Dottoressa: An American Doctor in Rome

Susan LevensteinThis week’s other featured books, “Big Giant Floating Head,” by Christopher Boucher and “Frost Heaves,” by T. Stores, can be found by scrolling down below this post, or by clicking the author’s name on our Authors page.

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THE BOOK: Dottoressa: An American Doctor in Rome

PUBLISHED IN: 2019

THE AUTHOR: Susan Levenstein, MD

THE EDITOR: Julia Sippel

THE PUBLISHER: Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia

SUMMARY:  After completing her medical training in New York, Susan Levenstein set off for a one year adventure in Rome. Forty years later, she is still practicing medicine in the Eternal City. In Dottoressa: An American Doctor in Rome Levenstein writes, with love and exasperation, about navigating her career through the renowned Italian tangle of brilliance and ineptitude, sexism and tolerance, rigidity and chaos.

Part memoir—starting with her epic quest for an Italian medical license—and part portrait of Italy from a unique point of view, Dottoressa is packed with vignettes that illuminate the national differences in character, lifestyle, health, and health care between her two countries. Levenstein, who has been called “the wittiest internist on earth,” covers everything from hookup culture to neighborhood madmen, Italian hands-off medical training, bidets, the ironies of expatriation, and why Italians always pay their doctor’s bills.

THE BACK STORY: I’ve told the back story and the back back story at length in my blog, “Stethoscope On Rome www.stethoscopeonrome.com.” The short version: as a new doc in Rome in the early 1980s, I wrote a column for the Rome Daily American on safe topics—obesity, hepatitis, diabetes. I was too insecure to write about what I found really interesting, the differences between Italian and American healthcare systems, patient attitudes, and physician behavior. But I took lots of notes and slowly, unconsciously, developed the idea of turning them into a book. Over three decades I wrote in spurts, until in 2014 I took the plunge and began working on the project in every free moment. On February 13th, 2017 I toasted the “final” manuscript in champagne, but it took more than a year before it found a home at Paul Dry Books, and more than two before copies rolled off the presses.

WHY THIS TITLE: Dottoressa simply means female doctor in Italian. A writer friend, Michael Mewshaw, suggested the title years ago, when the book was just a vague back-of-the-mind fantasy. For a while the subtitle was going to spell things out: “An American Woman Doctor in Rome.” But in the end my publisher and I decided the gendering was superfluous, and a bit squirm-making, so we scrapped “Woman.”

WHY SOMEONE WOULD WANT TO READ IT: Italy is everybody’s favorite country, and Dottoressa is all about Italy. Medicine is everybody’s favorite subject, and Dottoressa takes a deep plunge inside the examining room, methods, and insights of an experienced, thoughtful physician. Health care is everybody’s favorite political issue, and Dottoressa offers a valuable international perspective on what directions the American system could or should take. Plus the writing is laugh-out-loud funny.

REVIEW COMMENTS:

“Dr. Levenstein’s gripping account of her experience as an American doctor in Rome is more than a memoir, it is a portrait of a changing country and the evolution of healthcare as seen from behind her stethoscope. It is as funny as it is poignant. A must read for anyone who thinks they understand medicine, Italy, or humanity.”—Barbie Latza Nadeau, Italy bureau chief of The Daily Beast, author of Roadmap to Hell: Sex, Drugs and Guns on the Mafia Coast

“Susan Levenstein’s Dottoressa is a smart, funny, charming, highly readable memoir of practicing medicine in Italy and is full of astute insights into the way Italy works. Approaching Italy from the vantage point of the medical profession and its health system is actually a great way to understand important aspects of Italian society.”—Alexander Stille, author of Benevolence and Betrayal, Excellent Cadavers, and The Force of Things

“She is a born raconteur, and has the observational skills of a sardonic cultural anthropologist. This is a wonderfully fun read.”—Prof. Robert Sapolsky, Stanford University, author of Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers and Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

“Her intelligent, candid, and witty observations, with some moving and courageous insights, lead her and the reader to ask what medicine is and could be.”—Wallis Wilde-Menozzi, author of The Other Side of the Tiber, Reflections on Time in Italy

“This is one of those rare books that makes me want to underline every other sentence and put a star in the margin next to almost every paragraph. Dr. Susan Levenstein’s story of her forty years of experiences as an American female physician practicing in Rome is at once fascinating, frightening and funny, a lively, insightful and witty tour through an aspect of Italian life that few American visitors to Rome ever experience.”—Fra Noi

“The first chapters recount, with a combination of exasperation and humor, the years-long obstacle course she encountered in her quest to practice medicine in the country. She proceeds to talk about everything from what a well-dressed Italian physician should wear, to, in a particularly wise and witty chapter, love and sex from both an Italian and an American perspective. A timely epilogue discusses the Affordable Care Act from her unique position as an American expat and an Italian physician, with Levenstein reflecting on how Italians, despite widespread dissatisfaction with their own health system, manage to live more healthily than Americans.”— Publishers Weekly

“A charming story well told.”— Kirkus Reviews

“Finally an expat memoir which is not about food, foreign men, or house renovation, rich with insights into what makes these irresistible Italians tick . . . As the debate over universal healthcare, cost-cutting, and co-paying continues, Levenstein offers some timely, illuminating advice packed into a fascinating expat memoir both thought-provoking and fun to read.”— The Italian Insider

“These days, hundreds of policy papers and newspaper editorials regularly debate competing claims of medical efficiency, patient care, cost-containment, and expanding reach. But none do so with Levenstein’s humor and sensitivity to the human condition. And they certainly don’t make it fun — never mind being able to set the story in the Eternal City.”— The American Magazine In Italia

“An impressively candid, insightful, exceptionally well written and entertaining life story”—Midwest Book Review

“Dottoressa has the feel of an opera, with a prelude, three acts, and three interludes. Levenstein’s libretto is captivating and the aria she sings compelling. This Jewish female internist is determined to coax doctors and patients to see one another as human beings. She writes her prescription legibly—injecting humor to alleviate tedium, with enough Italian scenes to have US readers packing their suitcases.”— The Woven Tale Press

“It should particularly be read by those among the policy army advising Democratic candidates on matters of health.”—Health Care Renewal

AUTHOR PROFILE: Dr. Levenstein was born in Manhattan and is a graduate of Harvard University, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and the Residency Program in Social Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. She moved to Rome in 1978 and has been practicing primary care internal medicine there ever since, treating a clientele that’s featured Roman auto mechanics and British ambassadors, Indonesian art restorers and Filipina maids, Russian poets and Ethiopian priests. When not seeing patients in her office, doing research in psychosomatic medicine, or being the Artist’s Wife to her composer husband, she enjoys blogging at Stethoscope On Rome, playing classical piano, performing watsu (WATer shiatSU, a form of bodywork in warm water), and walking the streets of the most beautiful city in the world.

SAMPLE CHAPTERS: Look Inside on Amazon.com. www.amazon.com/Dottoressa-American-Susan-Levenstein-MD/dp/1589881397

LOCAL OUTLETS: Independent bookshops

WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Paul Dry Books Amazon.com Book Depository (free shipping worldwide) Barnes & Noble

PRICE: $16.95 list as a paperback, less as an ebook

CONTACT THE AUTHOR: doctorlevenstein@gmail.com

 

Frost Heaves

THE BOOK: Frost Heaves.

PUBLISHED IN: 2018.

THE AUTHOR: T. Stores.

THE PUBLISHER: Green Writers Press: a Vermont-based, global publisher founded by writer and environmental activist Dede Cummings (from Brattleboro, Vermont), to incorporate and facilitate the gift of words to help foster a sustainable environment.  “At Green Writers Press it is our mission to spread a message of hope and renewal through the words and images we publish.” Dede is a fantastic publisher, and the books themselves are beautiful objects printed using sustainable and environmentally-sound methods and materials. http://greenwriterspress.com.

SUMMARY: Set in southern Vermont, a physically harsh and rural place within a few hours’ drive of Boston and New York, Frost Heaves engages characters in a landscape where retreat, even escape, to a quaint and bucolic lifestyle is regularly upset by reminders that a human is, in the end, another part of the natural world and a part of a larger social organism. In this collection, an eclectic mix of characters interact, negotiate community, and encounter the natural world — bears, otters, moose, insects—in confrontations with the reality of their own individual strengths and weaknesses, the welling up of hard truths in the seasons of each life.

WHY THIS TITLE?: “Frost Heaves” are caused by the annual freezing and thawing of the earth, which forces stones to the surface, breaking asphalt in the road. In the spring, “Frost Heaves” signs appear on nearly every road. I love the metaphor and truth of the phrase and the event — a bump in the road, nature disrupting the smooth path we get used to driving every day.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? The characters are ordinary people who live both in community and in individual realities. Each one is interrupted —  as we all are, now and then — by the events that make us remember that we are no more special than the other wild creatures around us. It’s a good book for a cold winter day by the woodstove, or for imagining oneself there — here — n Vermont, surrounded by trees and animals and neighbors who are just over the next hill, and for remembering that we are not separate from the world even as we are separated by our individual consciousnesses.

REVIEW COMMENTS:

“T Stores writes with compassion and insight, finding the inescapable truths hiding in plain sight, layered over an ordinary life . . . a beautiful writer and I look forward to seeing her work for years to come.” —Tayari Jones, Kore Press, publishing women since 1993.

AUTHOR PROFILE: I grew up in the deep South in an evangelical household, but I have found my true home on a mountainside in Putney, Vermont, where I have lived with my wife and two children for 25 years. I am Professor of English, Creative Writing, at the University of Hartford. I studied English at the University of Florida and the University of Colorado, Boulder (BA), and completed my MFA at Emerson College. I have been awarded grants by the Vermont Arts Council and Barbara Deming Money for Women Fund, among others, and have been a resident at Bread Loaf, Squaw Valley, and Shiro Oni. My three novels include Getting to the Point (Naiad 1995), SideTracks (Naiad 1995), and Backslide (Spinster’s Ink 2005). Frost Heaves, from Green Writers’ Press (2018) is my fourth book, and the title story was winner of the Kore Press Fiction Contest and published as a chapbook in 2010. A fifth book, a novel titled Ten Types of Women,
will be out in 2020. I am widely published in short fiction and the essay, as well as poetry, with work appearing in Sinister Wisdom, Harrington Literary Quarterly, Rock & Sling, Cicada, Out Magazine, Blithe House, Oregon Literary Review, Bloom Magazine, Rock & Sling, Earth’s Daughters, Blueline, SawPalm, Kudzu, Fourth Genre and Minerva Rising, among others. I have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in short fiction and the essay.

AUTHOR COMMENTS: The epigraph that begins the book — a quote from Albert Einstein– is the heart of the book and the theme that ties all the stories together: “A human being is a part of  the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

I have tried to create a community from the stories and characters who inhabit Frost Heaves, and I have tried to put each of them into situations where they must confront this essential human delusion of consciousness that pits the idea of individuality against the biological truth that we are each just another animal, and that it is only our collective understanding – our community, our common state – that matters.

SAMPLE CHAPTER:

Jack finally had a good excuse for not tending to the winter chores, Katherine thought. Being dead and all. As she had done for nearly fifty years of marriage, with no help from him, she kept the bird feeders filled, the sidewalk shoveled, the dirt road plowed, and the wood stove chocked full and hot.

She watched goldfinches, chickadees, and woodpeckers squabbling for seed and suet through rippled glass etched with frost, the window sills crowded with her collection of dusty birds’ nests. Twigs dislodged from them and littered the floor. National Geographics and seed catalogues piled up. The farmhouse too seemed to wait for spring, muffled in snow.

Sometimes Katherine found her mouth open, words collecting in the hollow, and she would snap her teeth together, jaw creaking. She would not be one of those old women who talked to herself, though what would be the difference? Jack hadn’t listened when he’d been here.

Jack was waiting,  too. As she watched the birds, she thought of him, in the freezer of Seth Markinson’s Funeral Home in town. Waiting for the thaw.

She had waited for Jack to come home from the war, waited for him to move out of his mother’s house—this house, from which he had never moved, until now. A snort of her laughter burst into the empty room. She shook her head and took a sip from her coffee cup.

She had waited for Jack all those years ago to marry her and have children, which he finally did. Then she had waited for him to come home from work, from the tavern, from the diner, from the volunteer fire station, the Eagles, the V.F.W., from hunting camp or the ice fishing shanty. She had waited for him to retire. She had waited for him to take her on the long-postponed honeymoon to Europe, or even Disney World. She had waited for him to visit their children, their grandchildren, in Phoenix, in San Francisco, in Tampa. Her waiting had made no difference.

Katherine rubbed her forehead, where a dull ache was beginning. Too much caffeine, she supposed.

Her tongue whisked against her teeth and a little tsk escaped. She had waited for Jack all her life, it seemed. And now she had to wait until the ground finally thawed to bury him in the family plot.

Just like Jack Crossly to die in January.

WHERE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.

PRICE: $18.50.

CONTACT THE AUTHOR: https://teresastores.wordpress.com or
https://www.facebook.com/atworkatdawn/

Weather Report, Feb. 24

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(Photo from the Bangor Daily News)

Our currently featured books, “Permanent Exhibit,” by Matthew Vollmer, “Post Facto,” by Darryl Wimberley and “Flashcards and the Curse of Ambrosia,” by Tracy Robert, can be found by scrolling down below this post, or by clicking the author’s name on our authors page.

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UPCOMING ON SNOWFLAKES IN A BLIZZARD, FEB. 25-MARCH 2

“FROST HEAVES,” BY T. STORES.

Set in southern Vermont, a physically harsh and rural place within a few hours’ drive of Boston and New York, Frost Heaves engages characters in a landscape where retreat, even escape, to a quaint and bucolic lifestyle is regularly upset by reminders that a human is, in the end, another part of the natural world and a part of a larger social organism. In this collection, an eclectic mix of characters interact, negotiate community, and encounter the natural world — bears, otters, moose, insects—in confrontations with the reality of their own individual strengths and weaknesses, the welling up of hard truths in the seasons of each life.

“BIG GIANT FLOATING HEAD,” BY CHRIS BOUCHER.

Writes one reviewer: “Hilarious, dark and stunningly surreal. Each chapter shines with singular wonder as Boucher harnesses his unique brand of fabulism to deftly explore the tragicomic terrain of love and loss. This novel will surprise and delight, make you laugh out loud even as it breaks your heart.” — Mona Awad, author of Bunny.

Adds Chris: I’d like to think that this book will appeal to fans of literary fiction and experimental fiction, and of writers like Donald Barthelme, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, George Saunders and Richard Brautigan. I love all of these writers for their invention and imagination, but also because those qualities serve the emotional arc of the story. I’ve certainly aimed to do the same thing here.

“DOTTORESSA,” BY SUSAN LEVENSTEIN.

After completing her medical training in New York, Susan Levenstein set off for a one year adventure in Rome. Forty years later, she is still practicing medicine in the Eternal City. In “Dottoressa: An American Doctor in Rome,” Levenstein writes, with love and exasperation, about navigating her career through the renowned Italian tangle of brilliance and ineptitude, sexism and tolerance, rigidity and chaos. Part memoir — starting with her epic quest for an Italian medical license — and part portrait of Italy from a unique point of view, “Dottoressa” is packed with vignettes that illuminate the national differences in character, lifestyle, health, and health care between her two countries. Levenstein, who has been called the “wittiest internist on earth,’ covers everything from hookup culture to neighborhood madmen, Italian hands-off medical training, bidets, the ironies of expatriation, and why Italians always pay their doctor bills.

Big Giant Floating Head

THE BOOK: Big Giant Floating Head.

PUBLISHED IN: 2019.

THE AUTHOR: Christopher Boucher.

THE PUBLISHER: Melville House.

SUMMARY: Big Giant Floating Head tells the story of a character named Christopher Boucher who is navigating the end of a marriage and the mysteries of the fictional town of Coolidge, Massachusetts. Oscillating back and forth in time, the novel contains strange surprises at every turn: Christopher briefly dates a woman with an invisible dog, contracts a strange illness that divides him in half, participates in a failure competition, and joins a community called The Unloveables. In the face of these trials and others, Christopher struggles to regain his bearings, make sense of a new reality, and chart a course forward.

Image result for Christopher Boucher + author + photo

THE BACK STORY: This book caught me by surprise. I had been writing shorter pieces, some of which were completely fictional and others of which began with a biographical seed, and before I knew it they were amassing into a novel. In retrospect, this isn’t so different from the process that I followed while writing my previous two novels, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive and Golden Delicious. I seem to have to forget and relearn this lesson with every new project, though.

WHY THIS TITLE?: The title first presented itself to me as an encapsulation of the first chapter, in which the character of Boucher sees a literal giant head floating over his house. As the adventures of this Boucher began to accumulate, the phrase seemed to capture the character’s strange relationship to himself and his world.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? I’d like to think that this book will appeal to fans of literary fiction and experimental fiction, and of writers like Donald Barthelme, Kelly Link, Karen Russell, George Saunders and Richard Brautigan. I love all of these writers for their invention and imagination, but also because those qualities serve the emotional arc of the story. I’ve certainly aimed to do the same thing here.

REVIEW COMMENTS:

In his review in Rain Taxi Review of Books, Joseph Houlihan calls me “the next Kafka of the American Idyll,” and says that the novel “captures the precariousness of striving towards intimacy and security in contemporary America.”

• “Chris Boucher’s Big Giant Floating Head plays by an improbable logic all its own, and is heartbreaking and hilarious in the manner of Brautigan and Flann O’Brien, or a Krazy Kat comic redrawn by M.C. Escher.” — Jonathan Lethem.

• “Hilarious, dark and stunningly surreal. Each chapter shines with singular wonder as Boucher harnesses his unique brand of fabulism to deftly explore the tragicomic terrain of love and loss. This novel will surprise and delight, make you laugh out loud even as it breaks your heart.” — Mona Awad, author of Bunny.

• “Boucher makes the world come alive by making language come alive.” — George Saunders.

AUTHOR PROFILE: I grew up in western Massachusetts (where I live still), and I received my M.F.A. from Syracuse University in 2002. I’m the author of the novels How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (2011), Golden Delicious (2016) and Big Giant Floating Head (2019), all out from Melville House, and the editor of Jonathan Lethem’s nonfiction collection More Alive and Less Lonely: On Books and Writers (Melville House, 2017). My writing’s also appeared in such publications as The Believer, The Boston Globe, Web Conjunctions and Harvard Review Online. I teach writing and literature at Boston College, where I also serve as the managing editor of Post Road Magazine. In my free time, I play the bluegrass banjo.

AUTHOR COMMENTS: While the main character’s adventures in this book are often surreal, my goal here was to write as honestly as I could. I teach a course on the “Literature of the Fantastic” at Boston College, and I tell my students that writerly invention — be it formal, linguistic, or based in plot and character development — can yield writing that is “truer than true.” That was often the case for me here — when the main character feels the world slipping through his fingers (in the chapter “Slippery”), for example, or when he feels divided in half (“Bodywall”).

SAMPLE CHAPTER: An early version of the chapter “Success Story” was published on Electric Literature, and an early version of the chapter “Slippery” published on Web Conjunctions.

LOCAL OUTLETS: Broadside Books (Northampton, MA), Newtonville Books (Newton, MA).

WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: The best place to buy the book online is Melville House’s website. It’s also available at bookshop.org, Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

PRICE: $13.59 at Melville House

CONTACT THE AUTHOR: I love to hear from readers! I can be reached by email at chris@christopherboucher.net, at my website, christopherboucher.net, on Instagram at @heychrisboucher, on Twitter at @heychrisboucher, and on Facebook at facebook.com/christopher.boucher.18.

Permanent Exhibit

This week’s other featured books, “Flash Cards and the Curse of Ambrosia,” by Tracy Robert and “Post Facto,” by Darryl Wimberley, can be found by scrolling down below this post, or by clicking the author’s name on our Authors page.
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THE BOOK: Permanent Exhibit.
 
PUBLISHED IN: 2018.
 
THE AUTHOR:  Matthew Vollmer
 
THE EDITOR: Peter Conners
 
THE PUBLISHER: BOA Editions. From their website: “BOA Editions, Ltd., a not-for-profit publisher of poetry and other literary works, fosters readership and appreciation of contemporary literature. By identifying, cultivating, and publishing both new and established poets and selecting authors of unique literary talent, BOA brings high quality literature to the public. Support for this effort comes from the sale of its publications, grant funding, and private donations.”
 
SUMMARY: From the back cover: “Matthew Volmer fuses the insight of extended meditation with the immediacy of social media in his new collection Permanent Exhibit. These collage-style essays experiment with stream-of-conscious musings as Vollmer opens a browser window into his own mind: letting his thoughts wander through a fast-forward montage of flying snakes, mass shootings, emojis, pop stars, stargazing, ghosts, circuses, and a hundred other things. Full of keen observations and unexpected insights, Permanent Exhibit reclaims the art of letting one’s mind wander in the age of the status update.”
 
Matthew VollmerTHE BACK STORY: In July of 2016, an ugly presidential campaign was in full swing. Black men were being targeted by police. Shootings were becoming–had become–commonplace. Scrolling through Facebook and Twitter was an exercise in digesting outrage. One night, I decided to write a post that created a space for me to catalog the random details of my day: cycling, eating a piece of pizza the size of my face, seeing a baby deer nurse from its mother, reading about marijuana raids, and running the dishwasher. I received more likes for this post than I had in years. So I wrote another, longer post. I gave myself an assignment: write one a day for ten days. A writer and editor–my friend Joseph Salvatore–asked if he could reprint them at Brooklyn Rail. I kind of got hooked on the writing of these collage-style flash pieces and writing them kind of transformed my life for a while. I felt awake, alive, observant, and my days began unfolding like exploratory missions for material for the little essays I was writing. Over the next six months, I wrote over 40 of these essays. A few months into 2017, I met Peter Conners at a panel we were both serving on at AWP. When he asked me what I’d been working on, I told him, and he asked me to send him the manuscript. A week later, he accepted it.
 
WHY THIS TITLE?: “Permanent Exhibit” is the title of one of the essays. I liked the idea of the book being a permanent exhibit, a site of display for the essays, but the title also refers to a fictional sculpture I reference in the book: I imagine that, after I die, my skull might be enclosed beneath glass somewhere and visitors could press a button and activate a machine that would animate the skull as it “recited” things that I’d written.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Readers who love the unexpected, who find beauty in nature, who relish the strange and the bizarre, who enjoy stories where everyday events–seen thorugh the right lens–become magical, and who appreciate when a writer takes formal risks without sacrificing clarity and vision.
 
REVIEW COMMENTS:

From Kirkus Reviews:

“Endearingly tender essays reveal the quirky flights of a curious mind. Fatherhood, anxiety, the delights of playing video games, and transient moments of epiphany emerge as themes in these brief essays by Vollmer (English/Virginia Tech; Gateway to Paradise: Stories, 2015, etc.). His musings on nature recall the sensibility of poet Mary Oliver; his reflections on family, David Sedaris. Unexpected juxtapositions yield pleasurable surprises. In ‘Sinkhole,’ for example, he recounts beginning his day checking his phone for news and noticing a video on how to prepare a one-pot spaghetti meal, which leads him to ruminate about red meat and heart attacks, crashing while biking, a fond recollection of a certain yellow lab that lived for years after being diagnosed with a deadly illness, playing the video game ‘No Man’s Sky,’ in which he happily explores a virtual planet, and his overwhelming feeling of ‘gratefulness for being alive…causing me to acknowledge that I’ve done nothing to earn a life as good as the one I have.’ The author’s happiness, though, is tinged with anxiety, as if ‘there must be something lying in wait, just beyond the reaches of what I can perceive.’ In ‘Stormbox,’ he confesses that faced with thunder, lightning, or existential turbulence, ‘the need for human contact’ impels him to wrap his arm around his son’s chest, reassured by the ‘rhythmic and steady beat’ of the boy’s heart. Keenly attentive to the landscape through which he bikes and walks his dog, Vollmer notes a spider’s web glistening like ‘a net upon which droplets of dew had been strewn like jewels’; a dry creek bed, ‘its boulders chalky with dust’; and the sun rising above ‘a field of wheatlike grass and pale blue mountains [that] resemble frozen blue waves.’ Theosophy, YouTube videos, the ambitions of Elon Musk, the strange emergence of menacing clowns in a South Carolina town, politics, his students, and various family members all pop up in fresh and surprising ruminations. Captivating journeys with a playful, winsome guide.”

“Through many chapters of semi stream-of-conscious, semi episode-drive essays, Vollmer puts himself on display, orienting us in his mind as his body carries us from episode to episode, driving the reader along the halls of his life, showing us the exhibits that will be permanent so long as he exists. Occasionally Vollmer jumps on his own bike and leads us to the farmers market or his teaching gig at Virginia Tech, but the journey always incorporates much more than the simple saddling up. Vollmer’s collection can’t be easily defined, and in a way, I think he probably likes it that way. The open-ended form and chapters allow Vollmer to touch on exactly what concerns him at any given time, even jumping from a current scene to a completely divergent thought—something you would dissuade a composition student from ever doing. But it works.” — Cameron Maynard, in Carve Magazine

“The fragments that make up Permanent Exhibit by Matthew Vollmer read like memoir, like essays, like poetry. They are unconventional, short, and punchy, imitating the lexicon of contemporary internet discourse while sharpening the rhetorical edges to enhance the language’s poetic qualities. Ranging from a few sentences to a few pages, each piece is laid out in sprawling, uninterrupted single paragraphs. Within the short paragraph of the opening essay, ‘Status Update,’ Vollmer approaches themes that will appear repeatedly throughout the collection: technology, family, literature, and death. The essay, like the collection as a whole, attempts to keep a variety of dissonant impulses in conversation: the natural and the manufactured, the political and the personal, irony and sincerity, the grand and the mundane, comedy and tragedy…” — Stephen Mortland, at Entropy

“This postlapsarian period of ‘secondary orality’ will be defined by performance, as well as remixing and recontextualizing or appropriating other sources. This is what Vollmer manages, a series of monologues in his own voice that also take in the modes of mass communication of our twitter-speed history. The monologues are performative and akin to the classroom he once taught in that observed a class next door through a one-way mirror: reflection on one side, spectation on the other. We can see Vollmer through the one-way wall of these essay/monologues, can observe a seemingly private mental space (‘This is so creepy’ one student says); we can also see ourselves in these pieces. ” — Michael Sheehan, at DIAGRAM

“In this way, Permanent Exhibit would be an excellent text to survive a global calamity that would somehow render most of the records of our time unreadable. The people of the future who find this book will be able to read this text as a snapshot of current American moment. This is what I thought when I read the essay that brings up the crazy clown sightings of 2016. The future reader—maybe not even in the distant future, and maybe we don’t need to wipe out our entire cultural memory, let’s say someone who is simply removed from us by a length of time as short of twenty years—may read this section and ask, “Did that really happen?” with the same incredulity that we asked the same question as those things took place. That the book is written in real-time in 2016 is significant. Every sentence is double-cursed by that year: once for the growing sense of unease at that time—repeated high-profile shootings of African Americans, the presence of Trump campaign posters pre-election, Hurricane Matthew, the clowns—and again for the tragedy that we know will come later that year, and that continues to unravel.” — -Anthony Michael Morena, in The Rupture

AUTHOR PROFILE: Matthew Vollmer is the author of four books–Future Missionaries of Americainscriptions for headstonesGateway to Paradise, and Permanent Exhibit. His work has appeared in dozens of literary magazines, including Paris ReviewGlimmer TrainPloughsharesNew England ReviewVQRDIAGRAMBoulevardStoryQuarterlyTin HouseEpoch, and The Sun. With David Shields, he is the editor of Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. His work has also appeared inBest American Essays and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. As an Assistant Professor of English, he teaches in the MFA program at Virginia Tech, where he encourages his students to push against the boundaries and conventions of form and genre. When not writing and teaching, Vollmer enjoys hiking, cycling, cooking, watching movies with his wife, and calling his son into the room to help him get to the next level of whatever video game he’s playing. Raised as a Seventh-day Adventist in southwestern North Carolina, Vollmer is working on a memoir about his journey from small town fundamentalism in Appalachia and the roles that writing and storytelling have helped–and continue to help–shape his world.
 
AUTHOR COMMENTS:
 
SAMPLE CHAPTER:
“Well of Souls”

My dad called to tell me that I shouldn’t worry about running into deer on my bike; I should worry about running over a snake. Running over a snake, he explained, especially on a curve, would lay me out. My dad knows a lot about snakes; he lives with my mom in a house on property that borders National Forest, and before the house was built, when the land clearers arrived to cut and burn trees, they killed upwards of 60 copperheads and rattlesnakes. In the last quarter of a century, my parents have killed nearly 100. Often, when my father kills a venomous snake, he cuts off the head, peels the skin off like a banana from its body, which continues to writhe and jerk, then razors open its belly, to see what it’s been eating—I’ve seen him pull out all kinds of things, and once watched as he unfurled the sopping wet tail of a squirrel. If he finds fetuses, he counts those up and adds them to that year’s total killed snake tally. He’s kept a few as pets before, in terrariums, on a screened-in porch—there’s a picture somewhere of him blow drying a frozen mouse to make it warm enough for the snake to be interested. Once, when moving a stack of logs on my parents’ front porch, I decapitated, using the blade of a shovel, four copperheads. Regrettably, I also ended up killing a black snake who, before I identified him, was just another writhing body I had to contend with. My mother has video of me with a Ziploc bag of these snake heads; when I raise it to the camera, one of the heads opens its mouth—almost like a yawn—and bears its fangs. I grew up thinking that the serpent was the most beautiful creature in the Garden of Eden, and that it had wings and could fly through the air; in my head I pictured glittering ribbons slithering through the air. Flying snakes—or “Chrysopolea”—don’t really fly, but they can glide for long distances by sucking in their stomachs, flattening their bodies, and making continual serpentine motions, undulating laterally from tree to tree. Remember the “Well of Souls” snake pit scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark? Turns out, not all of those snakes were snakes: some of them were legless lizards, others pieces of rubber tubing. To generate the sound of thousands of snakes slithering around on top of each other, Ben Burtt—a famous sound designer who used a scuba regulator to create Darth Vader’s iconic respirations in Star Wars—slid his fingers into a cheese casserole, and rubbed wet sponges against a skateboard’s grip tape. To create the whistling noises made by the spirits leaving the ark at the end of the movie, Burtt ran the cries of various animals—including humans, dolphins, and sea-lions—run through a vocoder, a device that was invented by a man named Homer Dudley, in part to help the United States communicate its military secrets during World War II. Whenever I hear the name Homer, it makes me think of the old mountain man who lived not far from my father’s office—an old man who only had one ear and carried a buckeye in his pocket for good luck, and once gave one of his doctors a toothpick, then much later told him it had been carved from a raccoon’s penis. I hadn’t known this as a kid, but Homer also carried, in his wallet, a bear vagina—an old, hairy piece of leather that he’d bring out as a curiosity, conversation piece. Perhaps that’s what my father was thinking when he used the United States Postal Service to send my son the skin of a snake he’d recently killed. It arrived in an envelope, in a Ziploc bag. We opened it but it smelled bad and was greasy in a way that struck us as unpleasant, so we closed the bag tight. It stayed like that for a long time, until one day, when cleaning out a drawer, I came upon the skin again, and after thinking about how strange it was to have the outer covering of a creature that had once been alive—that had survived childhood, learned to hunt, hibernate, absorb sunlight, perhaps even mate—I admired the crossband pattern, and threw it—with little fanfare—into the garbage.

 

OTHER BOOKS:
inscriptions for headstones:

Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts

Gateway to Paradise
Future Missionaries of America
A Book of Uncommon Prayer
 
LOCAL OUTLETS: Virginia Tech Bookstore,
 
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc.
 
PRICE: $17.00 new, $11.99 on Amazon.
 
CONTACT THE AUTHORvollmer@vt.edu TWITTER: @matthewvollmer

Flash Cards and the Curse of Ambrosia

Image result for Tracy Robert + author + Flash Cards and the Curse of Ambrosia + photographTHE BOOK: Flashcards and The Curse of Ambrosia

PUBLISHED IN: 2015

THE AUTHOR: Tracy Robert

THE EDITOR: Nayt Rundquist, who saved me from future regret with his editorial nudges.

THE PUBLISHER: New Rivers Press: A literary learning press at Minnesota State University, Moorhead. This means that they not only publish literary fiction, poetry and nonfiction, but they actually teach students the art of small press publishing, and thus help keep it alive.

Flashcards and The Curse of Ambrosia by [Robert, Tracy]SUMMARY: The first of these linked novellas, Flashcards, chronicles Phoebe and her friend Dessa as they navigate the complex landscape of suburban adolescence. Their differences—Phoebe is grounded in her mind, Dessa in her body—are what draw them together and push them apart, and the girls use their distinct viewpoints to interpret, as best they can, the strange behaviors of adults. The Curse of Ambrosia reunites the girls as octogenarians in a world on the brink of climate disaster and societal ruin. In their renewed friendship, Dessa and Phoebe join with others to fight forces that deny the dignity of personhood to all but a select (and rich) few.

THE BACK STORY: In the 1990s, I wrote the first novella, Flashcards, in response to an offhand remark someone made about my writing, that it was “too suburban.” I set out to show how there can be magic and sorrow and loss and redemption in any literary setting, and that such things don’t occur exclusively in a horse pasture or a high-rise apartment. Many years later, I had not forgotten about the characters of Phoebe and Dessa. I began to wonder what might happen if they found each other decades later in old age. I wasn’t feeling too hopeful about the direction the country was going then, and envisioned what schemes the women might cook up to foil corrupt authority. So began The Curse of Ambrosia.

WHY THIS TITLE?: Flashcards got its name not only because Phoebe’s parents use flashcards to reinforce their insistence on perfection in their children, but because the chapters contain moments of instruction and enlightenment shared by Phoebe, her younger brother Pierce, and her best friend Dessa. The Curse of Ambrosia resonates with many episodes in the novella that reflect the human tendency to accept blessings—like love or the planet’s beauty—and ruin them.

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT?: I concentrate on style and character more than plot. I appreciate works that are well-crafted and evocative, rather than mere page-turners. Okay, I occasionally succumb to reading a page-turner, but mostly I read and admire authors who are artists. This is the kind of writing I aspire to. Also, the book is a cautionary tale about what can happen to families and countries if they are taken for granted. If any phrase of what I’ve said in this paragraph appeals to you, you should read the book.

REVIEW COMMENTS:

This is the judge’s statement from Elizabeth Searle, who selected the book for the Many Voices Project prize:

“In these two tour de force novellas, we experience two sides of a friendship that spans years and worlds. FLASHCARDS unfolds in a vividly evoked California suburb, complete with pet peacocks and spider monkeys, backyard yachts, dog-leash suicides and beach romances. The second novella, THE CURSE OF AMBROSIA, transports the same main characters into an uncannily depicted near future of rationed beach days, unstrung social order and cynical senior citizens who band together in last-ditch rebellion.

“Alice Munro has said that the whole purpose of fiction is to be sad and funny at the same time. These unforgettable narratives succeed brilliantly on both sides of the equation. In FLASHCARDS, we experience–via charged flash-fiction style scenes– the story of teenage dreamer Phoebe, who finds relief from her imploding family in an offbeat mind-opening friendship with the unconventional and possibly clairvoyant Dessa. In THE CURSE OF AMBROSIA, Tracy Robert fearlessly follows Dessa into an all-too-convincing scorched-earth future, where the older and wiser Dessa re-connects with her friend and her friend’s former love. Throughout both bold narratives, Tracy Robert delves deeply into the toxic cocktail mix of factors that bring down a family and a society.

“At the start of the AMBROSIA novella, Robert quotes Tom Robbins: “Outlaws, like poets, rearrange the nightmare.” With true outlaw-poet flair, Tracy Robert rearranges and re-invents the surreal suburbs of California plus a looming eco-disaster, whipping these unlikely elements into twin narratives that both reflect and distort our current world. Through it all, Robert finds moments of pure grace amidst the radiant debris. The characters here know that ‘we become our ages’ and also that ‘everyone who laughs is young in that moment.’ Whether depicting the classic heated follies of adolescence or the chilling new territory of near-future old-age, Tracy Robert creates a memorably intense world of words. Enter if you dare.”

AUTHOR PROFILE: I’ve been at writing since I learned how to hold a pencil, and when I wasn’t writing I was teaching writing. Now I’m mostly musing and writing. Plus walking my exceptional mixed-breed dog, running errands, trying to stay positive and healthy in a system that does much to discourage both. I’m co-founder of Around the Block Writers Collaborative, which facilitates destination writing workshops. Last year we held a workshop in Edinburgh, Scotland; this year, we’ll be in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We’ve also done stints in Ireland, Italy, Bali and Jamaica. I’m delighted my book was published by New Rivers Press, and will return to fiction in the foreseeable future. Currently I am working on an essay collection having to do with the up-side of loss. Most of us know more than we need to about the down-side. I’ve recently published two of these essays in an ezine and an anthology, respectively: “Messages” https://www.hawaii.edu/vice-versa/tracy-robert “Losing My Angora Panties.” https://www.amazon.com/Hot-Here-Just-Me-Women/dp/1675651930/ref=sr_1_1?crid=19M42F2CVC7P2&keywords=is+it+hot+in+here+or+is+it+just+me+book&qid=1580430046&sprefix=is+it+hot+%2Caps%2C188&sr=8-1

Finally, I give you the correct pronunciation of my last name, which does not come naturally in the USA: roe-bear’. My father anglicized the surname when he moved here from Paris, but my brother, sister and I took back the authentic and more mellifluous version.

AUTHOR COMMENTS: After its publication, I discussed the book with readers at various book club meetings. During one in the summer of 2016, someone said she liked the book and its characters, but did not believe this country, as depicted in The Curse of Ambrosia, could become so autocratic. I said I understood that, but…what if? And now, here we are.

SAMPLE CHAPTER: Check out the book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0898233275?pf_rd_p=ab873d20-a0ca-439b-ac45-cd78f07a84d8&pf_rd_r=BYHBT6G70SV3EZV9HAV3

LOCAL OUTLETS: Please purchase the book directly from New Rivers Press if you can. Here’s the link: https://www.newriverspress.com/shop/many-voices-project/flashcards-and-the-curse-of-ambrosia/

WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Small Press Distribution

PRICE: $17

CONTACT THE AUTHOR: tracyannrobert@gmail.com

Post Facto

Post Facto by [Darryl Wimberley]

THE BOOK:  POST FACTO

PUBLISHED IN:   2018

THE AUTHOR:   Darryl Wimberley.

THE EDITORS:  Judith and Martin Shepard.

THE PUBLISHER:  The Permanent Press

SUMMARY:  In the wake of the 2016 presidential contest, Clara Buchanan, a long-time journalist at the Boston Globe, is forced into an early retirement in a post-facto world. “Real news?  Fake news? When did things get so slippery?” she grouses.  It doesn’t take long for Clara Sue to unearth one stable fact, which is that over-the-hill journalists are largely out of work. The Florida native and Peabody nominee returns to her rural hometown in Florida’s Big Bend to take over the town’s only newspaper where Clara is reminded that a big-city reporter’s opinions cannot compete with football, family reunions or the Future Farmers of America. But the usual copy at The Clarion changes when a lucrative federal contract to renovate the local high school pits the town heavies Hiram and Roscoe Lamb against their “simple” stepbrother Butch McCray. Butch’s tiny store on its half-acre lot is the single obstacle between the Lamb brothers and a lucrative payday. Clara Buchanan decides to investigate the dispute over land and property which has bedeviled Butch’s life with his stepbrothers, a story that gets complicated when Hiram Lamb is found dead on property that used to belong to Butch’s long-deceased mother.  Was Hiram’s death accidental, as the local sheriff and coroner insist?  Clara’s investigation into the present inevitably involves the past history between the Lambs and the McCrays and her confidence to distinguish fact from fiction erodes when her own investigation becomes guided or influenced by phenomenae that she can neither discount nor explain.

THE BACK STORY:   There was a time when people with wildly different political orientations could at least agree about the weather. What happens when facts can simply be dismissed if they are inconvenient? What gate-keeper can possibly fill that gap?

WHY THIS TITLE:   Post Facto…  It is frightening to me that verifiable realities at any level of discourse have become fungible.  I actually wrote the manuscript for this novel well before “fake news” became common parlance, but the title fits to a T.

WHY SOMEONE WOULD WANT TO READ IT:  Aside from the thematic lens, It seems to me that fiction which actually takes working class people and their concerns as its center is hard to find—and that has not always been the case in American literature.  Luminaries like William Faulkner and Willa Cather and Mark Twain found grist for their mills in rural cultures. Most of my work is set in Florida’s Big Bend, a region that is very rural, very conservative—and very interesting.

REVIEW COMMENTS:

AUTHOR PROFILE:  For a highly sanitized bio and reviews, see – darrylwimberley.com.

Darryl Wimberley is a Florida native now living in austin. Some titles below:

   A Tinker’s Damn,  Foreword Reviews’ Book of the Year/ Literary Fiction, 2001

   The King of Colored Town, The Willie Morris Award for Fiction, 2007

  Paul Bunyan,  Book of the Year/General Fiction,  INDIEFAB Awards, 2015

 A Seeping Wound,  Winner, Goethe Award for Women’s Historic Fiction, 2016

AUTHOR COMMENTS:  Thanks to Darrell and all who take an interest in Post Facto. It’s nice to be a snowflake in this blizzard!

SAMPLE CHAPTER: This links to sample pages in Amazon Kindle.

www.amazon.com/Post-Facto-Darryl-imberley/dp/157962555X#reader_B07PV3R2YP

LOCAL OUTLETS:   Book People, Barnes ‘n Noble

WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: Amazon

PRICE: Amazon is cheapest, I think.

CONTACT THE AUTHOR:   adarrylw@gmail.com