Am I Alone Here?: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live

Peter Orner (Author)


A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Criticism

"Stories, both my own and those I've taken to heart, make up whoever it is that I've become," Peter Orner writes in this collection of essays about reading, writing, and living. Orner reads--and writes--everywhere he finds himself: a hospital cafeteria, a coffee shop in Albania, or a crowded bus in Haiti. The result is "a book of unlearned meditations that stumbles into memoir." Among the many writers Orner addresses are Isaac Babel and Zora Neale Hurston, both of whom told their truths and were silenced; Franz Kafka, who professed loneliness but craved connection; Robert Walser, who spent the last twenty-three years of his life in a Swiss insane asylum, "working" at being crazy; and Juan Rulfo, who practiced the difficult art of silence. Virginia Woolf, Eudora Welty, Yasunari Kawabata, Saul Bellow, Mavis Gallant, John Edgar Wideman, William Trevor, and Václav Havel make appearances, as well as the poet Herbert Morris--about whom almost nothing is known.

An elegy for an eccentric late father, and the end of a marriage, Am I Alone Here? is also a celebration of the possibility of renewal. At once personal and panoramic, this book will inspire readers to return to the essential stories of their own lives.

Product Details

$16.95  $15.59
Publish Date
October 25, 2016
5.5 X 0.88 X 8.25 inches | 0.95 pounds
BISAC Categories:

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About the Author

Peter Orner is the author of two collections of stories, "Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge" and "Esther Stories," and two novels, "Love and Shame" and "Love and The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo." His stories have appeared in many periodicals, including the "Atlantic Monthly," the "New York Times," "Granta," "McSweeney s," and the "Paris Review," as well as in "The Best American Short Stories 2001." He has received the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Bard Fiction Prize, and was a finalist for both the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Orner has received Guggenheim and Lannan Foundation fellowships, and two Pushcart Prizes. He lives in Bolinas, California, and is a member of the Bolinas Volunteer Fire Department."


Praise for Am I Alone Here?

A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist in Criticism

"What Orner ponders is the oscillation between reading and living, concentrating on the moment when we look up from the page. Reading takes its color, for Orner, from the ways it is aerated by those interruptions. . . . Too irresponsible to be literary criticism, and too irregular to be autobiography, Orner's book (with illustrations by his brother, Eric Orner) is instead an entrancing attempt to catch what falls between those genres: the irreducibly personal, messy, even embarrassing ways reading and living bleed into each other, which neither literary criticism nor autobiography ever quite acknowledge." --Nicholas Dames, New York Times Book Review
br> "The underlying force of the book is the desire to recover the 'weight of what's vanished' and fiction's alchemical ability to do so." --The New Yorker

"Orner has excellent taste: The subjects of his rhapsodic appreciations range from Eudora Welty to Lyonel Trouillot, and his love for the written word is palpable." --The Washington Post

"In Orner's exhilarating, charmingly self-deprecating memoir-in-books, the relevance of stories reigns." --Nicole Lamy, New York Times Book Review

"Am I Alone Here? [is] the most beautiful, moving book I've read in a very long time, and I'll use any opportunity to mention it. . . . I encourage anyone who loves reading, I mean who truly loves reading, to immediately go to a bookshop and demand a copy." --Alexander Maksik, author of Shelter in Place, in The Huffington Post

"Sometimes it's hard to buy a book for a book nerd, because you don't know what they haven't read yet. But any book-lover will be enthralled by this spirited exploration of life as a reader." --Melissa Ragsdale,, "10 Holiday Book Gifts that Even the Pickiest Person On Your List Will Love"

"Orner, a distinguished fiction writer, appears here as a devoted book lover, inviting the reader to an intimate and friendly book group of two. . . . Readers will be delighted to join him, grab one of the stories he delves into, and enjoy his company." --Publishers Weekly

"Am I Alone Here made me want to close myself in a dusty bookstore for a few months to read until my eyes burn and my soul is washed clean of the trivial. Alone there, yes. But with all the world before me." --Leilani Clark, The Spine, KQED Arts

"Book lovers will devour these genuine, personal tales about literature and reading." --Kirkus Reviews

"This book, thank god, defies any category. It's partly an ode to reading, partly a memoir of Chicago and family, partly a travelogue, and often it's all of these things in one four-page essay. Orner reads Cheever in Albania, thinks about Salinger in Haiti, salutes his father from a taqueria in San Francisco. Although some will want to dive in randomly and skip around, reading these exquisite essays in order allows the book to develop a momentum and cumulative power that sneaks up on you and knocks you back." --Dave Eggers, author of Heroes of the Frontier

"I don't mind calling Peter Orner's humane and wonderful Am I Alone Here? a great book. It is lucid about literature and recklessly frank about life. With humor and candor, it punctures the ambivalence about literature in this moronic age and gives us a dynamic reason to go on reading and writing." --Thomas McGuane, author of Crow Fair: Stories

"Peter Orner is one of our most brilliant, most idiosyncratic fiction writers, and with Am I Alone Here? proves himself to be one of our most brilliant, most idiosyncratic essayists, too. The word "essay" doesn't quite do justice to what Orner has done here: part mix tape, part elegy, part celebration, part recommendation list, this book is a lovely, funny, and startlingly honest look at how literature doesn't always do what we want it to, but how we need it anyway. Orner says about one of his favorite books, 'I like to have a copy in every room.' Readers will feel likewise about Am I Alone Here? It is a major accomplishment from one of our most original writers." --Brock Clarke, author of The Happiest People in the World

"The aching, wild quality of the books Orner reads echoes the consolations and heartbreaks of his own life. Am I Alone Here? is an unusual, delicate, utterly beautiful book." --Kiran Desai, author of The Inheritance of Loss

"Peter Orner's Am I Alone Here? is a collection of brisk, beautiful essays about reading, and (as a bonus) it's also a wry, self-examining memoir of being a child, a partner, and a parent. It will remind you of important books you've forgotten and make you want to read ones you haven't, and it really will make you feel less alone." --Maile Meloy, author of Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (named one of the Ten Best Books of 2009 by The New York Times Book Review)

Esther Stories (2001)

A New York Times Notable Book
Winner, Rome Fellowship in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters
Finalist, Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award
Finalist, Young Lions Fiction Award, New York Public Library

"A spirit of passionate tenderness broods over these stories. It is as if love, transcending itself, has become a wisdom so perfect it must cherish everything--grace, of course, and awkwardness too, and innocence, and guilt, and haplessness. And, yes, clear-sighted and unhonored loss. The spirit of Esther Stories is, like true beauty, no aesthete, and, like true love, no sentimentalist."
--Marilynne Robinson

"These are stories of unusual delicacy and beauty, and this is a remarkable collection."
--Charles Baxter

"Some of Orner's very short stories are the best of that form that I have read since Isaac Babel's."
--Andre Dubus

"A luminous debut collection."
--John Freeman, Chicago Tribune

"The subtle arc of these stories, moving through several years and conflicting points of view, achieves an elegiac tone, even as Orner renders the details of family intimacy with sweet precision."
--Gail Caldwell, Boston Globe

"Peter Orner is that rare find: a young writer who can inhabit any character, traverse any landscape, and yet never stray from the sound of the human heart."
--Judy Doenges, Washington Post Book World

"I was stunned by a sentence or two in every one of the works in Esther Stories."
--Rick Moody, Hartford Courant

"Esther Stories is a rare and original collection."
--Joan Silber

"If the short story was in need of a future, it has been found in Peter Orner."
--Dennis Lehane

"Orner doesn't simply bring his characters to life, he gives them souls ... but all would be in vain were it not for Orner's mastery of language."
--Margot Livesey, New York Times Book Review

"Subtle and leisurely, many of the stories echo the stately despair of Mrs. Bridge, Evan S. Connell's classic 1959 novel."
--Donna Rifkind, Baltimore Sun
The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (2006)

"Orner hits the right notes and no others."
--Mark Schone, New York Times Book Review

"This novel, about a white American teacher in Namibia, has the same sort of episodic structure, lyrical prose, and completely hypnotic effect as the novels of Michael Ondaatje .... It's a gorgeously written book, very funny, and bursting with soul."
--Dave Eggers, Guardian

"A perfectly formed masterpiece .... It reminds me of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano and Paul Bowles's The Sheltering Sky in its stand-alone brilliance. Everyone who cares about real and beautiful writing needs to read this novel."
--Alexandra Fuller, author of Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight

"Yearning wrapped in gorgeous prose .... If one of literature's jobs is to take the reader to a new experience, this novel richly succeeds .... Orner writes with such beauty that the reader cannot help but be carried along."
--Robin Vidimos, Denver Post

"It is rare that you come across a talent as singular as Orner's. Here, in his first novel, is a story never heard before, told in language no one else could write. It is a magnificent creation."
--Andrew Sean Greer

"Exquisite .... By presenting this tale in so many broken but beautiful shards, Orner has done the seemingly impossible: His novel becomes a kind of living village."
--John Freeman, San Francisco Chronicle

"Peter Orner's novel is insightful, believable, unbelievable, funny, and not funny at all .... Whether readers know his amazing Esther Stories or not, they should run right out and buy The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo."
--Ann Beattie

"Quirky, lyrical, comical, full-blown .... A gifted short-story writer gives us his first book-length work of fiction, and does so with flair and panache."
--Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune

"I read The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo this week and it's amazing .... Great novels can be hard to find and sometimes we have to read a lot of good novels to find one. I thought I would save you the time."
--Stephen Elliott, author of Happy Baby, in the Huffington Post

"As a work of African provenance, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo will take its place alongside Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King and Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter .... Orner is incapable of dishonoring his characters. He treats all of them--even the minor figures--with a fierce humanity."
--Steve Almond, Boston Globe

Love and Shame and Love (2011)

California Book Award in Fiction Silver Medal
Finalist for Hadassah Magazine's Ribalow Prize
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A San Francisco Chronicle "Lit Pick"
A Chicago Tribune Editor's Choice

"Elegant yet intimate, this is a book that gets into your head and makes itself at home there .... Like the James Salter of Light Years and A Sport and a Pastime, with their acutely observed domestic and sexual tension .... It doesn't grab for glory, but it wins a big share anyway."
--Maria Russo, New York Times Book Review

"Beautiful .... Think Saul Bellow (Chicago setting, rollicking Jewish-style comedy) mated with Chekhov (unassuming, devastating detail), set to the twangy thump of early Tom Petty. Now that promises quite a love child."
--Ted Weesner, Jr., Boston Sunday Globe

"Peter Orner's inventive coming-of-age story finds the drama pulsing through the most seemingly conventional lives."
--David L. Ulin, O, The Oprah Magazine

"Both challenging and worthwhile. Instead of a sustained narrative, hundreds of snapshots from Alexander's past are pieced together--though 'snapshots' suggests something static, and each of these eye-blink vignettes is animated by yearning .... They soon coalesce into an emotionally inflected mosaic of Alexander's past."
--Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

"The novel is ... remarkable for the specificity of its characters and the settings they frequent .... But the more universal story of the Poppers' thwarted dreams and loves will likely resonate with those who have never set foot in Chicago or its northern suburbs."
--Adam Langer, Chicago Tribune

"This book evades quick reading, and rewards the kind of close attention paid to poetry .... The pleasure is in the language and the characterization, both of which are sharp and particular. It is clear that Orner knows these people deeply."
--Malena Watrous, San Francisco Chronicle

"Peter Orner has written a magnificent book--magnificent in its unassuming details that nevertheless burst with meaning."
--Lauren Eggert-Crowe, Los Angeles Review of Books

"From his first story collection, Esther Stories, on to his most recent novel, Love and Shame and Love, Peter Orner has established himself as one of the most distinctive American voices of his generation."
--Ted Hodgkinson, Granta

"Love and Shame and Love is an epic book--epic like Gilgamesh and epic like a guitar solo. When I finished it, my head was buzzing, my heart was pounding, and I was pumping my fist high in the air for Peter! Goddamn! Orner!"
--Daniel Handler, author of Adverbs

"Orner is unusually gifted at creating freighted moments of despair that generate far more impact than their size would suggest .... An anecdote about gym class--'The Hill'--plays with the cliches of middle school, but then sneaks up and devastates you."
--Ron Charles, Washington Post

"In his magnificent second novel, Love and Shame and Love, Peter Orner proves he is one of the finest American poets of family weather .... The novel unfolds like an epic in miniature."
--John Freeman, Toronto Star

"Vibrant and captivating, this novel about three generations of the Popper family of Chicago resonates with the truths about human nature."
--Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"It's easy to luxuriate in Orner's language, which blends poetic rhythms and a foreboding tone .... The novel is remarkably earth-bound and emotionally complex."
--Mark Athitakis, Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Love and Shame and Love is a finely crafted family album, told in comic and heartbreaking snapshots . . . . This is a big, smart, generous, important novel."
--Antonya Nelson, author of Bound

"Orner achieves a remarkable mix of psychological nuance, imaginative storytelling, and historical verisimilitude."

"A masterful, multifaceted novel. Readers will find both love and shame in abundance in Orner's teeming fictional world."
--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Love and Shame and Love is a marvel. It left me with that feeling we all crave when we read--the sense of wonder you wake with after a dream, realizing just how mysterious is this world."
--Marisa Silver, author of The God of War

"I consider Peter Orner an essential American writer, one whose stories unfold with a flawless blend of ease and unpredictability."
--Kevin Brockmeier, author of The Illumination

"A beautifully written book about the ghosts of family hovering over us all, and the often tenuous perch the tribe has in a