Saturday, August 31, 2013

Soup and Salad: Craig Lancaster Hits 100K, Wiley Cash's This Dark Road to Mercy,"The Grinning Fish" by Peter Benchley, A Naked Singularity Takes a PEN Prize, The "Discoverability Problem," 10 Forgotten Classics You Need to Discover, 50 of the Best Books You Haven't Read by Authors You Already Love, 17 Problems Only Book Lovers Will Understand, Veterans Writing Workshop, Etgar Keret's First Story, One-Sentence Journal, Remembering Elmore Leonard, Remembering Seamus Heaney, Lessons From an Eleven-City Book Tour

On today's menu:

1.  Novelist and short-story writer Craig Lancaster is celebrating a milestone: the 100,000th sale of his books.  Though that kind of number has all the weight of an eyelash for someone like E. L. James, it's a really, really, really big deal for writers like Craig Lancaster and 99.3% of his fellow pen-pushers.  Lord knows I couldn't see the 100,000th sold of copy of Fobbit even if I had a pair of binoculars.  So, way to go, Craig!  If you'd like to help boost his sales to 100,001 and beyond, you should check out 600 Hours of Edward, The Summer Son, Quantum Physics and the Art of Departure, or (my personal favorite) Edward Adrift.  Craig creates some engaging, flawed characters who struggle to make sense of a nonsensical world.  The books are mostly set in Montana and the West and they're all gems, in my humble opinion.  To celebrate the sales milestone and to say thanks to the readers who helped him reach 100K, Craig is offering a nifty giveaway.  He explains the prizes thusly:
      1. A chance for the winner to lend his/her name to a character in my current novel project, tentatively titled The Seasons of Hugo Hunter.  I will also send the winner a signed first draft of the novel (once it’s done).
      2. Signed copies of my four published books.
      3. A coffee date with me.  (If you’re not in Billings or Montana or somewhere I visit with regularity, we’ll have to work out some alternative—maybe I send you a coffee card and chat with you via Skype.  Or maybe just the coffee card.  I suspect that the alternative with more coffee and less me is probably the better prize.)
To enter, simply go leave a comment on Craig's author page on Facebook.  Easy-peasy.  (And while you're there, go ahead and "like" Craig.  Cuz, really, he's a likable guy.)

1a.  Novelist Wiley Cash (A Land More Kind Than Home) is also expressing his thanks to readers and to independent bookstores.  If you pre-order Wiley's forthcoming novel This Dark Road to Mercy from an indie bookstore and send him a scan or photo of your receipt, he'll send you an exclusive excerpt from the novel as well as an unpublished scene from A Land More Kind Than Home.  Full details can be found at Wiley's website.  This, lads and lassies, is a good deal.  I'm lucky to have had a sneak peek of This Dark Road to Mercy and I'm here to testify that it's a good 'un.

2.  Of Men and Marshmallows.  The Smog of War.  Soft Men, Hard Bullets.  Those were just a few of the titles I semi-seriously tossed around when it came to naming Fobbit.  Thank God I had a reasonable editor at Grove/Atlantic who insisted on keeping the book's original title.  Back in 1974, Peter Benchley and his publisher were sitting around trying to come up with a name for his novel, too.  Squam Head, Maw, Pisces Redux, Evil Infinite, and (my favorite) The Grinning Fish--those were just some of the proposed titles for the book we now know and love as Jaws.  See the complete list here.

3.  Congratulations to Sergio De La Pava for winning the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for his debut novel A Naked Singularity, which weighs in at a whopping 688 pages.  Paul Ford, in a review at Slate, said it is "the sort of book you write if you're not sure anyone will ever let you write another one."

4.  Over at the Dead White Guys blog, Amanda says "Discoverability problem?  What discoverability problem?  We ain't got not steenking discoverability problems!"  And by "discoverability," she means:
....publishers lamenting about how hard it is to get readers to "discover" (re: buy) certain books.  This is, of course, ridiculous, and if it is a real problem, it's the publishers' and not the readers'.  All you have to do is look at the world's top earning authors for 2013 to see that people are still buying books by the truckload--just maybe not the books publishers want us to.  Fact is, no reader that I know has a problem discovering what book to read next.  There are thousands of years of classics to catch up on, not to mention last year's best seller or whoever-you're-obsessed-with-right-now's-backlist.  I might not get around to paying $25 (or whatever) for the new Dave Eggers while it's in hardback, but that doesn't mean I have a discoverability problem.  It means publishers should stop pushing the same old shiz and expecting the reading world to suddenly develop more publisher-guided reading taste.
I'm with Amanda--all I have to do to "discover" books is walk down to my basement where approximately 8,900 choices await me.

5.  But, on the other hand, chances are good you've never heard of some of the books on HuffPo's "10 Forgotten Classics You Need to Read" list.  I, for instance, had never discovered Simplicissimus by Hans Grimmelshausen (1668), but now I'm intrigued:
Set during the Thirty Years' War, this is the first anti-war novel, depicting the horrors of war in gruesome detail while following the fortunes of an uneducated peasant who yo-yos around a phantasmagorical Germany until, disgusted by everything he sees, he becomes a religious hermit.  The 400-page novel is a boisterous Oktoberfest of genres bumping bellies, and exerted a lasting influence on the German novel.  Simplicissimus belongs to the same subordinate platoon as The Tin Drum, Catch-22, and Gravity's Rainbow.

5a.  Similarly, here are 50 of the Best Books You Haven't Read by Authors You Already Love.  (That really should be probably haven't read since--*cough cough*--some of us have happily devoured the likes of The Violent Bear It Away.  Many times.)

6.  Thanks to my wife Jean (aka She Who Puts Up With Me, aka The Book Widow) for posting this on my Facebook wall: 17 Problems Only Book Lovers Will Understand.   You like that?  Yeah, I thought you'd understand.

7.  If you are a veteran living in the New York City area (or know someone who is), you might want to check out the free writing workshop sponsored by Voices From War and taught by Kara Krauze and Jake Siegel.  Did I mention it's free?  This is the kind of thing that could change your life.  And it's free.

8.  If you do nothing else today, you should read this short, powerful piece by a war veteran--who also happens to be one of the best short-story writers at work today: Etgar Keret.  In an essay for Tablet, Keret talks about writing his first story when he was a soldier in the Israeli Army:
      I wrote my first story 26 years ago in one of the most heavily guarded army bases in Israel.  I was 19 then, a terrible, depressed soldier who was counting the days to the end of his compulsory service.  I wrote the story during an especially long shift in an isolated, windowless computer room deep in the bowels of the earth.  I stood in the middle of that freezing room and stared at the page of print.  I couldn’t explain to myself why I wrote it and exactly what purpose it was supposed to serve.  The fact that I had typed all those made-up sentences was exciting, but also frightening.  I felt as if I had to find someone to read the story right away, and even if he didn’t like or understand it, he could calm me down and tell me that writing it was perfectly all right, and not just another step on my road to insanity.
      The first potential reader didn’t arrive until 14 hours later.  He was the pockmarked sergeant who was supposed to relieve me and take the next shift.  In a voice trying to sound calm, I told him that I’d written a short story and wanted him to read it.  He took off his sunglasses and said indifferently, “No way.  Fuck off.”

9.  If you're not reading Missoula, Montana writer Chris LaTray's weekly "One-Sentence Journal" blog posts, then you are missing out on some gems.  Like this one for July 24: "Had an interesting moment reading Young Men and Fire, where Norman Maclean is at the mill my dad worked at in 1977, looking for one of the survivors of Mann Gulch, and I wondered if Dad knew him."  Or this from July 12: "Camping and fly fishing eighteen miles or so up Rock Creek, I do my part to drag five trout from the stream, release them, then return to camp and be reminded there is no better place to sit than beside a fire."  Chris really knows how to whittle the day down to a single beautiful sentence.

10.  Over at The Huffington Post, screenwriter Rick Cleveland (Nurse Jackie, House of Cards) has a wonderful tribute to the late great Elmore Leonard:
      I got my first job in television after Miramax bought a film I wrote after it appeared at the Sundance Film Festival, in 1998.  One of the reviews for Jerry and Tom called my script for the movie "Elmore Leonard-esque."  To me, that was and still is about as high a compliment as you can get.
      I have loved Elmore Leonard's writing for as long as I can remember.  There isn't a book of his I haven't read, including his early westerns.  Leonard's flare for dialogue is unparalleled.  Poetic and spare, with rhythms that easily compare with and often surpass the best dialogue written for the stage, including the plays of that guy from Chicago who smokes cigars and sometimes wears a beret.  In fact, I much prefer Leonard's dialogue.  It's less self-conscious and seems to reflect more accurately the way people really talk, especially inarticulate people.  In plays, even in my own, characters oftentimes sound too goddamned articulate.  I just love the way Elmore's dialogue reads, sometimes so much that I will go back and re-read passages out loud to myself.

11.  Speaking of late and great, I was sad to hear Seamus Heaney had passed away earlier this week.  The world has certainly lost a singularly rich poetic voice.  At the Writer With a Day Job blog, Aine Greaney has a tribute to the Irish poet which focuses on his poem "Digging."  Greaney said she wrote the blog post almost exactly a year ago in observance of Labor Day, little thinking it would end up serving as an elegy for a man who knew the value of good, hard work.  Here's just one stanza from "Digging":
My grandfather could cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper.  He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, digging down and down
For the good turf.  Digging.

12.  At The Paris Review blog, Toby Barlow (Sharp Teeth, Babayaga) shares "Lessons From an Eleven-City Book Tour."  Toby puts me to shame.  I'm sure I hit at least 11 cities on the Fobbit tour last year and I wasn't half as observant as he was.  To wit:
      I learned that ravens are multicolored, like cockatoos, only their plumage radiates out far beyond what our spectrum can see.
      I learned that the waxing moon sliver comes in the shape of a comma, hinting at more to come.
      I learned that s’mores can be improved with Reese’s.
      I learned that the museum guard at the Milwaukee Art Museum is changing his strategy for buying lottery tickets, he’s just going to stick with the same numbers for a few months and see what happens.
      I learned that the legendary Hiawatha, the train running between Milwaukee and Chicago, is better in every measurable way than flying.

My Library: Katey Schultz' Airstreamed Shelves

Reader:  Katey Schultz
Location:  Celo, North Carolina
Collection size:  Whatever can fit into 17 boxes
The one book I'd run back into a burning house to rescue:  The Hermit's Story by Rick Bass and Wilderness by Rockwell Kent (okay, two books)
Favorite book from childhood:  Morris' Disappearing Bag by Rosemary Wells
Guilty pleasure book:  Not a book, but still requires being "read"--USGS topographical maps of national parks I'd like to visit

In 2009, I stored 17 boxes of books in my parents’ attic along with my banjo and guitar, fit everything else I owned into my Volvo, and hit the road.  I spent 31 out of the next 36 months hopping between writing residencies, friends’ couches, and the backcountry—making occasional appearances in the classroom or at the podium.  When it was all said and done, I’d crossed the Rockies four times, earned membership in the Volvo High Mileage Club (200,000+) for my ’89 wagon, and found a publisher for my first book, Flashes of War.

I’d also purchased my first “home”—a 31-foot 1970 Airstream Sovereign.  I found it for the shockingly low price of $2700 and had it towed to my parents’ five acres bordering the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina.  She was a fixer-upper, for certain, but she didn’t reek of cat piss or smoke and even came with a book left behind by a previous owner, The Gunsmith by Henry J. Kauffman (1959, Century House).  The subtitle offers a glimpse into its contents: “Being a Treatise on the art of the Gunsmith in America in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth century, together with a description of his tools and his Establishments.”

I’ve lived in the Airstream for one year.  More than any other challenge trailer living provides, organizing my library pains me the most.  In lieu of an extra bed, I had a few bookshelves installed.  Like everything in an Airstream, the space doubles as something else—in this case, where I practice meditation.  But what matters here are the books.  The far left holds field guides, poetry, Buddhist texts, and back issues of Oxford American and Creative Nonfiction.  Working from left to right, the top main shelf holds Unread Nonfiction all the way over to Jack Driscoll’s How Like an Angel (just below the little green army men who are protecting the flower vase from an ambush), wherein begins the collection of Books Signed by Authors I Know and Love. These include Claire Davis, Pete Fromm, Judy Blunt, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Benjamin Busch, Molly Gloss, Doug Stanton, and Jaimy Gordon.  The lower main shelf continues Unread Nonfiction, then switches to Unread Fiction at The Bartender’s Tale by Ivan Doig, through the end of the row.

Several things are out of place: oversized books cluster in the upper left corner of the shelf, and empty space is reserved on the lower right for new purchases.  Books that fit into the Cannot Live Without category, rest where they may on the shelves: Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories and anything by Steve Almond, Junot Diaz, Aimee Bender, Ursula Hegi, or Thom Jones.  (Dear Thom: Are you still out there?  The world needs more of you.  Please.  I’ll box you for another story, even though it might kill me.)  There’s more to this list, of course, but I’ll leave it to Nick Hornby’s character Rob, a record store owner (played by John Cusack in High Fidelity), who says this about the comforts of sorting: “I can tell you how I got from Deep Purple to Howlin’ Wolf in just 25 moves.  And…if I want to find the song ‘Landslide’ by Fleetwood Mac, I have to remember that I bought it for someone in the Fall of 1983 Pile…but didn’t give it to them for personal reasons.”

Here’s a morning snapshot of my Currently Reading Pile.  Coffee and The New York Times before food, then: The Watch by Joydeep Roy Bhattacharya, Portlandia for laughs, Mount Mitchell & The Black Mountains by Timothy Silver for regional reference, The Book of Men poems by Dorianne Laux (how else am I going to find a man when I’m hidden here in the middle of nowhere?), and Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences About Writing because it is the best book on process (for educators) that I have ever found.

But what about those 17 boxes?  Enter: the sorting system.  My parents’ attic now contains about 10 boxes of books labeled: Read Fiction, Read Nonfiction, Unread Nonfiction, and Unread Fiction.  Twice a year, I haul the ladder out, hoist the books up, and swap those previously Unread Books (now Read) out for different Unread Books.  I hit my head against the insulation.  I scrape my back on the rafters.  I make agonizing decisions about which Unread Books to liberate and which to keep in confinement.  Then I put the lids back on, say a silent prayer of apology to the authors I’m keeping in the dark, and head back down the ladder.

Katey Schultz grew up in Portland, Oregon and is most recently from Celo, North Carolina.  Her first book, a collection of short fiction called Flashes of War, has been nominated for Book of the Year in Literary Fiction by the Military Writers Society of America.  Learn more at  Click here to view the book trailer here.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.   Readers are encouraged to send high-quality photos (minimum 150 dpi) of their home libraries or bookshelves, along with a description of particular shelving challenges, quirks in sorting (alphabetically? by color?), number of books in the collection, and particular titles which are in the To-Be-Read pile.  Email for more information.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Friday Freebie: The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes

Congratulations to Thomas Pluck, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman.

This week's book giveaway is The Girl You Left Behind, the new novel by Jojo Moyes.  Here's the publisher's description of what it's all about:
      Jojo Moyes’s bestseller, Me Before You, catapulted her to wide critical acclaim and struck a chord with readers everywhere.  The Chicago Tribune called it “Hopelessly and hopefully romantic."  Moyes returns with another irresistible heartbreaker that asks, “Whatever happened to the girl you left behind?”
      France, 1916: Artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his young wife, Sophie, to fight at the front.  When their small town falls to the Germans in the midst of World War I, Edouard’s portrait of Sophie draws the eye of the new Kommandant.  As the officer’s dangerous obsession deepens, Sophie will risk everything—her family, her reputation, and her life—to see her husband again.  Almost a century later, Sophie’s portrait is given to Liv Halston by her young husband shortly before his sudden death.  A chance encounter reveals the painting’s true worth, and a battle begins for who its legitimate owner is—putting Liv’s belief in what is right to the ultimate test.  Like Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress and Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key, The Girl You Left Behind is a breathtaking story of love, loss, and sacrifice told with Moyes’s signature ability to capture our hearts with every turn of the page.
The Quivering Pen strives to put quality literature in your hands and this week's offering is no exception.  One lucky reader will be sobbing all the way to happiness when he/she wins this book.

But wait!  As they say on late-night TV, there's more....

In addition to a hardbound copy of The Girl You Left Behind, the publisher has graciously added another book to the giveaway: a paperback copy of Moyes' previous novel, the breakout hit Me Before You.  O Magazine called it “an unlikely love story....To be devoured like candy, between tears.”

If you'd like a chance at winning copies of both The Girl You Left Behind and Me Before You, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Sept. 5, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 6.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you've done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying "I've shared" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Trailer Park Tuesday: More Than This by Patrick Ness

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

(Click the YouTube icon to embiggen)

The trailer for Patrick Ness' More Than This begins just as the book does: a boy drowns.  In the video, we see the death from the boy's point of view, a bubbly wash of waves, an arm shooting out of the water and reaching for rocks near shore, then the final surrender to the silence of death.  Ah, but is it really death?  That's the probing question at the heart of Ness' novel.  To say more would be to rob More Than This of its mystery (as Ness himself explains in this other video).  We'll leave it at this: a boy dies, unequivocally and unambiguously, and then he wakes up in a crumbled, abandoned world.  Where is he, and why is he there?  Somehow, I think the answer might be a little more interesting than the one found in books like Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven.  Ness is, after all, the author of A Monster Calls, so I'm expecting good, creepy things to happen in these pages.  The trailer certainly haunts in the most pleasing and promising of ways.  More Than This tops my list of must-reads this season.

Monday, August 26, 2013

My First Time: Mitchell Jackson

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Mitchell Jackson.  His novel, The Residue Years, has just been published by Bloomsbury to great acclaim.  Jesmyn Ward, author of Men We Reaped, hailed its arrival by saying, “A wrenchingly beautiful debut by a writer to be reckoned with, The Residue Years marks the beginning of a most promising career.”  Jackson was born and raised in Portland, Oregon.  He holds a Master’s in Writing from Portland State and an M.F.A. from New York University.  He teaches writing at NYU, Medgar Evers College, and John Jay College.  He also works as a journalist, writing about entertainment and sports for Vibe, The Source, and various others.  His fiction and poetry have appeared in literary journals, and he is a winner of the Hurston Wright Award for College Writers and a fellowship from the Center For Fiction.  He lives in Brooklyn, New York.  Click here to visit his website.

My First Deadline

Though I set it down for a few years thereafter, I wrote the first words of my novel in 1997-1998 when I was, as the late great rapper Pimp C once put it, “in bondage.”

Fast forward, all those years later—a couple of MFA programs and scribbling and toiling and a few workshops and scribbling and toiling and ephemeral writing groups and scribbling and toiling and the hocus pocus of a coveted mentor and scribbling and toiling and the boon of landing an agent and scribbling and toiling and at last at last finding a publisher and scribbling and scribbling and scribbling— fast forward beyond all that and you would find me at the dining room table at my lady’s apartment stooped over the nth version of The Residue Years manuscript.

Picture: it’s near midnight one Thursday in May and my FINAL deadline is Friday.  Picture me drowsing over the aforementioned thick-ass slab despite the fact that I’ve downed a couple of Red Bulls, an extra-strength Five Hour Energy, and uncountable mugs of caffeinated green tea (I don’t fool with that coffee).  Picture me engaged in the kind of last-minute editing that publishers charge extra for and also checking to obsession my watch.  Can you imagine?  Time tick-tick-ticking and turning my nerves into a fireworks show.  Me losing hope by the millisecond that I’d be able to improve the work.  Me trying my damnedest not to overmind selftalks that have digressed from, “Don’t worry, we can make it,” to “ You think we can we make it?” to “Ain’t no way we gone make this deadline, player!”

Add to my palsying hope the fact that I had to catch an early-morning flight to Atlanta to serve as a chaperone for my daughter’s field day.  Let me clarify the details.  The plan was to hop off a plane, zoom straight to the school, and get to chaperoning—a plan that was a big deal especially to a father like me who lives states away from his princess.

It must have been about 4 a.m. when I began to have what I can only describe as a nervetastic panic attack, when it hit me with the force of a derailed bullet train that there was a zero minus a zillion chance of me being able to edit the last twenty-plus pages of my novel and make my flight.  So what’s a trepid listless aspiring sentence man to do when he’s up against an immutable truth?

The thought passed that I could forsake editing those last twenty-odd pages and send the whole shebang as is.  I mean, I’d been working on the manuscript for a decade-plus.  How much could I possibly improve it in the last few hours?  But as I said, that thought was a flash.  The way I see it, the way I will always see it, is this: if I am able to make at least one sentence even infinitesimally stronger, zonked out my skull or not, I owe it to myself to make the attempt.

That logic being the case, it was time for swift action.  As my stingy luck would have it, my lady lived a few blocks from John Jay College, one of the schools where I teach.  Hoping the school would be open, I grabbed my manuscript and double-timed it over.  Talk about a moment made of white light.  There was a security guard, looking a little perplexed, but not oppositional.  I explained to him that I needed to get into my office and he checked my ID and ushered me on my way.  I rushed upstairs, photocopied those last twenty-odd pages, and rushed back to my lady’s crib.

Meanwhile, I sent what I thought would be a well-received email to my editor explaining that I would leave the manuscript with my lady to be delivered by courier later that day, but that it wouldn’t include the last twenty-odd pages.  The email explained that I’d have those edited pages to her by the end of the weekend.

I was expecting to get an email to the effect of, “Cool, Mitch.  Thanks for working so hard to get it done.  Take the extra two days.”  That’s what I expected, but about the time I got to the airport, I received a reply from my editor that said in effect, “NOT COOL.  You must turn in those pages today.  You are selfsabotaging and hurting the book’s chances.“

Whoa!  Talk about being spooked!  Here I was headed to my daughter’s school and now I had to find a way to get the work done.  Let’s not forget my near-zombie-like sleep-deprived state, admittedly not the best condition for editing.  This is why, though I tried to edit on the plane, I used the bulk of the almost two-hour flight to Atlanta to catch a few winks of sleep.  When I landed, I sped to my daughter’s school where I was promptly supplied with a name tag, assigned a station, and quoted instructions.  For the next three hours, I supervised teams of elementary and middle school kids dueling with spoons that carried golf balls.

As I said, I live far from my princess, so I try as best I can to be present with her.  I cheered, took pictures, found her on breaks between groups, but the truth is the fact that my manuscript lay unfinished in the car was a spike in my brain.  It took what felt like a millennium for me to complete my duties.  Well, what I thought were my duties.  But silly me, we were also supposed to stick around for a lunch of pizza and bottled waters and then file into the school for a field day awards assembly.

Here’s where I had to make a top dog decision.  Sans any pizza, I booked for the car, took out my manuscript, and began to scrawl.  I read the pages aloud and marked them, no small amount of notes either.  But here’s the boon: every time I made a mark, I smiled to myself because I knew I had done the right thing in revising to the last, last second.  Here I was at the end and the work to my mind was still growing muscles.

Talk about timing.  I finished my very last edit about the time the assembly was over and my princess strolled out of the school with her mother.  Done!  But “hold up homie, not so fast!” I chided myself in my head.  The manuscript was a hard copy, which meant I was going to have to fax or scan the pages, and do it before the end of the work day.

It was about 4 pm, so that work day was Bolt-like (as in Usain) coming to a close.  This called for a moment of group think.  We Googled the nearest Kinko’s and drove over.  My princess accompanied me to send the last bit, with what I thought would be a no-sweat type of task.  Ha, ha.  Wrong!  There was some rule at Kinko’s about scanning, so I had to buy a hella-pricey flashdrive for them to scan and save the work on it.  Then I had to sit at their computers to send it off.  But of course the Kinko’s computer wasn’t working and refused to return my credit card.  My princess (she’s much more tech-savvy than me) and I sat in Kinko’s trying everything we could to get the machine to work and/or unass my card.  When it was clear neither would happen, I got up and asked the attendants for help.  But of course, of course both of them were presidentially busy for the next billion hours.

Now, either I have abnormally high expectations of a Kinko’s counterperson or the two counter workers that day were some of the slowest human beings on earth.  About the time I was about implode, one of them slugged over and yawned me through my tech drama.

So it went, a hairsbreadth from the end of the work day, I sent off a pdf of the last few (scanned) pages of The Residue Years, said my official goodbye to what had become life’s work that felt as if it would go on a lifetime.  It was bittersweet for so many reasons, but also so so sweet because, as it worked out, it was a moment shared with my princess.

Author photo by John Ricard

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Sentence: The Cineaste by A. Van Jordan

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I've read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.

It's so easy to laugh at the banana peels laid before the lives of others.

from "Metropolis, restored edition" in The Cineaste by A. Van Jordan

Celebrating the 1,000th Quiver of My Pen

I woke up this morning feeling very milestone-y.  According to my Blogger statistics, this is the 1,000th post here at The Quivering Pen since I started blogging on May 2, 2010 ("And so it begins...").  I don't know about you, but 2010 seems like the Jurassic Era in internet years and enough water has gone under the bridge since then that I could fill up Lake Erie.  Twice.

Not that I'm nostalgic or anything.  I'm always looking ahead here at The Quivering Pen, always scrambling to put together the next day's post (and the next and the next).  Speeding along at 80 mph, I rarely have time to stop at rest areas and think about the journey.  Nonetheless, #1,000 seems like as good a time as any to take a look at the most popular posts in Quivering Pen history.  Here we go, counting up from #10:

Front Porch Books: December 2012 Edition
When it comes to grit-lit, there's no one giving Donald Ray Pollock and Chuck Palahniuk a run for their money more than Frank Bill.  His debut collection of short stories, Crimes in Southern Indiana, smashed readers with a right hook as powerful as the one pictured on the cover of his first novel, Donnybrook.  You'll notice that fist has no glove.  That's how Bill writes: smack! smack! smack! without letting up.  Wrack and ruin.  Drugs, sex, blood.  These pages aren't for the timid.

Having Sex With Madame Bovary
Before the financial ruin, before the shame, before the suffering, before the world's slowest suicide, there was the sex.  And it was good -- at least in the hands of Gustave Flaubert and Lydia Davis, the most recent translator of Madame Bovary.  Flaubert's novel, published in 1856 and dragged through the courts a year later, has long titillated readers with its ripe, non-explicit sex (e.g. "the joys of the night").  But now Davis helps make Flaubert even frothier for a new generation of readers.

Great Beginnings: The Doorknobs of Novels
In the best novels, every word serves a purpose, every sentence propels the reader to the next, and the next, and the next.  And it all begins with the first words on the first page.  Here, opening sentences set the stage as they bring us inside.   If novels are split-level, five-bedroom homes in which we lose ourselves down hallways and up staircases, then those first sentences are the doorknobs.  Turn, push, enter.

My First Time: Jessica Francis Kane
I allowed myself to daydream about the day of acceptance.  Often, this was the only dream that kept me going.   I was pretty sure the news would come by phone, and so sometimes if I came home from work and there was a message on my machine (this was before cell phones and texting, you see), I would walk slowly to the table to press the button, relishing the last few moments of possibility before hearing a message from my mom or bank or dentist.

Michael Cunningham and Jodi Picoult Kick Me in the Ass
This might be the only time you see Michael Cunningham and Jodi Picoult together in the same blog post here at The Quivering Pen, but I'm using them today to help kick-start what has been the writing equivalent of running a pickup truck into a muddy ditch and attempting to climb out with bald tires.   In short, the Dreaded Doldrums have come to pay me a visit again.  It's been about a week since I did any serious writing on Fobbit (typing a period in a sentence lacking one, and changing a character's hair color from blonde to brunette does not count as "revision").  I've lost focus and have succumbed to distraction.

Soup and Salad: Anna Keesey's Paperclip, etc.
You must imagine me crouching, an unbent paperclip in my hand, trying to pull a lumpy woolen scarf through a keyhole.  This is what writing a novel was like for me.  It could be done, but it was painstaking work.  A few millimeters would come, but then a bunching, or a knot in the wool, compelled retreat—that precious progress had to be poked back through and drawn forward again.  The bit on this side of the keyhole, though perhaps gay in color, looked ragged from the journey.  On the other side—who knew?  Perhaps some dexterous artificer was behind the door knitting away, and if I remained patient and picked and pulled and picked and pulled with the little tool at my disposal, then as much as I pulled she would knit.  But it was also possible that I was working in vain, that there was nothing much there, and what emerged from the keyhole would be weathered, ugly, and too short to wear.

Why I Should Hate Tea Obreht
To say that I liked this book is like saying "sipping chilled wine and eating French pastries while floating on a raft in a swimming pool on a butter-warm day under robin's-egg-blue skies as your poolside wife reads The Wall Street Journal aloud, reciting the rising numbers of your stocks, while on the other side of the lawn the members of the London Philharmonic you've hired for the day play your favorite Strauss waltz" is just an "okay experience."  Yes, I loved The Tiger's Wife.

Soup and Salad: John Kennedy Toole's Lost Manuscript, etc.
The Millions has the account of a biographer's dream--the discovery of a lost manuscript.  In this case, the original manuscript of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces.  Cory Maclauchlin, author of Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces, describes his quest for the Dunces grail:
I have been researching and writing about Toole for seven years, digging through archives, interviewing his friends and family, trying to decipher Toole’s character, his fears, his desires, his angels and demons.  And I have often contemplated that missing manuscript.  His mother claimed she discarded all the “[Robert] Gottlieb edits” in order to showcase her son’s “pure genius.”  Still, seeing how Toole altered the creation that he felt defined him would certainly offer insight into his final years.  But no one I interviewed seemed to know its whereabouts.  The Toole Papers at Tulane University does not have it, nor does the Walker Percy Papers at UNC Chapel Hill.  Some of Toole’s friends had heard that Percy’s typist threw the “badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon” away after she retyped it.  Walker’s wife, Bunt, didn’t believe that story.  She suspected it might be in Walker’s miscellaneous papers that had been boxed-up after his death in 1990.  But the family scoured the boxes and found nothing.  I had nearly given up on the question of the original manuscript until a year ago when I interviewed Lynda Martin, the sister of Toole’s best friend in high school.  “The manuscript?” she said in a soft southern accent.  “Yes, well I have it in my closet here at home.”

Tuesday Tune: "Poison and Wine" by The Civil Wars
What starts as a somber meditation on the brutally honest things you can't tell your lover rises to a mutual cry of pain.  Each partner in this relationship is building their own brick wall, but it's a melancholy task.  Then, in a brilliant moment of editing around 2:45, they are together in the same frame, nose to nose and still singing “I don't love you but I always will.”  If you're anything like me, you'll be coughing down that lump in your throat at this point.  This, then, this was the moment my admiration for The Civil Wars turned to love.  The dichotomy of emotion in the climax of the song nearly shattered my computer monitor in half.

....And the Most Popular Quivering Pen Post of All Time is....

Front Porch Books: February 2012 Edition
I recently stumbled upon Jenny Lawson's popular blog, The Bloggess, and--as they say in Hollywood and Amway brochures--my life will never be the same again.  Why was I wasting so much of my internet time dillying and dallying when I could have been coming straight to the Bloggess for the web equivalent of Our Daily Bread?  One will never know.  But here's one thing I do know: Lawson's words grabbed me like a snoutful of cocaine right from the Opening Lines of Let's Pretend This Never Happened: "This book is totally true, except for the parts that aren't.  It's basically like Little House on the Prairie but with more cursing."

I can't leave this "milestone" post without a word of appreciation to all the readers who have joined me on this journey.  I've had the chance to meet a few of you over the years--especially during the Great Fobbit World Domination Tour 2012--while others have remained fleshless names in comments and emails, but I am humbly grateful to all of you for your cheers and applause for what I do here in this little corner of the internet.  Some of you know that I seriously thought about shuttering the blog recently when all the competing pressures in my life--the Day Job, writing the next novel, continuing Fobbit tour events, helping my wife with her new business, etc.--reached a boiling point.  For now, I'm continuing to go full-steam-ahead with The Quivering Pen, thanks in part to the many supportive emails I received in the past month.  Bless you, loyal readers for propping me up with your kind words of encouragement.

Now, onward to the next 1,000!

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Good Medicine: A Tribute to Elmore Leonard

Car bombs exploded in Baghdad neighborhoods that summer like synchronized cannons.  Bodies incinerated.  Engine parts whizzed through the air like hot boomerangs.  Smoke, fire.  Death, destruction, chaos.

Meanwhile, I sat in my trailer on Camp Victory, a U.S. Forward Operating Base, two miles away–safe, cool, happy.  I was happy because I lay on my bed, The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard propped on my chest, my imaginative Reader mind somewhere far, far away, sneaking through Arizona deserts, hiding in rimrock, squinting down along my rifle barrel, placing the notch of the gunsight on the chests of no-good bastards who deserved to die.

Off the page, in the real world, the heat seared my tin-sided trailer and Blackhawk helicopters flew overhead, blades slicing the air as they ferried medical teams to the site of another attack.  I needed to escape from the sound of those Blackhawks—the dopplering chop which meant more soldiers had lost their lives (or, at the very least, an arm or leg).  I needed fiction to relieve me from reality.

I was deployed to Baghdad with the 3rd Infantry Division in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and I was supposed to be helping bring Western democracy to an Islamic nation reluctant to accept it.  I was a soldier, I carried a rifle, I’d been trained to be a killing machine.

Trouble was, I hadn’t killed anyone.  I was a paper-pusher in division headquarters, working in the public affairs office and writing press releases meant to reassure the rest of the world that, yes, we were kicking terrorism’s ass over there in Iraq.  In truth, we were barely making a dent against the daily barrage of improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and sniper bullets.  If I ever stopped to look at the long-range big picture, I was filled with frustration to the point of despair.

When I got off work, I hurried back to my trailer (my “hooch” in military parlance) where I’d strip out of my uniform and sit on my bed in shorts and T-shirt with Elmore Leonard’s stories open in front of me.  For the space of a couple hours, I could be a gunslinger in Baghdad, serving justice with hot bullets and bringing down bad guys left and right.

This was my introduction to Leonard’s writing—somehow, I’d missed reading his crime novels (Get Shorty, Mr. MajestykOut of Sight, etc.)—and I immediately saw why so many others thought he was Prince of the Page.  His writing popped and sizzled.  As Stephen King wrote in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly, he wrote "stories that contained zero bullshit, because he was a zero bullshit kind of guy."  Put another way, Elmore Leonard's fiction is as lean and tasty as a filet mignon.

Leonard sure knew how to kick-start a story, too.  Check out this complete list of first lines from his novels.

Once I opened Leonard's collection of stories which first appeared in pulp periodicals like Argosy, Zane Grey's Western Magazine, and Gunsmoke, it was like I'd discovered the finest of literary drugs.  Capsules full of no-bullshit granules.  I was entranced and easily transported to the Old West, away from the woes of Operation Iraqi Freedom.  Sure there was violence on these pages, too.  But it was different in Leonard’s hands.  It was cool as a drink from a mountain stream.  Take, for instance, these opening paragraphs from the short story “The Boy Who Smiled”:
      When Mickey Segundo was fourteen, he tracked a man almost two hundred miles–from the Jicarilla Subagency down into the malpais.
      He caught up with him at a water hole in late afternoon and stayed behind a rock outcropping watching the man drink.  Mickey Segundo had not tasted water in three days, but he sat patiently behind the cover while the man quenched his thirst, watching him relax and make himself comfortable as the hot lava country cooled with the approach of evening.
      Finally Mickey Segundo stirred.  He broke open the .50-caliber Gallagher and inserted the paper cartridge and the cap.  Then he eased the carbine between a niche in the rocks, sighting on the back of the man’s head.  He called in a low voice, “Tony Choddi . . .” and as the face with the wide-open eyes came around, he fired casually.
      He lay on his stomach and slowly drank the water he needed, filling his canteen and the one that had belonged to Tony Choddi.  Then he took his hunting knife and sawed both of the man’s ears off, close to the head.  These he put into his saddle pouch, leaving the rest for the buzzards.

When I heard Tuesday that Leonard, the “Dickens of Detroit,” had passed away after earlier suffering a stroke, my mind went back to Baghdad.  If it’s possible to be nostalgic for a war zone, then EL’s death triggered some golden memories for me.

I saw myself in my tin-walled trailer, air-conditioner rattling in one corner of the room, dripping condensation tears.  I saw the bed, the wall locker, the mounds of junk food from care packages, the bookshelves I’d built one day after arriving at Camp Victory.  And on those bookshelves, I saw the spine of The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard.  I saw myself reach forward, pluck it out, and turn to a page at random.
At midmorning six riders came down out of the cavernous pine shadows, down the slope swept yellow with arrowroot blossoms, down through the scattered aspen at the north end of the meadow, then across the meadow and into the yard of the one-story adobe house.
For nearly a month of my time in Iraq, I was lost in the Arizona arroyos, felt the Winchester in my hand as I sneaked through the canyons tracking Apaches, and tasted the swirling dust as I reined my horse sharply when the whine of a bullet ricocheted off a boulder.  In my journal, I wrote, “Elmore Leonard is good medicine.”

Indeed.  That year, I needed good medicine—especially of the literary, imaginative kind—to counteract all the bad shit going down outside the concertina wire of our camp: the bombs, the blasts, the bloodletting.

Thank you, Mr. Leonard, for writing my escape route.

A version of this essay first appeared at Book Riot.

How to Tell a War Story: The Tender Soldier by Vanessa Gezari

The Tender Soldier
by Vanessa Gezari
Reviewed by Jerri Bell

"Afghans...value stories for reasons that have nothing to do with the information they contain," writes journalist Vanessa Gezari.  And readers should value Gezari's book, The Tender Soldier, for reasons that have nothing to do with the information that the book contains about murdered social scientist Paula Loyd and the Human Terrain System, a contractor-run program that took Loyd to Afghanistan to collect cultural information in support of Army operations.  The book violates several Western literary narrative norms; it might puzzle or disappoint readers looking for a military thriller, a straightforward biographical portrait of Loyd, or a scholarly critique of the Human Terrain System.  Its most significant contribution to the literature of war lies in Gezari's use of Afghan oral narrative tradition to navigate the confusing and contradictory terrain of modern warfare in a tribal society.

Gezari has written elsewhere that Afghan speakers have a habit of "describing an event or mentioning a name, then dropping back to tell how that event or person came to be."  She adopts this technique for The Tender Soldier, which opens with a dramatic and tragic event, wanders in and out of the subjects' lives, dips a toe here and there into the history of Afghanistan and anthropology, and follows the short programmatic life of the Human Terrain System from its conception to its adoption as an Army intelligence program of record.  Her transitions, like the roads around Kandahar, often lack conventional signposts.  Take, for instance,  Chapter Four ("Maiwand") where transitions between time periods and subjects can be as abrupt and jarring as a ride on an unpaved road through the Afghan desert.

This narrative choice has an interesting effect on Gezari's depiction of Paula Loyd, the story's "tender soldier."  Sketched only briefly in the first few pages, Loyd is either frightfully maimed or dead at the end of the first chapter.  She is gone before we get to know her, before we invest much emotional energy in her goals and dreams for Afghanistan and its people.  But she and her thwarted goals reappear throughout the narrative in a ghostly way.  She does not speak to us directly--her story is told through the voices of others, and through the idealistic words of her undergraduate honors dissertation.  The stories are infused with the tellers' grief, which allows Gezari to go beyond showing readers how the pointless destruction of a bright, caring woman affects us as individuals.  She invites us to become part of a greater community--one tragically made less when a woman like Loyd is no longer able to contribute.  In doing so, Gezari taps into the heart of traditional storytelling.  She demands that we consider not only "How does this narrative affect me," but "How does it affect us?"

Gezari draws on another technique of oral storytelling, a reliance on metaphor and allegory that some modern readers might consider simplistic and heavy-handed, to produce a subtle and profound effect.  Several of her subjects in The Tender Soldier can be read as allegorical characters--literary representations of ideas rather than living individuals.  Loyd, the "tender soldier," stands for the kind of culturally-sensitive Army needed to succeed at civil affairs and counterinsurgency missions.  Loyd's teammate Don Ayala is presented as the embodiment of post-traumatic stress disorder, which has had tragic effects on many veterans of foreign wars.  When he shoots Loyd's Afghan attacker, who is handcuffed and in custody--a "protected person" under the Geneva Convention--he also challenges our assumptions about war crimes (a term that Gezari stops short of using).  Two "ignorant experts" demonstrate our capacity to either learn or remain dangerously ignorant: Banger, a former Marine who replaces Ayala, learns to recognize ethnic Hazaras (the Persian-speaking people of central Afghanistan) and to see the effect of their low social status; Maria Cardinalli, armed with a doctorate in theology and a single course in combat first aid, uses her "expertise" to stage a medical mission and treat an Afghan woman's obstetric injury with Icy-Hot.

Gezari's allegorical treatment of her subjects demonstrates how individuals' choices and actions affect the war and shape our perception of it.  It also appears to flatten them, make them less human, and do them a disservice.  This is a cautionary tale.  Lawyers at Don Ayala's murder trial characterize Loyd's attacker Abdul Salam only as a terrorist; in the courtroom narrative, Gezari points out, his "life had been reduced to one moment, one act."  Gezari is challenging us to question the way we sometimes allow our understanding of war and the combatants engaged on both sides to become allegorical and metaphorical, flatten character, translate the human picture into political shorthand, and in so doing, render a grave disservice to our fellow man.

Paula Loyd in Afghanistan

Gezari herself slips in and out of the story.  The authorial presence at first feels uncontrolled and intrusive, but ultimately adds another layer of meaning to the narrative.  Gezari, like an Afghan elder, pulls the reader into a tea house and demands to tell us a true war story.  She wants readers to ask, "Why are you telling me this?"  And she provides no single, easy answer.  This elevates The Tender Soldier above simple moralizing about the attack on Loyd and the idiocy of a contractor-run boutique program that cost three American lives and millions of taxpayer dollars with questionable benefit to the warfighter.

Despite Gezari's novel and creative approach, the text is not without flaws.  Descriptions can slip from beautiful to precious; overreliance on cliche and hyperbole periodically ejected me right out of the story.  When I read that Loyd's commanders "marveled at the contrast between her flaxen delicacy and her physical toughness," I spent a few delicious moments contemplating what would happen to any commanding officer who marveled aloud about a subordinate's "flaxen delicacy" given the recent military sexual harassment scandals.  (Loyd's civil affairs commander, an Army colonel whose actual comment is quoted verbatim in a footnote, would probably marvel at Gezari's interpretation of his description of Loyd on a 10-kilometer rucksack march.)  Loyd's boyfriend, a special operations officer, has "gray-blue eyes, a square jaw, and a lean, muscular build, but a scar near the outer edge of his left eye [that] hinted at an alluring vulnerability;" teammate Clint Cooper had been "roguishly handsome;" and Don Ayala "had the soulful eyes of a matinee idol."  If Gezari was attempting to render her characters with short, memorable descriptions in the way that Homeric orators used repetitive devices to aid memory during recitation, the result was unsuccessful: Fifty Shades of Afghanistan, not an Afghan Odyssey.  Serious readers attuned to word choice may occasionally be tempted to toss the book into the wine-dark sea.

Don't do it.  Read the book.  Gezari's rendition of a true war story with the techniques of oral storytellers offers an important alternative to American policymakers' preferred narrative--a war with a tidy beginning, middle, and end.  In The Tender Soldier, she invites us into the tea house, lets us experience the true chaos, confusion, and culture of the war in Afghanistan, and weaves a rich tapestry that transcends simple reporting to venture into that most human cultural terrain: storytelling.

Jerri Bell is a retired naval intelligence officer who covered the second war in Chechnya when she was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.  She is currently the managing editor of O-Dark-Thirty/The Report, a publication of the Veterans Writing Project.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Friday Freebie: Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman

Congratulations to Mike Hooker, Christine LaRue, and Drew Broussard, winners of last week's Friday Freebie contest: Tumbledown by Robert Boswell.

This week's book giveaway is the exciting new short-story anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman.  And when I say "exciting," I mean the whole package is thrilling--from the pulpy cover art right down to the selection of female thriller writers (many of whom will be new to most readers).  As I wrote earlier here at The Quivering Pen,
Weinman knows crime fiction inside and out and has written on the subject for the Los Angeles Times and The Barnes and Noble Review (among others), so I totally trust her judgment when it comes to literature about the darker side of domesticity.  In her introduction to Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, she talks about the early female pioneers of crime fiction: "Their books color outside the lines, blur between categories, and give readers a glimpse of the darkest impulses that pervade every part of contemporary society.  Especially those impulses that begin in the home."  Contemporary female writers particularly intrigue the editor--authors like Gillian Flynn, Tana French and Attica Locke who "take a scalpel to contemporary society and slice away until its dark essence reveals itself: the ways in which women continue to be victimized, their misfortunes downplayed by men (and women) who don't believe them, and how they eventually overcome."  For this anthology, Weinman stretches farther back to a goldener age of suspense fiction to bring us short stories by Patricia Highsmith, Shirley Jackson, Dorothy B. Hughes, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, Margaret Millar and several others to paint a portrait of troubled domesticity in mid-century America.
Here's a small sample of what you'll find in this wicked-good collection--the opening lines to "Sugar and Spice" by Vera Caspary (whose best-known work is probably the 1943 novel Laura):
I have never known a murderer, a murder victim, nor anyone involved in a murder case.  I admit that I am a snob, but to my mind crime is sordid and inevitably associated with gangsters, frustrated choir singers in dusty suburban towns, and starving old ladies supposed to have hidden vast fortunes in the bedsprings.  I once remarked to a friend that people of our sort were not in the homicide set, and three weeks later heard that her brother-in-law had been arrested as a suspect in the shooting of his rich uncle.  It was proved, however, that this was a hunting accident and the brother-in-law exonerated.  But it gave me quite a jolt.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Aug. 29, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 30.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you've done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying "I've shared" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Front Porch Books: August 2013 Edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, Amazon and other sources.  Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books.  In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss.  Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

Goat Mountain by David Vann (HarperCollins):  When I think of David Vann, I think of Alaska since that's where two of his previous books, Caribou Island and Legend of a Suicide, have been set.  But Goat Mountain takes us to Northern California--a different physical landscape, but no less wrenching an emotional territory than what we've encountered in Vann's earlier fiction.  Even the Jacket Copy makes me catch my breath and bite my lip:
In the fall of 1978, on a 640-acre family ranch on Goat Mountain in Northern California, an eleven-year-old boy joins his grandfather, his father, and his father's best friend on the family's annual deer hunt.  Every fall they return to this dry, yellowed landscape dotted with oak, buckbrush, and the occasional stand of pine trees.  Goat Mountain is what this family owns and where they belong.  It is where their history is kept, where their memories and stories are shared.  And for the first time, the boy's story will become part of their narrative, if he can find a buck.  Itching to shoot, he is ready.  When the men arrive at the gate to their land, the father discovers a poacher and sights him through the scope of his gun.  He offers his son a look--a simple act that will explode in tragedy, transforming these men and this family, forcing them to question themselves and everything they thought they knew.  David Vann creates a haunting and provocative novel, in prose devastating and beautiful in its precision, that explores our most primal urges and beliefs, the bonds of blood and religion that define and secure us, and the consequences of our actions--what we owe for what we've done.
Here are the Opening Lines: "Dust like powder blanketing the air, making a reddish apparition of the day.  Smell of that dust and smell of pine, smell of doveweed.  The pickup a segmented creature, head twisting opposite the body.  A sharp bend and I nearly tumbled off the side."

Somebody Up There Hates You by Hollis Seamon (Algonquin Books):  One of my favorite publishing houses, Algonquin Books, is branching out into tween territory (just as one of my favorite literary magazines, One Story, has started a separate line of young-adult fiction).  If Seamon's novel about a teen in hospice care is any indication, the Algonquin Young Readers imprint has a long life ahead of it.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
"Chemo, radiation, a zillion surgeries, watching my mom age twenty years in twenty months...if that's part of the Big Dude's plan, then it's pretty obvious, isn't it?  Enough said."  Smart-mouthed and funny, sometimes raunchy, Richard Casey is in most ways a typical seventeen-year-old boy.  Except Richie has cancer, and he's spending his final days in a hospice unit.  His mother, his doctors, and the hospice staff are determined to keep Richie alive as long as possible.  But in this place where people go to die, Richie has plans to make the most of the life he has left.  Sylvie, the only other hospice inmate under sixty, then tells Richie she has a few plans of her own.  What begins as camaraderie quickly blossoms into real love, and this star-crossed pair is determined to live on their own terms, in whatever time they have left.  Making her young adult fiction debut, Hollis Seamon creates one of the most original voices to appear in young adult literature, narrating a story that is unflinching, graphic, heartbreaking, funny, and above all life-affirming in its depiction of what it really means to be a teenager dying of cancer.
Sure, it's a little The Fault in Our Stars-y, but crack open the front cover, turn to the first page, read the Opening Lines, and if you're like me, you'll be instantly hooked by Richie's smart (and smart-ass) voice:
      I shit you not.  Hey, I'm totally reliable, sweartogod.  I, Richard Casey--aka the Incredible Dying Boy--actually do live, temporarily, in the very hospice unit I'm going to tell you about.  Third floor, Hilltop Hospital, in the city of Hudson, the great state of New York.
      Let me tell you just one thing about this particular hospice.  Picture this: right in front of the elevator that spits people into our little hospice home there is a harpist.  No joke.  Right there in our lobby, every damn day, this old lady with white hair and weird long skirts sits by a honking huge harp and strums her heart out.  Or plucks, whatever.  The harp makes all these sappy sweet notes that stick in your throat.

The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei (Other Press):  If you were to take a quick glance at the cover of Peter Mattei's new book, you might be forgiven for thinking it's called "A Novel" because those are the largest, boldest words you'll see there.  But the title The Deep Whatsis is no less in-your-face with its puzzled meaning.  Maybe you'll later get confused and call it the Whatnot or the Whositz, but chances are, once you start reading it, you won't forget it--not after these memorable Opening Lines:
The intern from the edit house is so drunk she is trying to take her skin off.  At least that’s what it looks like.  She is already half-naked and is grabbing at her flesh trying to find the edge of the Threadless T-shirt that she lost half an hour ago.  I don’t remember her name.
As the Jacket Copy says, meet Eric Nye: player, philosopher, drunk, sociopath....and forgetter-of-intern's-names:
A ruthless young Chief Idea Officer at a New York City ad agency, Eric downsizes his department, guzzles only the finest Sancerre, pops pills, and chases women.  Then one day he meets Intern, whose name he can’t remember.  Will she be the cause of his downfall, or his unlikely awakening?  A gripping and hilarious satire of the inherent absurdity of advertising and the flippant cruelty of corporate behavior, The Deep Whatsis shows the devastating effects of a world where civility and respect have been fired.
Blurbworthiness: "With zingy, hilarious glee, Peter Mattei takes a sharp stick and pokes it at many deserving underbellies: the puffery of corporate America; hipsters, yoga dudes, and the general pretentiousness of north Brooklyn; and many more.  The Deep Whatsis is a provocative, darkly subversive, deeply satisfying novel."  (Kate Christensen, author of The Astral)

The Love-Charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel (Bloomsbury Press):  Sticking with the subject of great titles, Laura Feigel certainly caught my eye with her literary history of World War Two London.  The Love-Charm of Bombs takes its title from a Graham Greene quote: "The nightly routine of sirens, barrage, the probing raider, the unmistakable engine ('Where are you?  Where are you?  Where are you?'), the bomb-bursts moving nearer and then moving away, hold one like a love-charm."  Of all the books which have recently come across my desk, Feigel's probably holds my interest the most in the way it approaches a subject obliquely and from different angles, like something by William T. Vollman, Nicholson Baker, or David Foster Wallace.  Here's the Jacket Copy to explain:
When the first bombs fell on London in August 1940, the city was transformed overnight into a strange kind of battlefield.  For most Londoners, the sirens, guns, planes, and bombs brought sleepless nights, fear and loss.  But for a group of writers, the war became an incomparably vivid source of inspiration, the blazing streets scenes of exhilaration in which fear could transmute into love.  In this powerful chronicle of literary life under the Blitz, Lara Feigel vividly conjures the lives of five prominent writers: Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and the novelist Henry Green.  Starting with a sparklingly detailed recreation of a single night of September 1940, the narrative traces the tempestuous experiences of these five figures through five years in London and Ireland, followed by postwar Vienna and Berlin.  Volunteering to drive ambulances, patrol the streets and fight fires, the protagonists all exhibited a unified spirit of a nation under siege, but as individuals their emotions were more volatile.  As the sky whistled and the ground shook, nerves were tested, loyalties examined and torrid affairs undertaken.  Literary historian and journalist Feigel brilliantly and beautifully interweaves the letters, diaries, journalism and fiction of her writers with official records to chart the history of a burning world, experienced through the eyes of extraordinary individuals.
Blurbworthiness: "Feigel writes with modesty and grace, never patronises or sentimentalises her subjects, and makes the reader glad to be sharing her ideas.  The Love-charm of Bombs is a bounding success as an account of wartime London and as a study of highly strung but tough characters under stress, and of the way that novelists transmute adultery into great art.  It evokes the inflamed skies, desolate streets, gashed buildings, broken windows, crushed or scorched corpses–and the ways that these stimulated novelists."  (The Sunday Telegraph)

An Afghanistan Picture Show by William T. Vollmann (Melville House):  Speaking of William T. Vollmann (see oblique reference above), here's the new edition of an old book of his.  God bless Melville House for bucking the advice of Library Journal (see direct reference below) and bringing this part-history, part-autobiography back to our attention after thirty years.  Like Nicholson Baker's (see above) Human Smoke, An Afghanistan Picture Show is a melange of war reportage, which is now dosed with three decades of hindsight.  In his self-deprecating introduction to this new edition from Melville House, Vollmann calls this book a "product of sincerity and gaucherie" which "suffers deficiencies of both form and content."  I don't know about you, but hearing an author warn us away from his writing in the very first paragraph only makes me want to read on further.  Here's the Jacket Copy to entice us deeper into the pages:
Never before available in paperback and all but invisible for twenty years, a personal account of the origins of America's longest war.  In 1982, the young William Vollmann worked odd jobs, including as a secretary at an insurance company, until he'd saved up enough money to go to Afghanistan, where he wanted to join the mujahedeen to fight the Soviets.  The resulting book wasn't published until 1992, and Library Journal rated it: "The wrong book written at the wrong time. . . . With the situation in Afghanistan rapidly heading toward resolution . . . libraries may safely skip this."  Thirty years later--and with the United States still mired in the longest war of its history--it's time for a reassessment of Vollmann's heartfelt tale of idealism and its terrifying betrayals.  An alloy of documentary and autobiographical elements characteristic of Vollmann's later nonfiction, An Afghanistan Picture Show is not a work of conventional reportage; instead, it's an account of a subtle and stubborn consciousness grappling with the limits of will and idealism imposed by violence and chaos.
No matter what Library Journal says, I won't be skipping this one.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane (Faber and Faber):  I have read the opening paragraph of Fiona McFarlane's debut novel three times now--at first, slowly; but then with increasing, heart-pounding speed each time--and I am convinced it's one of the most enticing openings to a novel I've read all year.  Take a look at the Opening Lines and judge for yourself:
Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, "Tiger."  That was natural; she was dreaming.  But there were noises in the house, and as she woke she heard them.  They came across the hallway from the lounge room.  Something large was rubbing against Ruth's couch and television and, as she suspected, the wheat-coloured recliner disguised as a wingback chair.  Other sounds followed: the panting and breathing of a large animal; a vibrancy of breath that suggested enormity and intent; definite mammalian noises, definitely feline, as if her cats had grown in size and were sniffing for food with enormous noses.  But the sleeping cats were weighing down the sheets at the end of Ruth's bed, and this was something else.
Dream or no dream, my mouth goes dry and I forget to breathe every time I read those vivid sentences.  The rest of the book looks just as compelling.  For your consideration, the Jacket Copy:
Ruth is widowed, her sons are grown, and she lives in an isolated beach house outside of town.  Her routines are few and small.  One day a stranger arrives at her door, looking as if she has been blown in from the sea.  This woman—Frida—claims to be a care worker sent by the government.  Ruth lets her in.  Now that Frida is in her house, is Ruth right to fear the tiger she hears on the prowl at night, far from its jungle habitat?  Why do memories of childhood in Fiji press upon her with increasing urgency?  How far can she trust this mysterious woman, Frida, who seems to carry with her own troubled past?  And how far can Ruth trust herself?  The Night Guest, Fiona McFarlane’s hypnotic first novel, is no simple tale of a crime committed and a mystery solved.  This is a tale that soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about aging, love, trust, dependence, and fear; about processes of colonization; and about things (and people) in places they shouldn’t be.  Here is a new writer who comes to us fully formed, working wonders with language, renewing our faith in the power of fiction to describe the mysterious workings of our minds.
Blurbworthiness: "The Night Guest is such an accomplished and polished debut.  There's a delicacy and poignancy to the writing, combined with almost unbearable suspense.  I love books in which I have no idea what's going to happen next."  (Kate Atkinson, author of Life After Life)

How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman (St. Martin's Press):  Here's another book in the same vein as The Night Guest (the Unreliable Narrator Vein).  There's something just a the Opening Lines of Emma Chapman's debut novel, starting with that second word, "somehow":
      Today, somehow, I am a smoker.
      I did not know this about myself.  As far as I remember, I have never smoked before.
      It feels unnatural, ill-fitting, for a woman of my age: a wife, a mother with a grown-up son, to sit in the middle of the day with a cigarette between her fingers.  Hector hates smoking.  He always coughs sharply when we walk behind someone smoking on the street, and I imagine his vocal cords rubbing together, moist and pink like chicken flesh.
      I rub the small white face of my watch.  Twelve fifteen.  By this time, I am usually working on something in the kitchen.  I must prepare supper for this evening, the recipe book propped open on the stand that Hector bought me for an early wedding anniversary.  I must make bread: mix the ingredients in a large bowl, knead it on the cold wooden worktop, watch it rise in the oven.  Hector likes to have fresh bread in the mornings.  Make your home a place of peace and order.
      The smoke tastes of earth, like the air underground.  It moves easily between my mouth and my makeshift ashtray: an antique sugar bowl once given to me by Hector’s mother.  The fear of being caught is like a familiar darkness; I breathe it in with the smoke.
      I found the cigarette packet in my handbag this morning underneath my purse.  It was disorientating, as if it wasn’t my bag after all.  There were some cigarettes missing.  I wonder if I smoked them.  I imagine myself, standing outside the shop in the village, lighting one.  It seems ridiculous.  I’m vaguely alarmed that I do not know for sure.  I know what Hector would say: that I have too much time on my hands, that I need to keep myself busy.  That I need to take my medication.  Empty nest syndrome, he tells his friends at the pub, his mother.  He’s always said I have a vivid imagination.
This is the kind of writing that makes me say, "Yes, I'll keep reading."  The Jacket Copy sinks the hook:
Marta and Hector have been married for a long time.  Through the good and bad; through raising a son and sending him off to life after university.  So long, in fact, that Marta finds it difficult to remember her life before Hector.  He has always taken care of her, and she has always done everything she can to be a good wife—as advised by a dog-eared manual given to her by Hector’s aloof mother on their wedding day.  But now, something is changing.  Small things seem off.  A flash of movement in the corner of her eye, elapsed moments that she can’t recall.  Visions of a blonde girl in the darkness that only Marta can see.  Perhaps she is starting to remember—or perhaps her mind is playing tricks on her.  As Marta’s visions persist and her reality grows more disjointed, it’s unclear if the danger lies in the world around her, or in Marta herself.  The girl is growing more real every day, and she wants something.

Rivers by Michael Farris Smith (Simon & Schuster):  In the opening pages of Michael Farris Smith's debut novel, a man saddles a horse and, armed with a double-barrel shotgun and a flashlight, ventures out into a dark storm full of lashing rain.  Nothing too out of the ordinary, right?  Keep reading.  What makes this interesting is the fact that the horse has been stabled in his living room and as they ride out into the surrounding urban neighborhood, we see that it's full of abandoned houses, downed power lines and "sloppy roads."  We get the distinct feeling that we're in a post-apocalyptic world a la The Road by Cormac McCarthy (indeed, Smith's prose style has some of the same hard-muscled, grim texture of McCarthy's words).  Rivers is a novel full of decay, starting with that spot-on-perfect cover design of a rusted metal sign bleeding onto a wall.  Here's the Jacket Copy to shine a flashlight on the dark plot:
Following years of catastrophic hurricanes, the Gulf Coast—stretching from the Florida panhandle to the western Louisiana border—has been brought to its knees.  The region is so punished and depleted that the government has drawn a new boundary ninety miles north of the coastline.  Life below the Line offers no services, no electricity, and no resources, and those who stay behind live by their own rules.  Cohen is one who stayed.  Unable to overcome the crushing loss of his wife and unborn child who were killed during an evacuation, he returned home to Mississippi to bury them on family land.  Until now he hasn’t had the strength to leave them behind, even to save himself.  But after his home is ransacked and all of his carefully accumulated supplies stolen, Cohen is finally forced from his shelter.  On the road north, he encounters a colony of survivors led by a fanatical, snake-handling preacher named Aggie who has dangerous visions of repopulating the barren region.  Realizing what’s in store for the women Aggie is holding against their will, Cohen is faced with a decision: continue to the Line alone, or try to shepherd the madman’s captives across the unforgiving land with the biggest hurricane yet bearing down—and Cohen harboring a secret that may pose the greatest threat of all.  Eerily prophetic in its depiction of a southern landscape ravaged by extreme weather, Rivers is a masterful tale of survival and redemption in a world where the next devastating storm is never far behind.
Blurbworthiness: “The lightning whips and the thunder bellows and the rain attacks in the water-stained pages of Michael Farris Smith’s Rivers, a hurricane-force debut novel that will soak you with its beautiful sadness and blow you away with its prescience about the weather-wild world that awaits us.”  (Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon)