Back in the summer of ’89 I earned a month-long stint at the Edward Albee Center at Montauk Point. It was an exhilarating and productive time, with a lot of highlights, including being feted at my birthday dinner by Edward himself, along with other attendees of the retreat, and a conversation with The Man in which, after I proudly told him how much I had written during the time I’d spent there, he replied, “Ah, but how much will you keep?” By which, of course, he meant use. I must confess that the answer to that question, so far at least, is zip. The novel I was writing then, a bildungsroman about my boyhood called, “The Ranch,” much of which was penned that summer, has sheltered in my drawer all these years.

But why I’m remembering this at the moment is a period piece I dug out of my writing files while trying to accomplish some housecleaning. I thought it might be interesting enough to share. Dated 7-31-89, here it is:

“There is a lot of privilege out here in this town at the end of a long island. Every other car one sees is either a Mercedes Benz or a Volvo. In fact I suspect everyone who owns a Mercedes Benz also owns a Volvo. And the others! Jaunty little runabouts one sees at the beach: Lamborghinis, 5-liter Porsches, 2 (count them) Shelby Cobras, Saabs, Jaguars, nothing surprises. I myself was picked up hitching back from a dip in the ocean by a sweet red Alfa Romeo. Cadillacs, in this environment, look positively tacky; one wants to sneer. I haven’t spotted a Testa Rossa or an Aston Martin yet, but I’ll be here a few more hours.

“And what about all these Colombians in their pickups, or on foot, who are apparently the gardeners, and change the linen in the motels? Did they arrive at the the bottom of a cocaine shipment, like the prize at the bottom of the crackerjack box?

“Finally, here is me, tooling along on my beat-up, circa-1960 girl’s bike that the chain keeps slipping off of (the only one the Albee Foundation owns that works at all). Ah, now I see: Lamborghini and bicicleta, the relation between Society and Art in a nutshell.”

Twenty-five plus years later, what has changed? Only that the Lamborghini crowd perhaps rules  more directly now, rather than simply from the wings. But with The Donald at the helm, wouldn’t that be much too obvious?

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Jim Story & Celeste Baker: May 11th, 6-7:30, Cornelia St. Café

JimStoryAndCelesteBakerCome join Celeste Rita Baker and me at the Cornelia St. Café for a delightful early-evening reading of new fiction!
I’ll be reading from my soon-to-be-completed next novel, The Condor’s Shadow, and from Problems of Translation, my recently published novel, called “An insanely amusing adventure that has a deep love of language at its belly-shaking core” (Gary Shteyngart), “a merry yearlong chase around the globe” (Kirkus Reviews), and “a zany and surprisingly philosophical adventure” (Portland Review, four stars). Also a Shelf Unbound 2015 Notable Book, by the way.

Celeste will read from Belly, Back, and Side, her recently published story collection that “balance(s) heartache and hilarity with poetic, uncompromising prose” (Daniel José Older), providing “tales of wisdom, wonderment, and new world lore” (Sheree Renée Thomas), and her novel-in-progress about a saint who reluctantly finds herself in the body of a Black woman in the New York of 50 years hence.

Celeste and I will be signing copies of our respective books after the reading. A few books will be available for purchase, or bring your copy with you, if you like, and its author will sign it for you right there. Author-signed thank-you cards will be there for those of you who’ve purchased an ebook. (Absolutely no pressure to buy a book, though.)

Come if you can! It will be a great evening, and you’re pretty sure to enjoy it.

The date is May 11, a Wednesday; the time is from 6-7:30 pm; it’s at 29 Cornelia Street, and a $9 cover will include a free glass of wine.

See www.jimcstory.com and www.celesteritabaker.com for more.

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Now along comes Lucia Berlin. Or here she always was, I guess, only I didn’t know it. Poor lady only had a couple of thousand readers, by one estimate. Deserved, deserves many more.

Wrote in short, snappy sentences. Black or bleak, take your pic. Zig zag. Bippity bump. Next sentence might be in the middle of next week or a few years gone by. But it all tallies up and makes you think: how much is needed?

Sad, funny. Funny-sad. These are not Park Avenue matrons who are getting their lives catalogued, or Hollywood stars or deep-dish lovers of sparkly ingénues. Rather they’re cleaning women, old Indians at laundromats, convent girls who are Protestant and yearn to become nuns but can’t catch a break—for what? Self-styled dentists in El Paso waiting impatiently for granddaughters to yank their teeth out, while blood runs down the chinny-chin-chin.

Prejudice, pathos, humor. El Paso, Mexico, New Mexico, Berkeley.

Fine, fine stuff. From a woman born in 1936 who died in 2004. But check out those pics of her as a young woman: Elizabeth Taylor, eat your heart out!

All this from reading Lucia Berlin’s recently published gathering of short stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women, a labor of love assembled from several prior collections.
But don’t take my word for it. Check it out. And be prepared to envy.

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Each of the nine stories in Mia Alvar’s absorbing first collection grabs you from the start and lingers long after you’ve finished. Scrutinize as you will with your Sherlock Holmes-style magnifying glass, it’s hard to find a bad line or a word choice you might quibble with.

Ms. Alvar was born in the Philippines, spent time with her family in Saudi Arabia, and now resides in the United States. Fortunately for us, she uses her experience in each of these locales to give us tales which no one else could have written. It’s a cultural trifecta, and uniquely hers.

Her simple, straightforward prose style, reminiscent of Jhumpa Lahiri, dazzles with its choice of detail. You’ll find a cornucopia of brilliant characterizations, woven into stories that are compelling and moving, most often with a deftly orchestrated surprise lurking ‘round the bend. The assortment of “narrative strategies” is astonishing, from first-person narrators, to second-person singular, and even first-person plural! As a writer, I admire her technical versatility.

And consider the range of main characters—all but one are Filipinos—that populate these stories. Here are slum-dwellers and people who live in palatial homes. Here are trained health-care specialists (“The Miracle Worker”), Senators (“Old Girl”), models (“Legends of the White Lady”), poor students yearning to be writers (“A Contract Overseas”), dangerously proactive journalists (“In the Country”), pharmacists (“Kontrabida”), upper-middle-class families living in Bahrain (“Shadow Families”), youngsters born with stumps for legs (“The Virgin of Monte Ramon”), and mothers everywhere. Mothers, wives, nurses, whores, children, families.

My favorite among these treasures is “The Virgin of Monte Ramon.” A wheelchair-bound youngster deformed at birth lives in a mansion with a mother who holds self-invented delusions about her history and how she survives. The boy forms a striking alliance with Annelise, a brilliant and stubborn young woman from the lowliest of slums (“the ravine”). He shares his mother’s folkloric delusions until a moment of explosive revelation, provided by the town doctor, changes everything: “His words and his departure sent me reeling, as if I’d been pushed downhill to the ravine at high speed, losing all control, nothing below to catch or save me. The idea I’d been polishing like a precious stone slipped from my hands. And with it, all ideas that had carried and sustained me through the years seemed to be crumbling too. If I’d been wrong about Dr. Delacruz and my grandfather, it seemed possible I might be wrong about my mother. It seemed possible for the first time that the defects of our bodies—mine, Annnelise’s, anyone’s—were errors of nature, caused and cured by science, nothing more.”

Word is that, for her next book, Ms. Alvar is seeking to expand the included novella, “In the Country,” into a full-fledged novel. Given the narrative sweep of that story and the way it’s myriad details and characters are marshaled to a stunning conclusion, it’s hard to see how expanding it can make it any better. But given the remarkable talent that’s revealed in this book, it would be foolhardy to bet against her.

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A belated thanks to everyone who came out for my reading a month ago (October 6th) at Jim readingthe Cornelia Street Café. For those who weren’t able to come, videos of that performance are now available not only on my website but on YouTube as well.

I read three selections that evening, and they’re all there. The first piece, from my recently published novel, Problems of Translation, introduces the novel’s romantic element and might be called “Enter Svetlana.” The second, also from Problems, could be called “What To Do When You’re Aloft in a Private Jet and its Pilot Dies.” The third piece, which I could have labeled, “Fury and Rain,” is from a novel I’m currently working on.

Problems of Translation - Front CoverIn case you’re among the scandalously uninformed, Problems of Translation is available on Amazon (paperback and ebook editions) and Barnes & Noble online (paperback), in some bookstores, and may soon be available from selected libraries. (It is actually in at least one library, but alas, not in New York.)

It was also truly enjoyable to have read on that evening with Robin McLean, who trekked down from New England to read for the Big City folks from her splendid, trenchant, chilling collection of short stories, Reptile House.

Please note, YouTube users, feel free to “like” the video if that mirrors your reaction; in fact, you can do that if you access it from my website as well.

AND BY THE WAY, those of you who did attend the reading, are also cordially invited to see the videos! Lots of fun the second time around!

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JimStoryAndRobinMcLeanAtCorneliaStreetMark your calendars! October 6 is the date of my next reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe, and I’m inviting everyone within earshot to come. It’s a Tuesday, and it will be held from 6-7:30 in their wonderful downstairs reading space. Angelo Verga, Cornelia’s redoubtable ringmaster, will be there to do the introductions of both me and Robin McLean (about whom more later) and I can hardly wait!

I’ll be reading of course from my recently published novel, Problems of Translation, or Charlie’s Comic, Terrifying, Romantic, Loopy Round-the-World Journey in Search of Linguistic Happiness (whew! Even I have to look at the cover sometimes to remember that mouthful), as well as a tidbit or two from work-in-progress. And, needless to say, I’ll be happy to sign books for anyone interested in purchasing a copy–or bring your copy, if you already have one.

I’m especially excited to be reading on this occasion with Robin McLean, who recently returned from a cross-country, summer-long jaunt reading and signing copies of her debut collection of short stories called Reptile House in every place under the sun, from New England to Texas to California to Oregon to the Midwest to Alaska, and on and on, a trip she refers to as her “sidewinder trail.”

I’m thrilled by the great reviews my novel is gathering everywhere it gets read! You may remember that Gary Shteyngart called it “an insanely amusing adventure that has a deep love of language at its belly-shaking core.” Kirkus Reviews called it “a sure-handed narrative led by a hapless but resilient adventurer” and called me “impressively inventive, and . . .  adept at the quick surprise and the odd plot twist.” Memorable phrases from comments by readers on Amazon include “unputdownable,” “Walter Mitty meets A Beautiful Mind,” “a wild, fun, improbable journey,” “so well written and the characters are so likable,” “Alice in Wonderland for adults,” and “this delightful and suspense-filled story written by a man whose very name reveals his talent.”

And Robin’s book has been getting similar praise! Jim Shepard wrote: “Robin McLean’s fiction is harrowing and wry and compassionate, and always both fiercely rooted in the world and fearlessly willing to take chances.” Publisher’s Weekly called her book “a taut volume that explores the fate of the dashed dreamer, offering charming insights into the untidy worlds of people who are not where they thought they’d be.”  And in this blog, I said of her book,Once you’ve read these nine stories, forgetting them is as unlikely as discovering the end-point of pi. Kissing cousins to George Saunders, Donald Barthelme, and perhaps even Don DeLillo, they are nonetheless powered by a distinctive new voice.”

It should be a fun evening! I hope to see everyone there who reads this post.

The skinny:
Tuesday, October 6th, 6-7:30pm, Cornelia Street Cafe (29 Cornelia St., Manhattan).
An $8 cover includes a free glass of wine.

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Girl At War — A Must Read

Cover-Girl At War by Sara NovicThe title says it all. Sara Nović’s novel, Girl at War, is a compelling account of Ana, a ten-year old Croatian girl living in Zagreb, and her shocking, life-changing experiences during the cruelty and carnage that overtook her country and the rest of the multi-ethnic ex-Yugoslavian state a generation ago. I chafed each time I had to put it down to eat, sleep, or perform a household chore. It has the feel of a memoir: both the war scenes that froze Ana into a repressed silence and the later scenes of struggle to come to grips with the memories–forget? forgive? move on?–are gripping.

Beautifully written in simple, unflorid prose, its final paragraph attains a kind of poetry. If you want to know what war is like for those caught in its crosshairs, read this book!

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It seems remarkable to me—an almost spooky coincidence, as a matter of fact— that the two best books I’ve read this summer were produced by two authors who were both offering workshops at the same time in the same place—the One Story writers’ conference, called Sirenland, in Positano, Italy this past April—and that both deal with a different aspect of the same subject, World War Two. Stylistically, they’re complete opposites. One novel is lean and pithy, with a measured, sure-footed economy of style; the other is written with an expert, bravura elegance, full of rich detail, in prose that seems carved out of the air. Yet each, in its own way, is true to its purpose, and absolutely top-drawer.

I’m referring to Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See—which won the Pulitzer Prize this year—and Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aaron—which certainly ought to win an award equally prestigious! I’ve already written about Shepard’s book (August 13, 2015) but have only now found the right moment to write about Doerr’s.

Shepard’s book is slender, laconic, and spare, describing the squalor, misery and horror of the Polish ghetto as seen through the eyes of one unremarkable boy. Doerr’s book takes place in Germany and France both before and during the war, in alternating, yet interlaced segments, primarily through the eyes of two characters: a remarkable young German boy and an equally remarkable young French girl, who is blind. It’s clear from the beginning that their paths will cross, but the question of how still manages to provide ample opportunity for ratcheting up the tension. In contrast to Shepard’s terseness, Doerr’s prose is lush and sensuous, squirming with details of places, sights, smells, sounds, and the inner workings of the inquisitive minds of its characters. There is a host of minor folk as well, all beautifully rendered, but the French girl’s father, and the sister of the German boy, play major roles. Still it is sound, not people, which finally brings the two youngsters together. I won’t spoil your enjoyment by telling you what that means.

Among the many enjoyable accomplishments of Doerr’s book is the delineation of so many scientific subjects—all quite relevant—from bivalves to the workings of electricity to the transmission of radio waves. I’d read Doerr’s The Shell Collector a few years ago, so was familiar with his expertise in that area, but was struck by the breadth of his knowledge about so much else in the physical universe, and the authority with which he integrates it into the plot. Everything is designed to fulfill its purpose.

It’s a plot-lover’s dream: complications, obsessive pursuits, twists and turns. There is much fear in this novel. There is also mystery. There are secrets and the clever ways in which they are kept, as well as how they’re prised open and nakedly laid bare.

In many ways Doerr’s is a story of the yearnings of the human spirit, as well as how those yearnings are dashed. You feel your heart ready to break at so many points.

Two remarkable books. Two masters at the top of their game.

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(A number of people have asked about the review I did a couple of months ago of Jim Shepard’s novel The Book of Aron.  So for those of you who missed it the first time, here it is again.)

I imagine I am interviewing Jim Shepard.

“Jim,” I say. “Yes, Jim?” he says.

“Choosing a kid to tell the story. Choosing that kid to tell the story. Such a brave and brilliant choice! A boy so unremarkable that he becomes . . . remarkable. It seems to me you’re straddling a line here. A balancing act. A kid who breaks things. A kid who can’t even learn the alphabet. A kid whose own uncle chooses to call him What Were You Thinking?

“By some people’s reckoning, a throwaway kid. And, first to last, everything told through his eyes. Someone getting shot, someone going hungry, someone else getting shot, someone else going hungry, someone getting knocked down, bludgdeoned; him getting knocked down, bludgeoned. Someone getting shot because of him. This kid’s birds-eye view of a great, great man weeping, ranting, begging—and still every emotion filtered through Aron’s tiny, budding yet already wizened little soul. What a choice! How did you make it?”

I have no idea what he would answer. Perhaps, “It chose me?”

Nor does it matter. I am not interviewing Jim Shepard. I am sitting in a chair having just finished his book, and I am crying. I can’t remember the last time a book made me cry.

The Book of Aron is an astounding accomplishment. Not just because of the author’s choice of protagonist, but because of the extraordinary skill with which Shepard carries it off, the choice of tone and style, the choice of what to say and what to leave out of the awful, bone-chilling, unbelievable (yet all too believable) occurrences in the Warsaw ghetto and the fate of its Jewish inhabitants, including the children.

At the end, in my interview, I would say, “Jim?”

And he would reply, “Yes, Jim?”

And I would say, “Mazel tov! And wow!”

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A Thank You and a Promise

A heartfelt thanks to all those who participated in the free-ebook promotion of my novel, Problems of Translation, this past July 2-4!  Many thanks to those who shared the information about the promotion, and of course, to those who downloaded their free copy of the ebook.  Hope you enjoy the novel, and if you do, please tell your friends and, if you have a moment, write a review on Amazon.

For those of you who don’t yet know, it’s the story of Charles Abel Baker, a short story writer who travels around the world attempting to get one of his short stories translated successively into 10 different languages before returning it to English.  That’s why I subtitled it Charlie’s Comic, Terrifying, Romantic, Loopy Round-the-World Journey in Search of Linguistic Happiness.

Thanks to the promotion (and your sharing and downloads), Problems has more potential readers–and, I hope, reviewers on Amazon– not only in the US, but in Germany, the UK, Canada, India, Spain, and Japan, as well!  What’s not to love about that? (Actually, when I learned of that first order from Japan, I was momentarily convinced it was downloaded by Haruki Murakami, since he’s the only Japanese writer who is specifically mentioned in my novel. But on reconsideration, that didn’t seem likely, since the chance that he knows about my novel is outrageously slim.)

In any event, thanks to everyone, and for those of you who haven’t yet purchased a copy, please avail yourselves of the fun.

And my promise is that in the very near future I’ll descend from my state of enrapture with my own novel and go back to doing more blogs about other people’s writing, not just my own.  Actually, I’m reminded that I have two such in the recent past. See my review of Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aron (6/20/15) and also of Robin McLean’s book of short stories, Reptile House (June 27).

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