Category Archives: Readin’at

readin’at: and in fact, this award goes to … (4/99)

True Stories, Well Told

I’m a big fan of creative nonfiction. The more I read it and the more I write it,  the more this feels most natural to me as a writer.

I’m also a big fan of Creative Nonfiction, the literary journal which happens to be published right here in Pittsburgh and has been for more than 20 years.

Connected with the journal is In Fact Books, an “independent book imprint specializing in high-quality, research-driven narrative nonfiction on a wide variety of topics and real-life experiences.”

I recently read True Stories, Well Told: From the First 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction, edited by Lee Gutkind and Hattie Fletcher. As the title promises, this book is an enjoyable collection of 20 creative nonfiction pieces that were published in Creative Nonfiction during the past two decades. (No small feat for a literary journal!)

Standouts include “Rachel at Work: Enclosed, A Mother’s Report” by Jane Bernstein, “Mrs. Kelly” by Paul Austin, “Without a Map” by Meredith Hall, and of course, Lee Gutkind’s retrospective on Creative Nonfiction’s beginnings.

Today it was announced that In Fact Books received a silver medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards (known as the IPPYs) for True Stories, Well Told.

A well-deserved honor indeed.  Congratulations!

(For a very, very limited time, In Fact Books is offering a chance to purchase True Stories, Well Told for half off the regular price.  A great deal if enjoy this type of writing and especially if you’re serious about writing it.)


n’at:
Pittsburghese for “and so forth,” “et cetera,” “and so on.”

readin’at:
My occasional blog feature celebrating all things literary as it relates to Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania region. Here, I talk ‘Burgh-focused books (and review them), literary events, upcoming readings, author interviews and profiles, new releases …n’at.


99 Days of Summer BloggingThis post is #4 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 

 

Review of Whiskey, Etc. by Sherrie Flick

Whiskey, Etc.Whiskey, Etc.
short (short) stories 
by Sherrie Flick 
Queen’s Ferry Press 
2016
211 pages

Life has gotten in the way of my reading these days. Either I’ve had little to no ability to concentrate or I’ve been so damn exhausted that I’m zonked out within a few pages. Neither has anything to do with my choice of writing material or the author’s talent — it’s all me. As someone who tends to read a book per week, on average, this snail’s pace is a bit maddening. As with all things, though, I know this phase will pass and in the meantime, I turn to shorter works for my preferred literary libations.

Whiskey, Etc., Sherrie Flick’s new collection of “short (short) stories,” has proven to be an effective tonic for my current literary malaise. Divided into eight sections (Songs; Pets; Coffee, Tea; Dessert; Art; Cars and Canoes — the strongest section, in my opinion — Soap; and Whiskey), most of these stories are no longer than a few pages; some are only a paragraph, if that. (I’ll admit to having a preference for the longer works in this collection.)

Flick’s sentences are succinct, tight, telling the reader all that’s needed to know (His divorce settlement reads like an episode of Dallas), using food as simile (Snow covered the ground like a thick milkshake) and hooking the reader with more memorable opening lines than a frat boy.

I called the front desk to request a coffeemaker and some of those E-Z packets you can just plop right in, no mess. I was trying to remain on task and organized. “Mr. Smith? We don’t do that kind of shit here,” a woman’s voice purred at me. (from “Learning to Drink Coffee in Idaho”

I’m the squash soup. Chopped up and muddled, glowing orange here on the sofa. The soup itself bubbles for real on the stove. But I’m angry, so its simmering seems like a gaping mouth. The soup froths. Me, on the stove. (from “Family Dinner”)

With flash fiction, there’s the assumption that it’s easy to write. Dash off a few sentences, a handful of paragraphs, and a story miraculously appears. But the brevity actually can be deceptive. As Flick accomplishes so successfully with many of the stories in this collection, the reader needs enough details in a brief fragment of time to make a story feel complete while still eliciting the reader’s curiosity about what happens next, or about the backstory that led up to the situation.

Was it Indiana? Iowa? This was before Rob was gay. Before Christina’s mom couldn’t remember her name. Before I stopped eating. Before James’s last postcard. (from “Road Trip”)

Lisa leans in to give him a slow, silent, twenty-years-absent hug. He grabs her shoulder and says, “I’m sorry, Lisa. Read about it in the paper. Figured you be here.”  …. Back in high school Joe could put together car engines, and later on, in one of those car’s backseats, he could fix a girl so she felt brand new.  (from “After”)

In Whiskey, Etc., most of those details and similes involve food and drink, especially coffee. Knowing of Flick’s background as a food writer and essayist, this is almost expected.  (A Pittsburgh writer, she teaches in Chatham University’s MFA and Food Studies programs.) More than just a prop, in most cases the coffee or the tofu dinner or the pecan roll is as essential to the story as a main character.

It’s tempting to binge one’s way through these stories, but don’t.

Savor them, like a fine meal. 

readin’at:
An occasional feature on melissafirman.com celebrating all things literary as it relates to Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania region. Here, I talk ‘Burgh-focused books (and review them), literary events, upcoming readings, author interviews and profiles, new releases …n’at.

Readin’at: Divine Nothingness, Poems by Gerald Stern

Divine NothingnessDivine Nothingness: Poems by Gerald Stern
W.W. Norton & Company
2014 
112 pages 

One of my very favorite poems is “Lucky Life” by Gerald Stern, born and raised in Pittsburgh and now living in Lambertville, New Jersey.  It is somewhat embarrassing for me to have discovered this well-known poem only two years ago – I mean, it was published in 1977 – but discover it I did while spending some time down at the Jersey shore. It found me at exactly the most perfect time, as if he was writing directly to me. I thought about it during our vacation this year and I’ve thought about it several times during the last few weeks.

It’s one of those poems that describes exactly what fellow treasured Pittsburgh poet Toi Derricote means when she says, “Gerald Stern has made an immense contribution to American poetry. His poems are not only great poems, memorable ones, but ones that get into your heart and stay there. ”

How could they not, with lines like these?

“Dear waves, what will you do for me this year?
Will you drown out my scream?
Will you let me rise through the fog?
Will you fill me with that old salt feeling?
Will you let me take my long steps in the cold sand?
Will you let me lie on the white bedspread and study
the black clouds with the blue holes in them?
Will you let me see the rusty trees and the old monoplanes one more year?
Will you still let me draw my sacred figures
and move the kites and the birds around with my dark mind?

Lucky life is like this. Lucky there is an ocean to come to.
Lucky you can judge yourself in this water.
Lucky you can be purified over and over again.
Lucky there is the same cleanliness for everyone.
Lucky life is like that. Lucky life. Oh lucky life.
Oh lucky lucky life. Lucky life.”
~ from “Lucky Life” by Gerald Stern

Love that. And words like these are what made me pick up Divine Nothingness, Gerald Stern’s latest collection of poetry, published last November.

Divine NothingnessAt 90, this is Gerald Stern’s seventeenth poetry collection and there is a definite sense of the passage of time. Divided into three simple parts (perhaps to symbolize childhood, adulthood, and the final years of life? or a nod to Pittsburgh itself in “Three Stages in My Hometown,” one of the poems contained within?) Divine Nothingness contains the reflections of a life – the places and people and experiences while growing up in Pittsburgh and then, eventually, living in central New Jersey.

This is the third poetry collection of Gerald Stern’s that I have read and I felt he connected more with his reader (at least this one)  much more here in Divine Nothingness than he did in Everything Is Burning (2006) or Save the Last Dance (2008). These poems seem much more accessible.

Although I’m an East Coast girl born and bred (including some time living in central New Jersey for what amounted to the equivalent time it takes to sneeze) it’s no surprise that the visages of a Pittsburgh long gone were the ones that came to life for me in these poems.

“…and who and what we were we couldn’t exactly
tell for we were covered in soot and hopped
away from the heat like hot dancers 
for we were creating flames for those on the mountain 
who drove up the steep sides to see the view 
and took their visitors with them so they could express
their gratitude.” 
(“Hell” Jones & Laughlin)

There are the places of this life (‘so let me take you back to the meadow/ where the sidewalks suddenly become a river …”) and the people (“There was a way I could find out if Ruth/ were still alive but it said nothing about/ her ’46 Mercury nor how the gear shift ruined/ our making love ….”) of particular moments experienced during a time gone by. A segue into an acceptance of life’s finality and the self that is left behind.

“…and, like him – like everybody – I scribble words
on the back of envelopes and for that reason
and for two others which I’m too considerate to mention 
I’ll be around when you’re gone.”
(from “I’ll Be Around”) 


n’at:
Pittsburghese for “and so forth,” “et cetera,” “and so on.”

readin’at:
My occasional blog feature celebrating all things literary as it relates to Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania region. Here, I talk ‘Burgh-focused books (and review them), literary events, upcoming readings, author interviews and profiles, new releases …n’at.

Readin’at: West of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan

West of SunsetWest of Sunset, by Stewart O’Nan
Viking
2015
289 pages

“He’d had a talent for happiness once, though he was young then, and lucky. But wasn’t he lucky now, again?”

Luck was in short supply during F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final years. Instead, the famous writer best known for The Great Gatsby had an abundance of misfortune and difficulties that are brilliantly rendered in West of Sunset by Pittsburgh author Stewart O’Nan.

“Despite our view of him as a literary giant and dashing Gatsby, Fitzgerald was an outsider–a poor boy from a rich neighborhood, a scholarship kid at private school, a Midwesterner in the East, an Easterner in the West,” writes O’Nan in his essay “The Inspiration Behind West of Sunset” and posted on his website. “I’d thought of him in Hollywood as a legendary figure in a legendary place, yet the more I read, the more he struck me as someone with limited resources trying to hold together a world that’s flying apart, if not gone already. Someone who keeps working and hoping, knowing it might not be enough. And I thought: that’s who you write about.”

Indeed you do.

And with his writing, O’Nan more than succeeds in capturing this aspect of Scott during these last troubled three years.  At 40, Scott’s literary success is well in the past and his wife Zelda is institutionalized for psychiatric issues. When Hollywood (finally, thankfully) comes calling with work as a screenwriter, he is emotionally and financially broke, “borrowing against stories he has yet to imagine.” (Love that line!)

Nonetheless, Scott heads west in somewhat desperate hopes of making it once again in a town where everyone else’s star seems to be rising but where his is uncertain. He’d answered California’s call before. (“There were years like phantoms, like fog. Often he wondered if certain memories of his had really taken place.”)  Those early Hollywood years and what, exactly, transpired that made Scott so full of self-doubt remain a bit fuzzy to the reader, but that’s all right; West of Sunset stays in 1937-1940.

As the novel progresses, Scott’s own health and emotional well-being becomes more precarious as his battle with alcoholism becomes more prominent. He’s in the midst of an on-again, off-again affair with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who has her own demons to conquer. And when his passive-aggressive egocentric co-worker isn’t being an editorial pain in the ass, his writing career is beholden to the whimsy of the studio powers-that-be who kill any scintilla of hope and motivation (and the possibility of a credit and continued paycheck) with each cancelled movie.  Money is a constant source of uncertainty, and every writer will be able to empathize with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s frustration on his stories being rejected by the popular magazines of the day – most of which adored him once upon a time.

To be sure, West of Sunset has some bright moments. The reader gets to hang out by the pool and at the studio commissary with the likes of Fitzgerald BFF’s Dorothy Parker and Humphrey Bogart – not to mention Ernest Hemingway, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, George Oppenheimer and more than a few others making cameo appearances.  Quite a cast of characters, this novel has. If you’re a literary and/or film bub, this one’s for you.

Dust off the Hollywood glitter, though, and there’s something universally relatable about West of Sunset. Anyone who has ever gone through a difficult professional or personal stretch of time (which would be …oh, all of us) will likely find something to identify with in the F. Scott Fitzgerald that Stewart O’Nan presents. West of Sunset is about coming to terms with real and perceived failure, the drumbeat of self-doubt and loathing that accompanies it, the quest for self-redemption, and what happens when our self-reliance runs out.  (“Somewhere in this latest humiliation there was a lesson in self-reliance. He’d failed so completely that he’d become his own man again.”)

This is a 5 out of 5 stars novel. I was in love from the first three pages and I feel very confident in saying that West of Sunset – the first Stewart O’Nan book I’ve read – is likely going to be one of my favorite novels of this year.

(Are you local to the Pittsburgh area? Come hear Stewart O’Nan tomorrow (Saturday, February 7) when East End Book Exchange hosts the author for his final stop of his West of Sunset book tour. Event begins at 7 p.m.)

About Readin’at: One of the things I’ve come to love about Pittsburgh is how much this city embraces the written word and the authors who bring stories to life. We’re quite the literary town and I wanted a way to emphasize this.  As a way to celebrate all things “bookish in the Burgh,” I created “READIN’AT,” an occasional feature here focused on Pittsburgh-based literary works, events, and the writers who call this awesome city home. 

 

Readin’at: Review of The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, Poems by Rachel Mennies

The Glad Hand of God Points BackwardsThe Glad Hand of God Points Backwards
Poems by Rachel Mennies 
Texas Tech University Press
2014
79 pages
Winner of The Walt McDonald First Book Prize for Poetry

It’s a new year and a chance to get back on track with my weekly (usually Thursdays) Readin’at feature here on the blog.   Readin’at is where I celebrate all things literary that relate to Pittsburgh and the region. Here, I talk Pittsburgh-focused books (and review them), literary events, upcoming readings, author interviews and profiles, new releases and more. I’ve let this column wane a bit over the past few months, but there is so much bookish stuff happening in Pittsburgh that I think this deserves a resurgence.

Rachel Mennies was one of the Pittsburgh authors who I read over the holidays. (She and I will be reading as part of Acquired Taste: Holiday Recovery on Saturday evening, January 10 at East End Book Exchange. We had met earlier in the year, during a gathering of writers on what was possibly one of the most spectacularly gorgeous evenings in Pittsburgh.)

Aside from all that, however, Mennies’ award-winning The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards attracted my attention because of its poems exploring themes such as coming of age as a Jewish woman in America; interfaith marriage; the history, the present, and the future of Judaism, and the sense of finding one’s place in the community as well as the family.   For various reasons  – the death of my husband’s grandfather, the main family tree branch connecting him with his Jewish heritage; celebrating the winter holidays of Hanukkah and Christmas, and returning back to Philadelphia for the holidays – made this the perfect book for me to read when I did.

In his introduction to Mennies’ work in The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, Robert A. Fink of Texas Tech University Press and editor of The Walt McDonald First Book Series in Poetry, posits that the title

“suggests a delightfully ambiguous, ironic interpretation of God’s hand that protects, that judges, that points to history, heritage, the promises made to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the law meted out to Moses and the children of Israel. God of the Garden of Eden. God of the Shema. This Thou Shalt and Thou Shalt Not hand of God, however, is also a glad hand, welcoming hand – one that “accepts / the muddle of our lives ,” a God who “holds/ nobody responsible,” who says, “As you wish,” and then “retreats into the sunset alone.” (“The Jewish Woman in America, 2010”) Glad hand also connotes what could be a less-than-sincere gesture, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts / neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8, ESV). There will be no pat, no comfortable answers in this collection of poetry.”

Perhaps no comfortable answers, but for this reader several poems evoked feelings of comfort because they were set in my hometown of Philadelphia. It happens to be Rachel Mennies’ hometown, too, and that of her family.

“They went to Girls’ High School, classrooms filled with young women speaking foreign tongues, caught and released, caught and released each day, back when men and women were kept separately until marriage ….She left his bedside and paced a block of Old York Road, north and south, east and west, as if a cage around her kept her close.” – Philadelphia Woman, pg. 27

What Mennies does exceptionally well in these deeply personal poems – divided into five sections – is show through her curation of her family’s stories how one’s ancestors and their history remain an indelible part of us, even as we move elsewhere to build our own lives and raise our own families.  Our lives may be vastly different, the religion of our birth may become faded or forgotten, but the reminders are there.

“I see them in Giant Eagle, buying
the same soup and eggs as I buy;
at the Squirrel Hill library,

their sons garbed as God prefers
even in hot July, consoled by the tallit,
trailing blessed white strings

through Forbes Avenue dirt.
The women cover their heads, their skirts
making dark mysteries

of their legs. All faith, they show me
the fabric of inaccessible glory, the rents
in my own life. My God holds

nobody responsible. He lives in the thick air
over Philadelphia, likes it there, doesn’t
speak to me much, if at all….” – “The Jewish Woman in America, 2010” (pg. 9) 

Yet we are connected to our ancestors through stories and ancient customs. They are always with us, as in “For Rose,” my favorite poem in this collection.

Practical. we take the names of our dead 
because the dead are sturdy – stern mantles 
of opportunity, watching as we shoulder them
from windowpanes, closets. Rose – one curling r

makes hundreds of us, Rachels, Rivkas, Renates,
Richards, Ronalds, this slip of a woman
in a fading photograph keeps all our tongues
moving. Blessed are you, lord of our passed-on,

our looking-over-us-on-high, as the dead name us
consonant, as we cast aside the baby books and run
curious to the headstones, hunting for names
among the mausoleums and weather-worn 

statues, the roses gone to pulp beside the roses
freshly brought, red and resonant. 
– “For Rose”, pg. 24

Rachel Mennies, a resonant new voice with echoes of the past.

Join Rachel Mennies, Jeff Oaks, and myself at
Acquired Taste Presents: Holiday Recovery
a food-themed literary reading celebrating family holiday traditions
Saturday, January 10
5 -7 p.m.
East End Book Exchange, 4754 Pittsburgh.
Additional details here

Readin’at: Books make great gifts. Small Press Pittsburgh books make even better ones.

Small Press Pittsburgh Holiday Book Sale

I am notorious for giving people books as gifts.I can’t help it; it’s sort of what I do. Plus, I’m thinking that people kind of expect this from me, so there’s that reputation to live up to, y’know?

Books can be wonderfully personal things to give people – especially when they aren’t in the mainstream. Karen Lillis is the ultimate curator and champion of Pittsburgh’s small presses and independent books and her selection always makes me crave every single title she is carrying.

Small Press Pittsburgh will be at the Stephen Foster Community Center this Sunday, December 7 from 12-5 p.m. with plenty of incredible reads for everyone on your gift list.  Event details are above.

The Stephen Foster Community Center is located at 286 Main Street, which is halfway down the hill (between Penn and Butler). It is right behind the library in Lawrenceville. The parking lot entrance is on Fisk Street right next to the library.

Vendors confirmed:

Copacetic Comics
The Big Idea Bookstore, Inc
East End Book Exchange
Amazing Books
Mystery Lovers Bookshop
Autumn House Press
Braddock Avenue Books
Six Gallery Press
Lilliput Review
Small Press Pittsburgh

About Readin’at: One of the things I’ve come to love about Pittsburgh is how much this city embraces books and writing and the authors who bring stories to life. We’re quite the literary town. As a way to celebrate all things bookish in the Burgh, I created “READIN’AT,” a weekly blog feature here that focuses on Pittsburgh-based novels and stories, authors, events, and literary goings-on around town (or …tahn).

Readin’at: J.J. Hensley; Conversations and Connections; Podcamp 9

You may have noticed that it has been several weeks (maybe longer) since I wrote a Readin’at post here on the blog, contrary to my intention to make this a weekly feature.  I still have those aspirations (always good to have something to strive for, right?).

God knows it isn’t for lack of content ideas. All kinds of great things have been happening in the Pittsburgh literary community lately.

Measure TwicePittsburgh writer J.J. Hensley has a new novel, Measure Twice. Official book launch is Friday, October 10 from 5-6 p.m. at The Shops at Heritage Station, 201 Eleventh Street, Huntington, WV.

Hensley will be donating a portion of sales from Measure Twice to Par for the Cure, a nonprofit dedicated to raising money for breast cancer research.

One doesn’t usually think of Huntington as the go-to-spot for book launch parties, but Hensley is a Mountain State native and wanted to introduce this book in his hometown. Those closer to the ‘Burgh will have several chances in October to catch Hensley closer to home, including at one event at the Mystery Lovers Bookshop on October 25.

Hensley has chosen Pittsburgh for the setting of Measure Twice. In this novel, Pittsburgh Homicide Detective Jackson Channing’s alcoholism addiction may cost him his marriage, sanity and career. When the body of a city official is discovered in a public location, the entire city of Pittsburgh bears witness to a form of evil that is difficult to comprehend and Channing must face more than one demon.

Conversations and Connections, a one-day writer’s conference that brings together writers, editors, and publishers in a friendly, supportive environment, comes to Chatham University next Saturday, October 18.   The conference is organized by Barrelhouse, a literary magazine based in Washington D.C., Keynoting is Roxane Gay – who seems to be everywhere these days. For your $70 registration fee, you get A LOT, including fantastic sessions, speed-dating with editors of small presses, a featured book of your choice, a subscription to a featured literary journal of your choice, and a boxed wine reception. Event proceeds go to Barrelhouse and participating small presses and literary magazines. I’m registered and cannot wait.

Finally, Podcamp Pittsburgh 9 is happening! Point Park University will be the place again when Podcampers convene on November 22-23. I’m a maybe at this point; the Sunday portion is a more likely bet than Saturday. Look for more details on the Podcamp Pittsburgh Facebook page. 

Keep readin’at!