Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Here’s a piece of very good news. Long-time Associated Press reporter and book reviewer, Bruce DeSilva, has written an absolutely terrific literary thriller. Right out of the ever-so-hardboiled, ever-so-good-hearted tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, DeSilva’s Rogue Island (Tom Doherty Associates) is the funniest and best-written suspense novel I’ve read in years.

Meet Liam Mulligan, a newspaperman’s newspaperman, who covers the gritty, often-horrifying underside of Providence, Rhode (Rogue) Island. Mulligan’s a wonderful character. He’s on the run from his half-crazed, estranged wife, at odds with his boss (and, come to think of it, just about everyone else), and as anarchical – and ethical – as they come. He’s got a car named Secretariat that barely runs, a girlfriend who won’t sleep with him until he goes for an AIDS test, and a string of unsolved, murderous arson cases to investigate in the neighborhood he grew up in.

Liam Mulligan’s whole life seems to be an illustration of Murphy’s Law writ large. But he is determined to get to the bottom of the fires that are literally burning up his home town before his eyes. Fire, in Mulligan’s beloved Providence, has “become an absolute force of evil. I heard the fire before I felt it, the flames sounding like a thousand flags snapping in the wind. I felt it before I saw it, the heat like a backhand slap from the devil.”

Don’t be fooled, though, by the non-stop drama, horror and black humor of DeSilva’s first novel. For all its merits as a thriller, Rogue Island is a highly serious work of fiction combining a fascinating and authentic evocation of a 21st-century American city with a lyrical tribute to the dying newspaper business.

Up here in my corner of New England, far from the mean streets of Providence, Marion Page’s posthumously published Searching for Hannerester (Radiant Hen Publishing) is the lovely story of a strange and compelling young woman gone missing in the mountainous wilds of Vermont.

One day Hannah Esther Dunney, a hired girl on the remote, backcountry farm where narrator Carrie Stafford lives with her stubborn, silent father, simply seems to disappear right into thin air. When Carrie’s father becomes the target of a local investigation, Page’s story, like DeSilva’s Rogue Island, is impossible to put down. It’s one of those rare novels like To Kill a Mockingbird and A Separate Peace that can be enjoyed on several levels, and with equal pleasure, by both young adults and older readers. Searching for Hannerester is, at once, an authentic account of life on a1950’s hill farm, an exploration of the social mores of small towns, and the story of several of the most touching and honest human relationships in recent fiction, YA or Adult.

Returning to the newspaper business, I want to mention Paul David Pope’s highly readable and informative family memoir, The Deeds of My Fathers. In 1951, Pope’s father, Gene, purchased the fabled National Enquirer, which he proceeded to transform into the quintessential supermarket tabloid. The story of the Enquirer simultaneously chronicles the rise of the celebrity culture and our insatiable greed for sentimental sensationalism, packaged as “journalism,” in twentieth century America. As Dominick Donne points out, The Deeds of My Fathers is also a riveting analysis of the way “money, crime, and power” have shaped the American vision.

My vision of the American West was recently expanded by S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon. This brilliant book by the former editor of Texas Monthly narrates the history of the Comanche Indian nation and its famous, mixed-blood chief, Quanah Parker. It’s the best non-fiction book about the West I’ve read since The Oregon Trail. S.C. Gwynne knows everything there is to know about the fearsome Comanche and their vast territory known as Comencheria, the arrival of the Spanish in the Southwest, the founding of the Republic of Texas and the Texas Rangers, and the natural history of the desert, plains, and southern Rockies. His insights into the culture of the Plains Indians in general are marvelously revealing. I loved everything about Empire of the Summer Moon. For me, it puts all literature of the West, from Little Big Man to Lonesome Dove, in a new perspective. What’s more, Gwynne is a most entertaining writer. His prose has the bite of a Texas sidewinder: “Because the [Comanche] did not have permanent villages, they were virtually impossible to locate; if you located them you were likely to wish you hadn’t.”

Finally, I just reread Oliver Goldsmith’s rollicking novel, The Vicar of Wakefield. This hilarious tale of an unlucky, 18th century English minister and his large family is thought to have been an inspiration to Jane Austen. In fact, there are some interesting similarities between the vicar’s wife and daughters and some of the characters in Pride and Prejudice. While there was only one Jane Austen, and there isn’t ever apt to be another, Goldsmith’s fiction may have paved the way for hers, to some extent, in much the same way Sherwood Anderson’s stories influenced Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s. What’s more, Goldsmith never forgets for a minute that one of the chief purpose of a novel is to entertain. “I don’t read for credit any more,” the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Richard Russo recently remarked. Me, neither. The enduring merit of The Vicar of Wakefield is that it is very, very funny and lively. MFA writing students take note. It’s okay, once in a while, for literature to be fun to read. Dickens understood that, so did Twain and Shakespeare. We 21st- century scribblers would do well to keep that in mind.

The book as we know it isn’t dead yet – see the next essay I’ll be posting later this week on my Kingdom Journal – but the first step in keeping books alive in the electronic era is to make sure that the ones we’re turning out are vital and engaging to read – like Rogue Island and Empire of the Summer Moon.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fall Reading

Fall has always been my favorite time of year. In the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where Phillis and I have now lived for 46 years, we have mud-time instead of spring. This past June our apple trees were hammered by a hard, white frost. Winters are long, summers fleeting, but fall, to me, is a time of beginning.
For instance, I’ve just begun two new novels. Novelists like to pick the right season to undertake new fiction. It’s important to feel invigorated when you’re getting a novel off the ground because there are no shortcuts or blueprints and, as I’ve often said at my book events, I really do have to teach myself how to write a novel all over again every time I start a new one.

Fall is an invigorating time to read, too. Thoreau says we should read as carefully, and with as much energy and dedication, as we write. Of course, that depends partly on what we’re reading. Read Walden hurriedly and you’ll probably miss what it’s all about. On the other hand, who needs to savor James Lee Burke’s Louisiana thrillers? I’ll tell you who: me. I just finished Burke’s The Glass Rainbow, for my money the best novel yet in his Dave Robicheaux series. Maybe there’s something that Burke, the poet laureate of thriller writers, doesn’t know about Deep South politics, weather, trees and animals, history, and families. I can’t imagine what, though. Most of all, he knows a great deal about the human heart. My favorite character in The Glass Rainbow? As usual it’s Dave’s best bud Clete, a hopelessly romantic, loyal, ultra-violent human wrecking ball whose anarchistic behavior on Dave’s behalf always reminds me that one of Burke’s main themes, whatever the plot, is friendship. That, and family, are about what Dave’s left with in a world that otherwise seems, like the world we live in, to have run totally amuck.

A few hours southeast of Burke’s murky bayous and off-the-beaten-path roadhouses, the alligator-infested swamps and high-priced condos of South Florida have long been the literary domain of America’s funniest serious writer, Carl Hiaasen. Hiaasen’s recent Star Island is his most hilarious novel to date. In Star Island Hiaasen, who combines the ruthless satirical sensibilities of Alexander Pope with the laugh-out-loud comedy of, say, A Confederacy of Dunces, skewers the idiocies of American pop-culture bad girls and their fans. Wait til you meet Cherry “Cherish” Pye, who makes Paris and Britney look like Mother Theresa, not to mention the camera-toting paparazzi who dog her every step. I’m delighted to report that Hiaasen’s marvelous ex-governor, Skink, is very much alive and well – physically, anyway – in Star Island. And in Ann DeLusia, who doubles for Cherry whenever the singing star has a meltdown, by decoying the media away from Miss Pye, Hiaasen has created one of the most appealing young women since Ruby of Cold Mountain. You know what, though? I think who we’re really laughing at, in Hiaasen’s elegantly-written, no-holds-barred send-ups, is ourselves. For all of our crazy excesses, comic and otherwise, Americans have always been experts at self-satire. I know, I know. Even comic literature, in these grim, latter days, is supposed to be work, not fun, to read. So if you’re really set on not being entertained, please don’t read Carl Hiaasen. Oh, and by the way. Don’t bother with Dickens or Twain, either. You’ll just be disappointed.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of visiting Chelsea Green Publishing, in White River Junction. I came home with an armful of wonderful books. Somehow, I’d missed my favorite nature writer Janisse Ray’s Pinhook (Chelsea Green, 2005), a beautifully-written memoir of the watershed of that name connecting the Okefenokee Swamp and the Osceola National Forest. The word is that Ray, author of the acclaimed Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a hymn to growing up in her father’s junkyard near the last big stand of Georgia long-leaf pines, has a new book coming soon from Chelsea Green. Sign me up for half a dozen copies. She’s marvelous.

What press other than Chelsea Green would have the artistic and political guts and sense of humor to publish a book called Holy Shit? That’s right, Holy Shit is the title of Gene Logsdon’s “inside story of manure – our greatest, yet most misunderstood, natural resource.” Wendell Berry hails Logsdon as “the most experienced and best observer of agriculture we have.” I agree. Holy Shit is a charming and knowledgeable book about – well, just that.

I’ve admired Bill Kauffman’s books for years. His brand-new Bye Bye, Miss American Empire (Chelsea Green, 2010) is his best yet. Bye Bye, Miss American Empire is a history of breakaway, secessionist movements in the United States. It’s a fearless and endlessly fascinating study of wing-nuts like Mississippi’s Robert T. Walker, our “first neocon. . . a pygmy popinjay out to rule the world,” and visionaries like Vermont’s leading “decentralist” scholar, my long-time friend Frank Bryan. Recently, a guy I know suggested in a letter to the local paper that Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom fence itself off, then put up a sign welcoming all who wish to come here to fish, hunt, visit or live – “as long as they don’t tell the rest of us how to conduct our lives and business.” Who might that be? Well, his initials are HFM and he was at least partly serious. I guess secession would be the next step. “Welcome to civilization,” somebody greeted me the last time I ventured down out of the Northeast Kingdom to Burlington. Oh? You go, Bill Kauffman. Bye, Bye, Miss American Empire is an appealing, elegantly written, and entirely American book.

A quick footnote. Watch this coming spring for Edward Hoagland’s latest collection of essays, Sex and the River Styx, from Chelsea Green. Sex and the River Styx is a beautifully-written tribute to what’s left of our embattled natural world, by the writer hailed by the Washington Post as “the Thoreau of our times.” It’s a heartbreaking account by one of America’s very finest writers, of our systematic destruction of the natural world. Three cheers for Edward Hoagland, and for Chelsea Green Publishing.

Literary updates from the Green Mountain State. Speaking of Burlington, that “ultra-civilized city” on the shore of Lake Champlain, there are glad tidings. The Burlington Book Festival, which just keeps getting better and better, will feature, from September 24 through September 26, a number of great writers, including Ann Beattie, Howard Norman, Rick Moody, Amy Hempel, Jon Clinch, Galway Kinnell, and Maxine Kumin.

Volume XII of the Vermont Literary Review, an excellent periodical published by Castleton State College, showcases a terrific selection of non-fiction, poetry, artwork, and fiction. For starters, try “Dixon Brothers,” a lovely and deeply moving short story by St. Albans physician and Vermont author Stephen Russell Payne.

Three Northeast Kingdom friends and colleagues have interesting and original works-in-progress. Barton’s Leland Kinsey, author of six acclaimed poetry collections, including In the Rain Shadow and The Immigrant’s Contract, is coming down the stretch with his seventh book, Winter Ready. Winter Ready – I love the title – is a new collection set mainly in the Kingdom in the fall. Lee Kinsey is my choice for our next Vermont poet. Frequently singled out as one of our most authentic and finest contemporary writers, Mr. Kinsey has also, through the Vermont Arts Council and various private foundations, brought poetry and poetry writing to scores of Vermont schools and thousands of young Vermonters. A seventh-generation Vermonter himself, he’s the ideal selection for state poet of Vermont.
Garret Keizer, whose recently-published The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want (Public Affairs) received rave reviews from the New York Times to the Stephen Colbert Show, has just signed a contract with Picador’s Big Ideas/Small Books series for a book on privacy. Privacy, as Garret’s forthcoming book will be called, couldn’t come at a better time, in my opinion. What, oh, what would Thoreau have said about the almost complete absence of this fundamental human right in our strange, electronic era? We’ll never know. I, for one, can’t wait to hear what Garret Keizer, a contributing editor at Harper’s and one of America’s foremost essayists and public intellectuals, has to say about it.
Kingdom novelist Don Bredes is concluding a young adult novel, Polly and the One and Only World, chronicling the odyssey of a girl working her way from south to north through an apocalyptic American landscape in the near future. Bredes, author of the popular Hector Bellevance literary thriller series, wrote a fabulous first novel, Hard Feelings, which just happens to be my all-time favorite first-person account by a fictional teenager since The Catcher in the Rye. I’m greatly looking forward to his new YA book.

And while my close friend Jeffrey Lent doesn’t live in the Kingdom, but rather in Chelsea, VT, and in his own wonderful equivalent of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, which is to say his imagination, I can’t wait for a crack at his forthcoming novel Luck On Sunday, which the acclaimed author of In the Fall and After You’ve Gone describes as his “Iraq vet/meth/suicide/home-invasion/almost-but-not-quite thriller.” If Jeffrey writes it, I’ll read it. So, too, you can bet, so will tens of thousands of other Lent fans. I do indeed regard him as Faulkner’s heir apparent.
Finally, I’d like to refer fiction readers to my guest review on of Howard Norman’s magnificent new Nova Scotia novel, What Is Left the Daughter. I think What Is Left the Daughter is the best book thus far by Norman, who is widely considered to be one of America’s very finest novelists. It’s set in a tiny coastal village during World War II. As always, however, Mr. Norman’s marvelously individualistic, honest, and appealing characters will reside in my heart, as well, for – well, forever.

“Read a thousand books, write one,” the adage goes. Most writers I know read and re-read hundreds upon hundreds of books for each one they write. Recently, I returned for the nth time to Lucky Jim and A Confederacy of Dunces. Which one, I kept wondering, is funnier? I don’t know. Maybe whichever one I happen to be reading at the time. Still, my all-time favorite comic novel is J. P. Donleavy’s The Ginger Man.

I just finished John Verdon’s first novel, an absolutely terrifying and exceptionally well-written thriller called Think of a Number. When Dave Gurney, NYPD’s chief homicide investigator, retires with his wife to peaceful, rural Delaware County, in upstate New York, he thinks he’s finished with serial killers forever. Not quite, it turns out. If, like me, you love to try to solve crimes alongside your favorite fictional investigator, get ready for a delicious challenge. Nelson DeMille writes that John Verdon’s Think of a Number is “unputdownable.” It surely is. Now I’m hoping to see more of Dave Gurney soon. Edgar Allan Poe would’ve loved Think of a Number, but I’m not at all sure that even the author of “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Tell-Tale Heart” would have figured out whodunit. (No, I didn’t.)

Next on my list is Peter Taylor’s A Summons to Memphis, one of the saddest and best novels I’ve ever read (and re-read). It has the economy of a great short story and the emotional force of a Lucinda Williams’ ballad.

I have some September book events of my own coming up (please see the calendar of events on this website). At them, no doubt, I’ll be asked more than once what advice I’d give to beginning fiction writers. Read the greatest novels and short stories you can get your hands on, I’ll say. Then read ’em again. But wait. That’s it? Nothing more to add? I’m afraid not. I really don’t know what else to tell aspiring writers. Which, come to think of it, is what we all are, veteran novelists and beginners alike, each time we go to our desk and, as Edward Hoagland once wrote, “up on the tightrope again.”

Happy fall reading!

Thursday, August 5, 2010


My logger neighbor Ed called me a few weeks ago and asked if I’d like to see some pretty lumber. Well, sure. I don’t know a lot about lumber, but I was born in a company-owned woodworking town famous for its quartered-oak office furniture, and decades ago, after a week at the renowned MFA writing program at the University of California at Irvine, I bid a last, tearless farewell to the academic world, drove home to Vermont in two and a half days, and went to work in the woods myself. My boss was a former Prohibition-era whiskeyrunner, moonshiner, and poacher named Jake Blodgett, who became the inspiration for the logger and riverdriver Noel Lord in my novel Where the Rivers Flow North and, better yet, the namesake of my son Jake.

Ed was cutting tamarack, for deck flooring. I knew that tamarack lumber was very water-resistant, and was once widely used for stable and covered bridge planking. I didn’t know how beautiful it is. Ed’s boards were shot through with red and amber streaks, and a handsome ochre color similar to the color that tamarack trees themselves turn in the late fall just before they drop their needles.

That evening, after admiring the gorgeous red-and-yellow boards, and reminiscing with Ed about my long-ago stint as an apprentice logger up in the Great North Woods near the Canadian border, I was in exactly the right frame of mind to plunge into John Irving’s fifteenth novel, Last Night in Twisted River, which starts out in a remote lumber camp in northernmost New Hampshire, not far from my home in Vermont’s fabled “Northeast Kingdom.”

I say “plunge into” advisedly, because like a number of other books by John Irving, Last Night in Twisted River is lengthy: 565 pages, to be exact, counting the Afterword. It just doesn’t seem long. I spent most of my evenings during the last week of July and the first week of August with Irving’s latest ensemble of ever-so-human characters, who soon became my regular nightly companions. When I finished the story, I felt as though it could have gone on another 500 pages without boring me in the least. That’s a feeling I haven’t had with a long novel since I finished Lonesome Dove.

Last Night in Twisted River begins with two horrifying events: an accidental drowning during a log drive in 1954 on one of New Hampshire’s last wilderness rivers; and an instance of involuntary, but extremely bloody, manslaughter, in which young Danny Baciagalupo (Italian for “Kiss of the Wolf”) mistakes his father’s girlfriend for a ravaging bear and smashes in her skull with a lumber-camp frying pan, killing her instantly.

What ensues is the most memorable father-son road trip I’ve ever read. Danny and his father Dominic spend much of the rest of their lives fleeing a vengeful New Hampshire constable named “Cowboy Carl,” who is determined to find them and gun them down. Dominic, an expert chef, initially relocates himself and Danny in an Italian neighborhood in the North End of Boston. There, a sympathetic teacher helps launch Danny on his way to becoming a world-famous author. (He writes under the name Danny Angel, to avoid detection by Cowboy Carl.)

With the constable hot on their trail, Danny and his father move to Iowa City, then Vermont, then back to Iowa – where Danny Angel teaches at the famous writers workshop – to Vermont again, Toronto, and finally to an isolated island in Georgian Bay on Lake Huron. Place is important to John Irving, and his evocations of America (and its history from the War in Vietnam to the attack on 9/11/2001) are wonderful. Here’s the acclaimed author of The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules on Danny’s island writing retreat in the Ontario wilds:

“The mid-February storm had blown across Lake Huron from western Canada, but when the wind and snow hit the Georgian Bay islands, the wind shifted and the snow just kept falling. The wind now blew from a southerly direction, from Parry Sound to Shawanaga Bay. From his writing shack, Danny could no longer see where the bay ended and the mainland began. Because of the whiteout from the storm, the fir trees on what Danny knew was the mainland appeared as a mirage of a floating forest – or the trees seemed to be growing out of the frozen bay. The wind whipped little spirals of snow skyward; these twisters looked like small tornadoes of snow.”

It’s the magnificent characters, however, that make Last Night at Twisted River such a remarkable novel. It’s hard to make a writer come to life in fiction. After all, writers spend most of the day, and many nights as well, alone with their imaginations. There’s nothing very dramatic about that. But Danny is such a fine creation, such a good, if deeply conflicted and self-indicting, father and son himself, that we come to care deeply for him, as we do for Dominic, and to hope against hope that they will be able to continue eluding the homicidal cowboy-constable from New Hampshire.

As usual, Irving generously treats his readers to a host of unforgettable minor characters. Many of them could have come right out of the pages of a Dickens novel. (John Irving credits Dickens, in his fascinating Afterword on his writing process, for inspiring him to want to write.) My favorite minor character from Last Night in Twisted River isn’t minor at all. Old Ketchum, a resourceful, blasphemous, violent, wildly hilarious yet ever-so-kind-hearted woodsman, Dominic’s best friend from his days as a lumber-camp cook, undertakes to “look out for” Danny (whose mother died young). Ketchum may well be the most vital character in this novel. I’d put him right up there with those marvelous old Texas Rangers in Lonesome Dove, Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call.

I loved the Italian and Chinese chefs Dominic and Danny meet in Boston and Iowa City. And I won’t soon forget Ketchum’s two-fisted girlfriend, Six-Pack Pam, or Lady Sky (a strapping strawberry blonde who sky-dives naked!), or the trouble-making, “bad old broads” May and Dot, or a dozen others.

As a bonus, Irving has a good deal to say, in Last Night in Twisted River, about Danny’s (and his own) writing process. It’s all interesting; in fact, I’d recommend the novel to aspiring fiction writers for the solid information it offers on the craft of writing. Irving is especially insightful on the largely-overlooked virtues, in our era, of plotting.

Years ago, when I finished The Cider House Rules, I really didn’t see how John Irving could ever surpass that masterpiece. I think he has, though. Last Night in Twisted River is a great story, written beautifully and with unflagging honesty, emotional force, and artistic daring.

Finally, on a personal level, I’m pretty sure that my hero Ketchum (he has no known first name) would have approved of my decision to jettison my academic career forty-some years ago and go to work in the woods with Jake Blodgett. In fact, I’m one hundred percent sure he’d have approved. Now Irving’s old woodsman – like Pip, Huck, Queequeg, Gus and Woodrow, Lucky Jim and Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet – is my friend for life. That means a lot to me.

So thank you, John Irving, for helping to keep traditional storytelling, in the best literary sense, alive in this strange, electronic age we live in. Charles Dickens didn’t have many good things to say about America, but I think he’d have loved this quintessentially American novel by one of the greatest fiction writers of our time. I know I did.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Literary Discovery

In 1864, in the northernmost action of the Civil War, two dozen Confederate soldiers rode hell-for-leather down over the Canadian border into Vermont and robbed the principal bank of the booming Vermont railroad town of St. Albans. After shooting up the main street, killing an elderly local citizen, and trying to set fire to the bank and several other buildings, the raiders galloped back off across the border with nearly $100,000. Legend has it that the loot was buried at the foot of the mountain across the road from my house, not far south of the border. Of course, the buried treasure is just a local myth. Yet more than once I have glanced up at the steep, wild mountainside holding our hamlet in its shadow and thought, what if . . . .

It’s the same with literature. What masterpieces may have burned to cinders when the library at Alexandria went up in flames? Another Iliad or Odyssey? What new gospels may yet be unearthed in an urn in Egypt? There are precedents. Boswell’s letters turned up in a stack of wrapping paper in a notions shop in the French town of Boulogne-sur-Mer. In 1930, the original manuscript of The Life of Johnson was discovered in, of all things, a croquet box. Then there is the American novelist Walker Percy’s astonishing account of the barrage of phone calls that he received from a New Orleans resident whose son, now dead, had written a “great novel.” After putting her off as long as he politely could, Percy finally, with enormous reluctance, agreed to look at the manuscript of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

This said, I fear that the legends of undiscovered literary treasures accumulating dust in garrets and locked away in forgotten trunks are, for the most part, just that: legends, as fabulous as that of the purloined gold on our Vermont mountain. So it’s still something of a mystery to me that I actually asked to read Beverly Jensen’s manuscript. In April of 2006, Katrina Kenison, the long-time editor of Houghton Mifflin’s annual Best American Short Stories anthology, mentioned to me that she had recently read a wonderful manuscript by a writer who had died in 2003. Having just participated in a lengthy judging process as a member of a jury panel with Katrina, I had a very high regard for her critical acumen and taste. So while there are few surprises that I dread more than the discovery, in my mailbox, of a thick padded envelope almost certain to contain an unsolicited manuscript to read and comment on, I heard myself say, to my own great astonishment, “I’d be interested in taking a look at those stories.”

In due time, the manuscript arrived. With it was a kind note from Jay Silverman, Beverly Jensen’s husband, explaining that she had written the enclosed book while raising their two children. It had been edited, after Beverly’s death, by Jay and by her writing teacher, Jenifer Levin, author of the acclaimed Water Dancer and other novels. Jay said that he would appreciate any advice I might be able to offer toward the end of publishing the book.

I sat down with the manuscript and began to read. What struck me first is that I felt that I knew these characters. I knew them the way I knew my neighbors of decades, and even my own family. Beverly Jensen’s hard-bitten country folk seemed real to me in a way that I had only very rarely experienced before. Reading her manuscript was reminiscent of the day I discovered Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find and read it in a sitting. I finished Beverly’s book about ten o’clock that evening. The Red Sox were playing the Yankees on television, and I am a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation. But I had entirely forgotten about the baseball game. Instead, I had read a literary masterwork.

The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay chronicles nearly seventy years in the lives of two families related by marriage, the Hillocks and the Jensens. It opens with the starkly-titled “Gone,” narrating a crisis in childbirth, in 1916, of the author’s maternal grandmother, Mary Emeline Hillock, in a remote corner of New Brunswick. Its climax comes in 1966 with the catastrophic funeral of Mary Emeline’s husband, “Wild Bill” Hillock. Many of the stories are set in rural Maine, where the main recurring character, Idella, Wild Bill’s eldest daughter and the author’s mother, lived most of her adult life. Among my favorite characters are Idella’s philandering husband, Edward, with his capacity to incite all kinds of uproarious family debacles; Edward’s Dickensian mother, Jessie, who temporarily disowns her own daughter; and Idella’s wild and irrepressible younger sister, Avis.

What I find most notable about Jensen’s tales is their astonishing variety. Some, like “Gone” and “Pomme de Terre,” are as harsh and bleak as the rugged Maritime countryside where they take place. Both hinge on secrets as grim as any you’d find in Annie Proulx’s darkest fiction. “Cherry Cider” uses humor to reveal the profound contradictions of what it means to be a human being. Most depict the cultural and social realities of life in rural New Brunswick and northern New England. For this reason Beverly Jensen’s work will be compared to that of Willa Cather and Sarah Orne Jewett, with which it shares an appreciation for nature, highly independent-minded individualists, and the potential goodness of a world, however imperfect, that is still worth celebrating. Yet her fiction never veers too close to purely “regional” writing. There’s no hokey phonetic spelling to represent local dialect, not a drop of condescension or satire at the expense of colorful bucolic “characters.” Rather, like Faulkner and Frost, Beverly Jensen makes expert use of original images and sharply-drawn scenes to fix her people and their stories in our minds.

The book opens, for example, with an unforgettable image of Avis’s and Idella’s shoes hanging in a tree while the children scour the nearby woods for mayflowers to present to their pregnant mother. Bill’s worn-out workboots are “cracked like a broken chimney.” A cow “drawls” from the barn, and later in the book a treacherous frozen rain taps on a church like “thousands of little chickens picking on the floor and walls and windows.”

Stylistically, Jensen’s work is distinguished by the easy rhythms of good storytelling, reminiscent of, say, Joseph Mitchell and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Most of the chapters in The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay, Jay Silverman told me, went through multiple drafts and revisions. The result is easy to read, ever-so-hard to achieve. Consider the stately, simple prose of the following paragraph from “Wake”: “Idella closed the hymn book she’d held absently throughout the funeral and put it on the pew beside her. She’d done more watching than singing, absorbing the look of all the faces around her. They were simple faces with hard edges and lines like cracked cement across their foreheads and around their mouths and eyes. The lantern light made these crevices seem even deeper. These faces, tilted forward in song or bent down in prayer, had met storms and winds of one kind or another, head-on, all their lives. They worked fields that were best suited to brambles and wild grasses, struggling, Dad and Uncle Sam included, to unearth potatoes and carrots and turnips along with the rocks that seemed to multiply with every turn of a spade. These were the people she’d known as a little girl living up here so long ago. They hunted and fished and lived off the land and by their wits, which were more considerable and deep-rooted than their plantings, and hardier than an outsider might suspect.”

Beverly Jensen grew up hearing from her mother and aunt many of the stories that would make their way into The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay. Born in Westbrook, Maine, in 1953, Jensen graduated from the University of Maine and received an M.F.A. in drama from Southern Methodist. After a successful career as an actor, she left the stage to have her own family. In their home in New York, she would read her day’s writing to Jay, a professor at Nassau Community College, and a textbook author. Inspired by the contemporary fiction of Alice Munro, among others, she revised tirelessly. Yet Jay told me that Beverly wasn’t comfortable with self-promotion and networking. She was a writer, not a salesman, more like Idella than Edward in her ability to “recreate someone else’s thoughts and feelings.” As an actor, Jay recalls, Beverly studied her characters endlessly, determined to know every last detail about them. Her fiction illustrates the same capability to subsume her own personality to that of characters as diverse as Bill and Idella, Avis and Jessie.

For me, The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay defines character-driven fiction, and the characters at the heart of this splendid collection are Bill, Idella, and Avis Hillock. If Jessie Jensen, Idella’s damaged mother-in-law, is the weirdest member of the extended family, Wild Bill is the most complicated. A man of violent outbursts and “black moods,” often drunk, sometimes abusive, he is, of course, his own worst enemy. “God help me, I’ll try,” Bill says of the formidable task of raising his small daughters. He does try, but it’s too much for him. He urges Avis to drink whiskey with his poker-playing buddies. There are hints that he encourages her, as a little girl and teenager, to sleep with him. Avis, for her part, is irrepressible, anarchistic, earthy and defiant. After moving to New England, she winds up linked with Boston crime figures and spends a couple of years in jail.

It is Idella, caregiver and fixer extraordinaire, who stands at the moral center and the heart of Jensen’s collection. She has a marvelous, ironical appreciation of all the feckless Hillocks and Jensens, though at times she is also their unwitting enabler. At her father’s funeral, she reflects about the arc of her life.
“Idella had left this Canada far behind and gone to find a better life. It was just being a maid, after all, and a household cook, but it had led to meeting Edward and marrying and having the store and house in Westbrook. She felt rich by comparison, wrapped in her squirrel coat, knowing she had a nice house to go home to down in Maine and a grocery to run. She’d set out, launched herself forward as best she could, and felt both relieved and saddened to have done so.”

While Bill, Avis, and Edward don’t ever really redeem themselves, they are redeemed for me, at least, by Idella’s great empathy for them. Her love is matched only by Beverly Jensen’s, whose superb fiction is a gift to all of us fortunate enough to read her.

In the end, The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay is a greater treasure by far than any I could hope to find buried on a mountain. It is an artistic exploration of the capacity of even the most embattled of families to maintain its identity. “I’m stuck being a Hillock,” Idella’s drunken brother says bluntly in “Wake.” That each and every Hillock and Jensen in this collection should touch us so deeply is a tribute to Beverly Jensen, a writer of great humor, great compassion, and great knowledge of the human heart.

(For a full account of the remarkable story of how The Sisters of Hardscrabble Bay came to be published, see Jay Silverman’s essay at

Monday, May 31, 2010

Summer Reading II

Some years ago, Garret Keizer, a writer from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, published an acclaimed memoir called No Place But Here, chronicling his experiences as an English teacher at a local high school. Garret followed No Place But Here with several other books on subjects as diverse as working as a lay priest at an Episcopal church, exploring the concepts of “help” and “anger” in human relationships and society, and, in a highly-praised young adult novel, God of Beer, examining the troubling, and somewhat taboo, phenomenon of teenage drinking in America. With The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want: A Book about Noise (Public Affairs, 2010), Garret has published his best book to date. Hailed by both the daily New York Times and the Times Book Review as the best of several recent books on noise, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want takes us from Japan to Holland to New York City to the Canadian wilderness to Garret’s own Northeast Kingdom township, in a brilliant and wonderfully human search for how we raucous, clamoring noise-makers may yet be able to enjoy “the most beautiful sound in the world.” What’s that? I won’t give it away. Read Garret’s witty, tolerant, erudite and beautifully written masterwork on the loudest species on earth and find out.


Over the past several years, the fiction of Chris Bohjalian has taken a darker turn. While Chris’s vision of our world as a place where it is never necessary and never right to treat others unkindly has remained as unchanged and timeless as the Golden Rule from which it derives, his acclaimed, previous novel, Skeletons at the Feast, recounts the horrific odyssey of a refugee family across eastern Europe during World War II, and is, in fact, one of the darkest, and most powerful, novels of the struggle to maintain our human decency in the time of war, I’ve ever read. In Chris’s latest book, Secrets of Eden, the acclaimed author of Midwives and The Double Bind takes a long, unsparing look at domestic violence. Like teenage drinking, which Garret Keizer addresses so honestly and originally in God of Beer, “domestic” violence has long been a kind of forbidden subject in America, so distressful and unthinkable that it has been almost off-limits, even in our fiction. No more. In Secrets of Eden, master-storyteller Bohjalian shows us, in crystalline prose and with deep empathy, how domestic abuse does violence not just to victims like Alice Hayward, shot dead by her drunken husband, but to entire families and communities, and not just in places like Taliban-controlled provinces of Afghanistan, but idyllic-appearing villages in Vermont, as well. I don’t want to give away the plot of Chris Bohjalian’s twelfth and best novel, but there’s a character in Secrets of Eden whom I absolutely fell in love with from the start and who now ranks with Pip from Great Expectations and Huck Finn in my all-time favorite pantheon of fictionalized young people. That brings me back to Chris Bohjalian’s personal vision. If my reading of Secrets of Eden is accurate, I believe that Chris is suggesting, in this heartbreaking but ultimately affirmative novel, that even in the face of the worst – and most violent – choices that life presents us with, we still always have the capability to do what is right and necessary to retain our identity as kind and loving creations.


You know what’s really exciting to a veteran book reviewer? To discover a new writer with a fresh voice and vision. I’ve just finished Creston Lea’s first book of fiction, Wild Punch (I love that title), and for my money, it’s the best collection of coming-of-age short stories I’ve read since Hemingway’s In Our Time. Though some of his stories range far out over the American landscape, Creston Lea knows his corner of northern New England the way Annie Proulx knows Wyoming and Ivan Doig knows Montana. He knows all there is to know about haying, ice-cutting, moto-cross racing, country music, itinerant laborers, footloose young people who reminded me of the characters of Kerouac and Kesey. These are brave, honest, powerfully felt stories from a remarkably poised and intelligent young writer. And that is news worth celebrating because, please, keep this in mind. Kindles and iPads and bookstores going out of business like family dairy farms, and people not reading as much because we’re glued to the internet or working three jobs to keep a step ahead of the repo men, and newspapers and book review sections going under, and – well, you get the idea. None of all the bad news for books, and it surely is bad, matters if courageous young writers don’t go right ahead anyway and pour out their good hearts and good stories for us the way Creston Lea has in Wild Punch. It’s an absolutely terrific work of fiction by the best young writer I’ve read in years.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Summer Reading

Meet Gavin Gresham, a self-styled cynic, who owns a sheep farm in the northern hills of Vermont. Gavin, the hero of R.L. Berenbaum’s very funny novel, Gresham’s Law: A Fable of Early 21st Century America, is also somewhat of a recluse. He’ll drop by the local diner for a chat and a snack, and he’s good friends with an older, neighbor couple. Other than that, Gavin’s happy to live and let live, and to be left alone. But when an exceedingly obnoxious letter appears in the local paper stating that anyone who doesn’t agree with the author’s religious position will “burn,” Gavin’s had enough. He writes a long rejoinder, beginning with the observation that “There is very little wrong in this world that couldn’t be made right by the absolute abolition of religion.” What follows, as all hell breaks loose in Gavin’s formerly peaceful little corner of the Green Mountain State, is an often-hilarious, very suspenseful, exceedingly intelligent and unsentimentally touching modern-day retelling of the Book of Job, with a redeeming love story included. R.L. Berenbaum, who “lives and writes in a turret in northern Vermont, assisted by a cat, Evil Donald,” is a first-rate storyteller with an engaging voice. Of Gresham’s Law, Reeve Lindbergh says, “In this intelligent, ironic, and thoughtfully crafted novel, Berenbaum offers a host of lively characters whose opinions are as stimulating as the northern climate.” I was rooting for Gavin from the start. As a matter of fact, in more ways than one, he reminded me quite a bit of myself. (Gresham’s Law is available in northern New England bookstores, and from Railroad Street Press in St. Johnsbury, VT -, or

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Great American Book Tour: Week 8, Installment 5

For my two events in western New York State – Joe Hoffman’s excellent indie bookstore in Brockport, Lift Bridge Books, on April 26, and Hallwell’s downtown arts center, with Jon Welch’s renowned Talking Leaves Books, on April 27, in Buffalo – I decided to stay in Batavia, about mid-way between Buffalo and Brockport.

A few years ago, Batavia’s “Three Counties, One Book” program kindly selected my novel Northern Borders as their community pick, and invited me to speak at schools and libraries in their beautiful, upstate farming country. Coincidentally – or otherwise – Batavia is where, in the fall of 2001, returning home from a West Coast book tour, I had one of the strangest – and best – experiences of my life. Just before dawn, as I headed east on the New York State Thruway, an image flashed through my mind of a little boy, looking out of an upper window of a Vermont farmhouse at a man in the moonlight, smoking a cigarette and leaning against the barn door. The stranger was wearing a Red Sox cap, and looked somewhat like the great Sox outfielder Ted Williams. The image came and went in less than a second, but I immediately got off the interstate, went into a McDonald’s in Batavia – and proceeded to outline the major scenes of my 2004 baseball novel, Waiting for Teddy Williams.

Go figure, right? Probably I’d been thinking about the story, in the back of my mind, for years and years. Even so, it was a wondrous occurrence. Nothing like it had ever happened to me before or since – until, that is, last week.

This time, approaching the Batavia exit on the Thruway, I’d been consciously thinking about the best way to tell a story that’s haunted me for decades. Suddenly, in my imagination, I clearly heard a voice that sounded something like my own say, “The simplest approach is always best.”

Well. While I will readily concede that, like many another writer, I have spent my entire adult life dreaming up crazy stories (Disappearances springs to mind as Exhibit A), I’m not given to hearing voices. What was this all about?

Once again, I don’t have the faintest idea. All I know is that, over the next forty hours, in addition to doing my events in Brockport and Buffalo, I rewrote a dozen or so scenes from my new novel-in-progress from the simplest narrative perspective and felt – correctly or otherwise; we’ll see – that I’d found the heart of the story.

This much is clear to me. Writing, like any creative endeavor – for some reason, teaching also comes to mind though I taught for only a few years – is a very mysterious process. I suppose the same is true of any work that we do for the love of it. I just wish those mysterious “moments,” wherever they come from, would occur more frequently than once or twice in a lifetime.

Tune in next time for a portrait of a bookseller’s bookseller, in a place where you might not expect to find any bookseller at all.

The Great American Book Tour: Week 8, Installment 4

Some years ago Dr. Amy Rosenfield, a GP in between practices and a born bibliophile, decided to switch professions. Like me, Amy loves a good story – she’s a fantastic storyteller herself – so she took a job as a bookseller at Joseph Beth’s Cleveland indie, started several store-based bookclubs, and, in general, dedicated her life to reading, discussing and promoting books. Minutes after my event at Joseph Beth’s ended, Cleveland was hammered by a violent thunderstorm. I didn’t even know it was raining, however, until I left the store. I was too caught up in Amy Rosenfield’s personal take on the opening of one of her – and my- all-time favorite novels: Moby Dick. “You know,” she said, “when I reread the beginning chapter as an adult, I realized that Ishmael is depressed. He’s actually contemplating suicide. So what does he do? Well, he goes to sea to try the geographical cure. Now I imagine him as an old man, sitting in the back of a tavern, telling his great story to a young version of himself, a young Ismael. “Call me Ismael . . . . ”

At this point, gigantic jags of orange lightning lit up the sky. Tornado warnings were coming over someone’s cell phone, but I was so caught up in Amy Rosenfield’s retelling of Melville’s grand saga that I’d have sat there listening if the entire city of Cleveland had blown away and here, I said to myself, right here and now, this is why I set out on my great American book tour, my own geographical quest for readers and books and stories. (“Call me – Howard?” That doesn’t sound right.) Thank you, Herman Melville. Thank you, Dr. Amy and your indie colleagues, including, especially, Jon Welch of Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo, where I concluded the nationwide swing of my tour two nights later. First, though, came Howard’s Excellent and Totally Inexplicable Adventure in Batavia. Please see my blog tomorrow for an account of this eerie and unaccountable experience.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Great American Book Tour: Week 8, Installment 3

Chicago has the damndest system of “tolling,” as they are pleased to call it, in the universe. Like college calculus, it’s simple enough if you understand it. I didn’t. I ran half a dozen or so toll booths before I even figured out what they were. Good job, Mr. Vermonter.

Roberta Rubin, owner of the Bookstall at Chestnut Court in Winnetka, on the northeast side of Chicago, has championed books, authors, and independent readers for 28 years. Decades ago, Roberta was one of the first booksellers to come up with the idea of using bookclubs as a way for indie stores to survive, and lectured widely on the subject. That evening the terrific staff of Anderson’s, over in Naperville, on the southwest edge of the Windy City, turned out a big audience (as usual) to hear the born liar from the Green Mountain State hold forth about “Transforming History into Fiction,” aka lying for a living.

Driving into Holland, MI, the next afternoon I was delighted to discover that I’d hit the tulip capital of the United States at peak blossoming time. I took a quick turn around the gardens at Windmill Island (beautiful) but was more impressed by the miles of tulip-lined city streets and downtown parks and more impressed still by Michelle Lonergan’s bookstore, the Tree House. Michelle grew up in South Jersey in a house with few books, but her dad built her a tree house in the back yard where she devoured books borrowed from friends and the local library. By the time she was eight, she wanted, someday, to own a bookstore.

Michelle, who describes herself as a “cynical optimist,” cited a recent Publishers Weekly article on the alarming decrease in the sales of hardcover books. Even so, she told me that when she “puts the key in the doorknob of the Tree House every morning and smells the books inside,” she knows that, come what may, this is where she belongs.

Now there, my bibliophile friends, is a great bookseller.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Great American Book Tour: Week 8, Installment 2

A wonderful sign in the window of Garrison Keillor’s Common Good Books announces, “General Fiction and Non-fiction, Good Poetry, Classics All Sizes, Quality Trash.” Of course, Garrison composed it.
After a great event at the Common Good, on to Milwaukee, for decades the home of the great Harry Schwartz independent bookstores, which, sadly, went out of business several years ago. Noted bibliophile and long-time buyer for Harry Schwartz, Daniel Goldin, now owns and operates Boswell’s Books in a former Schwartz location near Lake Michigan. On the night I visited, he’d invited the senior AP English class from a nearby high school. The students wondered if the elephant in Walking to Gatlinburg was a symbol. Beats me, I said. For all I know, it could be. Afterwards, threading my way through the side streets of Wisconsin’s Lake City, looking for a cheap motel, I found myself missing my early years as a high school teacher. I was saddened, too, by the disappearance of the Harry Schwartz stores, but I knew that Harry would have been delighted with everything Daniel Goldin is doing to provide, with very good books, the city made famous by several very good brews. More later, folks.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Great American Book Tour Week 8: Installment 1

“INCIPIAT TUMULTUS SAEVUS.” Or, as the Latin phrase etched large in the floor of the world famous Wild Rumpus children’s bookstore in Minneapolis translates, “let the wild rumpus start.” The “wild rumpus,” of course, comes from Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are. In Minneapolis, that would be at Collette Morgan’s bookstore, whose most knowledgeable staff includes a free ranging Seebright hen, two chinchillas, a pair of ferrets, and a coal-black lizard from Mali named Spike. Not to mention several Manx cats, one of which, a big yellow tom named Lemony Snicket has been retired to the store’s basement during business hours since discovering – as Collette put it – that “if you wanted to get rid of toddlers, just bite them in the face.”
This store is a paradise for kids and grownups alike. Recently, Collette held in-store horseshoeing and sheep-shearing exhibitions with a live horse and sheep. There’s a haunted house featuring scary books, a dungeon inhabited by two brown-and-white rats, a large selection of Young Adult books – “We don’t condescend to teenagers so they come here in droves” – and kids racing everywhere so that you literally have to be careful not to step on them.
Collette whose all-time favorite book is The Once and Future King, hosts a grown-ups’ reading group called “The Remedial Book Club for Immature Adults.” They read children’s books exclusively, and recently finished The Wind in the Willows, my own personal favorite book for kids of all ages.
What inspired Collette to open the Wild Rumpus? Eighteen years ago, she was working as a children’s book buyer for an indie going out of business. She had a choice: “Buy the store’s children’s books and open my own store or ‘go to work for a chain.’ And here she was, here we were, with Spike the Lizard, Lemony Snicket, and thousands upon thousands of the best children’s books in the whole wide world. Maybe, I thought as I drove across the Mississippi to St. Paul, there’s a better place to take your kids for an hour or two than the children’s section of your local bookstore or library. I can’t imagine one, though.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Great American Book Tour, Week 7

It was wonderful to see my friends, Rebecca and Mary, at Parkplace Books in Kirkland, WA, last week. Rebecca and Mary own and operate one of the best independent bookshops in the United States. They may be looking for a new locale in Kirkland in a year or two, at least temporarily. The mall where Parkplace is located will be undergoing extensive renovations. No one had better lay a finger on the beautiful, matched white-oak, floorboards of the events alcove. It’s the loveliest events space in the universe.

Queen Anne Books, in Seattle, has the highest percentage of “shelf talkers” – written bookseller recommendations – I’ve encountered in any bookstore. Patti alone reads 3-5 books a week, and like Jane Laclergue, owner of Fireside Books in Olympia, WA, Queen Anne’s maintains a fine array of their favorite authors’ backlist titles, as well.

Like New England and certain regions in the South, Midwest, and California, the Pacific Northwest is prime indie bookstore country. At Fireside Books, Jane brought out a big and enthusiastic audience for me. Many were members of a book club that had just read my personal favorite of my novels, Northern Borders: the story of a boy who, in 1948, goes to northern Vermont to live with his feuding grandparents. What a lovely evening. Thanks, Jane and staff. I’ll be back.

No West Coast book tour would be complete without a visit to Village Books in Bellingham, Chuck and Dee Robinson’s marvelous emporium of literature, ideas, and good fellowship. As always, I had a large and enthusiastic audience of bibliophiles. Who says the book tour is dead? No way. It’s still the best way I know of to bring together booksellers, readers, and authors in a personal and meaningful discussion about books. Village Books is famous for having done exactly that, for decades.

If you find yourself in the Seattle area with a couple of hours on your hands, please zip north up to Stanwood, just a few miles west of I-5, and about 45 minutes from the Space Needle, to visit Cecily, Gertrude, and the dozen or so other carved snow geese at Kristine Kaufman’s unique indie bookstore of that name: The Snow Goose. Described by many of her colleagues as “the best bookseller in America,” Kristine has a wonderful sense of humor. Recently she invited Cecily (who wears a colorful bonnet and is life-sized and then some) to story hour, and then took her on an outing to the nearby beach. During the winter, tens of thousands of real snow geese from Siberia come south to gorge themselves on the winter wheat that grows in the Stanwood area. For geese and bibliophiles, this is the in-place to be. Cecily and Gertrude’s all-time favorite novel? To Kill a Mockingbird, naturally. Like their somewhat larger barnyard cousins, snow geese (once endangered but now flourishing) mate for life, are fiercely protective of both their young and their spouses, converse companionably in a constant, low gabbling and love to read, especially the classics. Along with turtles and elephants, they’re my favorite animal.

It’s a haul from Bellingham, WA, to Salt Lake City, where I had yet another terrific audience, at the King’s English Bookstore. The King’s English also happens to be the title of my favorite bookselling memoir, by Betsy Burton, whose motto is “Never sponsor an event for a book you don’t love.” I felt flattered, but they had to come pry me out of the fiction room for my event. A whole room devoted to the best fiction in the English language. I could spend the rest of my life there.

I swung a few miles out of my way to visit my favorite Montana trout stream. Never mind just where that is. (It was still iced-over and snowed-in in mid-April.) Saw western hawks, a lone heron, and stream-side willows turning orange, yellow, and pinkish for spring. Thus far I have seen spring coming in Virginia, New Orleans, Phoenix (the desert), California, the Pacific Northwest and, now, in Montana. Still, the maple leaves will just be unfurling when I return to Vermont next week for my New England “saturation tour.” The brook trout ought to be hungry. Me, too – for brook trout!

I finished up my week at Barbara Theroux’s Fact and Fiction, long a literary landmark in Missoula, MT, “at the junction of great trout rivers.” This busy university city doesn’t look much like Norman Maclean’s old cow town with dirt roads, but a fly fisher can still hook a good fish just down the street under the big bridge, and Barbara continues to promote the work of writers from Montana and far beyond with frequent bookstore events.

I hope to return to Montana this summer to fish with my son, Jake, myself. Jake moved to Big Sky Country fifteen years ago, after college, and never looked back. Montana, of course, is the destination of Gus Macrae and Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove. After Kingdom County, VT, it’s my favorite place in the world. I’ll be back – with my fly-rod, next time. In the meantime, watch for my memoir The Great American Book Tour, coming in a year. In it, my road bud, the Talking Jesus of West Texas, and I fish a Montana stream ... go figure!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Great American Book Tour, Week 6

It’s April, 2010, and I’m back in southern California where, in 1969, after 8 days in the fabled MFA Writers Workshop at UC Irvine, I stopped at a red light at Hollywood and Vine in downtown L.A., a telephone truck pulled up beside me, the driver yelled out, “I’m from Vermont, too, go back while you still can” – and, on the spot, I did. (After marrying Phillis and having our two wonderful kids, that was the best decision I ever made in my life!)

Well. As Robert Frost says, way does lead on to way and here I am 40-some years later, out west again, on tour with my 11th book. Here are a few things I learned during my recent West Coast sojourn, on the sixth week of the Great American Book Tour – which, by the way, is the title of my forthcoming memoir, arriving in about a year:

1. Written recommendations from booksellers, affixed to books on display, are called “shelf talkers.”

2. Pasadena’s “One City, One Book” selection, The Distant Land of My Fathers, mentions a young girl and her grandmother going into Vroman’s Bookstore in the 1930’s. What an honor to sign my new book there in 2010.

3. Katie O’Laughlin’s Village Books, in Pacific Palisades, features a mural, painted on the cement floor, of Yeats, Joyce, and some other great writers seated around a table. Sitting with them is a white-haired man with a kind, intelligent face. It’s Michael O’Laughlin, Katie’s father, who loved to read and inspired her love of reading when she was a child by telling her stories from The Odyssey. To heck with walking to Gatlinburg – I’d walk from Vermont to California to see this stunning, original, and wonderfully personal work of bookstore art.

4. Mahri Kerley’s world-renowned Chaucer’s Bookstore in Santa Barbara is located in a former waterbed store, on the former site of a lemon orchard. Years ago, Mahri’s husband said, “You buy so many books you might as well own a bookstore.” Done! Later, when times got tough, Mahri borrowed against her life insurance to keep from going bankrupt. Now that’s dedication.

5. Marcia Rider, former owner of another of HFM’s favorite West Coast bookstores, Capitola Book Cafe, told me that a chain book store wanted to move in just up the street. The city council held a meeting. Local residents had five minutes each to speak, and the meeting ran past midnight. Only two speakers spoke on behalf of the chain store, which went slinking off elsewhere. Capitola Books is now an employee-owned store.

6. After the huge ’89 earthquake in southern California, 100 loyal customers of the Santa Cruz Bookstore signed liability waivers and went inside the devastated store to rescue the books. The store then operated out of a tent on the sidewalk for 3 years before moving to its current location across the street.

7. You want more dedication? Ed Conklin, formerly of L.A.’s long-famous but now, sadly, out-of-business Dutton’s Bookstore, now at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara, arrives at work every morning between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m. Joan Grenier’s superb Odyssey Bookstore in S. Hadley, MA, rose from the ashes of not one but two bookstore fires. Parkplace Books in Kirkland, WA, weathered a flood, and the list of Job-like tribulations goes on and on and on. Independent booksellers work farmers’ hours for peanuts, take out second mortgages to keep their stores going, dwell on the outermost edge of security, pass up other and much more lucrative careers to bring good books to good readers. Kelly Justice, owner of Fountain Books in Richmond, VA, “loves people who love books.” I love indie booksellers, including those occasional “mole indies” who work deep in the soulless depths of chain stores. Indie booksellers are, hands down, the smartest, hardest-working, most dedicated and economically challenged professionals in America.

8. In 1980, when Mt. St. Helen erupted for the second time, the wind blew south toward Portland and covered every book in Powell’s City of Books – the largest new and used bookstore in the English-speaking world – with a thin, gritty film of volcanic ash. Powell’s booksellers spent a year dusting off the titles and kept selling books.

Powell’s Bruce Burkhardt gave me a tour of this metropolis of books, where new and used books are shelved together, by author, an arrangement I like. He showed me the curved, sandstone pillar of books supporting one of the store entrances, a soaring four-story skylight pouring morning sunshine down onto a shiny metal “Cultural Survey” elevation marker – 55.31 feet above sea level – set in the floor, and a manhole cover inscribed with a rose, emblematic of this beautiful City of Roses, beneath which, Bruce tells middle-school tours, are three unruly 13-year-olds from a previous tour, waiting for their parents to come and get them.

Bookseller Emma Borg, who recently received her graduate degree in medieval literature and studies, showed me Powell’s graphic books section. Junior high kids love the graphic edition of Beowulf, which I devoured 50-some years ago in a Classics Comics incarnation.

This coming year, Emily Powell, current owner Michael Powell’s daughter, will become the third generation of Powells to take over the operation of the store. Booksellers at this Portland landmark still claim to see original owner Walter Powell’s ghost flitting through this square city block of books from time to time.

9. My long-time Portland bookseller friend Carol Hushman worked at Powell’s for 15 years. Now a Portland-area realtor, she still works the Friday night shift at the great Pacific Northwest indie, Annie Bloom’s Books. Years ago, arriving in Portland fresh out of graduate school in Chicago without a penny, Carol wrote a letter of application to City of Roses bookstores beginning, “I am a hopeless bibliophile.” She still is.

10. Me, too, Carol. Me, too. And that’s the real reason I’m writing this from a Motel 6 in Seattle, 3,000 miles from home, instead of back in Vermont where I belong, plying the icy waters of my beloved Northeast Kingdom brooks for speckled trout and starting my next novel. Soon enough, my bibliophiliac friends. Who knows? There’s a talking turtle in Walking to Gatlinburg. I may slip a talking trout into my next novel.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Great American Book Tour, Week 5

Week five of The Great American Book Tour got off to a great start at Mary Gay Shipley’s That Bookstore, in Blytheville, Arkansas. A former speakeasy, That Bookstore is one of my all-time favorite independents. “Hold your bills til John gets here,” Mary Gay tells her creditors. John is John Grisham, who personally signs hundreds of his first editions at That Bookstore each time he has a new book. That Bookstore is a great bookstore. It defines Blytheville the way Fenway Park defines Boston.

At St. Louis’s Left Bank Books, events coordinator Danielle Borsch told me they “follow their customers” by using email, Twitter, and blogging to “get out the word” about favorite books and authors. Left Bank Books has recently opened a new, downtown store, which defines hope and faith in this era. Kris Kleindienst, long-time owner of Left Bank, told me indies are “really masterful at the smoke and mirrors technique of cash management.” She added that she and her staff of dedicated booksellers “have a bad case of the bookstore habit and work for almost nothing.”

While we were visiting, a street person they’d had prior experience with sloped in. Kris didn’t let him rob the store blind but at the same time was very kind to him. And, yes, thought the touring Vermont author, there go I, no doubt, in a short year or two . . .

The subject of electronic, hand-held readers came up. Kris told me that not long ago, a popular manufacturer of “readers” and e-books needed to retrieve a title over which a copyright dispute had developed, and simply went into some customers’ readers and deleted it without permission. The title? I kid you not – George Orwell’s 1984.

After a great event at the St. Louis County Library, I posted west to Vivien Jennings’ and Roger Doeren’s marvelous Rainy Day Books. Vivien helped start an inspiring project at a local well-child clinic. Every child who came to the clinic received his or her own book. Many had never owned a book before and the program now operates at 60 clinics. Vivien didn’t receive her first book until she was in school, but books have shaped her life. “If you can read,” she tells young people, “you can do and be anything.” She and Roger partner with dozens of other area independent businesses and charities to brig literature to Kansas City and beyond, and they went out of their way, kindly, to arrange an event for me sponsored jointly by Rainy Day Books and the Kansas City public library.

“Keg Powder” the faded black lettering on the side of the ancient brick warehouse next to the Tattered Cover Bookstore proclaimed. I knew then that I was “Out West,” in mining country, though I expect it’s been a hundred years since blasting powder came in a keg. The Tattered Cover is world famous. It rather resembles a warehouse itself, a big, comfortable, multi-floor warehouse of books, with the heating ducts exposed in the ceilings and old-fashioned sofas and deep armchairs for book-reading in all kinds of pleasant nooks. Formerly, the Tattered Cover was a retail grocery store – Morey’s Mercantile. Scores of photographs of my favorite authors – Richard Russo, Annie Proulx, Richard Ford – decorate the walls, along with authentic old flyers advertising spiced apricots and shoe-string potatoes. These days, as a memorable sign in the second-floor event room reads, the old Morey Mercantile is “filled to the rafters with books and authors and readers and the smell of coffee brewing – and incarnation that would, no doubt, please Mr. Morey.”

I cut diagonally down through Arizona to Phoenix through more gorgeous desert wildflowers than I ever imagined existed. Changing Hands, Gayle Shank’s renowned independent bookstore, was full of readers. This storyteller from the Vermont hills did a well-attended writers workshop on material, characters (six of mine, over the years, have been inspired by my beloved wife, including Slidell Collateral Dinwiddie, the beautiful, young fugitive slave woman in Walking to Gatlinburg), touring and lying.

“I’m an aspiring writer,” one attendee named Gloria identified herself.

“Me, too, Gloria” I said, meaning it. “Me, too. Every time I start a new book, I’m an aspiring writer. I have to teach myself how to do it all over again.”


Saturday, April 3, 2010

The week couldn’t have started out better than it did. Bill Cody, the erudite and personable host of WSM – Nashville’s and America’s flagship country music station – kindly invited me on his morning show. We talked about out mutual life-long love of country music, Hank Williams Senior, Kris Kristofferson, books, Vermont and Tennessee – for me, the thrill of a lifetime. Thank you, Bill!

Down in Atlanta, Marlene Zeller, owner of Tall Tales Books and a long-time supporter of my books, told me that she originally planned to open a dessert pastry shop but wasn’t really that good a baker. I’m glad that Marlene opted for an indie bookstore instead. Tall Tales is one of the best in the country, likewise Capitol Book and News in Montgomery, where I had a wonderful late-afternoon visit with owners Tom and Cheryl Upchurch and customers about the state of the book in general. With passionate, knowledgeable booksellers like Cheryl and Tom, I’m hopeful for the future of “the book.”

In between Atlanta and Montgomery, I stopped at the Andersonville National Park in Georgia. Two quick stories: In august of 1864, with 100 men a day dying of thirst, fever, and bacterial infection from impure water, a powerful spring came gushing out of the ground during a lightning storm. “Providence Spring” saved perhaps thousands of lives. In the cemetery nearby, apart from the other 12,000 or so graves, lie six miscreants known as the “Raiders.” The Raiders preyed on “fresh fish,” newcomers to Andersonville, robbing them and sometimes murdering them for their belongings. They were duly tried, found guilty, and hanged by their fellow prisoners, with the full blessing of the prison commandant. (The Union prison camp at Elmira was no better, by the way. In a little more than a year, nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers died there of neglect, starvation, disease, and worse.)

It occurred to me, looking at Providence Spring and the graves of the Raiders, that one reason the American South has produced, and continues to produce, so many wonderful writers, is that it is a gold mine of wonderful stories. Southern writers, from Twain, Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor to Steve Yarbrough, William Gay, Tom Franklin, Howard Bahr, Lee Smith, Ron Rash, Tim Gautreaux – the list goes on and on and on – have never cut themselves off from the timeless literary themes of history, family, and nature. Beyond the British Isles, I know of no other region in the world that had bestowed more first-rate literature upon us than our southern states.

So. Did Tom Lowenberg, bookman par excellence and owner of New Orleans’ great Octavia Books, still sell my all-time favorite American comic novel, A Confereracy of Dunces, in good quantities? Absolutely, and All the King’s Men as well.

Up in Jackson, Lemuria Books has championed southern literature (and literature in general) for decades, and so has Square Books, in Oxford, MS. Jamie Korenegay, at Turnrow Books in Greenwood, MS, knows the work of every southern writer since Twain, inside out. As for Mary Gay Shipley, owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville, AR, who describes herself as “a poster child for bookstores in places where there oughtn’t to be bookstores,” well, her knowledge of literature and commitment to her customers and community are astonishing. Mary Gay’s bookstore, by the way, used to be a speakeasy. A customer told her that his father was shot to death there, sitting in a shoeshine chair, by a Prohibition-era mobster down from Capone’s Chicago.

For me, part of the fun of this Great American Book Tour – the title of my next book, incidentally, a memoir of my book tour, coming out in a year, is getting out of Vermont and New England, my literary “comfort zone,” and trying my luck with events, readings, and signings in the rest of America. Like baseball, touring for a book can be a pretty humbling enterprise, and you don’t have to take my word for it. Ask my colleagues Chris Bohjalian, Richard Russo, Annie Proulx. They’ll tell you the same thing.

But if touring writers are willing to get off the beaten track, the usual 8-city circuit, they’ll find world-class bookstores in the unlikeliest places, like Page and Palette in Fairhope, Alabama, where I signed on the most beautiful coffee table I’ve ever seen, a six-foot-long slab of yellow, long-leaf pine, one of the most beautiful trees – and woods – on earth. And Lorelei Books – look for the sign of the Siren reading a book – in Vicksburg. And Turning Pages in Natchez, where you’ll meet Sugar, the dancing Westy Terrier.

Not to mention libraries, in tiny hamlets and big cities, which, along with indie bookstores, are keeping “the book” as we know it alive.

“Alabama State Library Services” the small sign on the outskirts of Montgomery said. I had just time to swing by or to re-visit the Hank Williams Senior Museum downtown. Having stopped to see the powder-blue Cadillac convertible Hank died in on New Year’s, 1953, on my last visit, I opted for the State Library Services, just out of curiosity. There, it was my good fortune to meet Dr. Dana Barlow, director of Acquisitions and of Services for the Blind and Handicapped. She took me on a guided tour of the cavernous repository of Braille and audio books for the blind – 700,000 titles in all, including two of my all-time favorites, Lonesome Dove and Cold Mountain. Dana and her staff send out hundreds of titles a day. Circulation in many regular libraries nationwide is, sadly, down, but not so for blind and handicapped readers. I asked if I could see the Braille edition of Alabama author Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Dana took me right to it. In Braille, Lee’s classic comes in two huge volumes as large as an unabridged dictionary, though the entire Bible fits into an audio cassette no larger than a cell phone.

“We hope one day that everything available in print will also be available in electronic format for the blind,” Dana told me.

Oh, and that she just got married last Friday. Congratulations, Dana. Keep up the good work!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Week 3 Recap

Week Three of the Great American Book Tour was a banner week. On Sunday, world-class independent bookstore Books on the Common co-hosted a great event at the Ridgefield (CT) Library.

At Madison (CT’s) renowned R. J. Julia Books, I read the local historical society some whopping big fibs from Walking to Gatlinburg. They were very good-natured about it all. Thanks!

On to NYC and 192 Books. I don’t know if I would walk from Vermont to Gatlinburg for any reason, but I’d walk to 192 Books just to browse through their wonderful fiction selection. Thanks to my terrific agent, Dan Mandel, and the best editor in these United States, Shaye Areheart, for coming to hear this born liar. Also it was a huge pleasure to meet Jay and Hannah Silverman and their many friends.

Kelly Justice, owner of Fountain Books in Richmond, VA, is one of my all-time favorite booksellers. “I love people who love books,” Kelly told me. Her sense of humor ranks with Mark Twain’s and on that subject, the incredibly knowledgeable booksellers at Chester Co. Book and Music Company in West Chester, PA, kept me laughing all evening.

My dear friend Nancy Olson, owner of Quail Ridge Books, brought in a great audience to hear me tell more lies. Nancy’s one of the two or three best-read persons I’ve ever known. I’m halfway through a terrific book she gave me called LOOKING IN THE DISTANCE by Richard Holloway, the former Bishop of Edinburgh. This is a powerful and beautiful book by a remarkably thoughtful man.

No one could accuse Bad Blake, the down-and-out country singer in Thomas Cobb’s fabulous 1987 novel CRAZY HEART of being thoughtful. How he stays with me, though. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’d rate Cobb’s book right up there with William Kennedy’s masterpiece, Ironweed. It’ll make you laugh and cry in the same two seconds. “It is one hell of a thing,” Bad reflects, “when fifty-six-year-old men are sent out on the road with only ten dollars.” (I hear you, Bad.)

My award for the most original bookstore name goes to Malaprops, the literary Mecca of Asheville, where I had a lovely event Saturday night, after a memorable Saturday morning with a good many of the very loyal customers of McIntyre’s Books at Fearrington Village, NC. Bookseller par excellence Pete Mock’s mystery-novel room at McIntyre’s is something to see. And thanks to Pete for naming WALKING TO GATLINBURG his favorite noveL of 2010 so far.

Then came Nashville, Music City USA, where my beloved daughter, singer/songwriter Annie Mosher, brought out a big crowd of fellow singers, songwriters, musicians, and book lovers to hear the born liar, her dad, tell some stretchers at on of my favorite southern independents, Davis-Kidd. The following morning I had one of the real thrills of my life. Hall of Fame radio personality Bill Cody of Guitar Town’s great WSM interviewed this country-music lover on his morning show, “Coffee, Country & Cody.” What an honor. Bill’s a voracious reader and a truly kind guy. That was a lot of fun.

So. How’s the Great American Book Tour shaking down thus far? Hey, I’m loving it. Sure, novelists are frauds and liars by profession, but as long as we admit it, who not? The world needs made-up stories and human beings have been making them up for a good long while.

On behalf of all of us prevaricating spinners of tales, tall and otherwise, thanks to our independent bookseller friends for selling our books and our readers for buying them.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Great American Book Tour, Beginning of Week 3

It continues to be of great interest to me how the Electronic Age, which many of us feared spelled doom for the book as we know it, is helping to keep the book alive. Please ready my interview on the Brown University blog,, and watch for an upcoming review of Walking to Gatlinburg on Suzanne Levin’s popular

What’s been keeping this clueless, touring writer going over the past few days, however, is reading, usually late at night, usually in cheap motel rooms. I know, I know, I’m supposed to be selling books, not buying them. Still, when Richard Russo writes that Steve Yarbrough’s new novel, Safe from the Neighbors, will “take your breath away,” that’s a book I have to read immediately, and it did. Take my breath away.

Yarbrough’s Safe from the Neighbors is one of the very best new novels to come out of the South, or anywhere else, in many, many years. Set in contemporary Mississippi and ranging back to the Kennedy era and the integration of Ole Miss, Safe from the Neighbors is a beautifully-written story of how history, local and national, both shapes our lives and challenges us to understand our darker selves. And, oh, the stories Steve Yarbrough knows from the little towns and cotton farms and woods of the South. His farmers, barkers, schoolteachers, and newspapermen are incomparable.

“If only I had more time to read” is a refrain I’ve heard a dozen times in the first two weeks of my book tour. Know what? There are some books we don’t have time not to read. Safe from the Neighbors is one of them.

I’m fifty-some pages into Helen Simonson’s magnificent Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. You will love the 68-year-old Major, who just can’t bring himself to be the curmudgeon he thinks of himself as. It, too, is a small-town story, the town being in the English countryside. And wait until you meet Mrs. Ali, the attractive Pakistani widow and bibliophile who runs the grocery shop down the hill. Simonson’s novel reminds me of Lucky Jim and Pride and Prejudice, and I have every confidence that it will continue to delight me. Next on my list is Thomas Cobb’s Crazy Heart, which the award-winning movie of the same name was based on. A report will follow soon.

So. What’ been my favorite event thus far? Well, of course, my book launches at my personal independent bookstore, the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, VT, are always the most exciting and best-attended. Then, I think, each new event at each new bookstore on the Great American Book Tour is my favorite. I’d spend a week, or a summer, in Westport, MA, just to hang out at Partners Village Books there, likewise Dartmouth MA’s Baker Books. You won’t find a better college bookstore, or a more independent one, in these United States than the Brown University Bookstore, which serves the greater Providence community of booklovers as well as the college. Books on the Common, under the sign of the copper heron weathervane in Ridgefield, CT, has as eclectic and carefully-selected fiction section as any bookstore I’ve ever set foot in.

Hey! There are worse ways to spend a few months than reading one’s way across America from one great indie bookstore to the next. I feel pretty lucky – especially since, thanks to my wonderful team at Random House and the independent booksellers I’ve been meeting, Walking to Gatlinburg seems to be selling like hotcakes itself. Move over Karl Rove and Bill O’Neilly. Morgan Kinneson, the 17-year-old Vermont sharpshooter from Walking to Gatlinburg is on his way. And believe me, you do not want to cross him.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Great American Book Tour, Week 2

Week two of the Great American Book Tour for my new novel, Walking to Gatlinburg, has been lively.

On my way back to my motel from a wonderful event with Tom Holbrook’s River Run Bookstore, at the Portsmouth (NH) Library, my car stalled. Right on a busy exit ramp of I-95. The next 24 hours included:

1. A hitchhiking and walking excursion through the Sunday-afternoon streets of Portsmouth looking for an automotive repair shop.

2. A ride in a breadtruck with an indignant driver who thought my publisher was making me hitchhike to my events.

3. A falling-out with my muse, who told me to quit complaining, that I should be ready to walk to Gatlinburg myself for more “material,” and that a little hitchhiking now and then was “good for” a 67-year-old author.

4. A morning spent reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in the waiting room of a Nissan dealership.

5. A visit to yet another mall bookstore in which I was forbidden, by a 12-year-old bookseller, to sign my own books. (“Look at the author’s photo. That’s me, see? I know book tours will age authors but not in the first week.”)

6. The unencouraging sight of Karl Rove’s new book stacked up to heaven at the front of yet another mall store.

7. Several absolutely wonderful events at independent bookstores around New England, including Joan Grenier’s world-class Odyssey Bookstore in South Hadley, MA, and Vermont’s fabled Bear Pond Books in Montpelier. The Odyssey, by the way, was founded in the back of the pharmacy owned by Joan’s dad, Romeo, an autodidactic French Canadian immigrant upon whom the Mt. Holyoke College Board of Trustees conferred the title of “the most learned apothecary since John Keats.” Pretty inspiring!

8. During the hitchhiking interlude, after I started counting, 200 plus cars went racing by without stopping. Come to think of it, I might not stop for myself, either.

9. Quote for the week #1: “We never refused nobody a ride on the road nor something to eat if we had it ourselves.”
Ma Joad
The Grapes of Wrath

10. Quote for the week #2: “Them days are gone forever, pal.”
HFM’s Imaginary Companion, Road Bud and Muse, in the Incarnation of a Broken-down Old Nashville Songwriter.

Well, folks, there are worse ways to spend a few months than visiting America’s best independent bookstores. In fact, I can think of few things I like more. On Friday, March 12, I’ll be at Partners Village Books in Westport, MA, at 7 p.m.; Baker Books in Dartmouth, MA, on Saturday, at 10:00 a.m.; and the Brown Bookstore, in Providence, RI, at 2:00 on Saturday afternoon (March 13).

On to a joint event with Books on the Common at the Ridgefield, CT, Library on Sunday afternoon, March 14, at 4:00 p.m., and, on Monday, March 15, at 7:00, RJ Julia in Madison, CT.

Next week will find me at 192 Books in NY City at 7:00 on Tuesday, March 16; Chester County Book and Music Company, in W. Chester, PA (near Philadelphia) on Wed., March 17, at 7:00; Richmond (VA) at Fountain Books at 6:30 on Thursday, March 18; and Quail Rodge in Raleigh, NC, on Friday, March 19, at 7:00.

I’ll finish up the week on Saturday, March 20, at 11:00 a.m. at McIntyre’s Books at Fearington Village, NC; Asheville’s (NC) Malaprops at 7:00 on Saturday March 20; and Nashville’s Davis Kidd on Sunday afternoon, March 21, at 4:00.

And that’s just the beginning of “The Great American Book Tour” – which just happens to be the title of my next book, a memoir of my tour, coming soon from Shaye Areheart Books and Random House.

Until next time . . .
Yours in reading,

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Great American Book Tour, Week 1

With the help of my independent bookselling friends here in Vermont, I’ve survived the first week of my Great American Book Tour. I had well-attended, lovely events at the Galaxy in Hardwick, the Rutland Library, Northshire Books in Manchester Center and the Norman Williams Library in Woodstock, where the Yankee Bookshop sold my new novel.

And, oh, the stories you’ll hear on a book tour. Paula Baker, director of the Rutland Library, told me that when she was a little girl, she loved to be read to. She was especially fond of the works of Ben Franklin. One day her mother took her to an enormous public library with terrazzo floors and soaring skylights. They wound their way back through the stacks, and Paula’s mother took a book by Franklin down from a shelf. Still awe-stricken by the stateliness of her surroundings and the presence of so many books, Paula actually thought that this was the original Poor Richard’s Almanack, written in Franklin’s own hand. I was especially struck by this story because to this day I still feel more or less the same way when I pick up a promising new book or a beloved favorite at a library or bookstore.

Thanks to all the great independent booksellers and readers who are making my tour possible. More New England events are scheduled for this coming week. Please see the Appearances section of my website for when I’ll be in your area. I’d also like to alert all my bookselling friends and their customers that I’ll be posting regular Facebook (Howard Frank Mosher), Twitter (howardfmosher), and blog entries as I criss-cross the U.S., so be on the lookout for more stories.

Yours in bookselling, reading and writing! Howard M.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Book Launch

On Tuesday, March 2, at 7:00 p.m., I’ll be launching my 2010 Great American Book Tour for my new Civil War novel, Walking to Gatlinburg, at Linda Ramsdell’s wonderful Galaxy Bookstore, in Hardwick, Vermont. That will be the first of about 100 events I’ll be doing over the next several months, in New England and nationwide, mostly at America’s great independent bookstores.

One of the questions I’ve been asking myself as I’ve pored over my sun-faded Rand McNally road atlas, trying to figure out whether I can drive from Denver to Phoenix in two days and from Minneapolis to Milwaukee in a day (yes, I can), is whether book tours, in this strange electronic era, are still worthwhile.

I think that they are. Independent bookstores got me started and have kept me going. A tour gives me a chance to thank indie booksellers, and their customers, for enabling me to write fiction.

For novelists who may spend years chained to their desks to complete just one book – Walking to Gatlinburg took about 7 years, counting research time – a book tour provides a terrific break from the isolation of writing.

What’s more, traveling the country alone in a clunker, eating at diners and staying at cheap motels, is a great way for a writer to accumulate new material. And there’s something about driving, I don’t know exactly what, that seems conducive to break-through ideas for stories and stories-in-progress.

There are far worse ways to spend a spring, summer, and fall than riding the roads of America from one renowned independent bookstore to another. This time out, I’ll be chronicling my trip via Blog, Twitter, and Facebook. You may expect regular reports on where I’ve been and where I’m headed next, what new literary discoveries I make at our great indies, what I’m reading nights at my motels, and, of course, humorous encounters along the way.

My friend the acclaimed writer Garret Keizer, whose marvelous new book on noise, The Unwanted Sound of Everything We Want, will be in the stores in just a few weeks, made an interesting observation to me about books and the electronic age. When I told Garret about my Great American Book Tour and how booksellers, authors, and readers are availing themselves of electronics to get out the word on books and book events, he said, “Wouldn’t it be ironical and wonderful if the very technology that was supposed to kill the book as we know it helps keep books alive?”

Yes, it would!

Please check this blog, Facebook, and Twitter for “Dispatches from Bookland” as, once again, I light out for the territories, as Huck Finn might put it. I can’t think of any better territory to visit than America’s independent bookstores. It’s pretty exciting just to think about. (Don’t forget to check my website appearances to see when I’ll be in your region!)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Three Cheers for Good Independent Bookstores!

Recently, as I was setting up my “Great American Book Tour” itinerary for Walking to Gatlinburg, a bookseller asked me to define “a good independent bookstore.” I’d like to share my reply with my blog readers and fellow fans of indie bookstores everywhere:

In response to your inquiry, I believe that a good independent bookstore always puts good books and good customers ahead of the bottom line. Interestingly, by doing so, passionately and knowledgeably, many (though, sadly, not all) independent bookstores have managed to stay in business in this economically depressed era when even chain stores are suffering.

Of course, one of the reasons that chain bookstores are having their own difficulties is that many of them do not place a top priority on books and customers. In fairness, though, I have to say that, from time to time, in chain stores, I meet very independent booksellers who love books and respect customers and like to match them up.

Good independent bookstores – like Tolstoy’s families – are all different. But they are very happy places. When I walk into one, the colorful jackets of books that are my old friends or may become new friends excite me the way walking out of the dim concourse of a major league baseball stadium onto the bright, geometrical familiarity of the diamond below excites me.

Good independent bookstores are always welcoming. Customers are invited to browse. Booksellers make time to talk about – books! Go into any university English department at the end of the day. All you hear is people grousing about poor students, parking restrictions, pay freezes. Booksellers should be so lucky. Still, they’re as enthusiastic about Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed and the new Raymond Carver collection at the end of the day as at 10 a.m. They just plain love books.

And there’s something else about independent bookstores. Something important. They keep writers like me, and hundreds of others, going. They don’t overload their stock with just the best sellers. Most of my favorite writers – Richard Russo, Chris Bohjalian, Annie Proulx, Richard Ford, Ivan Doig – got their start in independent bookstores. What’s more, by championing freedom of speech, our constitutional right to privacy, and freedom of the press, the indies help preserve America’s precious political and cultural heritage.

Thank you, independent booksellers!

Monday, January 18, 2010


This coming March 2, at 7 p.m., world-class booksellers Linda Ramsdell and Sandy Scott, of the fabled Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, VT, will be hosting the WORLD PREMIER of the Great American Book Tour for my new Civil War novel, Walking to Gatlinburg. Thank you Linda and Sandy!

Then it’s off to the races for this clueless writer, with visits to more than 100 towns and cities over the next several months. Whew! It begs the question: Do book tours really work?

Yes, they do. Besides selling books – and there are, after all, worse things to peddle than novels – my coast-to-coast book tours are a wonderful break from the isolation of fiction writing. Walking to Gatlinburg took more years to write and went through more drafts than I care to remember. Time for a change.

The title of the slide show I’ll be doing for my book tour this time around is “Transforming History into Fiction: the Story of a Born Liar.” Touring, however, gives this storywriter a chance, for once in his life, to tell the unvarnished truth. To the readers, booksellers, and librarians who keep us lying-through-our-teeth novelists going, please let me say, “Thank you. I appreciate it!”

I’ll be keeping a journal of the Great American Book Tour – which also happens to be the title of my next book, a memoir coming soon from Shaye Areheart Books – on this Blog. Some of it – I promise – will even be true.