Category: Literature

Pale Hearts reviewed in Compulsive Reader

I am thrilled to share Compulsive Reader’s review of PALE HEARTS.  Reviewer Ruth Latta had many kind things to say about the book.  She also took the time to write in detail about some individual stories. The stories she focused on were somewhat different than the ones that occupied the greatest part of my attention, and it was refreshing to see the book through someone else’s eyes.

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I particularly appreciated the assessment that “the fifteen thought-provoking stories in Pale Hearts are both literature and entertainment.”  I’m starting to realize that I sit right in the middle of the great supposed “literary” and “genre” divide.  I love Melville, Flaubert, and Faulkner.  I also love Stephen King and Michael Crichton.  I find a lot of so-called literary fiction pretentious and boring, while many great genre fiction books are overlooked by the literary world.  Some of my favorite contemporary authors, like Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood, and Donna Tartt, are people who don’t fit neatly into genre/literary distinctions.  I hope I can achieve that balance in my own work.

How to be productive as a writer

Don’t wait for inspiration.

There will never be a perfect time to write. We’re all busy, stressed, and tired; these seem to be the default conditions for about 90% of life. Moments of inspiration are rare. If you rely on them, you won’t finish anything. It’s better to work steadily, even when you don’t feel like it. Often the feeling of being “uninspired” is actually procrastination in disguise. If you push through the first twenty minutes or so of drudgery, you will start to enjoy the work.

Set a daily goal.

This gives you something to work toward. Many writers aim for a certain word count or amount of time. Meeting the goal forces you to be productive.  It also gives you a reason to feel accomplished at the end of the day.

Block the internet.

The internet is a pernicious influence. After writing for “a while,” I’m often tempted to spend “five minutes” checking email. Five minutes is never five minutes. Checking email leads to clicking on a blog update or visiting an online sale. Soon this becomes reading “just one” article, which ends up being more like five or six. Few among us can resist the internet once that enticing browser window is open. Save yourself by investing in an internet-blocking app. Freedom is a good option. Alternatively, back away from the computer and write longhand.

Join a writing group.

Even disciplined individuals benefit from having other people involved in the writing process. Writing groups provide valuable feedback, and they hold you accountable when your productivity starts to flag. This is especially important in periods of personal difficulty, when life events threaten to derail your writing. I went through a challenging time last year when I was in real danger of not writing a word. Instead, though I wrote badly and with great pain, I continued to produce new chapters of my novel—simply because my writing group required these chapters for meetings.

Be selfish with your time.

Writing takes time, and time is in short supply. Most writers have other responsibilities that come first, usually working and/or being a parent. With all the “real” things you have to do, it’s hard to justify spending some of your time alone, creating a document of questionable value that may or may not get published. It may seem like you “should” do the laundry first, or clean the house, or socialize. These things are important.  However, if you always put writing last, it will never get done. If you really want to finish your story/essay/book, you must take the time to do it. No one is going to give it to you. Lock yourself away for an hour in a place where you won’t be disturbed. Ask yourself how you’ll feel a year from now if you don’t progress on this project. If the thought of not finishing your story/essay/book doesn’t bother you, then maybe it’s not worth it. But if the idea of not finishing makes you feel sad or disappointed, then you owe it to yourself. The laundry can wait.

Out and About With Pale Hearts

It’s been a fun first month for Pale HeartsMy first reading was at Trident Booksellers in Boston.  The atmosphere in this bookstore is especially nice because they have a cafe, so reading attendees can relax with a glass of wine or a snack.  Although I had a cold, I forged through and had a great time.  I’m so grateful to all the enthusiastic people who came!

Next up was a book signing at Richards Memorial Library in North Attleboro.  I was there as part of their Local Authors Fair.  It was wonderful to meet other authors from the area and see their books.

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In other news, Pale Hearts is now available at Norton Public Library.  Richards Memorial Library will also be adding a copy to their collection.  I was so excited to see my book right in the middle of Norton’s new books shelf.

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It’s great to see Pale Hearts listed in the library catalogs.  (Also, how fitting that Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” comes up as a related result!)  If your library is part of the SAILS network in Massachusetts, you can request Pale Hearts.  But you’ll have to wait–the book is currently checked out!

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Halloween Stories

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With Halloween a few weeks away, it’s the perfect time to read some creepy short stories. Here are some of my favorites:

The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs – A haunted monkey’s paw gives this family whatever they wish for…with a twist.

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? by Joyce Carol Oates – A creepy guy shows up at her house. What should Connie do?

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor – A family road trip goes horribly wrong.

The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe – A murderer is haunted by guilt.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson – A seemingly normal small town turns out to have a dark secret.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman – A confined woman descends into madness.

The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle – A woman’s twin sister dies under sudden and suspicious circumstances.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle – A mysterious beast causes some suspicious deaths. This one’s actually a novel, but I had to include it because it’s so terrifying.

My new story collection, PALE HEARTS (now out in Kindle and paperback), has a few stories that are Halloween-worthy.  In “The Grechtzoar,” Jimmy has to hunt the dangerous monster that  killed his best friend.  In “Unhanding,” John’s hand is stolen by an imposter.  Mysterious disappearances, vacant houses, and a possible kidney haunting round out the generally creepy atmosphere.  Check out my new events page to attend an upcoming reading!

Recommended reading

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Photo credit: Morguefile

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

This haunting, gorgeous novel revolves around two plot lines. Elderly Ruth hears a tiger sneaking into her home at night. Then a mysterious woman shows up to help Ruth around the house, supposedly sent by the government. The novel’s realism is subtly undermined by Ruth’s fantasies, memories, and personality quirks. As Ruth tries to uncover the truth about the tiger and the government helper, the novel becomes surprisingly suspenseful, while still lavishing attention to language and setting. This is such a stunning book, it’s hard to believe it’s McFarlane’s first.

Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta

As a person of small town origin, I loved seeing the suburban milieu treated as a serious subject in this story collection. Perrotta’s examination of suburban life is simultaneously entertaining and arresting. Especially of note were the title story (a masterclass in the perfect last sentence) and “Senior Season.” “Senior Season” dealt with the life of a high school football player who suffers from a concussion. The subject might seem ripe for satire or cliché, but Perrotta treated it with gravity and generosity.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

The more I read this book (this was my fourth or fifth read), the more I’m impressed by its perfect plot construction. A rich dinosaur enthusiast hires some scientists to figure out how to clone dinosaurs. He plans to create an island zoo/amusement park that will feature several extinct species.  Experts are brought in to assess the park’s safety for the public, and things go horribly awry. Readers of “literary” fiction might be tempted dismiss this novel as a simple thriller, but it’s so much more than that. Although the plot involves a cool sci-fi concept, it is mainly driven by individual characters’ personality traits and ambitions (in other words, what you’re taught to write in every fiction class: character-driven plot). Also impressive is Crichton’s world-building. A lesser writer might have just had some generic dinosaurs and left it at that. Crichton imagines several different dinosaur species in great detail, describing not only their appearance, but also their behaviors and movements. These traits, in turn, affect parts of the plot, in such a strong way that the dinosaurs almost function as characters.

How to be Both by Ali Smith

This novel has two sections, each with an unusual narrator. The first is a grammar-obsessed sixteen-year-old whose mother has passed away. The second is a fourteenth-century artist. The writing style is original and surprising, almost experimental in sections. Yet Smith’s playful style doesn’t detract from the emotional content of the novel, as sometimes happens in books that focus a lot of attention on language. The jacket copy compared Smith to Woolf, which is sort of a lofty comparison. But after I finished the novel, I felt that Smith had lived up to it.

Updates

Some updates on what’s becoming a busy and exciting spring:

  1. For various reasons, I haven’t attended quite as many concerts as usual this season.  I did manage to make it to a wonderful Handel and Haydn concert last February (Beethoven’s 4th Piano Concerto with Robert Levin; Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony).  Handel and Haydn always impresses me.  They are a fantastic period orchestra, and a major part of why Boston’s classical scene is so great.  Next year I do plan to attend more concerts, since supporting classical musicians is one of my priorities.
  2. I have pretty much stopped writing short fiction in order to focus on completing my first novel.  My novel is becoming quite long.  I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise, since most of my favorite novels are long.
  3. This year I’ve already read several great books.  I was deeply impressed and moved by Han Kang’s The Vegetarian and Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest.  I also finally got around to reading Megan Abbott’s early novels.  Die a Little and The Song is You were both excellent.
  4. I have continued taking graduate courses in environmental science.  My goal is to identify specific areas in which I can contribute.  I’m starting to think that waste management and land conservation might be good topics of focus for me.  Waste is something I find myself thinking about/noticing a lot.  It is a large but solvable problem that deserves more press.  And land conservation is a subject close to my heart, as I have always loved being in nature and its fragility frightens me.  Also, if you conserve land, you get the added benefits of species conservation and ecosystem services.
  5. One of the classes I took last semester was a fascinating course in marine biology.  Much of it was wonderful and even entertaining.  There are so many weird and remarkable species in the ocean, and learning about them was a joy.  Parts of the class were also pretty sad, like learning that most species of albatross are endangered.  I came away feeling even more strongly that preserving our planet’s wild spaces and biodiversity is THE primary challenge facing our generation.
  6. Meanwhile, watching videos and documentaries about wildlife has become a serious hobby.  Planet Earth and Blue Planet are both excellent.  There’s also tons of amazing footage on YouTube.  Below are a couple of my favorite videos of sea creatures:




Badly drawn scenes from famous novels

Guess the books in the comments.  Make your English teacher proud.

  1. It seems like this book is pretty much everyone’s favorite classic.

Drawing of cars crashed on road, billboard with eyes

2.  Sleeping is actually super interesting, if you think about it in depth.

Drawing of person sleeping

3.  A bromance gone wrongDrawing of person in a tree, another person on the ground, next to river

4.  This has to be the worst suicide plan in all of literature.Drawing of two people sledding into a tree

5.  College BFFs gone wrong

Drawing of five people standing on a cliff, one person falling off

6.  A man vs. nature tale where you kind of end up sympathizing with naturePicture of whale crashing into ship

Some Great Books I Read in 2015

Feed and The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by M.T. Anderson – Two enormously intelligent books that were remarkable not only in themselves, but also for how different they were from each other.  Feed is a brilliant dystopia about the internet, consumerism, and environmental destruction.  Octavian Nothing is a historical novel set during the American Revolution, narrated by a young black boy.

Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood – This remains one of my favorite dystopias of all time.  It seems I am confronted weekly with some piece of news that confirms the chilling accuracy of Atwood’s predictions about people, science, and environmental destruction.

Jurassic Park, Timeline, Sphere, and The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – Crichton is a master of plot, and he’s also great at coming up with intriguing and sometimes terrifying ideas for science fiction.

A Mixture of Frailties by Robertson Davies – The coming of age story of an opera singer.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – Once I read this absolutely perfect classic I couldn’t believe I’d waited to approach it.  Coming up for a re-read shortly.

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman – I still get chills when I think about how amazing this book was.  It’s a literary novel about two sisters set during the dot com bubble… but also so much more than that.  Goodman is notable for the warmth that comes through her novels.  Sometimes it seems too easy to write about all the bad stuff people do.  Goodman sees beyond that and makes you love everyone in the book–and somehow encourages you to see the good in people, even in this jaded 21st century.

The Secret Place, Broken Harbor, The Likeness, and In The Woods by Tana French – Beautifully written mysteries with a heavy dose of psychology and setting.  What more could a literary suspense lover want?

Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry by B.S. Johnson – A wicked little work of metafiction by a mid-20th century experimental writer

Bobcat and The City is a Rising Tide by Rebecca Lee – I’ve been plaguing all my friends by telling them to read Bobcat, a story collection that instantly became my favorite.

Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai – Makkai is one of my favorite short story writers.  Also, this collection features a lot of musicians, obviously a favorite topic of mine.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – A Pulitzer winner that has fallen out of fashion for its reliance on plot and its Confederate sympathies.  But the story is so dramatic and sweeping, and Mitchell has a talent for creating vivid tapestries of characters. As a writer, I also find it interesting that Scarlett O’Hara is such an unlikeable yet compelling character.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami – Another book I’ve told everyone I know to read, and they’re probably getting annoyed by now… one of those books that’s good enough to get obsessed with, and weird enough that you can’t explain why.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl – A coming of age murder story narrated by a brainy teenage girl.  I admired the unique voice Pessl achieved, and the character of the girl’s father was quite memorable.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips – A pleasantly terrifying, Kafka-esque tale about that soul-crushing place, the 9-5 office job.

Orfeo, Galatea 2.2, and Generosity: An Enhancement by Richard Powers – Powers shares my fascination with music, science, and technology.  He’s not exactly a science fiction writer, but sort of borders on it by being a literary writer preoccupied with science.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – This was a stunning, heartbreaking story of adolescent love. I was astounded by how well Rowell captured the awkwardness of teenage years and how it feels to be a teenager in love–as well as by the devastating story wrapped around the narrative core.

The Guermantes Way by Marcel Proust – I tackled volume 3 of the 7-volume saga.  This one featured stalking a duchess and the tragic death of the grandmother.

Non-fiction

Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo by Nicholas Carlson – A study of Yahoo and the career of its current CEO, one of the youngest female CEOs

The Boy Who Played With Fusion by Tom Clynes – Not only the story of one scientific prodigy, but also an examination of the conditions under which genius can flourish (or falter)

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance – A fascinating biography of the most innovative, daring tech industrialist of our time.

The Double Helix by James Watson – Watson’s memoir of discovering the DNA molecule.  Interesting not only for its close-up look at a major scientific discovery, but also for Watson’s eccentric narrative style and for a glimpse at gender norms of the time (Rosalind Franklin famously got the short end of the stick)

 

Weird cool reads

palePale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire is a novel in the form of a poem, with notes and commentary by a crazed would-be academic.  Nabokov’s humor and cleverness are on full display.  It’s an essential read for anyone who enjoys his books.

 

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin (translated by Ken Liu)

Science fiction dealing with physics is unusual, and the book’s cultural setting (China immediately after the Cultural Revolution) is quite interesting.  For me, the most striking part of the novel (besides the fact that half the physicists are women) was a virtual reality video game where physicists must decode the rules of a seemingly arbitrary planet.

Houhouse of leavesse of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

“House of Leaves” is an academic text concerning a (perhaps nonexistent) film, the manuscript of which is discovered by a lonely tattoo artist, who adds his own copious footnotes and commentary.   The novel’s form most closely resembles Pale Fire, but the mood is entirely different.  Pale Fire is satire, sometimes even burlesque, but House of Leaves is a creepy story about a house that is bigger inside than it is outside.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl

This fast-paced mystery begins with the suspicious death of a famous filmmaker’s daughter and quickly becomes a tale full of ambiguity and eerie events.

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The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

A list of weird cool books wouldn’t be complete without this experimental classic, which tells of a family’s decline through four memorably eccentric points of view.

What else to read if you loved The Secret History

likenessThe Likeness by Tana French

Detective Cassie Maddox is called in to investigate the murder of a girl who eerily resembles her–and who happens to be using the name that was once her undercover alias.  Pretending that the victim was only in a coma, not dead, Cassie infiltrates the girl’s strange group of five best friends to find out what happened.

The Secret Place by Tana French

In order to solve the murder of a teenage boy, two detectives must investigate warring girl cliques at an exclusive private school.

Tsoldierhe Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

John Dowell believes he has the perfect marriage and the perfect set of friends.  Then he discovers that everything his friends and wife have told him is false, and his entire life is based on lies.

 

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Blue van Meer befriends a strange group of kids and their charismatic teacher at a fancy private school.  When the teacher is found dead, Blue must find out what happened.

Ctazakiolorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Tsukuru Tazaki once had five very close friends who expelled him from their group for no apparent reason.  Years later, he tracks them down across Japan to find out what happened.