fiction

Friday Reads - June 14

We met Michael Epstein at a reading at The Norwich Bookstore last year and were recently in touch with him again. If you are looking for your next read, he has a wonderful blog called BookMarks, which is chock-a-block full of reviews and his own personal reading lists. When we invited him to be a guest for our Friday Reads feature, we were delighted to discover that he wanted to write about our friend Peter Orner’s upcoming release, Maggie Brown & Others, which is due out on July 2 from Little, Brown and Company.

Thank you, Michael, for this thoughtful review of Maggie Brown & Others. We were already looking forward to reading this book—now we really can’t wait!


Peter Orner’s new book, Maggie Brown & Others is superb. In 44 short stories and one novella, Orner introduces vibrant and vital characters in both mundane and exotic settings, and says to the reader, “Here’s life with all its complexities and beauties. See it and weep.”

Orner is a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth and the author of two previous novels, two story collections, and a memoir, Am I Alone Here? In that book, he writes about what he has learned in reading authors from Chekhov to Woolf, from Welty to Kafka. In one typically offbeat and fascinating chapter, Orner introduced Herbert Morris, whose book of poetry he had pulled from a free bin outside a used bookstore in San Francisco. I’ve now read Morris’ poetry and found wonder and solace in his sketches of people in their “most intimate, unguarded moments.”

It is this same ability to provide the reader with the intimacy of knowing a character in just a few sentences and being plunged into a situation that evolves in a few pages that is Orner’s gift. The first section comprises 13 stories situated in California where drugs, mental illness, suicide, divorce, and death provide a contemporary frame for the passing of time, the passing of people, and the sadness of life. In the nine stories in the section entitled “Lighted Windows,” Orner leaves California for places that appear to be more autobiographical and associated with relationships---a brother who calls his sister after disappearing from the family for 12 years, various extra-marital experiences, and my favorite story in the collection about a summer camp counselor, “An Ineffectual Tribute to Len.”

In that story, the narrator, a cab-driving grad student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, looks back on his counselor with gratitude and sadness—“Len was one of the first people to notice something in me, anything in me.” The student vows to write a novel about Len who died young of AIDS, but he can’t manage to move from the manila folder full of notes to the novel. Ultimately, he decides to write a short Chekhovian short story. Orner writes, “All hail Chekhov. If done right, he tells a story that never ends. A story lurks. A story, a good story, is just out of reach, always. Wake up in an unfamiliar darkness, in a room you don’t seem to recognize. Flip on the light. Nothing there….The last period of the last sentence of a story isn’t a full stop; it’s a horizon…..We’re talking about the quest for infinity here….a story, one that ends but doesn’t end, that’s infinity, immortality right there.”

And this is precisely what Orner does throughout this entire volume, sketching a character, a location, a situation with a few quick brush strokes, developing the complex lives of these characters in a mere page or two, and leaving the reader to reach their own conclusion about the outcome, the horizon that refuses to be defined in simple terms.

From Lighted Windows, Orner moves to the last three sections of the book. The epigram that introduces one section is a quote from the poet Robert Creeley: “Turn left by the old house that used to be there before it burned down.” How apt an introduction to Orner’s world. The author takes his character back to his boyhood Chicago settings to revisit relatives, friends, and family members in an attempt to sort out the now vanished past and how it influences and even determines the present

And finally, we settle into the 100+page novella that concludes the volume, the story of Walt Kaplan, a life-long resident of the crumbling New England town of Fall River, a furniture store salesman, the father of Miriam, the husband of Sarah, the best friend of Alf. One could not find a more bland character, and yet I felt deeply about Walt and his mundane, every-day, life. That is Orner’s great skill.

In his “Notes For An Introduction” in Am I Alone Here?, Orner writes that he is “drawn to certain stories because of their defiant refusal to explain themselves. Fiction isn’t machinery; it’s alchemy….A piece of fiction can have all the so-called essential elements, setting character, plot, tension, conflict, and still be so dead on the page that no amount of resuscitation would ever do any good.” Orner’s stories in Maggie Brown & Others are not in need of any resuscitation. They are vibrantly alive, taking the reader to horizons that in their enigmatic unreachability, force one to think, to consider, to ponder who we are and who we might be able to become before the final sentence in our final chapter.

This is a wonderful book.


Michael F. Epstein reads and writes in Brownsville, Vermont, and Cambridge, Massachusetts. He can be reached at www.EpsteinReads.com, where you can find over 1000 review of books to answer the question of “What should I read next?” or on Facebook and Instagram.

Interview: Rachel Barenbaum

For a very brief time a couple years ago, we were in the same writing group as Rachel Barenbaum. At the time, Rachel had mentioned she was working on a novel that delved into science and Russian history. It sounded like a rich, complex novel and it was exciting to hear that it was on the road to publication thanks to Rachel’s hard work and her participation in GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program.

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And now, look! A thick, juicy novel with a beautiful cover, packed with history, science, adventure, fully-realized characters, and a race to the 1914 solar eclipse. A Bend in the Stars is on the 2019 B&N Discover Great New Writers list and has garnered glowing reviews comparing it to All the Light We Cannot See and The Women in the Castle.

Thank you, Rachel, for taking time out of your busy pre-launch schedule to answer our questions about your book, your research process, and your road to publication!

A Bend in the Stars releases today, May 14, 2019. Go get your copy from your favorite local indie!

Rachel will be giving a reading from her novel at the Howe Library in Hanover, New Hampshire, on Tuesday, July 9 at 7:00 pm. She’ll also be reading at this year’s Bookstock on Saturday, July 27, in Woodstock, Vermont.


Literary North: Where did the original idea for your book come from? Did you start with an image, a fact, a character, or something else?

Rachel Barenbaum: In 2014 I was reading Scientific American’s monthly installment of ‘50,100 and 150 Years Ago’ and learned that in 1914 an eclipse fell over Russia that could have proved Einstein’s theory of relativity but because of war and bad weather no scientists were able to mount an expedition and record the event. Even more, the brief noted it was a good thing because in 1914 Einstein’s equations were incorrect and a photograph of the eclipse taken then would have likely discredited him. Before I even put the magazine down I knew it was a book idea: What if someone did make it to the eclipse, and did manage to take a photograph? Could he have taken Einstein’s place in history? I was already a bit obsessed with Russian history and knew it was one of the most fascinating and tumultuous times in the country’s history. And I knew that Einstein wasn’t working in a vacuum, that there were other scientists working to help him – and beat him. Could I bring that race to life?

LN: What was it about Einstein's theory of relativity that initially captured your interest and made you want to make it such an integral part of this book?

RB: In college I studied literature and philosophy and became obsessed with the concept of time – which is a key part of relativity. What is time? What is a second, minute or hour? It’s an arbitrary measurement. Sequence, on the other hand, is not arbitrary. But how do we define sequence without a measurement of time? I still don’t have any answers and I still obsess over the question.

Even more, I’m a little obsessed with our understanding of gravity and it’s effect on time. We all learn about gravity being the force that pulls an apple from a tree to the ground. Why don’t we also learn about the gravity that shapes the universe and time? It’s all connected, one giant canvas and without looking at the whole it’s hard to feel like we can find any real answers.

Finally, I wrote about relativity because this concept is powerful and yet understandable on so many levels that I want to encourage everyone to think about it. The universe bends. What does that mean? And how does that change the way we understand our world?

LN: What was the research for this book like? Did you already have a background in the science and history you wrote about, or did you learn as you wrote?

RB: Tons and none. I love this time period and read dozens and dozens of books about Czarist Russia, science and philosophy around the 1900s and the life of Jews living in Russia long before I sat down to write. In addition, growing up around my grandparents and great aunts gave me a sense of some of nuances I wanted to add like the split in the Jewish community between those who wanted to assimilate and those who didn’t and the constant fear of the czar’s men.

But all of that only gave me a base, a general feeling I could incorporate into the novel. To truly write scenes, I need to see them in my head and so the bulk of my research involved finding photographs. The best trove I found was in an old National Geographic that I purchased on eBay, published in 1914 right before the war started. The issue was devoted entirely to a survey of life in Russia and featured dozens of stunning photographs of Russians from all walks of life. Two things struck me in particular in this truly spectacular photo essay: (1) The faces of the citizens in the photos were so clear and so gorgeous I could imagine them as real people, living today. And that made the time period come alive. I could imagine what the teenager staring at me might have been thinking as she stood next to that boy, or the mother as she held her baby. (2) The vast size and diversity of the country. I was blown away by the largely uninhabited, untouched landscapes and just how separated groups of people across the empire were by those expanses. To me it was gorgeous and terrifying and something I wanted to be sure to capture in this book.

LN: Which writers (or books) helped shape the way you approached writing A Bend in the Stars?

RB: So many! I’m not sure where to start. I am a reader before I am a writer and I often think about Toni Morrison’s famous words: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” To do that, I read. And read. And read. When I sit down to fix a draft, I sit with characters and stories I love – but aren’t quite right. They are my dearest and oldest friends, closest confidantes and best inspiration. Without them, I’d be lost. They include: Toni Morrison, Ayn Rand, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Edgar Alan Poe, Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith and many more. I really love books written by women with strong female protagonists. Why don’t we have more of those out in the world?

LN: A Bend in the Stars is rich with history, science, math, Judaism, geography, etc. Did you find any challenges in structuring the novel so that you could maintain the momentum of the story while still delving into such a variety of topics?

RB: No. I didn’t set out to write a book that touched on all these aspects, didn’t sit down with a list or goals that included covering any of those topics. I wrote a book in a world, a setting, that I loved and all these pieces were organic to that universe. For example, I didn’t have to force parts of history because they were already in the scene. I couldn’t put my characters down in any part of Bend without them being surrounded by the history, science, math, Judaism that’s there.

LN: Some of the scenes in your book are quite cinematic (for example, the fight scene under the bridge when Miri and Sasha first meet, or when Miri and Sasha are trapped on the train with the threatening Zubov). How do you plot out action scenes like this?

RB: It’s funny, people say that a lot about this book – that it’s cinematic. And they want to know how I did that. The answers is that all the people in Bend are real to me. They are not based on anyone I know but they are my imaginary friends and their world is as real to me as the desk and office I’m sitting in now. This is to say that I see them and every scene they inhabit playing out in my mind as I write so I did not plot one thing happening and then another. Rather, I see it as it unfolds. That’s not to say it turned out well the first few times I saw it! For example, I didn’t mention that Miri and Sasha were hidden by brush and bushes in an early draft and one reader remarked that without those details the drunks would see them right away! So I went back again and again to fill in the scene, to add the details, but I always see it as a scene – not a plotted, choreographed moment.

LN: This is your first novel. What was the road to publication like? Can you tell us a bit about the GrubStreet Novel Incubator program?

RB: The road to publication was a long one. I started thinking about this book in 2014. I’m a writer who writes tons and tons of pages – only to hold onto one or two paragraphs so for every one of my published pages I’ve probably written at least one hundred. I wish I could be more efficient, write better drafts but I just don’t work that way. That’s where the Novel Incubator at GrubStreet comes in. Michelle Hoover’s program was amazing. I had to apply with a full rough draft. She and her committee select 10 writers for the program and I spent a full year working on my draft, revising pages and helping my classmates do the same. The class taught me what worked and what didn’t, to cut and rewrite again and again. It was brutal and the best thing that ever happened to my writing. I’d really encourage anyone who has a full rough draft and is serious about taking their writing to the next level to apply. But beware! It is no walk in the park. If you want to publish a novel you have to be willing to work – and work hard. Assume everything needs to be redone and know that means it’s only getting better.

LN: Are there any debut novels coming out this summer that you'd like to shout out?

RB: Chip Cheek’s Cape May, Julia Phillip’s Disappearing Earth, Karen Dukess’ The Last Book Party, Alexander Tilney’s The Expectations. Not a summer debut, but Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy came out a few months back and it is superb. Elizabeth Shelburne’s Holding On To Nothing is due out this fall and I can’t wait. Not a debut, but Helen Phillips’ The Need is spectacular. And I can’t wait to get my hands on Julie Orringer’s The Flight Portfolio.

 
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Friday Reads - March 22, 2019

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I’ve been making my way slowly through Jamel Brinkley’s impressive debut short story collection, A Lucky Man, since the beginning of the year. I’m reading slowly because each story invites reflection. The stories haunt me for days and sometime weeks, and I like staying with the imagery and characters until I feel like I’m ready to move on to the next story. Not to be missed!—Shari

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I've been waiting so many years for a new book by Barry Lopez (one of my very favorite writers) that I was a little worried I’d be disappointed by Horizon. Silly me. We’re in very capable, generous hands. Horizon is part autobiography, part travelogue, part nature writing, and part rumination on human history, the state of the world, and how we’ll ever save ourselves. Complemented with maps, illuminating notes, a list of scientific binomials, a compelling bibliography, and, glory of glories, an index—his book is beautiful and important and full of tenderness. I’m only 60 pages in out of more than 570, and I’m going to go slowly so I can stay in Lopez’s language for as long as possible. —Rebecca

Friday Reads - December 14, 2018

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I just finished Normal People, by Sally Rooney. I read this book in two days and highly recommend it! Rooney is great at writing dialogue and characters that feel real. This is the UK edition with a cover I much prefer to the US edition coming next summer. —Shari

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I’m reading Erebus, by Michael Palin (yes, that Michael Palin). History, adventure, polar exploration, seafaring, smart writing, loads of research, maps and black-and-white photographs. What’s not to love? Also, yes, this is the UK cover. Why is the UK cover always so much cooler? —Rebecca

Gray Basnight and Flight of the Fox

When we heard about the connection between New York writer, Gray Basnight, and Phoenix Books owner, Mike DeSanto, we thought it would be fun to ask Gray to write a guest blog for us. Thanks Gray! If you’re looking for a gift for someone on your list who enjoys political thrillers, do check out Basnight’s latest, Flight of the Fox, out now from Down & Out Books.

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Books Brought Us Back Together in Vermont

40 Years After Pursuing Theatre in DC and NYC

by Gray Basnight

In my latest novel, a thriller called Flight of the Fox, my central character is a mathematician who frequently wonders about the mysterious impact of numbers upon human life. That’s no accident. I’ve been wondering about numbers since receiving my first AARP mailing, which seemed to happen five seconds after I turned 50. That was 15 years ago.

Scientists define a year as “365 solar days required for one revolution of the earth around the sun.” Scientists are wrong. As a 65-year-old, I know for a fact that each year goes faster than the previous one. The older I get, the faster they go. Last year, for example, sped past in about a week-and-a-half. Thus, all scientists must revisit this solar revolution thing ASAP (not to be confused with AARP).

Which brings me to my recent reunion in September 2018 with old friend Mike DeSanto who owns five bookstores in Vermont along with his partner Renee Reiner.  My novel and his bookstores brought us back together after nearly 40 years of being AWOL from each other’s lives.

Mike and I were buddies in graduate school at George Washington University in the late 1970s. We studied theatre. My plan was to receive an MFA and become a college theatre professor. After finishing school, I moved to New York City to live the actor’s life for a brief sojourn, which I thought was key to my overall education as a well-rounded sage of theatre. Mike did the same. We even lived in the same apartment building way uptown near the George Washington Bridge. Unfortunately for me, to pay the rent, I waited tables and tended bar. Meanwhile, Mike developed a budding movie career with a series of union film jobs. I was impressed and glad for him.

What happened next is a bit foggy. All I remember is that after a couple of years, Mike vacated the city to rejoin his family in Maryland and pursue better salaried opportunities. I, too, thought of doing the same. For me, it would have meant going back to Richmond, Virginia, to be a high school English teacher. Ultimately, I didn’t because I couldn’t abide the feeling of retreating from the biggest challenge of my young life with my tail tightly tucked under. Then I got lucky. I fell into a radio job at WOR-AM, loved it, and eventually became a news writer, producer, and reporter. Thirty years later I was laid off during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Instead of hustling to get another radio gig, I sat down and began my third career—this time as a novelist.

Now back to Mike DeSanto.  

Little did I know that along the way Mike had moved to Vermont and began running bookstores— he now has five, one each in Burlington, Essex, Rutland, Chester, and Woodstock. Last year, he saw my name listed as an attendee at a writer’s conference in Toronto and he figured … um … could there be more than one Gray Basnight in this world? With a name like mine—hardly.  Thus, two old acting buddies we were reunited through books: his life as a book retailer and my life as a book writer.

Consequently, it was a privilege to appear at Mike’s Phoenix Books in Burlington for Flight of the Fox in September.  

As a bonus, we had dinner together, relived old stories from our grad school days and our struggle as actors in NYC. It was a wonderful reunion that made those decades of absence seem like … well, like they went by in a flash.

Which brings me back to numbers. I remember being about 12 years old when I heard my Aunt Bebe ponder her age, which at the time was about 65, and which, also at the time, I thought to be rather elderly. Speaking to me in all seriousness, she asked me: “How did it happen?”

My answer: “Gee, Aunt Bebe, I guess the years just kind of added up.”

She didn’t appreciate my mathematic answer. Now I know why, which is AISB (As It Should Be).

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Flight of the Fox is a political thriller in which high-tech surveillance, predatory drones, a government gone wild, and an everyman hero converge. An innocent math professor tries to decode a mystery file that lands in his in-box while a team of hit men chase him from the Catskills to NYC and down the East Coast. Their goal is to suppress dark government crimes from decades past. His goal is for the truth to be told. The action switches between the J. Edgar Hoover era and Professor Sam Teagarden’s decoding of the mystery file in 2019, against the 50th Anniversary of the Woodstock Festival. As the professor runs for his life, armed only with his wits and intellect, he worries whether the truth will be told, and if he’ll be seen as a hero whistle blower or a pariah.  Or worse, will he end up dead? 

“An electrifying, propulsive and timely thriller… that, by all rights, should shoot to the top of every bestseller list in the country…”
Mysterious Book Review (July 16)

Gray Basnight is deeply immersed in fiction writing, after almost three decades in broadcast news as a writer, editor, producer, and reporter; preceded by a few years pursuing an acting career.  His latest book is the political thriller Flight of the Fox (Down & Out Books).

Gray lives in New York with his wife and their Golden Retriever Tinta.