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Somehow Form a Family: Stories That Are Mostly True


This is the book that in hardcover won unanimous praise from reviewers, who called it "beautiful and transcendent" (The Boston Globe); a book that "measures the arc of a culture's mortality in small, personal increments" (Star Tribune, Minneapolis); a book that is written in "a poker-faced style that always seems on the verge of exploding into manic laughter or howls of pain" (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution). They're right. Tony Earley is a writer so good at his craft that you don't read his words so much as ...
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2001 Audiobook cassette New in new packaging. 4 cassettes. Audience: General/trade.

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This is the book that in hardcover won unanimous praise from reviewers, who called it "beautiful and transcendent" (The Boston Globe); a book that "measures the arc of a culture's mortality in small, personal increments" (Star Tribune, Minneapolis); a book that is written in "a poker-faced style that always seems on the verge of exploding into manic laughter or howls of pain" (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution). They're right. Tony Earley is a writer so good at his craft that you don't read his words so much as inhale them. His first book of nonfiction is one of those unexpected classics in which a great writer rips open his heart and takes the reader inside for a no-holds-barred tour. In a prose style that is deceptively simple, Earley confronts the big things -- God, death, civilization, family, his own clinical depression -- with wit and grace, without looking away or smirking.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Last year, Tony Earley delighted readers young and old with his novel Jim the Boy, a nostalgic portrayal of one year in the life of a ten-year-old growing up in Depression-era North Carolina. In Somehow Form a Family: Stories That Are Mostly True, Earley presents a collection of essays that fall into the gray space between fact and fiction, artfully and unironically piecing together the story of how he became the man he is today.
Library Journal
Somehow Form a Family proved to be a pleasant surprise to a reviewer who found Earley's Jim the Boy rather flat. This offering consists of stories, some fictional, others from his boyhood and more recent life, that should prove fascinating to adult listeners his age or older. Earley strikes some chords with tales related to growing up with black-and-white TV, parents separating, death of a close relative, coming of age and contemplating suicide in college, or simply being a rascally kid. There are both intimately confessional details of the author's search for spirituality and wry observations on the hype, madness, and marketing of an around-the-world record flight aboard an Air France Concorde. These stories will stick with the listener for quite some time. The work is written and read with care, expression, and the appropriate humor or irony by Earley. A fine addition to general adult collections; highly recommended. Cliff Glaviano, Bowling Green State Univ. Libs., OH Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Ten homespun personal essays—most published elsewhere—from the author of last year's acclaimed novel Jim the Boy. Earley grew up in a small-town, kudzu-covered corner of North Carolina more recognizable as the terrain of Thomas Wolfe than that of Dorothy Allison. Seven of these pieces explore his early years there, as a 1960s television acolyte, a squirrel-hunting dilettante, and, through it all, an astute, heartbreaking observer of the idiosyncratic people around him. The title story, which appeared in Harper's, serves as an introduction to this American boyhood, wholly transformed by a color, Zenith television set, replete with rooftop antenna. As the cornerstone entry here, a masterful exercise in metaphor, it's hard to imagine what more the author could have to articulate about his young life. But Earley thankfully only has more trenchant memories to spin. With "Hallway," in an equally unadorned language, but with more deeply felt remembrances, Earley recalls, with a child's perception, his extended family's peculiarities and his own fearful awe of his grandfather. A look at the odd Scots-derived Appalachian dialect of his youth ("The Quare Gene") leads to a reflection on the "shared history" that the author is losing with his highland ancestors. A similar wistfulness pervades "Granny's Bridge," a tribute to a time when crossing a bridge—and certainly not one to the 21st century—could enhance a person's outlook. In "Ghost Stories," Earley takes his wife to New Orleans to investigate the haunted city: "We are looking for ghosts, but, I think, a good story will do." And the final piece ("Tour de Fax"), another gem from Harper's, follows him on a record-settingcircumnavigational flight, recorded stop by stop in under 32 hours. Earley's skewering of the trip's corporate sponsors is good fun, and his capstone epiphany—that where he ended up, at home, is the only place he'd fly around the world to get to—rings true. Poetic, inspiring proof that you can go home again. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565114623
  • Publisher: HighBridge Company
  • Publication date: 5/17/2001
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 4 Cassettes
  • Pages: 300
  • Product dimensions: 4.54 (w) x 1.33 (h) x 7.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Tony Earley was selected by Granta as one of today's best young writers, The New Yorker featured him in its best young fiction writers issue, and his first novel, Jim the Boy, became a national best-seller. He is also the author of a highly praised collection of short stories, Here We Are in Paradise. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife and teaches writing at Vanderbilt University.
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Read an Excerpt

In July 1969, I looked a lot like Opie in the second or third season of The Andy Grif?th Show. I was a small boy with a big head. I wore blue jeans with the cuffs turned up and horizontally striped pullover shirts. I was the brother in a father- mother-brother-sister family. We lived in a four-room house at the edge of the country, at the foot of the mountains, outside a small town in North Carolina, but it could have been anywhere.

On one side of us lived Mr. and Mrs. White. They were old and rich. Their driveway was paved. Mrs. White was the president of the town garden club. When she came to visit Mama she brought her own ashtray. Mr. White was almost deaf. When he watched the news on television, it sounded like thunder in the distance. The Whites had an aluminum travel trailer in which you could see your re?ection. One summer they hitched it to their Chrysler and pulled it all the way to Alaska.

On the other side of us lived Mack and Joan. They had just graduated from college. I thought Joan was beautiful and still do. Mack had a bass boat and a three-tray tackle box in which lurked a bristling school of lures. On the other side of Mack and Joan lived Mrs. Taylor, who was old, and on the other side of Mrs. Taylor lived Mr. and Mrs. Frady, who had a ?erce dog. My sister, Shelly, and I called it the Frady dog. The Frady dog lived a long and bitter life. It did not die until well after I had a driver's license.

On the far side of the Whites lived Mr. and Mrs. John Harris; Mr. and Mrs. Burlon Harris lived beyond them. John and Burlon were ?rst cousins. John was a teacher who in the summers ?xed lawn mowers, including ours, in a building behind his house. Burlon reminded me of Mr. Greenjeans on Captain Kangaroo. He kept horses and let us play in his barn. Shelly once commandeered one of his cats and brought it home to live with us. Burlon did not mind; he asked her if she wanted another one. We rode our bicycles toward Mr. Harris's house as if pulled there by gravity. We did not ride in the other direction; the Frady dog sat in its yard and watched for us.

In July 1969, we did not have much money, but in the hierarchy of southern poor, we were the good kind, the kind you would not mind living on your road. We were clean. Our clothes were clean. My parents worked. We went to church. Easter mornings, Mama stood us in front of the yellowbell bush and took our picture. We had meat at every meal—chicken and cube steak and pork chops and ham—and plenty of milk to drink. We were not trashy. Mrs. White would not sit with her ashtray in the kitchen of trashy people. Trashy people lived in the two houses around the curve past Mr. Harris's. When Daddy drove by those houses we could see that the kids in the yard had dirty faces. They were usually jabbing at something with a stick. Shelly and I were not allowed to ride our bicycles around the curve.

I knew we were poor only because our television was black and white. It was an old Admiral, built in the 1950s, with brass knobs the size of baseballs. Its cabinet was perfectly square, a cube of steel with a painted-on mahogany grain. Hoss on Bonanza could not have picked it up by himself. It was a formidable object, but its vertical hold was shot. We gathered around it the night Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, but we could not tell what was happening. The picture zipped up and down. We turned off the lights in the living room so we could see better. We listened to Walter Cronkite. In the distance we could hear Mr. White's color TV rumbling. We changed the channel and listened to Huntley and Brinkley. We could hear the scratchy radio transmissions coming down out of space, but we could not see anything. Daddy got behind the TV with a flashlight. He said, "Is that better? Is that better?" but it never was. Mama said, "Just be thankful you've got a television."

After the Eagle had landed but before the astronauts opened the door and came out, Mack knocked on the door and asked us if we wanted to look at the moon. He was an engineer for a power company and had set up his surveyor's transit in the backyard. Daddy and Shelly and I went with him. We left Mama sitting in the living room in the blue light of the TV. She said she did not want to miss anything. The moon, as I remember it, was full, although I have since learned that it wasn't. I remember that a galaxy of lightning bugs blinked against the black pine trees that grew between our yard and that of the Whites. Mack pointed the transit at the sky. Daddy held me up so I could see. The moon inside the instrument was startlingly bright; the man in the moon was clearly visible, although the men on the moon weren't. "You can't see them or anything," Mack said, which I already knew. I said, "I know that." I wasn't stupid and did not like to be talked to as if I were. Daddy put me down. He and Mack stood for a while and talked. Daddy smoked a cigarette. In the bright yard Shelly chased lightning bugs. She did not run, but instead jumped slowly, her feet together. I realized that she was pretending to walk on the moon, pretending that she was weightless. The moon was so bright, it cast a shadow at her feet. I remember these things for sure. I am tempted to say that she was beautiful in the moonlight, and I'm sure she was, but that isn't something I remember noticing that night, only a thing I need to say now.
Eight, maybe nine months later, Shelly and I rode the bus home from school. It was a Thursday, Mama's day off, Easter time. The cherry tree in the garden separating our driveway from that of the Whites was in brilliant, full bloom. We could hear it buzzing from the road. One of us checked the mailbox. We looked up the driveway at our house. Something was wrong with it, but we couldn't tell what. Daddy was adding four rooms on to the house, and we were used to it appearing large and unfinished. We stood in the driveway and stared. Black tar paper was tacked to the outside walls of the new part, but the old part was still covered with white asbestos shingles. In the coming summer, Daddy and a crew of brick masons would finish transforming the house into a split-level ranch style, remarkably similar to the one in which the Bradys would live. I loved the words split-level ranch-style. To me they meant "rich."

Shelly and I spotted what was wrong at the same time. A giant television antenna had attached itself to the roof of our house. It was shiny and tall as a young tree. It looked dangerous, as if it would bite, like a praying mantis. The antenna slowly began to turn, as if it had noticed us. Shelly and I looked quickly at each other, our mouths wide open, and then back at the antenna. We sprinted up the driveway.

In the living room, on the spot occupied by the Admiral that morning, sat a magnificent new color TV, a Zenith, with a twenty-one-inch screen. Its cabinet was made of real wood. Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. was on. I will never forget that. Gomer Pyle and Sergeant Carter were the first two people I ever saw on a color television. The olive green and khaki of their uniforms was dazzling. Above them was the blue sky of California. The sky in California seemed bluer than the sky in North Carolina.
We said, "Is that ours?"
Mama said, "I'm going to kill your daddy." He had charged the TV without telling her. Two men from Sterchi's Furniture had showed up at the house that morning with the TV on a truck. They climbed onto the roof and planted the antenna.
We said, "Can we keep it?"
Mama said, "I don't know," but I noticed she had written the numbers of the stations we could get on the dial of the Channel Master, the small box which controlled the direction the antenna pointed. Mama would never have written on anything she planned on taking back to the store.

The dial of the Channel Master was marked like a compass. Channel 3 in Charlotte lay to the east; Channel 13 in Asheville lay to the west. Channel 7 in Spartanburg and Channel 4 in Greenville rested side by side below them in the south. For years these cities would mark the outside edges of the world as I knew it. Shelly reached out and turned the dial. Mama smacked her on the hand. Gomer grew fuzzy and disappeared. I said, "Mama, she broke it." When the dial stopped turning, Mama carefully turned it back to the south. Gomer reappeared, resurrected. Jim Nabors probably never looked better to anyone, in his whole life, than he did to us right then.

Mama sat us down on the couch and laid down the law. Mama always laid down the law when she was upset. We were not to touch the TV. We could not turn it on, nor could we change the channel. Under no circumstances were we to touch the Channel Master. The Channel Master was very expensive. And if we so much as looked at the knobs that controlled the color, she would whip us. It had taken her all afternoon to get the color just right.

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Table of Contents

Somehow Form a Family 1
Hallway 19
Deer Season, 1974 51
Shooting the Cat 57
The Quare Gene 67
The Courting Garden 81
Ghost Stories 87
A Worn Path 113
Granny's Bridge 127
Tour de Fax 137
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Interviews & Essays

Author Essay
Let's face it, traveling around the country at someone else's expense doesn't strike me as much of a hardship. Still, writers -- myself included -- are notorious whiners. I try to remember that nobody really cares about the time I found a roach the size of a Border collie in my motel room. I do remember, though, one of my less-than-perfect bookstore visits. I hope I've matured considerably since then.

I should have known San Francisco wasn't going to be a Tony Earley town when I pulled into the parking lot and saw, stretched from one end of the bookstore to the other, a banner that proclaimed WELCOME DAVID SEDARIS! in letters roughly the height of Sedaris himself. (He was coming the next day.) I was with my wife, Sarah, who had flown out for my birthday, and my friend, Dennis.

"Nice sign," Dennis said.

"David Sedaris is very funny," Sarah said. "We saw him in Nashville."

"There's nobody here," I said. "There aren't even any cars here."

"Six," said Dennis.

"Stop whining," Sarah said. She comes from a long line of dour Scots and doesn't suffer writers gladly.

"You're not pretty when you whine," Dennis said.

"I'm not whining."

"Actually, yes, you are."

"I wish we didn't have to leave tomorrow," said Sarah. "I'd love to see David Sedaris.

"Welcome!" said the shift manager. "We're so pleased to have you. We love your book."

She wasn't fooling me.

"We have a few minutes before your signing. Can I get you anything?"

"Maybe you should eat something," Sarah said.

"I want a sandwich," I said. "A chicken sandwich."

"He has low blood sugar," Sarah said. "He gets cranky when he goes without eating."

"I'm not cranky."

"Actually, yes, you are," Dennis said.

The manager led us to a table outside. I pulled out my cell phone.

"Who are you calling?" Sarah asked.

"My publicist. David Sedaris and I shouldn't be within five hundred miles of each other."

"You mean, you shouldn't be within five hundred miles of him," Dennis said.

"Put down that phone," Sarah said.

I stuck the phone in my pocket. "Well, of course David Sedaris is going to be huge in San Francisco," I said. "But I'd like to see how many people he gets in Raleigh."

"Actually, he's from Raleigh," Sarah said. "I imagine he does really well in Raleigh."

"Okay, then, Asheville. I'd like to see how he does in Asheville."

Dennis and Sarah stared at me sadly.

"Fine then. Forest City. I bet that at Fireside books in Forest City, North Carolina, I kick David Sedaris' butt."

"That's where you're from, right?" Dennis asked.

I nodded.

Dennis thought for a minute. "Okay," he said, "I might give you that one."

"Damn right," I said.

I paced back and forth in a small stock room, listening to the shift manager introduce me over a PA system that seemed entirely too loud for a deserted bookstore.

"I'm not going out there," I said.

"Tony..." said Sarah.

"I mean it. There are only six people at this thing, and I brought two of them with me. It's humiliating."

"So it's not a big crowd," Sarah said. "So what? There are four people out there who came to see you. What about them?"

"I don't care."

"Yes, you do."

"Well, okay, I do, a little. But don't get comfortable. I'm going to read eight minutes, then we're getting the hell out of here."

"Hi," I said into the microphone.

"Hi," said a man sitting in the front row. "I'm Don and this is my wife, Hope."

"Hi Don. Hi Hope." The two women sitting in the back didn't introduce themselves. "I'm going to read from Jim the Boy."

"We're looking forward to it," said Hope.

After I had read a page or two, I saw Don gently elbow Hope in the ribs. They looked at each other and nodded. They liked it. More important, they liked me. I began to read directly to them. Don and Hope became beloved children I was reading to sleep, the congregation of a church I pastored, favorite teachers I wanted only to please. I read every sentence as if something depended on it. I forgot about Dennis and Sarah and the two women in the back. I almost forgot about David Sedaris. And, lo and behold, when I finished reading, Don and Hope bought seven books.

"You were wonderful," Hope said at the signing table.

"Thank you."

"We had never heard of you until just now," she added. "But we're so glad we stayed."

"I'm glad you stayed, too," I said.

"Oh, you don't know how much," said Sarah. (Tony Earley)

Copyright © 2002 by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2008

    Read It Several Times

    This book might mean the most to a certain person, but I loved it! Mr. Earley's book is a collection of essays about his life and childhood. I think it's wonderfully written and a true joy!

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