Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Review of Precious Objects, A Best Seller, and Two Award Winners

Precious Objects by Alicia Oltuski

 I went on a bit of a Twitter bender this summer, following a couple dozen authors, some vaguely known to me, others complete mysteries.  I took notes on how these writers spread the digital word about their novels, short story collections, and blogs.  After two weeks of research, I unfollowed most of these personalities to unclutter my Twitter timeline, but a handful remained, mostly because their book was one that sounded interesting, and I wanted to read it… someday.  One such author was Alicia Oltuski, her book Precious Objects. 

Precious Objects, the idea of reading it, sat idle with a hundred other titles on my “books to read” list, bumper to bumper with best-sellers by Grisham, Connelly, and Lehane to name just a very few.  I was crushing the 2nd semester reading list for my MFA program, eyeing the holiday season as a time to devour a few books of my own choosing.  Oltuski’s book would have missed the cut since I have a stack of not yet read already sitting on my bedside table.  Objects was merely a good intention, a future redemption of an Amazon gift card, or an impulse buy while killing time at a Barnes and Noble after the New Year.  However, an Oltuski tweet jumped out at me during my biweekly scroll through the Twitter-sphere, “Anyone interested in reviewing my book?”   

I responded with an enthusiastic, “yes! 

Assuming that her publisher was looking for some serious movers and shakers to send copies of the book, I admitted that my circle of influence only entailed a few devoted friends and family members who read my sporadic blog out of pity.  But, did I mention my peeps are worldly and have impeccable taste?  Surely there was a sale out there in the extended Snellgrove family.

Months later (coincidentally the day my semester ended), to my surprise, I received a package from Simon and Schuster Inc.  You would have thought my Klout score was nearing 90.  So with new book in hand, Precious Objects jumped in front of Gone Girl (see below for my thoughts on this) and The Roundhouse thus becoming my first pleasure read of the holiday season.

An intriguing profile of the business of diamonds, Oltuski gives the reader an intimate portrait of the industry by detailing her own family’s history buying and selling the oft adorned precious stones.  Tragic, funny, and heart-felt, the book reads as if you were sharing coffee with a trusted friend.   Revelations about the writer’s grandfather’s post-Holocaust introduction to the diamond trade leaves you nodding your head in admiration.  Oltuski reveals the Jewish traditions and customs that helped the industry thrive and find a home in Manhattan’s Diamond District by recounting stories from her childhood and from stories passed down to her by friends and relatives.  I imagine Oltuski had a blast prodding her father for tales from his life in the trade.  I laughed aloud when I read about his working the undiscovered diamond market of Brazil in the mid eighties wired on caffeine.  

Having touched on all the right notes in her quasi-history of the diamond, Oltuski made me feel like a gem expert.  The ring on my wife’s finger has greater significance now.  Leonardo Di Caprio’s award winning film Blood Diamond rings louder.  The Jewish struggles of the last century and the African conflicts still raging make more sense.   There is little doubt that specific chapters of Precious Objects will stick with me and undoubtedly be referenced at future parties and family gatherings.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I was told I had to read this thriller.  Multiple promises were made that I would love it.  And I did! 
Flynn uses a creatively plotted mystery to give readers a twisted, cynical view of love and marriage.  A relentless page turner, Gone Girl is delivered through husband and wife narrators, their voices distinct and compelling.  The plotting is devilish and the ending will provide plenty of fodder for any book club.

The Roundhouse by Louise Erdrich

The National Book Award winner grabbed headlines and ultimately my attention.  I had high expectations for The Roundhouse, maybe too high.  The story is told from the perspective of a 13 year-old Native American boy living Reservation life in the eighties.  Roundhouse has some nice moments when it reveals the struggles of the Native American population’s efforts to hold onto their identity, cultural and religious practices, and land amidst the influences and injustice of the outside world. 

However, the book’s protagonist, Joe, remains the book’s focus throughout.  Despite having to deal with the effects of a brutal physical assault leveled on his mother, Joe still gives readers plenty of standard teenage coming-of-age frivolity that has been the engine for popular movie’s like Porky’s and American Pie.  Who knew pubescent Native American boys also obsess about women’s breasts?  These moments feel contrived, ultimately falling flat for me.  Perhaps it is just tougher for a female author to get the raging testosterone induced life of a thirteen year-old boy just right. 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was a finalist for the award that Roundhouse ultimately won.  The Dallas Cowboys are mentioned in the book’s blurb, and I was unable to resist the possible marriage of literary excellence and the NFL.   Author Ben Fountain can craft a sentence, a top notch wordsmith, no doubt.  But in his novel he uses his talents to mock the working class, disparage the wealthy, and ridicule NFL players and fans.  The book’s major themes are familiar, war is bad, enlisted men made up primarily of the less-privileged suffer deep psychological scars from witnessing death during battle.  While Fountain does create a rich and textured cast of characters, his protagonist, at times, is a little hard to believe.  A 19 year-old virgin with only a speck of religious faith brings a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader he has just met minutes before to climax during a brief fully-clothed (if Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders could ever be described this way) dry-hump session in the shadows of a staged hero’s press conference.  I can’t decide if this is the story’s highlight or lowlight.  The book is worth a read because the writing is rock-solid, but I won’t promise that you’ll enjoy it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

'The Ball Player' Goes Digital

I wrote my novel The Ball Player in 2002 as my professional baseball career was coming to an end.  I was playing one more season, but my age and skill set were making any chances at continuing to play the sport and making a living doing it very slim.  I was pretty much homeless, as most minor league baseball players are for the four or five months worth of off-season each year.  Instead of crashing with my parents (again), I decided to hang around Canton, Ohio, to find out a little more about a girl I’d met named Erin.  

Because my bank accounts were anemic, I was forced to rent a $300/month apartment in an undesirable location and devoid of all amenities.   When they made a visit, my parents brought pots and pans; a friend loaned me a bed, and I found a card-table and two fold-out director’s chairs to fill out the interior d├ęcor. 

Trying to find time to spend with my dream girl was challenging.  Erin was finishing her senior year of college, playing two sports for the school, student teaching, and picking up random shifts waiting tables to keep a little money in her pocket.   So I had some time to myself.  Time I used to write The Ball Player. 

Writing the novel allowed me to relive my fondest memories of playing the game I had built my life around.  I got to fantasize about hitting the ball a little further than I was ever able to (the perks of writing fiction), and I even imagined how different my career could have been if I had accepted the offers to juice up with the easily available Performance Enhancing Drugs so prevalent in the game at that time.

The process of composing The Ball Player tattooed on my soul the smells of the stadiums, clubhouses, and buses with ink so permanent that it will surely last decades.   The sound of metal spikes crunching the sun baked brick-dust of infields in Florida or compressing the brilliantly rolled green bermuda in California returns to my ears whenever I crack the spine of one of the many copies of my book that are tucked into bookshelves around our house.

Having just recently released The Ball Player through Amazon’s digital publishing, I can now fire up Erin’s Ipad, touch the Kindle icon, and relive those treasured memories of playing ball and falling in love.  Experiencing my own novel through this different medium is like dancing with my wife, fresh from the stylist sporting a different hair style or wearing a newly purchased dress.  I become acutely aware that she and my story will move me regardless of time and place.

I am currently recruiting friends to share the news of my novel’s digital release.  I priced it at $2.99 for the Kindle because I want people to champion the story knowing that at worst the friend or acquaintance they are pestering to buy my book are in essence only passing up on a latte when they ‘one-click-buy.’  

So if it’s not about the money, than what?  Sure, I selfishly would like to sell a couple thousand copies and take my wife to the Bahamas, business class of course, but really I JUST WANT IN THE GAME.  I want to go head to head with John Grisham (Calico Joe) and Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding).  The editor that told my agent once upon a time that very few people wanted to read a baseball novel didn’t know the market.  It took a best-selling titan and a heavily connected Ivy League grad to bring baseball fiction to the masses, but now that it is here, The Ball Player deserves a place at the table. 

I will concede that my book, written long before my Master’s program at Converse College, might not be crafted with the literary precision of Harbach’s book.  My voice, back then, might not be as easy as Grisham’s (One of my favorite writers btw).  But when it comes to story, a BASEBALL story at that, I’m willing to say I am king.  So for the dozen readers of this blog (note the self deprecation), I ask you to chime in.  Invite your community of friends and family to offer their view.  

Dipping my toe into the waters of digital publishing has been fun and educational, but I’ve decided I would rather make a splash.  Grisham and Harbach, watch out!

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Finding Mr. Miyagi at Converse College

As a 10 year-old, watching The Karate Kid, I fantasized about crossing paths with my own Mr. Miyagi and being mentored in the mystical art of kicking butt.  Bullies and tormentors beware!  But despite my extensive travels over the next two decades (peeking into the maintenance offices of every medium sized apartment complex I passed during my journey), I never met my own personal sensei.  When I had just about given up on this childhood fantasy, along came my acceptance into the MFA program at Converse College.   Strange as it seems, I was able to become Daniel-son Larusso while studying creative writing.
 Sort of.
 Instead of being terrorized and intimidated by my bigger, stronger peers like the young Ralph Macchio, I was being beaten down by agents and publishers and grad school acceptance boards.   Before being mentored by Mr. Miyagi, Macchio’s character threw karate kicks that he’d learned at the YMCA; similarly, before registering at Converse, I was throwing sentences together with techniques I had read online.  I found that the likelihood of a YMCA trained MMA fighter winning a UFC championship was as likely as my composing a best-seller as a self-taught scribe.
 Fortunately for me, the director of Converse’s low-residency MFA program does not require new students to be beaten to a bloody pulp before he assigns a mentor.  My mentor was listed on my class roster as Leslie Pietrzyk.   The last name wasn’t Miyagi, but its spelling was just as bizarre, so I figured I could make do.  After Leslie was featured in one of the residency’s evening readings where she shared an original piece of short fiction, I had my Miyagi moment, witnessing the talent of my soon-to-be teacher.  She wasn’t pummeling my would be attackers into submission, but she was showing her chops, chops that more than matched her resume that included several novels published by major houses.
Over the ensuing four months, I completed my course requirements and sent my work via mail to Leslie.   Along with essays, every couple of weeks, I sent an original piece of fiction for her to review.  She would send me an email with a quick reaction to my story and then mail the original manuscript back with her extensive notes covering each page.   My frustration level after reviewing Leslie’s notes on my first story most likely rivaled Daniel Larusso’s after his days of painting fences and waxing cars for Mr. Miyagi.  But like Daniel-son, I forged ahead.  And while the notes that continued to come throughout the semester were heavy on what was missing and things not to do, I felt my desire to write and write well growing.
A few weeks before sending away my final assignments of the semester, I had a phone conference with Leslie.  If we had sat face to face, I would have used a pair of pencils to catch a fly out of mid-air, for I am still searching for something in my skill set as a writer that I might one day do better than she.   I asked about publication and distribution by major journals and elite publishing houses.  What did it take?  What do I need to learn?  Leslie dismissed writing for publication in the same way Mr. Miyagi railed against fighting in the All-Valley Tournament.  I guess writing is like fighting in that they should both be about life and death not about trophies and awards and sales.
I’m quite sure I can wrap up my first semester in the MFA program like the 1984 summer blockbuster.  Ralph Macchio got the trophy – I got my passing grades (I hope).  Macchio got Elizabeth Shue - I’ve got way better with my smoking hot wife.    
Where do I go from here?   
Second semester, where I hope to take what I learned from Sensei  Pietrzyk and keep kicking butt.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The strange reason why I must read 'The Man From Primrose Lane.'

With a dozen books on my required reading list for this first semester in my low-residency MFA program, I knew, at least until May, I would not be buying any new novels, and if I did fall to temptation and purchase some commercially delicious paperback from the $5 rack at Sam’s Club or a highly praised legal thriller from B&N, I would just have to leave it be on the night stand until the semester’s reading was complete.

So why have I broken from my school work only to read my most recently purchased literary gem, The Man From Primrose Lane?  I’d like to say that the half dozen sparkling reviews I read online prompted me to take to reading this first novel by James Renner, but I know better than to be sucked in by bloggers that sizzle and creatively praise the newest releases.  I have school, and I have my priorities.  So it must have been the genre bending synopsis; gritty crime fiction meets suspense/mystery meets sci-fi with a creep factor of early Stephen King.   Irresistible?  For many, yes, but not me.  Summer is right around the corner and even for this mind-blowing and originally crafted plot, I could have waited for the lounge chair and ninety degree heat.
The only reason I am reading Primrose and reading it right NOW is because when I first became aware of this novel, Renner’s wife asked him not to share it with me. 

Mrs. Renner, a sweet, kind, creative, and funny music teacher from Ohio happens to be my wife’s cousin.  This is how I know James.  In the ten years I’ve known him and chatted with him at yearly family gatherings, he’s been writing.  For a long time he made his living as a pot-stirring Cleveland journalist.  His talent for investigative reporting led to him to write two true crime books that were well-received by their regional audience.   When he finally got around to writing this novel, I happened to be discovering my own passion for writing fiction.  Having published The Ball Player and found 1,000 readers to buy it, I was confidently packing a new composition that I was ready to shop to agents and publishers. 

I was thrilled to find another writer (in the family) that was in a similar position as me.  James and I commiserated about the querying process and how it can be a drag before I finally said the obvious, “Send your book to me.  I’d love to read it.  And if you want to look at mine, I’d love to hear your thoughts.”

“I can’t,” was his reply.

He explained to me that his wife was not comfortable with the family reading his novel , so he could not send it to me.

“But you’re trying to get it published?”

A shrug.

I let it go… sort of.

A few weeks later James emailed me and let me know he had found an agent and that she had two publishers lining up to buy the book.  I was thrilled, then jealous.  I was pumped, then pissed.   I had suffered 40 rejections with The Ball Player before finding an agent that took the manuscript to only a couple publishing houses only to be turned away and eventually tell me my book wasn’t good enough in its current form.  My recently finished novel was currently out to a dozen agents and the ‘no thank you’s’ were already piling up in my inbox.

Of course the only thing that would have really put me at peace with James’s success would have been to read the book and discover that, yes he had written a damn good novel, and there was plenty of reason why his talent was in high demand.

I’m not sure if it was only three emails and then a phone call, but regardless of how I asked, James would not let me read The Man From Primrose Lane per his wife’s instructions (or so he claimed).

“It’s going to be published in a year!” I almost shouted in disbelief.

I guess I can give a guy credit for staying true to his wife’s request, but the result was my wife having to endure a profanity laden tirade about how I was the one person that would really benefit from reading this novel.  How could he keep this from me.  Not only was I a fellow writer and friend, but I was a member of the family.   The rejections to my own work were like bamboo sticks shoved beneath my fingernails and by reading his novel, I could possibly gain perspective, realize what I was doing wrong or figure out why my writing was not resonating with the gate keepers of the publishing industry.  One simple attachment to an email could have eased the pain. 

James would eventually send me the prologue, which was tight and professional, and creepy as hell, but if I wanted to read The Man From Primrose Lane in its entirety, I would have to wait for its eventual release. 

And that day has arrived.

The story might end here with me, book in hand, giddy to devour this forbidden fruit.   But alas it takes more than curiosity to pull me away from my studies.  I would not be reading this new novel had I not recently shared one of my own recently crafted short stories with my wife.   (I would still write if she were my only audience).  She was impressed with the writing and moved by the content, yet disturbed to feel threads of reality braided into my imaginative tale. 

My wife’s response was, “I now know why she didn’t want you to read James’s novel.”

Great fiction might be the result of memory and imagination constantly feeding on the each other while sharing the same space inside a writer’s head.  These two very distinct thought processes will meld together and if allowed to find the page as one cohesive idea can produce the kind of emotion that is not easily shaken.      

So I am stopping everything to read The Man From Primrose Lane not because of mere curiosity, but because the author’s wife’s reaction to it assures me that whether I love this book or not, I will most likely be experiencing a visceral composition pulled from the soul signed with the author’s blood.