Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Introducing Barney and Gienka of Meriden, Connecticut.

If you enjoyed Ania and Charlie, I'd like to introduce you to Barney and Gienka. They are the parents of John Surowiecki, a Connecticut poet. They are also the hero and heroine of the book, Barney and Gienka. I finished the book this past weekend, but I haven't left their neighborhood, mostly post-war Meriden, where what matters is Jell-O, backyard telescopes, and nurses with false teeth. The tenderness, poignancy, and humor are all perfectly pitched. And the language is efficient and expansive and delightful.

Moreover, one of the people you meet has the world's best name: Mr. Szmykleszczwladeczaryniecki.

I know just enough Polish to convince myself that I have successfully pronounced this name. Several times. I think I should get a prize.

Here is my review of the book, which I posted on Goodreads:

What a joy are Barney and Gienka and the people who make up their Polish-American community in Meriden, CT. This book is a neighborhood, viewed with tenderness and honesty by a writer and son who sees the subtle ways in which love succeeds and fails, and how people find consolation in a television movie, a cabbage garden, a bowl of Jell-O. Funny, sad, and beautiful, this book reminds us of what is extraordinary in an ordinary life.

I don't know how much attention this book has received in Connecticut. I think it should get a lot. There and everywhere.

Read one of the poems here.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

A camp for kids like The Greatest Show's Teddy Liszak, only real.

“A tattoo is something you get on your skin because it means something to you. A scar you get because something happened,” he said. “It’s a better story — it isn’t something you can control, but you get through it and you handle it."

Read The Washington Posts's story about a camp for kids with burn scars here.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A friend recommends...

Ron Tanner is a wonderful writer (check out his book covers, below) and a good friend who recently recommended The Greatest Show to online readers of the literary journal West Branch, published by Bucknell University.

Ron's close read of the stories is spot on, and he revealed things about the book I hadn't even known. That happens. Writers are not the sole masters of our material. Readers always get the final say. Which is part of the fun.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Art talk on video

... from the Maryland State Arts Council.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

'Show' places in six-way tie behind Louise Erdrich

The Greatest Show was recently named one of six finalists for the Paterson Prize for Fiction, an award won this year by Louise Erdrich and her novel, The Round House. The Round House also won the National Book Award, proving once again that Erdrich is, well, phenomenal. For years I've been teaching her first book, Love Medicine, to students at Towson University, and every time the book astonishes me in fresh ways. I'll be glad to open The Round House, too.

The other finalists for the Paterson Prize include
All That I Am (HarperCollins) by Anna Funder
Girlchild (FSG) by Tupelo Hassman
The Collective (W.W. Norton) by Don Lee
The Lower River (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Paul Theroux
Fat Girl, Terrestrial (University of Alabama Press) by Kellie Wells.

The Paterson Prize is awarded by the Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College in New Jersey.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Thank God we are always surprised

The Maryland State Arts Council asked me to give a keynote talk for its reception honoring artists who'd received grants from the agency this year. They didn't tell me I'd have to follow Blessed Sheriff, a 15-year-old poetry-reciting phenom.

But follow Blessed I did, and true to my name, (which, you'll recall is Downs as in downer), I chose to meditate on what it means to celebrate art and artists in a time of Boston Marathon bombings and Sandy Hook shootings. Baltimore Fishbowl, an energetic news site that I love to read, published my remarks.

If you have only time for one, choose Blessed. She's something.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Words and Music!

The Greatest Show's next appearance is on Thursday, May 2, at VisArts in Rockville, MD. HearArts is a series that puts writers and musicians in the same room for an evening's entertainment. Here's the link for more information.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

A review from Hartford by way of Colorado

The Colorado Review's fall issue includes a three-page review of The Greatest Show. The writer,  Jennifer Wisner Kelly, has family history in Hartford, and she begins by telling about her grandmother's decision that July 6, 1944 was too hot a day to take her son--Jennifer's father--to the circus. This moment has become family lore, Kelly writes, known as The Near Miss. "How might everyone's lives have shifted," she writes, "if Grandma had gone to the circus?"

I'm grateful that someone with Hartford roots reviewed the book. I think it's the first time that's happened. And I'm glad that Jennifer Wisner Kelly enjoyed the read. She ends...

Downs's stories are invariably rich and mature. There is nothing rushed here. He savors his characters, descriptions, and details. He effortlessly inhabits the lives, over six decades, of Hartford's citizens--it's immigrants; its wealthy; its men, women, and children--and drills deep inside his character's thought processes, self-analyses, and epiphanies. Downs resists easy answers to complex human questions, but gives enough resolution in each story to satisfy. The Greatest Show gorgeously captures the sweep of ordinary lives made remarkable by a tragic twist of fate.