Friday, May 29, 2020

Friday Freebie: Brave Deeds by David Abrams


Congratulations to Teresa Sweeney, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Fobbit by David Abrams (That’s-a me!).

This week, I’m rounding out the Quivering Pen’s 10th Anniversary celebration with the other novel written during this blog’s lifespan: Brave Deeds, published in 2017 by Grove/Atlantic. Like Fobbit, Brave Deeds is set in Baghdad during the Iraq War, but it’s written in a much darker shade of ink. “[Brave Deeds] builds to an emotionally wrenching and tension-filled climax . . . Filled with vivid characterizations and memorable moments, this novel . . . turns a single military action into a microcosm of an entire war.” (Publishers Weekly)

Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...


From Fobbit author David Abrams, Brave Deeds is a compelling novel of war, brotherhood, and America. Spanning eight hours, the novel follows a squad of six AWOL soldiers as they attempt to cross war-torn Baghdad on foot to attend the funeral of their leader, Staff Sergeant Rafe Morgan. As the men make their way to the funeral, they recall the most ancient of warriors yet are a microcosm of twenty-first-century America, and subject to the same human flaws as all of us. Drew is reliable in the field but unfaithful at home; Cheever, overweight and whining, is a friend to no one—least of all himself; and platoon commander Dmitri “Arrow” Arogapoulos is stalwart, yet troubled with questions about his own identity and sexuality. Emotionally resonant, true-to-life, and thoughtfully written, Brave Deeds is a gripping story of combat and of perseverance, and an important addition to the oeuvre of contemporary war fiction.

“In one very full, very messed up and hair-raising day, Brave Deeds delivers everything we could ever ask for in a novel, no less than birth, death, and all points in between. David Abrams has written a flat-out brilliant book of the Iraq War, one that reads like a compact version of the Odyssey or Going After Cacciato. Soldiers on a journey—it’s one of humankind’s oldest stories, and Abrams has given us the latest dispatch from the field, to stunning effect.” (Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk)

“At the beginning of Brave Deeds I was laughing out loud, and enjoying the feeling of being among the Army squad, even one making an insane walk through Baghdad. But by the end of the book I was silent: I was really undone by it. David Abrams has done something very powerful, drawing together the different layers of this story so beautifully, and drawing us down below the surface to a place of darkness and sadness. It’s a tour de force. Bravo.” (Roxana Robinson, author of Dawson's Fall)

If you’d like a chance at winning Brave Deeds, simply e-mail your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail.

The Fine Print
One entry per person, please (or, two if you share the post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on June 4, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 5.

The Finer Print
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 e-mail 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).

The Finest Print
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.


Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Birthday Bash



I don’t remember this day at all. It was my 10th birthday, a decade of life, so you’d think even my young brain would have marked it as a milestone: a day to remember.

But it wasn’t until my mother (seen here in mid-sing of “Happy Birthday” on May 27, 1973) sent me this photo three days ago that the memories came, not flooding back but seeping through a thick filter of age. The dining room table set, hand-crafted and painted by the Amish and purchased by my parents in Lancaster, Pennsylvania when they were newlyweds. My mother’s coffee mugs hung on that hand-painted sign that insists “Happiness is Togetherness” (and yet, I spent so much of my childhood totally content in my solitude). And that old narrow kitchen of ours branching off the dining room of the parsonage, soon to be torn down and remodeled when my father’s church budgeted for a renovation. But so many other things about that photo, the unseen life beyond the pixels, elude me.

Who was I in 1973? Certainly, I was already well into my career as a reader. I can’t say for sure, but I believe my pre-teen To-Be-Read list would have included Nancy Drew, Big Red, and The Borrowers. I was still a couple of years away from the day my parents came home with a Chocolate Lab puppy, Shane, who became my best (at times, my only) friend all the way through high school. On this sunny May day in 1973, I was shy and anxious and fighting off lingering traces of a childhood stutter. Overall, though, I think I was happy. I had kind parents, the weather was nice, and I had a library card.

The picture is also a good way to illustrate the fact that this blog turned 10 earlier this month. The way I’m looking at that cake is how I tend to look at books: with surprise, with hope, and with hunger.

Update: My mother helpfully provided this addendum today in a Facebook comment: We had been in Jackson, WY for less than a year. I wonder what I wrote on that cake? And yes you were an avid reader even then. We arrived at our new home in Jackson the previous November and before we even got to our home you were begging us to find the library!


Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sunday Sentence: The Wasp Eater by William Lychack


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


At the bottom of everything, they were a family of silence—nothing but blind, black, coal-crumbling silence, his father never anchored or steady like his mother, his mother never sanguine or loose like his father.

The Wasp Eater by William Lychack

Friday, May 22, 2020

Friday Freebie: Fobbit by David Abrams


Congratulations to Jane Rainey, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Incredible Journey of Plants by Stefano Mancuso.

As I mentioned earlier, this month marks the 10th Anniversary of The Quivering Pen. So, in honor of that decade of blogging, I’m offering up a signed copy of the book that was there at the very beginning: Fobbit, by yours truly. The blog proved to be a sort of child’s growth chart for the novel: I wrote about the process and content for several months before Fobbit was fully polished and eventually accepted for publication by Grove/Atlantic in 2012. Thanks to all of you who have reviewed the book over the years and who have come out through all kinds of weather to the bookstore readings. Your support has been one of the two-by-fours holding this blog upright throughout the years. Anyway, by now you Friday Freebie regulars know the drill: Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...



In the satirical tradition of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, Fobbit takes us into the chaotic world of Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Triumph. The Forward Operating base, or FOB, is like the back-office of the battlefield – where people eat and sleep, and where a lot of soldiers have what looks suspiciously like a desk job. Male and female soldiers are trying to find an empty Porta Potty in which to get acquainted, grunts are playing Xbox and watching NASCAR between missions, and a lot of the senior staff are more concerned about getting to the chow hall in time for the Friday night all-you-can-eat seafood special than worrying about little things like military strategy. Darkly humorous and based on the author’s own experiences in Iraq, Fobbit is a fantastic debut that shows us a behind-the-scenes portrait of the real Iraq war.

If you’d like a chance at winning Fobbit, simply e-mail your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail.

The Fine Print
One entry per person, please (or, two if you share the post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on May 28 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 29.

The Finer Print
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 e-mail 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).

The Finest Print
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.


A Decade of Quivering



Ten years ago this month, I found myself closing in on the end of the first draft of my first published novel. [cue montage of furrowed brow, fingers tapping keys, pencil gripped between teeth]

At the same time, I was feeling full of book chatter, bursting at the seams like I’d just overeaten at Heavy-Meats Burger Shack, but had no one with whom to converse. I was lonely for a book community. [cue montage of staring out the window, heavy sighs, the silvery track of a single tear caught in mid-afternoon light]

So, I birthed this blog.

It arrived on May 2, 2010, 8 pounds, 6 ounces and full of self-doubt, wallowing in “dreams of Mailer, Updike, and Dickens.” In that first blog post, titled “And So It Begins...,” I began by saying: “I am standing on the threshold of the first draft of my second novel (the first, an oddly funny story about a midget stuntman, remains unpublished—and perhaps unpublishable). I am days away from typing the final period of Fobbit: A Novel.”

Fourteen days, to be precise.

And, in another two years, the messy manuscript became a reality between covers.

Random, idle, self-serving chatter about Fobbit soon faded to the background and more outward-focused book chatter commenced. And has been commencing and re-commencing, in fits and starts, over the decade.

When I started The Quivering Pen in 2010, I didn’t know how long I could sustain it. Would it last a year? Would it flash in the pan and then join the other fads of my life: stamp collecting, flip-phone games, that time I reigned as mayor of Foursquare, etc.?

Well, I’m here, and you’re here, so something must have gone right....

Damn the self-doubt and full steam ahead! Until...

Two weeks ago, a friend of mine blurted out in mid-conversation to me: “Blogs—does anybody really read them anymore?”

I hid my wince with a laugh and an “I know, right?!

All I can say is, blogs may be as useless as the appendix, but at least we carry those around for a while before they’re taken out.

I like this blog because it carves me a space, a tiny little scrape of the penknife against the Internet, where I can talk about the books I love and all the ones I think I will love in my future. It is a place where I can share bits and pieces of my own writing, hesitantly and nervously. It is a big overstuffed chair where I can settle in at the end of the day and open up my mail and show you the new books that came. And this blog has also been a microphone to which I’ve invited other writers to step up and share the stories of their “first time” or perhaps to take us on a guided tour of their home library. This blog has been all this—plus recipes and music—for ten years.

And yet, sometimes I fret that this blog is obsolete, that I’m trying to drive a dinosaur-drawn carriage with a whip. Does anyone read this blog anymore? (cups ear, waits for echo)

Well, even if I’m back to being alone, even if everyone else has moved on to other platforms (high, towering platforms from which to dive into new ways of communicating that are cleaner and simpler), even if I’m typing into the void, I think I’ll keep on doing it—maybe not for another ten years, but at least for another ten months. Somehow, it feels like a good time to be talking about books. We need them now more than ever.

[cue montage of dinosaur-rider wheeling his mount around, clicking between his teeth, “Giddyup, T-Rex,” and riding toward the sunset.]


Sunday, May 17, 2020

Sunday Sentence: The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson


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


In war, as in farming, topography was fate.

The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson

Friday, May 15, 2020

Friday Freebie: The Incredible Journey of Plants by Stefano Mancuso


Congratulations to Columbus Moore, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Memory Eaters by Elizabeth Kadetsky.

This week’s contest is for The Incredible Journey of Plants by Stefano Mancuso. Perhaps you’ve been spending your quarantine life starting a little indoor garden, or maybe you just miss walking through a field of wildflowers, inhaling deeply with every other step. Either way, this richly-illustrated book about the flora in our lives should prove to be some interesting reading for you. Here’s what Salon had to say about The Incredible Journey of Plants: “A gripping series of evolutionary history vignettes about plants that have coexisted either in spite of or due to human intervention...a new perspective on that hazy term, nature.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...
When we talk about migrations, we should study plants to understand that these phenomena are unstoppable. In the many different ways plants move, we can see the incessant action and drive to spread life that has led plants to colonize every possible environment on earth. The history of this relentless expansion is unknown to most people, but we can begin our exploration with these surprising tales, engagingly told by Stefano Mancuso. Generation after generation, using spores, seeds, or any other means available, plants move in the world to conquer new spaces. They release huge quantities of spores that can be transported thousands of miles. The number and variety of tools through which seeds spread is astonishing: we have seeds dispersed by wind, by rolling on the ground, by animals, by water, or by a simple fall from the plant, which can happen thanks to propulsive mechanisms, the swaying of the mother plant, the drying of the fruit, and much more. In this accessible, absorbing overview, Mancuso considers how plants convince animals to transport them around the world, and how some plants need particular animals to spread; how they have been able to grow in places so inaccessible and inhospitable as to remain isolated; how they resisted the atomic bomb and the Chernobyl disaster; how they are able to bring life to sterile islands; how they can travel through the ages, as they sail around the world.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Incredible Journey of Plants, simply e-mail your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail.

The Fine Print
One entry per person, please (or, two if you share the post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on May 21 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 22.

The Finer Print
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 e-mail 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).

The Finest Print
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.


Friday, May 8, 2020

Friday Freebie: The Memory Eaters by Elizabeth Kadetsky


Congratulations to Mike Cooper, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him by Tracy Borman.

This week’s contest is for The Memory Eaters by Elizabeth Kadetsky. If you haven’t already done so, you should check out Elizabeth’s recent guest posts here at the Pen: A Suitcase of Books and My First In-Depth Encounter with an Actual Author. Her new book has just been released and readers are already singing its praises: “The Memory Eaters functions as love letters to single mothers, to New York City of the ‘70s and ‘80s, to the fashion industry, to graffiti artists, and to Kadetsky’s own mother, of course. And, like all the best love letters, it’s simultaneously wistful and romantic and cutting and sublime.” (Jeff Parker, author of Where Bears Roam the Streets)

Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...


On autopsy, the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient can weigh as little as 30 percent of a healthy brain. The tissue grows porous. It is a sieve through which the past slips. As her mother loses her grasp on their shared history, Elizabeth Kadetsky sifts through boxes of the snapshots, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, and notebooks that remain, hoping to uncover the memories that her mother is actively losing as her dementia progresses. These remnants offer the false yet beguiling suggestion that the past is easy to reconstruct—easy to hold.

Here’s even more praise for the book: “At the heart of Elizabeth Kadetsky’s exquisitely written memoir, The Memory Eaters, is a profound narrative about longing―longing for the past, for family, for home, for lost innocence, and for memory itself. Kadetsky deftly weaves her search for family secrets with stories about her own past trauma, her sister’s addiction and homelessness, and her mother who was tragically struck down by early Alzheimer’s. This is a powerful book, beautifully told.” (Mira Bartok, author of The Wonderling)

If you’d like a chance at winning The Memory Eaters, simply e-mail your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail.

The Fine Print
One entry per person, please (or, two if you share the post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on May 14 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 15.

The Finer Print
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 e-mail 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).

The Finest Print
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.


Monday, May 4, 2020

My First Time: Margo Orlando Littell



The First Time My Life Imitated My Art

In 1889, Oscar Wilde claimed in an essay, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” I found this to be all too eerily true when I began researching and writing my novel The Distance from Four Points. I set the novel in a fictionalized version of my hometown, an impoverished former coal-mining town in the Appalachian foothills of southwestern Pennsylvania, and many details of my setting are drawn from life: blighted homes, neglected commercial properties, a sweeping, general abandonment of anything approximating decent real estate. Decades ago, my hometown had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country—now a quarter of the (small) population lives below the poverty level. That collapse is reflected in the once-grand homes now crumbling along the main street of town. My novel is, in part, about aggressively negligent small-town landlords; I’m drawn to ruined homes, especially the ones who’ve held onto shadows of their former beauty. Old woodwork, original stained glass, intricate pavers visible beneath the weeds. My novel was inspired by these relics. Art imitating life.

The protagonist of my novel, Robin, becomes a small-town landlord when her husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her with nothing but a handful of “investment properties” he’d blown their savings on. She has a fraught relationship with one particular ruined house, and ultimately finds herself involved in its restoration. She encounters squatters, destructive tenants, month after month of missing rent payments. She becomes a member of a landlording group full of men whose moral code of squeezing tenants for every penny she can’t abide, but who offer her a path to survival she believes she has no choice but to follow.

It’s a grim setup, and Robin doesn’t get a lot of mercy from me for most of the novel.


It was a fun book to research. To shape my descriptions of the rentals Robin inherits, I scoured photos on Zillow and Craigslist, amazed at the lack of care landlords took when listing their properties. Laundry piles, overflowing garbage, obvious damage to walls and windows—what you see is what you get, they were saying. Don’t bother us, we won’t bother you. During a visit to my hometown, I had a realtor take me through some available properties, and I witnessed the neglect firsthand. Though most of the properties seemed uninhabitable, tenants were either living there or had only recently moved out.

And yet. Some of the historic homes—enormous houses that had been split into badly maintained triplexes—beckoned. Beneath the grime and grit, they retained some of their old glory. The house at the heart of my novel was based on an actual house in my hometown, a particularly tragic beauty. Red brick, with a round turret from ground to attic, the pointy peak long missing, the windows in the round turret rooms broken and boarded. It was just a block away from my parents’ house, and I’d admired it my entire life. This house happened to be on the market while I was researching my novel, and I was able to go inside for the very first time. There was woodwork; there was original stained glass; but the smell of cats and garbage was physical, the neglect and destruction total. The house was destined to be condemned and, eventually, demolished. I was grateful for the chance to have seen it, and the new details inspired my work on the book.

Then two big events turned art-imitates-life upside down: a landlord friend bought that house, intending to flip it; and, a few months later, I joined in as an equal partner. The moment my name was added to the title, I became a small-town property owner, just like Robin. Fast forward through an extensive restoration process, and an unsuccessful attempt to find a buyer. Instead of selling the house, we rented it out—and voila, I was a landlord, just like Robin. Our first tenant bounced all her checks and refused to leave, becoming a squatter. In my novel, a squatter lives in the fictionalized version of this house. Many tenants lied on their applications, an egregious trick that was both humiliating and enraging, and I found myself getting counsel from my hometown’s most notoriously negligent landlords—just as Robin finds herself aligned with the local landlords who are harder and less merciful than she could ever be.

Every novel requires immersion: into setting, character, and story. I’ve dreamed about characters, fallen in love with them, heard their voices in my head. This time, this novel, was different. Deeper. My life inspired the art, consumed what I created, and then spit it back out as a new reality. I assumed the same burdens as Robin, trod the same fraught path, and now feel the same tight grip of anxiety that she does on the first of each month when the rent—again, again, again—fails to be paid.

I gave Robin a happy enough ending. Until I somehow find a buyer for my property, however, my landlording story will go on and on and on.


Margo Orlando Littell is the author of the novels The Distance from Four Points and Each Vagabond by Name, both published by the University of New Orleans Press. Each Vagabond by Name won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and an IPPY Awards Gold Medal, was longlisted for the 2017 Tournament of Books, and was named one of fifteen great Appalachian novels by Bustle. Originally from southwestern Pennsylvania, Margo now lives in New Jersey. She is on Twitter and Instagram and her website is www.margoorlandolittell.com.

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. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.


Sunday, May 3, 2020

Sunday Sentence: Nebraska by Kwame Dawes


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


       It grows dark quickly here,
       and God no longer strolls
       the gardens, calling out
       the name of things with delight;
       not even the damp clump
       of a name.


“Transplant” in Nebraska by Kwame Dawes


Thursday, April 30, 2020

Here’s to Blithesome May (and e. e. cummings)



It’s the last day of National Poetry Month and I’ve been celebrating with poetry old (nineteenth-century poets) and new (Kwame Dawes, Eileen Myles, and M. L. Smoker to name a few). I’m also still thinking about the sometimes-tangled prosody of e. e. cummings whose Collected Poems dominated most of my 2019 in Verse. Today, I thought I’d say goodbye to April (you cruellest of months) and bid Hello to what the poet calls “blithesome May” in an excerpt from one of his earlier, more-accessible poems.

How’s the weather in your neck of the woods? Here in Montana, there were snowflakes swirling outside my fourth-floor apartment window a mere two weeks ago. So I’m more than ready for sun-showers and the burst of buds on the flowering trees in my neighborhood. For those of you, like me, who have been restlessly pacing the confines of quarantine, here’s a glimmer of meteorological hope from Mr. cummings, first published in The Cambridge Review in 1910 (in the month of May, naturally).


The Coming of May

We have wintered the death of the old, cold year,
We have left our tracks in the melting snow,
We have braved harsh March’s biting jeer,
And April’s gusty overflow.
And now, when Nature begins to grow,
And the buds are out, and the birds are gay
And all is well–above and below,–
Here’s to the coming of blithesome May.

Winter was good when he met us here,
With his sharp, clear days, and his flashing snow,
Bur we carried Winter out on his bier,
And buried him, many a month ago.
March was not hard with all his blow,
With April, Spring seemed on her way,
But we’ve reached the best at last, and so
Here’s to the coming of blithesome May.

Winter has ended his cold career,–
No more death, and no more woe,–
We’ve come at last to a different sphere,
With no more freezing, and–mistletoe.
Spring in coming was very slow,–
Altogether too much delay,–
But we’ve cheered her on from foe to foe:
Here’s to the coming of blithesome May.