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Cocktail Hour


Lundgren’s Lounge: “Augustown,” by Kei Miller

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Into every reading life an occasional slump will occur, a period marked by encounters with a surfeit of desultory and uninspiring work.  But then the world rights itself and one encounters a marvelous, luminous and exquisite work of art like Augustown by Zei Miller. While it is impossible to read Miller’s novel without hearing echoes of Garcia Marquez’s Macondo and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Miller insists his is not a metaphorical tale given wings by ‘magical realism.’ He writes, “Listen, this isn’t magical realism. This is not another story about superstitious island people and their primitive beliefs. No, you don’t get off that easy. This is a story about people as real as you are… You may as well stop to consider a more urgent question; not whether you believe in this story or not, but whether this story is about the kinds of people you have never taken the time to believe in.” Continue reading →

New Book Tour Coming: Sartorial Advice Appreciated

categories: Cocktail Hour / Reading Under the Influence

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From time to time invaluable advice arrives in my email inbox.  And while I pride myself on my excellent shampooing skills and first-class Banana Republic and Reny’s (A Maine Adventure!) closet, I’m not exactly a GQ model.  So this anonymous note that came via my website, really made my day.  I’ll take it to heart as I go out on tour with The Girl of the LakeVery lightly redacted to protect the sender’s privacy:

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Dear Bill, Can I call you Bill. I was at your reading in B______ and I have some ideas for you. Now if you happen to take this personally, oh well. Continue reading →

Brian Doyle (1956-2017) and His Head Full of Swirling Dreams

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Brian Doyle died yesterday. For the last week I have been e-mailing back and forth with Bill McAvoy, a friend of mine and a close friend of Brian’s since the two of them were young. Bill has been giving me updates on Brian’s decline as well as doing some eloquent writing of his own about their nearly fifty year-long friendship. At one point Bill wrote to say that while he knew that Brian was well-respected he was a little surprised at all the important awards and honors he was accruing, and at the outpouring of support from the literary community. I told him that I, living inside that world, was not surprised.

 

I mostly knew Brian from a time before we were writers or at least before we were published writers. In fact he might have been the only person I knew in my community who said, as I did then, “I want to be a writer.” I played some basketball with him and drank some beers with him but mostly what I remember from that time, when we were both in our twenties, was cornering him at parties and trying to find out if he knew any secrets about this strange quest we had both decided to take up. I don’t know if this is true or not but he may have been the only person I knew in Boston who I talked to in that way. Everyone else seemed to look at you sideways when you started talking about writing and asking, reasonably enough, what you had published. It was a time when we both had, to steal a title from a piece that Brian later wrote about one of his heroes, Robert Louis Stevenson, “heads full of swirling dreams.” That time before the dreams begin to be realized is a dangerous one and I was lucky to have Brian to talk to.

 

It wasn’t until we were both a few books into our writing careers, almost two decades later, that we talked to each other again. I loved Brian’s work, the electricity and humor and play of it and the way that the natural world and animals always wove their way through it. In 2005, I had just started a new magazine called Ecotone and I wrote to Brian to see if he could send us anything. He did and we accepted a piece called “Fishers” and he wrote back: “I am happy to have Fishers ecotoned.” The piece was selected for Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007 and over the next decade Brian would be one of Ecotone’s best and most regular contributors.  As we worked on the edits for that first piece, we also corresponded about our careers. At the time neither of us had published novels, which had been our dream when we talked when we were young. Brian wrote:

 

My secret inky ambition is to try to write one of everything — a book of poems, a novel, a play, a movie, a book of fictions — so I think I am sort of stuck on five essay tomes for the nonce. Race you to a novel, though.

 

It was a race Brian easily won. If I am counting right, he published five novels. And in those novels he did something that I had always dreamed, and still dream, of doing: making animals and nature vital characters, not mere background figures or setting. In fact, while we had never talked about it way back when, it would turn out that we worked very similar literary turf. (Not long ago when I was interviewed for a piece about humor in nature writing I was not at all surprised to find Brian’s name in the same piece.) Outside of our twenties, we only met once in person. That was two years ago, about this time of year, before I did a reading at Powell’s in Portland when we had drinks outside a nearby restaurant. I remember we laughed a lot. I remember he had an amused, sometimes skeptical, sometimes delighted look on his face that I remembered from almost thirty years earlier. We probably talked about basketball, and how great we were, more than we talked about writing. But even if we didn’t talk about it openly we both knew we were in very different places than we had been in when we last met. The uncertain quests we had begun back then were well underway, though Brian’s would end much sooner than planned.

 

When I first heard the news about Brian’s brain tumor last November I was shocked. I wrote him a long e-mail which he, unsurprisingly, didn’t have the time or energy to answer. I would like to say I kept him steadily in my mind since then but you know how life works. The busy-ness of it swallows you up, and you stay occupied with your preoccupations, and even the great tragedies of others only break through now and then.

 

This week I wrote to my friend Bill about my new book and he wrote back to say the news about Brian was not good. Hospice had come to the home, he told me in one note and in another he told me Brian could no longer speak. I thought about that, a writer losing his voice. Bill also sent me something he himself had written while insisting “I’m not a writer.” Maybe not but it is a moving piece. It tells the story of the time Bill and Brian, two not-too well off Long Island kids, home from college and working at menial jobs to try and pay off their student loans, snuck into a Springsteen Concert at Madison Square Garden, and then, amazingly snuck backstage where they ended up briefly hanging out with the Boss. Bill also wrote that he and Brian would continue to listen to and talk about Springsteen over the years and that while his favorite albums were the earlier ones, Brian grew to consider The Rising his favorite album. If you know the album and you know Brian’s work, this is no surprise at all.

 

Like a lot of us, I am pretty good at repressing stuff and while I thought a lot about Brian over the last week the reality of what was happening didn’t really ever break through. Not until Friday when I decided to clear a cluttered and stressful workday out of my head by going for a run in the woods. I was wearing my little ipod shuffle, blasting it really, anything to help me plod along at my middle-aged pace. And then it happened, about half way through the run. The song The Rising came on and I was bawling like a baby. Big heaving tears. For Brian yes, but for me too, and certainly for our long-ago youthful heads full of swirling dreams, dreams both realized and unrealized.

 

“I could tell you tales,” Brian wrote me once in another e-mail. “Was there ale and time you would weep. And yet we are all shambling highways for error.”

 

Brian and I were not close, not the way Bill and he were. Are. Not were. During my run I listened to The Rising over and over, four times in all, and during that intense burst I really thought about, or more accurately felt what it meant to lose Brian Doyle and his swirling dreams.

 

After the fifth time listening, I skipped ahead to listen to Mary’s Place, and then finished off with the Promised Land.

 

 

P.S. Here is a short piece Brian wrote about the creation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Brian had more than a little Stevenson in him.

P.P. S. Brian also contributed to Bill and Dave’s. Usually I draw cartoon heads of our guests but Brian distinguished himself by being our only contributor ever to send us a self-portrait. If you scroll down from this entry you will see that we have re-posted Brian’s most recent piece for us below.

 

 

Why Portland, Oregon, is the Coolest Literary City in the West

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Why Portland, Oregon, is the Coolest Literary City in the West

I have worshipped the holy air where Erickson’s Workingman’s Club used to burble and roar, on Burnside Street between Second and Third avenues, because it was in that echoing wooden emporium, in that that legendary saloon with its vast planked floors punctured by many thousands of hobnails, that the second-greatest Portland writer of them all, the glorious Stewart Holbrook, once held court, chaffing and razzing, teasing and grinning, listening and lecturing, until he ceased to imbibe, because visions of snakes and bats were granted unto him, though there were technically no snakes and bats in his immediate personal zip code, so he desisted from the water of life and its many devious and wondrous cousins, and retired posthaste, but not before mulling and then milling a thousand stories from the dense air of Erickson’s, which is why every time I shuffle past where it used to be I stop and bow, for which reverence I once got stared at by a suspicious cop, who told me to move along, which I did. Continue reading →

A Sit Down Chat with Bill and Dave

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Bill and I have not talked for a while but last night we had a chance to sit down and have a nice chat. Though I did not secretly tape or have my assistant transcribe the conversation, as I usually do, here is roughly how I remember it.

 

BILL: Is it wrong to say that Ultimate Glory is the most anticipated book in history?

DAVE: Yes, I think it would be wrong. In my community maybe. Certainly in my house.

BILL: God, you’re fit! You could still play! And handsome, too.

DAVE: Thank you, Bill. (Blushing). You’re also handsome. (And well-drawn.)

BILL: You know I have a book coming out in June, too.

DAVE: Is there Ultimate in it?

BILL: A little.

DAVE: Well, there’s a lot in mine.

BILL: Yes, yours will likely sell better among Ultimate players.

DAVE: And yours with lovers of the short story.

BILL: Yes, thank you.

DAVE: And mine costs less. So it should sell better to cheap people.

BILL: And mine to rich.

DAVE: Right, of course. But back to your first question. What do you really think the most anticipated book in history was? Not the bible. No one anticipated that. And The Joy of Sex came out of nowhere, right? So?

BILL: I don’t know. I really don’t know.

DAVE: Well, it has certainly been a pleasure chatting. You are so polite.

BILL: And you. Until next time then. Pip. Pip.

Here’s the Book Trailer for Ultimate Glory!

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Narrated in full-on NFL Films by Justin Peed. Edited by Hadley Gessner, who was ably assisted by Aaron Cavazos.

 

Goodbye to an Old Friend

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Tomorrow morning I head up for a week of packing up and cleaning out the Cape house to ready it for final sale on May 25. Here is the painting I did of it that was the frontispiece of my first book, A Wild, Rank Place. Strange for this to be happening when the Ultimate book is coming out since so much of my life in those years revolved around the house. Also strange that the narrator of my just-finished novel is in the process of packing up a house on Cape Cod (though I started the book many years ago). So many memories. Just spoke to the plumber who solved the mystery of the unworking bathrooms when he discovered the beer can that had been dropped down and clogged up the roof pipe. I will be working hard this week but will also be sure to toast the house and piss on my favorite trees one last time.

Losing Brandy

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In the end pop culture ruins everything, even one’s (kitschy) love of pop culture.

 

Though Looking Glass wrote “Brandy” I have always felt a little bit of ownership of song. And not just because I sang it on all the major occasions of my life, did a poetry reading of it, and had dozens of people call me from their cars whenever they heard it. It always seem to me the perfect mix of the purely cheesy and things that really mattered to me (harbors, ports, swelling oceans–rise and glory) and a time in my life (I was 11 when it came out in ’72.) Even when I heard that Bill Murray also liked to sing it at parties I was okay with it. (After all, without Bill Murray none of us would have been doing the parody lounge singer thing.)

 

But when my friend Paul Turner texted me earlier today and said, “Go see Guardians of the Galaxy II. Trust me,” I knew the gig was up. I texted him back immediately, guessing that the movie featured “a song with ports and harbor towns.” When he confirmed this, and I learned that the song, in its entirety, opens the movie, I wrote back “I’ve been scooped.” What I meant by that was that, after over 45 years of talking about and singing the song, I finally got around to writing about it just this year. In fact I shelled out 680$ to include the lyrics in my new book, Ultimate Glory.  It is featured in a key scene that takes place a week after my cancer operation, when I get the whole crowd to sing it at my 30th birthday. I wrote:

 

“I don’t know why ‘Brandy’ affected, and still affects, me so; I only know that it had become the closest thing I had to a personal theme song. I sang it sarcastically for years but that night it seemed suffused with real emotion.  After we finished singing, I told people it was the song I wanted played at my funeral (and please note, friends who are reading this, I still do).” Continue reading →

Blurb Begging

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Everyone knows that the most miserable part of writing a book is begging for blurbs. Writing to someone whose work you respect, your hat sweeping the floor, all beggy and obsequious and….yuck…

 

Last time I was lucky to land a blurb from Larry McMurtry so this time I said what the hell and wrote John McPhee. Mr. McPhee wrote me a kind and considerate note about how he doesn’t write blurbs. I respect that but couldn’t help but think that in the time he took to write the longhand note he could have read a few paragraphs and said a few words. Oh well.

 

I ended up getting three of my five blurbs from people I know pretty well, including a writer named Bill from a place called Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour (Yes, that’s pretty inbred but Bill gives great blurb.) I also got one from Patrick Phillips which has the word “Yawp” in it, which I love. And when I was a kid I read the Boston Globe Sports page and the articles of Bob Ryan and Dan Shaugnessy so it was very cool to get a blurb from Shaughnessy.

And here they are:

 

“In Ultimate Glory, David Gessner lets loose a barbaric yawp, akin to Whitman’s in Song of Myself: ‘I was the man, I suffered, I was there.’ Read it for all the hucks and layouts, for the epic battles between Hostages and Rude Boys, and for its fascinating history of the sport. But even more, read it to hear one of America’s most gifted writers sing an unabashed love song to the glory of being alive.” —Patrick Phillips, author of Blood at the Root

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A Rant from Mike Branch!

categories: Cocktail Hour / Guest Columns

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Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno. He has published five books and more than 200 essays, articles, and reviews. Also, he is funny.

His new book, Rants from the Hill, is due out on June 6.

 

A confirmed desert rat, Mike lives with his wife and two daughters at 6,000 feet in the remote western Great Basin Desert, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Range. Check out more about Mike here.

 

Balloons on the Moon

Our part of the desert West is so inaccessible that the common detritus of the dominant endemic species, Hillbillicus nevadensis redneckii, is nowhere to be seen. So while the rutted, dusty BLM roads in the sandy, sage-choked wash bottoms are beribboned with spent shell casings, wide-mouthed bottles of Coors light, and empty cans of chew, there is simply no easy way to litter the steep, rocky high country. However, there is one unfortunate exception to this rule, and that is when trash is airlifted into these isolated mountains and canyons in the form of balloons.

 

I have picked up so many trashed balloons over the years that I find myself wondering what the hell is so jolly about California, which is the nearby, upwind place where all this aerial trash originates. Maybe the prevalence of balloons in the otherwise litter-free high desert should not surprise me, since millions of balloons are released in the U.S. each year. We release balloons at graduation celebrations, birthday parties, wedding ceremonies, football games, even funerals. There is actually a company called Eternal Ascent that will, for fifteen hundred dollars, load your ashes into a balloon and float them away. Balloon launches for a pet’s ashes cost only six hundred dollars, though, so if I go this route, I have instructed my family to claim I was a Saint Bernard.

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