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What I've been reading. And loving.

Every few months I like to write about some of the books I've been reading, especially those from debut authors or small presses, the books you may not hear about elsewhere. Today, I want to share three novels that I enjoyed immensely, and think you will too.

GROWING UP DELICIOUS by Marianne Banks is a totally yummy and satisfying read. I'm fascinated and captivated when authors are able to use humor to illuminate important (and often not so funny) events. That's what Banks does in her debut novel about coming out, going home, and revising your personal history in the process. This book made me laugh out loud, and weep, and I wish I could read it again for the first time. (Bella, 2012).

In OFFSPRING, Michael Quadland’s second novel, the yearnings of a Vietnam vet, a transgendered person, and a volatile actress intersect wildly as each character searches for a way to fit into an unwelcoming world. The characters are quirky but utterly authentic in this fast-paced story of reproductive adventures, bookstore culture, and the deep longings of the outsiders among us. With humor and enormous empathy for their circumstances, Quadland weaves his characters’ histories seamlessly into the story, challenging the reader’s preconceptions and prejudices along the way. Offspring is an excellent read – a page-turner – with characters I will not soon forget. (Red Hen, 2012).

The third novel won't be out until June, but is well worth the wait. Nichole Bernier's debut novel, THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D. asks the question: What happens to your journals, the place you share your secret life, if you die suddenly? After Elizabeth’s sudden death, Kate inherits a trunk of her close friend’s journals and brings them on vacation to read. This is the summer after 9/11, a time of intense re-examination of both national and personal safety. As Kate discovers Elizabeth’s secrets, she questions both their friendship and her own choices and yearnings. This book is tender and compelling. And it made me wonder what I should do with the dozen dusty journals in the bottom of my closet. (Crown, 2012).  Read More 
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Can fiction change the world? Should it even try?

I know. I know. This topic is likely to make you roll your eyes, unless you’re one of the 8.9% of writers who are – like me – obsessed with it. Another 35% believe that art is for art’s sake alone: spectacular sunsets, striking metaphors, startling insights about the human condition, but don’t step too close to the line. Over that line lurk propaganda, didacticism, partisanship, the literary equivalents of activist judges. The other 56.1% don’t care and have already clicked away. (Disclosure: these statistics are made-up.)

Seriously though, you can’t live in my family without believing in the power of literature to effect change. My father-in-law Abel Meeropol (a.k.a. Lewis Allan) wrote the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit,” often quoted as the most important protest song of the 20th century.  Read More 
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Life Imitates Art

A couple of months ago I started a new novel. One of the first scenes I imagined took place in a grocery store, much like the chain store where I shop when I’m too lazy to drive to the food coop. In the scene, an older woman with early dementia is doing her weekly shopping with the help of her teenage granddaughter. The older woman is furious when the bagger, texting on his cell phone rather than paying attention to her veggies, smushes the lettuce. She throws a large onion at him and is hauled off to the manager’s office.

Today, in that market, there was no bagger, just me and the cashier.  Read More 
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Reflecting on AWP 2012 and literary sisterhood

I’ve been home two days now from the AWP annual conference (Association of Writers and Writing Programs). For me, the conference started slow this year. The panels I attended on Thursday and Friday weren’t very useful and I didn’t feel inspired. I started to wonder if the panels were just an excuse for writers to get together with far-flung writer friends. I loved hanging out with Janice and Jean and Rosellen and Carol and Marie and Margaret and Jeanne, and with folks from Red Hen Press and Stonecoast MFA. I bought and started reading fellow Red Hen author Michael Quadland’s brand new novel, Offspring. (It’s a wonderful read; check it out). But the chaos and noise of 10,000 writers was overwhelming. And not in a good way.

Saturday, day three, didn’t start well either. First of all, I didn’t sleep well Friday night – insomnia and bad dreams chased me into dawn. And several of my friends had to leave early. So I was looking forward to my political fiction panel with Rosellen Brown and Tracy Daughterty (assigned the last slot of the three day conference) but not much else.

My attitude changed in the ladies’ bathroom at 8:30 a.m., when the woman drying her hands at the sink said hello and we began a conversation. Turns out she is Edith Pearlman, whose recent story collection Binocular Vision, I’ve read twice, and loved. We were both en route to her panel – Women of a Certain Age. The panel was totally delightful, inspiring even, as five elegant and eloquent women writers opened their hearts. I was not the only person in the audience with tears in my eyes and a catch in my throat. This was because the panelists embraced the audience as sisters rather than passive listeners, and because of the truth of their observations and the beauty of their prose. The panelists, all with long and successful careers, also embraced those in the audience who are – like me – literary late bloomers, and welcomed us into their literary sisterhood.

Enjoying the brisk air and occasional snowflakes on Michigan Avenue afterwards, I realized that it took a while, but I finally hit my AWP stride. Once again I felt a profound gratitude to be part of a community of people for whom words are magic and books still live.  Read More 
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