The Cheek of God

I definitely inhaled . . .

Five Debut Novels You Should Read Right Now Or I’ll Come To Your House And Wear Your Slippers And Eat Your Food And Read Them To You

No time for blogging; it’s all been said, and better, anyway.  Trayvon this.  Baby George that.  BlogHer blah blah blah.

Me?  I’ve been reading, you see.  Making good on my New Year’s resolution to read as many debut novels as I can afford to load onto my Nook HD+.  An experiment of sorts to immerse myself in what first-time authors are getting published, in hopes of polishing my own feeble attempts at fiction writing.  These are the gems (with descriptive blurbs courtesy of Goodreads and my own review of each) . . .

CameronPost

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by Emily M. Danforth

When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship–one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to “fix” her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self–even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.

Verdict: An amazing debut. The writing is so catchy and never strays. Longish, but never slow. And don’t be fooled by those who whine about the portrayal of Christians. Being a recovering Pentecostal, I believe it was accurate and fair. Even sympathetic at times. Others have moaned about the ending. I found it completely fulfilling. Tough issues, handled with grace and care. And Montana!

HeartOfPalm

Heart of Palm by Laura Lee Smith

Utina, Florida, is a small, down-at-heels southern town. Once enlivened by the trade in Palm Sunday palms and moonshine, Utina hasn’t seen economic growth in decades, and no family is more emblematic of the local reality than the Bravos. Deserted by the patriarch years ago, the Bravos are held together in equal measure by love, unspoken blame, and tenuously brokered truces.

The story opens on a sweltering July day, as Frank Bravo, dutiful middle son, is awakened by a distress call. Frank dreams of escaping to cool mountain rivers, but he’s only made it ten minutes from the family restaurant he manages every day and the decrepit, Spanish-moss-draped house he was raised in, and where his strong-willed mother and spitfire sister—both towering redheads, equally matched in stubbornness—are fighting another battle royale. Little do any of them know that Utina is about to meet the tide of development that has already engulfed the rest of Northeast Florida. When opportunity knocks, tempers ignite, secrets are unearthed, and each of the Bravos is forced to confront the tragedies of their shared past.

Reminiscent of Kaye Gibbons, Lee Smith, Anne Tyler, and Fannie Flagg,Heart of Palm introduces Laura Lee Smith as a captivating new voice in American fiction.

Verdict: Superb! A stunning debut, filled with rich characters, laughs and heartache, and unfailingly faith in the strength and the strangeness of family. Remember the old Paul Newman movie “Nobody’s Fool?” The same goosebumps. This is how characters are made, and remembered, for years to come.

AlexWoods

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

A rare meteorite struck Alex Woods when he was ten years old, leaving scars and marking him for an extraordinary future. The son of a fortune teller, bookish, and an easy target for bullies, Alex hasn’t had the easiest childhood.

But when he meets curmudgeonly widower Mr. Peterson, he finds an unlikely friend. Someone who teaches him that that you only get one shot at life. That you have to make it count.

So when, aged seventeen, Alex is stopped at customs with 113 grams of marijuana, an urn full of ashes on the front seat, and an entire nation in uproar, he’s fairly sure he’s done the right thing …

Introducing a bright young voice destined to charm the world, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a celebration of curious incidents, astronomy and astrology, the works of Kurt Vonnegut and the unexpected connections that form our world.

Verdict: A damn near perfectly written novel. Any synopsis would not do it justice, so go with your gut on this one. I laughed and cried and, for the first time, had to just sit and ponder this one when I finished it. Most impressive was the way the narrator never did anything that didn’t make sense to him. Building a moral framework in life is hard, but Alex rose to the challenge and found his heart. So impressed …

TruthInAdvertising

Truth In Advertising by John Kenney

“F. Scott Fitzgerald said that there are no second acts in American lives. I have no idea what that means but I believe that in quoting him I appear far more intelligent than I am. I don’t know about second acts, but I do think we get second chances, fifth chances, eighteenth chances. Every day we get a fresh chance to live the way we want.”

Finbar Dolan is lost and lonely. Except he doesn’t know it. Despite escaping his blue-collar Boston upbringing to carve out a mildly successful career at a Madison Avenue ad agency, he’s a bit of a mess and closing in on forty. He’s recently called off a wedding. Now, a few days before Christmas, he’s forced to cancel a long-postponed vacation in order to write, produce, and edit a Super Bowl commercial for his diaper account in record time.

Fortunately, it gets worse. Fin learns that his long-estranged and once-abusive father has fallen ill. And that neither of his brothers or his sister intend to visit. It’s a wake-up call for Fin to reevaluate the choices he’s made, admit that he’s falling for his coworker Phoebe, question the importance of diapers in his life, and finally tell the truth about his past.

Truth in Advertising is debut novelist John Kenney’s wickedly funny, honest, at times sardonic, and ultimately moving story about the absurdity of corporate life, the complications of love, and the meaning of family.

Verdict: It took a few pages to draw me in, and the story seemed to go nowhere at first. But I loved the style, written much the way I like to write, with asides and tangents that seem absurd at first but swing back around and illuminate the narrative as it unfolds. This is the first book I’ve read this year that I enjoyed because it is so much like the kind of story I’d like to write. There is heart here, even amidst the navel gazing and self-loathing. In the end, I cried. Hope rings true . . .

FellowMortals

Fellow Mortals by Dennis Mahoney

When Henry Cooper sets out on his mail route on Arcadia Street one crisp spring morning, he has no idea that his world is about to change. He is simply enjoying the sunshine as he lights up a cigar and tosses the match to the ground, entirely unaware that he has just started a fire that will destroy a neighborhood and kill a young wife.

Even though the fire has been put out, it has ignited a lurking menace in an otherwise apparently peaceful suburb. In Fellow Mortals, Dennis Mahoney depicts the fire’s aftermath in the lives of its survivors. There’s Henry’s wife, Ava, devoted to her husband but yearning to recover a simpler time in their marriage. There’s the angry neighbor, Peg, who wants Henry to pay for what he’s done, no matter the cost—which ends up being grave. And then there’s Sam Bailey, the sculptor who lost his wife in the fire and has retreated to the woods to carve mysterious figures out of trees. As Sam struggles to overcome his anger and loss, Henry becomes the focal point of deepening loyalties and resentments, leaving them all vulnerable to hidden dangers and reliant on the bonds that have emerged, unexpectedly, from tragedy.

With sparse and handsome prose reminiscent of Raymond Carver and early Stewart O’Nan, Mahoney’s probing first novel charts the fall of a man who has spent his life working to be decent and shows us a community trying desperately to hold itself together.

Verdict: A lovely debut novel. Full of the kind of characters I love, down to earth folks that you’re likely to run into at the supermarket. Reminded me of Dubus in many ways. Even the dog, Wingnut, is a fleshed-out, lovable creature. His point of view, though sparse, adds to the story.  These people are flawed and perfect . . .

I’ve read more, some equally as good.  But these stand out.  Thematically, they are all similar: the complexities of families; recovery from tragedy; growing up and growing old.  And each has given me much to chew on with regards to storytelling and writing. 

If we’re not friends on Goodreads, remedy that here.  And, by all means, send your suggestions.  There’s a lot of year left.  You know where I’ll be . . .

Second

I finally found him, sitting the fifth row of the bleachers, digging through his duffel bag for a Clementine to munch. Orange fuel, peel and all, for the big match to come.

Three previous, early-morning matches. Three pins.

One, he confesses with a grin, was a total fluke. “The kid just let go! Or his hands slipped. Whatever. He got Beefcaked!”

He smiled. We fist bumped. Hugged. Did a little head butt thing that sort of hurt. And then he swaggered off to cheer on a teammate while I fought the crowd for a seat. In less than an hour, he’d be wrestling for his weight division championship at the regional Charger Classic.

2013 marks his third and final year in middle school wrestling. His uncles and cousins were all wrestlers, some of them quite good. State finalist good. His grandfather loved the sport. Me? I wrestle with doubt, not sweaty peers in singlets. The first two years, he rode the bench for the most part, occasionally getting a JV or exhibition match. His record stood at 1 and a bushel of losses. But he kept going to practice. Kept running and sparring and enduring the ribbings by others on the squad. The practical jokes. The sparse words from coaches more interested in the kids who were winning.

This year, he decided to put his nickname on the back of his spirit wear.

Beefcake.

The timid cat he once wanted to keep safely tucked away had been unleashed as a lion.

Before his champion match yesterday, his record for the year stood at 10-7. Ten pins for the wins. I reminded him of this just moments before he took the mat. I said, “Son, look at me.” He got all intense, the way he does, and planted his forehead against mine. Nose to nose. Eyes to beautiful blue eyes.

“Win or lose, be a gentleman. Be a good sport. Be kind. And know that I will always be proud of you.”

He lost.

The kid weighed more, as Ethan wrestled up for the tournament, and he stood a few inches taller. After the first period, after winning the toss, Coach called neutral when Ethan wanted to be on top. These aren’t excuses, mind you. Just facts. As with all things in life, the facts aren’t always in our favor. How we accept them is most times the only thing we can control.

He stood on the podium with pride, accepted his silver medal, and then helped his opponent up and patted him on the back.

There are times I feel I cannot carry the burdens that are a part of being a father. I turn my back, afraid to engage, replaying the mistakes I’ve made in my mind, knowing that I’ll make many more. The chant in my head: “I can’t do this.” But as I stood there, feeling his sweat and breath on my face, my mistakes didn’t matter. I was his father and he was my son. In that moment, win or lose, we transcended the shit and frustrations of life. He would know that I loved him and cared for him with a frightening savageness. And now, as he sleeps on the couch, his medal still around his neck, his body bruised but still, I love him even more . . .

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Interesting Is As Interesting Does

So, I’m back to blogging.  Writing for me, long form.  And sharing it with those of you who make it a habit to stop by or just pop in occasionally.  It’s been fun, sitting down and just pecking away.  Being all introspective and letting it flow out of my fingertips.

I’m glad you’re here.

But I realize that blogging is evolving.  No longer is it about just typing on a screen some meandering bullshit and hitting publish.  If you want to gain readers and make an impact, you have to do it differently these days.

My friend Neil Kramer of Citizen of the Month recently addressed this in his excellent post titled “The Five Ways To Make Yourself Interesting Online.”  It’s a “somewhat serious” look at how we as bloggers and writers and online social types can influence others with our own personal stories.  A great, short read.  And he wraps it up with his own brainstormed, coffee-induced list of things that will help us stand out.  Let’s see how I stack up . . .

1) Say something interesting.

My dogs lick their butts.  Sometimes, they lick each other’s butts.  In fact, as I type this, they are sitting at my feet doing this very thing.  They might have fleas, but even as they die off, they’re going to keep licking their butts.  Butt licking is noisy and gross to watch, so I just ignore them or yell at them to take it to their kennels.  Because no one wants to see that, you ignorant beasts.

2) Do something interesting.

I once drank a whole gallon of Nestlé Nesquik Chocolate Milk in less than an hour.  I worked in radio at the time and did it as an inner-office publicity stunt because someone said it couldn’t be done.  Too sweet.  Too much fat.  Or some such nonsense.  So I did it.  And then . . . well, the bathroom was never really the same after that.  Good thing we had a toilet and a garbage can.  That’s all I have to say about that.

3) Have something interesting happen to you.

Neil warns that sounding like a victim for too long is bad, so I won’t bring up smoking or my weight loss surgery.  I did once get my unibrow waxed.  Took pictures and everything.  (I just sat here for five minutes, racking my brain, trying to think of something else to add, but I’ve got nothing.  I also took an additional five minutes to Google whether I should have used “racking” or “wracking” in that last sentence.  Turns out I got it right.  Perhaps all this overthinking and fiddle-farting explains why nothing interesting ever happens to me.)

4) Look Interesting.

Hello? Unibrow?

5) Become friends with interesting people.

Well . . . there is this one guy.  He and I had breakfast just this morning at the IHOP.  But the stuff we talk about would be boring to you.  Stuff like God and building a deck and Jeff Gordon and how he hates Obama but he’s not a racist.  Online, I’m friends with:

. . . someone who makes government spy equipment,

. . . a couple former members of Christian rock bands who are now atheists,

. . . a bunch of amateur photographers,

. . . a cartoonist,

. . . several people who are still in Christian rock bands,

. . . a bartender,

. . . a plethora of old classmates who are amazed I’m still just as dumb as I was back then,

. . . an assortment of authors who make money selling books about dead girls and divorce and living with the Mormons, among other things,

. . . a former colleague with a pet rabbit,

. . . and someone who was a ranking officer on a nuclear submarine.

And a fine collection of other Regular Joes.  But we don’t hang out much.

In sum?  I’m sort of boring.  But I do make a mean pancake.

How am I doing, Neil . . .

FTW

WTF – September, 1983

I’d never worn cleats before.  Pads either.  Or those goofy pants that ride just below the knee and squeeze your junk.  But there I stood, on the practice field of Kokomo High School, about to embark on my first season of football.

I did it to impress my uncle Jerry.  He had played and been a coach for many years in various programs at both the high school and college level.  He who owned his own gym and used to max all the Nautilus machines just for a warm-up.  He’d talked me out of playing the clarinet and into trying out for the team.  Horn players didn’t have the Eye of the Tiger.

I figured maybe I could be the center.  I had good hands, like to help people out by giving them the ball, and had played center on the playground in middle school a few times, once with a bloody nose.  I’ve got this, I figured.

I lasted three days.

FTW – January, 2012.

My son took the mat for his first junior varsity match of his second year of wrestling against a kid from Indian Springs.  Behind him, a pile of losses from the past year and hours of training for a new season.  I sat down my bag of popcorn, pocketed my cellphone, cupped my hands and shouted, “Come on, Beefcake,” his nickname now a matter of record.  They shook hands, locked up and tossed each other around for a minute or two.  And then my son pulled a move out of his bag of tricks, rolled the other kid over, flattened him to the mat and stared at the ref as he waved . . . waved . . . and then blew the whistle.  Sweet victory.

I cried.

***

Ethan didn’t win again that season, but he never quit.  Not even when the other kids on the team put shit on his backpack.  Not when they ignored him and walked away when he tried to scrimmage with them before each match.  Not when they ignored him as he tried to high five them after their own victories.  I screamed inside at the cruelty and arrogance of children, but wore the face of a proud and passionate father on the outside.

Ethan is no quitter.  Not like his dad.

***

In many other ways, however, he is exactly like me.  As I was as a kid.  He’s kind and compassionate, often to his own detriment.  He’s sentimental to the point of occasional tears.  Real, honest tears.  He has a few good friends who accept him, and many other acquaintances who belittle him for their own amusement, even as he laughs it off, the willing butt of the joke.  He’s solitary at times, keeping to himself when things get overwhelming or confusing.  At other times, he’s the life of the party, even if it means starting some trouble in order to get noticed.  Not all wallflowers are tame and easily put out of mind.  His shortcoming are familiar as well.

My wife and I discuss our children often.  Our dreams for them and our frustrations with them.  Ethan is the one that puzzles me the most.  Understanding him means understanding me, the way I was and the way I am.  Confronting issues with him means dealing with me.  Instructing him, guiding him, even yelling at him, often means staring down demons I am all to familiar with.  They fuck with him just like they fucked with me.  Yet he doesn’t seem to recognize them like I do.  Hindsight being what it is, I sense the cauldron brewing and ache at the remembrances.

***

There is a battle ahead.  One that we are going to have to fight together.  And I’ve been trying to formulate a strategy.  To come up with a way to begin to tackle the one thing that we’ve both wrestled with.

Obesity.

He’s thirteen-and-a-half and, at his last doctor’s visit for his asthma, he clocked in at 173.

I’ve shared about my own battle before, and how I eventually fought back with the big stick of surgery.  This, of course, is not the road I hope he travels.  I’ve searched and scoured for books and articles, hoping for something that I think will motivate and inform without being condemning or talking above his head.

And I’ve struggled with how to even bring it up.

It’s not like it’s a secret.  He’s expressed his own earnest desires to slim down and even came up with an idea or two, but other things encroach and the steam evaporates.  I tell him how I’ve been there a thousand times and we’ll keep looking for a plan that will stick.

Today, at the library, my wife came across fifteen-year-old Tiger Greene’s book Sacking Obesity: The Team Tiger Game Plan for Kids Who Want to Lose Weight, Feel Great, and Win on and off the Playing Field.  Of course, my skepticism set in.  The kid probably had a bunch of free support from this or that organization underwriting his efforts, or wealthy parents who paid for the best doctors and the priciest foods and the latest snazzy exercise equipment.  I can’t do that.  I’m not about publicity stunts or telling others they can do with so little what you did with the help of a benevolent universe.

I’m an idiot like that.

Turns out, the kid has a heart of gold.  I’ve read most of it already.  The parts that matter anyway, where he writes honestly about his own weight and how he tried to be like that guy from Man v. Food and how weight isn’t easy to lose when those that are meant to provide for our needs fail us.

That part hurt.

Yet he never blames others.  And, at the age of twelve, he made a plan and made it work and tells kids – and their families, with the help of some expert, practical advice – that they can do it too.  He seems like the kind of kid you’d want to have over for a game of touch football and carrot sticks.  Carrot sticks that taste so freaking awesome they’ll make you forget the cheesesteak you thought you wanted.

Sure, he got some help.  But he pays it forward in a way that doesn’t belittle you because you don’t have the advantages he had.  Not really advantages.  Just people who came alongside and gave him exactly what he needed.  Ethan will get this kid.  He’ll read this and get fired up and make a plan and some changes and things will get better.  I sense that he feels it’s time, and I plan to be there when the light bulbs click on.

And yet, I guess I fear that I’ll quit on him.

Like I’ve done time and time before.  Not give up on him.  Or his dreams and plans and successes.  Even through the failures, I will never give up on him.  But I fear that I won’t always be the model that he needs.  He’ll forgive my shortcomings and sidesteps, I’m certain.  But will he lose heart?

Will he fail if I continue to fail him?

Or will this be the time, the beginning of a long string of times, when I don’t?  Choose not to?  Buck up and be what he needs?  Will I press on this time?

FTW . . .

2012-05-16 17.21.05

***

Ethan read this before I hit “Publish.”  And we had a nice, long talk.  We’ve agreed to read the book together.  Let the journey begin . . .  

Enjoy the Silence

My father-in-law was my friend. 

When we’d get together, two or three times a year, here’s how it would go:

Two lawn chairs.  Or a rickety, rusted swing.  Maybe a beer or three.  We would begin with the usual.  Family.  Work.  Weather.  Whatever.  Things were generally good.  And then we would just sit there.  Wait.  Wait some more.  Drink.  And then I’d bring up some off-the-wall thing I’d read about or seen on the news or read in the paper.  Usually, it would be something that I knew we would disagree about.  Maybe some politician or a new law or this or that thing that would breed discussion.  He would raise his voice, but not too much.  He would slap his knee and laugh or let out an exasperated sigh.  Do that thing where he acted like he wanted to say something, but instead shake his head and give me a sideways glance.  I’d play the devil’s advocate and interrupt him, just to get a rise.  Then he’d get louder.  Spout some crazy nonsense that always seemed to make complete sense.  I’d berate him about things can’t be so black and white.  So cut and dried.  Layers, man.  Facets of a thing are where the details are, I’d say.  Look at all sides.

It was a riot.  And could go on for hours.  Just two guys sitting there shooting the shit. 

When he passed, I took the time to visit another friend.   Back in the days when we hung out regularly, we could argue to beat the band.  About creation.  Science vs. Religion.  Women in the workplace.  The workplace in general.  The Vikings.  You name it, we could debate it.  He was always right, of course.  He’d hang his head and say things like, “But, Brian?!  How can you be so naïve?!”  He’d pull out obscure books and read paragraphs to me that made me laugh out loud.  I’d tell him about the facets and the greys but he wouldn’t have any of it.  I was bitter, he’d say.  Unlike my father-in-law, he loves to talk.  Ramble, really. So I just sit and listen and nod occasionally.  Let him speak his mind.  Eventually, he stops, I say something to lighten the mood, and we laugh.  And then we just sit there.  When we see each other these days, face to face, it’s only because one of us has driven a great distance.  I wonder if I’ll ever see him again; the things that bring us together are disappearing.  But the doors are open.     

I love him like a brother.  We call each other that, like they used to do in church.  Brother Blaine.  Brother Brian.  But I love him beyond all that.  He’s a true friend.

Maybe this is what I was getting at yesterday.  For me, a friend is someone with whom you can enjoy the silence.  The just sitting there and letting what happens . . . happen.  The way a person reacts to what happens.  Do they have twitches?  Do they sigh a lot or wave their hands in the air?  Do they laugh from the gut or is it a windy, shallow thing?  Do they hate the way everything is a thing with me, and how I say “the thing is” a lot? 

Online, there is no silence.  Sure, there are times when we post less.  Update infrequently.  Take a break.  But I can’t watch you in your silence.  See you squirm at the lack of words.  Watch you process your thoughts.  I know it’s not the same thing, because between posts, you’re busy living.  Time is passing in greater chunks.  Things are happening, to be sure. 

It’s just the little, shorter, silences I miss.  Maybe you stir your coffee as you sit there.  Or twirl your food on your plate.  Or stare at the lights or the stars or the cars driving by.  In those moments, you get a feel for someone.  In those moments are the things that make you.  Define you.  Leave an impression on others.  At least on those of us that take the time to notice your silence and revel in the you that patiently waits.

I guess I’m wired differently, for I believe that true friendship doesn’t lie in the content of our interactions but in the quality of them.  I like seeing what others don’t.  Letting time pass in your company that isn’t always crammed with stuff to talk about or do.  This takes proximity, presence, things that are void in friendships that develop online. 

***

This morning, as I wrote this, my neighbor had some friends over.  As I sat and watched the world around me wake up, they loaded trucks for a hunting trip, laughing out loud at times, quiet and hauling stuff in others.  I waved and they waved back.  Petting my dogs that kept wandering their way to smell and pee on their truck tires. 

I know that all friendships aren’t like this.  I’ve made some great friends online.  Yes, friends.  We share stuff that moves me deeply, and I am grateful for each and every one of you.  I just wish you were closer.  Had more time.  Enjoyed pancakes and laughter and a not-so-clean house where you’d be welcomed with open arms and a beverage of your choice.  Where you and I could sit and enjoy the silence . . .

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