Book Recs

Perhaps you need a recommendation to help you figure out what book to buy for a friend or loved one with holiday season. The following list is made up of books I’ve read this year, but I have long lists of great books I can recommend from years past. Here are my top 5 for this year:

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. This is a short, gorgeous memoir. Kalanithi was both a medical doctor and a PhD in literature, an odd combination that means he is uniquely capable of telling the story of his own illness. It’s a heart-breaker and an inspiration, and unlike many medical books, it’s written beautifully.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. This book was on just about every list of must-reads, so I got it, read it, and was haunted by it. Gyasi tells the story of many generations of a black African family as it lives through slavery, and freedom in America. It is unsentimental (in the best sense), and while it is sweeping over many generations, Gyasi manages to keep the tension high. It’s a remarkable book, lush, haunting, upsetting, and as with much of good literature, makes you feel you’ve lived a life you otherwise would not have had access to.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. This is a YA book, but I don’t care. I’m an adult and I loved it. LOVED IT. People have been recommending this book to me for years, and I regret not reading it sooner, and I already plan to read it again. The narrator is a young man who is ostracized, but manages to have the most endearing, hilarious, charm-filled, honest, unusual voices I can remember.

Ginny Moon: A Novel by Benjamin Ludwig. Written by a teacher who, in his own life, took in and later adopted a foster child with autism. The novel is told from the point of view of a 14-year old girl with autism, and I was transported into her mind and her world. It is masterful the way this author lets us see an entire world and a heart-breaking, lovable character even though she has limited language. I was going to just read a page or two, but couldn’t put it down. I read it into the night, and finished it at 1am, weeping with happiness.


an Agent

I have known that I wanted an agent for several years now, but only had a short story collection to give to them, and no agents are interested in short story collections. So I went about getting that book published on my own with Leap Frog Press, and then I was compelled to write a book, a little memoir about an illness that I had last year.

It turned into a weird kind of book, not exactly like anything else I’d read, a little bit of Ann LaMott, a little bit of a Dutch author I’d discovered in Holland named A. L. Snijders, with perhaps a bit of Mary Oliver thrown in.

Two friends read it for me and gave me notes, and I revised it, getting the book as good as I was able to make it. Then I asked a friend if I could take a look at his query letter, which he generously allowed me to see. Two friends suggested I query their agents (you can see how dependent we artists are on one another, for feedback, for query letters, for agent introductions), and I wrote my own query letter and then sent it to the two agents I had introductions to.

One agent never responded. I understood, she gets something like 200-300 query letters A DAY (so I’m told), and I also understood that writers have to query a lot of agents before one is interested enough to read an entire manuscript, but this other agent did ask to read it, to my delight. I sent it to her, and about 3 months later, she called and said that she loved it, and had a few notes to give me, and that if I could revise it, she would reconsider it.

I was in the middle of a wildly busy semester, teaching 4 writing classes and taking classes at Columbia in their Narrative Medicine Program, but this seemed like the brass ring, and I didn’t feel I could say no. I said yes, of course, and I said yes also because I liked her notes, which were gentle and right along the lines of what I already knew, by then, should be developed. So I told her she would have the new draft within 5 weeks, by the end of October, and I set to work clearing everything out of my life that I could. I wrote to friends and family and said to just not look for me for a month or so, and I got down to work. Some of the revisions were complicated enough that I actually went to a motel to work twice, taping notes up all over the walls where I wouldn’t be interrupted for 24 hours straight.

And then, on October 31st, I sent it off to the agent, thinking I wouldn’t hear back from her for another 2 months or so, and with some relief, I got back to my teaching, my laundry, my emails … back to my life. But the next day, November 1st, she sent me a little email just saying how much she was enjoying reading the revisions, and by the day after that, November 2nd, she and I were on the phone, and I had contracts in my e-mail, and a plan was hatched to try and sell this book.

SO that’s where I sit right now – I’m burnt out from the harried revisions, from the busiest semester of my life, but I have an agent, AN AGENT! which is a dream come true, really. I don’t know how this will pan out, whether she’ll be able to auction off the book for an enormous or a modest sum, or whether it will stall and no one will want to buy it. Who knows?  Regardless, my writing is now supported by a professional team that will add to my personal team, and I embark on this new kind of collaboration, where she does what she is good at (and what I am decidedly NOT good at), and so the journey continues.

Watertown Daily Times

My trip to Watertown, NY was magical. I love the North Country, as it’s called, especially in July with the roadside effusion of Queen Ann’s lace and chicory. Not only was I surrounded by friends, I found a writer’s haven there. The bookstore, The Reading Room, has a wall of dozens of local authors and their books which would put Greenwich Village to shame. I also got to explore a friend’s writing shed, which has sparked fantasies of having my own one installed somewhere on our property.

Chris Brock of the Watertown Daily Times wrote up a nice review of the book, and of my visit. There are a few tiny corrections I’d make if I could, but the only one that really matters is that I’m 53, not 54! Ha. Nope, none of them really matter. It’s a lovely article, and I even approve of the photograph.

Click here for WDT article

TV Interview

I had my first TV interview while up in Watertown, NY this past weekend. It’s 12 minutes long, and well, I learned a lot about how I might approach it differently next time. Still, I love the questions that Craig Thornton asked me. He made it feel like a real discussion about writing, which made it a lot of fun for me. Here’s the link to the interview.

author interview


The Saturday Evening Post


The Saturday Evening Post has just published my short story, “The Absence of Sound.”

Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m really writing, it’s such a dream of mine. This publication is a reminder that I AM a writer, no kidding. The editor-in-chief at the Saturday Evening Post has become a friend, and what more would I want than a friend who is such a careful and generous reader? I also love that the photo they chose to use to illustrate the story is of one of the gorgeous lions who sit just outside of the NY Public Library. This whole thing is a dream come true.

The Absence of Sound

Review from The Star Tribune

I am thrilled to read this review from The Star Tribune of “The Subway Stops at Bryant Park.” They call it a “captivating collection” which is “cinematic.” This pleases me especially because, of course, I can picture these characters perfectly in my own mind, but I can only hope they come across as vividly to my readers.

It’s nice, too, to get a review a full month and a half after the official launch of the book, keeping it alive, so to speak, for the summer at least.

Star Tribune Reviewcover/

River Teeth

River Teeth is a fine journal dedicated to narrative nonfiction. If you are a writer looking for a home for your nonfiction work, they are respected, and for good reason. Below is a link to a book review that I wrote for them. I got the chance to work with the editor, Thomas Larson, and boy did he do a lot of work to help me shepherd this assignment to completion. Here, then, is my review of Writing Hard Stories.

book review of Writing Hard Stories

David and West

David Ebenbach (who wrote a great short story collection called The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy) and I got a chance to interview one another about our writing processes for Fiction Writers Review about our 2 short story collections.

David is a good friend who is also an amazing writer, and happens to have a sense of humor. Here we talk about how we feel about our own characters, how we find them and breathe life into them, and what kinds of characters we avoid (spoiler alert – I’m not fond of show-offs).

Fiction Writers Review discussion

Interview with Liz Martin at AMRI

american micro

Liz Martin of American Micro Reviews interviewed me recently about my book. I enjoyed our back-and -forth online and I am very pleased with the results. Liz is obviously a writer herself and asks insightful questions – the kind of questions that I enjoyed pondering. I learned a few things from being interviewed by her, and that’s saying something. Follow this link to read the entire interview:  AMRI interview