Monday, January 30, 2012

My First Time: Myfanwy Collins

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 Myfanwy Collins, author of the novel Echolocation (forthcoming from Engine Books).  Collins lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband and son.  Her work has been published in The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Cream City Review, Quick Fiction, Potomac Review and other venues.  Ron Currie Jr. (author of Everything Matters!) had this to say about her debut novel: "Myfanwy Collins has the goods.  It's that simple.  Echolocation is about love in all its magnificent slipperiness; it's about how secrets bind us rather than rend us; it's about the endless series of personal reinventions we call a lifetime.  And these are things we had all better be thinking--and reading--about, if we plan to try and get out of this alive."  A collection of Collins' short fiction, I Am Holding Your Hand, is also forthcoming from PANK Little Books in August.   Please visit her website for more information.

My First Acknowledgments

In my mind, I had written acknowledgements dozens of times, always hoping that someday I would write them for real.  I imagined how satisfying it would feel to finally be able to publicly thank all of those people who had helped me and believed in me along my path to publication.  I couldn’t wait to let my husband know how much I appreciated all of his years of sacrifice and to let my family and friends know how much I appreciated their dogged support.

I firmly believed that if I were ever so lucky as to have a book published, that writing the acknowledgements would be the easiest, most natural part of the whole process.

I was wrong.

When it came time to write the acknowledgements for my forthcoming debut novel, Echolocation, I found myself flustered, baffled, and afraid.  These words were no longer fantasy.  They were real and everyone who read the book would potentially read them as well.

Once I started writing, some of the fear fell away.  I remembered that I was writing these words to express my thanks to people and organizations who had helped and/or inspired me.  I was thanking people for their belief in me.  I was thanking people for lending me their strength.  That part was easy enough.

I felt satisfied with the first draft and walked away from it for a couple of weeks.  When I opened the file again, I knew it would be the last time I worked on it before I sent it to my publisher.  I was either on the verge of tears or actually crying as I worked.  The emotions I was expressing on the page were real.  I reached a hand out and touched each of these people and thanked them as best as I could.  I hoped that they would feel that.

It was not until I sent the file to my publisher that the panic resurfaced.  What if I forgot someone important?  After I sent it to her, I read it again and asked her if she would let me know before she sent the book off, just in case I needed to make changes to the acknowledgements.  She kindly agreed.  As I write this, the acknowledgements are still with her.  I’m not sure I’ll be able to take a deep breath until the book is gone and I can make no more changes.

Like all first times, this one has been a mix of joy and fear.  When I am ever so lucky to write acknowledgements again, I will look back on how I feel now and, I hope, be able to use what I’ve learned in shaping my new experience.  And what I have learned is this: what your family and friends give you as you work is a gift.  Like all givers of gifts they have likely given what they have given you expecting nothing in return other than you are enriched by their generosity.  Your gratitude is shown through your perseverance in putting the words on the page and never giving up on yourself.  Your acknowledgements are merely the sweet icing on the hard-earned cake.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Great Beginnings: Ron Rash's Saints at the River

The other day, a battered, stained and water-wrinkled book arrived in the mail for me.  It was Saints at the River, Ron Rash's 2004 novel.  I'd received it as part of a BookMooch trade.  From all outward appearances, it's not a pretty book because of the rough condition it's in after passing through other readers' hands.  This is one of the hazards of BookMooch and I usually take what I can get.  In this case, I'm glad I got this mooch, grime and all.  After reading the opening pages of Saints at the River, I can see clearly why the book is so bent and wrinkled: those previous readers' hands have gripped this novel hard.

Here's how the book begins in an italicized three-page preface before Chapter 1:
      She follows the river trail downstream, leaving behind her parents and younger brother who still eat their picnic lunch. She is twelve years old and it is her school's Easter break. Her father has taken time off from his job and they have followed the Appalachian Mountains south, stopping first in Gatlinburg, then the Smokies, and finally this river. She finds a place above a falls where the water looks shallow and slow. The river is a boundary between South Carolina and Georgia, and she wants to wade into the middle and place one foot in South Carolina and one in Georgia so she can tell her friends back in Minnesota she has been in two states at the same time.
      She kicks off her sandals and enters, the water so much colder than she imagined, and quickly deeper, up to her kneecaps, surging under the smooth surface. She shivers. Fifty yards downstream a granite cliff rises two hundred feet into the air to cast this section of river into shadow. She glances back to where her parents and brother sit on the blanket. It is warmer there, the sun full upon them. She thinks about going back but is almost halfway now. She takes a step, and the water rises higher on her knees. Four more steps, she tells herself. Just four more and I'll turn back. She takes another step and the bottom she tries to set her foot on is no longer there and she is being shoved downstream and she does not panic because she is a good swimmer and has passed all of her Red Cross courses. The water shallows and her face breaks the surface and she breathes deep. She tries to turn her body so she won't hit her head on a rock and as she thinks this she's afraid for the first time and she's suddenly back underwater and hears the rush of water against her ears. She tries to hold her breath but her knee smashes against a boulder and she gasps in pain and water pours into her mouth. Then for a few moments the water pools and slows. She rises coughing up water, gasping air, her feet dragging the bottom like an anchor trying to snag waterlogged wood or rock jut and as the current quickens again she sees her family running along the shore and she knows they are shouting her name though she cannot hear them and as the current turns her she hears the falls and knows there is nothing that will keep her from it and the current quickens and quickens and another rock smashes against her knee but she hardly feels it as she snatches another breath before the river pulls her under and she feels the river fall and she falls with it as water whitens around her and she falls deep into darkness and as she rises her head scrapes against a rock ceiling and all is black and silent and she tells herself don't breathe but the need grows inside her beginning in the upper stomach then up through the chest and throat and as that need rises her mouth and nose open at the same time and the lungs explode in pain and then the pain is gone along with the dark as bright colors shatter around her like glass shards, and she remembers her sixth-grade science class, the gurgle of the aquarium at the back of the room that morning the teacher held a prism out the window so it might fill with color, and she has a final beautiful thought—that she is now inside that prism and knows something even the teacher does not know, that the prism's colors are voices, voices that swirl around her head like a crown, and at that same moment her arms and legs she did not even know were flailing cease and she becomes part of the river.

I don't know about you, but I'm more than hooked--I'm right there in the river with this little girl.  I think I even forgot to breathe for the space of that last long sentence that runs like liquid current.  I loved Rash's masterful novel Serena and am looking forward to his new novel The Cove, which goes on sale in April.  But, after this humdinger of an opening, I may have to give serious consideration to reading the rest of Saints at the River first.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

2012 Academy Awards Prediction Contest

Welcome to the annual Oscars prediction contest at The Quivering Pen blog.

Last year's contest proved to be so popular, I'm rolling out the red carpet for a second time.  Once again, you have the opportunity to predict who will take home the little golden statuette once all the bribes, under-the-table handshakes, and Rock-Paper-Scissors games are all done in Hollywood.  Think you can forecast which way the wind will blow in Tinseltown this year?  You'll probably do a better job than me.  I'm not even going to try and make my predictions here at the blog because I've seen so few of the nominees (I've been too busy with a little thing called Fobbit: a Novel).  My 2011 Oscar-nominee viewing list so far includes: Midnight in Paris, The Help, The Tree of Life, The Ides of March, Jane Eyre, Rango and 20 minutes of Transformers: Dark of the Moon (and even 20 minutes was too long for that crapfest).  I hope to see a few more of the nominees before February 26, but not enough to make educated guesses without the help of tea leaves, dice, and a dartboard.

You, on the other hand, can show off your mad skillz and astound us with your Oscar picks.  Here are the rules:

1. One entry per person.
2. You must answer all the questions in the survey to compete (in other words, predict a winner in each of the Oscar categories, and provide your name and e-mail address*).
3. The contest is open to anyone, though winners who reside outside the United States might have to wait a bit longer to receive the prize.
4. Each correct guess is worth one point. If more than one person ties for the number of most correct guesses, those names will go into a hat and the winner will be drawn from there.
5. The contest closes on Feb. 25, the day before the Academy Awards presentation.
6. The winner will be announced here on the website on Feb. 27.

The Grand Prize
One winner will get a copy of each of these books related to the Oscar nominees, generously donated by the following publishers:

W. W. Norton:
Moneyball by Michael Lewis

The Hugo Movie Companion: A Behind the Scenes Look at How a Beloved Book Became a Major Motion Picture by Brian Selznick

Penguin Books:
Albert Nobbs: A Novella by George Moore

The Iron Lady: Margaret Thatcher, from Grocer's Daughter to Prime Minister by John Campbell

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: A George Smiley Novel by John Le Carre

BONUS!  From my own personal DVD collection, I'll throw in a (very gently) used copy of Days of Heaven in honor of this year's Best Director nominee Terrence Malick.  While I was alternately astounded and confounded by The Tree of Life, I still believe Days of Heaven is, hands-down, a masterpiece.  It's easily one of my Top 10 Films of All Time.  This particular DVD went over to Iraq with me and, for the space of 93 minutes, took me away from the war.  If you're the winner, it's yours, with my blessing.

(When you've completed the survey, you'll automatically be directed back here to the blog)

*Your email and other personal information will not be given to third parties. By participating, you consent to have your name published here at the blog as the winner.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Freebie: The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau

Congratulations to Nomi Hurwitz, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Hystera by Leora Skolkin-Smith.

This week's giveaway is The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau.  You've already heard from Nancy earlier this week when she dropped in to talk about her "first time."  Now, you have the chance to read The Crown for yourself and find out why her third-grade teacher was like the Nostradamus of the literary world when she taped a sign to the classroom wall which read, "Have You Heard of Nancy Bilyeau, the Famous Writer?"

I have The Crown on my Kindle and am looking forward to reading it soon.  I mean, who could pass up murder, political intrigue, religious fanaticism, sex, and nuns?  (Perhaps it was inappropriate to put those last two things in the same sentence, and for that I apologize.)  The Crown is set in 1537 and, according to Library Journal, will appeal to fans of Dan Brown and Philippa Gregory.  Here's a bit of the plot summary from the publisher:
Joanna Stafford, a Dominican nun, learns that her favorite cousin has been condemned by Henry VIII to be burned at the stake. Defying the sacred rule of enclosure, Joanna leaves the priory to stand at her cousin’s side. Arrested for interfering with the king’s justice, Joanna, along with her father, is sent to the Tower of London. The ruthless Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, takes terrifying steps to force Joanna to agree to spy for him: to save her father’s life she must find an ancient relic—a crown so powerful, it may hold the ability to end the Reformation. Accompanied by two monks, Joanna returns home to Dartford Priory and searches in secret for this long-lost piece of history worn by the Saxon King Athelstan in 937 during the historic battle that first united Britain. But Dartford Priory has become a dangerous place, and when more than one dead body is uncovered, Joanna departs with a sensitive young monk, Brother Edmund, to search elsewhere for the legendary crown. From royal castles with tapestry-filled rooms to Stonehenge to Malmesbury Abbey, the final resting place of King Athelstan, Joanna and Brother Edmund must hurry to find the crown if they want to keep Joanna’s father alive.

O, The Oprah Magazine had this to say about the novel: "Bilyeau deftly weaves extensive historical detail throughout, but the real draw of this suspenseful novel is its juicy blend of lust, murder, conspiracy, and betrayal."  It sounds like the perfect book for a mid-winter read.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of The Crown, all you have to do is answer this question:

What's the name of Bilyeau's ancestor who fled to the New World  in 1661 to escape religious persecution in France and later built the first stone house on Staten Island?  (You can find the answer by visiting the author's website.)

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on  Feb. 2--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 3.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen 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 Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you've done either or both of those, send me an additional e-mail saying "I've shared" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Robert Penn Warren's snow-snagged Tetons

I'm still practicing my Poem-a-Day habit like a monk at his daily matins.  This morning, I came across Robert Penn Warren's "Mortal Limit" and was happily surprised to see the Tetons, which loomed in my back yard as a child growing up in Jackson, make an appearance in his stanzas.  The other Warren poems in The Poets Laureate Anthology left me rather unmoved, but "Mortal Limit" really spoke to me--especially that one phrase "the last purity of snow-snags."  I really like the alliteration in that line and will carry it with me through the rest of my day.  (Note: I've also seen it transcribed as "lazy purity" elsewhere on the web.  I'm not sure which is the official version, or if Warren changed it at one point, but I'm sticking with "last" because it sounds better and makes more sense.)

Mortal Limit

I saw the hawk ride updraft in the sunset over Wyoming.
It rose from coniferous darkness, past gray jags
Of mercilessness, past whiteness, into the gloaming
Of dream-spectral light above the last purity of snow-snags.

There--west--were the Tetons. Snow-peaks would soon be
In dark profile to break constellations. Beyond what height
Hangs now the black speck? Beyond what range will gold eyes see
New ranges rise to mark a last scrawl of light?

Read the rest of the poem here.

Photo by Ansel Adams: The Tetons and the Snake River (1942)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Razors in the Bloodstream: Men in the Making by Bruce Machart

I was halfway through Bruce Machart's debut collection of short stories, Men in the Making, when I rushed over to Facebook and posted this somewhat breathless message: "I can only read one story per day because they are like miniature razor blades bumping through my bloodstream.  This is fiction that excoriates and scrubs the reader from the inside out."  That sort of hyperbole is pretty typical of me and sometimes I'll later "reflect and regret" when I look back at what I've written.

Not in this case.  Machart's ten stories, set mostly in Texas, are brutally good.  It's the kind of fiction you read with equal parts pleasure and pain.  It's the kind of pain that's good for you--the dental yank of the festered tooth, the extraction of the splinter, the snap-crunch back into place of the dislocated shoulder.  At times, the stories can be hard to read, but when we've made it through to the end, we're rewarded with that sweet succor of catharsis.

But yes, it can be emotionally wrenching to reach those epiphanies.  Machart, who also wrote the excellent novel The Wake of Forgiveness, doesn't shy away from the awful.  He forces you to take your eyes off the road ahead and stare at all the gory realities of the wreck on the shoulder of the highway.  In "The Only Good Thing I've Heard," for instance, we spend some time with Raymond, a nurse in a burn unit, as he administers debridement treatments to the patients.  There are scenes in there guaranteed to make you squirm.  But you cannot look away.

Or consider this opening paragraph of "Monuments":
When I was ten, after my mother left Dad and me and flew off to Europe, Kevin, the five-year-old next door, got run down in front of our house. He was chasing a cat, and after his body hit the pavement and slid into the grass near the Houston Lighting and Power substation across the road, neighbors say a bearded man in overalls stumbled down from the truck, put a hand on the sideview mirror to keep his balance, and took a leak right there in the street, beer cans falling from the cab to his feet. Later, we heard that Kevin's aorta had burst, that he probably hadn't felt the asphalt peeling his skin or the dark green cool of the grass where he'd come to a crumpled stop.
Every word in that paragraph is carefully orchestrated and impeccably placed, from the drunk's hand reaching out to the sideview mirror for balance to the "dark green cool of the grass" to the "crumpled stop."  That kind of hard work on the part of the writer is all but invisible to the reader caught up in what's happening on the page.  The details in that paragraph are so vivid and so shocking you forget it started with the seemingly-casual comment that the narrator comes from a broken home.  But that absentee mother and the narrator's longing for love are central to the story.  Kevin with his peeled skin is important, too, but he's the gory window dressing that pulls you inside the door.

Another standout story is "Because He Can't Not Remember"--the tension starting in the double negative of the title.  It's about a couple--new parents--in the last five minutes of their life together in a Walmart parking lot on "another Houston night so hot and humid you could hang teabags from tree branches to steep." In a few moments, their lives will intersect with the troubled Ramirez twins in their blue LeMans cruising the parking lot and they will all be changed forever.  After reading this, I sat in my chair, unable to move for several minutes, reamed through and through by the unbearable heaviness and beauty of the writing.

Machart also does an excellent job of describing the worlds in which his characters live; the details of the stories take us to places most of us have never been--a lumber mill, for instance, with this explanation of a debarker from "The Last One Left in Arkansas":
Imagine a porcupine turned inside out, a big mother with three-foot-long steel quills. That’s what a debarking drum is like. An enormous pipe, fifteen feet in diameter and lined inside with hundreds of these quills. Load it with a dozen or so twenty-foot-tall, forty-year-old Arkansas pine trunks, turn that sucker on, get it rolling good, and thirty seconds later you’ve got naked trees, fresh and clean as an Eden stream. Step back, blow the bark and sap out the discharge vents, smell that rich, sappy-sweet smell, and keep on keepin’ on.
After reading Machart's story, I know enough to stay away from one of these machines and not let my curiosity lead me inside to check out those quills at a time when no one else knows I'm in there and the foreman comes along to throw the switch. That happens here in "The Last One Left in Arkansas" and it's not pretty.

There's not a single story in this collection that doesn't work its ass off to earn genuine sympathy for its characters.  These men defy the stereotype of blunt, hard-shelled machismo; Machart makes them far more complex than that.  Oh sure, there's some swagger, but we recognize it for the thin shield it is; like this paragraph from the opening story, the aptly-named "Where You Begin":
You know Jimmy, all right. Here’s a guy with--as he’ll tell you--a truck and some luck and on good nights a fuck. A guy just far enough out of his mind to own the Exxon shipping and receiving record for blindfolded forklift driving--all hundred and five feet of the loading dock and down the ramp without ever putting on the brakes. Yup, Jimmy’s got more bowling shirts than sense, but you’ve been knowing him a long time, and when tit turns to trouble he ain’t ever late in that truck. He’s good people, Jimmy, never mind all his ribbing.

For every Jimmy, we get men like the members of the pipe fitter's union in "Among the Living Amidst the Trees" who shave their heads in sympathy for a co-worker with cancer:
These are rough-hewn and heavy men, men with calluses thick as rawhide, men who aren't afraid to keep something tender beneath their rib cages, and to expose it to the elements when occasion calls for it, no matter how it hurts.

In Men in the Making, Machart is trying to get all the way to that inner core of hurt, past the leather epidermis of stoicism and brute force.  What he finds, in fact, is that men are some of the most tender creatures around--whether they know it or not.  The very last line of the last story in the book neatly sums it up: "to be a man, a whole man, is to remain forever in need."  Though women aren't the main characters in these stories, neither are they marginalized. We are all travelers on the same journey, Machart says, with the same vulnerabilities and fear.  Every reader has something to gain from the beautiful scouring debridement of Machart's fiction.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Edith, I Love You

I fell in love with Edith when I was in graduate school.

For the sake of my wife's suddenly-arched eyebrows, let me clarify:  I fell in love with Edith Wharton when I was buried up to my chin in required reading at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.  She was long dead by that point, so my wife had nothing to worry about.  Edith was dead, but her words lived on.  At that point in my graduate career, I had been nearly conquered by the dullness of other novels on the reading list (I'm lookin' at you, Mr. Henry James!) and I needed literature that would cut through the fog.  The House of Mirth proved to be a pretty bright lantern in all that gloom.  Reading Wharton's 1905 novel, I felt like Lawrence Selden himself in the opening paragraph:
Selden paused in surprise. In the afternoon rush of the Grand Central Station his eyes had been refreshed by the sight of Miss Lily Bart.

Today marks Edith's birthday and I thought I'd take a moment here at The Quivering Pen to celebrate her life and influence on my own writing.  Because I'm still on my diet (see: Jan. 1; also: resolution), I won't be having any birthday cake. (Insert lame joke about "having your cake and Edith, too.")   But, if you could see me now, I'm wearing a rainbow-colored cone-shaped hat and blowing a paper noisemaker that unrolls like a red carpet from my mouth.

Edith Wharton (who would have been a whopping 150 years old today) is well worth feting in such a potentially-embarrassing manner.  She combines everything I love about classic literature: the sharp realism of Flaubert and Dickens and the biting social criticism of Henry James (without, you know, all the dull parts).  My Wharton education is far from complete--I've yet to read The Age of Innocence or The Custom of the Country--but what I've read, I've loved.  In particular, I'm very fond of Summer.  It's one of her books that doesn't get as much notice as The House of Mirth or Ethan Frome, but I found it to be every bit the arrow-to-the-heart kind of reading I'd come to expect from Wharton.

Like Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Summer caused quite a stir when it was first published in 1917, primarily because it's about sex and the enjoyment thereof.  Supposedly, Wharton called it her "hot Ethan."  It tells the story of Charity Royall, a child of mountain moonshiners who "comes down from the mountain" to be adopted by a family in a rural New England town (this is one of the few times Wharton set one of her stories outside of New York City society).  Overcoming her abusive past, Charity gets a job as a librarian and eventually has a passionate affair with Lucius Harney, an architect who has come to the country to escape the Big City.  Complication: Lucius is secretly engaged to a society girl back in the B.C.  Ruh-roh, Raggy!

Yes, Summer's story is good, but I especially like Wharton's description of the rural New England setting.  Here, for instance, are the second and third paragraphs of the novel:
      It was the beginning of a June afternoon. The spring-like transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village, and on the pastures and larchwoods surrounding it. A little wind moved among the round white clouds on the shoulders of the hills, driving their shadows across the fields and down the grassy road that takes the name of street when it passes through North Dormer. The place lies high and in the open, and lacks the lavish shade of the more protected New England villages. The clump of weeping-willows about the duck pond, and the Norway spruces in front of the Hatchard gate, cast almost the only roadside shadow between lawyer Royall's house and the point where, at the other end of the village, the road rises above the church and skirts the black hemlock wall enclosing the cemetery.
      The little June wind, frisking down the street, shook the doleful fringes of the Hatchard spruces, caught the straw hat of a young man just passing under them, and spun it clean across the road into the duck-pond.

If all goes well with The Biography Project, you should be hearing much more about Edith Wharton later this year since Hermione Lee's 2007 biography of E.W. is in the queue to be read.  For now, I'll leave you with this little tease--the opening paragraph of Chapter 2:
A little American girl, born into the middle of the Civil War, is growing up in the 1860s and 1870s in a well-established New York family. She is a late child, with much older brothers, so her childhood feels like an only childhood. She is taken to Europe when she is very young, and has a bad illness while she is there, which makes her more anxious and fearful than she was before it. She enjoys her early exposure to Paris, Rome and Spain, and when the family gets back to New York, she finds it ugly and alien, and always feels like a stranger there. She is red-haired, awkward, shy eager to please, in love with the sound of words and passionate about dogs. She is happier when she is running about, swimming and boating at the family's seaside home in Newport, or alone in her father's library, than when her mother dresses her up and takes her into society. She is devoted to her Irish nurse, affectionate with her father, less fond of her mother and puts up with being teased by her brothers. She tells herself stories all the time. She is to have no formal education.

Monday, January 23, 2012

My First Time: Nancy Bilyeau

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 Nancy Bilyeau, author of the just-released novel The Crown which is set in Tudor England and is an intriguing stew of murder, sex, and religious fanatics.  Woman's Day called it "a must-read...Part The Da Vinci Code, part The Other Boleyn Girl, it will keep you guessing until the very end!"  Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping.  Most recently, she served as deputy editor at InStyle magazine.  She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.  More information about her life and The Crown can be found at her website.

My First Writing Teachers

I went to public school in suburban Detroit.  Big buildings, with classrooms filled to bursting.  In elementary school there were always at least 30 of us per class.  By the time I got to Winston Churchill High in Livonia, we were sometimes three to a locker.  My graduating class topped 900 kids.

I liked learning but I was shy and uncertain of myself: the sort of student who finishes her test first but sits frozen at the desk without turning it in for fear of looking like a show-off.  Each year, I couldn’t wait for summer to end and to get back to school, but I was careful never to tell anyone that.

Overcrowded schools.  Quiet student.  It would seem unlikely that I’d attract much notice.  And no, I wasn’t a star.  But I did make connections with two teachers.  Each of them encouraged me to write and made me feel I had some talent for it.

The first one was my third-grade teacher.  We had recently moved from Chicago to Dearborn, Michigan, and now to Livonia.  My father, Wally Bilyeau, was an artist and Michigan was his home state and he wanted to return.  Daniel Webster was my third elementary school.  I’d made no friends, and I was so far behind in math I had to attend the remedial arithmetic group after school.

We went on a class field trip and, once back in the school, wrote a report.  I don’t remember what we saw except that on the way back there were leaves on the ground.  I described what they looked like.  After we turned in our reports, the teacher announced to the whole class that I wrote something special.  She made a small sign--“Have You Heard of Nancy Bilyeau, the Famous Writer?”--and taped it to the wall.

I felt embarrassed looking at that sign.  But I was fiercely proud, too.

Eight years later, I was one of hundreds of teenagers careening down the halls of Churchill High School.  I’d made friends by then.  Like many an insecure girl, I’d plunged into theatre.  My friends were all in the Drama Club and I kept scrapbooks at home of actors and actresses.

But I was still a bookworm.  I inhaled novels—I used to fall asleep reading every night.  My family got used to the sound of a book hitting the floor with a thump when I turned over in bed.

I took a creative writing class, and the teacher was Mrs. Erickson, slim and blonde.  She was so intelligent--the kind of teacher who commands the classroom without ever raising her voice.  In fact, it was her voice that I remember best.  She would sit on the edge of her desk and read aloud from novels that she wanted us to get excited about.  The one that made the deepest impression on me was E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.   She didn’t have a trace of self-consciousness as she read passages from the historical novel—and I went right into the year 1902 and the lives of Evelyn Nesbit and Emma Goldman and Mameh and Tateh.

Mrs. Erickson never told me, “You will write novels some day!”  That wasn’t her style.  She was more subtle.  She taught writing; she exposed us to good writing; she encouraged us to write.  In her class, I created characters and crafted dialogue.  I even tried poetry.

I’ve stayed in touch with high school friends, and this month, the month I published my first novel—a historical thriller--we shared memories of Mrs. Erickson.  One of my friends, Karen Lizon Webb, found out she’d moved to Florida and helped me figure out how to contact our former teacher.  I sent her an email not knowing what kind of response I’d get.  I doubted she would remember me.

A single day later I got a response: “Yes, Nancy, I do remember you...lovely redhead...and I think of you often because I bought a watercolor from your father (you told me he painted in the basement) and it's been with me for over 40 years and now hangs in our bedroom in Florida.  Congratulations on the publication of your book.  I'm a working artist with representation in The Dancing Crane Gallery in Bradenton, FL.  Thank you so much for your note and keep in touch, please.”

How incredible it was to hear from Mrs. Erickson—I can’t quite bring myself to use her first name—and to know that while she had such a profound effect on me, I made an impression on her, too.  She remembered a conversation from decades ago about my father’s studio in the basement of our tract suburban home.  And now she is a successful artist herself.

I believe this is the perfect moment to read Ragtime again.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

"Hello...Is it Joseph Conrad you're looking for?"

It's Sunday and you just want to relax on this day of serenity.  You want to sit back with your mug of fresh-brewed cappuccino which your wife has just brought down to you in your basement office, sweetening the delivery with a hug and kiss.  You just want the distracting noise of the past six days to leave your head.  You don't want to think about deadlines and dilemmas.  You want quietude, you want solitude, you want to feel gratitude for the simple joys of life.

I've got your prescription right here.

I've been saving this trio of videos for just the right moment to share with you here at the blog.  As I sip my cappuccino and try to Zen my head, I realize the time has come.

First up, an amusing and clever mix of movie moments in which your favorite actors recite the opening stanzas of Lionel Richie's "Hello."

Next is a gorgeous meditation on the beauties of nature, filmed in Malaysia and set to the words of Joseph Conrad.  "We Were Wanderers on a Prehistoric Earth" takes lines from Heart of Darkness and scrambles them (much like the Hollywood "Hello" remix above) into sublime visual and aural poetry.  Here are the excerpts from Heart of Darkness, as painstakingly transcribed by yours truly:
The high stillness of primeval forest was before my eyes...standing higher than the wall of a temple... The silence of the land went home to one’s very heart—its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life...Over the great river I could see through a sombre gap glittering, glittering, as it flowed broadly by without a murmur...Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings... The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam...The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was like a rioting invasion of soundless life...Forthwith a change came over the waters, and the serenity became less brilliant but more profound...The day was ending in a serenity of still and exquisite brilliance. The water shone pacifically; the sky...was a benign immensity of unstained light...In its curved and imperceptible fall, the sun sank low...The dawns were heralded by the descent of a chill stillness...All that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.

And here's the video, which I first discovered at Chris LaTray's excellent blog Naked But for a Loincloth (I recommend playing the video in full-screen mode--click the four-way arrows between "HD" and "Vimeo"):

And finally, an oldie but a goodie--a trailer for Stanley Kubrick's The Shining is given the Happy Treatment ("Meet Jack Torrance....He's a writer looking for inspiration"):

Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday Freebie: Hystera by Leora Skolkin-Smith

Congratulations to Ken Olsen, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen.

This week's book giveaway is Hystera by Leora Skolkin-Smith, which is described as "a timeless story of madness, yearning, and identity."  Here's the plot summary from the publisher:
[Hystera is] set in the turbulent 1970s when Patty Hearst became Tanya the Revolutionary. After a fatal accident takes her father away, Lillian Weill blames herself for the family tragedy. Tripping through failed love affairs with men, and doomed friendships, all Lilly wants is to be sheltered from reality. She retreats from the outside world into a world of delusion and the private terrors of a New York City Psychiatric Hospital. Unreachable behind her thick wall of fears, the world of hospital corridors and strangers become a vessel of faith. She is a foreigner there until her fellow patients release her from her isolation with the power of human intimacy.
And, to further whet your appetite, here are the opening lines from the novel:
      Inside the locked ward on Payne Whitney’s fifth floor, Lilly stepped onto a steel platform. The examination room was harshly lit, the bulbs behind plastic squares on the ceiling, fluorescent and burning. The metal examining table sparked from too many electric darts and moonbeams.
      It was an April evening in 1974. The city’s night lights streaming in from the window would have been enough to illuminate the room, Lilly thought. The arrows of the moon pierced her blue-jeaned legs.
If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of Hystera, all you have to do is answer this question:

What's the name of the late great writer who edited and published Skolkin-Smith's first novel, Edges?  (You can find the answer by visiting Skolkin-Smith's website.)

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Jan. 26--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 27.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen 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 Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you've done either or both of those, send me an additional e-mail saying "I've shared" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

"Please, sir, I want some more Dickens"

The Biography Project, Day 19

I'm past the point in Claire Tomalin's Charles Dickens: A Life where she talks about the composition of Oliver Twist, but I wanted to post about it here at the blog before I got too far ahead of myself.

To put it bluntly, Tomalin was not entirely charmed by the vapid, snot-nosed, gruel-addicted street urchin.  She's not about to burst out with a chorus of "Consider yourself part of the furniture" any time soon.

And I'm okay with that.  Oliver Twist has never been high on my list of Dickens favorites.

Which is odd, considering the fact that it was Oliver who first brought me to worship at the feet of the Great One in the first place.

When I was five years old, my parents took me to the State movie theater in Kittanning, Pennsylvania and there, with a cardboard box of Red Hots candy clutched in my tiny hand, I watched Charles Dickens bloom to life on the screen above my head.  Of course, I had no idea who Charles Dickens was at that time--and wouldn't for many years--but I was dazzled, frightened, and thoroughly enraptured by the singing-dancing orphans and street urchins of Oliver!  I don't think anything had filled me with as much joy and love in my young life as Lionel Bart's musical--not a mouthful of Red Hots, not the evening tuck-in from my mother, not even an overflowing Christmas stocking.  What I was witnessing in this early stage of my literary education, long before critical analysis and deconstructionism, was Grade-A melodrama, the pure and holy attention to Story.  My mouth fell slack, Red Hot juice trickling onto my chin, as I was swept into the trials and tribulations of young Oliver (Mark Lester) at the brutal orphanage, the terrifying undertakers', the cart full of hay bound for London, then Fagin's apartment with his smart-ass pickpockets, and finally to the sunny fairy-tale ending in the care of Mr. Brownlow.  I was entertained and emotionally moved beyond all measure.  Of course, the dancing prostitutes didn't hurt, either.

Oliver! captures the very best qualities of Dickens, running the whole gamut of sentimentality and delivering a potent stew of story and songs that worm their way into viewers' ears and, if they're open enough to it, their hearts.  A few years later, my parents gave me a glorious gift for Christmas: the large hardback movie-tie-in edition of Oliver! from Random House.  It's written by one Mary Hastings who "freely adapted" Dickens' novel and it's filled with movie-still photos.  Turning the pages, I relived the movie day after day, night after night.  I wore out that book to within an inch of its life.  Later, in the move from Pennsylvania to Wyoming--where I would spend the rest of my growing-up years--the book was tragically lost and I was bereft of Dickens for a number of years, until high school when I saw a BBC production of A Tale of Two Cities, read the novel, and my love for Dickens was rekindled.  (As a postscript, I'm happy to report I found a copy of that Oliver! hardback at a garage sale not too long ago here in Butte.  I'm sure you'll believe me when I say tears of joy stung my eyes when I saw it sitting there in the 4-for-$1 cardboard box.)

The day I first received that hardbound edition of Oliver! back in the late 1960s was the day I started worshipping Charles Dickens.  For the first time, I had a name to put to the creation of the story I loved.  I was probably six or seven years old at that point and I was already becoming an accomplished reader, the world of books opening like a set of double doors onto an entirely new, verdant landscape.  I was beginning to understand that books did not spring forth, parentless, from some back room at the public library.  They were brought to life by real people with real typewriters (or quill pens) who carefully, artfully arranged the words on the page.  I was becoming aware of the creature called the Author.  Charles Dickens, therefore, by virtue of being the imagination behind my favorite movie, was the first celebrity author I ever encountered.

It's been that way practically from the start of Dickens' life.  He began his career as a journalist, covering Parliament and the Old Bailey.  His keen observations of the foibles and follies of his fellow mankind soon found their way to the page, after being pasteurized and processed by his fertile imagination.  His first major success, The Pickwick Papers, was a wildfire among London society as it came out in installments.  Tomalin writes:
Each number sold for a shilling and they were passed from hand to hand, and butchers' boys were seen reading them in the streets. Judges and politicians, the middle classes and the rich, bought them, read them and applauded; and the ordinary people saw that he was on their side, and they loved him for it. He did not ask them to think but showed them what he wanted them to see and hear...It was as though he was able to feed his story directly into the bloodstream of the nation, giving them injections of laughter, pathos and melodrama, and making his readers feel he was a personal friend to each of them.
At the same time he was producing serialized installments of The Pickwick Papers, he had begun work on his first truly-plotted novel, Oliver Twist.  From where I sit, this was an incredible feat of energy and skill.  I can't imagine serializing a complex story, let alone engaging in all the other whirling-dervish activities Dickens threw himself into.  Tomalin gives us a taste of what life was like for C.D., circa 1837:
Managing this double feat was an unprecedented and amazing achievement. Everything had to be planned in his head in advance. Pickwick had started as a series of loosely rambling episodes, but he was now introducing plot, with Pickwick accused of breach of promise, the dealings with lawyers, the trial and his imprisonment, all of which demanded more care in setting up each number; and Oliver was tightly plotted and shaped from the start. There was no going back to change or adjust once a number was printed; everything had to be right first time. How different this is from the way most great novelists work, allowing themselves time to reconsider, to change their minds, to go back, to cancel and rewrite. Each number of Pickwick and Oliver consisted of about 7,500 words, and in theory he simply divided every month, allotting a fortnight to each new section of each book. In practice this did not always work out as he hoped, and although he sometimes got ahead, there were many months when he only just managed to get his copy to the printer in time. He wrote in a small hand, with a quill pen and black (iron gall) ink at this stage--later he favoured bright blue--on rough sheets of grey, white or bluish paper, measuring about 9 x 7½ inches, that he’d fold and then tear in half before starting to write; he called these sheets ‘slips.’  For Oliver he spaced the lines quite widely, fitting about twenty-five lines on each sheet where later he would cram forty-five.  Something like ninety-five slips made up one monthly number. In the course of a day he might produce eleven or twelve slips, and if pushed up to twenty. He had also to arrange for the two illustrators--Browne for Pickwick, Cruikshank for Oliver--to see the copy to work from, more often than not deciding for them what would make the best picture. On top of this he was editing Bentley’s Miscellany, which meant commissioning and dealing with other writers, and with the printers. The pressure was intense, but the results were gratifying: in February Pickwick sold 14,000 copies, and after the opening instalment of Oliver was reviewed in four papers, 1,000 extra copies had to be printed of the next number.

When it was later published in three volumes, Oliver Twist caught on well with the reading public--including, Tomalin reports, "the young Queen Victoria, who found it 'excessively interesting.'"

For her part, Tomalin thought portions of the melodrama were overwrought:
Apart from the colourless virtuous characters, the chief failure of the book is Nancy, on whom Dickens lavished great care and whom he claimed to have modelled on a young woman he had known.  He was proud of his portrait and said it was drawn from life, but he fails because he makes her behave like an actress in a bad play: she tears her hair and clothes, writhes, wrings her hands, sinks to her knees and contrives to lie down on a stone staircase in the street....Dickens must many times have observed prostitutes in the streets, yet he is creating a stereotype here, one he used again in later novels: the penitent woman who tears her hair and seeks the river to make an end of things.

Tomalin may be correct here, but when I read Dickens' novel, there is such a hard shellac of my Oliver! memories over my eyes that I can't see anyone but the movie Nancy (Shani Wallis) on the page.  And my ears can't hear anything but "Oom-Pah-Pah" or "It's a Fine Life" as Nancy whips the bar crowd into a beery joyous frenzy.

I'm perfectly aware this is a Technicolor vision of a life that's not "fine," but brutal, deadly, and degrading to women. There's an ironic heartbreak plucking an off-key chord when Nancy sings:
Though you sometimes do come by
The occasional black eye
You can always cover one
'Til he blacks the other one
But you don't dare cry!

Sad as it is, I grew up with this skewed Hollywood vision of Oliver Twist and, no matter how many times I read Dickens' novel, I will take it with me to my grave (where, no doubt, I'll be humming "Reviewing the Situation").

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Look What I Found: Paul Gallico's Mrs. 'Arris

Look What I Found is an occasional series on books I've hunted-and-gathered at garage sales, used bookstores, estate sales, and the occasional pilfering from a friend's bookshelf when his back is turned.  I have a particular fondness for U.S. novels written between 1896 and 1931.  If I sniff a book and it makes me sneeze, I'm bound to fall in love.

Does anyone remember Paul Gallico these days?  Have his charms evaporated and his novels been banished to the neglected kingdoms of the attic, the thrift store, the 89-year-old widow's nightstand (where Gallico slumbers with co-residents Arthur Hailey, Ernest K. Gann and Frank G. Slaughter)?

If Paul Gallico does get any attention from our nation of readers distracted by the new and shiny, I'd wager that attention is focused on his two major works, the mega-disaster The Poseidon Adventure and the all-ages fable The Snow Goose.  This week, sadly, Gallico's 1969 bestseller came back to mind as we watched the Costa Concordia cruise ship capsizing Poseidon-like off the coast of Italy.  Of course, if you're of a certain age (like me), Paul Gallico is not the first thing that comes to mind when you hear "Poseidon Adventure."  It's Shelley Winters and her brave, tragic breaststroke.

I have a fondness for Paul Gallico because the very mention of his name takes me back to my first paying job shelving books at the Teton County Library.  Gallico was pretty hot on the bestseller list around that time and I remember checking out, reading, and thoroughly enjoying one of his nearly-forgotten books, 1974's The Boy Who Invented the Bubble Gun.  After nearly 40 years, I don't remember plot specifics, but this site has a brief summary:
A young boy has a brilliant idea for a toy--a toy gun which shoots bubbles. He builds a working model of it, and shows it to his father. Unfortunately, his father shows no interest in the toy. So, to demonstrate to his father that it is worth doing, he gets on a bus and takes it to Washington to patent it. This is his story, and the story of the people he meets along the way.
I found it thoroughly charming and suspenseful--I seem to remember there's a gun battle near the end and the bubble-gun boy caught in the crossfire.  And that's the forte of Gallico's writing: it's simple, straightforward, and possesses an unadorned charm (some might call it treacle and sentiment, but my mileage varies).

In recent years, I've been trying to stock my personal library with Mr. Gallico's works whenever I can find them at garage sales, estate sales and, in one instance, eBay (where I scored a nice copy of Scruffy, a novel about an ape named Harold living on Gibraltar).  Last week, my wife gently twisted my arm to pay a visit to the thrift store on Cobban Street here in Butte.  Once inside the doors, I'm glad my arm was wrenched behind my back.  When we entered the store, she took a right-hand turn to the used furniture (which she'll eventually turn into beautifully-repurposed furniture like this); me, I beelined straight for the bookshelves, which were laced with catnip: signs advertising BOOK SALE 6 for $1.  I was sniffing like a hound on the musk-trail of a coon.

I picked up a couple of Mary Higgins Clark Christmas novels (that's right, you heard me--I'm not ashamed to admit my guilty pleasures in this public forum), and then I spotted this musty, dull-colored paperback from Pocket Books, circa 1962:

Click to enlarge

Two Gallico novels for just under 17 cents?  Score!

I haven't met Mrs. Harris, the London charwoman, but the back cover of the Cardinal paperback that was now in my hands offered introductions all around:

Click to enlarge

Opening the paperback (which was in remarkably good shape), I turned to the first chapter of Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris (Flowers for Mrs. Harris in the UK):
      The small, slender woman with apple-red cheeks, greying hair, and shrewd, almost naughty little eyes sat with her face pressed against the cabin window of the BEA Viscount on the morning flight from London to Paris. As, with a rush and a roar, it lifted itself from the runway, her spirits soared aloft with it. She was nervous, but not at all frightened, for she was convinced that nothing could happen to her now. Hers was the bliss of one who knew that at last she was off upon the adventure at the end of which lay her heart’s desire.

The New York novel begins thusly:
      Mrs. Ada Harris and Mrs. Violet Butterfield, of numbers 5 and 7 Willis Gardens, Battersea, London, respectively, were having their nightly cup of tea in Mrs. Harris' neat and flower-decorated little flat in the basement of No. 5.
      Mrs. Harris was a charwoman of that sturdy London breed that fares forth daily to tidy up the largest city in the world, and her lifelong friend and bosom companion, Mrs. Butterfield, was a part-time cook and char as well. Both looked after a fashionable clientele in Belgravia, where they met varying adventures during the day, picking up stray and interesting pieces of gossip from the odd bods for whom they worked. At night they visited one another for a final cup of tea to exchange these tidbits.

I hope to sit down with Mrs. 'Arris sometime in the near future, mug of tea and scones at my elbow, and get to know her better.  No, this isn't deep, world-rumbling literature.  But then again, sometimes I need a break from Franzen, DFW, and Denis Johnson.  Mrs. 'Arris'll do just fine, thankyouverymuch.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Front Porch Books: January 2012 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.

The Odditorium by Melissa Pritchard (Bellevue Literary Press):  The beauty of Pritchard's short story collection begins with the cover design, which depicts the corner of what looks like a natural history museum with large, frightening fish.  Inside, there's an equally unusual collection of tales, most of them taking the reader to distant lands, distant times.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In each of these eight genre-bending tales, Melissa Pritchard overturns the conventions of mysteries, westerns, gothic horror, and historical fiction to capture surprising and often shocking aspects of her characters’ lives. In one story, Pritchard creates a pastiche of historical facts, songs, and tall tales, contrasting the famed figures of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, including Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull, with the real, genocidal history of the American West. Other stories are inspired by the mysterious life of Kaspar Hauser, a haunted Victorian Hospital where the wounded of D-Day are taken during WWII, the courtyard where Edgar Allan Poe played as a child, and the story of Robert LeRoy Ripley, of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,” and his beguiling “odditoriums” as seen from his life-long fact checker.
Blurbworthiness: “Pritchard's best stories are ambitious, lush and even thrilling. She takes risks, different risks in different stories.  Can she write a segment in the form of a comedic Shakespearean dialogue?  She can.  Does a story evolve into epistolary form?  It does.  Will she be able to build a story around the format of an old newspaper feature?  She will.  Can she do it all with poetic, vivid prose?  With one hand tied behind her back.  Is Melissa Pritchard someone whose short fiction should be well known?  Do you even have to ask?” (Los Angeles Times)

The Underside of Joy by Sere Prince Halverson (Dutton):  A galley of Halverson's debut novel has been sitting near the top of the queue on my Kindle for several weeks doing the electronic equivalent of drumming its fingers on the table.  I hope to get to this one very soon.  Really, I promise.  This novel has all the hallmarks of a bestseller--especially among readers who enjoy the fiction of writers like Caroline Leavitt, Marisa de los Santos, and Jodi Picoult (I say this without having read Underside, so don't sue me if those comparisons are a little off).  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Set against the backdrop of Redwood forests and shimmering vineyards, SerĂ© Prince Halverson's compelling debut tells the story of two women, bound by an unspeakable loss, who each claims to be the mother of the same two children. To Ella Beene, happiness means living in the northern California river town of Elbow with her husband, Joe, and his two young children. Yet one summer day Joe breaks his own rule--never turn your back on the ocean--and a sleeper wave strikes him down, drowning not only the man but his many secrets. For three years, Ella has been the only mother the kids have known and has believed that their biological mother, Paige, abandoned them. But when Paige shows up at the funeral, intent on reclaiming the children, Ella soon realizes there may be more to Paige and Joe's story. "Ella's the best thing that's happened to this family," say her close-knit Italian-American in-laws, for generations the proprietors of a local market. But their devotion quickly falters when the custody fight between mother and stepmother urgently and powerfully collides with Ella's quest for truth. The Underside of Joy is not a fairy-tale version of stepmotherhood pitting good Ella against evil Paige, but an exploration of the complex relationship of two mothers. Their conflict uncovers a map of scars-both physical and emotional-to the families' deeply buried tragedies, including Italian internment camps during World War II and postpartum psychosis.  Weaving a rich fictional tapestry abundantly alive with the glorious natural beauty of the novel's setting, Halverson is a captivating guide through the flora and fauna of human emotion-grief and anger, shame and forgiveness, happiness and its shadow complement...the underside of joy.

Home by Toni Morrison (Knopf):  Morrison's Beloved cemented my fanboy love for her work--lyrical, unnerving, engrossing--and her forthcoming novel holds the promise of another winner.  The Jacket Copy:
An angry and self-loathing veteran of the Korean War, Frank Money finds himself back in racist America after enduring trauma on the front lines that left him with more than just physical scars. His home--and himself in it--may no longer be as he remembers it, but Frank is shocked out of his crippling apathy by the need to rescue his medically abused younger sister and take her back to the small Georgia town they come from, which he's hated all his life. As Frank revisits the memories from childhood and the war that leave him questioning his sense of self, he discovers a profound courage he thought he could never possess again. A deeply moving novel about an apparently defeated man finding his manhood--and his home.
The galley of Morrison's book isn't too far behind Halverson's in my Kindle queue.

The Bro-Magnet by Lauren Baratz-Logsted:  There's something beguiling about a novel which begins with an Opening Line like this: "Right from the start, I've been a disappointment to women."  Baratz-Logsted, author of The Thin Pink Line, certainly knows how to snag a reader.  I'm resisting lame jokes about eye-magnets, but the truth is, I'm already hooked on this book's style before I've gone more than two pages into it.  I'm even willing to accept the fact it has a character with the unsubtle name Helen Troy.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Women have been known to lament, "Always a bridesmaid, never a bride." For Johnny Smith, the problem is, "Always a Best Man, never a groom." At age 33, housepainter Johnny has been Best Man eight times. The ultimate man's man, Johnny loves the Mets, the Jets, his weekly poker game, and the hula girl lamp that hangs over his basement pool table. Johnny has the instant affection of nearly every man he meets, but one thing he doesn't have is a woman to share his life with, and he wants that desperately. When Johnny meets District Attorney Helen Troy, he decides to renounce his bro-magnet ways in order to impress her. With the aid and advice of his friends and family, soon he's transforming his wardrobe, buying throw pillows, ditching the hula girl lamp, getting a cat and even changing his name to the more mature-sounding John. And through it all, he's pretending to have no interest in sports, which Helen claims to abhor. As things heat up with Helen, the questions arise: Will Johnny finally get the girl? And, if he's successful in that pursuit, who will he be now that he's no longer really himself?  The Bro-Magnet is a rollicking comedic novel about what one man is willing to give up for the sake of love.

Obedience by Jacqueline Yallop (Penguin):  I'm a big fan of Ron Hansen's slim, exquisite novel Mariette in Ecstasy.  And so, when I received a copy of Yallop's novel, read the first page, and then skimmed the back-cover plot summary, the comparison to Hansen's book was enough to draw me in.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Set in contemporary and World War II France, this is the story of Sister Bernard: her forbidden love, her uncertain faith, and her guilt-ridden past. A once-bustling convent in the South of France is closing, leaving behind three elderly nuns. Forced, for the first time, to confront the community that she betrayed decades ago, Sister Bernard relives her life during the war. At thirty, Sister Bernard can hear the voice of God--strident, furious, and personal. When a young Nazi soldier, a member of the German occupying forces, asks her to meet him in the church in secret one evening, she agrees. And so begins the horrifying and passionate love affair that will deafen the heavens and define her life, tempting her into duplicity. Obedience is a powerful exploration of one woman's struggle to reconcile her aching need to be loved with her fear of God's wrath.
And here are those pitch-perfect Opening Lines:
Mother Catherine knew the devil. He was twisted and dwarfish; his clawed hands were gnarled. His neck was short and his legs bowed. He had a hump on his back, heavy like a sack of walnuts. He was crafty, she knew that; she had heard how cunning he could be. But surely he could never stretch over five shelves of jars, pickles and conserves to take down the coffee and tempt her nuns?
(That "devil" in the pantry, by the way, is a German soldier who has set up camp in Sister Bernard's refectory.)  Need more convincing evidence that Obedience is a good read?  Okay, here you go.  Blurbworthiness: "An intensely imagined novel about one of the defining questions of the century just past: where and how we choose to draw the line between innocence and guilt, ignorance and complicity. Obedience also asks us to consider what ghastly harm is committed in the name of love. It's rare to find a book that is seemingly so simple, but is really ambiguous and thought-provoking." (Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall)  And this: "The character of Sister Bernard is a Madame Bovary of the convent world. Her fantasy and insatiable need for love prove to be far greater than her ability to analyze character. While superficially simplistic, her relationship with God is complex and she is capable of battling God with the strength of Joan of Arc. These contradictions in her character are seamless and a complex and unforgettable character emerges."  (Catherine Gildiner, author of After the Falls)

Norumbega Park by Anthony Giardina (Farrar, Straus & Giroux):  This new novel by the author of White Guys looks to have a little Franzen dust sprinkled on it.  That's a compliment, by the way.  I'm very much looking forward to reading this novel about ambition and dashed dreams.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Norumbega Park begins with a vision. Richie Palumbo, the most prosaic of men, gets lost one night in 1969 while driving home with his family. He finds himself in the town of Norumbega—a hidden town, remote and gorgeous, at the far edges of Boston’s western suburbs. He sees an old, venerable house there, and without quite knowing why, decides he must have it. The repercussions of Richie’s wild dream—to own a house in this town—lead to a forty-year odyssey for his family. For Jack, his son, Norumbega becomes a sexual playground, until he meets one ungraspable girl and begins a lifelong pursuit of her. For Joannie, his daughter, the challenges of living here lead her to pursue the contemplative life. For Stella, Richie’s wife, life in Norumbega leads to a surprising growth as both a sexual and spiritual being. Norumbega Park is a novel about class and parental dreams, sex and spirituality, the way visions conflict with stubborn reality, and a family’s ability to open up, for others, a world they could never fully grasp for themselves.

The Evening Hour by Carter Sickels (Bloomsbury):  Okay, here's the deal.  My biggest internal torment--bigger even than the annual agony of buying the perfect birthday-anniversary-Christmas gifts for my wife, all dates within weeks of each other (the Bermuda Triangle of my marriage)--is the spiritual wrestling match I engage in every time another great-looking book enters my library.  I mean, I have a writing career of my own, I have a Day Job, I have marital responsibilities (see above)--how can I possibly read Every Great Book which arrives on my front porch?  It's not humanly possible.  And so, I pick and choose...and wrestle with my agonized self.  Many worthy and deserving books are forced out of the car, rolling and tumbling to the side of the road as I continue speeding down my personal racetrack of reading.  All this is a long way of saying that when Carter Sickels' book arrived and I started reading the first chapter, I was in torment because I wanted to read all of the 327 pages right away.  But I can't.  I'm already heavily invested in four other books at the moment.  And so I must leave it to you, dear blog reader, to rush out and buy The Evening Hour and then report back on whether or not my instinct proved right.  I'm not positive, but I have a sneaking suspicion this debut novel will prove to be one of my favorites of 2012.  Judge for yourself.  The Jacket Copy:
Most of the wealth in Dove Creek, West Virginia, is in the earth--in the coal seams that have provided generations with a way of life. Born and raised here, twenty-seven-year-old Cole Freeman has sidestepped work as a miner to become an aide in a nursing home. He's got a shock of bleached blond hair and a gentle touch well suited to the job. He's also a drug dealer, reselling the prescription drugs his older patients give him to a younger crowd looking for different kinds of escape. In this economically depressed, shifting landscape, Cole is floundering. The mining corporation is angling to buy the Freeman family's property, and Cole's protests only feel like stalling. Although he has often dreamed of leaving, he has a sense of duty to this land, especially after the death of his grandfather. His grandfather is not the only loss: Cole's one close friend, Terry Rose, has also slipped away from him, first to marriage, then to drugs. While Cole alternately attempts romance with two troubled women, he spends most of his time with the elderly patients at the home, desperately trying to ignore the decay of everything and everyone around him. Only when a disaster befalls these mountains is Cole forced to confront his fears and, finally, take decisive action--if not to save his world, to at least save himself.
And the Opening Lines:
Cole double-locked the trailer door behind him, then stood on the top rickety step for a moment, still waking up. Gunmetal sky, with the faintest hint of light rippling at the edges. There was a tight chill in the air on this early April morning, and he shuddered, rubbing his bare arms. The air smelled like sulfur and scorched earth.
Blurbworthiness:The Evening Hour could be a hymn sung out in a country church; when I finished it, I wanted to close my eyes, listen to its echoes, feel the power of its song. For that is what this beautiful book is: a sweet-souled, hard-eyed prayer for a beleaguered people and the beloved landscape they call home. With striking authenticity and admirable restraint, Carter Sickels brings both forcefully to life in his deeply moving, spiritually uplifting debut.” (Josh Weil, author of The New Valley)