Hot Off the Presses! Mary Farmer’s “Pressed” a Cool Read

I was pleased to finally read straight through Mary Farmer’s new novel, Pressed. It’s been so much fun reading and critiquing the occasional chapter over the last year! As a member of a writing group (NWG), one can’t help but feel some of the glow of satisfaction Mary must bask in after the completion of her book. And maybe a touch of pride that “one of our own” achieved her goal. Okay, and maybe even a little misplaced sense of accomplishment at having helped in some small way for Pressed to be a better book. Wishing Mary much success. I know her readers will love Pressed. Here is the review I wrote for Amazon, which is where you can buy the book:

Pressed by Marilyn Farmer is a fun book that will keep you turning pages as you follow main character Tank Lismore from the printing house parking lot all the way to the swan pond at the public park. Along that journey you will cheer for the young man to finally take action in his life. You’ll want to see him gather up the courage to approach the object of his desire, the lovely Sloane, who graces the carpeted offices of company management. Tank meanwhile, dwells in the underworld of the printing presses where he is a capable worker. They will come together in the break room over a big diamond ring and a cell phone. Hilarity and danger ensue.

Tank Lismore is one of those characters you love to root for, in spite of his sometimes poor judgement, especially in matters of the heart. Much the same can be said about Sloane, who grows on us as we get to know her. Both of them are up against some of the more entertaining adversaries in contemporary fiction. Not the least of these is Tank’s ne’er-do-well cousin Riley, who swears he’s “got Tank’s back”,  but… well, you’ll find out. In addition to Riley, Tank faces savage bikers, bumbling goons and slick crooked lawyers – to say nothing of the police, including his own Uncle Al.

Farmer’s fast-paced tale has humor and pathos and plenty of suspense. Is it a romantic comedy or a crime thriller? I say yes! But you should judge for yourself.


Christine Sneed: “The Virginity of Famous Men”

The Virginity of Famous MenThe Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up this collection of stories from Christine Sneed the night she spoke to our writing group in Naperville back in September 2017. We had asked her to do a presentation for an hour at one of our regular weekly meetings. She proposed an outline for a talk “On Maintaining Momentum in Your Fiction.” We thought it would have some value for many of the fiction writers in our group. Alas, some were disappointed, and several felt the talk to be somewhat condescending and elementary. I don’t remember the word “momentum” being mentioned.

I grant it would be difficult for someone unfamiliar with the group to know what level of skill , what knowledge of literature the audience would bring. So perhaps Ms. Sneed can be forgiven for her compact high-school English lessons on character, conflict, plot and point of view.

Personally, I was interested in reading some genuine prize-winning literary fiction (as opposed to genre fiction, of which it turns out I am mostly guilty. Sneed’s fiction has won numerous prizes and acknowledgements, she teaches writing, and she directs the MA/MFA program at Northwestern University. So I wanted to learn from her stories. By Sneed’s own definition, literary fiction is character-driven fiction in which the character’s interior life is described and explored in a way that leads to an insight about his/her place in the world. The stories in “The Virginity of Famous Men” fit that bill pretty well.

They are not plot driven and don’t concern themselves so much with external conflicts. Take “Beach Vacation”, in which a woman ends up vacationing with her teen-age son at a resort where she discovers she really doesn’t like her kid very much. Well, rightly so, the kid’s a jerk, end of story. In “The First Wife”, that personage describes her marriage to a celebrity as it moves to its inevitable slow death. In “The Prettiest Girls” a Hollywood studio representative on location in Mexico falls for a pretty local girl and brings her back to L.A. We are no less surprised than the narrator when she eventually leaves him for another man. Very little actually happens in these stories. True, the characters DO things, but not BIG things that you would consider major scenes in the plot. Yet, I didn’t feel much was happening on the interior, either. Except for the mother in Beach Vacation, characters didn’t seem to learn anything – either about themselves or the world. But maybe I’m just missing it.

My favorite stories included “Five Rooms,” which I thought clever and original and well-written. A bored and bitchy teen-age girl is farmed out as penance for some infraction to help out a blind neighbor. Through the girl’s narration, which is strong and true, we discover that she isn’t such a bad person after all, far from it; and she herself discovers her own depths of goodness and compassion.
I also liked “Roger Weber Would Like To Stay.” Roger is the ghost of a dead pianist and onetime Romeo from an earlier era who haunts a single woman. She takes to him at first, but then he just starts to wear a little thin.

Another inventive story that benefits from a quirky situation and a colorful narrator is “Whatshisname.” Josh has suffered brain damage that makes him prone to irrational behavior and occasional “pronoun dyslexia,” according to his somewhat insensitive and lowclass girlfriend. Amusing things happen in the story – Josh wins the Lotto and comes up with some really stupid ways to spend the money for excellent causes — but it’s mostly about their relationship.
All of these stories are nicely written, and as mentioned, many of them introduce quite imaginative characters and situations. But if you are used to genre fiction where shit happens or people do things, you might get bored. On the other hand, if you are into literary fiction, this book is full of it.

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The Plot Thickens at Iowa Summer Writing Festival

IowaPictureI enjoyed a great week in Iowa city at the Summer Writing Festival. This is the second year I’ve indulged myself in this floating literary community, where writers of all genres, abilities and experience wade into the waters as deeply as they please. Personally, I wanted to dive into the deep end and participate as fully as I could. But getting the most out of it takes a lot of energy.

I had signed up for Kelly Dwyer’s class on “Plotting the Novel.” To start with, Kelly took it easy on us, not requiring any reading or writing before the class met. But from our first session Sunday night, it was work work work the rest of the week. Our ultimate goal was for each of us to produce a working plot outline for our fiction projects, but additional assignments had us writing every day.

Possible distractions from writing  are the social activities of the week-long sessions. I wouldn’t want to miss these bits that make the Summer Writing Festival special. Every day the “11th Hour” lectures feature presentations from the talented faculty. A Monday night reception (with open bar) at the most excellent Prairie Lights book store is followed by readings. The Beadology store offers an open mic for the participants to share their works in progress. Throughout the week there are dinners, dancing, and lunches with classmates. All day every day participants are hanging out writing, drinking coffee, and socializing at the Bread Garden.

Arriving in Iowa City I had only the vaguest idea for a book. By the end of the week I had somehow put together a fairly detailed outline for my next novel. Thanks to Kelly Dwyer and the helpful and astute comments from classmates, I have enough of a plan to start work immediately, plus an opening scene and lots of good ideas. Beyond that, I also feel refreshed , energized and motivated to begin the new project.

The Path to the Spiders’ Nests

The Path to the Spiders' NestsThe Path to the Spiders’ Nests by Italo Calvino

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hard to judge a novel like this, knowing it’s in translation, not being familiar with Calvino at all. The tone is stark, matter-of-fact. He tells the story of young Pip, an orphan in a devastated Italian town during WWII. His sister is the dark whore of the Long Alley, who consorts and collaborates with the occupying Germans, while Pip ends up tagging along with resistance fighters up in the hills. Taking the child’s point of view is an opportunity for Calvino to write some really terse but telling descriptions of the various characters. They run the scale from dedicated communists to self-serving opportunists, and in the middle of it is Pim, who isn’t sure what he really wants. All we know is he can never return to anything like a normal life as his world has been turned upside down.

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