Paul Howarth’s ‘Only Killers and Thieves’: An Honest Book Review

What first drew me to Paul Howarth’s debut novel, Only Killers and Thieves, were the numerous comparisons to Philipp Meyer’s The Son. Of course, if you parse through some of my older blog posts you’ll clearly see my admiration for Meyer’s writing. Simply by reading the synopsis, it was evident how similar this new novel would be to The Son, just replace the fields of Texas with the late nineteenth century Australian Outback.

Only Killers and Thieves tells the story of two teenage brothers who face a devastating future after their family is attacked. The boys then are left with a difficult obligation: Hunt down the people responsible. The plot itself is fairly predictable. Sure, there are moments of brief surprise, but the book is almost written in a way where Howarth did not intend to deceive. He paced the plot well; in fact, for its length (just over 300 pages), this was one of the best-paced novels I’ve read in a while. While written in wonderfully descriptive language, there were no wasted words or unnecessary scenes.

This debut novel was written with and for a purpose. It interrogates an important—and often lost—history of the relationship between the white settlers and aboriginal tribes of Australia. In that way, it is appropriately compared to The Son and its examination of white and Native American interactions. There was one quote, late in the text, that really struck home. It read, “The guilt is collective, the responsibility shared. In a hundred years no one will even remember what happened here and certainly no one will care. History is forgiving.” That passage says it all.

The book is aptly titled. Consciences are few and far between in the story, though I suspect the characters were accurately depicted given the race relations during the time period in rural Australia.

At the end of the day, this is a debut novel not only worth reading, but should be pushed to the top of your list. It’s brutal, beautiful and brooding. Much like after finishing Meyer’s first novel, American Rust, I am most interested now in seeing how Howarth follows up this exceptional debut.

The art of reading: Appreciating a good book

My previous post was about using an original, unique, singular voice in your writing.

Before that, I wrote about the decline of good, reliable journalism, and before that about how writing has changed in the digital age.

For all intents and purposes, all of those posts were about appreciating the art of writing. Now I want to take a moment to appreciate the art of reading.

Much like with writing, reading is an art that mustn’t necessarily be mastered, but at the very least should be valued and hopefully revered.

Sustained reading seems to be losing steam in our current society. Everything is short social media posts, text messages and headlines. The ability to sit for an extended period of time and read, like we used to do as kids in elementary school, is lacking. And with that, we lose our ability to truly engage with an educating medium.

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We should all be more like Philipp Meyer, who said, “Any book that has the potential to teach me something about anything, I get it right away.”

To be completely honest, any book that gets someone reading is a step in the right direction. Sure, I know most of you, if not all, have no problem sitting down and reading an entire book, but a lot of people I know truly struggle with it. At one point in my life, so did I.

When I was a kid, I rarely read. One day I asked my mom if she’d take me to Borders to get a book.

“Why don’t you read one of the ones we have here?” she asked. We had a decent library of chapter books at home.

“I don’t want to read any of those. I want to pick out my own.”

She was reluctant toward my stubborn and slightly greedy request, but with the hope that buying me a new book, a book of my choosing, would get me reading, we went to the store. I picked out The Creek by Jennifer L Holm, and I read it. And I actually enjoyed it.

Suddenly, reading was part of my life. (That book still sits on my bookshelf today.)

Original writing is a lost art

As a writer, I have long felt like it was my responsibility to remain an original writing voice in the world. It’s a lesson we learn at an early age in school, finding your voice through your writing.

But as the years pass and the competition in the industry is amplified, every writer has to make a difficult choice: Follow the proven, successful storytelling strategies that seem to sell to a broad audience, or remain a unique, singular voice? For many, the decision can be very difficult to make.

Writing in an original style is a risk. Will it resonate with readers? Will publishers and agents be impressed? There also seems to be a negative connotation around the term “literary” books. People see them as boring or slow or deep or depressing — not always the type of book we’d like to settle down with after a long day at work.

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What interested me was the explanation the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program uses for the portfolio work it accepts from applicants:

The reason we tend to have relatively few dedicated genre writers in our program at any given moment is simple: we are most interested in vital, singular voices—writers producing work that only they could produce. Meanwhile, genre writing—by definition, at least in its most straightforward form— tends to adhere to clearly established tropes and conventions.

Is that just an elitist attitude from academia, or is it a valid argument? Maybe a little of both.

So I’ll ask you: Do you try to be more original or to deliver to readers what they want? There are certainly pros and cons for each strategy. It’s a dilemma I’ve wrestled with for years now — remain writing literary books, like I did with Between Two Slopes and Somewhere More Than Free, or find a genre niche. I’ve certainly been inspired to write both types of novels over the years.

But to this point, I have yet to brave the world of genre fiction. What say you?

The 10 Best Authors from Michigan

A couple years ago, I counted down a list of the 10 best Michigan authors — or at least a list of talented authors with ties to the Great Lakes State. It is, after all, my home state, and as an avid reader and writer I am proud of the talent connected to Michigan.

As we approach National Novel Writing Month, it seemed like an appropriate time to repost this list. It’s also worth mentioning that coming up with a list like this is very entertaining. If nothing else, you learn a ton about the talented authors that have ties to your home state.

Some of these Michigan authors have penned wildly popular books that have captured the nation and world, and others have churned out timeless classics time and time again. My list of the 10 best Michigan authors takes both historically famous writers and those with fairly newfound fame. Let’s get started.

Here are the 10 Best Michigan Authors

10. Richelle Mead

I thought I’d start out with a fun one. Any teenage fantasy fans out there? After earning degrees from both the University of Michigan and Western Michigan University, Mead authored many great fantasy novels — most famously the Vampire Academy series, which appeared in theaters as a feature film a few years ago.

9. Christopher Wright

There may not be a more ‘Michigan’ author out there. Wright, who writes under the pseudonym Christopher Knight for his adult novels and Johnathan Rand for his best-selling children’s books (Michigan Chillers, anyone?) — many of which are based in Michigan — was born and raised right here in the Mitten. Wright has self-published his wildly popular book series and runs his own store outside of Indian River called Chillermania.

8. Chris Van Allsburg

My second Chris on the list, Van Allsburg has surely won over the hearts of Michiganders and fans everywhere. Though he may not carry the same name recognition as some of the other writers in this countdown, Van Allsburg has written some of the best children’s books you’ve read — including The Polar Express and Jumanji. Originally from East Grand Rapids, he is a graduate of the University of Michigan.

7. Jeffrey Eugenides

Coming in at number seven, Eugenides is a Detroit native. Two of his novels have received national award recognition in The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, the latter of which won a Pulitzer Prize and was named to Oprah’s Book Club.

6. Judith Guest

Born in Detroit and graduating from Dondero High School in Royal Oak before embarking on her college studies in Ann Arbor, Guest is the sixth-best author with Michigan ties. Though her recent novels haven’t reached the popularity of her first work, Ordinary People was powerful enough the land the author on the list. The movie, which won Best Picture in 1981, wasn’t too bad either.

5. Arthur Miller

We can’t all have a theater named after us and marry Marilyn Monroe, but Arthur Miller sure can. The University of Michigan graduate wrote some of the most famous plays of his day, including All My Sons, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible.

4. Jim Harrison

For those of you who haven’t read any works by Harrison, I suggest doing so promptly. Hailing from Grayling and earning two degrees from Michigan State University, Harrison is one of the great literary minds of our time. His works include the famous Legends of the Fall, but he has frequently featured Michigan throughout his writing career. Looking for a great Michigan novel? Pick up True North.

3. Mitch Albom

Here is the name Southeast Michigan knows so well. He writes a column for the Detroit Free Press. He hosts his own radio show on WJR. And he’s written seven novels that have endeared readers worldwide. One of his most recent books, 2013’s The First Phone Call From Heaven, is also set in a fictional town in northern Michigan.

2. Elmore Leonard

Passing away a few years ago in his hometown of Bloomfield Hills, Leonard is thought of as one of the greatest mystery thriller writers of all time. Growing up in Detroit, Leonard eventually began working for General Motors before making the permanent switch to writing novels — a wise choice!

1. Ernest Hemingway

I know, I know. How cliché to have Hemingway at the top of the list. But really, who is going to argue? The debate isn’t whether he is the best, but how much of a ‘Michigan author’ he is. But his tie to Michigan is undeniable — each summer during his childhood, he would escape to his family’s cottage on Walloon Lake, near Petoskey, and spend the hot months isolated in the north woods. Many people believe those days are what shaped so much of his voice and inspiration in his later novels. In fact, the family cottage, called Windemere, is still standing today.

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Why good journalism is fading

The New Yorker uses the slogan, “The best writing anywhere, everywhere.” That’s quite the statement, and while everyone has a right to his or her own opinion in evaluating the publication’s work, there is something unique about The New Yorker that is unlike almost any other media outlet today: it allows its journalists to tell interesting stories without, as former writer Calvin Trillin states, requiring its reporters to use a “nut graph” — the opening paragraph of the story that tells the reader why it is important. This practice left writers to do what they do best, telling stories without restriction.

But good journalism seems to be fading in today’s media culture.

So I’ll say it: Good journalism still matters. It’s always mattered, and that hasn’t changed. I figured I should take a moment and hammer that point home, making my opinion clear, mostly because recently, it seems, the profession has been taken for granted.

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Back in late April, ESPN announced the layoffs of 100 of its employees, mostly writers and TV analysts. You could look at the move as being a business decision, that the bottom line just didn’t reach expectations, but the disappointing part about it all is that many of those who lost their jobs were genuinely good sports journalists. But these are the people whose salaries had to be cut to make room for the large salaries of the colorful TV personalities — the “talking heads” — that have now become the face of the network.

It’s a disturbing trend that has become too familiar in today’s media culture. Good journalism is taking a backseat to big television personalities. Not only ESPN made cuts this past year, but so did Sports Illustrated and USA Today. Here in Michigan, even my hometown Detroit News and Detroit Free Press were not immune to the layoffs, offering buyouts to members of the editorial staffs for their resignations.

The shift has been happening for years. People aren’t getting their news from hard-hitting journalists anymore. The local channels are shrinking, while the national media conglomerates continue to grow. People don’t rely on their city papers to become informed, but rather by the likes of CNN, Fox News and MSNBC, which is a dangerous trend in itself. What happens to the power that those media outlets hold once they have monopolized the industry? It almost seems that if a news company doesn’t have a TV affiliate, it is only a matter of time until it meets its demise. Basically, newspapers — whether with physical or digital distribution.

RELATED: How writing has changed in the digital age

And what about the writing itself? This is another issue with our society. Our attention spans are shrinking. We depend on bold headlines, quick TV news segments or 140-character tweets to keep us informed, and then we make assumptions based on that minimal knowledge on hand.

There is a little optimism, though. There are still publications like The New Yorker who cherish the craft of writing. And now, in the sports world, there is a digital media company called The Athletic, a subscription-based organization that is committed to longer, more detailed and impactful stories, rather than clickable headlines.

So now let’s do our part, okay? To appreciate good journalism. To support the craft of storytelling. To truly understand when we are becoming informed or when we are only being exposed to the tip of the iceberg.

Maybe then, and possibly only then, we can reverse the trend.

If you have a moment, I think it will be worth your time to listen to Calvin Trillin speak about his life as a writer:

Writing in the digital age: How writing has changed in the 21st century

Do you remember the good old days when writing was a craft in itself? There were no rules, so long as you could engage the reader, provide valuable information and be concise in your language. Now, while all of that is still true today, writing in the digital age has unquestionably changed the industry.

When I was growing up, learning how to write meant putting pen to paper, structuring arguments and making clear statements. No one worried about whether or not the writing was “clickable” or “shareable.” There was no concern over meeting minimum word lengths to make the article viable or get picked up by search engines — hell, search engines weren’t even a thing yet. SEO was non-existent. Stories weren’t framed around focus keywords. You could write however you wanted, whatever fit your style.

But no longer. Today, these are all very real aspects to writing in the digital age. Paragraphs are shorter. If you don’t use enough image or video content the reader won’t be engaged. If the prose is written in long, flowing sentences then they’ll get bored. This is now the world we live in — or, at least, the “norm.”

I don’t want to sound like I’m just knocking blogging — I am a blogger, after all, and I love doing it. For all digitization has done to change writing for the (seemingly) worse, it also comes with immense benefits. It gives everyone a voice. You can connect with anyone, anywhere, at any time. The pure reach is far greater than before.

Still, on some days I can’t help but feel the urge to pick up a pen and write the old fashioned way, say what I want to say, the way I want to say it. No rules. The sad irony, I suppose, lies in me typing this blog post instead. Though you’ll notice it’s short, because now I need to get back to my long prose. If you’re a writer, I think you should do the same — that next book isn’t going to write itself!

Why the “grit lit” subgenre is more than just a rhyme

In my mind, grit lit always conjured up an image of a rugged outdoorsman standing at the base of a dirt path that runs narrowly into a thick forest. His jeans are worn and his boots, scuffed around the edges, grind into the ground with a subtle but definite crunch. Basically, he’s an old frontiersman, or cowboy, or All-American tough guy. It’s a little cliché, or stereotypical, I know, but it’s the truth.

Ever since I discovered Jim Harrison’s work, I’ve been drawn to this grit lit subgenre or literature. There’s a certain resilience about it, a natural vigor that makes no excuses and calls it like it is. But what is it about this grit that is so appealing to writers?

The answer to that question lies in the definition of the word.

According to Merriam-Webster, grit is “firmness of mind or spirit” or unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger.” This is likely what most people think of when they think about the term, and when it comes to the grit lit subgenre, these are the traits that predominantly show.

But there’s another definition of grit, in regard to psychology, that I’m interest in. Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania put it concisely in a Psychology Today article: “Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.” In her TED Talk, shown below, she goes on to say, “Grit is sticking with your future, day in and day out — not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years.”

While we tend to focus on the common definition of grit, this psychological definition takes the word to a new lengths — and reflects the qualities that drove authors like Jim Harrison, the qualities that continue to inspire me. It’s the definition that more people should be made aware of and one that should be used more regularly.

As writers, this is how we endure. Without this sustained vision of our work and without the passion that drives the long hours, we would not persevere. It takes battling rejection — constantly — and finding the strength to continue writing, because you need to, and because there’s a fire inside that won’t soon be doused.

Keep this in mind the next time you’re writing. Let your grit drive you.

Here is Angela Duckworth’s full TED Talk:

How much do celebrities make from writing memoirs?

They say everyone has a book in them. But apparently not all of those stories are created equal. Enter: Celebrity memoirs. Stories are just like anything else in this world — there are good ones and there are very bad ones. The disparity can be alarming (especially with celebrity memoirs).

The good ones are appreciated, even celebrated, and those from whom they come are rewarded. The bad ones, however, largely go unnoticed and are far from appreciated.

Some stories, undoubtedly, are worth more than others — at least to major book publishers. It seems that these companies have gone the way of professional sports teams, issuing record-breaking contracts to get talented people to sign on the dotted line. In the publishing industry, that means for the rights to personal stories. Really, it’s pretty unbelievable.

Let’s take President and Michelle Obama, for example. Following their exit from the White House back at the beginning of the year, it was announced that publishers waged a bidding war over the rights to their next books.

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The winner (if you want to call them that): Penguin Random House, with a final price tag of a reported $65 million. Not a bad reward for a couple who spent the last eight years, for better or worse, in the critical lens of the globe.

But I get it, he was the leader of America. Of course the story he has to tell is going to seek millions. This isn’t the first former president to garner such a large deal. Bill and Hillary Clinton have tallied more than $50 million on various books over the years, according to Forbes. And that amount does not include Hillary’s most recent memoir, What Happened, which was released last week.

Regardless of how good the stories actually are, people who spend their lives in the public eye are fetching extremely large contracts. Back at the beginning of August, former FBI Director Jim Comey inked a book deal of his own, which some experts peg well in the millions.

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All of this begs the question, what’s the value of a story? Is it in the quality of the tale itself, or is it strictly its marketability?

These days, it seems it’s only about the latter.

‘These Heroic, Happy Dead’ by Luke Mogelson: An honest book review

Luke Mogelson was never a combat soldier, but you would never know that by reading his debut collection of short stories, These Heroic, Happy Dead. That’s probably because he spent ample time around active military members and veterans while serving in the U.S. National Guard and traveling abroad as a war correspondent for The New Yorker.

From the first two pages it was unmistakable what type of book this would be — as that is where the high praise appeared from two of my favorite authors, Ron Rash and Philipp Meyer. They called the book “extraordinary” and “stunning” and my expectations were set.

The various stories, all surrounding soldiers or veterans and mostly set in everyday life after war, tell captivating tales that seem to take the ordinary and make it feel oddly important. Many of the stories are also woven together, as characters we meet in the first few appear again later in the book.

There’s violence, and heartbreak, and depression, and love, and honor. In short, there’s a little bit of everything. Am I going to sit here and tell you that they are uplifting, that I put the book down and smiled at the triumphant resolutions in each passage? Of course not. They were honest and raw, and with that type of writing comes sadness — but also depth and empathy.

I’m not a veteran, and in truth I’ve never sat down and chatted about military experience with any veterans outside of the World War II generation, but reading these stories feels like they’re coming directly from personal understanding.

It’s tough to speak with veterans about their memories of war. It almost feels like a line you’re not to cross as a civilian, asking those questions: What was it like, and how do you readjust to life back home? But Mogelson gives an unflinching view into those worlds.

Since 2011, Mogelson has lived in and reported from Afghanistan, Syria, West Africa and Iraq, so despite not being an active military member, his stories seem to capture the experience with authority.

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This collection reminds me what Hemingway said, that “all good books have one thing in common — they are truer than if they had really happened.” That’s what it’s like reading this short story anthology. Hemingway was a war correspondent also, after all, and some of his most important work centers around his experiences in those combat zones. Mogelson took a page out of the Hemingway playbook with this collection, writing in plain yet powerful language and keeping dialogue sparse and necessary.

These are the types of stories that stay with you long after you’ve read them. After reading “Sea Bass,” for example — the second story — I closed the book and placed it on my chest and thought about what I had just read, what it meant. I came to this conclusion: This is a book that needed to be written, and all significant writing needs to be read.

Honoring the Fallen Means Feeling the Pain Again

There are very few days from elementary school that I remember with such clarity. That day was different.

I still remember standing in a long, narrow hallway that ran along the side of the gym. My class had just finished with morning phys ed and the teacher had lined us up to head back to our normal classroom. It was hot in there, I remember that. Most were sweating and I could hear the heavy breaths of my classmates. I had this quick daydream about cold snowflakes falling from the ceiling. I could feel the relieving chill on my skin.

And then we marched out into the main hallway. The gym was right across from the open staircase, which was beside the main office, and as we headed up to our second-story room we watched a small group of teachers gather around a TV in the office. They had stunned, scared looks on their faces, and we just wondered what could possibly be wrong with them.

When we got back to our class, with all the kids whispering about the teachers downstairs, our own teacher briefly excused herself. Now the whispers were open conversations. “What was going on with those teachers?” we curiously asked one another. Then our teacher returned. She looked as disturbed as the others.

Our nation was under attack.

She tried to explain, as best a teacher could to a group of fifth graders without knowing the full picture herself, that there was a bombing in New York, that terrorists were attacking our country. We didn’t know about Pennsylvania yet. We didn’t know about the Pentagon. All we knew was that we were terrified. When the people in charge are concerned, it’s a natural feeling to reciprocate.

We were told we couldn’t go outside for recess, as a safety precaution. We couldn’t turn on the TV. We were told that some parents would be picking up their kids early.

My mom showed up at the regular time and took me straight home. She told me everything she knew, as delicately as she could, on the drive home. Just being in her car felt safe.

At home, my dad was sitting in the living room watching the news on TV. By that point, I knew about the planes. But the safety of being back with my mom began to shift back to concern when I saw my father. He was never home at 3:30 in the afternoon on a Tuesday.

I looked at the TV coverage. “Where are the Twin Towers?” I asked. “I thought the planes crashed into them.”

All I saw was smoke.

That was my experience from 629 miles away. What’s powerful is hearing a story from inside the devastation.

When I went to the University of Michigan for college, I met several friends who came from the New York area. For them, the attacks on September 11th were personal.

On last year’s anniversary, one of them shared the first-hand account from his father, Jon Forstot, who was in the second tower when it was struck. This was his description of watching the first plane approach:

At that moment I saw an American Airlines plane to the north heading south. I could see clearly that it was an American Airlines plane and that it was unusually low. My first reaction was annoyance, that the pilot was being obnoxious by flying so low and I muttered “Jesus”. It kept flying at this very low altitude and I believed it was a plane that was having trouble gaining altitude. I saw that it may not “clear” the World Trade Center as it approached — as it got closer I clearly saw the nose, the cockpit windows with the sun reflecting off them and as it drew close the underside of the plane. All I could say was “Holy shit, holy shit” and then just “shit”. I saw the plane from the underside as it disappeared into One World Trade Center.

You can read his full first-hand account here.

He survived. He was one of the lucky ones. But there were nearly 3,000 who weren’t so lucky.

Today isn’t about letting our differences divide us, or debating the wars that followed that day, or arguing about politics.

Today — and every day, for that matter — is about remembering the fallen, the innocent victims, the brave men and women who gave their lives trying to save others. Remember the courage, the resolve, the American pride that resonated throughout this land following the tragedy.

And may we never forget how blessed we are to live in this nation.

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Amazon bookstores: Good or bad for the industry?

Have you heard? Maybe you’ve even seen, if you live in or have visited one of the twelve cities where they exist. Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, is moving into the brick-and-mortar market with a new chain of bookstores, called Amazon Books.

I need to be completely honest here: When I first heard this news, I was excited. Regardless of their motives, in an era where we continuously see physical bookstores close, it was refreshing to see new ones opening. For years it seemed like paperback and hardcover books were becoming things of the past, and it was saddening. Any news that could reverse the trend (like hearing that physical books were making a comeback) was certainly welcomed by me.

But then, after the initial effect wore off, I stopped to think about it a little more.

In an effort to utilize the successful strategies that its online bookstore has implemented, these new Amazon Books stores will feature a limited selection of titles — all of which will have covers facing the customer — to be customized through shopping behaviors.

These bookstores, which began in the Pacific Northwest and spread to the East Coast this past year, are aimed at merging “the benefits of offline and online shopping to help you find books and devices you’ll love,” according to the official website.

QUICK READ: Are physical books making a comeback?

Some critics, however, see them as a way for Amazon to continue to run its competitors, like Barnes & Noble, out of business. The resulting fear is that the online giant will create a virtual monopoly on the book market.

Personally, I have nothing against Amazon. It offers an exceptional service at competitive pricing, and it has certainly given people increased access to books of all kinds through its Kindles, affordable prices, marketplace feature and publishing options. But if you’ve read many of my articles on this site, you’ll also know that I have a strong affinity for physical bookstores, and if this business tactic leads, in any way, to the detriment of those stores then I will have to re-evaluate my opinion.

At the end of the day, I am a supporter of those who support the advancement of books.

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Why J.D. Salinger would be disappointed with his biopic

You may have heard: On September 15th, a new biopic called Rebel in the Rye is being released. It is the story of J.D. Salinger’s life, and I can only imagine he wouldn’t be pleased about it.

Now, this is not the first attempt to tell Salinger’s life story. Far from it. In 2013, a documentary called Salinger was released, and several biographies have also been written over the years.

As a fan of The Catcher in the Rye, I cannot pretend I don’t find his life story fascinating — I even included Salinger in my list of five recent movies all writers should watch. It was inspiring and sent me running to my computer to get working on my next book. But that doesn’t mean Salinger would be happy with them.

In Salinger, author A. Scott Berg — who wrote the biography on which the movie Genius was based — tells the tale about Salinger’s first major experience with Hollywood.

The Epstein brothers, two well-known screenwriters of the time, wanted to adapt one of Salinger’s short stories from The New Yorker, Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut, into a feature-length film. The movie was made, but the producer changed the name to My Foolish Heart. “Salinger’s response was extremely violent,” Berg said. “And he vowed never to sell another work to Hollywood again.”

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Salinger was extremely protective over his characters, not to mention his personal life. The man famous for being reclusive was not particularly open about the details of his life, and he certainly didn’t want to share them on a world stage.

“He always, always felt that what people should know about an author was nothing personal,” longtime friend Jean Miller recalled about Salinger. “They should know an author through his work, and that’s all he was willing to give people.”

Prior to his death in 2010, Salinger established the J.D. Salinger Literary Trust, which explicitly bars The Catcher in the Rye from ever being adapted to film.

Does all this mean that, as fans, we should boycott the new movie? I’m certainly not advocating for that. I plan on seeing it. But that doesn’t mean the author would be pleased about the spectacle.

That’s just one of the many downfalls, I suppose, of achieving such high acclaim and fame.

Take a look at the trailer for the film here:

Are physical books making a comeback?

The flagship Borders store was just off State Street near the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. The first time I visited was my freshman year. A good friend wanted to walk the five or six blocks from our dorm to pick up Mitch Albom’s new book, and I was pleased to join. It wasn’t often a friend went out of their way to buy a physical book.

From the moment you stepped inside the store, the first thing you noticed was the smell. Or call it an aroma, because calling it a smell gives it a negative connotation and it was far from unpleasant. Rather, it was comforting. Then you stepped forward and walked the aisles, browsing, content, looking for the next book that will change you life.

This is the bookstore experience that we’ve all come to adore, and it’s the scene we fear we will lose as companies like Borders are forced to close their doors forever. That’s what happened with this store. Less than two years later, the building sat vacant. It was an end of an era — one I hadn’t had nearly enough years to experience.

Physical book sales, clearly, were dying. Let’s call them being replaced. The world was shifting toward digital platforms, after all, and physical books would be no exemption.

But after years of physical book sales decreasing and ebook sales increasing, have we finally struck a balance?

According to CNN, yes. And not only have physical book sales ceased declining, they’ve actually grown. In 2016, hardcover book sales increased more than 4% and paperback more than 7%.

QUICK READ: Amazon Bookstores: Good or bad for the industry?

What’s the result? According to Publishers Weekly, HarperCollins is set to invest in its physical book business. The large publisher is committed to supporting “any efforts to introduce more innovation and creativity into bookselling,” while also stating that it will be supporting the growth of independent bookstores.

For bibliophiles, this comes as refreshing news. Let’s hope the trend continues long into the future.

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Why do we let numbers speak for literature?

It’s become an epidemic, it seems, to quantify the world. The only problem is that sometimes we’re not using useful metrics.

When a social injustice occurs, people take to the streets. Thousands gather and hold protests. Thousands more, maybe even millions, take to social media to voice their grievances. Later, the success of the movement comes from the metrics: the number of marchers, the number of cities where they took place, the vast amount of tweets. But was that the point? Or was it to change government policy?

Now let’s look at the business side of metrics. Companies flush money down the drain with the promotion of tweets and Facebook posts and rave about their “reach,” a term they use to assume success. But what was the return on investment? How about the conversion? Does it matter how many new followers you tallied if it led to minimal additional sales?

Again, caught up in the wrong numbers.

Then, of course, there’s the question at the heart of the issue, or at least what I care about: Why do we try to apply these same methods of metric measurement to literature, something so innately qualifiable?

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A few months back, I read an article in Publishers Weekly breaking down the “numbers of literature,” regarding aspects such as cliché and punctuation use. It included several infographics, showing how various books and authors stacked up against each other. Among the findings: Danielle Steel started 46% of her novels with a sentence mentioning the weather, James Patterson’s Cross Fire used 242 clichés per 100,000 words, and Elmore Leonard used only 49 exclamation points per 100,000 words over his 45 books. The article, however, never answers the looming question, “So what?”

Literature was never meant to be dissected into quantifiable metrics, but it seems that’s the world where we now live. To a certain extent, I get it — by using metrics, we can more effectively study the world and our businesses, and therefore try to apply our analysis toward improving. It works in many fields — if, of course, they’ve found the right metrics to measure (the problem being that some form of measurable data is readily available to most businesses, and so defining what metrics are actually valuable is the difficult part).

But please, keep it out of literature.

Metrics break down a data set to attempt to form a new strategy. They find the best formula for success — or try to, at least. But I don’t want to live in a literary world where meeting quotas on cliché use and punctuation frequency is considered successful. (It’s bad enough that there are word count requirements!) Doing this creates a uniformity, and don’t we already have enough of that in mainstream pop culture?

The argument from me is simply: Forget about the numbers. Let the writing speak for itself.

Putting words on paper: A personal writing story

At the time I was still living with my parents. My siblings had moved out and I was the only occupant of the second story, and so naturally I converted a spare room into a personal writing space. Along one wall was a bookshelf packed with children’s chapter books, various classics and spliced with the occasional thriller. The desk that my grandfather crafted by hand was pushed against another wall. It was tall with a smooth finish and two stacked drawers on the right side. I positioned a lamp on the left, placed a candle on the right, and ran my charger cord up from behind and plugged it into my laptop, which sat right in the center. That’s where I wrote every morning.

My day started in the kitchen with a large pot of coffee and a granola bar, and then I’d retreat up into the room and light the candle and take a seat at the desk. Before me was a blank page, some days, and others there would already be thousands of words. I was working on my first novel, after all, and while I took breaks to write other stories that remained my main focus.

The characters were real. They had a story and it was my job to tell it — that’s what I signed up for when first starting out. Too late to turn back.

When I moved into the house, the book was halfway written — though in a much more real sense it was nowhere near complete. There were days where the words flowed. For hours at a time I would sit at my computer, only standing up for the occasional coffee refill or bathroom break. You get on these spurts where you become lost in the words and suddenly two hours have gone by, and when you pick up your still-full mug you discover the steaming liquid has turned cold and it will take a trip back into the kitchen to dump it and pour another, with plans to sip this one as soon as it cools to a suitable temperature. But that doesn’t happen, because the words have returned and you’ve transported, again, onto the page.

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But not all days work that way. Some days are tough. Hell, many days are tough. You’ve emptied the creative well from the day before. You’re stuck. You try to peck at the keys but it’s rubbish and you know it. By lunchtime you’ll have highlighted the morning’s work and removed it from existence. Those are the discouraging days. Writing is supposed to be easy — maybe not the quality, but certainly the act. It’s a passion. It’s a motivation. But there are no words.

So you take a break. That’s what I did. Maybe an hour on social media, or watching some TV, or even reading a book will fix things. Your creativity will surely return, as it never departs for long. A few hours later than you’d planned, and now you’re sitting at your desk again and you have new expectations — but still no words.

All it takes are a few of these days. Discouragement turns to defeat. Failure, even. The curser blinks on an empty screen and you are powerless — more than an emotion, but a state of being. And then what? The book doesn’t get written? The tale you felt compelled to tell will be read by no other souls?

This is where I found myself. I was on a roll. Call it a hot streak, I guess, if those exist in the literary world. And then one day it was over. From penthouse to doghouse in what seemed like an instant.

What happened? That’s what I continually asked myself. I dwelled on it. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so ambitious, working on a novel before solidifying some short stories or novellas. Maybe I wasn’t ready. This is the doubt that many writers endure — and I mean endure, not experience or feel, because it’s a suffering.

I won’t quite say I was ready to give up. Thankfully I’ve never reached that point, and I pray I never will. (If you have, it’s not too late to pick it back up, either.) But there was very little progress being made.

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One evening I was watching TV. It was shortly after dinner and it had been dark outside for a couple hours already — a depressing time of year in the Midwest. That’s when I got to talking with my dad. I told him about my writing. About my aspirations. I probably exuded confidence, as if I’d written ten thousand words per day for the last week. If it had been two thousand I would have been satisfied. Hell, five hundred.

As he left the room at the conclusion of the conversation, he told me, in regards to the book I was writing, “The only way to do it, is to do it. No one else is going to write it for you.” Those were the simplest yet most motivating words he could have uttered.

That night I sat back at my computer with a new focus. And while the quantity of my writing has varied over the last several years, I’ve never lost sight of what it means to be a writer.

Writing kryptonite: Avoid distractions from writing time

Here’s a scenario: On your computer, a fresh Word document is open and waiting to be filled with flowing, witty words, but right now it’s hidden behind windows of Amazon and Facebook and CNN. Beside the laptop is a notepad and a pen, clicked into the ready position, though there is a magazine sitting on top and it doesn’t cross your mind to move it.

You’re distracted now.

Sure, upon booting up, you went right for Word, as if determined to start the day strong. But that was over an hour ago now. Your two hours of writing have dwindled to thirty sporadic, anxious minutes that come to an end just as you have finally hit your stride. So you close the computer and stand up, frustrated, again, at a morning lost — no, not lost, but willingly relinquished to your worst habits.

Writing “kryptonite” is not about writer’s block. Not exactly, anyway. See, when people think about writer’s block they imagine a creative mind that just can’t get moving. Where did all the creative juices go? They need a jumpstart — some type of inspiration — to get back to their process.

I’m also not talking about finding time to write (though I wrote an article about battling that). That’s its own issue altogether. Life gets in the way of writing all the time. Most writers have day jobs — that’s just the reality of the situation.

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The idea of writing kryptonite is a little different. What gets in the way of you putting words on paper — of completing the writing process — when there is no shortage of ideas or inspiration, when you have the time to devote to the craft?

It seems there are the obvious procrastination culprits: the Internet, online shopping, social media. Maybe for you it’s perfectionism or prioritization. Some writers like to brainstorm thoroughly before beginning their drafts. That’s fine — actually a strong strategy — but does it go too far?

Here’s another scenario: You are at work and in your bag are two journals with broken spines, the pages no longer crisp but rather wave with distortion — too much use. They go everywhere with you and now they are full. At the bottom of your bag is a jumble of pens, each only used a couple times, each evidence of spontaneous inspiration. Back at home, there are numerous other notebooks, mostly blank though littered with random brainstorming. To an outsider, it’s an unorganized mess, but to you, the author — future author — it all makes sense. It’s been your project for years now, and it’s just a matter of time until you get to work writing. But you don’t want to begin until you know the whole picture, which seems to change constantly, even if only slightly. And your friends and family, all those witnessing your struggle, wonder when the day will come, if ever, that the story gets written.

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Undoubtedly there’s kryptonite at work. At what point does the plot and character mapping cease and the actual writing begin? Some writers have an innate inclination for shifting from one stage to the next. Others, though, may have difficulty, and that difficulty is limiting their ability to produce. (This works the opposite way, as well, for all those writers who pick up a pen without first thoroughly vetting their thoughts.)

To a certain extent, all writers have to battle these shortcomings. The most successful writers are those who can overcome obstacles. In your world, in your writing process, is there kryptonite that hinders your work? And, more importantly, what action do you take to eliminate it?

5 overlooked novels you should make time to read

Discovering great books that others in your circle of friends or family or reading group have not yet explored is nearly a rite of passage in the world of literature. It usually leads to a good feeling, one you want to share with others.

So you start the recommendation process. You tell everyone you know. “You’ve got to check out this book I just read,” you tell them. And they smile politely and accept the recommendation, though you don’t know for sure if they are just being nice or if they are truly interested.

For me, these are five books that I can’t possibly recommend enough. Yet, as I receive reading suggestions from others, rarely — if ever — are these books included. To me, that’s a shame. So I’d like to share them with you, in hopes that you may turn around and do the same to another bookish soul.

1. True North by Jim Harrison

The more you read my blog, the more you’ll come to realize just how highly I regard Jim Harrison and his work. For one, he’s from my home state. That’s what first piqued my interest. But from there, the writing took over — and it’s something special.

Set on the Lake Superior shore in Marquette, Michigan, True North is a long book that follows David Burkett from his teenage years and into adulthood as he wrestles with the demons that have plagued his family — namely, his father and his addictions — while attempting to find solace in an idea that the evil in his family line can be halted with his generation.

A full review of the novel will be coming down the road, but for now I can say that Harrison doesn’t hold back, and I’m very jealous of anyone who still gets to read it for the first time.

2. One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel

For those of you who have followed my blog, Daniel Magariel’s debut novel appearing on this list should come as no surprise — after all, I’ve already recommended it once.

One of the Boys tells the story of an unnamed adolescent coping with his parents’ divorce and his father’s destructive addictions. This is a tale of fiction, though only in the literal sense. The characters are real. The story is real. And that’s where the power of the novel originates — the second-guessing, the connection, the thought that “this really happens every day in America.”

This is Magariel’s debut novel, but I look forward to many more to come. He’s a gifted storyteller.

3. Ordinary People by Judith Guest

OK, I realize the screen adaptation of this book won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and that half of high school English classes included it in their curriculums for a certain period of time, but that doesn’t mean it’s appreciated the way it should be.

Judith Guest, who has an extensive education in psychology, used her vast knowledge on the subject to craft a deep and true novel about a family mourning the loss of one of their own. “Uplifting” isn’t the term I would use to describe this book, but it’s certainly an important story in understanding the human psyche and how we cope with life’s tragedies.

4. Crooked River Burning by Mark Winegardner

This is a novel that I read in one of my English courses at the University of Michigan, and while it is fairly well known in academia, it is far less so among the general reading community — and it’s a damn shame. This story spans many decades in the city of Cleveland, telling the tales of David Zielinsky and Anne O’Connor beginning as teenagers in the 1940’s and moving into adulthood. Not only is Mark Winegardner a special storyteller (and humorous, too), but he weaves the fictional plot through a real historical lens. The book works so well because of its creativity and accuracy, all while never losing the readers’ attention.

Put it on the list.

5. Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe

Again, much like with Ordinary People, this is not a book that’s gone largely unnoticed — though I will argue that as classic novels go, this one has flown under the radar.

Thomas Wolfe is an author who worked with Maxwell Perkins at Scribner, the same editor who oversaw the publishing of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. However, while still wildly successful, Wolfe never received quite the same recognition as those other two.

Look Homeward, Angel was Wolfe’s first novel and is considered to be mostly autobiographical in nature. It essentially tells the tale of his family and his life. If you’ve never read anything by Wolfe, I suggest starting here (though make sure you have some time on your hands, as it runs over 500 pages). There is an eloquence, a poetic flow to this book that is missing in Fitzgerald novels, and especially from Hemingway’s collection.

A movie was recently made about Wolfe’s life, starring Jude Law. I recommend it for all writers.

You no doubt have a list of underappreciated novels yourself. What I can say is to continue spreading the word, because great books need to be shared. If they changed your life, even in the slightest way, then I have confidence they can do the same to another.

From life to page to screen: The Glass Castle

The most recent memoir-turned-movie, The Glass Castle, opened in theaters last Friday, drawing fans with its gripping storyline and all-star cast including Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson and Naomi Watts.

This film exposes audiences to the author Jeannette Walls’ personal upbringing and struggle to navigate a life molded by two less-than-standard parents. Larson, the Oscar-winning actress from 2016’s Room, was the perfect choice to play Walls.

Honoring the book’s structure with then-and-now flashbacks, the film follows Jeannette’s adult successes as a writer for New York Magazine and engagement to a wealthy businessman, while also uncovering painful memories of her childhood, raised by an artistic, free-spirited mother (Watts) and a brilliant — when sober — larger-than-life father (Harrelson). Throughout their childhood, Jeannette and her three siblings were pulled from one home to another, often surviving without electricity, running water, or food for days on end.

This film takes viewers on an emotional rollercoaster, filled with compassion as Jeannette bonds with her loving father who, despite his failure to provide for the family (due to a history of childhood abuse from his mother, resulting in an addiction to alcohol as a coping mechanism), does what he can to fill her life with adventure and optimism — distracting from their situation by engineering a plan to build their imagined “Glass Castle”.

On the descending side of the rollercoaster, Jeannette — or “mountain goat” as nicknamed by her dad — watches her father struggle to hold it together for his family, often falling into bouts of alcoholism and self-hatred.

One theme holds true throughout the movie: despite her father’s fluctuating behaviors and string of letdowns, Jeannette and her dad share many qualities — including a sense of adventure and an unwavering bond and love for one another.

Walls’ talent for writing hooked readers, making her memoir a New York Times Bestseller, a success that allowed her to escape a childhood of neglect and earn her an incredibly prosperous career as an author.

Although her childhood was less than ideal, her story highlights one truth: that children, no matter how they are treated, love their parents unconditionally.

Examining the collapse of America’s blue-collar middle class

Philipp Meyer made his name known in the literary world with the release of his 2013 epic The Son, which is now an AMC TV show. The Son received critical acclaim and was the runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize.

But that’s not what I’m here to write about, because there is another book by Meyer, his first book, the one before The Son, that is similarly exceptional: American Rust.

First published at the start of 2009, the novel seemed to be ahead of its time in dissecting and interrogating the downtrodden society in many industrial areas of the Midwest.

At its core, American Rust tells the story of several characters in the crumbling fictional steel town of Buell, Pennsylvania, in the aftermath of the declining manufacturing industry in the United States. There was something more to it, though. It created an empathy for the characters, as if you were reading a nonfiction book about what used to make America so great. It was heartbreaking and at the same time mesmerizing.

Using a stream-of-consciousness style, Meyer introduces us to Isaac English, a quiet and small intellectual, and his best friend Billy Poe, a former football star at the local high school, as they face the reality of life in the aftermath of prosperity.

Isaac is the son of a former steelworker. At the inception of the novel, Isaac steals $4,000 from his old man — money initially received from a work-related injury that left him crippled — and takes off to run away to California. En route, he meets Poe and the two of them wander toward the railroad. Before long, they are caught in a rainstorm and decide to wait it out in an abandoned building. That’s where they encounter a ring of drifters. A short confrontation later, one of the men is dead — killed, accidentally, by Isaac while attempting to rescue Poe from an attack by the men.

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That all happens in the first chapter. From there, the novel takes off, introducing us to Isaac’s successful Ivy League sister, Poe’s single and depressing mother, and the town’s middle-aged sheriff — all battling their own inner demons while attempting to traverse a difficult and failing economy.

Meyer is from an industrial city himself, growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Baltimore. When embarking on this book, he wanted to tell the story of the types of people he grew up around — the hard-working, blue-collar faction of society that used to make up the backbone of America’s middle class, who now saw jobs rapidly disappearing and livelihoods disintegrating.

Maybe the most telling line from the whole book, uttered by Poe, goes like this: “You ought to be able to grow up in a place and not have to get the hell out of it when you turn eighteen.”

That’s the way life works in these parts of the country. People grow up and begin to understand that the only method of advancement is to leave — and when they do, rarely do they return.

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See, Meyer didn’t set out to write a book using fictitious liberties. He went to western Pennsylvania. He spoke with the people. He saw the devastation with his own eyes. What came of it was a fast-paced, creative, insightful and intelligent novel, one in which emotion and brutal truth are intertwined page after page.

Is The Son considered Meyer’s masterpiece, at least thus far in his career? Probably. But is American Rust a must-read, important novel? You better believe it.

We could all learn from Jim Harrison

“The world that used to nurse us now keeps shouting inane instructions. That’s why I ran to the woods.” — Jim Harrison

Several years ago, on a mission to connect with more literature set in my home state of Michigan, I came across a Jim Harrison book. I picked it up at the bookstore, flipped through the pages, did a quick Google search on my phone — felt the embarrassment of taking so long to discover his work — and then made the purchase.

The name of the book was True North. Since that day I’ve read six of Mr. Harrison’s books, and there are still a few — like his final book The Ancient Minstrel — that remain very high on my reading list.

The Michigan connection is what first drew me to his work, but the writing itself and the life he lived are what kept me reading. He wrote gritty yet eloquent prose. There was so much honesty in what he wrote. It was brutal truth, the kind people often don’t like to hear. And his lifestyle was so simple and rare compared to many authors today. In his own words, “The natural world would always be there to save me from suffocating in my human problems.”

Until the day he died — literally passing away with the pen still in his hand, the stuff of legend — he wrote with pen and paper. There were no computers involved. It wasn’t about cranking out manuscripts and meeting word count requirements. Writing was an art, and he never ceased treating it that way. At one point in his career he experimented with a typewriter, but he abandoned that.

He also lived in the country, whether it was on the Leelanau Peninsula in northern Michigan, or a ranch in Montana or Arizona. Life wasn’t about big city lights and Hollywood parties for Harrison — though he did plenty of partying in Hollywood in his younger days. It was the simple things, such as hunting, fishing and taking walks through nature with his dogs that he coveted so dearly.

It’s a damn shame he passed away in March 2016, because in today’s crazy world we need more influencers like Jim Harrison to remind us what’s important in life.

Read Harrison’s memoir, Off to the Side, to understand the full picture of his life — in his own words. “My life could have been otherwise,” Harrison writes simply, “but it wasn’t.”