Category Archives: Writers

on birth, sorrow, and the promise of spring

Phipps - Spring Flower Show 2015; photo credit, Melissa Firman

This photo practically screams “Easter,” doesn’t it? Taken 4/4/2015 by me at the Phipps Conservatory, Spring Flower Show 2015, Pittsburgh, PA photo credit: Melissa Firman


On Easter … 
As disloyal as it feels to all my years of Sunday School and church attendance, the youth group activities that shaped me, the formal religious upbringing I’ve had, Easter has in recent years become less of a religious holiday for me and more of a celebration of spring, a renewal of the spirit. I say I’m Unitarian Universalist, which is what I identify with most, but the truth of the matter is that I’m somewhat lapsed in my UU church attendance/involvement.

This tends to happen fairly regularly; I’m the only one in the family with any interest in attending church these days, so while the notion is still ingrained in me from years gone by that this should be/needs to be a family affair, it’s not our reality and making it be a solo effort is more difficult than I imagined.

On Birthdays… 
Perhaps I’m a bit more reflective than usual this Easter morn, given that I’ve just marked another trip around the sun in terms of a birthday.  It has been a low-key birthday weekend. We went out to eat on Friday to The Oven Pizza Company in Wexford – I had been wanting to try it for awhile because I’d heard great things about their gluten-free pizza, which I really liked. The kids liked the wings, too. (Longer review soon but the bottom line is that we’ll be back.)

Phipps - Viola Hip Hop Cranbunny

“Viola Hip Hop Cranbunny” ~ as seen at the Phipps Spring Flower Show 2015, Pittsburgh, PA ~ April 4, 2015 ~ Photo Credit: Melissa Firman

Yesterday, The Girl and I went to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens to take in the Spring Flower Show. I always enjoy the Phipps (these photos are all from our visit yesterday) and this year’s Flower Show was most welcome, given the ridiculous winter Pittsburgh was dealt. We also enjoyed a nice brunch at The Porch at Schenley, and some time at the Library. I read and browsed while The Girl participated in a teen anime program.

On Reading …

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan piqued my interest in reading more about Zelda and Scott, which is what intrigued me about Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.  I’ve been listening to this in the car for the last two weeks or so. Really liked this one (Jenna Lamia’s narration is, as always, top notch) as it gave me a much more different perspective of Zelda than I’d had with West of Sunset. It’s also quite sad, as clearly Zelda was a woman born before her time. I’d like to think with better pharmacology and more modern psychological supports she would have been known more for more than being F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife and gotten the recognition she deserved.

I’ve abandoned a few novels and an audiobook this week. Doesn’t matter which ones. They’re probably fine, but they just weren’t for me.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs TonightNext week, Alexandra Fuller comes to Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures, so I’m trying to read some of her work before attending that event.  I just started Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, her debut memoir.

This is how it begins:

Mom says, “Don’t come creeping into our room at night.”
They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs.
She says, “Don’t startle us when we’re sleeping.”
“Why not?”
“We might shoot you.”
“By mistake.” 

On Writing … 
My friend Sarah and her husband Jeff have launched Flashbang! Writing Studio, which offers creative writing workshops for high school and middle school students. As Sarah and Jeff put it, they “help our students write stories with wings and teeth, generate poems based on reality TV and their Twitter feeds, and master that delicate alchemy of turning words into worlds—all while engaging them in deep readings of complex texts and refining their mastery of grammar and mechanics.” For National Poetry Month, I’m participating in Flashbang! Writing Studio’s First Annual Poem-A-Thon. I wanted to do some poetry writing this month and NaPoWriMo felt too overwhelming. This is perfect. Poem #1 is … in the works.

I had the chance to hear novelist Steve Berry give a talk on Thursday evening and say a few words to him. His talk emphasized how much research he does for his novels (which, admittedly, I haven’t read) along with the fictional aspects, and it made me more inspired to get back into the research aspect of my own novel in progress.

On Sorrow …
Finally, my heart goes out this Easter to one of the blogging community’s best-known voices. As many know from following her on Facebook, Sheila from Book Journey lost her 24-year-old son Justin in a car accident very early yesterday morning. The love that Sheila has for her sons is evident in her posts about them and religious or not, it is impossible to overlook the symbolism of this tragedy at Easter and springtime.

Sheila, your family is in our thoughts and prayers during these difficult days. I know I echo the sentiments of many in the blogging community in offering our hope that the wonderful memories of Justin brings you and your family comfort, strength, peace and love.

Phipps - Spring Flower Show 2015 - 2

Thanks for sharing this post!

Book Review: Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer

Frances and Bernard

Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
208 pages 

This, right here, is one of my newest favorite books.

How can it not be, with its nod to my beloved Philadelphia and Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite authors?

Well, not Flannery exactly. In this novel,  the character of Frances Reardon is considered to have been inspired by the Southern writer; the Bernard in the title is poet Robert Lowell. Both real-life authors met in 1957 at Yaddo, a writers colony, and started corresponding shortly thereafter. Hence, Frances and Bernard is based on that correspondence and the relationship – what was and what could have been – between the two intriguing artists.

To quote the summary on Goodreads, this is a novel about

the kind of fast, deep friendship that can take over—and change the course of—our lives …. It explores the limits of faith, passion, sanity, what it means to be a true friend, and the nature of acceptable sacrifice. In the grandness of the fall, can we love another person so completely that we lose ourselves? How much should we give up for those we love? How do we honor the gifts our loved ones bring and still keep true to our dreams?

I can’t say it any better than that. Some of us have been lucky enough to experience such a fast, deep friendship. If it was a long time ago, Frances and Bernard will transport you right back to those heady, talk-about-anything-while-baring-one’s-soul days.

These are fascinating people. I was already a fan of Flannery O’Connor’s, but I admit I hadn’t read nor known much about this period of her life nor her connection with Robert Lowell, so Frances and Bernard was a treat.

Frances and Bernard is the rare sort of book that allows the reader to transcend reading. You forget you’re reading and instead you delve right into the prose and you become immersed in the beauty of the words because Carlene Bauer’s writing – as Frances and Bernard – is so damn good. Every single line.

Like these:

“Irish girls from North Philadelphia can’t afford to think that they will be fine without the benevolence of the New Yorker, even as they give the New Yorker a Bronx cheer.” (pg. 76)

“Am I from Pittsburgh and just don’t know it? Someone else misidentified my city of birth as Pittsburgh.” (pg. 113)

“She [Frances] does not know anyone who has written and mothered, so she thinks it impossible. (I actually don’t either – all the women writers I know are libertines.) But she needs to be in control, and she has chosen to be in control of the people in her stories.” (pg. 135)

Here’s what I know about Carlene Bauer; she is definitely in control of the people in this, her debut novel.

5 stars out of 5.  Highly recommended.


Thanks for sharing this post!

Acquired Taste Presents: Holiday Recovery? (Yes, Please. With Visions of Oysters and Crocheted Toilet Paper Roll Holders In My Head.)

I don’t know about you, but I need to do some major recovery from this holiday season.  Like, right now.

(Did I mention that Christmas is still seven days out as of this writing?)

It’s a good thing, then, that author Marissa Landrigan is organizing one of her fantastic Acquired Taste literary reading events for January 10 at the fantastic East End Book Exchange.

Acquired Taste Holiday Recovery

And yes, your eyes aren’t deceiving you: I’m beyond honored to be one of the featured readers at this literary event with incredibly talented Pittsburgh writers Rachel Mennies (The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards (Texas Tech University Press, 2014), No Silence in the Fields (Blue Hour Press, 2012) and Jeff Oaks. I’ll be debuting a new, not-even-published-here-on-the-blog-yet creative nonfiction essay of mine, “When We Were Oysters.”

(There might be mention of my childhood passion for crocheted toilet paper roll holders and, well … oysters.)

Acquired Taste is a curated series of public readings, each featuring 3-4 local or touring authors reading their work around a food-related theme. Marissa’s hope is that this series will showcase the outstanding literary talent in Pittsburgh and to be part of expanding the literary world’s understanding of food writing to something beyond restaurant reviews and cookbooks.

I’m beyond honored and thrilled to be included, and I look forward to sharing my essay “When We Were Oysters”  – about a nostalgic, childhood tradition – with you.

All will be merry and bright. Event is free and all are welcome.

Please join us?


Thanks for sharing this post!

top ten tuesday: top ten new-to-me authors i read in 2014

Top Ten Tuesday - New

For Top Ten Tuesday, an original weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish, we’re asked to share our top 10 new-to-us authors we read this year.  In alphabetical order, here are 10 authors who I read for the first time in 2014, along with what works of theirs I read.

There are another 10 writers who could have just as easily have been on this list.


1. Carlene Bauer (Frances and Bernard)

2. Katie Coyle (“Fear Itself,” from One Story)

3. poet Olena Kalytiak Davis (And Her Soul Out of Nothing)

4. poet Terrance Hayes (Muscular Music, Hip Logic, Wind in a Box, Lighthead)

5. Rachel Joyce (Perfect)

6. Paul Monette (Borrowed Time)

7. Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar)

8. Dani Shapiro (Devotion, Slow Motion)

9. Megan Stielstra (Once I Was Cool)

10. Niall Williams (History of the Rain)

Each week The Broke and the Bookish post a new Top Ten list and everyone is welcome to join in the fun. Simply link back to The Broke and the Bookish on your own Top Ten Tuesday post AND add your name to the Linky widget so that everyone can check out other bloggers lists!

Thanks for sharing this post!

hollywood nights

Hollywood.bombThis business of being-a-writer-while-one-has-a-full-time-job and parenting kids is … well, it can be a lot of things.

It can be a strange existence as moments from our nights and weekends are eked out and surrendered to our laptops in this too-solitary pursuit.  (Case in point: I’m writing this blog post at 11:30 p.m. on a weeknight, when I have a fairly busy day tomorrow.)

Still, we do the writing anyway because of … what, and why, exactly?

For the love of it, mostly. And because we believe in our story and want to share it with others.  Otherwise, we might as well just do something else – and get a hell of lot more sleep while we’re at it.

My friend Jason Cole sent me a message a few weeks back, announcing the debut of his first novel, Hollywood.bomb. He is married to my longtime friend Rachel, and together they are two of the most ridiculously generous people I’ve ever known. They also have a lot of wicked smaht thoughts, to imitate their Boston accents and the name of Jason’s blog.

Unbeknownst to me, for the past 10 years Jason had been working on a novel about the crazy world of software development. The adage “write what you know” applies here; Jason has worked in this industry for more than 15 years, so the man knows this terrain “full of intelligent, quirky, and painfully honest people who are more interested in solving problems than making anyone feel good about them.”

I admit, I haven’t had a chance to read Hollywood.bomb yet in order to give it a proper review (a couple of interesting things are happening with my own writing projects) . What I can do is tell you that this satirical look at the software development and entertainment industries is .99 on Amazon for only one more day – and even after that it becomes an affordable $2.99. 

While the writing of the book was a serious venture for Jason, Hollywood.bomb itself doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. It’s meant to be a fun read, says Jason.

“I know that there’s some stigma associated with self-published books, and I’ve read enough of them to know why,” he says. “I don’t know whether my book is good enough to rise above the noise, and in some ways I don’t care.  All I want is for people to read it, to share in a story that has kept me and my close friends and family entertained for years.  I want to share it, with the hope that it will entertain, that readers will laugh a little.”

Just like Hollywood itself.

Congratulations, Jason.

Thanks for sharing this post!

Me and Chris Bohjalian in today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, with Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Chris Bohjalian returns to Vermont as the setting for his 17th novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, and I return to the Book section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette today with my review

When 11th-grader Emily Shepard says her world is ending, she’s not simply being a dramatic teenager. She’s alone, living in the shadowy aftermath of the fictional Cape Abenaki nuclear power plant meltdown, located in Vermont’s picturesque Northeast Kingdom.

By Chris Bohjalian

Doubleday ($25.95)

Emily’s father, an alcoholic who was reportedly drunk on the job, is responsible for the deadly disaster. Both of Emily’s parents are presumed to be among the fatalities. With her dead father the target of the community’s vitriol, Emily runs away to reinvent herself as Abby Bliss, a new identity inspired by her favorite poet, Emily Dickinson.   Read more:

As always, my thanks to both the Post-Gazette for this opportunity and to Chris Bohjalian for sharing the review so widely on social media.






Thanks for sharing this post!

Armchair BEA 2014: Some People Buy Shoes, I Buy Lecture Tickets.

ArmchairBEA 2014

 “Some people buy shoes, I buy lecture tickets.” ~ my Facebook status before a Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures event

We’re lucky here in Pittsburgh.  We’re an incredibly literary town, moreso than the average person might imagine. Among the literary offerings is a very popular lecture series called Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures that brings world-famous authors to town at a price that is affordable for all. This has quickly become one of my favorite ways to spend an evening.

When I heard that Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures would be hosting Colum McCann, who happens to be one of my all-time favorite writers, I bought my ticket A YEAR IN ADVANCE. Yes. An entire year. And then I upgraded my seat at the last minute, paying extra to sit in the second row (which was so worth it). And then I met him.

And then I died and went to heaven.

Melissa and Colum McCann

That was almost three months ago and I still haven’t written a coherent post about it because I am still grinning about how wonderful Colum McCann’s talk was here in Pittsburgh.  Thank God I took good notes.

I’ve been fortunate to meet several writers but I have to say that having the chance to talk with Colum McCann (even briefly) was extraordinary. And his lecture! If you ever have the opportunity to hear him, go. You won’t regret it.

Ann Patchett was another author I met through Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures. So incredibly gracious and kind. Her lecture was lovely, and when I got my books signed by her, I mentioned that I was interested in reading The Magician’s Assistant because I’m writing a novel about the AIDS epidemic.

“Oh, you want to read Borrowed Time by Paul Monette,” Ann Patchett says to me, scribbling down the title on the Post-It note with my name that marked the place for her to sign my book. “You need to read this.”

Well, when Ann Patchett gives you a book recommendation, you listen. At least I do.  (Guess what book I’m currently reading?)

(Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures has an awesome lineup for next season. James McBride, Simon Winchester, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jesmyn Ward, and Jodi Picoult are just a few of the authors who will be appearing.)

Rachel Renee Russell and daughters

Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures has author events for kids, too. (As a child, I would have been over the moon. To be my daughter’s age – 12 – and meeting my favorite writers?! Are you kidding me??!!) I’ve taken my daughter to meet Rachel Renee Russell, author of the Dork Diaries series. Ms. Russell’s daughters help her co-write and illustrate her books and they were all absolutely lovely.  (This was a crazy book-signing … they each signed every kid’s book, and there were hundreds of kids! Some people were in line for nearly 4 hours.)

I would also be remiss without mentioning Rachel Simon (The Story of Beautiful Girl) and Beth Kephart. I consider each of them friends now, but I started out as a regular fan. (OK, maybe a little bit on the groupie side.) I met Rachel in 1990 when I attended a writing conference and she was the keynote speaker. She had just published a short story collection called Little Nightmares, Little Dreams and was regularly writing columns in The Philadelphia Inquirer. I admired her writing and soaked up any bit of advice and knowledge I could get from her – and when I had the chance to take a class with her, I was thrilled.

There are other authors I’m forgetting, but I’ll leave you with this photo of me and Beth Kephart from Book Expo America in 2010 (actually, it’s the Book Blogger Convention). I look like I am ready to collapse; that day, I left my house at 3:30 a.m. to catch a train to New York City (chances are, Beth did too) and I was fading fast when this photo was taken. Beth, on the other hand, looks vibrant and radiant in her fuschia, ready to take New York by storm, as she always does.

Book Blogger Convention (38)

Now it’s your turn: which authors have taken your life by storm?


Thanks for sharing this post!