Archives for category: Book Recommendations



Author Rachel Carey Talks About Her Debut Novel, Debt

The original inspiration for Debt was my rediscovery, as an adult, of the works of Charles Dickens. I’d always liked Dickens, but I really fell in love with his writing when I was old enough and cynical enough to appreciate how smart he was about human weakness. But as I was reading Bleak House and Little Dorrit, I was also tracking the news about the financial meltdown of 2008, and I began to wonder what Dickens would have made of a figure like Bernie Madoff. What would he have had to say about students who owed a hundred thousand dollars in student loan debt, or bankers who received a government bailout and immediately paid themselves million dollar bonuses with taxpayer money?


I think Dickens would have understood those people very well, because people like that appear in all his novels: people who take out debt because they convince themselves it’s necessary, poor people who struggle against a system they don’t understand, rich people who justify any amount of self-indulgence by claiming that they are “important.” But if there was a modern American writer tackling our debt-ridden society with Dickensian scope, I wasn’t sure who it was. So I decided to take on a challenge: writing the book I thought Dickens would have written, if he’d been alive to witness our current social ills.

Of course, the book didn’t turn out at all like a Dickens novel, because my own voice and perspective quickly took over the project. But many elements of Debt are stolen straight from Dickens: the picaresque characters from all walks of society, the dense plot filled with fantastic coincidences and illegitimate children, even a little lame boy who says, essentially, “God bless us, every one.” I also created a protagonist — an orphan, of course — who shared some superficial elements with my own life, not out of narcissism but because Dickens frequently did so. One of my favorite qualities in Dickens is the democratic quality of his plots, the way he weaves together the lives of the rich and poor, so I tried to keep that essential truth in my plotting of Debt: social classes are more interconnected than they appear, and sometimes the pauper has the power to bring down the king.

This book was my tribute to my favorite social satirist. I hope it brings some of the pleasure to my readers that his work has brought to me.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Carey is a writer and filmmaker. She received an MFA in Film Directing from NYU, a M.Ed. from Harvard, and a BA in English from Yale. She currently teaches college film classes — and lives with her husband and daughter in New Jersey. Rachel is still paying back her student loans — and has dedicated her novel to the Sallie Mae Corporation.

ANNOUNCEMENT: For her outstanding and original writing, Silver Birch Press is nominating Rachel Carey for a 2013 Pushcart Prize. 

NOTE: A FREE Kindle version of the Silver Birch Press release Debt, a novel by Rachel Carey is available through Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. You can download the Kindle version— which retails for $6.99 – for free at

PHOTOS: Author photo and cover photo by Jeff McCrum.


My car battery went dead a few days ago after I’d left my lights on while I was browsing at a used bookstore. I was holding my $2.99 purchase — The Los Angeles Diaries by James Brown (not that James Brown) — when I saw my fading headlights in the distance.

Yesterday, I read about 50 pages of The Los Angeles Diaries while in the veterinarian’s waiting room with my cat Clancy, who had a dental abscess and couldn’t eat. Brown’s book is one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read — and a welcome companion in a difficult setting. (It’s hard when your own pet is ill, even more difficult to witness other suffering animals.)

Brown’s stories about his Hollywood pitch meetings — especially one about the young executive who cracked open peanuts and threw the shells on the carpet during the meeting — give you a ringside seat at the inner workings of LA-LA Land.

While many editions of The Los Angeles Diaries are currently in print, I selected the book cover (above right) of the edition I found at the used bookstore.


The Los Angeles Diaries is terrific. It’s one of the toughest memoirs I’ve ever read, at once spare and startlingly, admirably unsparing. It glows with a dark luminescence. James Brown is a fine, fine writer.” MICHAEL CHABON

“One of those rare memoirs that cuts deeply, chillingly into the reader’s own dreams. It is a dramatic, vivid, heartbreaking, very personal story…cleanly and beautifully written, and it is also incredibly moving.” TIM O’BRIEN

FROM THE BACK COVER: The Los Angeles Diaries unveils Brown’s struggle for survival, mining his perilous past to present the inspiring story of his redemption.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: James Brown is the author of the memoirs, This River and The Los Angeles Diaries, and co-editor with Diana Raab of the anthology Writers on the Edge. The most recent reprint of The Los Angeles Diaries from Counterpoint Press includes a foreword by Jerry Stahl, as does the French edition, Les Carnets de L.A., from 13 eNote Books, and is currently under option for a feature film with producer Jude Prest and Lifelike Productions, LLC. Brown has also written several novels, including Final Performance and Lucky Town. He’s received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction Writing and the Nelson Algren Award in Short Fiction. His work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, Ploughshares, The New York Times Magazine, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New England Quarterly, and anthologized in Best American Sports Writing; Fathers, Sons and Sports: Great American Sports Writing; and the college textbooks Oral Interpretations, and Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief. Brown can be contacted through his website at

Congratulations to Gerald Locklin, whose poetry appeared in the recent Silver Birch Press Silver Anthology, on the Spout Hill Press release of three novellas — The Bear Trilogy.

As noted on the publisher’s website, Spout Hill Press “is dedicated to the beauty and elegance that can be found only in the novella…Our mission is to publish the best novellas we read, whether they are from long-established writers or those who are new to the field.”

Here’s a description of the three Locklin books from the Spout Hill Press website:


The Case of the Missing Blue Volkswagen is Gerald Locklin’s classic post-modern epic of Los Angeles and gumshoe detectives. At once homage and spoof, the novella follows Bear, a private detective, as he searches for the eponymous blue Volkswagen through the meanest streets of the West Coast and into a more dangerous world, his subconscious. The novella is at once a comedy, a discussion of the detective genre, and a look into the various cultures and subcultures of the 1970s. (Available at


Come Back, Bear is Gerald Locklin’s long awaited sequel to The Case of the Missing Blue Volkswagen.  Where Locklin explored the subconscious and the idea of the detective novel in the first novella of the series, here he delves into the Western novel and the idea of loyalty. Locklin is at his best here as he becomes irreverent in his relationships, his love of the classic cowboy novel, and his view of America. (Available at


Last Tango in Long Beach completes Gerald Locklin’s trilogy of post-modern novellas that began with The Case of the Missing Blue Volkswagen and continued with Come Back, Bear. In this final story, Locklin explores the 1970s sex drama but backs away from his classic humor to take an inside look at the politics of a real couple. It takes a painfully accurate view of the way life can be in the long run even with people who love each other. (Available at

Gerald Locklin‘s poetry will appear in the upcoming Silver Birch Press Green Anthology — scheduled for a March 15 release (just in time for St. Patrick’s Day).

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gerald Locklin has published fiction, poetry, essays, and reviews prolifically in periodicals and in over a hundred and fifty books, chapbooks, and broadsides. Recent or upcoming books include a fiction e-Book, The Sun Also Rises in the Desert, from Mendicant Bookworks, a collection of poems from 2008-present from PRESA Press, three simultaneously released novellas from Spout Press, a new edition of Gerald Locklin:  New and Selected Poems from Silver Birch Press (formerly from World Parade Books), and a French collection of his prose, Candy Bars: Le Dernier des Damnes, due May 7, 2013, from 13e Note Press, Paris. Event Horizon Press released new editions of A Simpler Time, A Simpler Place and Hemingway Colloquium:  The Poet Goes to Cuba in 2011; Coagula Press released the first of two volumes of his Complete Coagula Poems; and From a Male Perspective appeared from PRESA Press.


Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life is on my holiday “must read” list. Sounds like the perfect read — humor, writing advice, plus the charming, incomparable Monsieur Snoopy in his atelier (i.e., doghouse roof) writing about dark and stormy nights.

Here’s a blurb about the book from Library Journal: Using the many Snoopy “at the typewriter” strips as jumping-off points, 30 famous writers as disparate as Ray Bradbury, Elmore Leonard, Budd Shulberg, Dominick Dunne, Danielle Steele, and Sue Grafton have written short pep talks, amusing anecdotes, or just useful advice to would-be writers based on their own experiences. Witty and charming, the essays offer much creative and practical wisdom. But the highlight of the book is the touching foreword by Charles Schulz’s son, Monte, who offers some striking insights into his father’s life, giving the reader a glimpse of the legendary cartoonist as a reader as well as a writer.

It appears that Snoopy’s Guide to the Writing Life is out of print, but copies are available at libraries — and used paperback editions are available at a reasonable prices (starting at $7.32) on


I’ve always been interested in learning which books some of my favorite authors admire. Today, to commemorate F. Scott Fitzgerald‘s belated birthday, I looked up the novels Fitzgerald recommended to Sheilah Graham — as chronicled in her memoir, College of One. The list includes Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Cheri by Colette, A Lost Lady by Willa Cather, and Bleak House by Charles Dickens. According to Graham, Fitzgerald called Bleak House “Dickens’ best novel.” 

At 350,000 words — most editions are close to 1,000 pages — Bleak House is a doorstopper. I find the novel’s sheer size daunting. I can count on two hands the really, really long books I’ve read in my life. I’ve always said I’d rather read five 200-page books than one 1,000-page book (I plead eyestrain), but I have tackled Bleak House — though not at Fitzgerald’s recommendation.

I read an essay on Bleak House in Lectures on Literature by the notoriously critical Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) — the Wellesley and Cornell professor best known as author of Lolita. A native of Russia, Nabokov had him some opinions about English literature! But I’ll limit my comments to his thoughts on Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.”


In Lectures on Literature, Nabokov praises Bleak House from every direction — but mainly focuses on the novel’s atmosphere, which Nabokov sees as a character in the book. He also lauds the unusual narration techniques — an omniscient third-person narrator alternating with a first person narrator (a young woman named Esther Summerson — the only female narrator in the Dickens canon).

About a decade ago, my New Year’s resolutions included “read Bleak House.” (You know, when you say to yourself: One way or another, I am going to finish this book!) And I enjoyed the novel so much, it didn’t take me a year to reach the final page.

A few years after I’d finished Bleak House, Masterpiece Theatre ran a multi-part adaptation — but I didn’t watch it. I knew the program could never live up to the story I’d pictured in my mind. And I realized that if the program had aired before I’d read the novel, I might never have attempted to make my way through the behemoth. (I’ll admit, I’ve  never been able to get more than halfway through Moby Dick.)

So if you’d like to commemorate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s belated birthday by reading one of his favorite novels, you can find an excellent online version from Pennsylvania State University here. (In an attractive, easy-to-read format.) This version is only 872 pages long. If you read five pages a day, you’ll be finished by spring. Enjoy! 


The older part of Amristar, the original walled city, was full of bazaars – small ones that only the locals knew about, tiny bazaars that sold bangles and cloth very cheap but could be reached only on foot through tiny alleys; and the big, main bazaars where the streets were wider and the roads slightly cleaner. The bazaars of Amristar were busy places where every day, throughout the year, transactions were made, prices were bargained over, shops were opened in the morning and shut in the evenings. It was as if it had been so since the beginning of the world and would continue to be so till the end…

Money, congestion, and noise danced and eternal, crazy dance here together, leaving no moving space for other, gentler things. The actual walls that had once surrounded the city had fallen away long ago, but the ghosts of the wall still separated the old city from the newer one that flourished outside.***Excerpt from Chapter 1 of The Sari Shop by RUPA BAJWA

NOTE: I picked up The Sari Shop by Rupa Bajwa one day while browsing at the library. Since I enjoy reading about India, this story of a clerk at a sari shop appealed to me. During a three-hour train ride to San Diego (and a three-hour ride back to Los Angeles), I read this wonderful novel – and was transported from California to India throughout the journey. The main character, Ramchand, reminded me of Jay Gatsby – someone who gazes over the fence at the life the rich lead and embarks on a self-improvement program to become more like “them.” Poignant and compelling, The Sari Shop tells the story of a dreamer who aspires to fly out of the cage his caste represents – and enjoy the freedom to live without limits. I really loved this novel. Highly recommended! 

“An impressive debut, full of lean and lyrical prose.”

Ligaya Mishan, New York Times Book Review

Find a detailed product description and reviews at


“A capricious breeze escaped from a small hole in the ground in Mrs. Romero’s front yard at precisely the place where more than a year before the sinkhole had erupted. The freakish wraith of wind rose from the vent and moved, snakelike, across the dichondra lawn and then began a slow ascent into the sky, traveling in a lazy spiral, like a hawk riding hot thermals, rising higher and higher, until the effervescent current was circiling high over the dilapidated wooden structure at 410 Calle Cuatro, which for forty-eight of her eighty-two years Mrs. Romero had called home.

 The breeze then suddenly plunged into a sharp dive, gathering speed and momentum as it descended, honing in on Mrs. Romero’s house like a precision arrow finding its bull’s eye. As the gust of wind reached the house, it found an opening in the kitchen window and burst through like a sprinter crossing the finish line.

Inside, the octogenarian was busy beating the special batter for the wedding cake she had committed to bake for Rudy Vargas and María López’s big wedding…With her back to the pastry cookbook that lay open to a recipe for “Golden Cream Wedding Cake,” she did not notice when the rascally draft swept over the cookbook, rustling its pages from page 231 to page 238, the recipe for “Three-Tier Chocolate Layer Cake…”

Note: The above excerpt is taken from the short story “A Boogie-Woogie Wedding Cake” by Jesús Salvador Treviño (Found in The Skyscraper that Flew and Other Stories. This remarkable collection is available at

Painting: “Lady” by Isblahblah, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


I read Lying Awake by Mark Salzman shortly after reading a profile of the author by Lawrence Weschler (“The Novelist and the Nun”) in the Oct 2, 2000 issue of The New Yorker. In the article, Salzman reveals his multi-year battle with writer’s block that included several drafts his agent and publisher rejected and his difficulty working at home because his cat wanted to sit in his lap — making it hard to concentrate.

While he struggled to write and often had no idea where to take his story, he did have several brainstorms related to the cat. First, he fashioned a skirt from aluminum foil and wore it while he worked (the cat did not like to sit on the metal garment). One day, Salzman was wearing the tin foil skirt and nothing else (you know how it is when you work at home) and stood up to get something. He looked out the window and saw a man working on the telephone wires outside — the lineman shook his head in pity when he saw Salzman. It was time for another cat deterrent tactic.

Salzman took his laptop to his garage and worked in his car. His cat followed him and sat on the vehicle’s moonroof while Salzman attempted to complete his novel, which, in his words, he wrote with a cat’s a**hole staring down at him.

Somehow the author managed to complete Lying Awake, which went on to bestsellerdom and rave reviews. Here’s one from the Amazon Page that does a good job of summarizing the novel: “Using a very limited palette, Mark Salzman creates an austere masterpiece. The real miracle of Lying Awake is that it works perfectly on every level: on the realistic surface, it captures the petty squabbles and tiny bursts of radiance of life in a Los Angeles monastery; deeper down it probes the nature of spiritual illumination and the meaning and purpose of prayer in everyday life; and, at bottom, there lurks a profound meditation on the mystery of artistic inspiration.”

Note: I recently found a beautiful paperback edition of Lying Awake at one of my used books haunts, and will mail the novel to the first person (U.S. only because of postage rates) who leaves a comment on this post. This our third book giveaway.


“The serious writer has always taken the flaw in human nature for his starting point, usually the flaw in an otherwise admirable character. Drama usually bases itself on the bedrock of original sin, whether the writer thinks in theological terms or not. Then, too, any character in a serious novel is supposed to carry a burden of meaning larger than himself. The novelist doesn’t write about people in a vacuum; he writes about people in a world where something is obviously lacking, where there is the general mystery of incompleteness and the particular tragedy of our own times to be demonstrated, and the novelist tries to give you, within the form of the book, the total experience of human nature at any time. For this reason, the greatest dramas naturally involve the salvation or loss of the soul. Where there is no belief in the soul, there is very little drama. ”


The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor is available at


In 1991, novelist Jonathan Franzen (author of The Corrections and Freedom) was browsing the shelves at the Yaddo library when he spotted a slim volume, Desperate Characters by Paula Fox. Franzen sat down and began to read — and didn’t leave his chair until he’d finished the novel.

When Franzen attempted to order a copy at a bookstore, he learned the book was out of print. After trying, without success, to convince people in the publishing business to reissue Desperate Characters, he eventually mentioned his reverence for the novel in a March/April 1996 Harper’s article entitled “Perchance to Dream: In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels” (subscription required to read the article). Tom Bissell, an editor at W.W. Norton, took notice — and the company published the book in 1999, with an introduction by Franzen.

In his introduction, Franzen swoons over the novel, stating: “The first time I read Desperate Characters in 1991, I fell in love with it. It seemed to me obviously superior to any novel by Fox’s contemporaries John Updike, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow. It seemed inarguably great.” 


My first reading of Desperate Characters predated the Jonathan Franzen frenzy over the novel. I found a copy (cover at left) while browsing not at the Yaddo artists’ colony but at a Salvation Army store in Chicago and, like Franzen, ended up reading the book in one sitting. I agree that the novel is “inarguably great.”

What’s Desperate Characters about? Well, spelling out the story almost makes it sound inane — a woman feeds a stray cat, the cat bites her, and she spends the rest of the book wondering if she will perish from the bite. As Franzen put it, “I had never read a book before that was about the indistinguishability between an interior crisis and an exterior crisis.” 

A New York Times article by Melanie Rehak from 2001 discusses Franzen’s role in the reissue of Desperate Characters and describes the novel as “a ruthless, elegant portrayal of the social paranoia of a bourgeois Brooklyn couple named Sophie and Otto Brentwood.”

Find Desperate Characters by Paula Fox at Fox, who will turn 90 next year, has led a fascinating life. More about that in another post.