The Ann Arbor Chronicle » local authors it's like being there Wed, 26 Nov 2014 18:59:03 +0000 en-US hourly 1 A2: Local History Tue, 29 Jul 2014 04:02:01 +0000 Chronicle Staff A post in the Local in Ann Arbor blog reflects on the importance of historic buildings in creating a city’s sense of place. It includes a review of “Historic Ann Arbor,” a new book by local authors Susan Wineberg and Patrick McCauley: ”This book should be on the bookshelf of everyone who lives in Ann Arbor and values any sense of our history and architectural diversity. As Grace Shackman says in her introduction to the book, ‘Susan and Patrick’s love of Ann Arbor shines through every page.’” [Source]

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A2: College Football Fri, 16 Aug 2013 14:21:31 +0000 Chronicle Staff The Wall Street Journal has published an excerpt of “Fourth and Long: The Fight for the Soul of College Football,” a new book by Ann Arbor author and sports columnist John U. Bacon. The online version includes a video of WSJ’s Rachel Bachman interviewing Bacon about his experience following four college football teams: Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Northwestern. [Source]

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Column: Book Fare Sat, 22 Dec 2012 13:46:08 +0000 Domenica Trevor A conversation with Ann Pearlman, who gave readers around the world “The Christmas Cookie Club,” seemed appropriate for a December books column. But, it turns out her 2009 novel isn’t about Christmas. It’s about commitment.

Ann Pearlman, book reviews, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Ann Pearlman, in a photo taken earlier this month at Great Lakes Chocolate & Coffee on Jackson Road, where she chatted with columnist Domenica Trevor about her work: “I’m just doing things that are fun.”

Which, coming from the Jewish author of a memoir entitled “Infidelity,” makes considerable sense.

The fictional cookie club is hosted by narrator Marnie, whose day begins with preparations for a dozen friends who will be arriving at her Ann Arbor home that evening with food, wine and a story to accompany the ritual exchange of imaginatively presented cookies – with frequent dance breaks. But she’s also anticipating important news that evening from her older daughter and her husband in San Diego and, in a month, a grandchild from her 18-year-old, whose boyfriend is “a black ex-convict and aspiring rap star.”

Pearlman belongs to a real Christmas cookie club here in Ann Arbor, and reading her bestseller had me fantasizing about how lovely it would be put something like that together with friends whose company I treasure all year round and don’t see as often as I’d like. But then I thought again about the generally sluggish crowd I hang with and how the kinder ones would simply laugh at me. Righto. What say we just meet for pink drinks in January, hmm?

Such a lame crew, I suspect, would mystify Pearlman. Among her commitments: She’s a writer (seven published books). She’s an artist. She’s an adventuresome cook (her latest effort extends to homemade liqueurs). By her own account, the boundary between her family and her friendships is often indistinct.  She has maintained a psychotherapy practice in Ann Arbor even as her writing career became firmly established. And the day we spoke, this mother of three and grandmother of four was looking forward to dancing the night away at the Necto’s Townie Party, despite a lingering cough from a bout of illness that put her off the cookies at this year’s meeting of the club.

‘Sacredizing’ Time

Is she “driven”? Such a harsh word; such a joyless concept. Pearlman calls herself “hyperactive,” but that implies frenzy – movement without purpose. Pearlman gets things done.

Pearlman’s father, she says, “didn’t get to finish his story.” He was in his 40s when he died at home of a heart attack. She was 19; she witnessed it.

“For six months afterward,” she says, “I was wandering around, saying ‘Life is meaningless. Life is meaningless.’ I drove my mother crazy.”

She was obsessed, she said, with the unanswerable question: “How could this amazing, vital man drop dead?”

But then came an epiphany. If life could, indeed, be cut short at any moment, the only way to function meaningfully with the knowledge was to spend “every single day” doing what she loved – “and enough with the bullshit.”

It’s not grim, she says: “I’m just doing things that are fun.”

But the creative life is also a serious business. “I ‘sacredize’ time” to write, she says. “Do the most important thing of your day the first thing of the day.” On her blog, Pearlman shares her routine: “The sun wakes me. I grab espresso coffee and sit before my computer.” She writes until noon, at least five days a week. Such discipline, such commitment, brings joy.

Her published books are mileposts of a sort for her personal and professional lives. The first ones were related to her therapy practice: “Getting Free: Women and Psychotherapy” in 1982 and “Keep the Home Fires Burning: How to Have an Affair With Your Spouse,” in 1985. Then came “Infidelity,” a brave account of the pain that marital betrayal inflicted on her grandmother, her mother and – after 30 years of marriage – on Pearlman herself. Thirty-eight publishers rejected the memoir before a fledgling literary house, MacAdam/Cage, published it in 2000.

Her next project was “Inside the Crips,” written with gang member Colton Simpson and published in 2005. The ambitious and acclaimed account of “life inside L.A.’s most notorious gang” also drew Pearlman deep into a subsequent, headline-making drama when Simpson was charged with acting as the getaway driver in the robbery of an $800 earring from a California department store. In what she has described as a devastating experience, Pearlman was subpoenaed by the prosecution to testify at Simpson’s trial; he is serving a life sentence thanks to the Golden State’s insane “three strikes” law.

Pearlman turned then to fiction – “I thought I could say more” – with “The Christmas Cookie Club” (followed a year later by “The Christmas Cookie Cookbook” with fellow “cookie bitch” Marybeth Bayer of Ann Arbor). Her latest, “A Gift for My Sister” (the paperback will be out in February) follows the stories of Marnie’s daughters, Sky and Tara.

A Tale of Two Sisters

Sky, the older one, is cautious and conventional, a law school graduate who married her childhood sweetheart and is raising a daughter. Tara, a gifted musician with sharp edges forged early by her father’s abandonment, has a rising rap career and an intense but uncertain relationship with the father of her young son.

Pearlman says she had a great time writing “Gift.” It gave her a chance to explore the lives of sisters (she has one brother) and, she says, the two distinct sides of her own personality.

“There have never been times when I haven’t made something,” she says. So why would a restlessly creative soul (like Tara) go after psychotherapist’s credentials instead of an MFA?

“I’m Sky!” she replies. “Sky needed to have a job!” And it helped, she says, that even strangers always seemed to find it easy to open up to her: “I was 14 years old, on a bus, and a woman sitting next to me started to tell me all about an affair she was having.” But she offers a deceptively simple purpose for what she does: “People need someone to witness their lives.”

Pearlman is finishing another novel involving characters from “The Christmas Cookie Club” – no dates for publication yet. And she’s also compiling a book of family recipes for her extended clan – a project for which her new tablet is perfect: “I can do it anywhere!”

And of course, she’s reading: “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell, “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach get enthusiastic mentions; Julian Barnes’ latest novel, “The Sense of an Ending,” gets raves.

Lately, she’s been tackling Lucretius. In comparing several editions, she says, the divergence of the translations was so disconcerting that she thought, “I’m going to read it in Latin and I can translate it myself.”


She says she reconsidered. So let’s presume that Pearlman has chosen a satisfying translation and settled in, maybe with a plate of pecan butter balls and a pink drink. Sometimes pleasure is the greatest good.

The Best Christmas Present Ever?

Plans appear to be in the works for a new downtown bookstore. Huron High grad and former Simon & Schuster sales rep Hilary Lowe and her fiance, video producer Michael Gustafson, pulled up stakes in Brooklyn over the summer and moved to Ann Arbor; they’re looking for a spot to set up shop as Literati. Watch this space for an update.

And Happy New Year.

About the writer: Domenica Trevor lives in Ann Arbor – her columns are published periodically in The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our columnists and other contributors. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.

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Column: Book Fare Sun, 23 Oct 2011 13:30:37 +0000 Domenica Trevor The upcoming trifecta of other-worldly holidays – Halloween, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day – are the perfect frame to showcase a pair of new literary treats from local authors. (A neat trick, no?)

Cover of "Ghost Writers"

Cover of "Ghost Writers"

“The Sin-Eater: A Breviary,” Thomas Lynch’s latest collection of poems from Paraclete Press, presents this world and the next according to Argyle, an insurance policy incarnate for unabsolved offenses and, Lynch writes, “the mouthpiece for my mixed religious feelings.”

“Ghost Writers: Us Haunting Them,” part of the Made in Michigan Writers Series from Wayne State University Press, serves up a dozen ghost stories – some fiction, some true in their own way – from some of the state’s finest writers, many of them from the Ann Arbor area. Laura Kasischke (“Space, In Chains” and “The Raising”) and Keith Taylor, whose next poetry collection, “Marginalia for a Natural History,” comes out next month, are the editors as well as contributors.

Taylor, who teaches English at the University of Michigan, and “Ghost Writers” contributor Elizabeth Kostova (“The Historian,” “The Swan Thieves”) will read from the collection at Zingerman’s Roadhouse on Wednesday, Oct. 26, at the sixth annual Vampires’ Ball, a benefit for Food Gatherers. (Hunger. In Washtenaw County. In America. Sin? Horror story? This theme is definitely hanging together here.)

Scary Stories

The standout in “Ghost Writers” is “Not Even Lions and Tigers,” Steve Amick’s wryly funny tale of enforcer Harry Bennett driven mad by the “haints” of strikers and organizers he bloodied in the service of Henry Ford (though, he’d insist to his disappointed ma, “he was in his office for most of it”). As he exhibited so well in his novel “Nothing But a Smile,” Amick is just great at nailing place and period with the energizing element of utterly authentic speech. His Bennett flings off sentences studded with gems like “whorebath,” “hoohaw” and “cooked up the wheeze” (translation: authored the joke). Plus, we get some local history: Harry Bennett, born on Ann Arbor’s Wall Street; stepson of an early member of UM’s engineering faculty; a frustrated artist who raised Wyandotte chickens on his Geddesburg estate. Now you know.

With “Ghost Anecdote,” Kasischke again gives us a story of a bad-ish girl, a dead mom and suburban vice and again leaves us marveling at her lethal skill with the lightning-bolt detail (and, again, imagining she would have been a blast to cut class with in high school). Nicholas Delbanco’s “Pier Road” offers a meditation on what vanishes from a place and what remains: “What are we haunted by, and why?”

Anne-Marie Oomen’s “Bitchathane” introduces us to “spider ghosts,” via the red-haired narrator’s Aunt Toots and in the Upper Peninsula, where women in steel-toed boots do construction work alongside their husbands, have their hearts broken and, sometimes, pieced back together in a tight package of revenge. And this captivating story introduces me to Oomen’s wonderful voice, and will lead me to check out her latest collection of essays, “An American Map” (from Wayne State University Press, 2010).

Scary stuff aside, it’s fun just to do some Michigan sightseeing in the pages of “Ghost Writers.” Greenfield Village. Harbor Springs. At the Detroit Institute of Arts, the up-north high school teacher in Taylor’s “The Man at the Edge” encounters Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry panels – they “all looked as if they pictured disembodied organs of the female reproductive system.” And it’s the place – Michigan – as much as the theme of haunting, of a present given deeper meaning by an undead past – that makes this collection worth the read.

Cover of "The Sin-Eater"

Cover of "The Sin-Eater"

“The ghosts in Michigan, perhaps like ghosts everywhere, seem to stay close to home,” the editors observe in the preface. And to this Taylor’s daughter, Faith, gets off a good one: “‘Well, good for the ghosts! At least they still call it home.’”

The Sacred and Profane

The next generation adds a special dimension as well to “The Sin-Eater.” To accompany “a couple dozen poems, a couple dozen lines each,” are a couple dozen truly fine photographs taken in Ireland by Michael Lynch, the poet’s son. (Another son, Sean, contributes a watercolor.)

Both Milford, Michigan, and Moveen in County Clare are home to Lynch, in whose magnificent “Walking Papers” Argyle made his first appearance. As with “Ghost Writers,” place and the dicey transition to an afterlife are central themes in “The Sin-Eater.” It is medieval (in sensibility if not in time) Ireland, where for a loaf of bread, a bowl of beer and six pence Argyle will squat beside a laid-out corpse, “eating sins and giving souls their blessed rest.” Like any working stiff, there are gigs he prefers more than others:

Maybe steady work with nuns whose vices

were rumored to go down like tapioca.

But no, those clever ladies lived forever

and for all their charities would starve the man

who counted for his feed on their transgressions.

No, most of Argyle’s work comes from rank-and-file sinners, whose resentful mourners may suspect a racket but will cover all the bases nevertheless. And he catches it from both sides. In “Argyle in Carrigaholt,” the “grinning” sin-eater gets chewed out by a prelate “famous for / the loud abhorrence that he preached against / adherence to the ancient superstitions.” But Argyle harbors his own contempt for those “who do a brisk trade in indulgences / and tithes and votive lamps and requiems.”

Cruelty toward the defenseless turns his stomach, and more than once he finds himself in profound solidarity with wronged innocents who succumb to the deadly sin of despair and are denied “requiem or rosary.” This refusal of official mercy is at the heart of two of the collection’s most powerful poems: “Argyle’s Ejaculations” and “He Posits Certain Mysteries.”

The father’s words and the sons’ images create a haunting whole. “The Sin-Eater” is a beautiful work of art.

About the writer: Domenica Trevor lives in Ann Arbor and can be scary when she sets her mind to it. Her columns are published periodically in The Ann Arbor Chronicle. The Chronicle relies in part on regular voluntary subscriptions to support our columnists and other contributors. If you’re already supporting The Chronicle, please encourage your friends, neighbors and coworkers to do the same. Click this link for details: Subscribe to The Chronicle.

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Talking Trees, Leafing Through Archives Sun, 06 Feb 2011 14:12:40 +0000 HD [Editor's Note: HD, a.k.a. Dave Askins, editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, is also publisher of an online series of interviews on a teeter totter. Introductions to new Teeter Talks also appear on The Chronicle's website.]

Robb Johnston

Last week, Robb Johnston rode the AATA bus from Ypsilanti into Ann Arbor and walked from downtown to my front porch take his turn on the teeter totter. [Robb Johnston's Talk]

Johnston has written and illustrated a self-published children’s book called “The Woodcutter and The Most Beautiful Tree.” And whenever anyone pitches me Chronicle coverage of a project they’re proud of, my first thought is: “Can I get a teeter totter ride out of this?”

Before Johnston’s ride, I test-read his children’s book the best way I could think of, given that my wife Mary and I do not have children: I read the book aloud to her, and did my best to pretend that she was four years old. It was my own first read through the book, so I was satisfied when I did not stumble too badly over the part of the woodcutter’s refrain that goes, “Thwickety THWAK, Thwickety THWAK.”

Oscar Wilde’s “The Happy Prince” notwithstanding, I think it’s fair to expect that a children’s book with a title like “The Woodcutter and The Most Beautiful Tree” will end well and leave everyone with smiles all around. And it does. So it’s not like I was truly surprised when I turned that one page near the end that reveals exactly how the final encounter between The Most Beautiful Tree and the Woodcutter ends.

But the book’s text and its illustrations pull the reader along to that point, and suggest so unmistakably a dark and dreadful ending, that when I did turn that page, I gulped a genuine breath of relief that she did not wind up getting milled into lumber at the end. [The tree in Johnston's book is female.] Well, yes, you might conclude that I am just that dopey. Or more generously, you might try sometime reading aloud a book you’ve never seen before.

But speaking of things we’ve seen before, some Chronicle readers might be thinking: Haven’t we seen this guy Robb Johnston before? Why yes, you have.

Once Johnston arrived for his totter ride, pre-tottering conversation revealed how The Chronicle had previously encountered him. In April 2010, in his capacity as a temporary city worker in Ann Arbor’s natural area preservation (NAP) program, he had been helping a group of volunteers clear brush on the Argo earthen berm. I’d run past on the path and stopped to inquire in hey-mister-whatcha-doing fashion. And I’d logged the encounter as a Stopped.Watched. item – he’s mentioned there by first name only.

Later when I searched through The Chronicle’s archives for “Robb,” I learned that a few days before the Argo encounter, we’d published an article about the controlled burns conducted by NAP, which mentioned Johnston and includes a photograph of him.

Johnston is currently on his regular extended break from the city, which is part of what defines him as a temporary worker. He’ll start back in a few weeks.

This totter-ride encounter with a city worker, in his guise as a children’s book author, reminded me of some text that was included in the original About The Chronicle section, when we launched this publication in September 2008 [the text has been revised since then]:

… every day we encounter eccentric, enterprising, or regular people doing the remarkable or even the routine.

My recollection is that the sentiment was meant to reflect the idea that our appointed and elected officials are regular people, whose work for the public is a part of the routine – and that’s exactly why it’s worth documenting, just as other routine activity by regular folks is also important to document.

To be clear, Johnston does not strike me as eccentric. He comes across as a regular guy. And he’s now found his way into The Chronicle doing both the routine (his job as a city worker) and the remarkable (writing and illustrating a children’s book).

I’d like to wrap up this introduction to Johnston’s Talk by making a suggestion to those Chronicle readers who still think that an actual children’s book is a routine part of childhood that makes for remarkable memories. You know the kind – a big book that small hands can still handle, with painstakingly hand-drawn illustrations, the kind that you can read aloud and turn pages together with your kid or your spouse, if you don’t have kids. That suggestion is this: Buy the book and read it to a kid. And there’s no reason to wait for Christmas – it has a Christmas ending, but I wouldn’t call it a Christmas book.

For readers who’d prefer not to order online, it’s available at two bricks-and-mortar locations: Vault of Midnight at 219 S. Main St. in downtown Ann Arbor, and Fun 4 All on 2742 Washtenaw Ave.

In thinking about how to read this particular book to children, I’d like to share an insight: I’m pretty sure think that reading this book on a teeter totter with a child would be a mistake. Depending on the child’s ability to appreciate irony, awkward questions could arise: Isn’t this board made out of a tree? Did a woodcutter chop her down to make this teeter totter?!

What, if anything, is there to say to that? Sorry, kid, but not every tree is The Most Beautiful Tree. So maybe it’s better to just choose a comfortable chair.

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Column: Book Fare Sat, 27 Mar 2010 14:33:51 +0000 Domenica Trevor Book cover "Wearing Nothing But a Smile"

Book cover of Steve Amick's "Nothing But a Smile."

Score another Michigan literary honor for Ann Arbor dirty-book writer Steve Amick.

Two novels. Two appearances on the annual listing of Michigan Notable Books. And two small-town Michigan libraries that canceled an appearance by Amick when somebody had a chance to actually take a look at the book.

“Nothing But a Smile,” which came out in paperback (Anchor, $15) last month, was chosen by the Michigan Public Library of Michigan as a 2010 notable book. It’s a charming 1940s story about Sal, the owner of a struggling Detroit Chicago photography shop, who comes up with idea of staging – and posing for – girlie pictures to pay the bills until her husband comes home from the war. While it is, in a sense, about soft-core porn and its, ah, uses, “Nothing But a Smile” comes off “decent and true” – which is also how Amick’s hero, Wink, describes his war buddy’s wife.

“It’s an old-fashioned, sweet book,” says the author, “but … yeah, people have sex. That’s how we got here.”

“Smile” also features an Ann Arbor-related plot twist – one that turned out to have an ironic, real-life parallel.

The Michigan Notable Books program chose Waldron District Library for a reading by Amick, but he was uninvited after parts of the story were deemed a bit much for the tastes of some of the library’s patrons.

And that was déjà vu all over again for Amick and the books program.

Amick’s debut novel, “The Lake, the River & the Other Lake,” was named a 2006 Michigan Notable Book and got great reviews. But the sexual situations in that story, of the Michigan lake resort town of Weneshkeen and some of its more colorful characters, were too frank for the Jonesville District Library, which ultimately took a pass on Amick’s scheduled visit.

Amick was taken aback – but admits to a momentary thrill. “We thought possibly they’d pulled the book from their shelves,” he said. “My editor (at Pantheon) and I got very excited, because that would have been a windfall for me. I mean, to have a banned book? That could have translated into dollars!” Fortunately (or not – it depends on who’s getting paid), “Lake” stayed in circulation.

“People came to the first book thinking ‘Oh, this is about a small town, so it must be about very cute, innocent little people,’” Amick said. “I think that has to do with people’s need to categorize things: ‘Oh, he was trying to be Garrison Keillor – but Garrison Keillor wouldn’t write like that!’”

And you’d expect at least a little smut in his second book – it’s about a homegrown girlie pin-up business, after all. But the innocence of the sex in “Smile” is as convincing of the period as seamed stockings and live dance bands on late-night radio.

“I think I made the marketing department a little nuts,” Amick says.

Amick said he wishes there was “a way to shorten the gap” between the time the notable books are announced and the tour is scheduled.

“Percentage-wise, you’re lucky as a library, especially a small library with few resources, to get somebody to come and do this. It’s kind of a big gift – you’re picked,” Amick said. The libraries apply for consideration “and they don’t know who they’re going to get from the list, and by the time they’re told who you are they probably haven’t read your book. “

Amick says his “Smile” tour schedule includes Central Lake, Spring Lake and Allendale Morenci and Monroe to St. Joseph and Grand Rapids.

Making the 2010 list puts Amick in the company of Bonnie Jo Campbell, Brad Leithauser, Mitch Albom and other writers from Michigan and the across the country. Publishers range from Wayne State University to Norton and Knopf and the list includes a pair of titles from University of Michigan Press: “Isadore’s Secret: Sin, Murder, and Confession in a Northern Michigan Town,” by Mardi Link, and “Bath Massacre: America’s First School Bombing,” by Arnie Bernstein.

“I love the small towns and I love being part of the program,” Amick said. “I’m not setting out to write about Michigan, but it turns out that it’s becoming an important context for me.”

“This is a Michigan boy, born and bred.”

Amick spoke by phone on a Saturday afternoon – outside his Ann Arbor house, so as not to disturb his napping son. “When he’s up, he’s up,” dad said of 3-year-old Huck Lightning, “and I’m writing in the middle of the night.” (Okay. But if you name your kid after a dangerously insightful juvenile delinquent and a manifestation of atmospheric electricity, aren’t you begging for trouble?) He’s working on a novel that “has a lot to do with the culture of celebrity bios and that sort of thing.”

It is set in the 1930s, and Amick says the book will take readers from Escanaba and Traverse City to Hollywood and Belgium. A la E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” he says, “some very unexpected real-life celebrities have walked into the book.”

But next up for publication is a “novella-like short story” about Harry Bennett – Henry Ford’s enforcer – from Bennett’s “fairly troubling point of view,” Amick says. Should readers look forward to something even more lurid than the cracked skulls of striking autoworkers?

Says Amick: “I should never underestimate my ability to offend people.”

About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor and doesn’t mind reading a little smut now and then.

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Book Fare: My Dirty Little Secret Sat, 27 Feb 2010 17:52:20 +0000 Domenica Trevor “There is a marvelous peace in not publishing. It’s peaceful. Still. Publishing is a terrible invasion of my privacy.” – J.D. Salinger

Book cover of "Wild Bells, Wild Sky"

Book cover of "Wild Bells to the Wild Sky" – not written by J.D. Salinger or the author of this column.

He can say that again.

Or not, because he died last month. But Jerome (whom, I should make clear, I never met) and I do have that in common. We both spared ourselves the haunting, humiliating spectacle of publication, although he had to learn the hard way and produce an American classic first.

I, on the other hand, wrote a romance novel so bad as to be unfit for print.

Let’s understand one thing. Everybody loves some kind of trash sometime. Tabloid gossip is, of course, the biggie. In a class I’m taking on probate law at Eastern Michigan University, the professor brought up Michael Jackson’s kids to illustrate how the rights of the surviving parent to custody are ironclad unless those rights have been terminated by a court. “The minute he died,” we were told, “she could have pulled up to Neverland and grabbed those kids. She – heck, I don’t even remember that woman’s na–”

“Debbie Rowe!!” volunteered way too many of my classmates.

Trash, trash, irresistible trash.

Over Thanksgiving, my sister-in-law kept checking out the newly exploded Tiger Woods scandal. “TMZ!” she grinned, waving her iPhone at me across the table. Silly thing. Doesn’t she know that TMZ is what you look at when your employer is paying you to do something else?

According to my calculations, when I worked at The Ann Arbor News pulling wire copy about celebrity “news,” Si Newhouse paid me $27.71 plus pro-rated health, tuition and retirement benefits to read the mean things Alec Baldwin called his adolescent daughter. Recorded on an answering machine, no less. A “little pig”? Ow! I don’t remember much else about that episode, except that in its wake he threatened to quit the acting business (not before NBC cancels “30 Rock” – please!) and that his kid’s name is Ireland. Ireland Baldwin. Swear to god.

No, Sorry. Vampires Are Trash (Except for Dracula)

What was my point here? Oh, yes. My point is that it was not my own valuable time I was wasting. No. I was having trashy fun on a billionaire’s dime.

Trash, trash, fun trash. Everybody loves it, and until very recently most of us were too embarrassed to own up to our specific brand (vampires, say, or Madonna, or “Fantasy Island”) unless it qualified as camp or until it became the subject of doctoral dissertations. This is especially true of men, at least as far as literary trash goes.

Book cover for "The Battle at the Moons of Hell"

Book cover for "The Battle at the Moons of Hell"

Take my husband and dopey science fiction. I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure he eats it up. Occasionally he’ll send one of his brothers a stack of paperbacks to clear some space on his shelves. He says they are about string theory. I suspect he’s lying because the covers feature stuff like robots shooting fire out of their eyes, and you never see that sort of thing on “NOVA” even when it’s a Neil deGrasse Tyson night.

The men in his family frequently engage in e-mail debate over the worthiness of the latest gimmick-heavy comic-book movie or the merits of one laser-‘em-up computer game over another. But here’s the best part: When these guys get together for holidays, they’ll hold forth loudly on black holes or the expansion of the universe or the nature of perceivable reality, and they’re not fooling anybody because each one of them will sneak off at some point to play with little Cody’s “Star Wars” Legos thingie. Trash, trash, dorky trash.

The first romance novel I ever read was a contemporary story by the doyenne of virginal romance fiction, Barbara Cartland. I checked it out of the public library. I can’t recall why I picked it up, but I couldn’t put it down. The woman on the cover looked like Fredo’s bimbo wife in “Godfather II” and the guy resembled George Chakiris in “West Side Story,” only meaner. Of course it was trash; even a seventh-grader could figure that out.

I can’t recall how the blonde ended up an unwilling resident of George’s magnificent estate, but there she was and the servants treated her like a queen all day while George managed his ranch or whatever, and every night an elaborate dinner for two would be served and he would sneer at her by candlelight and she would haughtily demand her freedom, and then he’d spend a couple of hours kissing her passionately before leaving her to toss and turn alone until dawn. In the end she realized she was in love with George and they got married and you could just guess what they did after that because Barbara Cartland certainly wasn’t going to tell you.

My mother saw me curled up in chair, my face in this book. “Why are you bothering with that stuff?” she asked mildly. “It’s trash.”

When we were growing up Mom would frequently sweep her hand in the direction of the University of Chicago Great Books, which held pride of place in the living room bookcase. She and Dad bought that set in the ’50s, when they really didn’t have much money to spare. Aristotle! The Federalist Papers! Darwin! These were important ideas!

But what book was open, face down, on the end table when we got up to go to school in the morning? The one beside her empty coffee cup and the ashtray and the remnants of a slice of lemon meringue pie? “Mistress of Mellyn” by Victoria Holt, thank you very much.

Summer Love

I love that Mom’s trash was so resolutely chaste. I, however, discovered the unprecedentedly steamy “The Flame and the Flower” by Kathleen Woodiwiss during the summer of the Watergate hearings, which were spiced up by a romance, too. No, not John and Martha Mitchell. Remember Maureen Dean, the soignee blonde who sat loyally behind husband John while he tattled on the Nixon administration? Her striking good looks were even more intriguing because, as some of you surely recall, even for the ’70s, John Dean was a serious dweeb.

Book cover of "On the Night of the Seventh Moon"

Book cover of "On the Night of the Seventh Moon."

Anyhoo, that summer I scoped out Mo Dean during the hearings and gobbled up the story of Heather, whose raven-haired, violet-eyed loveliness of course meant big trouble from her step-uncle or some such lech. She takes flight one night in the belief that she has slain the cad in a struggle to preserve her honor. Roaming the dark streets of some English port city, Heather is soon snatched up by a pair of ruffians who take her to a ship, which she thinks is a jail but it isn’t, and Brandon, the captain of the ship, thinks she’s a prostitute, which she isn’t, and … well.

What happened next is what often happened in historical romance novels written in the 1970s. The heroine is raped by the, um, “hero.” And she ends up falling in love with him anyway. Now, at that time I was more than vaguely aware that what Brandon had done to Heather was bad, but clearly the repugnance of rape as a convenient plotting device hadn’t fully sunk in. Women spoke up and publishers eventually got the message: “Sweet Savage Love” can be a wild romp, but sexual assault is no longer an opportunity for meet-cute.

College is, of course, a time for more ethereal means of escapism. But I still found time to inhale the occasional bodice-ripper. I toyed with the idea of writing my own, but historical romances are a lot of work even if they do get away with inserting such unlikely elements as frequent bathing during the time of William the Conqueror.

After college I got a job with a regular wage and paid vacation time – which at the time I actually believed to be a permanent condition of adulthood. Talk about trashy fiction! For several summers in a row, my best friend from journalism school and I drove from central Illinois to Nag’s Head, N.C. In the back seat were the latest additions to our substantial and growing collection of Harlequin and Silhouette romances that featured plucky lady reporters.

In Nag’s Head we found a kind of bliss that was never to be recaptured. Jan and I discovered this amazing place called the Brew Thru: we could stock up on a week’s supply of beer without even getting out of the car! (Years later, Jan’s eyes brimmed with nostalgic tears when I pointed out Ann Arbor’s very own Beer Depot.) Cold Pop-Tarts for breakfast, Ritz crackers and Velveeta for dinner, and day after blistering day of beer on the beach with wonderfully bad books.

We’d read the best lines aloud to each other:

“Lexie wasn’t the kind of obsessive reporter who read the newspaper every single day. She hungered for a real life.”

“Vanya stifled a glower of annoyance and flashed his ice blue eyes at the inquiring correspondent.”

“She hurled her pen aside. ‘Shut up and kiss me!’ she spat.”

I came away from those seaside summer vacations with a chronic skin allergy caused by too much sun and, even better, the soul-searing knowledge that I could write a category romance every bit as awful as the ones Jan and I traded back and forth from our side-by-side beach chairs on the hot sands of the Outer Banks.

Time to Get Plucky

Fast-forward to Ann Arbor, 1992. Husband and I want to buy a house. But this was a long, long, time ago, in the days of what was known as the “down payment.” We had none. What to do?

I set to work, pluckily, on a tale of the wounded, impoverished widow of a crazy young man whose rich and grudge-bearing parents want to make her life a living hell but will settle for custody of their adorable grandson. She meets a guy who is hardened by his own heartbreak. He’s aloof, she’s tormented, he’s baffled, she’s leery, passion smolders and they resist it and waver and come together and part again and then it ignites ka-blammo! … and when the smoke clears they iron out the remaining complications and it’s all good and she isn’t poor anymore.

The most rewarding part of crafting my story was reading the hot parts to Jan. Invariably I’d catch her at work: “You’re not one of those obsessive journalists who pays attention to deadlines, are you? Of course you’re not. Put down those sewer commission minutes and listen to this.” Then I’d read her a draft of one of my novel’s excruciatingly cheesy sex scenes, none of which shall be available for review here or anywhere else as long as I live.

After some six months of dogged labor, I confidently mailed a query letter, a synopsis, the first three chapters and my pen name to Silhouette.

In no time they wrote back, requesting the entire manuscript.


Off it went, and I sat back to await that packet that would be so fat it would barely fit through the mail slot. The one that would whisper “contract,” hotly, into my shell-like ear. The one that fairly throbbed with the promise of sweet, so-long-denied, only-dared-to-be-dreamt-of money.

A few weeks later a one-page letter arrived from Silhouette to inform me that “while you write very well, we suspect that your heart really isn’t in this.”

WHAT? They could tell? They could see the difference between a heartfelt love story and, well, trash?

Like J.D. Salinger in his long later period, I was spared the humiliation of publication. I mean, really. If you had ever aspired to be a serious writer, do you really want “The Cashier and the Cowboy” on your vitae unless you really loved that cowboy and really felt that cashier’s pain? My cynical effort sits on a bookshelf, reminding me of my own time wasted and that, maybe, someday, there might be even more reward to sincere effort than the effort itself.

Still, all’s well that ends well.

Fifteen years later, my husband and I find that the fates have assigned us to that strange subspecies of 21st century American homeowner that actually owes less on their house than what the market says it’s worth.

As it turned out, we didn’t need a down payment. In 1995, my husband was still eligible for a VA mortgage. How vividly I recall the night he revealed the existence of this secret treasure …

She watched him at his computer, his strong, intelligent profile bathed in the electric-blue light that pulsed from the monitor. Manic asteroids, pinpoints of pixelated color, skittered and flashed as he fired away at them, his hand skilled and sure on the joystick.

“If only I had known!” She felt herself sway, buffeted by a sudden gust of white-hot feeling that threatened to overwhelm her, to rob her of reason. “Why? Why didn’t you think to tell me, before … before I… did what I did?”

“I dunno,” he murmured, his focus rock-steady, unblinking. Zap! Whoosh! Beepbeep! Boodledeebip! “I guess I forgot.”

It was as if her hands had, in that instant, claimed a life of their own. They trembled with it. They reached out for him. Inexorably. Irresistibly. She wrapped her fingers around the warm, muscular column of his neck … tight, tighter ….

Who the Hell Is Heidi Montag?

People magazine is my trash of choice nowadays. Every eight weeks or so I pay a visit to my hairdresser, and while she works her magic I catch up on the red-carpet photos of actresses in fabulous gowns and update my count of the number of kids in the Brangelina household. Jennifer Aniston celebrated her 41st birthday in Mexico, in a sombrero, with her toned arms and her best girlfriends. George Clooney? Oh, yeah.

But this isn’t going to do it for me much longer. Easily 80% of the “famous” people in People are people I never heard of. Jason? Kristen? Zac? Huh? Never mind why I should care that Heidi Montag can’t move her face – who the hell is Heidi Montag? It gets to the point where you wonder what Mo Dean is up to these days.

Well, I’ll tell you. She’s enjoying Salinger’s “marvelous peace.” The one that comes from not publishing.

Mo’s first novel, “Washington Wives,” came out in 1988. Her second, in 1992, was “Capitol Secrets”: “Aiming to be the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives,” blurbed Library Journal, “Rep. Laura Cristen unexpectedly learns that the cosmetics company she founded is about to secretly distribute a mind-control drug. “

They’re both out of print. Dawn Treader, here I come.

About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader and gratefully unpublished romance novelist who lives in Ann Arbor.

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Column: Book Fare Sat, 30 Jan 2010 13:45:04 +0000 Domenica Trevor

Cover for Margaret Fuchs Singer's memoir.

When a member of my book group recommended Margaret Fuchs Singer’s recently published “Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter’s Reckoning,” I assumed the longtime Ann Arbor resident’s contribution to the literature of America’s red-diaper babies would be another account of growing up with a parent who joined the Communist Party in the 1930s, became disillusioned but still refused to inform on former comrades – and suffered for it.

I got it wrong.

Singer’s father, Herbert Fuchs, cooperated with the House Un-American Activities Committee. He informed. He named names. He told the whole truth – about a profound commitment and a profound mistake – and suffered for it.

His family, of course, suffered for it, too.

Singer’s story opens on a June evening in 1955, when she was 13 and her father, a law professor at American University in Washington, D.C., reveals to his son and daughter that their parents had been members of the Communist Party – and that he expected to be subpoenaed soon by HUAC.

The news stuns her:

“… My father might as well have told us that he and my mother were convicted felons. Or terminally ill. … What I had learned about Communism I had learned from the media, which reflected our government’s conviction that Communists were the ultimate enemy of the American people, an evil threat to the free world, a force determined to infiltrate our cities and take over the minds and lives of innocent Americans, just like me.”

Committed Communists

Singer’s parents were labor lawyers in New York City who saw in the Communist Party in the 1930s an organization committed, in Fuchs’ words, to “social reform, opposition to fascism, fighting against unemployment and bigotry.” And like many other well-educated, left-wing intellectuals, they were drawn to Washington by the possibilities of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Frances and Herbert found jobs in the federal government: she with the Bureau of Labor Statistics and, later, the War Production Board; he went from a Senate staff position to the National Labor Relations Board, where he led a secret unit of employees who were party members. Singer’s parents joined another party group in Denver after Fuchs relocated there to work at the National War Labor Board. But by the end of the war he had grown disillusioned with the CPUSA and, after returning with his family to Washington, left the party in 1946.

Nine years after that, Fuchs was subpoenaed by HUAC. Using her father’s journals, Singer lays bare his anguish and examines the complex factors that went into his decision to cooperate. And she shares the overwhelming anxiety, loneliness and shame that consumed her as her father’s past became not only front-page news but the talk, albeit hushed, of the neighborhood. Decades later, Singer learned of the “neighbor-to-neighbor calls cautioning the parents of our friends not to let their sons and daughters associate any longer with ‘those Fuchs children.’”

Her father’s troubles added to the sense of being an outsider in a community, Singer writes, “where my parents’ liberal views stood out as strange, where houses a block from ours were closed to Jews, and where jeering boys called me ‘Jew girl’ as I walked home from school.”

Cause Célèbre

The hard left shunned Fuchs. From the crank right came nasty, anonymous phone calls to the family home. And American University fired him – mere days after a memo from AU President Hurst R. Anderson proclaimed that it “would be beneath the dignity of the institution” to do anything but support an “intelligent, loyal and devoted teacher” who made “a serious mistake in his past, which he has recognized and declared.”

Fuchs’ dismissal and AU’s refusal to reconsider became a cause célèbre among anti-Communist mainstream liberals. The Association of American Law Schools and the American Association of University Professors recommended AU’s censure. Even William F. Buckley’s brand new National Review chimed in, criticizing the persecution of a witness who had assisted with what the magazine saw, of course, as vital work by HUAC.

“Every time you turn,” Singer said, in an interview, of the dizzying complexity of the affair, “there’s another way of looking at it.”

With assistance from HUAC Chairman Francis Walter, Fuchs eventually found work on the staff of then-House Judiciary Chairman Emanuel Celler, where he remained until his retirement. In the intervening years, Singer’s parents rebuilt a life that included meaningful work and friendships as well as travel and other comforts of middle-class American life.

“It ended, and we just closed it off,” she said.

But the emotional fallout remained. Singer writes that the anxiety present in her household even before her parents’ past became known stayed with her, leaving her with a “crippling, amorphous fear that affected my personal and professional life.”

And “the shame that they were Communists … and then shame that they named names…,” she said, “it lasted our whole life.”

‘Resolving the Trauma’

“I was not destined to write,” Singer said. In high school, she tried to put her family’s experience into words for a class project and “bombed utterly. Couldn’t get any of the feeling, any of the emotion.”

Author Margaret Fuchs Singer, next to a display that includes her memoir at the downtown Borders store on East Liberty. As of Thursday, the store had sold 45 copies of the book. (Photo by The Chronicle)

Author Margaret Fuchs Singer, next to a display that includes her memoir at the downtown Borders store on East Liberty. As of Thursday, the store had sold 45 copies of the book, “Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter’s Reckoning." She'll be holding a reading there on Feb. 9. (Photo by The Chronicle)

It would be decades before the possibility resurfaced. “It was at the point at which my parents died,” she said, “and I started to read.” She started with “Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir,” by red-diaper baby Carl Bernstein, “and then the need to write just really overwhelmed me.”

What resulted is what Singer calls “a memoir informed by research” whose principal aims were “resolving the trauma” and laying out the full story for the next generation.

“I really had a need to tell my children and my two nieces as best I could, as truthfully as I could, what happened,” she said. “Because I really didn’t think anybody else was going to dig up all that stuff.”

It took guts to write this book. Singer not only returned to a painful youth in order to bare “the family secret,” but in her reading and the study of her parents’ papers discovered and investigated another, darker possibility: could her mother – perhaps knowingly – have spied for the Soviet Union?

“The fact is, the American Communist Party was a group of very enthusiastic people who had goals that were as good as they could be,” Singer said. “They worked very, very hard for their country, they weren’t disloyal, they thought that the Soviet Union represented a hope for the future of working people, racial relations, anti-fascism.

“At the same time, I am now convinced, without any question, the Soviet Union had as a goal to get help in the U.S. getting information.” The CPUSA, she says, was “the obvious” tool to get that job done.

Singer believes her mother would have understood the motives behind “Legacy of a False Promise.”

“The family secret really wasn’t doing me any good,” she said. “And I don’t subscribe to keeping family secrets when you don’t have to. I actually experienced freeing myself of the shame by writing the book. And she would have approved of that.”

Of her father’s approval, she is less certain.

Early in the book she recalls his warning: “’I don’t know what will happen, and I must ask you not to discuss this with anyone.’” For decades the words and the fear remained with her. Her father was a private person, Singer said, and “a man who was basically a very decent human being: ethical, conscientious, hardworking, very bright, who was human. And in some ways his greatest strengths were also his flaws; it’s a tragic story.

“But I think it comes across as a portrayal of a man who is really a good man. That’s what I think. Without actually being self-serving about it, without making excuses. If I did that, then I think that that’s a good thing.”

More From an Interview With Margaret Singer

A recent show of support: On Jan. 19 at Nicola’s Books, a big turnout – at least 50, Singer believes – of friends, family, colleagues and others bearing congratulations left her “geeked.”

Her long-term support system: Singer and fellow authors Susan Morales (two as-yet unpublished novels, “Mornings One Winter” and “A Barroom View of Love”) and Brenda Meisels (the self-published “Family at Booknook”) have met every two weeks for the past 10 years to share feedback on manuscripts-in-progress. “It is so gratifying,” she said, to have “no doubt about their being in your camp and respecting you and your ability to write.”

The meaning of tenacity: Singer says she wrote about 90 query letters in her effort to find an agent and a publisher for “Legacy of a False Promise.” She realized early on that a university press would be the best option, and working with the editors at The University of Alabama Press turned out to be an “absolutely fabulous experience.”

A legacy of McCarthyism at the University of Michigan: The UM Senate’s annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom. In 1954, UM suspended three members of the faculty (it later reinstated one of them) for refusing to testify in front of a group from HUAC who were visiting the campus. The senate established the lecture, named in honor of the targeted faculty, in 1990 and passed a resolution criticizing “the failure of the university community to protect the values of intellectual freedom.”

A “fellow traveler”: Journalist Kati Marton took a literary journey similar to Singer’s. “Enemies of the People: My Family’s Journey to America” (Simon & Schuster, 2009) is Marton’s examination of the lives her journalist parents in Communist Hungary and the consequences of their choices for their two daughters. Singer said she drew up her courage and sent Marton an e-mail “listing the ways I related to the book; I felt a kinship to her.” Marton replied moments later: “I’m going out now to get your book,” she wrote; “thank you for your kind words about mine.”

Margaret Fuchs Singer will read from “Legacy of a False Promise: A Daughter’s Reckoning” on Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 7 p.m. at Borders Books, 612 E. Liberty St. in Ann Arbor.

About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor.

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Column: Book Fare Sat, 31 Oct 2009 10:01:48 +0000 Domenica Trevor Domenica Trevor

Domenica Trevor

Start with some quick history: Josef Stalin’s campaign in the late 1930s to consolidate his control of the Communist Party spun into a terror that counted both old Bolsheviks and a new generation of party faithful among its victims. The leadership of the Red Army was decimated. Intellectuals were seized and interrogated and, like so many others under torture, falsely denounced others.

Inevitably, the masses caught on to the madness; pointing the finger at a neighbor could suddenly open up that three-room apartment next door. By the time the rampage was reined in, some 1.5 million people had been arrested and imprisoned; half again as many were executed or perished in the gulag.

Fast forward to the present: You’re a 29-year-old with an MFA, in Moscow to do research for your first novel. Lev Mendelevich Gurvich, himself caught up in the purges, has welcomed you into his apartment and has agreed to tell you his story. Gurvich, in his 90s but still with a sharp mind, had in the 1930s been editor of the literary magazine of the Komsomol, the Communist youth movement of the U.S.S.R. He was arrested, interrogated, sent to a labor camp.

You tell him about your novel, the story of a disgraced teacher of literature who now works as an “archivist” at Moscow’s infamous Lubyanka prison. Pavel Dubrov’s guilt and sorrow threaten to deaden him into numbness until a brief, official encounter with the prisoner Isaac Babel stirs him to rescue the condemned writer’s last manuscript from the prison’s furnace. Pavel smuggles it out of Lubyanka under his coat.

I met Babel, this survivor of the gulag tells you. I was at Stalin’s rallies; yes, I heard Stalin speak. But at one point the old man stops to ask, pointedly if not unkindly: Who are you to write this book?

“I wasn’t insulted,” Travis Holland says. “It was a question I asked myself.”

A more than fair question. But Holland’s answer, “The Archivist’s Story,” proved that his audacity was matched by his gifts.

Published by Dial Press in 2007 and issued in paperback the following year, the novel has been translated into at least a dozen languages and its author has collected as many honors. “The Archivist’s Story” was nominated for the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (its company on the shortlist for 2009 included Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer-winning “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”). Holland won the 2007 Cabell First Novelist Award from Virginia Commonwealth University; his novel won a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Award and Publisher’s Weekly named it a Best Book of 2007. London-based Financial Times named it a Best Book of 2007; it was a Guardian Readers’ Pick as well.

Book cover of "The Archivist's Story" by Travis Holland.

The acclaim has been “immensely gratifying,” says the University of Michigan graduate, who lives with his wife and children in Dexter. “Nothing in my background had ever prepared me.”

Holland grew up in a working-class Georgia family; his parents, who separated when he was small, had “a high regard” for writers. His father, the son of a sharecropper, earned a living as an electrician but “was always writing – working in his little yellow notebooks,” Holland says.

“He’d always talk about writers as working men,” Holland said of their conversations about books and authors: “‘What about this Steinbeck guy, Dad?’ ‘Oh yeah, he’s a working man. He’s a good guy.’ ‘What about Mailer?’ I’d say. ‘Aw, screw him.’”

The ethic took root. “Writing is about sitting down and doing your work,” he says. “It’s not about talking about it.” And he describes spending his 20s writing “almost in virtual silence.”

“I was fortunate enough to have some teachers and some people encourage me quite a bit, but for the most part I would work years on stories and maybe they got published or maybe they didn’t. And if they got published, I didn’t really meet anyone who’d read them.”

Now, Holland says, “that connection has been made – that connection I write about in “The Archivist’s Story,” with Pavel and the things he reads. I really feel that way when I read something. … It’s one voice speaking and, in this case, it’s my voice. So that wonderful connection with the reader – it’s amazing.”

Pavel’s job title is ironic: This archivist’s task, essentially, is to destroy books – to silence memory, to erase the past. He comes to Lubyanka after being dismissed from an academy for taking part in falsely denouncing a colleague who has later committed suicide. At the prison, Pavel’s sudden, reckless act must certainly arise from an impulse to atone, to keep alive a voice that connects past, present and future. He sees the essential value of preserving one man’s experience.

Rescuing Babel’s last story is “the ultimate act of self-disregard, for principle,” Holland says. “I mean, giving your life for a story? For an idea?”

“The Archivist’s Story” is “my homage to all writers,” he says, “everything I’ve ever read and loved and that has stayed with me.”

Travis Holland, reading from his yet-untitled new novel at an Oct. 22 University of Michigan Zell Visiting Writers Series event.

Travis Holland, reading from his yet-untitled new novel at an Oct. 22 University of Michigan Zell Visiting Writers Series event.

Holland is deep at work on his second novel, as yet untitled – or, at least, he isn’t giving it away yet. He read from it Oct. 22 at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, as part of the UM Zell Visiting Writers Series. “With luck, maybe in the spring,” he says, it will be ready for his publisher.

Set 40 years in the future with flashbacks to the present, the story is told from the perspective of a woman who as a teenager survived an apocalyptic plague. She flees to a grand house on a lake with the privileged family that employs her father as a handyman; they’re retreating to an idyll presumably to wait for the end.

“She’s now looking back at that time,” Holland says. “And it’s a lot about the strange contrast between that beautiful lake and her experiences at the lake and what was going on outside.”

Holland says his inspiration came in part from his reading of Giovanni Boccaccio’s “The Decameron,” in which a group of nobles who have fled the Black Death decide to tell themselves magnificent tales as a diversion from the horror.

Holland says he was captivated by Boccaccio’s introduction to “The Decameron,” where the scene is set in a Florence gripped by mass death.

In some cases the wealthy, taking along servants to fetch back the necessities of life, “left the city and went to the countryside, surrounded themselves by beauty and – I thought this was interesting,” Holland says, “told their servants that no matter where you go, what you see, bring back none of this to us. We do not want to hear about it. That stuck with me, that you could live in this splendor while you thought the world might be ending outside.”

In his new novel, Holland says, the central character must confront a future whose very existence she hadn’t anticipated. “‘We lived through this thing that we thought was going to take all the choices out of our hands,’” she realizes, “‘and now we have to live the rest of our lives.’”

“It’s a lot about the stories we tell ourselves about the end,” Holland says of his work in progress. “Why are we human beings fixated on stories of the apocalypse? Why are we always thinking that our generation is at the very edge of time? Because if you go back in history, you look back to the Middle Ages … they thought that this was the end of time. If you go back to the year 1000, they thought that was the end of time. And if you look nowadays, we have this upsurge in apocalyptic stories” – from Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” to Laura Kasischke’s just published “In A Perfect World.

“Human beings are aware of the fact that one day things will end,” Holland observes. “In a strange way, I think, we tell ourselves these stories as a kind of comfort …, almost like going through a haunted house, and at the end you get to walk out.”

Nicholas Delbanco, UM English professor and chair of the Hopwood Award committee

Nicholas Delbanco – UM English professor, chair of the Hopwood Award committee and director of the MFA creative writing program – at the Oct. 22 reading by Travis Holland.

The earlier versions of what would become “The Archivist’s Story” were well received by Holland’s teachers and fellow students in the MFA program at UM. And with grant money from a Fred J. Meijer Fellowship in Creative Writing, he was able to spend the year after he finished the program revising the novel and doing research. This included two trips to Moscow, during which he was aided by a translator and his own study of the Russian language at UM.

With assistance from the Andrei Sakharov Foundation, Holland “was able to meet some men and women who had been through the purges, who had actually been sentenced to the camps, to the gulag,” he says. “They opened up their homes to me. … They were unfailingly courteous and helpful and welcoming. They would answer all my questions.”

And how did Holland answer the question posed to him, from the purge survivor Gurvich?

“I told him what got me into the story and how strongly I felt about it but, I said, ‘in the end, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do this.’

“I think that every time you sit down to write a story or a poem or paint a picture – or whatever you’re doing as an artist – you’re bound to fail at some point. The idea that you have in your head, this dream you’ve been carrying around,” he says, “getting it out is always an act in some ways of failure because it never quite meets that ideal that you had. But I said, ‘with everything that I am I’m going to try. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this, but I will try to do this. I’ll try.’

“I think that’s one reason why I did so much research and one reason why I spent so much time on the book: It was that I didn’t want to fail, or I wanted to fail well if I failed.”

We should all hope he fails so exquisitely again.

More from an interview with Travis Holland:

On what he’s been reading: Alistair MacLeod’s “No Great Mischief,” Dan Chaon’s “Await Your Reply.” He mentions Alice McDermott’s “After This” as an “important book that I go back to.” And, “I want to go out and buy Lorrie Moore’s new book (“A Gate At The Stairs”).”

On friendships with writers he met at UM: “Elizabeth Kostova is still my go-to reader. I just read her new novel (“The Swan Thieves,” out in January from Little, Brown). … A big door-stoppper! With a lot of research and many narrative threads.”

What he learned working on his first novel: “There are a lot of people who love Isaac Babel.” (Look for “The Complete Works of Isaac Babel,” published in paperback in 2001 by W.W. Norton, at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor.)

His day job? For the past two years, Holland has led a creative writing course in conjunction with the Knight-Wallace Fellows Program for journalists at UM. (Babel is on the reading list.)

His next title? After tackling Stalin’s purges and an apocalyptic plague, Holland says he sees something along the lines of “Puppies, Flowers and More Puppies.”

About the writer: Domenica Trevor is a voracious reader who lives in Ann Arbor.

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Teaching French By the Book Fri, 02 Oct 2009 12:38:56 +0000 Jo Mathis Jo Mathis

Jo Mathis

There’s nothing worse than facing a room of 25 college kids – and boring them, says University of Michigan French instructor Jenni Gordon.

In Paris years ago, the Ann Arbor resident discovered the power of storytelling in the classroom. Recently, in an attempt to help her UM students grasp the difficult concept of imparfait (imperfect past tense), Gordon wrote and illustrated a bilingual children’s story to share with them.

It worked.

The story of a little girl named Mathilde stirred within the students so many memories of childhood. “Suddenly, lots of people had a story to tell in the past tense!” said Gordon.

Now Press Lorentz/littleBeast Books in Ann Arbor has published Gordon’s story of Mathilde, a little girl with mixed feelings about her new baby brother. It’s titled both “Les Problemes de Mathilde” and – on the flip side – “One day, I had enough!”

The story is already a hit with the 20-ish crowd.

“I realized I had something going for me when they’d say, ‘No, no, don’t stop there. Keep going!’” recalled Gordon, sitting in her apartment on the city’s north side. “And this was a group of undergraduate students.”

The story is a familiar one. As the oldest of four children, Gordon recalls what a drag it was to “welcome” a baby sister into the family decades ago. “I thought she was coming with her parents – and leaving with them,” she recalled with a laugh.

Gordon, a first-time author at 57, said the collaborative endeavor has been both creative, and lots of fun.

The French cover of Jenni Gordon's "Les Problemes de Mathilde."

The French cover of Jenni Gordon's "Les Problemes de Mathilde." The flip side is in English.

Publisher Jude Wilson got involved with the project when she fell in love with the character of Mathilde, and knew others would, too.

“The combination of Jenni’s brilliant illustrations and narrative style immediately convinced me that readers of just about any age would instantly want to be friends with Mathilde, could read her story a hundred times and still enjoy it, and would identify with both her problem and the ultimate solution,” she said.

Wilson also thinks Ann Arbor parents will like the idea of a bilingual book as a way to introduce their children to the French language.

Born in Detroit and raised in the metropolitan area, Gordon earned a bachelor’s degree in education at UM. After working for three years in Nashville and Boston, she decided it was time for adventure. A big one.

“I had studied French in high school so I could speak it, but as soon as someone answered me, that was the end of the conversation,” she said. “But I was fascinated with the chance to step into another universe.”

So she packed up and moved to Paris, staying the first couple weeks with cousins she’d never met. Soon she was teaching English as a foreign language in a French private school.

“They had me teaching six- and seven-year-olds a language they didn’t understand at 3 in the afternoon,” she said. “The French school day is fairly intense. So by that time, they were all kind of basket cases.”

One day she drew a small dog – the only thing she could draw at the time – and began a tale about a pup named Hoover.

That’s all it took.

“Suddenly I realized the power of drawing, and the power of a story,” she said.

“Anytime I wanted to get their attention and teach them something, I’d use the character of Hoover.”

Soon she was drawing other little characters, again keeping the kids’ interest in their stories. Through the years, she realized people of all ages love a good story.

“Stories, particularly stories that engage the emotions, and sometimes old buried universal emotions, tend to awaken if not passion, a very focused interest and sense of fun,” she said.

Jenni Gordon

Jenni Gordon, author of "Les Problemes de Mathilde."

After a few years, she switched to tour guiding, escorting groups of American teachers and students on educational tours throughout western Europe.

The job wasn’t as romantic as it sounds.

“You’re up every day at 6 with your suitcase, responsible for 40 teenagers who are losing their passports, busting into the mini bar, and passing out in the hallway,” she said with a smile.

When she returned to the United States in 1995, Gordon spent four years teaching English as a Foreign Language to adults of varied nationalities in Detroit before beginning work as a lecturer at UM in 1999. As a full-time instructor, she teaches all levels of elementary French.

“French is an abstract language, and there’s a way of communicating, whether it’s with someone on a train or with someone with whom you’re having dinner, that goes very easily to an abstract level. The conversation itself takes on a life of its own,” she said. “American conversation tends to be more personal, more sharing, more open in a lot of different ways. So if you’re deprived of either of them – in my case, because I was brought up American and lived in France – then I miss them.”

Gordon, who is single, lives in an apartment in the upper level of a house on the city’s north side. She loves it not because it reminds her of bustling Paris – but because it doesn’t. Rather, it’s quiet and woodsy and feels very Midwest American.

Still, she misses Parisian culture.

“I would miss it much more if I weren’t working in the French department, because it’s a very international environment, and I’m speaking the language all the time,” she said. “But I do miss it. It’s a hard place not to miss … Paris has a personality all its own, and you can develop a love-hate relationship with it, just like a lover.”

Gordon’s book is available by ordering online at Press Lorentz/littleBeast Books or calling 734-604-1627.

About the author: Jo Mathis is an Ann Arbor-based writer.

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