Wednesday, June 8, 2011

BOOK GIVEAWAY: Lee Martin's New Novel - Break the Skin

Last week I was contacted by someone in the marketing department at Crown Publishing Group/Random House about reviewing Lee Martin's forthcoming novel, Break the Skin, for The Story is the Cure.  She sent me a copy of the novel and I'm currently reading it.  I plan to have the review posted on or before the scheduled release date, June 14th.  On top of that, the good people at Crown Publishing Group are allowing me to run a giveaway for a copy of Break the Skin.
In order to be eligible for the free book, you need to respond to this post - but that's not all.  Instead of just putting everyone's name in a hat and picking one at random, I'm going to make you work for it just a little - after all, it's a brand new hardcover book, $24.00 cover price.  Since Lee Martin is a midwestern writer (he grew up in Illinois, got his PhD from Nebraska, and now teaches in the MFA program at Ohio State), and this blog is based in the Midwest, I'd like you to either describe for me what you think makes midwestern writing "midwestern", i.e. how it's different from other regions, and/or give me your favorite midwestern writer/book and describe for me what makes it uniquely midwestern.  You have until June 17th at midnight to respond, and then I'll choose the best response and send your address to Crown and you'll be the proud new owner of a copy of Break the Skin.  

I really hope this giveaway works well, so I'm asking everyone to post a response - it's a chance at a free book - why not give it a shot?  Also, if you run a blog or website and feel so inclined, please post a link to this so that even more people can have a chance at it.  If this all goes well, then there's a possibility there could be more giveaways in the future. 

I'm looking forward to reading your responses.



  1. Casey, this is a cool contest. Midwest literature is interesting to me because, arguably unlike Southern Literature (with capitalizations), literature of the Midwest doesn't seem like a self-conscious industry. Southerners obsess over the South and live under the shadow of the Civil War and Faulkner. Yet there are distinctions to every place, and there's a good tradition of Midwest writers tapping into the spirit of their place.

    Though I lived in Indiana for three years, I think I should add a caveat that I'm not Midwestern, so my perspective is from an outsider looking in. But, two things about the place strike me as being distinct: (1) Landscape. The huge expanse of farmlands with pockets of city towers rising of a sudden above the landscape. I don't know how that relates to character, but there's something both comforting and menacing about those spaces -- comforting because you have room to breathe, and because it's reminiscent of the promise of the American frontier; menacing because of the isolation.

    (2) An Urban/Rural or Heartland/Coasts tension. There's a history of Midwesterners writing about "going east," and what the promise of the east means. THE GREAT GATSBY comes to mind, as does THE CORRECTIONS. I'm also thinking of SISTER CARRIE, and how Carrie is somewhat corrupted by the influence of the city, or MAIN STREET, and how the town of Gopher Prairie suffers from a "village virus," a syndrome of the provinces.

    Charles Baxter once commented htat the people of the Midwest reveal themselves to you by degrees. I'd contrast that to southerners who tend to wear their hearts on their sleeves. I think Baxter is right, in that I have Midwestern friends I've known for years but don't feel I really know to their core the way I might certain southerners after a good night of drinking. I'm not sure what Baxter would say about me classifying him as a Midwestern writer, but I think he does a good job of revealing the character of the place, particularly in SHADOW PLAY, which I think is an underrated novel. Not his best, but a good piece of Midwestern Literature, if there is such a thing.

    What are your thoughts, as a Midwesterner yourself?

  2. I have no idea if Midwestern authors are better than others; all I know is that Lee Martin's work attracts me, heals me and gives me hope.

    I am from the Midwest.

    Rita Meacham

  3. Thanks for the chance, Casey. Happy to oblige and hopeful that another one of Lee Martin’s books will fall my way.

    To me, midwestern writing is broad and expansive. It offers a view without boundaries, train rides that go on and on, cornfields and flights of geese that extend beyond the horizon. Midwestern writing is Willa Cather and Louise Erdrich, Sherwood Anderson and Mark Twain, Jane Smiley, Jonathan Franzen, Marilynne Robinson, and Lee Martin. Midwestern writing doesn't seek out shade and something cool to drink the way southern writing does; it roams and meanders without the need to rush headlong down subway stairs, the way east coast stories do; it doesn’t have to be coastal and effervescent in the manner of the west coast. It is sure-footed and sure-minded and keeps the company of truth and prairie grass and Norwegian farmers.

    I might say that My Ántonia, or Winesberg, Ohio, or A Thousand Acres, or even The Corrections wins the “most midwestern” writing prize. That’s a tough one. I might throw the favorites into the air and watch as Gilead and The Bright Forever land among the corn tassels. It’s too difficult, though, and I despise decisions. So instead, I gather them, happy for the armload of novels and story collections – a few slim, most weighted and thick with pages, all of them Midwestern – amazed that summer is wide open and as welcoming as these books.

  4. I suppose I would argue that Lee Martin is not a mid-western writer, just as William Faulkner is not a southern writer. These are writers who write about what it is to be human and, while the characters and author are influenced by the place, neither is tied to it. I'm reminded of what Jim Harrison said in his memoir, something to the effect of "all writings that are not from New York City are considered regional writers." Poor paraphrasing, but you get the idea.

    Great blog by the way.

  5. As someone who was born in the Midwest, currently lives in the Midwest, but for close to twenty years lived outside of the Midwest in a very non-Midwestern locale (Texas is in a region of its own), I have a funny relationship with the idea of defining “Midwestern”. As a child, I was exposed to many Texan traditions (some stereotypical, others quite regional and in some ways unique), but I was raised by very Midwestern parents. It was a constant contrast, and one that certainly went a long way in shaping the person I am today.

    In an episode of Mad Men, Don Draper, while being interviewed by a journalist who’s just asked him to talk about himself, says, “I'm from the Midwest. We were taught that it's not polite to talk about yourself." It’s turned into a cliché to suggest that Midwesterners are humble people, the sort of people, like Don Draper, who don’t talk endlessly about things that would draw attention to themselves. But for me, it’s never been a cliché. It’s been truth.

    My father holds a PhD in chemical engineering, and my mother once told me of the time that while eating lunch with another couple—some of my parents’ best friends, people they’ve known for years—that my mother let it drop that my father had his PhD. These close friends were amazed. For as long as they’d known each other, this bit of information had never been mentioned. My mother points out that my father politely acknowledged the fact and went about finishing his lunch. For me, a young man who’s been raised in a section of the country where modesty has never exactly been a virtue, a story like this offers me a distinct idea of what “Midwestern” is. There’s pride, dignity, and yes, modesty.

    But all of these things still don’t make up for the flaws man has. No matter what, all men must suffer defeat, and the manner in which man conquers such defeat ultimately goes quite a ways in determining the kind of man he will be. If I were to label a particular writer as “Midwestern”, I’d echo a name already mentioned in this thread—Charles Baxter. In many of his stories, I get a sense of the things I’ve alluded to above. But what’s so great about many of Baxter’s stories is that when these qualities are introduced, they’re often introduced along with the great flaws of mankind—guilt, loss, insecurity. And the struggle that ensues is not so much violent (a path, perhaps, most taken in Southern literature) but internal and mysterious. I’m thinking now of “Surprised by Joy,” a story where a man and wife lose their small child, and during a trip to New Mexico where they attempt to find some sort of closure to the event, the man can’t believe that his wife might’ve found some kind of solace as he continues to go without. At the end, he’s still unable to find the peace of mind he thinks his wife has discovered. He goes so far as to scream, “I don’t want to be all right!” But until that point, he’s remained subdued, trying as he might to hold on to some feeling of dignify.

    And perhaps this is what “Midwestern” is. It’s the notion of maintaining one’s sensibilities. Of maintaining a sense of pride and self-worth, and maintaining it internally until one’s conviction is too great to keep it to one’s self.

  6. Jon,

    Great comments. I'm not a Southerner (obviously), but Southern lit does seem to be more self-consciousness (for better or worse -don't get me wrong, I love southern lit)- really in stark contrast to how you and Brian described Midwestern lit. Interesting.

    Speaking of the Civil War, there's still some tension between Kansas and Missouri - of course not nearly to the extent as places in the South - but it's there. Anytime KU and MU play each other it is a "border war." The Jayhawks are named for the "jayhawkers" - guerilla fighters from Kansas fighting against the pro-slavery folks from MO. Many in MO consider themselves southern because they sided with the confederacy - especially in the southern part of the state.

    Great point about the landscape - the vast expanses and large cities do make it fairly unique. Though not exactly related, geographically, what are the boundaries of the "midwest"? For example, I would venture to say that most would consider Cincinnati, OH to be a midwestern city, but what about Lexington or Louisville, KY just down the road? Or Memphis, TN - I consider it "the south" but if you look on a map, it not really all that "southern." Is Oklahoma the midwest? Yes, but what about the state next to it - Arkansas? Texas is another argument entirely. What about Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas? To me, it's strange that as soon as you try to define the midwest geographically, everything falls apart. I think this is one of the things that make it so interesting to discuss - the region is nearly indefinable along geographic lines.

    There does seem to be a fairly substantial group of books about a character from the midwest "going East." Why aren't there books - good ones anyway - about someone from the East going to the Midwest? It's interesting that you brought up Franzen. I'm not a huge fan, but I don't dislike his work, but my thesis director hates him because he reads him as someone who grew up in the midwest, moved to NY, and now looks down his nose at the midwest and the characters he places there. I'd have to reread The Corrections (the book my thesis director was referring to) to see if I get the same feeling. It would be worth looking at.

    Since you mentioned Dreiser, have you read An American Tragedy? It's my favorite of his novels that I've read. It's similar to Sister Carrie, thematically, but I like it better. Still naturalistic though.

    Finally, great point about Baxter and the way his characters "reveal themselves by degrees." You and Brian could probably have a good discussion about this - his comment focuses on this.

  7. Karin -

    Thanks for the rather poetic comment - good stuff, indeed. I really like the way you describe the midwest - it's clear you've thought some about this.

    Thanks for reading and come back anytime.


  8. Open Spaces -

    Thanks for reading. You make an interesting argument - one that I don't completely disagree with. "These are writers who write about what it is to be human and, while the characters and author are influenced by the place, neither is tied to it." Essentially you're saying that great writing is great writing, regardless of where you (or your characters) lay your head at night, right?

    There's probably something to be said about Harrison's point, too.

    Thanks for reading -