Selected Works

War is hell. It can also be funny as hell.
Short story anthology

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Ladies and gentlemen, allow me introduce you to Fobbit the Cover

May 6, 2012

I feel like an impresario standing center stage beaming out at the audience, one hand on the curtain as he's about to pull it back and reveal the blockbuster opera he's been nurturing and rehearsing for the past several weeks. That's right, for the better part of a month, I've harbored a secret from you. The terrific team at Grove/Atlantic has been working really hard to find just the right cover design for my novel Fobbit. My hat's off to them for the jacket they've come up with; it can't be easy trying to illustrate a story that is one part dark horror show of the Iraq War and one part zany antics of public affairs soldiers.

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Thanks for Asking: "So, How Was the War?" poems by Hugh Martin

April 8, 2012

Last weekend, I took a short break from the poets laureate for a quick trip through a 28-page chapbook published last year by The Kent State University Press: So, How Was the War? by Hugh Martin. It was a quick read, but it was also an unforgettable one. Let's put it this way: if these poems were drinks, then I spent the weekend tossing fiery shots of whiskey down my gullet.

Martin is a veteran of the Iraq War and, as the title of the chapbook implies, his poems are all about war, the preparation for war, and, more pressingly, how to deal with the post-war aftermath of what happened over there.

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With Billy and Louis in Baghdad

March 24, 2012

It was a hot day in Baghdad.

Okay, that's like saying "It was a rainy day in Portland." But on this particular day in Baghdad, it was really bad. As if the heat had been oven-baked. Water boiled in swimming pools. Eyeballs blistered between blinks. Dogs just lay down in the streets of al-Dora and died, not even having the will to make it to evening when it would be a relatively cool 89 degrees.

It was hot, but I was sitting in my hooch on Camp Liberty at the western edge of Baghdad oblivious to the fiery air outside the trailer. I sat on the edge of my bed, a book in my hands, my imagination in the middle of a snowstorm. I was air-conditioned by words. I was reading about winter in a novel by Louis L'Amour.

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Laughter on the Battlefield

March 15, 2012

It’s true, war is hell. But in the right hands—holding the pen askew at just the right angle—war can also be funny as hell. As long as there has been a military machine—and self-important leaders turning the crank which turns the cogs (soldiers)—there have been novels poking fun at armies clashing on the battlefield (and in certain Strangelovian “war rooms”).

You may say, “There’s nothing hilarious about people dying for their country.” And you’d be right. It’s not funny, and I don’t intend to mock those great men and women—some of whom I knew personally—who have died during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Vietnam, World War II and all the other conflicts past, present and future. But I also believe that people need to be startled into hearing and seeing the truth—I keep going back to Flannery O’Connor’s explanation of why she used grotesque humor in her fiction: “To the hard of hearing you shout and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” Telling a war story with comic characters large as billboards is just one way to make the truth stick.

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FOBBIT has been ISBN'ed

March 12, 2012

Sound the trumpets! Load the glitter cannons! Release the doves!

Fobbit has been ISBN'ed (and yes, Mr. Grammarian, I'm verbing a noun). Yesterday, in the midst of performing my regular ego-browse of the internet (what? you don't do a daily Google search for your name?), I learned that my novel about the Iraq War has now been assigned an International Standard Book Number, which really makes this whole publishing dream feel like it just took one giant step into Realityville.

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In Which I Wear My M-16 Like Jewelry

February 18, 2012

Yes, even us non-combatant Fobbit-types became welded to our weapons. They slept with us like cold metal lovers; they waited for us just outside the shower stall, ready to hand us a towel; they pulled up a chair and sat next to us in the chow hall; they clung to us like shadows. Some of us, slowly losing our minds in the sand and wind of Iraq even held long, lively conversations with our rifles.

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Gambling on Love: Stewart O'Nan's "The Odds"

February 15, 2012

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When it comes to putting American culture under a microscope, few novelists succeed as well as Stewart O’Nan. Time after time, novel after novel, O’Nan has focused tightly on particular microbes of our society—people like you and me, to be blunt about it—and examined the foibles, the follies, and the flaws of the Way We Live. In Songs for the Missing, he turned his attention to the grief of a family whose teenage daughter goes missing; in Last Night at the Lobster, it was the disappointment of the American economic dream; in Emily, Alone, it was the solitude of the elderly. In his newest novel, The Odds: A Love Story, O’Nan puts a troubled marriage in the petri dish.

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Nursing Her Grief: a review of Mary Jane Nealon's "Beautiful Unbroken"

February 9, 2012

A friend of mine tells the story of the evening he sat in the audience at last year’s Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and listened to Mary Jane Nealon read from her memoir Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse's Life, which would be published later that year by Graywolf Press. Nealon’s story of grief, loss and forgiveness in both her family history and her career as a nurse is a battering ram on the emotions. As she read from her pages, the Bread Loaf audience was visibly shaken. She read in a tone of voice that was both matter-of-fact and vulnerable. She read of how her cancer-stricken brother died when he was in his early 20s, she read of her parents’ headlong plunge into sorrow, she read of the brave but doomed AIDS patients she cared for during the height of the 1980s epidemic. The audience was held in the grip of her words. No one breathed. No one blinked. It was so quiet, you could have heard a tear drop. Nealon read of difficult lives caught in the grip of profound losses, then she went deeper into these lives, and still deeper. And then she went even deeper yet. At this point, my friend let out a loud, involuntary “Oh goddamn!” It cut the tension and relieved laughter rippled through the theater.

Such is the powerful effect Nealon’s words have on her listeners and her readers.

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Front Porch Books: February 2012 Edition

February 8, 2012

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In which I spotlight new arrivals to hit my front doorstep, courtesy of FedEx and UPS. New and forthcoming titles this month include books by Benjamin Busch, Joyce Carol Oates, Charlotte Rogan, Jenny Lawson (aka The Bloggess), Jess Walter, Glen Duncan and Johanna Skibsrud.

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The Dark Side of Dickens

February 7, 2012

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that Charles Dickens the Writer was a genius but Charles Dickens the Man was an asshole.

I've now reached the point in Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life where the nasty side of his nature can no longer be denied. In fact, at one point Tomalin warns the reader: "You'll want to avert your eyes from a good deal of what happened during the next year, 1858."

On this day, the 200th anniversary of Dickens' birth, it may seem a little sacrilegious to pause in our adoration of the writer whose works, the Economist once pronounced in 1852, "are [as] sure to be sold and read as the bread which is baked is sure to be sold and eaten." It is, in fact, a little troubling to me that his bicentennial fete arrives just as I'm reading about Dickens the dick.

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