, the 17-year-old hero of my tenth novel, Walking to Gatlinburg – which is exactly what Morgan does, walking all the way from Kingdom County, Vermont, to the Great Smokies, in search of his older brother, Pilgrim, who is missing in action during the Civil War.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Spring Reading

April, 2009
Spring Reading
“Spring comes slowly up this way.”

In its simplicity, its easy colloquialism, the line quoted above sounds more like Robert Frost. In fact, it’s from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s dark, mysterious, and lovely poem “Christabel.” Every April, I cite it to anyone who’ll listen because if there were ever a place on the face of the earth where spring comes slowly, including Coleridge’s North Country of England, that place is the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

Then one morning there’s that shrill konkeree of the first red-winged blackbird. Out comes my copy of Walden. Who knows what revitalizing spring reading that will lead to next? I’m still not halfway into my annual, vernal reading binge, but the following five books have helped me through the spring snowstorms that have hit my northern corner of the Green Mountains since I heard that early redwing a month ago.

Book reviewers, with me at the head of the list, routinely overuse the term “Dickensian.” In fact, there was only one Charles Dickens and there’ll never be another. So I won’t say that Tim Gautreaux’s magnificent, brand-new novel, The Missing, is Dickensian, just that it is chock-a-block with memorable and colorful characters, heart-pounding action, mysterious disappearances and reappearances, several journeys into the heart of darkness of the backwoods American South that make the more frightening passages of Deliverance seem tame – you get the picture.

The Missing is the story of World War I veteran Sam Simoneaux’s epic search up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers for a kidnapped child. Along the way, Sam, an itinerant piano player and steamboat hand, encounters some of the most evil yet compelling characters I can recall from contemporary fiction; fights his way through moccasin-infested swamps; confronts a hideously dark secret from his early childhood; and manages to retain the same basic human decency that has characterized many great American literary figures from Huck Finn to Inman in Cold Mountain. I didn’t think Louisiana’s Tim Gautreaux could ever surpass his own earlier masterwork, The Clearing. He has, though. The Missing probably wouldn’t have softened Dickens’ harsh opinion of outback America, but my, how Mr. D would have loved this story. For two snowy spring days and nights, I carried the book with me everywhere I went.

At least until the last years of his endlessly fascinating and inspiring life, Dr. Samuel Johnson didn’t care for, or understand, America and Americans any better than Charles Dickens did. I’ve often wondered what “Bear” Johnson would have thought of Huckleberry Finn or, say, Lonesome Dove. We’ll never know. This much is certain, however. Jeffrey Meyers’ new biography, Samuel Johnson: The Struggle, is a great literary accomplishment in its own right. Meyers’ book has been widely praised for its fresh, sympathetic exploration of Johnson’s psychic demons. I was equally taken by his account of the Great Cham’s – and here I go again – “Dickensian” youth and young adulthood as a tormented misfit: an unhappy child, college dropout, failed schoolteacher, ineffective bookseller, disappointed suitor, and most of all, struggling Grub Street freelancer. Meyers, who writes wonderfully himself, is marvelous on Johnson’s development as a writer.

“Johnson made writing sound so wretched, so full of mental anguish, that it’s surprising he ever wanted to be an author,” Meyers observes. And yet, aspiring writers of the world – and aren’t all of us clueless scribblers just that – take courage. Go down to your nearest independent bookstore. Locate Samuel Johnson: The Struggle. Read the first section of Chapter Six, “London Observed,” pp. 109-116. (Do not try this in a chain bookstore; you might be arrested for loitering before you’ve had a chance to buy the book.) If I’ve ever read anything better on the art of writing, I don’t know where. My thanks to Samuel Johnson, Jeffrey Meyers, and the independent booksellers of America.

Long-buried sarcophagi, arcane carvings and pictographs, tantalizing historical mysteries from an ancient Assyrian civilization. Wow. Booker Prize winner Barry Unsworth (Sacred Hunger) has all this and much, much more in his latest novel, Land of Marvels. I devoured it in three rapt sittings. This time around, Unsworth has spun a beautifully character-driven tale of a desperate, wildcat archaeologist, on the brink of failure and financial ruin, who unlocks a great secret deep in the heart of what’s now Iraq. Set in 1914, with its themes of German, British, and American imperialism, international intrigue, and willful violence and ignorance stretching back to the beginning of civilization, Land of Marvels is at once an exciting read and a sobering commentary on the past eight years of madness in the region once known as Persia. Unsworth ends his story with a sort of reverse deus ex machina catastrophe that some readers may feel diverts attention from his characters. But his cataclysmic ending has metaphorical implications of its own. One of the central dramatic questions of this fine novel is, what have we frail mortals learned, over the last 5,000 or so years, about the evils of power run amok? Sadly, the short answer to that question may be – nothing.

My goodness. Coleridge, Dickens, Dr. Johnson, Barry Unsworth – I seem this month to be drawn to writers British. Paul Micou, the author of eight of the flat-out funniest novels I’ve ever read, was born in San Francisco, graduated from Harvard, and currently lives in France. Some of his most hilarious fiction is set in and near London, where he’s also hung his hat. For starters, if you haven’t read Micou before, I’d recommend Rotten Times and his most recent novel, Confessions of a Map Dealer (2008). Dickens would surely roar over Paul’s feckless conmen, Henry Hart and Darius Saddler, but the writer he most reminds me of, in his exquisite exploration of human foibles and the human heart, is Jane Austen. And then, in Rotten Times, we have the incomparable portrait of the right-wing Governor Peele, from the American South, who is “as fervent a believer in the death penalty as he [is] in the rights of fertilized ova.” Poor Governor Peele. What to do when an unrepentant, multiple murderess who has offed three of her lovers and is due to be executed – becomes pregnant?

Back here in the arctic Northeast Kingdom spring, let it snow, let it snow, on into May and even June. It wouldn’t be the first time. With six more Paul Micou novels to go, and Tim Gautreaux’s The Missing to tell my bibliophile cronies about, I could care less.

Literary Updates from the Northeast Kingdom:

Do check out long-time Kingdom writer Garret Keizer’s brilliantly original, entirely accessible and very funny serious poem, “When the Snake Became a Man,” in the March 30th New Yorker; also his essay “Shine, Perishing Republicans” in the April issue of Harper’s. Garret is currently completing a book on the history and politics of noise. I’ve had a sneak preview. Garret’s forthcoming book is as entertaining as it is readable and timely.

Kingdom essayist Edward Hoagland, acclaimed as “the Thoreau of our times” by the Washington Post and “our best living essayist” by John Updike in the New York Times Book Review, has just published his 20th book. Early in the Season is the wonderful sequel to Hoagland’s acclaimed British Columbia memoir, Notes from the Century Before. Its evocations of a place and way of life that won’t be seen again, and profiles of the last frontiersmen and frontierswomen in North America, are incomparable. Whether he’s up in the wilds of northern Canada, deep in war-torn Africa, under the Ringling Bros. big top or at home on Wheeler Mountain in the Northeast Kingdom, Edward Hoagland is, for my money, the best line-by-line prose writer in America.

I started this blog – what a peculiar and unpleasant word! – by quoting a line from a Coleridge poem. I’ll end by directing readers to the best new work of poetry in America since Robert Frost’s North of Boston. Of course, I mean Kingdom poet Leland Kinsey’s book-length epic poem, The Immigrant’s Contract (David R. Godine, Inc., 2008). The Immigrant’s Contract chronicles the life and times of an unforgettable French Canadian immigrant and self-taught iconoclast who, over the course of a full, hard lifetime, works in the woods, trains horses, builds dams and wilderness roads, digs dinosaur bones in Alberta, runs a car-repair shop, tours nocturnal Havana with the beautiful moll of a Prohibition-era gangster, participates in a professional tug-of-war – the list goes on and on. Leland Kinsey, who has brought poetry and poetry writing to more than 100 schools in Vermont and New Hampshire, and is the author of six acclaimed collections of poems, including In the Rain Shadow and Family Drives, should be Vermont’s next State Poet. No one has ever written better about the people, natural history, and especially, work and indigenous activities of New England than this superb American poet.
Who says people don’t read anymore? Probably the same naysayers who’ll tell you that the short story is dead. Please watch for next month’s entry here in the Kingdom Journal. I’ll be writing about the half dozen or so wonderful new short-story collections I’ve read lately.

Happy spring reading!

Monday, February 23, 2009

Winter Reading--February 2009

For years I earned a significant part of my income – such as it was – by reviewing books. Reviewing assignments are harder to come by these days. Newspapers are running fewer reviews. Some papers have cut out their book review sections altogether. Not surprisingly, book sales themselves have plummeted lately, as the recession has deepened.

Still, I know nearly as many serious readers as I ever did, and somehow, through word of mouth and the tireless efforts of our beleaguered independent bookseller friends, good books are not going entirely unnoticed. I’ve read several recently, and discovered a few wonderful new writers, as well.

I just finished Matt Bondurant’s beautifully-written second novel, The Wettest County in the World. Bondurant’s book is based on the true story of his grandfather and two great uncles, who made their living running moonshine in the mountains of southwest Virginia. Bondurant handles the topics of family, community, and nature, all under stress, with great skill, and The Wettest County in the World is both entertaining and literary, in all the best senses.

Not far to the north of Bondurant’s backwoods haunts, in the hills of West Virginia, Lane Hollar wishes he were dealing with moonshiners. Instead, Hollar, the hard-shelled, appealingly misanthropic main character of Roger Alan Skipper’s marvelous second novel, The Baptism of Billy Bean, is trying to keep drug dealers out of his town and his grandson’s school. If you like James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux as much as I do, you’ll love Lane. The Baptism of Billy Bean is a first-rate literary thriller, rooted as deeply in outback West Virginia as the ginseng Lane loves to dig when he isn’t defending his home and family by whatever means it takes.

Lately, I’ve discovered the superb Civil War-era fiction of Mississippi’s Howard Bahr. For my money, Bahr’s The Black Flower and The Year of Jubilo rate with The Killer Angels as the very best fiction about the human consequences of what my beloved Georgia son-in-law, the talented country songwriter John Williamson, likes to refer to in my presence as the “War of Northern Aggression.”

Finally, do watch for Jim Lynch’s Border Songs and Jonathan Twingley’s The Badlands Saloon, both coming this summer. Lynch, who wrote The Highest Tide, has outdone even himself this time with a novel about a Washington state birder and savant who also just also happens to be a 6’ 8” Border Patrol agent with a gift for finding contraband and smugglers. The Badlands Saloon, for its part, is an endearing coming-of-age novel, with gorgeous, highly original illustrations by the author, set in North Dakota.

At least until the election of Barack Obama, I was terribly discouraged by America’s unprovoked invasion of Iraq, use of torture and domestic spying, and runaway oligarchy that has brought our economy to the brink of ruin. But you know what? There’s some happy news, too. American writers, writing about distinctly American places, are every bit as good as ever. The five I’ve mentioned here in the Kingdom Journal are all deeply in touch with their unforgettable characters, the natural world, and the literary tradition in which they write.

Please check out, or better yet buy, some of these fine books. You won’t be disappointed. I guarantee it.