Books by People I Know: “Let Me Clear My Throat”

19178979.jpgThis is my favorite story about Elena Passarello:

We were in college, and the theater department threw a basement party. Someone had hired a DJ. The audio equipment stood on a flimsy foldout table. The music was loud and throbbing.

Elena had made friends with a small cohort from Manchester, England, and invited them to the party. The Brits were new in town and didn’t know most of the people there, but that didn’t seem to bother them. They started dancing to the music.

One of them leapt up and down. It was a wild, thrashing dance. Emboldened, he sprang in the air and landed in the middle of the flimsy, foldout table.

The table broke in half. Or maybe it fell over. Whatever the case, the audio equipment went flying. Piles of CDs clattered on the tile floor. The music stopped. The party stopped. Everyone stared in disbelief at the Brits, who were now huddled in the corner, shocked and uncertain what to do next.

Elena sprinted across the room, grabbed a microphone, and screamed into it: “NO WONDER YOU LOST THE WAR.”

Everybody laughed. The Brits laughed. The partiers laughed. It’s possible even the DJ laughed. Everyone shrugged their shoulders, the music started to play again, and the festivities resumed, exactly as before.

This memory summarizes Elena in my mind: a boisterous, fearless, high-octane superhuman. Her zest and good humor can make 30 angry people smile.

It’s always strange, when you’ve known people for years and years, to read their writing, because the voice of prose is so different from the voice of the person you see in real life. This book does Elena’s personality some justice, but it’s also refined, perfected. It’s like taking an already perfect wine and distilling it into cognac.

Much has been written about Let Me Clear My Throat, so I’ll just summarize some of those remarks: It’s rare for a book to be about sound. Books are silent. They are usually read in quiet isolation. You can’t literally hear a book, any more than you can literally see music. It seems so obvious, that sound would be used as a literary theme, since it’s one of our very limited number of senses. Alas, not often.

The essay about the “Wilhelm Scream” alone is worth the price of the book, but the first-person account of the Stella & Stanley Shouting Contest is by far the most Passarellian. Though it’s been years since I’ve been able to hang out with Elena, this essay made that time feel a lot shorter. I am biased and protective about the books my friends write, but let Me Clear My Throat is objectively brilliant. And my anticipation for her next book makes me want to scream.

Books by People I Know: “Senseless”

12363496.jpgI spent much of my twenties at a restaurant called Joe Mama’s. The happy  hour crowd was a cultish bunch of bohemians and ne’er-do-wells, and they have remained some of my closest friends. The bar was big and U-shaped, and there was little distinction between regulars and staff; we bantered for hours, talking life, art, sex, and politics as the Pittsburgh skyline darkened outside. It was some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life.

Damien worked as the all-star bartender, a boisterous and heavily bearded young man with a golden sense of humor. The moment I learned that Damien had (also) studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, we’d spend whole evenings swapping favorite book titles and book summaries and ideas for future books.

Then Damien did something that I had always dreamed of doing: He moved to Prague and started to teach English as a second language. I had plotted to do this for years but always found a reason to stall. But Damien dove in, embraced his new Eastern European lifestyle, and has lived in the Czech Republic ever since.

And then he published his novel. Senseless is goofy and booze-soaked, but it’s also a sensitive story about families, particularly fathers, brothers, and sons. Anyone would enjoy the weirdness of this book, but Pittsburghers of a certain age will recognize its many familiar monuments, and anyone who knows Damien will find a thousand inside jokes.

Here’s hoping Damien has collected enough European stories to produce a second volume. Not everyone can pull off semi-autobiographical novels, but Damien did, I can only hope he will again.

Books by People I Know: “Your Life Idyllic”

51ON-VUMVVL._SX355_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIt was the perfect setup: Craig had an office, and I had an office.

Well, Craig had a real office. Directly across the hall, I shared an office with a bunch of adjuncts. My office was usually empty, so I took the corner desk.

If we leaned back in our chairs, Craig and I could see each other across the narrow corridor. Craig has a quiet intensity. He’s dryly funny. We got along great. We’d shoot conversation across the hall—about writing, about teaching, about whatever. He told me a little about his days in the Navy. (A submarine!) He told me about his years as a dishwasher. I admired his toughness: He commuted to Duquesne University on a racing bike, even in snowstorms, using a pair of welding glasses to protect his eyes against the wind. Now and again we’d describe the things we were working on. The books we really wanted to write. The projects that we’d maybe finish, one day.

And then he finished one: Your Life Idyllic. And then the book won the St. Lawrence Book Award. It surprised me—not because I doubted Craig, but because he had been so quiet about it. Craig has a slow-burn personality. He speaks in a kind of mellow growl. He’s captivating in conversation. You always suspect he knows something he’s not letting on. In this case, it was an entire book.

I loved all these stories, which take place in hard-knock industrial Michigan, where Craig was raised. But there’s one story that has lingered: An old laborer with back problems joins a yoga class, and just as they’re about to start, a celebrity walks in. (Or is it a celebrity?) “Lucky Star” is one of the funniest, weirdest, truest stories I’ve ever read. In the year since I finished this collection, I can scarcely hear the word “yoga” without snickering at the story’s punchline. Much of Your Life Idyllic is about scrap metal and alcoholism, poverty and broken homes, gambling addictions and bygone factories, but it’s also full of surprises.

And every time I spot that book on my shelf, I think, Man, I miss that corridor.

Books by People I Know: “I Will Say This Exactly One Time”

I_Will_Say_This_Exactly_One_Time.jpgOn social media, D. Gilson often posts screen-shots of his conversations with a woman named “Bev.” These exchanges, always by Apple Messenger, are perfect little nuggets: Bev interrogates D. about his love life. She makes fun of her neighbors. She describes daily existence with her husband. She pretty much always ends with a zinger.

For a long time, I had no idea who Bev was, but it didn’t matter. Their daily correspondence was better than any three-panel comic strip I’ve ever read. The banter is decently funny, particularly if you know D. But it’s also revealing, off-color, and fun. It’s easy to imagine a coffee table collection of Bev’s random rants.

“Revealing, off-color, and fun” is exactly how I would describe D.’s essay collection, I Will Say This Exactly One Time. I met D. when we were both students at Chatham University. In an MFA program that caters to bookish young women, D. was an instant hit: lovable and petit, wearing thick-framed glasses and a goofy smile. He speaks with a mild folksy twang. D. can use the term “queer” in regular conversation, making the word sound rakish and worldly. He never seemed to go anywhere without a cadre of girlfriends. Anywhere D. went, the scene might break into a heated discussion about gender politics or a glitzy dance party. Meanwhile, there was the persistent rumor that D. had once competed in a rodeo.

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A typical D.-Bev exchange.

These essays reflect D.’s unpredictable élan. They cover the gamut of topics, from the pleasures of walking around to the semiotics of Ke$ha. This is not comic writing; many of these vignettes are deadly serious, as D.’s family has been cursed with a string of tragedies. D. studied poetry at Chatham, and his style is pensive and lyrical. My favorite essay, and probably the most shocking, chronicles his family visit to a NASCAR race. But to me, D.’s writing is like a cross between Dale Peck and Chuck Klosterman—cerebral, pop culture-savvy, and willing to lay bare his most personal pensées. The essays are meandering in the way of late-night conversation. He may say all these things exactly one time, but here’s hoping he says a lot of other stuff, too.

You can find I Will Say This Exactly One Time on Amazon, or you can order it from your local bookstore.

Books by People I Know: “Love in Translation”

Cover_Love_in_Translation_large.jpgOn paper, Katherine Stanley Obando was my editor at The Tico Times for about a year. We developed the “magazine section,” which basically meant writing longer and more colorful stories for the weekend.

Katherine helped me create my travel column, “Pura Via,” and oversaw about 200 news stories, profiles, and features. If our relationship had meant nothing else, we at least did a ton of work together.

But Katherine and I hit it off right away: She’s a fellow New Englander, and she kept a blog about language and parenting. Like me, she was married to her dream-spouse. We had both worked extensively in education. These were qualities that made us very different from our fellow expat journalists. We weren’t really interested in “getting the story.” We were basically essayists in disguise.

Meanwhile, Katherine had moved to Costa Rica a decade earlier and met the man of her dreams – not a fellow foreigner, but a Tico chef. Whereas I ended up being a longterm tourist (two years), Katherine is embedded. Costa Rica is her home now.

I have only read chunks of Love in Translation, but I can say this with certainty: Katherine is an outstanding writer. She’s funny, she thoughtful, and she really knows Costa Rica. She is less a “travel writer” than an immersive anthropologist. She writes with a unique sensitivity: a loving mother raising her daughter in a bilingual world. Whether or not you have any interest in Costa Rica, I don’t think you’ll find a more endearing portrait of familyhood.

You can find the book on Amazon, or order it from any bookstore.

37 Years of Making Things

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Today is my birthday, and I am celebrating in many ways: pancakes, a hike, an Indian buffet, and an evening with friends in one of my favorite pubs. Mostly I’m relishing a sunny Saturday in Phoenix with my wife and son.

From friends and colleagues, there is one thing I would like – to share the writing, films, and recordings I’ve made these past few years.

Compared to other creative people, I am surprisingly bashful about publicizing my work. I release an audiobook, I post on Facebook, I dispatch a few tweets, and that’s pretty much it. I’ll often send a press release to a few dozen press contacts, but that is hit-or-miss.

Birthdays are often a time for reflection, especially as one approaches middle age, and there is nothing I reflect on more than my creative endeavors. In the end, I am what I do. And nothing would make me happier than to know that people are taking a gander at the things already done.

So, for your reading, viewing, and listening pleasure, here are some diversions [while you wait for the next episode of Westworld]:

Airmail Podcast

I have loved this first foray into podcasting, and friends have been very encouraging. Humble as it is, I would like to expand this podcast into something longterm and robust.

My New Times Videos

This summer, I started producing short videos for The Phoenix New Times. As a viewer and videographer, these short, guerilla-style documentaries have become my favorite medium on the Internet. I’ve gotten to meet some truly fascinating people these past few months, and I hope to produce a lot more. (Note: One video is missing from that archive, but you can access it here).

My “Heart of the Arts” Interviews

One of the highlights of my time in Phoenix was when K-BACH’s Jane Hilton asked me to host four segments about writers on the station’s arts program, “Heart of the Arts.” I have always yearned to work for public radio, and this experience was nothing short of life-changing. Also, my guests were awesome – eloquent, thoughtful, and good-humored.

Book: The Mysterious Tongue of Dr. Vermillion

Truly, I love writing pulp fiction. If someone said, “You will make a living wage for the rest of your life, but you can only write Elizabeth Crowne mysteries and nothing else,” I would say, “Deal.” I am obsessed with these macabre little stories, and I plan to write many, many more. If you’ve never heard of this, here’s an essay that explains it. Also, the book is available as an ebook.

Audiobook: The Green Season

The Green Season is my magnum opus, the exact book I had hoped to write about my two years in Costa Rica. I am very pleased with how the audiobook turned out, especially as someone who rarely “reads” books anymore. And hey, five stars!

Audiobook: The Iron Mountain

Technically, this audiobook isn’t a masterpiece. I was still learning how to do basic recordings, and my equipment and environment were rather primitive. But once you adapt to its weaknesses, I honestly think the audiobook of The Iron Mountain is a far more fulfilling experience than the origin book – and writers I admire have spoken very highly of it, which is more praise than I could possibly have hoped for.

Documentary: The Mountain

This feature-length documentary about climbing Mt. Whitney didn’t earn much attention when it was first released. I enjoyed myself at its premiere at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, but The Mountain wasn’t nearly as successful as its thematic predecessor, The Trail. But The Mountain has been gaining popularity in recent months, with more purchases on Vimeo than ever before. The trailer alone makes me smile, every time.

Surprise! “The Woman in the Sky”

If you have read this far, here’s a happy birthday surprise: “The Woman in the Sky,” my top-secret serial podcast, is scheduled to go live on Oct. 24th (in celebration of Halloween). This Elizabeth Crowne “origin story” is one of my proudest achievements as both a fiction writer and amateur audio producer. It’s also creepy as hell.

Enjoy!