When Margaret Verble’s second novel, Cherokee America, was published, I felt compelled to read it. I’d read her first book, Maud’s Line, for the same reason that called to me here—the pull of the personal, the sense of a shared background. In the case of that earlier book, of course, the name Maud was a particular draw as well, since that was also the name of the town in Oklahoma where I was born. 

I’d been delighted by Maud’s Line (see my blog post of July 20, 2017), and I wasn’t alone, since it was a finalist for the Pulitzer. I’m happy to report I’m even more delighted by Cherokee America.

This compelling second novel is quite remarkable. Considering the title, you might expect a history of the Cherokee Nation, but that’s not it. Cherokee America is a woman’s name. Throughout the book, she’s called only Check.

The novel is a sprawling, character-rich depiction of a group of people—Cherokee full-bloods and half-bloods along with some blacks and even a few whites—living in the post-Civil War territory referred to throughout as the Cherokee Nation. It’s the 1870s. The state of Oklahoma does not yet exist, nor will it until 1907. (In my inherited family bible, where births, deaths and marriages are noted, both my father’s father and two of his older brothers are recorded as born in “I.T.,” meaning “Indian Territory.” My father, born in 1908, slipped under the wire.)

In Verble’s wonderfully detailed pages, several different but closely inter-related families—mostly farmers—eke out a living while the specter of a future takeover of their land by the federal government looms in the background. I won’t go into a lot of detail about the contours of the plot. But, in addition to the farms, there’s a bawdyhouse, there are shoot-outs, there are murders, there’s well-witching, a frantic search for a suspected stash of gold, plus one of the more gripping endings you’re likely to come across. All the while, Dennis Bushyhead (don’t ask), Treasurer of the Cherokee Nation, travels repeatedly back and forth to Tallaquah, its capitol.

The last part of the book, as I’ve already alluded to, involves a profound struggle, a kind of metaphorical rope-pulling contest. One or more persons commit a murder and—fearful that the federal government, centered in Arkansas, is only too eager to intrude into the Nation’s territory and prosecute the offender (on the grounds that the perpetrator may not be a Cherokee but a white man ), thereby gaining some leverage for a federal takeover—the families and their friends band together to create a posse, to seek out and deal with the perpetrators themselves, while being forced to lie to the two marshals sent by the judge (the famous “hanging judge,” Judge Isaac Parker), all in a quest to protect the integrity of the Nation. If this sounds abstract, it’s not. These amazing final pages read like a rootin’, tootin’ shoot-em-up Western, with lots of drama and surprises.

So, the major characters are the Singer family: Check, the mother, her husband, Andrew (who is dying), and their kids in order of birth: Connell, Hugh, Clifford, Otter and Paul. Check is the resourceful, resilient leader of a successful farm, with a dying husband to care for and a large family to love, raise, and instruct in both the toughness and resolve required for a difficult environment. Mostly it’s Check and the two oldest boys who are in the mix of the depicted events, but there’s plenty of interaction with neighbors, primarily the Corderys and the Bushyheads, and lots of other characters entering the mix. A hired hand named Puny, who is black, also plays a significant role.

To make things easier for the reader, there’s a Cast of Characters at the beginning. If your memory for names is as slippery as mine, you’ll consult it frequently.(But you did that when you read War and Peace, right?)

Side Note: those of you who read my 2015 novel, Problems of Translation, will remember that I couldn’t resist devoting a chapter to Sequoyah, justifiably lauded for inventing a written language for the Cherokees. Well, guess what? In this book the characters actually sometimes speak Cherokee, written in Sequoya’s syllabary but un-translated. What the characters are saying may puzzle you at first, even annoy you, until the very end. But when you finally realize what’s being said in that final stanza—which you will!—it will bring a smile to your face. Guaranteed.

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Vladimir Nabokov’s Enduring, Magical Lexical Flim-Flammery

Ah, words! Those of you who remember that I wrote a novel called Problems of Translation will hardly be surprised that the sounds as well as the meanings of those pesky little tools for constructing sentences are very close to my heart. Well, for all my fellow word-mavens, here’s a treat. This will be interesting if you haven’t encountered it before, or maybe it will still generate an astonished chuckle, even if you have.

Going through my files recently, I came across something I had copied down from Vladimir Navokov’s Pale Fire about a century ago (perhaps a little less).

Now, Nabokov was (and is) one of my much-loved writers (Pnin remains among my three all-time favorite novels). Chief among his attractions, of course, was his nearly unmatched facility with words. Whether in Russian or in English! And chief among the reasons for that talent was the sheer joy he took in both sound and meaning.  To my mind, nowhere is this more amply demonstrated than in Pale Fire.

Here’s the passage I came across (excerpted from page 260 of my paperback edition): “There exists to my knowledge one absolutely extraordinary, unbelievably elegant case [of what you ask? Read on!], where not only two, but three words are involved. The story itself is trivial enough (and probably apocryphal). A newspaper account of a Russian tsar’s coronation had, instead of korona (crown) the misprint vorona (crow), and when next day this was apologetically ‘corrected,’ it got misprinted a second time as korova (cow). The artistic correlation between the crown-crow-cow series and the Russian korona-vorona-korova series is something that would have, I am sure, enraptured my poet. I have seen nothing like it on lexical playfields and the odds against the double coincidence defy computation.”

Pretty spectacular, no? Did you pick up on the part where he said this was “probably apocryphal?” Which suggests, of course, that this “double coincidence” was something that  he invented himself! Question is, does that make it less astonishing? Or more?

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Jim Story & Matthew Lansburgh -Tuesday, Dec. 4th at the Cornelia St. Café!

Hello, all! I hope you’ve had a sparkling Thanksgiving holiday weekend! It was certainly a cold Thanksgiving Day here in NYC!

But here’s something that will warm your holiday season no matter what the weather!
On TuesdayDecember 4th  I’ll be reading at the Cornelia Street Café.
The time is 6-7:30 pm. (See below for location info and travel suggestions.)

This time I’ll be reading with Matthew Lansburgh, winner of the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award for his linked story collection, Outside is the Ocean. Matthew’s fiction appears or is forthcoming in journals such as One StoryGlimmerTrainEcotoneEpochElectric LiteratureStoryQuarterlyColumbia, Michigan Quarterly ReviewShenandoah, and Guernica. Matthew’s collection has been called “mesmerizing” by Andre Dubus III.

I’ll be reading from two new works, The Condor’s Shadow—my novel of twisted courage and a struggle for connection—which is scheduled for publication in 2019, plus from a collection of linked fiction called Soil, Sand, Stories, based loosely on my childhood. And—of course—from my novel, Problems of Translation, which has been dubbed “An insanely amusing adventure” (Gary Shteyngart).

Come join us for an all-fiction, early evening celebration
of the holiday season!

The date is December 4, a Tuesday; the time is from 6-7:30 pm; it’s at 29 Cornelia Street, and as usual, the Café’s cover ($10) will include a free glass of wine.


Take the A, C, E, B, D, F, or M train to West 4th St. Exit at south end of train. Cornelia Street starts at the intersection of West 4th and the west side of Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue). Cafe’s phone: 212.989.9319

Check out the reading’s Facebook event page, the Café’s website or this post:

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On Jan. 29th, Come Brighten the New Year With Us!

Coming soon, an event about which I’m very excited!  

On MondayJanuary 29th, 6-7:30 pm at the Cornelia Street Café, I’ll be reading from two works of fiction: my newly completed novel, The Condor’s Shadow (a story of twisted courage and a struggle for connection) and my recently published novel, Problems of Translation, which Gary Shteyngart called, “an insanely amusing adventure.” And maybe—just maybe—there’ll be also a bit from a book of linked short stories I’m completing just now. (Its working title is Soil, Sand, Stories.)

But there’s more! I’m delighted to be sharing the stage with Lesley Dormen, whom I met at a writer’s conference in Italy eight years ago and have wanted to have as a co-reader ever since. Lesley’s novel, The Best Place To Be, was called “delightfully, crushingly funny” by The New York Times, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Ploughshares, The New York Times, and many other publications. She teaches fiction at The Writers Studio here in New York.

I hope you’ll put our upcoming reading on your calendar in red, and persuade your friends to come, too!

Looking forward to seeing you on the 29th!

Did I mention the date? It’s January 29th; a Monday, the time is from 6-7:30 pm; it’s at 29 Cornelia Street, and as usual, a $10 cover will include a free glass of wine.

Take the A, C, E, B, D, F, or M train to West 4th St. Exit at south end of train. Cornelia Street starts at the intersection of West 4th and the west side of Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue). Cafe’s phone: 212.989.9319

Check out the Café website, the Facebook Event listing, and my website.

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Michael Chabon’s Moonglow: A Novel Shines From Within

Michael Chabon, of course, needs no introduction. But you may wonder whether his latest book, Moonglow: A Novel, is  actually a novel or a memoir. He calls this work a novel in the title itself and so it is, but he also refers to it as a memoir and so it often seems. He cautions you in the beginning with the following sentence (from his Author’s Note): “. . . . I have stuck to the facts except when facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” Clear enough?

But trust me, once you start reading, you’ll think, “Who cares?”

This terrific, sprightly book is about building a model of a Jewish colony on the moon. Well, not really. Mostly, it’s about his grandfather (the model-builder), reimagined in detail that’s as close-fitting as a grand prix champion’s driving gloves. Much of the book depends heavily on information apparently gathered by limning his grandfather’s thoughts as he lay dying. Some of it is written in first person as Michael Chabon, while the bulk is written in close third person following the character of said grandfather, including harrowing moments of his journey in World War II, written so vividly you could swear you were there, watching as a decapitated German officer perches atop his motorcycle at a muddy crossroads. (Incidentally–though not so incidental to the story–he was crossing Germany as fast as he could in the twilight of the war, in pursuit of Werner von Braun.)

Those same lively details rivet your attention in scenes within a mental institution or while on a snake-hunt in Florida. You’ll also see the inside of a prison, and wonder at what the man was able to get away with in defiance of both guards and common sense, as well as the rather extraordinary, and resourceful, compassion shown to a fellow inmate. Truly, the grandfather is an amazing, novel-sized character: fiercely intelligent, a wizard at model-building, sometimes an engineer, sometimes an entrepreneur or a salesman or pool hustler, at once immensely practical and highly impractical, stubborn, irascible, foolhardy, and as loyal to his periodically schizophrenic wife as is humanly possible.

That grandmother is a novel-sized character as well, her own story managing to be heart-warming, horrifying, and sexy in equal parts. The scene where those two meet has a twist you’ll never see coming. In short, this “memoir” is a big, sprawling, beautifully constructed hodgepodge of a novel, and really quite wonderful.

I’m not sure how much “memoir-istic license” was taken in developing the eventual, quite serendipitous meeting between the grandfather and Werner von Braun, a man whom he was missioned to dispose of (yes!) in that long-ago, muddy chase across Germany in World War Two, but never mind. It makes a great story.

Moonglow is pure Chabon magic, no matter what you call it.

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“Maud’s Line”: A Terrifying, Heart-Tugging Tale of A Hard-Scrabble Life

Mauds"s Line Pbk CoverEastern Oklahoma in the 1920s, in an area inhabited mostly by Cherokees. This is the setting for Margaret Verble’s remarkable, heart-breaking yet ultimately life-affirming first novel, Maud’s Line.

Why did this book’s title grab me so sharply? First, because I was born in a town called Maud, Oklahoma. My interest was piqued further when I learned that Verble, like me, was also born in Oklahoma, and that she, like me–and, more importantly, like her major character–has Cherokee blood in her veins. Her book’s title, however, does not refer to a town, but to her compelling principal character, eighteen year old Maud Vail, and to the small allotment of land that ultimately falls to her.

Though the territorial reach of the novel is measured in square miles, it still feels sprawling, though the sprawl is a much of family as it is of place. Counting all the relatives, it’s a big family. While Maud is a Cherokee, she has Choctaw as well as Creek family sprinkled throughout “the bottoms,” as it’s called.  Clearly, it’s a land where family loyalty counts.

Wherever you go in this bottom-land, you get there by walking, or on horseback, or on mule back, or by wagon. Only the rich have motorcars.

Fortunately, most of Maud’s relatives live within walking distance of the house where she and her father, Mustard, and her brother, Lovely, live. (If you’re a really good walker, that is.) Mustard, the father, is hard-drinking, roughhousing, and a rogue. Lovely, though four years older than Maud, is a sensitive man-boy who seems barely half-there. Bad things happen to Lovely. There’s also Uncle Blue and Uncle Early. Aunt Viola. Aunt Lucy. Auntie Nan.

But mostly, endearingly, enduringly, there’s Maud, a highly strung, intelligent, capable, gun-toting eighteen-year old with an on-the-brink sexuality who loves to read. She’s pretty, and sought-after by the local boys, but when an educated peddler (an ex-teacher) in a blue covered wagon enters the territory, with books among his items for sale, and a willingness to discuss and recommend them, Maud falls hard. Still, life on the Line is more than swooning over a white peddler. There’s lots going on. First there’s the cow whose spine is hideously slashed in two by evil-minded neighbors, the Mounts. There’s the dead, bloody dog the Mounts leave on the kitchen table when no one is at the house. There’s the discovery of a horrible scene of carnage at the Mounts’ cabin, and Maud’s anxiety over who in her family might be responsible. How does her fascination with this handsome stranger, not to mention the requirements of developing a serious relationship, compete with the onslaught of near-catastrophic events in her family? So she wrestles fretfully with how much she can tell him–the man she has come to love so compellingly. And all the while this feuding and mystery is treated by her relatives–however deeply they mark Maud–as more or less just the way things are “in the bottoms.” The bottom-land is full of characters and full of character, and the book is remarkable both for its description of the geographical and emotional landscape as it is for its rendering of these people’s terse, vernacular dialogue. Verble has a great ear.

So: loyalty is important; family is everything. How does a romance compete with this? When, toward the end of the book, her father decides to “take to the hills” in hopes of hooking up with the outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd (after his suspected role in the murder of those evil and troublesome neighbors), Maud seems the only one among all the relatives who is deeply bothered.

There’s an old-fashioned feel to Verble’s book–the emphasis on family, perhaps, and the insistence on a meticulous painting of the landscape–which caused one reviewer to evoke Willa Cather. I confess this wealth of description put me off at first, but I eventually came to appreciate it because it made me feel embedded. I was there. There on Maud’s walks into “the wild,” always carrying her rifle, in case of snakes. There when she lavished care on her brother, Lovely, brought low by a rabid dog bite or a descent into madness. There when, hungering after the truth, she parted the bushes to spy on the Mounts, those malicious neighbors, and encountered a scene of horror. There wherever she walked, and walked, and walked, through a sometimes parched and sometimes flooded land. Verble paints the land in such detail that the reader walks through it with her.

But more there’s more. Despite the fact that I’m both male and many years older than Verble’s character, I identified strongly with this young woman, including the internal workings of her body as she becomes pregnant. I’ll never forget Maud Vail.

Verble’s book was published last year, and nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.Share this post:

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“Exceptional, original, deftly crafted from beginning to end, “Problems of Translation: or Charlie’s Comic, Terrifying, Romantic, Loopy Round-the-World Journey in Search of Linguistic Happiness” is an inherently fascinating, unique, funny, and compelling read that is very highly recommended, especially for community and academic library Literary Fiction collections.”

I’m on Cloud Nine!Share this post:

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What a spectacular yarn!

A doting father with a crime-riddled past whose claims on him are not yet expired (and whose failures are recorded on nearly every inch of his body). A devoted daughter who tends to act (or react) first and ask questions later. A soured, irascible in-law/grandmother with an indomitable protective instinct. A closetful—one might say a houseful—of guns of every caliber and description. A quiet coastal fishing community with buried secrets simmering underneath the sand. What could possibly go wrong?

Actually, my favorite character was not Loo (the daughter) or Samuel (the father) or even the grandmother (Mable Ridge), but Lily (the wife and mother) who is larger than life in almost every way, although dead through much of the book. (How many people do you meet, even in novels, who will shoot their partner out of—mostly—love?)

Excursions, explosions, and eruptions abound in Hannah Tinti‘s wonderfully picaresque novel (The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley), a book whose pages all but turn themselves. Though it’s a thriller to the last leaf, it’s also a story about love and indifference, loyalty and loss, friendship and the ineradicable demands of one’s own past. Besides enjoying this extraordinary family drama, you’ll be fascinated, as I was, to learn myriad details about clamming and fishing, sailing (including plotting your course by the stars), the age, range, and caliber of multiple firearms, and grand larceny on a spectacularly competitive scale.

And did I mention the book is plotted along the grid of classical mythology? Why, it’s as if Heracles woke up in bed with Elmore Leonard. Enjoy the ride!


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Colum McCann’s Wonderful Recent Collection

[I wrote this back in October. But after I mentioned it today to a fairly regular reader of this blog, and noticed the puzzled look on her face, I checked back and found that I’d actually never published it. So here it is now. Enjoy!]

The opening stanzas of “Thirteen Ways of Looking,” Colum McCann’s first story from his collection of the same name, will charm the bejeezus out of you. The first of the thirteen stanzas (I choose the word because there is something musical about the way he spins his yarn–including the  three lines of poetry about blackbirds that head each segment) features the view from a video camera. The descriptions of the apartment house bedroom it sees are simple, exact, and very beautiful.

Several of the succeeding twelve parts of the story feature video-camera views as well: from the elevators, from the lobby, outside the major character’s Upper East Side building, on the corner of the street where he proceeds to lunch, on the opposite corner, and even immediately outside the restaurant where he eats.

So what’s charming about the view from a video camera? you may ask. Well, the charm comes not from that particular device but from the beautifully thought-out strokes by which McCann makes his major character endearing and memorable. The occupant of the apartment that the camera is focused on is a New York City judge, retired and of very advanced age, who requires considerable help from his live-in nurse and housekeeper, Sally, to get up, get dressed, get about, and simply make it through the day. Is that depressing? Not really! We first meet the judge lying in bed, musing about his long life, and the way Mr. McCann has chosen to reveal the soul of this aging attorney will, if you’re like me, impart an almost irresistible upward tug to the corners of your mouth.

But—surprise!—what McCann has constructed here, in this stunning first story, is a murder mystery, in which the judge is the victim. Those camera videotapes become the tools of law enforcement, perused repeatedly and doggedly by detectives, in an effort to solve the crime. As it turns out, the tapes do open the means to solving the murder. Meanwhile, however, the story shimmers with other details which describe, in ways that etch themselves into your mind, a life that is, like most lives, both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. There are the random carnal thoughts and the conversations that show respect and fellow-feeling—of a caregiver, of a waitress, of a restaurant owner. There are revelations about how much the judge misses his left-y daughter, the continuing reminiscences about his wife, and the conflict forged from a painful yet unbridgeable gulf between the judge and his wealthy turd of a son. And all the while, the suspense, false directions, and uncertainty appropriate to a murder mystery. Meanwhile, along the way, the author has some beautiful things to say about writing, particularly poetry. Taken altogether, this story is a tour de force that no one who loves fiction should miss.

But wait! That’s not all! There are three more terrific stories—all more traditional narratives—included here. And one, “Treaty,” which anchors the collection, ranks among the best of the short stories in my particular memory bank. An altogether stellar collection.Share this post:

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Guess What! Cover of Publishers Weekly!

Hey, guys! Sorry to toot my own horn, but I’m on the cover of Publishers Weekly!

Well, not me, exactly, but my book, Problems of Translation. I feel quite thrilled to see that image of my book staring up at me from the cover of this April 18, 2017 issue, devoted to independently published books. It’s one of only two works of literary fiction that are depicted, and very prominently placed, I might add!

In case you’re unaware, Publisher’s Weekly is the bible of the publishing industry, read by publishers, editors, agents, librarians and everyone else in the biz.

One can only hope that this adds to the sale of the book (or helps attract a wider readership, which is what I’m primarily interested in). After all, I wrote it to be read!Share this post:

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