Saturday, March 31, 2012

Soup and Salad: John Kennedy Toole's Lost Manuscript, Patricia Ann McNair's Inspiration, Steven Millhauser Takes the Prize, The Birth of a Book, Running With Dickens, Lemony Snicket's Cover, Steve Almond Heads to Alaska

On today's menu:

1.  The Millions has the account of a biographer's dream--the discovery of a lost manuscript.  In this case, the original manuscript of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces.  Cory Maclauchlin, whose book about Toole, Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces, has just been released--Biography Project Alert!--describes his quest for the Dunces grail:
      I have been researching and writing about Toole for seven years, digging through archives, interviewing his friends and family, trying to decipher Toole’s character, his fears, his desires, his angels and demons. And I have often contemplated that missing manuscript. His mother claimed she discarded all the “[Robert] Gottlieb edits” in order to showcase her son’s “pure genius.” Still, seeing how Toole altered the creation that he felt defined him would certainly offer insight into his final years. But no one I interviewed seemed to know its whereabouts. The Toole Papers at Tulane University does not have it, nor does the Walker Percy Papers at UNC Chapel Hill. Some of Toole’s friends had heard that Percy’s typist threw the “badly smeared, scarcely readable carbon” away after she retyped it. Walker’s wife, Bunt, didn’t believe that story. She suspected it might be in Walker’s miscellaneous papers that had been boxed-up after his death in 1990. But the family scoured the boxes and found nothing.
      I had nearly given up on the question of the original manuscript until a year ago when I interviewed Lynda Martin, the sister of Toole’s best friend in high school. “The manuscript?” she said in a soft southern accent. “Yes, well I have it in my closet here at home.” I nearly dropped the phone as she explained Toole’s mother had given it as a gift to her brother after the novel was published. When her brother passed away in 2008, she acquired it. It had a few penned-in edits, she explained, but not drastic revisions. “I don’t know what to do with it, really” she said. “I considered selling it at auction.” Christie’s estimated its value up to $20,000, if deemed authentic. She hadn’t called Sotheby’s yet. “Please” I begged, “just hold on to it. I’m on my way down.”

2.  At The Story Prize blog, Patricia McNair has an evocative account of where she finds inspiration for her short stories.  It begins like this (and gets even better as it goes on):
      I sit with my husband at a restaurant, and across the way near a large, haunting, abstract painting on a brick-face wall, another couple lean in toward one another, then away. The man leaves his hand on the table between them, palm up; the woman pulls her shoulders back and crosses her arms over her chest. She is weeping.
      I lived in a house in a small subdivision between two lakes in Iowa, and the wife of the couple next door was badly scarred. A deep caving in of flesh was where bone and muscle should have been, but wasn't. I found out later that her husband shot half of her face off. A hunting accident. They gave up hunting. She stopped eating meat.

3.  Speaking of The Story Prize: Steven Millhauser won for his collection We Others: New and Selected Stories. The other finalists were Don DeLillo and Edith Pearlman.  Congratulations to all three for reminding the world that sometimes the best things in life come in smaller packages.

4.  And now for a peek behind the wizard's curtain....The birth of a book, from start to finish:

5.  Good luck to 61-year-old Iain Dempster who will attempt to complete the 26-mile London Marathon "whilst performing a dramatic reading from the works of Charles Dickens" in order to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Society.  (Pun alert)  He has great expectations that he'll get through the hard times of the race without twisting his ankle.

6.  I've already told you about my high hopes for the next Lemony Snicket book, the first volume in a new series which will be released in October.  Now my excitement soars because Little, Brown has unveiled the cover of the book.  It's illustrated by one of my favorite graphic artists, Seth, and it's splendid indeed:

News of the cover came with this warning from Snicket (aka Daniel Handler): "I suggest extreme caution....The distribution of this cover image should be on a need-to-know basis, limited to librarians, booksellers, readers, e-readers, educators, journalists, muck-rakers, bloggers, tweeters, men, women, and children."

7.   Steve Almond is on his way to Alaska for a quick, frozen tour.  The 49 Writers blog has a short 4.9-question interview with the author of Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America, God Bless America and other books without "America" in the title.  As the author of an an absurd novel myself, I really appreciated Steve's response to what role humor plays in fiction:
Look: everyone has a particular sense of humor. That's just how people work.  Humor isn't some tool in our writer's toolkit. It's an evolutionary adaptation we developed to deal with the bad data of the world around us and inside us. What I exhort people to do is simply let their sense of humor onto the page, to not withhold from readers one of the central facets of their personality. I don't mean to make jokes as a way of avoiding the serious stuff of literature. In fact, I mean just the opposite: that sometimes the only way to get to the darkest stuff is by coping to the utter absurdity of yourself and the world. That's what humor is.
What really freaked me out was when Steve mentioned he almost went to grad school at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks 15 years ago.  That would have put him there at the same time I was getting my MFA from UAF.  Under the right circumstances, I think we could have been BFFs.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Friday Freebie: Hollywood Boulevard by Janyce Stefan-Cole

Congratulations to Amy Morgan, winner of last week's Friday Freebie.  Amy will soon be enjoying copies of both Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates and The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright.

This week's book giveaway is Hollywood Boulevard by Janyce Stefan-Cole, a debut novel which will be released by Unbridled Books on April 10.  The Friday Freebie winner will be among the first on his/her block to read the novel that Booklist said was "a little bit quirky, a little bit intriguing crime novel with a pitch-perfect narration that sucks you right into the peculiar business that makes Hollywood what it is."  Hollywood Boulevard centers around an award-winning movie star who suddenly and mysteriously quit acting at the height of her fame.  She's in Hollywood now, at the Hotel Muse, visiting her husband, a world-renowned director struggling through his latest film.  The actress is also a bit of a voyeur, watching the hotel guests as they come and go.  But she soon gets the creepy feeling that she's being watched and stalked, too.  The box of dead roses delivered to her hotel suite are a dead giveaway, I suppose.  The story soon spirals into a noirish whirl of fear, paranoia and lust.  I've already mentioned my interest in Hollywood Boulevard, and here's an excerpt from the first chapter to further whet your appetite:
Our outsized, east-facing balcony overlooks a coral tree where wild green parrots squawk and screech each morning among the bright red flower petals. The landscape reminds me of the south of France, houses and villas tumbling steeply down the hills in a hodgepodge of styles, an architectural balancing act. The view to the right veers neurotically into L.A.’s urban sprawl and the sudden verticality of downtown. Straight ahead I can see the gray dome of the Griffith Observatory. On mornings when fog or the yellow brown curtain of smog lifts, the San Gabriel Mountains are visible, snow-capped and reassuring in the distance. Brown dotted hills segue into mountains in snow: urban and wild in the same snapshot. I hear there are lions in those mountains. I look out each day and imagine the city living on borrowed time, that the earth under Hollywood will someday shift and shrug houses and people, the observatory, trees, birds, coyote, squirrels, cats, snakes and everyone’s dreams off the hills into the yawning abyss.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of Hollywood Boulevard, all you have to do is answer this question (which is more like a poll this week):

After visiting Unbridled Books' homepage, which forthcoming book(s) are you most interested in reading?

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 April 5--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on April 6.  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, March 29, 2012

Reading Flannery O'Connor in Savannah

The Biography Project, Day 89

Shortly after I started reading Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor, I crossed the border into Georgia.  My wife and I had driven 2,000 miles from Butte, Montana and we were flooring the accelerator on our way to Savannah.  I’d lived in the Coastal Empire while I was stationed with the Army at nearby Fort Stewart, but this was my first time back in more than three years.

Just when I thought I’d gotten all the sand gnats shook out of my underwear, here we were again in the land of kudzu, boiled peanuts, and polite folk who give directions like self-anointed human Mapquests (“Whatchure gonna do is go down this here road a piece until you come to a fork, take a left, then the road’ll kinda go dipsy-do a coupla times, then you’ll pass the Baptist Church on the left and a Kum-n-Go on the right, and you’re gonna wanna bear left,” etc.).

My wife and I weren’t here on pleasant business.  We were answering a court summons for a hearing which, thanks to a clerical error, was eventually postponed.  But, being the optimist, I decided to make the best of it.  And so as we traveled I burrowed into Flannery: A Life, the next volume in my year-long Biography Project.

The object of my literary affection was born Mary Flannery O’Connor at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Savannah on March 25, 1925.  The one-word weather forecast in the local newspaper that blustery spring day, Gooch tells us, was: “unsettled.”  The author herself couldn’t have picked a more apt word to herald the arrival of someone who, I contend, was the most unsettling novelist of the 20th century.  At one time, O’Connor described herself as “a pidgeon-toed, only-child with a receding chin and a you-leave-me-alone-or-I’ll-bite-you complex.”  Even at an early age, photographers were capturing that boil-and-scald nature inside Mary Flannery.  Gooch writes: “A solo portrait of O’Connor, age two or three, sitting on an ottoman, brow furrowed, satin bow in hair, frowning with full concentration into the curled page of a book on her lap, reveals a remarkably self-possessed expression of adult intensity.”

That fire was like a magnet to me as I drove down the highway with, yes, a coupla dipsy-do’s and hairpin turns.  The closer we got to Savannah, the hotter my Flannery flames grew.  A few days later, after things went wrong with our court hearing and we found ourselves with some extra time on our hands, I got the notion I would go to downtown Savannah and touch the fire.  In other words, I’d make another pilgrimage to the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home on Charlton Street.

I’d been here once before, but because I had Gooch’s book in my left hand and the steering wheel in my right hand, it was inevitable that I would find myself on the sidewalk, staring up at the face of the place where Flannery lived for the first thirteen years of her life.

The building is a nondescript mole-colored three-storey home squeezed into place on the block, looking like it was a young child pushing through adult legs to see a passing parade.  The only thing remarkable about it was the human contents which once lived inside its walls during the Great Depression.

View of Cathedral of St. John the Baptist
from the porch

I try to imagine a six-year-old Mary Flannery roller-skating down the sidewalk, or walking with her friends to the movie theater nine blocks away, or—more likely, Gooch tells us—secluded in her small corner bedroom with crayons and paper as she made sketches of birds (“mostly chickens”).  I think of Sister Mary Consolata from St. Vincent’s Grammar School for Girls telling Flannery’s parents, “Nothing remarkable at all about her as a student...She was a little forward with adults.”  I think of Regina and Ed O’Connor harboring secret smiles of satisfaction at this kind of report card.  They were liberal parents of the 1930s and allowed their daughter to call them by their first names and to attend adult mass with them at Cathedral of St. John the Baptist across Lafayette Square.  I think of an older Flannery sitting up there in her bedroom reading books and writing curt criticisms on the flyleaf: “First rate.  Splendid.” (Little Men by Louisa May Alcott) and “Awful.  I wouldn’t read this book.” (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll).

I sit on the steps leading up to the front door, the stone cool under my legs, and imagine my idol’s feet going up and down the treads every day.  I close my eyes for a moment, imagining my body as a vacuum, sucking up through my skin whatever undissipated atoms of O'Connor's feet which might remain on those steps.  I open my eyes; they're glazed like I'm at a seance and some cold ectoplasmic claws are gripping the sides of my head, shoving hot, fierce words into my ear holes: "You'd have been a better writer if only someone had been there to shoot you every minute of your life."

I’m deep into my shameless channeling of Flannery’s ghost when my wife snaps my picture, then asks, “Have you had enough?”

I blink, get up, dust off my pants, and say, “Sure.  We can go.”

But, in truth, I know I’ll never have enough. I could never fully reach my limit of Flannery O’Connor.  A good writer like her is hard to find.

A version of this article originally appeared at Book Riot.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

"The Bones" by Henning Koch (Pt. 1)

Today, The Quivering Pen begins an exclusive 9-part serialization of a novella by acclaimed short-story writer and novelist Henning Koch.  "The Bones" is a funny, frightening vision of an unspecified future in which America is a wasteland society whose currency is oil.  Some would argue it's not much different from the current state of the nation.  I'll let you draw your own parallels, but let's just say I think Mad Max would be right at home in Koch's neo-Western Apocalypse.  We'll be back with Part 2 of the series next week.

The Bones


Oil Town was not a town at all, it was a long road skirted on both sides by corridors of buildings the colour of dust, ochre paint caked onto corrugated iron and left to peel away, like some rebellious canvas by a pop artist; except here there was no art--only graffiti, which seemed an after-thought; words scribbled down by someone drunk or angry. The place didn’t even have a name, at least no one had marked a name on a map because there was no proper end to the town and no beginning, just that long wavering road, a vein seeking its way through cities, suburbs, across vast wastelands and eventually looping round on itself once it reached the desert. Oil Town was a rudimentary shelter for those who slept in grimy beds and then rose to tap off the night’s haul, fill the barrels one by one. Oil black and priceless surged from the ground like a dark, smooth snake.

The way it had all begun is clear enough. We all know the story, yet like so many things, once we lift the lid there is a whole world beneath, smothered by familiarity.

Oil Town was once a green sleepy valley famous for its cantaloupes and orchards. When the locals started realizing there was oil down there, great underground lakes simmering under rock, they began to drill. Some had a hundred acres and some had less, but the land was not relevant any more, it was what lay underneath that counted. Overnight, the proprietor of a cabbage patch might be richer than a farmer with five hundred acres.

As they drilled and grew wealthy, they cut down more trees, built labyrinthine connecting roads for the trucks, knocked up an army of corrugated sheds, imported more foreign slaves.

And the town sprouted, the town that was not a town; the town with no civic buildings and no court house--the court house was the desert.

A few centuries had passed since the first pumps went up; and now the sands stretched to the horizon, making it near impossible to cultivate food, which did not matter, as there were always cars and trucks to bring it in from other places – streams of traders coming in to buy; they knew there was cheap oil to be had in Oil Town, where it still oozed out of the ground.

The people in Oil Town had long since grown lazy. They had entered into folklore and were proud of it; they were the “Oilers”, they drank and smoked and were even unconcerned with sex. The era of sex had lasted a century more or less, until they abandoned the topless bars and bordellos, which fell into disuse. But titillation remained as a relic of days past: photographs of mirthless women gyrating their plucked groins.

Oilers were not known for their migratory habits either; they liked to sit, possibly under a single surviving bush or on a lone green patch of grass watered by some sub-soil system into which they’d sunk a share of their considerable wealth. But such things were rare; for the most part the Oilers had dispensed with nature altogether, there was no use for it.

Once or twice some robbers from afar had tried their luck, riding in with sawn-off shotguns to raid the place – empty the coffers of Oil Town. But Oilers kept money locked up in safe deposit boxes and were intractable to say the least about giving up the combinations. Three Oilers were shot dead in the first raid. The robbers, as one might deduce, were not gentle types and their machismo could not bear the snub of these fat, singlet-wearing, cigar-smoking grubs who would not hand over their spondoolies and preferred to die than give up their money, ’cuz if someone takes your money, what the hell are you? That was local reasoning. What are you if you can’t show up a thick wad, wet your grubby thumb and peel off enough to pick up a car or two or a couple of exotic dancers? And why spend your life struggling for it, if some lazy bum with a gun can just come along and get it off you?

After that, the Oilers took full-page advertisements in the local press, announcing to any would-be robbers out there that if they decided to come back to Oil Town, they should bring plenty of ammo – because the Oilers had brought in a consignment of semi-automatic guns and this time they’d fight back; they didn’t give a shit about living or dying. It’s about the spondoolies. If someone tries to take your spondoolies you give up the ghost if you have to. You take a bullet for the sake of principle.

But then there was the unmentionable problem of the desert pressing in, maybe also the oil running dry underground, and it was not difficult finding certain half-drunk individuals muttering in some bar that the desert was what we had made; the desert was coming back for us, would blow through our windows and under our doors. While burning with alcohol, sodden to their very brain-nodes, the Oilers sometimes tacitly admitted that all their drilling and cutting and building and mucking had created the most perfect wilderness known, where really nothing could live now except clever, specialized things: snakes and lizards and beetles and burrowing ants. Rats also, rats with long ears and thick white fur. And spiders that rolled up their legs and bounced like hairy balls down the night-cool dunes.

But what the hell is a man supposed to do? – that was the catchphrase. Society sure don’t give a shit about us! That’s why we keep pumping that shit out of the ground! ’Cuz you want us to do it! See this hand, see this skin all smudged and black? I was born this way, and I won’t change till the day I die!  

Deserts are crackling hot by day and, by night, cold with nothing but the stars overhead. There were still stars in this world, palely blinking up there, cold as bottled hydrogen and wistful as diamonds free of their underground penury.  

Oil Town has no history and everything is commonplace. Even a man cut in two by a falling winch, his brains left spattered across the ground like sobrasada will not give cause for any great outcry; quietly they’ll take him away and throw him in a scoop in the ground. 

For all these reasons (and more) it was slightly ominous to the Oilers when a camper van drove into town one day and parked right outside the bar. A journalist got out, a tall, good-looking woman with cowboy boots and a leather bandanna across her head and a liking for good cigars, it seemed.

Her name was Henrietta – an old-world name which had doomed her to a life of being thought clever (she was) and also slightly sexless (who knows?) – but for the most part people just called her Henry, which seemed a favourable compromise though not to her.

Henry kept her neck straight (some would just say it was stiff) and spoke incisively in a way that occasionally made male colleagues feel diminished in her presence. She was also groomed, had intensely blue eyes with something like passion glowing in there, and kept her hair clean.

These were unusual traits in Oil Town.

The Oilers had their own theories. A woman like Henrietta doesn’t come to Oil Town at all. Certainly she doesn’t show up in a wide-rimmed hat and sunglasses and well-cut leather boots.

She doesn’t walk into the bar and say: “I’m doing a story on the bone people.” She doesn’t do that!

In other words, the mere presence of Henrietta had upset the world picture of the Oilers. The way she walked in with such confidence and ordered herself a cranberry vodka and sipped it with something like relish; then spoke very politely but at the same time invasively to some men standing there at the bar, who weren’t so uncouth that they couldn’t hold down a conversation with a woman like her, but were still buggered by her somehow, buggered about her being physically there, living proof that there was something beyond their town.

“I’m doing some research on them; would you be willing to make a statement? Did they take your family’s bones?”

What a damned question! 

People shrugged and explained to her that there were no bone people, it was a made-up story.

But she persisted.

And after a few days of waiting, snooping, sitting in the bar, making enquiries, the Oilers began to see her camper van with its satellite dish and glowing lights as a weird force of premonition.

Something was bound to be learned from this development. It seemed written in the stars this lady would not leave until she had found what she was looking for.

Henrietta was not, in fact, so relaxed about parking idly for four whole days without getting anything done. But she knew the Oilers were turgid people; she knew only rank cunning and incredible patience would wear them out.

So she sat in a collapsible deck-chair outside her camper van every evening, drinking cups of tea and occasionally smoking the odd cigar.

This fascinated them.

On the fifth day a small weaselly man named Wyre knocked on Henrietta’s door.

It was towards sunset, and there were churning starlings swarming somewhere, out of sight. And moths fluttering in the cooling air.

Henrietta opened the door.


As soon as she saw him standing there, bow-legged with a wadded long coat, she knew her wait had not been a complete waste.

“I know what you’re looking for. My name is Wyre.”

The two sentences did not seem connected, and Henry thought to herself: either this guy is a misfit or he just likes to get to the point.

“Hi, I’m Henry…” she said, but there was a questioning note in her voice; she didn’t want to be rude, but she was reluctant to invite him in.

“I know what you need.” Seems unlikely, she thought – but an attractive concept nonetheless. “The bone people, they’re out there, they exist. In the desert.”

Henrietta looked at him. “And how would I find them?”

He grinned, and she noted with relief that he had good teeth – there’s something shiftless about men with bad teeth.

“You wouldn’t”, he said. “No one would. Unless they got very lucky.”

“Well let’s hope I am lucky then”, she said.

Wyre looked at her and he said: “You could be.”

“And you, Wyre. Are you lucky?”

“I never have been up until now, but things change.”

Henning Koch's writing started with screenplays.  Between 2002 and 2007, he worked as a translator and dramaturge for Yellow Bird Films, makers of Henning Mankell's Wallander series for television/cinema in Scandinavia, Germany and the UK.  In 2005, Koch moved to Sardinia, off the coast of Italy, where he spent three years writing the short story collection Love Doesn't Work and the novel The Maggot People (forthcoming in September from Dzanc Books).  Follow him on Twitter: @henningkoch

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Potterizing My Kindle

Pottermore threw open its doors this morning and I was among the first to shoulder my way inside.  J. K. Rowling finally succumbed to digital pressure and made all of the Harry Potter books available in a variety of e-formats.  I was there with my credit card to purchase the complete set--all in the name of blog research, of course.

I'll be completely honest with you here: I'm not a huge fan of the boy wizard.  I tried reading the books aloud to my children, but we only got through the first volume before I petered (Pottered?) out.  Our repeat trips to Narnia were much more successful.

But--in the name of blog research--I'm willing to give Harry another shot.  So I ponied up the plastic and downloaded them to my Kindle just a few hours after they became available.  Browsing through the e-versions, I have to say they look pretty damned fine on my screen.  Someday--when I'm bedridden with a long illness or serving a short prison sentence--I hope to read all the way through to the end of the series.

But yes, all in all, today was a pretty significant one in the short history of e-books.  Here's what the Pottermore site had to say about the deal:
We have partnered with the following services to make it easy to send your Harry Potter eBook to your account. (Subject to reading service availability in your country.): Sony Reader online account (US and Canadian based customers only). Amazon Kindle (available in most countries). Barnes & Noble NOOK (US and Canadian based customers only). Google Play (This service is currently available in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The accounts are linked during the download process…Please note you can link to one account per reading service.
This is what was posted on Amazon’s page:
Harry Potter Kindle books can be purchased at J.K. Rowling‘s Pottermore Shop, a third-party site. Clicking on “Buy at Pottermore” will take you to Pottermore Shop, where you will need to create a separate account. Like all Kindle books, books purchased from Pottermore are ‘Buy Once, Read Everywhere’ and will be delivered to your Kindle or free Kindle reading apps.
And Barnes & Noble chimed in with this:
You’ll be taken to and asked to sign in or create a new account. Once you do, you’ll immediately get access to this book, and other exclusive writings from J.K. Rowling.
Honestly, it was fairly easy to buy the downloads.  Even with the extra step of going to Pottermore and setting up a new account, the whole thing took less than five minutes.

The roundabout method of purchasing the books sent ripples not just through the legions of Potterheads, but also through the publishing industry.  In particular, Amazon's cooperation raised a few inky eyebrows.  Here's The Huffington Post to explain:
      In a break with industry practices, the books aren't locked down by encryption, which means consumers can move them between devices and read them anywhere they like.
      If "Pottermore," J.K. Rowling's new Web store, proves a success, it could provide a model for other authors and publishers and undermine the clout of Inc., which dominates e-book sales.
      "I think it's a very large crack in a dam that's going to collapse in the next nine to twelve months," says Matteo Berlucchi, the CEO of an independent British-based online bookstore, aNobii.
      E-books from major publishers are sold in encrypted form today. The text of a book is scrambled so that only authorized devices and software can read it. For instance, a book bought from Amazon can be read only on the company's Kindle e-readers and on its Kindle applications for smartphones, tablets and PCs. It can't be read on Barnes & Noble's Nook e-readers.
      Conversely, a book for the Nook can't be read on a Kindle. A book purchased from Apple Inc. can only be read on iPhones, iPod touches and iPads.
      Publishers insist on encryption in the form of "Digital Rights Management," or DRM because they believe it stops piracy. It also helps e-book retailers like Amazon defend their business models, keeping non-Amazon books off Kindle e-readers.
      But when Rowling fans buy a book from Pottermore, they can download it in a variety of formats, including one that is not protected by DRM. They can be read by a wide variety of applications and devices.

Trailer Park Tuesday: Drift by Rachel Maddow

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.  Unless their last name is Grisham or King, authors will probably never see their trailers on the big screen at the local cineplex.  And that's a shame because a lot of hard work goes into producing these short marriages between book and video.  So, if you like what you see, please spread the word and help these videos go viral.

Less a book trailer than it is a five-minute oral defense of her book, Rachel Maddow's video for Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power nonetheless hooked my attention for a title which I'd been seeing online and in bookstores but which I'd kind of greyed out in my mind.  You should know by now that I tend to read far more fiction than non-fiction.  But Maddow's plain-spoken, passionate explanation of her book not only made me rush out to buy the book, it demanded I place it at the top of my TBR pile.  So I pre-ordered Drift and it dropped onto my Kindle this morning.

It's a fascinating topic to me--someone who was in the business of war for two decades.  I made my living in a job where I'd report to an office every day and, when it came right down to it, made preparations to go kill someone.  It's an odd feeling to have while you're sitting at a desk under a buzzing fluorescent light sipping lukewarm coffee and clicking a mouse.  As Maddow says in the video, "Being at war is the 'new normal' for America.  It should not be like that.  It's not supposed to feel normal for us to be at war."  And yet, that was my "normal" for twenty years.  I'm interested to hear more of Maddow's sermon.  The publisher's blurb further intrigues:
"One of my favorite ideas is, never to keep an unnecessary soldier," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1792. Neither Jefferson nor the other Found­ers could ever have envisioned the modern national security state, with its tens of thousands of "privateers"; its bloated Department of Homeland Security; its rust­ing nuclear weapons, ill-maintained and difficult to dismantle; and its strange fascination with an unproven counterinsurgency doctrine. Written with bracing wit and intelligence, Rachel Maddow's Drift argues that we've drifted away from America's original ideals and become a nation weirdly at peace with perpetual war, with all the financial and human costs that entails.

Monday, March 26, 2012

My First Time: Carter Sickels

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 Carter Sickels, author of The Evening Hour, a novel which Shelf Awareness called "a richly drawn story of West Virginians trapped between indifferent mining conglomerates and a dead-end town."  Sickels is a graduate of the MFA program at Pennsylvania State University, was awarded fellowships to Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, the MacDowell Colony, VCCA, and the Djerassi Residency.  After spending nearly a decade in New York, Sickels left the city to earn a master's degree in folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He now lives in Portland, Oregon.  You can visit his website here.

My First Writing Residency

Two years after I got my Master of Fine Arts degree from Penn State University, I was working at a computer software company in New York City.  My job was to edit user manuals.  I’d had other jobs in New York.  Office temp, mainly.  I made a lot of copies.  I’d worked at a gift store in the Village, selling overpriced kitsch.  For the first time in my life, I was earning a comfortable salary.  Plus, I had health insurance and a 401K.

The work wasn’t hard.  But this was: Spending eight hours a day inside an office.  Meetings, office chit-chat.  Casual Fridays.  Reading nothing but instructions for a software program that I had no idea how to use.

A lot of writers work full-time office jobs and still find time and energy to write brilliant stories and poems.  I wasn’t one of them.  The start of a novel was sitting on my desk.  Although I made an effort to write after I got home from work, I usually ended up watching reruns of The X-Files.  I also tried waking up at 5 am to write before work; that lasted about a week.  I called myself a writer, but I didn’t know if I believed it anymore.  I sent out stories, received rejections.  I applied for a couple of writing residencies, but didn’t expect to get in.

My work was in an office building connected to Madison Square Garden, on the 23rd floor.  I shared a room with four co-workers.  The room had windows; we had a nice view of downtown.  One morning when I got to the office, my co-workers were standing at the window, watching smoke rise from the World Trade Center.  They told me that a plane had crashed; no one knew the details.  Someone guessed that a single-engine plane had flown too low.  Then, as we were standing at the window, a silver plane rose up over the Hudson and flew into the second tower and exploded.

New York was a strange place to be after 9-11.  People walked around in a daze.  Smoke hung over the city.  Churches filled up.  I remember doing a lot of walking, block by block.  I didn’t go back to work for a week.  I was afraid to go underground.  Loud noises made me jump.  I listened obsessively to NPR, spent hours online reading newspapers.  I was lucky.  I hadn’t been near the towers, and I didn’t lose anyone.  There was a woman at my work whose fiancé had died in the towers.  She kept going back to work.  I couldn’t.

Well, I did go back, for awhile.  Then, about a month after 9-11, I got a letter from the Jentel Artist Residency Program.  It was an acceptance letter.  The residency, a month long, would start in March.  My boss offered me a leave of absence.  I’d been working there for a year and a half, and had already been promoted, with a raise.

I turned in my resignation.

The residency was in Wyoming.  I didn’t know how I would get there; I didn’t want to fly.  Then one of the other residents contacted me.  She also lived in New York, and planned on driving.  So one cold, blustery day, I loaded my things into her station wagon, and said goodbye to the city.  The trip took about four days.  As the skies grew bigger, I started to feel lighter.  I’d never been to a writing residency, and didn’t know what to expect.  We arrived in the early evening, just in time for dinner.  The air was cold and clean.  New York was so far away.

Jentel is on a working cattle ranch southeast of Sheridan, Wyoming.  The year I was there it was in its pilot period and the studios were still under construction.  There were only three of us, and we stayed in temporary housing next to a field where cattle roamed.  My writing studio was above the house where Neltje, the residency’s founder, lived.  The first morning I woke at dawn.  I dressed quickly, pulling on gloves and hat and boots, grabbing my backpack and whatever else I could carry.  The sky was lit up orange around the edges, reflecting on craggy hills.  Black angus stood in a field of white.  In the distance rose the snow-capped Big Horn Mountains.  I walked up the path, hearing the sound of my footsteps.

My writing studio had windows on each side.  There was a desk, a couch, a table.  I brewed coffee, and unpacked my books, notebooks, pens, laptop.  And then I just sat there at the desk and looked at the blue skies and felt what can only be described as joy.  That first day, I did a lot of staring out the window.  I opened books and read a few pages and then stretched out on the couch.  I didn’t write a word, not yet.  My body and mind were shedding the weight of New York.  For the first time in months, maybe longer, I felt relaxed, I felt at home.

For one month I read, took walks, stared at the immense sky, watched the cows.  And I wrote; finally, I was writing.  Time stretched out.  The beauty and the quiet buoyed me, and I felt cared for by the staff.  I was amazed that there were people in the world, strangers, who believed in my work.

By the time I returned to New York, the city was, for the most part, back to normal, except for that gaping hole in the skyline.  I lived there for six more years and went to a half dozen other residencies, where I met a lot of great writers, artists, dancers, filmmakers, all passionate about their work.  I grew more confident in calling myself a writer.

I never went back to working in an office.  I managed to get by with freelance and teaching.  Hustling, cobbling things together.  The truth is, I’ve never made nearly as much as I did at that software company.  I don’t have health insurance or a retirement fund.  I’ve got a lot of debt, and I scramble to pay the bills.  But I don’t regret any of it.  Quitting my job and driving west was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Residency life isn’t for everyone, and it’s been three years since I’ve gone to one.  But for me, especially during that time in my life, residencies opened a very heavy door.  Ten years ago, Jentel changed my understanding of myself as a writer, and gave me the chance to immerse myself in the dream.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

He's a Magic Man, Mama

      The magician stood alone in the shadows backstage. Short,stocky, and middle-aged, he parted his dark shock of wiry gray-flecked hair straight down the middle. A surprising number of men still sported this Gay Nineties barbershop quartet look at the start of the Jazz Age, the brave new tommy gun decade when flappers and bathtub gin became as American as apple pie and the G.A.R.
      Despite impeccable tailoring, the magician’s evening clothes looked perpetually rumpled. He had never been known as a fashion plate. When just a teenager first starting out, he wore suits several sizes too large, like a kid in hand-me-downs. Perhaps this was deliberate, a misdirection worthy of a master in the arts of deception. Watching him, one never suspected the starched dickey and wrinkled soup and fish concealed an athlete’s body honed by years of diligent exercise.

      It was not his nature ever to be idle. Waiting in the wings before his turn, listening to the house orchestra play an Irving Berlin medley, he kept his hands busy with a pair of lucky silver half-dollars. He rolled them from knuckle to knuckle across the backs of his hands, a flourish as difficult as any known in magic. The coins moved with delusive ease, round and round, propelled by an imperceptible flexing of his tendons. His eyes slid shut. His head slumped forward. He looked like a man in a trance, the rotating coins part of the deepest meditation.
      The magician was the headliner, the most famous name on the big-time vaudeville circuit, topping the bill at the Palace, one thousand, eight-hundred simoleons a week for two shows a day. He listened to the applause surging and crashing beyond the footlights like storm-driven surf. The orchestra’s string section trembled on the last notes of “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” as if overwhelmed by the frenzied clapping.

Those are the opening lines of William Hjortsberg's novel Nevermore and the magician is, of course, Harry Houdini.  Today marks the great prestidigitator's birthday.  He would have been an impressive 138 years old if he'd been able to escape the fate of that burst appendix in 1926.  It's a sad twist that the man who freed himself from straitjackets, handcuffs, water-filled milk cans, and riveted boilers couldn't wriggle away from the biological failures of his own body.

Nevermore catches Houdini three years before his death and it's a vibrant portrait of a magician in the twilight of his career.  Over the course of the story, he'll be joined by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, as together they try to track down a serial killer modeling his crimes on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.  Publishers Weekly called the 1994 novel a "droll and captivating fantasy--part gothic mystery, part Who's Who of the Jazz Age, part Perils of Pauline--reads like a collaboration between Mary Roberts Rinehart and Dorothy Parker."  For those readers with e-devices, Nevermore is now available from Open Road Media, which also has several other Hjortsberg titles available--check out his author page here.  I haven't had time to read all of Nevermore, but that first chapter is a dazzler.  It ends with Houdini's famous trick dubbed "The Needles."  Before he steps onto the stage, he slips a silk packet, manufactured by Martinka and Co. and "smaller than half a stick of gum," into his mouth.
      A request was made for a volunteer from the audience and Iris ushered a portly gentleman with a golden Shriner's crescent dangling from his watch chain onto the stage. Houdini bantered with the man, breaking the ice by asking his name and where he lived, making him feel at ease. He showed Mr. Elmer Conklin, of 809 Lexington Avenue, a paper of sewing needles and a small spool of thread. "Are these anything other than common everyday items which might readily be purchased at the five-and-dime?"
      "They are not, sir." Mr. Conklin nervously handed them back, hooking his thumbs into the pockets of his blue serge vest.
      "Observe carefully. Houdini swallows them." Mr. Conklin watched, amazement overcoming his stage fright, as the magician mouthed the needles and thread. Back in the summer of '95, when Houdini and his wife had toured with the Welsh Brothers Circus, an old Japanese acrobat had taught him to regurgitate at will. So blase he often fell asleep while performing as the bottom man of a balance-pole act, Sam Kitchi was a swallower, ingesting ivory balls, coins, watches, and once, to the amazement of the young magician, a live mouse. Houdini practiced for weeks with a peeled potato tied to a string, strengthening his throat muscles, perfecting the art of retroperistalsis.
      The magician focused his raptor's stare on a bewildered Elmer Conklin, swallowing in quick succession the needles and thread, followed by the packet from Martinka's. Gripping them halfway down his esophagus, Houdini invited the volunteer to examine his mouth with a flashlight provided by Iris.
      "Glad I'm not a dentist," the stout man stammered, unwittingly getting a good laugh as he peered at the magician's molars. "Folks, there's not a thing in there I can see....Talking about under his tongue and everything. I'm satisfied his mouth is empty."
      Iris took back the flashlight. Wilma handed Houdini a brimming glass of water. "Hot work always makes me thirsty," the magician quipped, drinking down the liquid without apparent difficulty. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, you and Mr. Conklin have just seen me swallow a needlebook and a spool of thread. I return them to you...thusly..."
      Houdini regurgitated the gag from Martinka's. The needles and thread remained clenched in his throat. He plucked at the end of his tongue, pulling a single thread from his mouth. Threaded needles dangled every inch or so, a lethal silver fringe glittering in the spotlight. Houdini's arm extended full length, prompting wild applause from the astonished audience.
      Iris took hold of the thread and backed away from the magician, suspended needles unspooling continuously from his mouth as she gracefully crossed the stage. Houdini basked in the ovation. The cheers surged through him, more powerful than the transports of love. Iris held her slender arm high in the air, pinching the end of a fifty-foot catenary curving back to the magician's open mouth. All along its length, hundreds and hundreds of needles winked and gleamed, flashing reflected light like fangs in the savage, ghostly smile of an invisible monster.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday Freebie: Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates & The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright

Congratulations to Jennifer Young, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Echolocation by Myfanwy Collins.

This week, readers have the chance to win two novels by two of our strongest contemporary female novelists: Mudwoman by Joyce Carol Oates and The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (which is now out in paperback).

Mudwoman, Oates' 39th novel, comes to us from Ecco Books with the following plot synopsis:
Mudgirl is a child abandoned by her mother in the silty flats of the Black Snake River. Cast aside, Mudgirl survives by an accident of fate—or destiny. After her rescue, the well-meaning couple who adopt Mudgirl quarantine her poisonous history behind the barrier of their middle-class values, seemingly sealing it off forever. But the bulwark of the present proves surprisingly vulnerable to the agents of the past. Meredith “M.R.” Neukirchen is the first woman president of an Ivy League university. Her commitment to her career and moral fervor for her role are all-consuming. Involved with a secret lover whose feelings for her are teasingly undefined, and concerned with the intensifying crisis of the American political climate as the United States edges toward war with Iraq, M.R. is confronted with challenges to her leadership that test her in ways she could not have anticipated. The fierce idealism and intelligence that delivered her from a more conventional life in her upstate New York hometown now threaten to undo her. A reckless trip upstate thrusts M.R. Neukirchen into an unexpected psychic collision with Mudgirl and the life M.R. believes she has left behind. A powerful exploration of the enduring claims of the past, Mudwoman is at once a psychic ghost story and an intimate portrait of a woman cracking the glass ceiling at enormous personal cost, which explores the tension between childhood and adulthood, the real and the imagined, and the “public” and “private” in the life of a highly complex contemporary woman.

Anne Enright's The Forgotten Waltz is from W. W. Norton, who calls it "a haunting story of desire: a recollection of the bewildering speed of attraction, the irreparable slip into longing."  Here's the plot description:
In Terenure, a suburb of Dublin, it has snowed. Gina Moynihan, girl about town, recalls the trail of lust and happenstance that brought her to fall for "the love of her life," Seán Vallely. As the city outside comes to a halt, Gina remembers their affair: long afternoons made blank by bliss and denial. Now, as the silent streets and falling snow make the day luminous and full of possibility, Gina awaits the arrival of Seán's fragile, twelve-year-old daughter, Evie--the complication, and gravity, of this second life. In this extraordinary novel, Anne Enright [writes of] the momentous drama of everyday life; the volatile connections between people; the wry, accurate take on families, marriage, and brittle middle age.

Writing in O Magazine, Lizzie Skurnick praised the book by saying, "In America we like our adultery served straight up: a bubble of illicit passion that ends in regret. That's not what Irish novelist Anne Enright is serving in The Forgotten Waltz, which forgoes the simple morality tale for something more complex and satisfying....Casting aside cultural bromides about the immorality of affairs, Enright puts us squarely in the center of a terrible truth: Love can be miraculous—and still destroy everything in its path."

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

What's the name of the novel for which Anne Enright won the Man Booker Prize in 2007?

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 March 29--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on March 30.  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, March 22, 2012

Birthday Boys: Billy Collins and Louis L'Amour

It was a hot day in Baghdad.

Okay, that's like saying "It was a rainy day in Portland."  But on this particular day in Baghdad, it was really bad.  As if the heat had been oven-baked.  Water boiled in swimming pools.  Eyeballs blistered between blinks.  Dogs just lay down in the streets of al-Dora and died, not even having the will to make it to evening when it would be a relatively cool 89 degrees.

It was hot, but I was sitting in my hooch on Camp Liberty at the western edge of Baghdad oblivious to the fiery air outside the trailer.  I sat on the edge of my bed, a book in my hands, my imagination in the middle of a snowstorm.  I was air-conditioned by words.  I was reading about winter in a novel by Louis L'Amour.

I've written before about how literature saved my life during my year in Iraq.  Sometimes metaphorically, metaphysically...and sometimes literally (for instance, the fact that one day I read "just one more chapter" in my book before heading out the door to work in my cubicle at the Army headquarters prevented me from walking underneath a mortar that fell on Camp Liberty that day).  On this afternoon, I'm pretty sure Louis L'Amour saved me from heat stroke.
      He was riding southwest in a gathering storm and behind him a lone man clung to his trail.
      It was a bitter cold...
      He came down off the ridge into the shelter of the draw with the wind kicking up snow behind him. The sky was a flat slate gray, unbroken and low. The air grew colder by the minute and there was a savage bite to the wind.
      He was a big, wide-shouldered man with a lean, strong-boned face. His black, flat-crowned hat was pulled low, the collar of his sheep-lined coat turned up. Wind-whipped particles of snow rattled off his coat like thrown gravel.
      He was two days out of Deadwood and riding for Cheyenne, and the nearest shelter was at Hat Creek Station, probably fifty miles along.
      Wind knifed at his exposed cheek. He drew deeply on his cigarette. Whoever followed him had the same problem. Find shelter or die. The wind was a moving wall of snow and the evening was filled with vast sound.
      There is something fiercely insensate about a Wyoming or Dakota blizzard, something malevolent and shocking in its brutality. It ripped at him now, smashing him with jarring fists of wind, and raking his face with claws of blown ice.
Those are the opening lines to his 1955 novel Heller with a Gun.  That lone rider is King Mabry and he's about to run into a snowbound theatrical troupe on their way to Alder Gulch, Montana.  Those actors are being pursued by some pretty bad guys.  Gunfights and fistfights ensue.  (Apply that last line to any other L'Amour western.)

I read two other L'Amour westerns that year, the gunfire on the page often echoed by the real-life machine-gun rattle just outside the walls of Camp Liberty.  It was surreal....but not as surreal as the morning I was reading Jarhead and my trailer was rattled by the explosion of a mortar falling a half-mile away on the compound.  It was, to say the least, an interesting year in reading.

L'Amour shares a birthday today with another writer whose words got me through a year of Operation Iraqi Freedom: Billy Collins.  The former Poet Laureate and the Storyteller of the West may be unlikely bedfellows, but during my time in Baghdad, the writers who gathered together in my trailer were an odd, eclectic bunch: Agatha Christie and Walt Whitman, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Stephen King, Lemony Snicket and Ernest Hemingway.

I grew fond of poetry while I was in Iraq.  It made me think, fired my synapses, roused me from hibernation, and--more than anything else--it took my mind off more pressing matters of running media relations in a task-force headquarters.  Billy Collins' 1991 collection of poems Questions About Angels did as much to energize me than any can of Red Bull I might have bought at the Camp Liberty PX.  Collins has a way of putting profound thought into the simplest of language.  His voice is as direct as a hard slap to the face.  His metaphor is fresh and often very funny.

One of my favorite of his poems, "Introduction to Poetry," begins like this:

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

Read the rest of the poem here.

At the end of that oven-broiled day, after cooling myself down with a L'Amour blizzard, I turned to Questions About Angels and found this perfect poem:

Reading Myself to Sleep

The house is all in darkness except for this corner bedroom
where the lighthouse of a table lamp is guiding
my eyes through the narrow channels of print,

and the only movement in the night is the slight
swirl of curtains, the easy lift and fall of my breathing,
and the flap of pages as they turn in the wind of my hand.

Is there a more gentle way to go into the night
than to follow an endless rope of sentences
and then to slip drowsily under the surface of a page

into the first tentative flicker of a dream,
passing out of the bright precincts of attention
like cigarette smoke passing through a window screen?

All late readers know this sinking feeling of falling
into the liquid of sleep and then rising again
to the call of a voice that you are holding in your hands,

as if pulled from the sea back into a boat
where a discussion is raging on some subject or other,
on Patagonia or Thoroughbreds or the nature of war.

Is there a better method of departure by night
than this quiet bon voyage with an open book,
the sole companion who has come to see you off,

to wave you into the dark waters beyond language?
I can hear the rush and sweep of fallen leaves outside
where the world lies unconscious, and I can feel myself

dissolving, drifting into a story that will never be written,
letting the book slip to the floor where I will find it
in the morning when I surface, wet and streaked with daylight.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say is: Happy Birthday, Louis and Billy.  Thanks for dissolving me and setting me free to drift into other worlds.  Thanks for saving my ass Over There.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Soup and Salad: Self-Publishing Earns Respect, Premature Obituary of the Big 6 Publishers, Charles Dickens, More Charles Dickens, Even More Dickens, "Julie" and her Nook, "B*tches in Bookshops," Did Oprah Hurt Book Sales?, What Not to Say at Book Clubs, Size Matters, Myfanwy Collins' Thank-You Letter, Hemingway's Favorite Books, More Premature Reports on the Death of the Book, De-Cluttering Manuscripts, Phil Klay Turns War Into Fiction

On today's menu:

1.  Self-published books are still the Rodney Dangerfield of the literary world: They get no respect.  Part of that stems from the fact that we used to call it "vanity publishing," the label implying it was a book whose primary reason for being was to stroke the author's ego.  The times they are a changin' and the rise of e-books makes self-published books a ubiquitous fact of life in the publishing business.  At the Los Angeles Review of Books, Joseph Peschel talks to critics, authors and publishing insiders about whether or not the public is taking "S-P books" seriously.
Editors, reviewers, and even many authors believe that if you self-publish, you’re branded a sinner of sorts. You wear a scarlet S-P, signifying that you can’t get published because your work is inferior. If you promote your own work on the Internet, you must sheepishly precede the phrase “self-promotion” with “shameless.” It’s difficult to quantify the extent of the stigma, but we all know that publishing your own work has been frowned upon by writers for decades. Recently, genre authors Amanda Hocking (who writes young adult vampire novels) and John Locke (pulp thrillers) have had so much success independently publishing and selling hundreds of thousands of their own books that you’d think the self-publishing wall would’ve been kicked down and lying in a crumbled mess by now. But the stigma attached to publishing, promoting, and selling your own written word persists.
But, Peschel adds, "No one ever faulted Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Quentin Tarantino, or Charlie Chaplin for writing, directing, and producing their own movies. No one disrespects musicians for distributing their music without a major label behind them. And poets — think of Walt Whitman, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the authors of contemporary poetry chapbooks — have long been used to publishing their own work. Why then should independent publishing be regarded any differently?"  Robert Bausch, Ron Charles, Mark Athitakis have some of the answers.

2.  For another take on the whole "e- vs. traditional" debate, check out Mark Williams' essay "Are the Big 6 Publishers Really Dying?"  There are a fair number of hair-on-fire statements tossed around throughout, but overall it's worth your time reading--whether you're an author, editor, or a reader who cares about the fate of brick-and-mortar bookstores.  One of the more interesting portions of Williams' hypothesis comes near the end:
Imagine a book-store where you can still go and browse books, settle down with a coffee or chat with intelligent staff about the latest book from your favourite author. You’ll find the cover and blurb on a book-sized case (think DVD cases) on the display shelves. Want to look inside? Just waive the barcode or implanted chip in front of your personal e-reader or smartphone, or the equipment available in-store, and you can see exactly what you’ll be getting. Not silly sample pages from the first 15% but the full book, temporarily transferred to your device for examination. If you buy, it stays there. If you choose not to it is automatically deleted as you leave the store.

3a.  Of possible interest only to those who are unnaturally obsessed with the life and works of Mr. Charles Dickens (the shoe which, as you already know, fits me and I wear proudly): Gad's Hill Place opens to the public.  Bonus catnip: article includes photos of The Desk.

3b.  The oldest known film of a Dickens work has just been identified.  I use the word "film" loosely since the one-minute silent film from 1901 is just a brief blink of a scene from Dickens' novel Bleak House showing the death of Jo the Crossing Sweeper.  It's about as overwrought as cinematic melodrama can get--outdoing the Inimitable Boz himself--but it's an interesting Dickensian artifact nonetheless.

3c.  When Charles Dickens moved into Tavistock House in 1851, he decided the library there was too large for the number of books he owned.  So he commissioned a bookbinder to create a series of false "book backs" to line the shelves.  Lists of Note has the titles, most of them peppered with CD's trademark wit: Kant's Ancient Humbugs, Bowwowdom, Drowsy's Recollections of Nothing, Miss Biffin on Deportment, and so forth.

4.  Is your name Julie?  Are you between the ages of 25 and 45?  Do you have kids who like to run wild and free in your local Barnes & Noble?  If so, then you probably own a Nook e-reader.

5.  Rap Interlude: "Read so hard, got paper cuts."  I love this parody of Jay Z and Kanye West's "N*ggas in Paris." 

6.  I'm not sure I buy this argument: Oprah's endorsements hurt book sales.  The talk-show queen was a key factor in reviving a reading revolution in America--only the Richard and Judy Book Club in the UK wields as much popular influence.  So how could increasing bookstore traffic hurt sales?  Martha C. White makes her case at
In a new research paper, Northwestern University professor of management Craig Garthwaite labels Oprah's endorsements "business stealing." While sales of titles selected by Oprah spiked an average of 400 percent in the first week alone, and other books by those authors also enjoyed what Garthwaite termed an "economically significant" boost, readers' newfound interest in those authors came at the expense of other writers, titles and entire genres, he said. In the 12 weeks following each of Oprah's Book Club endorsements, sales in the adult fiction category decreased by an average of 2.5 percent, with romance, mystery and action categories showing the largest drop-off. When Oprah endorsed a classic such as Anna Karenina, the falloff in sales of other fiction books was more pronounced. Garthwaite's theory, based on linguistic comparisons, is that the books Oprah chose were longer and more challenging than what people were used to reading. In other words, a reader might wade through Tolstoy's tome instead of blasting through two or three paperback bodice-rippers.
But here's the peak of the article's hogwash:
      "A lot of people do have set reading habits," Garthwaite said. "If people are not increasing the amount of time they're reading, but they're reading books that are longer and harder, then they're consuming fewer books throughout the year."
      "Readers have finite time, and they have finite discretionary budget allocated to books," Peter Wahlstrom, senior analyst at Morningstar, said, a phenomenon Norris called the "overloaded nightstand effect."
You say "overloaded" like it's a bad thing.

7.  Speaking of Oprah and book clubs, here's some advice on what not to say at your next get-together.

8.  The average book has 64,500 words, with Brave New World at dead center of that median.  Fobbit has about 98,000 words, which puts it somewhere between Portnoy's Complaint and Lolita.

9.  I don't know about you, but I got a little choked up reading Myfanwy Collins' thank-you letter to her readers on the day her debut novel Echolocation launched: "I am living in my strength and my strength right now is you."

10.  Ernest Hemingway had a list of 17 books he'd rather re-read "than have an assured income of a million dollars a year."  Among them were Dubliners and Winesburg, OhioLists of Note reveals the rest.

11.  Over at Three Guys One Book, Jason Rice and Rebecca Schinsky talk about the premature reports of the Death of the Book, A Visit from the Goon Squad on HBO, and whether or not the book industry is, as they say, circling the drain.  Rice says: "I agree that the death of the book is greatly exaggerated, but the industry that makes them is about to evolve into something that will fit comfortably on your phone."

12.  Beth Kissileff is getting ready to sell her house.  While trying to "de-clutter" the rooms of her possessions, she started seeing parallels between tidying up a house and tidying up her writing:
In my manuscript, stripping away the extra adjectives similarly allows one to see the beauties of the framework. I often use extra descriptions so the reader will understand the story. Instead, I need to trust the reader’s imagination and abilities. The extra adjectives are like excess knickknacks stored for contingencies, the boxes in the basement that remain unopened after years of collecting dust. A reader will be able to see more clearly without excess embellishment or boxes to trip over and peer around.
Read the rest here at Tin House.

13.  And last, but certainly not least, at his blog, Can't Give This War Away, Nathan Webster chats with Phil Klay, a fellow veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and fiction writer whose collection of short stories should be coming out next year (2013 can't get here soon enough, as far as I'm concerned).  Nathan and Phil were kind enough to give Fobbit a mention during the interview, but what interested me the most were the insights into the mind of how a war veteran approaches the creative art of fiction.  Here's just one small snippet from their lengthy conversation:
Q: What kind of writing did you do while deployed? A journal? Emails home? Did you have a written basis to refer back to for your present-day work?
A: I very slowly wrote incredibly terrible stories while on deployment. More usefully, I took note of the strange, crazy, amusing or upsetting things that happened while I was deployed. I wish I'd taken more notes on physical locations and building types, but I wasn't really planning on writing what I'm currently working on.