9781616956721 – Soho Press – 368 page – Hardcover – $27.00 – ebook versions available at lower prices
Mary Volmer’s novel, Reliance, Illinois is a beautifully written historical novel that takes place in midwestern America in 1874.
The story revolves around thirteen-year-old Madelyn Branch. She comes to the town of Reliance with her mother, Rebecca, who is being married through an in the Matrimonial Times, but there was no mention of a daughter to the suitor involved. So Madelyn’s entire life in Reliance is based on the fiction that she is Rebecca’s sister.
Madelyn is thoroughly unhappy in her new home, and is emotionally wounded by her mother’s deception, so she soon leaves her mother and her new family to work for Miss Rose Werner, the daughter of the town’s founder, a strong and independent figure who stands out in this small conservative town.
Miss Rose is not only an early suffragette, she is also the supplier of black market birth control devices to women in the town. Miss Rose sees Madelyn as someone she can help mold into her vision of a modern woman. But for the most part, Madelyn, whose face is strongly birth marked, simply wants to feel beautiful and loved. She pines for William Stark, a young photographer and haunted Civil War veteran.
As the story unfolds, and events in this small town become increasingly fraught, Madelyn learns secrets she could never have previously imagined, and becomes a woman who is ultimately in charge of her own destiny.
There’s a tremendous amount of historical research underpinning this wonderful story, great characters, and quite a bit that will resonate for modern readers (yes, there is an election in the town, which I found interesting to read about in our current election season).
I was very taken by this book, and am looking forward to reading more by this excellent writer. I hope my conversation with Mary Volmer will help listeners discover a new voice in American fiction.
I agree with this reviewer’s sentiments:
“Mary Volmer’s Reliance, Illinois grabbed me from the first page. Staggeringly beautiful prose, a poignant story, the whip smart heroine Maddy who I rooted for all the way. Volmer brings a universal theme of the reliance—all of us who search for it—to be found in ourselves. Do yourself a favor, clear your schedule and drink in Volmer’s radiant Reliance, Illinois.”
—Cara Black, New York Times bestselling author of Murder on the Quai
Mary Volmer’s first novel is Crown of Dust, which takes place during the Gold Rush in California. Her website is here.
Recently, I’ve had the good fortune to be working with musician Tom DeLonge and the energetic staff of To the Stars Media, helping them develop their book publishing projects. To the Stars is an independent production and publishing company that creates trans-media projects, all done with a tremendous level of creativity and imagination.
To the Stars began its publishing program last year with the wildly successful young adult novel, Poet Anderson: Of Nightmares, co-written by DeLonge and best selling novelist Suzanne Young (The Program series).
The newest project from this team is a thriller called Sekret Machines Book One: Chasing Shadows, that reflects Tom DeLonge’s specific interests in UFO’s and secret government programs. Tom is best known as the former leader of Blink-182 and founder of Angels and Airwaves. He is also a serial entrepreneur, film maker and writer, who is an authority on UFO’s and government involvement with them (this Billboard article and interview with Tom is a must-read).
The Sekret Machines project includes some forthcoming nonfiction books as well as this series of novels that is a collaboration between DeLonge and best selling YA and sci fi novelist AJ Hartley. Between them, they have created a thrilling and complex weaving of four stories told from multiple perspectives.
Sekret Machines Book One: Chasing Shadows is fiction based on secrets drawn from the the mostly hidden realities of alien contact known to our military and intelligence communities. It’s an exciting and engrossing story, the first in a trilogy that promises excitement and action for anyone interested in great storytelling and compelling characters.
AJ Hartley is a prolific writer of fiction for all ages, as well as being an accomplished Shakespearean scholar and professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. His novels for kids include the wonderful Darwen Arkwright series, among others, and the YA novel called Steeplejack is coming from Tor this spring.
I have now read several AJ Hartley books, and have concluded that he is one of the best new writers I have come across in a long time. His work is really remarkable, and the collaboration with the effervescent Tom DeLonge has resulted in a really terrific novel. I had the opportunity to speak with AJ about the writing of Sekret Machines and his collaboration with Tom while we were both visiting To the Stars in Encinitas, California in February, 2016. We had a great time talking about this very cool project.
I’ve been interested in Canadian writer Johanna Skibsrud’s work for several years, in fact since interviewing independent publisher Andrew Steves of Gaspereau Press. The small Nova Scotia based press was the original publisher of Skibsrud’s first novel, The Sentimentalists, selected for the prestigious Giller Prize in 2010. It was a major literary event in Canada for such a tiny press to be recognized for publishing a fine novel that ultimately became a commercially successful book.
Skibsrud is a prolific and multi-talented writer. Her short story collection, This Will Be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories was published in 2011 and shortlisted for Canada’s Danuta Gleed Award. She has also published two books of poetry: Late Nights With Wild Cowboys (2008), which was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award for the best first book of poetry by a Canadian poet, and I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being (2010), which was short-listed for the 2011 Atlantic Poetry Prize.
Skibsrud now teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson, returning to Canada with her family every summer. Since I had the good fortune to be visiting Tucson in January, 2016, I interviewed Johanna there about her newest novel, The Quartet for the End of Time.
This book is inspired by and structured to follow Oliver Messiaen’s chamber piece of the same name (Quatuor pour la fin du temps). Messiaen’s piece was composed and first performed in 1941 while he was a prisoner of war in a German prison camp. His beautiful and haunting composition was in turn inspired by a text from the Book of Revelation:
And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire … and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth …. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, and sware by him that liveth for ever and ever … that there should be time no longer: But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished ….
Skibsrud’s novel is centered on a single moment of betrayal and how it affects the four characters whose stories are woven together during the period of the Bonus Army march and the 1930s, leading up to and then through the period of World War II.
The novel’s beginning is about Bonus Army marcher and World War I veteran Arthur Sinclair, who is falsely accused of conspiracy and then disappears. The mystery of this event will affect his son, Douglas and also Alden and Sutton Kelly, the children of a U.S. congressman who become connected to Arthur and Douglas while the marchers are camped in Washington, D.C. The book then follows these characters as they live through the period of massive social change that took place during the period leading up to and during World War II.
This novel is thoroughly compelling, beautifully written, complex in form and lyrical in language. I think Johanna has succeeded in her effort to imagine a story of loss and love through the lens of a complicated period of modern history. Tim O’Brien said this about the book, praising “…its intimate and completely compelling portraits of human beings struggling to do the right thing under ambiguous moral circumstances.”
I very much enjoyed talking with Johanna Skibsrud about this book and her work as a writer. She is as intelligent and interesting to talk to as she is to read. This interview was recorded in her office at the University of Arizona. If you want to learn more about this author’s work, I recommend visiting Johanna’s website.
And if you’re interested in the Bonus March, which is a far too little known, and truly disheartening episode of American history, you might also be interested in Georgia Lowe’s novel, The Bonus. I talked to her about this book and the Bonus March story for Writerscast in 2012.
I’ve been a subscriber to Jesse Kornbluth’s excellent newsletter, HeadButler, for awhile now, and have very much enjoyed his approach to books, music and art (politics and culture too). In many ways, he represents to me the quintessential New York intellectual: smart, well read, opinionated and caring about the future of humanity and our civilization. He’s a writer of screenplays and a number of interesting and successful nonfiction books, and he has long been involved in the emerging forms and formats of online digitally-based culture, going back to his days as editorial director at AOL.
Married Sex is his first novel. It is short, extremely well written, and completely compelling. Jesse has brilliantly portrayed his characters, both male and female, and pinpoints them for the reader in very few words. It’s also a fun book to read. Sex with intelligence, you might say.
Without giving away very much of the story, let’s just say that the focus is on a couple who have been together a long time in a committed, deeply sexual romantic relationship. Then something happens that changes everything. You have to read the book to find out more. I think you will enjoy this book a lot. I love this line about it from Kirkus: “A libidinous fairy tale with an unusual Prince Charming.”
And I also think you will enjoy listening to my conversation with Jesse as well. He’s funny and trenchant, and we had a great time talking to one another about the book, his work, and how this book fits into his life. And oh yes, let’s get this settled right away – it’s a novel, not a memoir.
I often recommend Jesse’s newsletter and website to friends, HeadButler.com, what he calls “a cultural concierge site.” I’ve discovered and sometimes rediscovered a number of books and records through his literate and intelligent recommendations. It’s all free, based on the perhaps dubious concept of readers buying things he recommends from Amazon.
Jesse Kornbuth was the Editorial Director at AOL, was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and New York magazines and is the author of four nonfiction books, including Highly Confident: The Crime and Punishment of Michael Milken. He has written several screenplays for ABC, PBS, and Warner Bros.
I happened across this young, tattooed writer sitting in a publisher’s exhibit space at Book Expo earlier this year, and since it was Counterpoint, a publisher whose work I deeply respect, I shook his hand and took a copy of the book.
It took me a couple weeks before I started reading this novel, and then I was immediately captivated. Our Town is a great story, interestingly constructed, and really well written. The author plays with voice and perspective throughout, there are shifts in narrative viewpoints, and as it is telling a story through time about a number of different characters, all that prismatic dancing really worked for me.
This is McEnroe’s first novel, and there are inevitably some rough patches, and maybe even some missing pieces (I would have liked a bit more writing about the main characters’ children, for example). The novel traces the life of a minor Hollywood actress, Dorothy White, her husband Dale, and their children, Dylan and Clover. It’s a feat of imagination on the part of author McEnroe, to inhabit place, time and people whose lives he could never possibly have experienced in any direct way. I thought he captured that hazy, sometimes glowing world of Hollywood in the fifties and sixties quite brilliantly.
There is an incredible amount of sadness and pathos in this novel, unavoidably, as the lives that are traced here are broken in so many ways. These are people who are trying to be real but who are trapped in the imagery of pop culture, not strong enough themselves to find themselves in the trappings of fame and celebrity, unable to be self aware enough to become whole, or even close to whole. Their tragedies are inevitable by products of impossible aspirations.
McEnroe captures the desire, and the striving and the power of hope throughout. From what I can tell, he has his own demons to wrestle with, but as they motivate him to go deeper into his own understanding, his sure handed talent will serve him well. Our Town is a terrific novel – I resisted the hackneyed impulse to say “first novel” by the way – demonstrating that the author has a terrific set of writing skills and the promise of much more to come. Definitely a book to read and ruminate on.
Kevin Jack McEnroe lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. He received his MFA from Columbia University.
“From Lou Reed to Joan Didion, the tale of the young and the not-so-young Hollywood starlet has been treated with a gimlet-eyed intelligence. What makes Kevin Jack McEnroe’s Our Town so striking is not just his fierce intelligence —although there is certainly that— but his masterful flexibility of tone. Written with both razor-keen irony and surprising, startling depth of sympathy, Our Town is magnificent.” —Matthew Specktor, author of American Dream Machine
I have been reading and enjoying Lorna Landvik’s wonderfully funny books for a long time. I can’t remember how I discovered her writing but am guessing it might be the fact that she is from Minnesota that got me to try out one of her early books. And then since her books so perfectly capture the Minnesota social landscape and ethos, I kept going and read most of her novels. I come by my Minnesota interest because part of my family is from Minnesota, and I lived in St. Paul for a few years in the seventies, and I maintain a strong interest in the North Country and especially its literary life (oh and their baseball team too — see my recent interview with former Minnesota Twin Jim Kaat).
I suspect Landvik gets typecast by many readers as a “women’s” writer – her books are rich with female characters and speak to and for women’s social ethos. And in a book business that lives and dies by book categorization, maybe she is typecast also because her books are funny, and have titles that sound like they come from a female centric universe (Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, Your Oasis on Flame Lake, Patty Jane’s House of Curl). But it’s a mistake for any reader to overlook Landvik as there is a lot going on in these books. Landvik is certainly entertaining – her background as a stand up comedian and actor informs her writing and her stories. But comedians and comedic novelists are usually mining something deeper, and Landvik’s humor leverages a clear understanding of human nature and both our fallibility and the strength that allows us to live through pain and grief and the difficulties of daily life.
Best to Laugh is Landvik’s most recent novel, published last year by the adventurous University of Minnesota Press. It’s her most autobiographical novel, for sure. Her main character in this book, Candy Pekkala is half Korean and half Norwegian (unlike Landvik). She goes to Hollywood to follow her dream to be a stand up comedian (as Landvik did). The book follows her adventures in La-La land as she falls in with her neighbors in Peyton Hall, a class LA building that houses a cast of interesting and compelling characters, who all become Candy’s family as she becomes the success she has aimed to become. The combination of “old Hollywood” and less romantic 70’s era Los Angeles makes for a terrific backdrop. And the characters are picture perfect. Candy, her friends and family are impossible to resist.
In real life, Landvik did work as a stand up comedian in Los Angeles, temping at places like Atlantic Records and the Playboy Mansion (writing film reviews for Hugh Hefner’s private VHS tape collection) while pursuing her showbiz dream. Despite her success as a comedian, Landvik eventually turned to writing, which she turned out to be pretty good at doing. She still likes to perform – her ‘Party in the Rec Room’ is performed once a year at the wonderful Bryant Lake Bowl theater in Minneapolis (yes, theater in a bowling alley!) This is an all-improvised show based on audience suggestion. Landvik describes it this way “While I enjoy a meaty, dramatic role, to me there’s nothing more satisfying than making a roomful of people snort beer up their noses as they laugh.”
You might find yourself doing the same while reading Best to Laugh.
Anne Enright is an Irish fiction writer who has been widely praised for the lyrical quality of her prose and for eccentric characters and heartfelt renderings of modern family life, received the 2007 Man Booker Prize, the British Commonwealth’s most prestigious literary award, for her novel, The Gathering (2007). In that year’s competition, her book was considered a longshot for the prize, but nonetheless was was selected unanimously by the panel of judges. The Gathering was also named “Irish Novel of the Year” at the 2008 Irish Book Awards.
Subsequently, Enright wrote and published more novels, including The Forgotten Waltz (2012) which won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, about which Francine Prose said in her NY Times review, “a nervy enterprise, an audacious bait-and-switch. Cloaked in a novel about a love affair is a ferocious indictment of the self-involved material girls our era has produced.”
Enright went to college at Trinity College, Dublin, and took an MFA in writing at University of East Anglia in England, but soon after ended up working in television production in Ireland, which she did successfully for several years. She then turned to writing, first short stories, and then novels, at which she clearly excels. Since the Man Booker prize raised her profile exponentially, she has won numerous awards and traveled widely in support of her novels.
Enright’s newest book, The Green Road, is about a very modern Irish family, splintered and scattered, but always focused on the mother, the unhappy and complicated Doraleen. The family lives in County Clare, the farthest eastern shore of Ireland, as Enright says, the last stop before America, a place of immense beauty and also loneliness and struggle for those who continue to live there. And there is a real green road there, the old path along the water.
For the first half of the book, Enright alternates voices and scenes, from County Clare to New York to Africa to Dublin as she introduces us to the children in the Madigan family. And then the scene shifts back to the home turf of the family, as the children return for their mother’s birthday, together for the first time in many years. And this is where the heart of the novel lives.
It’s a beautiful book, one that has stayed with me after I read it, and even after I had the opportunity to talk about the book, the characters and the writing process with author Enright. She is an incredibly accomplished writer, able to convey immense depth about characters, a places, or events, with an economy of language and a piercing eye. We had a lively and interesting conversation while she was in New York on her book tour. And I am really pleased that she was willing to read two sections of the book, as hearing the author’s voice in this particular instance is terrifically important as her tone and intonation helps us feel the book more deeply.
I also had the pleasure to welcome her to the United States as she is now the first official Irish Fiction Laureate. This recording is of a wonderful conversation with one of our best living novelists, about a novel I am happy to recommend to all readers. And here is a terrific piece she wrote about the writing of the book for The Guardian (which we did talk about in our conversation). While I could not find a website for Ms. Enright but here is a pretty nicely done fansite for her work. And for those of you who have become fans of Enright’s work, this interview in the Paris Review about The Forgotten Waltz will be of interest as well. Publisher WW Norton has a page for the author here.
Jeffrey Lewis has had a really interesting life and career path. He went to Yale, where he was the Class Poet, graduating in the mid-sixties, and went to law school at Harvard. His first career was in law enforcement – he was an Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan. Then he left New York to work on the now famed television show, Hill Street Blues, embarking on what became a terrifically successful career in television and film writing. And then he more or less left television to write serious literary fiction.
In the past few years, Lewis has published a total of six novels. The four that make up the “Meritocracy Quartet” were originally published between 2004 and 2008 – Meritocracy: A Love Story in 2004, The Conference of the Birds in 2005, Theme Song for an Old Show in 2007 and Adam the King in 2008.
Before writing fiction, Lewis won a number of awards including two Emmys, the Writers Guild Award, the Humanitas Prize, the People’s Choice Award, and the Image Award of the NAACP, as a writer and producer of Hill Street Blues. His work for television and film includes projects for HBO, Showtime, the BBC, TNT, and many of the major film studios. His last screenplay, before turning full-time to writing fiction, was Paint, set in the New York art world, and is the last unfinished project of the great director Robert Altman.
He lives in Los Angeles, California and Castine, Maine.
The four books in the “Meritocracy Quartet” take place in successive decades and are meant to document and explore what these periods meant to the post war baby boomers. Each novel in the series stands alone, but together, they are a powerful and really striking portrait of the inner and outer lives of the cultural elite of this generation.
Lewis is a wonderful writer. His work is clear, never over wrought and expressive of the emotional lives of his characters. The books all take place in environments Lewis lived in, periods he lived through. It would be all too easy to try to read these novels as romans a clef, but I think they are much more than that. As a true novelist, transforming the lived experience to find its meanings, both for himself and for his readers, Lewis becomes an alchemist of the soul, his words then, taking us to places far beyond. These books are really an impressive accomplishment, and well worth the effort to read all four together, at once, for a deeply rewarding experience.
“Lives are not seamlessly sewn together, but rather forged by coincidence, necessity, and expectation, a fact that Lewis brilliantly conveys. . . . Lewis’ memories portray a modern, American life.” (San Francisco Book Review)
I really enjoyed talking to Jeff about these books and his work as a writer.
I genuinely enjoyed this evocative coming-of-age novel. I thought it captured the current generation of almost-thirty somethings really beautifully. It’s well written and well structured and very sympathetic on a number of levels for a wide range of readers.
The book starts with the central character in this faceted story, Sam Turner, in the summer he is fifteen, the crucial and in some ways defining moment in his life. Just as he connects with Suzie Epstein, the gorgeous girl next door, his mother abandons his family without warning or explanation. While his older, hard working brother Michael, who is a freshman in college and their attorney father both appear to accept her absence as a matter of course, Sam cannot. He is confused, and more deeply hurt by his mother’s departure and struggles to understand how she could simply disappear and leave her family behind. And at the same time, Suzie’s family suddenly moves away as well. This sense of loss is something he will carry with him throughout the rest of the story.
From this opening, the rest of the book covers the years as Sam and his friends (and brother) grow into adulthood. As one might expect, life is complicated, shit happens, good and bad, and life goes on. Author Antalek navigates this territory brilliantly, telling the stories of the key characters in alternating voices.
Suzie has her own family issues, and remains separated from her old friends for many years. Then a chance meeting with Michael reunites her with Sam and her former best friend Bella, whose first love was Sam. The Grown Ups explores the complicated process of growing up in the modern world. And through it all, we come to understand and appreciate the way her characters handle what it means for them to take on the mantle of adulthood. For most of us, it seems this is how growing up really works, accidents mixed with intentions to create being, meaning, and love. This book is a rewarding read, and one I thoroughly enjoyed. And I felt the same way talking to author Antalek about her book. We had a very fun time talking together about the writing of this book, her characters and life in general.
Robin Antalek is also the author of The Summer We Fell Apart (HarperCollins 2010) which was chosen as a Target Breakout Book. Her non-fiction work has been published at The Weeklings, The Nervous Breakdown and was been featured in several collections, including The Beautiful Anthology, Writing off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema, and The Weeklings: Revolution #1 Selected Essays 2012-2013. Her short fiction has appeared in 52 Stories, Five Chapters, Sun Dog, The Southeast Review and Literary Mama among others. Robin has received three honorable mentions in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters and New Fiction Writer’s contests as well as an honorable mention for the Tobias Wolf Fiction Award.
I loved reading this book. It has a great sense of humor, it’s complex without being too serious about itself, and a story that grabs you from the beginning and won’t let go. Mary Kay Zuravleff is a terrific writer, original and entertaining. And there’s a lot going on to keep you thinking throughout. Man Alive! tells a great story. There is a perfect summary of the book on her very active website in case you want to know the story without any risk of spoilers:
All it takes is a quarter to change Owen Lerner’s life. When lightning strikes the coin he’s feeding into the parking meter, the pediatric psychiatrist survives, except that now he only wants to barbecue. The bolt of lightning that lifts Dr. Lerner into the air sends the entire Lerner clan into free fall, and Man Alive! follows along at that speed, capturing family-on-family pain with devastating humor and a rare generosity. This novel explores how much we are each allowed to change within a family—and without.
This book is a fun read and I recommend it no matter what kind of fiction you like. It’s a funny book with a solid heart and great characters. And I am very happy that I recorded Mary Kay reading an excerpt from the book to add to the Authors Voices series. Since last year the book is out in paperback from Picador – 978-1250056054 – $16 (and ebook versions are still available at lower prices). I like the new cover too.