Some people argue the web will be the death of fiction and literature, the demise of thought-provoking writing and in-depth analysis. But this past week has persuaded me otherwise.
While the digitized era certainly seems to favor short attention spans, the web also offers wonderful surprises.
- LONG READS — A website devoted to the best long articles and essays being published. David Cheezem at Fireside Books told me about LongReads.com, and it is now one of my favorite websites. They post articles from magazines like Esquire, the Washington Post, Vanity Fair, and lesser-known publications. You can receive notices by email, and you can nominate articles you think should be included. Already I’ve read some of the most interesting, and well-written, pieces I have ever come across.
- ANNOTATION NATION — My mom, Julie LeMay, is pursuing her MFA in poetry at Antioch University. Through her colleagues, she learned about the site Annotation Nation. The postings aren’t reviews — “Loved it. Five stars” or “Stupid and pointless.” These are thoughtful essays looking at how a piece of writing actually works, including fiction, nonfiction and poetry. It’s a fabulous resource for writers, but I also think serious readers will enjoy it.
- FIVE CHAPTERS — This website recently enabled me to get one of my short stories out into the world. FiveChapters.com serializes short fiction, publishing it daily over the course of a week. My story Remnants appeared on the site this week. It’s exciting to think they are creating more opportunities for fiction to thrive.
The biggest challenge of the web is learning about sites like these. That’s one reason I want to spread the word. And ask you — what treasures have you found online? Any websites that support arts and literature that you recommend?
P.S. If you click on the title heading for each website, it should take you there.
I don’t know why it sometimes takes me so long to listen to smart people. For months, some of the most critical readers I know have recommended The Raven’s Gift by fellow Alaskan author Don Rearden. I’ve been busy with a lot of reading and writing of my own, but that isn’t all the kept me from it.
In all honesty, I was afraid I wouldn’t like it. Don seems like a really nice guy, with a young family and a desire to do good in the world. He’s always supporting great causes. It seemed easier to just not read his book, than to read it and not like it.
I needn’t have worried. The book is fantastic, one of the best books about Alaska I have ever read. It calls to mind Cormac McCarthy and Stephen King, but at the same time it is all its own.
The Raven’s Gift is the story of a couple teaching in a remote Alaskan village when a epidemic sweeps through. People are dying in isolation, and others descending into savage violence. It is a survival story and an edge-of-the-seat thriller.
But what makes it unique is its depth. I frantically read from one page to the next, driven by that delicious desire to know what is going to happen next. Even through all the action and drama, I was moved and educated by the description of Alaska Native culture and life in a Bush village. It’s here that Don makes some brave, compassionate, and important observations.
It is clear, too, that not only is Don a good writer, but he has the knowledge and experience to write this book. Few other people would.
One small caveat — The Raven’s Gift is published by Penguin Canada, and so can be a little difficult to track down here in the U.S. But talk to your local bookseller to see if they can special order it for you, or order it through Fireside Books and they’ll ship it to you. And campaign U.S. publishers to pick up this fabulous book.
I recently saw another blogger pairing books, like one would with wines and foods. I loved the idea. So I would like to pair The Raven’s Gift with two of my other favorite Alaska titles — Ordinary Wolves by Seth Kantner and Two Old Women by Velma Wallis. These three books combined are devastating, amazing, and important.
Dear friendly reader,
This past weekend my book club did its annual vacation. There are seven of us women — a fishery biologist, a retired accountant turned full-time poet, an attorney, a bookseller/novelist, a preacher’s wife who also runs a motorcycle leather shop, and two journalists. We are moms and wives, grandmothers and professionals. We are readers and writers, quilters and runners. We are the Betties.
(It’s a long, funny story that earned us that name. But some things that happen in book club, stay in book club.)
We first met about eight years ago to read and discuss Unless by Carol Shields. And we have met nearly every month since. During those years, we have discussed Candide and To Kill a Mockingbird, As I Lay Dying and If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things. During National Poetry Month, we read poems. Once a year, we read a children’s book and invite our daughters and sons.
Over the years, we have celebrated weddings and births, supported each other through hard times, and mourned deaths, including the passing of one of our own dear members. And, as we have shared our lives and our books, we have become more than just a book club. We have become what Anne of Green Gables describes as “kindred spirits.”
In past years on our annual retreat, we stayed in rustic, lake-side cabins and at deluxe ski resorts with spas. But this year we went to the home of one of our own, in what we call a “staycation.” A Betty husband chivalrously volunteered to go on an away trip so we could have the house, and outdoor sauna, all to ourselves.
We began with dinner at The Grape Tap, a lovely restaurant specializing in fine wine. We ate bacon-wrapped figs and sipped rich, multi-layered Cabarnets. Then, over the next two days, we hiked up a snowy butte, warmed up in the woodstove-heated sauna, laughed and made paper snowflakes, cooked crepes and scrambled eggs in the dark during a power outage, laughed some more, and debated the finer points of the graphic novel Feynman. We also began plotting our next Betty retreat — we are dreaming of a trip to California’s wine country.
Books, it seems, do bring people together.
P.S. Are any of you members of a book club?
Dear festive reader,
Ten years ago, our small town of Palmer, Alaska, welcomed a new arrival. It started when a sign appeared in the window of a shop on main street. Over the years the building had housed women’s clothing, adventure games, and flower arrangements, among other business ventures. But this sign said something to the effect of “Book store coming soon.”
Having lived in this town my entire life, I can honestly say this was the most extraordinary thing I had ever seen. More exciting, even, than the time the moose trampled the police car at the main intersection.
When the sign went up promising a bookstore, my mom and I and all of our reader friends began keeping close watch. We would phone each other: “I walked by today and they were putting up shelves.” “Do they have an open sign yet?” “When are they going to open?!?”
On the first week of December 2001, David Cheezem and Melissa Behnke officially opened Fireside Books. And during the past 10 years they have created a hub of arts and literature in our community. It is a place where readers come for books, writers come for inspiration, and thinkers come to talk about politics, philosophy, poetry and the weather. It is also a place for starving artists to find gainful employment.
Two years after they opened, I realized I was ready to leave the newspaper business. I thought long and hard — if I were to work anywhere else in our community, where would it be? Only one place came to mind. I walked into Fireside Books as a regular customer and asked if they were expecting to hire anyone soon. I am perpetually grateful for that day David and Melissa welcomed me onto the staff as the only full-time employee at the time.
Eight years later, I have come to consider Fireside Books a kind of second home and “bookseller” an important part of my identity. We no longer have a spare inch on the shelves — we have had to convert the basement into a storage warehouse for the back stock, and we fight for room to display our favorite titles face out. We are often swimming in used books to process and customer orders to receive. It is a busy, wonderful place to be.
So happy birthday to Fireside Books, and a heartfelt thank you to David and Melissa! You have helped make our small town a better place.
Dear returning reader,
Last week I wrote about how I received endorsements from fellow authors — by choosing books I admired and writing to the authors to ask if they would read The Snow Child.
In gratitude to the authors, and to give you some ideas for your next read, I am sharing their books. I want to point out, too, that these authors have many other wonderful books they wrote before and since these titles. But I want to share the books that first caught my attention and inspired me.
So here are the rest.
Dear book-seeking reader,
I’ve learned a lot about publishing since my debut novel was acquired by Little, Brown & Co., and I’m sure I’ll learn more. But one of the biggest surprises has to do with endorsements from fellow authors. They are the quotes that appear on the back cover of a book, extolling its virtues.
Like many people, I assumed these “blurbs,” as they are called in the business, were the result of nepotism. Somebody knows somebody’s editor, or they have the same publisher, or they went to the same university. I didn’t know many famous authors, so I figured I was out of luck. I was in for a pleasant surprise.
With encouragement from my agent and editor, I chose books that I loved, books that inspired me and made me want to be a better writer, books that I handed to my favorite customers at Fireside Books. Then I went about writing letters to the authors. It wasn’t easy. I apologized for bothering them, told them why I admired their books, and asked if please would they take a look at The Snow Child to see what they thought. And here’s what they had to say.
In heartfelt gratitude to the authors, and as a gift to you, my dear reader, I want to share their books. So here are four. In my next letter, I’ll share the others.
Dear book-seeking reader,
One of the perks of attending the recent PNBA book conference in Portland was discovering some great new books. As I met fellow authors and walked the trade show floor, I found all kinds of wonderful new titles. There are more than I could possibly list here, literally dozens and dozens, but I do want to draw your attention to a few that I’m particularly excited about.
Pure, by Julianna Baggot, comes out in February. It is a post-apocalyptic, coming-of-age novel that has been described as extraordinary, startling, and addictive. I am only 50 pages or so into it, and am entirely consumed by the world and characters. This is the first of a trilogy, and I am sure it is going to be a hit with both young adults and adults.
Here is a description from Goodreads.com: “Pressia barely remembers the Detonations or much about life during the Before. In her sleeping cabinet behind the rubble of an old barbershop where she lives with her grandfather, she thinks about what is lost-how the world went from amusement parks, movie theaters, birthday parties, fathers and mothers . . . to ash and dust, scars, permanent burns, and fused, damaged bodies. And now, at an age when everyone is required to turn themselves over to the militia to either be trained as a soldier or, if they are too damaged and weak, to be used as live targets, Pressia can no longer pretend to be small. Pressia is on the run.”
Among the Wonderful, by Stacy Carlson, came out in hardcover in August, and is next in my stack to read. The novel is set in 1840s Manhattan and explores the extraordinary, curious museum of P.T. Barnum as seen through the eyes of the two main characters — a giantess and a taxidermist. It sounds fascinating!
Publishers Weekly wrote, “The acrobats, bearded lady, Australian tribesman, Native Americans, and myriad of bizarre animals offer a constant source of fascination and surprise, and while Carlson rightfully revels in the oddities and curiosities, she also creates emotionally resonant characters who, despite being freakishly tall or joined at the hip, are driven by desires, fears, and that familiar need for human connection.” And the Library Journal described it as “Intelligent, engrossing and utterly unique.”
Dove Creek, by Paula Marie Coomer is available in paperback. I missed my chance to get an autographed copy of this novel, but fortunately the Washington author offered to mail me one. I’m looking forward to its arrival in my post office box. It has been described as “wise, eloquent, fiercely honest” as well as “lyrical in its language, vivid in its detail, important in its observations.”
The novel tells the story of a woman venturing from her home in Kentucky to an Indian reservation in the Pacific Northwest. “She finds a new life as a much-loved healer–a blonde, female, hillbilly shaman whose self-destruction and dogged perseverance come together in a novel of intimacy that crosses the boundaries of culture and time,” according to the book description.
Bear’s Loose Tooth, by Karma Wilson and Jane Chapman, is a picture book just out in hardcover. Author Karma Wilson was a table away from me at the dinner where we were presenting to booksellers, but it was only after I left Portland that I realized she was the author of one my daughter’s very favorite books — Bear Snores On. Her books have great rhythm and rhyme, making them a lot of fun to read out loud, and the illustrations are wonderful.
In this newest in the series: “Bear and his friends are munching on their lunch, when all of sudden…Bear feels something wiggling and wobbling in his mouth. Oh, no! What can it be? It’s Bear’s first loose tooth!”
Dear kind reader,
I’m think I just received my first official piece of fan mail.
This morning I received an email from a gentleman in Norway who read my debut The Snow Child, which was released there last month. He is a retired school teacher and an author himself. He borrowed the Norwegian translation of Snøbarnet from his neighborhood library.
It probably goes without saying that this is incredibly thrilling. To have a complete stranger, from another country, take the time to write to me and share his feelings about my book!
What added to my delight, however, was the fact that he had checked it out from a local library. From a purely pragmatic viewpoint, library loans don’t earn money or boost placement on the bestseller list. However, as a reader and a book lover, the thought of my novel passing across a library check-out counter is incredible.
As I read his email, I thought of all the books I’ve discovered at our local libraries. When I was a little girl, the Palmer Public Library was in a cramped corner of City Hall. The library didn’t fine you if you turned in a book late, but there was a jar on the counter where you could, if compelled by guilt, donate some spare change. On afternoons, the librarian would sit on a chair and school children would gather around to hear her read a storybook.
Over the years at various public and school libraries I have found unexpected treasures, books I had never heard of but have stayed with me forever. My own daughters love stopping at the Sutton Public Library to check out books and visit with librarian Nancy Bertels. It is a warm, welcoming place.
And it fills me with joy to know that my novel has found such a home, on a shelf in a neighborhood library where, maybe, someone will stumble upon it and decide to take it home for a time.
Dear kind reader,
I wanted to let you know I’m off to Powell’s — oops, I mean Portland, Oregon.
Powell’s, of course, is the bookstore in downtown Portland. It occupies an entire city block, and claims to be the largest used and new bookstore in the world. In a word, it’s fabulous.
I think I might have first visited Powell’s while I was attending college in Bellingham, Washington. I had a good friend who was going to school outside of Portland, so occasionally I’d take a long weekend to drive down and see her. And as I recall, that might have been one of the first times I walked among those glorious shelves.
More recently I was there with Fireside Books owner Melissa Behnke. It’s a funny feeling to enter Powell’s as a bookseller. I had a mixed reaction of admiration, jealousy, and inspiration. Oh, I’d think proudly, we have that book. Wow, those are really cool displays. I wish we had chairs like this in our history section!
The reason Melissa and I were in Portland together several years ago was to attend the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association annual trade show. It’s an event that brings booksellers together to learn about their trade, discover new books, and generally have a great time. As I mentioned in an earlier letter, this year I have the opportunity to attend as an author.
I leave tomorrow, and on Friday I’ll attend a PNBA dinner in which authors visit with booksellers and tell them about their books. It’s terribly exciting and surprising to be going to discuss my own book. During the two days I’m in town, I’m also hoping to get a chance to roam the trade floor and snag a few advance reader copies. A good friend and former co-worker at Fireside Books lives in Portland now, so maybe we’ll get together for coffee. I’ll have a chance to catch up with Amanda from Little, Brown. And Katie, who works at Fireside Books now, is attending the conference as a bookseller, so I know we’ll flag each other down at some point.
But, amidst all this business and fun, I’m going to make sure I can sneak over to Powell’s for an hour, or two … or three.
P.S. I’m afraid all this book business won’t leave much time for me to write a letter to you Friday — so I’ll see you on Monday!
Dear lovely reader,
I have to say — the last letter is my favorite. Not because of what I wrote, but because of what you wrote.
From Florida to Illinois, Vermont to Oregon, you all shared such wonderful memories from your childhood about books. Some of the titles you discussed, I remember fondly as well. A Wrinkle in Time, Ramona, Charlotte’s Web, Amelia Bedelia, and Old Yeller. Two of you mentioned Moomintroll, so now I’m on a mission to find it. Others, like The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and Big Joe’s Trailer Truck, have such evocative titles that I feel like I must have read them when I was a little girl.
I think what touched me most about your comments is how vivid these books still are to all of you. And just as important were the parents, siblings, and librarians who shared them. It made me realize that the books I now read with my daughters might someday be these kinds of touchstones for them as adults.
Over the years, I’ve come across a prayer that is found in different versions in many cultures. To assist in feeling love and kindness toward other people, you remember that they were once children and you picture them as they would have been at a young, tender age. Somehow, having read your comments, I am able to picture each of you, a small child with a big, exciting book propped open. And I am left heart-warmed and grateful, for books and for all of you.