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!