IACOMIn a Country of Mothers
by A.M. Homes

Do you remember the books you read?

As some of you know from recent posts, I’ve been working on a tidying project around the house, inspired by the brilliant Marie Kondo and her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. One of Marie’s recommended stages in the tidying process is the curating of one’s books. Given all the moving I’ve done in recent years, I knew my book collection was pretty well-culled, but as a faithful acolyte of Marie’s, I was curious to take a look at my collection using her criteria.

Overall, the books I’d chosen to keep made sense. But there were three titles—two by A.M. Homes and one by Mary Gaitskill—that I could not, for the life of me, remember reading. What’s really strange about this is that I’m certain I’ve been carrying these three books around with me for the last 20 or so years. I believe I bought them back in my early days in Boston and most likely they were on the recommendation of my cool, all-knowing and still dear friend, Michelle. Back in Boston, Michelle was one of the only people I knew who’d taken more women’s studies classes and had more bookshelves than me and to this day, has more moves under her belt (in other words, serious soul sister).

When I say I couldn’t remember reading these books, I’m not talking about major plot points or the full roster of characters, I’m talking about that shadowy presence a book leaves on you once you’ve read and absorbed it. That presence may tell you that you liked it or you didn’t or you were bored. Even if you can’t remember the specific details, there’s some remnant of a recollection rattling around in there. Yet with these three books (one of which was In a Country of Mothers, in case you haven’t already guessed), it was like a selective form of amnesia.

By my count, I’ve moved eight times since I purchased these books; each move an opportunity to let go, a moment when I stopped and asked, “Is it worth it to pack, unpack and pay someone to transport this?” Each time, I said yes to these particular titles – why?

As I held them in my hands and considered the outdated author photos and copyright dates, it struck me that these particular books and their writers were so very much of a particular time to me, which is how I can tell you with confidence that I bought them in Boston in the mid-1990s on the recommendation (or at least the influence of) Michelle. A.M. Homes and Mary Gaitskill were exactly what a couple of gals working at the women’s clinic, reading a lot of hip female authors were into at that time. It was the experiences they represented, more than anything within their covers, that had compelled me to keep them all this time.

So last week, I pulled all three books from the shelf and added them to the unrelenting “to-read” pile, arbitrarily deciding that In a Country of Mothers would go first. Did anything come back to me once I cracked it a second time? Not really. I’m guessing I didn’t completely “get it” on the first read. But now? Like all the best relationships, the story had matured and so had I. We were ready for each other. I’m so glad it was right there waiting for me.




Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death & Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
by Katherine Boo

Well, it’s official. I will not be asked to serve on the National Book Award committee anytime soon. I know you’ve been wondering. In fact, when it comes to Behind the Beautiful Forevers, not only am I in disagreement with the National Book Award judges, but I’m also in disagreement with just about every literary award committee on the planet, not to mention every reputable publication that bothers to put out a Best Books of the Year list.

By now you’re probably braced for what I’m about to say: I did not enjoy this book. Now I know I’m a little late to the party on this one, given that it came out a couple years ago and all the hoopla has moved on to other titles. And perhaps the fact that I didn’t rush out to read it right away was an indication, but when Supportive Husband procured a discounted copy a while back, I was more than happy to add it to the pile.

I’ve written previously about the conundrum of deciding when to put a book down and generally speaking, I’ve gotten a lot better about acknowledging when I’m not enjoying something. Yet I still found myself plowing my way through this one even though it wasn’t speaking to me.

I think there were two main reasons for this: 1) the overwhelming acclaim the book and its author have received and 2) the subject matter. Regarding the acclaim, I like to think that by this stage in my increasingly long life I’ve managed to develop a decent amount of critical thinking and feel confident enough in my own judgment that I am free to like or dislike things, regardless of others’ opinions. It looks like I might still have a cool kids complex. The cool kids just so happen to be The National Book Award, The New York Times, The Guardian and other snooty literary bodies. As for the subject matter, I don’t know a lot about India and I definitely know less than that about the slums of Mumbai, so Boo’s book seemed like a good educational opportunity.

And besides, isn’t there something politically incorrect about not liking a critically exalted piece of journalism about people living in a level of poverty that is almost beyond my ability to comprehend? In other words, by rejecting the book, am I rejecting the people it depicts or the issues it raises? The obvious answer is no. What I rejected was the storytelling. It simply didn’t compel me. I wasn’t invested in the people or situations being described because of how the author described them.

But think about it. Are you ever swayed to forge ahead with a book you’re not really enjoying because a lot of smart people liked it and you figure maybe you’re just not getting it? Do you ever read things because it feels like the “right thing to do?” Or because you feel a little bit guilty about everything you have and perhaps reading about those with less somehow relieves that burden? Do you ever feel a certain socio-political pressure in your reading choices? Or perhaps you avoid unpleasant topics altogether when it comes to your reading/leisure time – I can respect that.

(For an amazing piece of journalism that touches on similar themes of poverty and opportunity but had me riveted throughout, check out Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family.)




We Are Not Ourselves
by Matthew Thomas

Lately I’ve been writing about my skepticism toward some of the “Big Books” that are released each year by established authors with strong platforms. While I don’t think there’s an official definition for the term Big Book, I associate it with a book that its publisher is expecting will sell well and therefore received a large advance and a lot of subsequent buzz. Written by a debut author rather than an established name, We Are Not Ourselves is an interesting addition to the conversation.

I loved the beginning of this book. In fact, for the first 200 pages or so, I thought it might end up being one of my favorite books ever as I followed Eileen Tumulty, born in Woodside, Queens in 1941 to Irish immigrants, from age 10 to somewhere around 45. This part of the story is as close to my version of The Great American Novel as any I can recall. Through Eileen’s coming of age, Matthew Thomas creates a bigger narrative about the dreams, expectations and realities of post-war, middle-class, first-generation Americans moving through the 20th century.

If this is the kind of story that appeals to you as much as it appeals to me, you can probably imagine that the last thing on my mind was any concern about the book’s length (just north of 600 pages) or any sort of editing treatment it may or may not have received. But I wondered just where this was heading, with 400 pages to go and a 45-year-old protagonist.

It’s around this spot in the book that Something Happens. If you don’t already know what that something is, I don’t want to tell you. I find that it’s a much more powerful experience to be surprised by a story’s events rather than to be waiting for them and that was certainly what I found so gripping about the second 1/3 of this book. At this point, though, the book’s pace slows down significantly, matching the course of events, and I realized that the rest of the book would focus on this thing that happened (again, very much in keeping with how the characters are experiencing the events being described).

So while I still enjoyed the rest of the book—the characters are incredibly well drawn—the things that make it so good can also make it difficult to read. Thomas is portraying events that are, at times, upsetting and scary and are, at other times, arduous and mundane. He does so in a style that mirrors these experiences so that the reader is that much closer to the characters.

This all comes around to an issue of realism. One of the topics that came up in my post about My Very End of the Universe and my accompanying interview with Chris Bower was how the succinct nature of flash fiction can lend a story a sense of realism, particularly as it reflects memory. In We Are Not Ourselves, the opposite effect is at work. Many have called this book an epic saga and while I wouldn’t categorize it that way, I do think that Thomas needed every one of his many words to accurately reflect his characters’ experiences.

Phew. I need a break from fiction, folks. This last one nearly did me in with all my worrying about these poor characters. Up next is something self-helpy, for those of us gearing up for our New Year’s resolutions.



This horse was drawn by Susie Kirkwood, an artistic collaborator of Bower’s, and I stole it from his website.

Below is the much-anticipated link to my recent interview with Chris Bower, one of the five authors featured in the new novella-in-flash collection, My Very End of the Universe.

Listening back to this interview, I learned that I giggle and say “yeah” too much and my voice is kind of annoying. So I apologize ahead of time on those fronts. Fortunately, Bower does most of the talking and manages to compose himself better than I. Warning: this starts abruptly …


The first minute or so of this recording involves the hot button topic of transcription. Despite what I say at the interview’s start, I decided a full transcription of our chat was not in the cards, but I’ve included some choice excerpts below.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

“It wasn’t until I was in college … that I had to catch up to my own idea in my mind of who I was. It wasn’t until I went to West Virginia … when I experienced absolute loneliness for the first time … I found myself completely culturally isolated … my Midwestern-ness revealed itself in a major way … I was left with this idea that maybe I should write for real.”

“When you really get serious about writing … it’s really an act that can only take place in isolation.”

“Writing the first draft, that’s the fun part.”

“I’ve never been a Ray Bradbury type.”

Do you think writing can be taught?

“You can be technically better, 100% for sure.”

“You have to have utter confidence in what you’re doing.”

“In my (Creative Writing MFA) program … you got to see different versions of what you could become … A major part of it is the amount of time you get to spend on yourself.”

About My Other End of the Universe

“I don’t think it’s an accident that a lot of these stories have to do with adolescence and families. I think there’s something in the form that lends itself to this … This may be a little more of an authentic way of telling a story.”

“Our memories are so flawed that a lot of our most important ones aren’t even ours.”

“(A computer malfunction) made me care about a line.”

“When I’m writing a poem I feel like I’ve just gotten away with something.”

“The only reason this is a poem is because my computer’s broken.”

“Once you start filling things in, you have to fill more in … It wouldn’t be the voice of Al, the narrator … He wouldn’t have told a proper story of the family … As a writer I would have never been able to stop … This isn’t just a story told in fragments, this is how this guy thinks … He was trying to recreate his life with a lack of photographic evidence.”

Other Endeavors

“There’s a very vibrant literary storytelling scene in Chicago.” (For those interested, check out: Write Club and The Paper Machete)

Bower and co-author Margaret Chapman will be reading at one of my favorite independent bookstores, The Book Cellar in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, on Wednesday, Nov 19 at 7pm. Pick up a glass of wine, do some Christmas shopping and hear them read!

Bower and co-author Meg Pokrass will be reading in San Francisco in January – details to follow!



My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form

by Chris Bower, Margaret Patton Chapman, Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass & Aaron Teel

There’s no getting around it. I tend to be pretty mainstream when it comes to a lot of my literary selections. Now that’s not to say I’m plucking books off the New York Times’ Mass Market list on a regular basis, but often I’m plucking them off the NYT Book Review’s front cover. And while this habit isn’t nearly as shameful as, say, some of my television choices, I do recognize that I frequently let a few select sources influence a great deal of what I read. This fall in particular, with so many new releases by some of my favorite tried and true authors, I’ve been riding the literary fiction wave pretty close to the shoreline.

But I think my recent reaction to David Mitchell’s latest offering is a good reminder of the pitfalls inherent to staying too close to the mainstream too often. As Mitchell’s book illustrates, one of the concerns I’m having with the publishing world these days is that it seems as though there is less and less editing of the big publishing houses’ “marquee” authors. Once they’ve demonstrated an ability to sell books, the actual writing isn’t scrutinized as carefully as it might have been earlier in their career.

And so it was with great delight that I learned that my friend Chris Bower would be publishing his novella-in-flash with Rose Metal Press this month. Rose Metal is a small, indie press that specializes in hybrid genres, meaning works that fall outside the traditional fiction, poetry or essay form. Novella-in-flash is one such hybrid genre: a novella comprised of multiple “flash” (under 1,000 words) stories.

My Very End of the Universe is a collection of five novellas-in-flash, all of which concern adolescence and families, but each one contains its own unique setting, cast of characters and narrative voice. The more I think about it, the more perfect the book’s title seems, because what you have here is tiny flash stories within small novellas within a larger collection – stars, galaxies and a universe. What makes each story compelling is the author’s adherence to their respective end of the universe.

In addition to his or her novella, each author has written an accompanying essay discussing the appeal of the novella-in-flash form. In stark contrast to some of the “bigger” (some might say bloated) books floating around right now, a common theme throughout these essays is an emphasis on discipline. Each of the book’s five authors mentions the benefits of writing in such a stripped-down fashion, a style that keeps them focused on the specific key details of their stories without relying on the dreaded adjectives, adverbs and expository writing often likened to the three horsemen of bad writing. As Bower puts it in his essay, “To be successful, every aspect of the story has to be on fire.”

Clearly this man is a genius and I know you want to learn more about him and this book. You’re in luck. Coming up very soon: an interview with Chicago’s very own Chris Bower!