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.