Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Tim O'Brien on our 26 letters

I had the pee-my-pants pleasure of meeting Tim O'Brien at the Texas Book Festival this past weekend.  I'm here to tell you he's every bit as gracious, humble, and smart as you'd think the author of The Things They Carried would be.  Just before I met him for drinks at a bar along Congress Avenue in Austin, I attended a ceremony at the State Capitol where he received the Texas Writer Award for 2012.  After he'd shaken the presenter's hand and acknowledged the pounding waves of applause in the House Chamber, he sat down for a conversation with novelist Elizabeth McCracken (another of my literary idols I met this weekend).  They talked about magic (little-known fact: O'Brien is a professional-grade magician), how his children have influenced his writing, and then he pulled out this gem of a quote:
“There are twenty-six letters in our alphabet. And there are some punctuation marks, and that’s it. All we’ve got. Nothing else. And out of those 26 letters you can make Ulysses, or The Iliad, in translation – or you can make Hustler magazine or some piece of junk. The same twenty-six letters!  And it’s the responsibility of the writer to pay attention to those letters, putting them in order so that they’re graceful, lucid, clear, all the things that matter to you as a writer. ”

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fobbit Tour: Brazos Bookstore in Houston

Clean and serene.  Those are the two words which immediately sprang to mind when I walked through the doors of Brazos Bookstore in Houston.  The store is a thing of beauty--mellow lighting, dark-wood bookshelves, and clear, concise section labels.  The other striking feature of the store--and authors are going to love hearing this--is that books are displayed face-out whenever possible.  The ratio of spines to covers definitely tilts in favor of the latter at Brazos.  It's a thing of beauty and will bring tears to the eyes of every author who knows the sweaty desperation of trying to get his or her book noticed by bookstore browsers.  So, thank you to Jeremy Ellis and his staff for designing the store with these "in yo face!" kinds of displays.

It's just down the street from Rice University and there's a definite vibe of the collegiate and intellectual--but without any of the elbow-patch-wearing, pipe-smoking stuffiness.  Brazos is another one of those independent stores which exudes powerful pheremones of book-lovin'.

The second thing I thought as I started to browse the displays was: I could drop a lot of coin here.  In fact, Brazos had so many good books on display, I ended up taking three books to the cash register rather than limiting myself to just one, as I've done everywhere else on the book tour.  (See below for my picks.)

I was at Brazos to read from Fobbit due in large part to the efforts of my good buddy Brett N.--who, until yesterday, was a longstanding e-buddy.  Brett and I first "met" when we were contributors to the online consumer review site Epinions, back in the days just before the internet bubble peaked and burst.  Brett is a wickedly funny writer who's churned out a number of screenplays over the years, so I was happy to finally meet him in person and pick his brain about the movie world.

When Brett learned I'd be heading to the Lone Star State for the Texas Book Festival in Austin (my panel with Ben Fountain is tomorrow at noon in the Senate Chamber for those of you who can make it), he got unnaturally excited and contacted the good folks at Brazos to see if they'd be interested in having me stop by for an event before I headed to Austin.  Things worked out nicely and so last night, I found myself sitting at a table just in front of an awesome paper-art display of burning books (in honor of Banned Books Week), reading the first few pages of Chapter Two where Lieutenant Colonel Duret is simultaneously dealing with a "failed suicide bomb event" at a dusty intersection in Baghdad, his incompetent company commander Captain Abe Shrinkle, and the pounding migraines brought on by the memories of his brother-in-law who died in the World Trade Center attacks.  I always enjoy reading this portion of Fobbit--even though I have to stop midway through the action because the chapter is just too long to read for even the most patient set of ears.  Joining Brett in the front row at the reading was another Epinions friend of ours, Dwight M.  It was great to have this kind of support from one of the first internet communities to support my writing (way back in 1999--aka, the Cro-Magnon Era of the internet).

As I mentioned, I didn't leave Brazos empty-handed.  I walked out of there with three new books which I've been dying to add to my library: "Who Could That Be at This Hour?" (All the Wrong Questions) by Lemony Snicket, The Distracted Preacher by Thomas Hardy (part of Melville House's Art of the Novella series), and John Saturnall's Feast by Lawrence Norfolk. The latter is a title from my publisher, Grove Press, and with its sumptuous cover, deckle-edge pages, and multi-colored ink inside, it's a thing of physical beauty. No ebook could ever do Norfolk's novel justice. If you're going to fully appreciate this book, you have to buy the hardcover edition, folks (and I'm not just shilling for my publisher--I really am in love with this book for its own sake). But it's not just the physical object of the book which is a work of art; take a look at the plot synopsis:
1625. In the remote village of Buckland, a mob chants of witchcraft and John Sandall and his mother are running for their lives. Taking refuge among the trees of Buccla's Wood, John's mother opens her book and begins to tell her son of an ancient Feast kept in secret down the generations. But as the rich dishes rise from the pages, the ground beneath them freezes. That winter John's mother dies. The Feast is John's legacy. Taken as an orphan to Buckland Manor, the ancestral seat of Sir William Fremantle, John is put to work in its vast subterranean kitchens, the domain of Richard Scovell. Under the Master Cook's guidance, John climbs from the squalor of the Scullery to the great house above. There Sir William's headstrong daughter Lucretia defies her father by refusing to eat.  John's task is to tempt the girl from her fast. But as a bond forms between them, greater conflicts loom. The Civil War will throw John and Lucretia together in a passionate struggle for survival against the New Order's fanatical soldiers. Ancient legacies will pull them apart. To keep all he holds most dear, John must realise his mother's vision. He must serve the Feast.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Friday Freebie: These Things Happen by Richard Kramer

Congratulations to Laura K. Moretz, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse by Denis Johnson.

This week's book giveaway is These Things Happen by Richard Kramer, the creator of the legendary TV series My So-Called Life and thirtysomething (among others).  Published by Unbridled Books, These Things Happen is set among Manhattan’s high-powered liberal elite and told through an ensemble of endearing voices.  At the center of the story is fifteen-year-old Wesley who has just moved from his mother and stepfather’s home to live with his father and his father’s male partner for a school term so that father and son might have a chance to bond again.  As Publishers Weekly explains: "While Wesley struggles to acclimate to his new digs, his best friend, Theo, wins the class presidency and announces he’s gay during his acceptance speech. His classmates are indifferent, but Theo, eager to acquire 'edge,' hopes for a trial by fire for coming out."  Without giving anything away, let's just say he gets more than he bargained for.  Michael Cunningham (The Hours) had this to say about Kramer's debut novel: "These Things Happen is a jewel of a book: incisive, funny, wise, and moving. It prompted me, on almost every page, to ask the question I’m most glad to find myself asking of a novel, How did the writer know that?"

Kramer was a recent guest at the My First Time series here at The Quivering Pen.  His essay, "My First Line of Dialogue" is well worth checking out (especially for fans of Singin' in the Rain and To Kill a Mockingbird).

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of These Things Happen, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to thequiveringpen@gmail.com.

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 1at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 2.  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 blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you've done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying "I've shared" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Fobbit Tour: Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, NC

If there's one thing that Quail Ridge Books excels at--and there are many things it does right--it's the way in which it showcases titles the staff really, really, really wants you to read.  Sure, "Staff Picks" are almost de rigueur in independent bookstores these days, but there's just something about the spirit in which Quail Ridge puts its books front and center that makes it stand out from most of the other stores I've visited on this Fobbit book tour.

I was a half hour early to my reading at the store in Raleigh, North Carolina last night and so I wandered the stacks, happy as a nose in a perfume shop.  In addition to the usual bestseller and new arrivals displays near the front door, I also found a table devoted to political books (biographies about the Obamas, screeds from political talk-show tonguemeisters, etc.).  It was neatly divided in half into "Red Books" and "Blue Books."  Clever.  Another tier of shelves displayed books by authors who were scheduled for upcoming appearances at the store--a nice way of building buzz before the event and encouraging customers to buy and read the book before the big night.  Deeper in the store, there was an entire section devoted to North Carolina writers, and I was thrilled to see a very nice display of literary magazines--including The Greensboro Review where yours truly had one of his first short stories published back in the early 90s.

Nancy Olson and her staff are to be commended for cultivating a spirit of Book Love at Quail Ridge.  There is a fierce independence in the atmosphere of the store which sends a message to e-tailers and big-box bookstores: "We love words and the people who make them."  Books are not a number or an algorithm, they are warm and alive and served with as much care and pride as the tastiest plate of Carolina bar-b-que.

Quail Ridge also has a very nice reading space for visiting authors.  A large area was cleared in the middle of the store (the middle!  not off to the side near the children's book section) and I was given a podium with a crystal-clear microphone so everyone could hear me read about what it was like to go to war "with a duffel bag full of Dickens" and emerge on the other side of the experience with a novel of my own.

For the most part, audiences at the Fobbit readings have been populated with e-friends I've "known" for years but never met.  Last night, there was an especially large group of acquaintances from Facebook, Twitter and other social media communities who'd been supporting me for years.  I was thrilled to finally meet Holly Goddard Jones (author of the short-story collection Girl Trouble and the forthcoming novel The Next Time You See Me--which I straightaway pre-ordered and I suggest you do the same, pronto) and Mary Lambeth Moore (author of the novel Sleeping with Patty Hearst).   Also on hand were two members of my Book Pregnant posse: Barbara Claypole White (The Unfinished Garden) and Anne Clinard Barnhill (At the Mercy of the Queen: A Novel of Anne Boleyn).  Barbara, Anne and I met for the first time last weekend at the South Carolina Writers Workshop where we were joined by fellow Book Pregnant members Lydia Netzer (Shine Shine Shine) and Brenda Bevan Remmes.  Of the quintet, Brenda is the only one who is still "with book child."  The blessed event for her novel, Miss Ellie's Cafe, still lies somewhere in the future.

All in all, it was a great feeling to stand there at the microphone and look out to see all those smiling, supportive, friendly faces.  Thanks, everyone, for coming out to hear me talk about Fobbit.

Picking my Book Tour Bookstore Book was tough--not because I couldn't find something to suit my taste or pique my interest, but because I had to keep my promise to only buy one book at each stop (my luggage can't handle more than that).  One of the books that Quail Ridge so insistently put "in my face" last night was Misfit, the new novel by Adam Braver from Tin House Books.  The publisher's jacket copy tells us the book "centers on the last weekend of Monroe’s life, which she spent at Frank Sinatra’s resort, the Cal Neva Lodge, in Lake Tahoe. Melding facts with fiction, Braver takes moments throughout Monroe’s life—her childhood, her marriages with Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller, her studies with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, and her role in The Misfits, the film Miller wrote for her—and explores how they informed her tragic end."  I'm a huge fan of Braver's work (his novel-in-stories Mr. Lincoln's Wars was one of the best books--fiction or non-fiction--I've ever read about the iconic president).  Braver does some very smart blending of fact and fiction to create fresh portraits of historic figures.  Think E. L. Doctorow, but fleshier.  I can't wait to read this latest work about Marilyn.  And, I hope you'll agree with me that the cover for Misfit is spot-on perfect.

Front Porch Books: October 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.  This month's Front Porch Books is a special edition, looking at books I picked up earlier this month at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association and Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade shows.

Schroder by Amity Gaige (Twelve): Loosely based on the story of Clark Rockefeller (which I previously highlighted here at the blog), Gaige's novel delves deep into the life story of a man who swapped identities, then tried to steal his own daughter.  The publisher's rep at the trade show, who was familiar with this blog, said, "Here, take this--I think you'll really like it."  I think he's right.  Jacket CopyAttending a New England summer camp, young Eric Schroder-a first-generation East German immigrant-adopts the last name Kennedy to more easily fit in, a fateful white lie that will set him on an improbable and ultimately tragic course.  Schroder relates the story of Eric's urgent escape years later to Lake Champlain, Vermont, with his six-year-old daughter, Meadow, in an attempt to outrun the authorities amid a heated custody battle with his wife, who will soon discover that her husband is not who he says he is. From a correctional facility, Eric surveys the course of his life to understand-and maybe even explain-his behavior: the painful separation from his mother in childhood; a harrowing escape to America with his taciturn father; a romance that withered under a shadow of lies; and his proudest moments and greatest regrets as a flawed but loving father.  Opening Lines:
      What follows is a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance.
      My lawyer says I should tell the whole story. Where we went, what we did, who we met, etc. As you know, Laura, I'm not a reticent person. I'm talkative--you could even say chatty--for a man. But I haven't spoken a word for days. It's a vow I've taken. My mouth tastes old and damp, like a cave. It turns out I'm not very good at being silent. There are castles of things I want to tell you. Which might explain the enthusiasm of this document, despite what you could call its sad story.
Blurbworthiness: "In Schroder, Amity Gaige explores the rich, murky realm where parental devotion edges into mania, and logic crabwalks into crime. This offbeat, exquisitely written novel showcases a fresh, forceful young voice in American letters."  (Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad )

Life Among Giants by Bill Roorbach (Algonquin Books):  I had the pleasure of meeting Bill at the PNBA show and he proved to be every bit as warm and funny as his Facebook posts had led me to believe.  Life Among Giants was already a large blip on my book radar, but hearing Bill tell the booksellers stories about his young adulthood and how he came to write the book only solidified my conviction that I needed to add the novel to my library posthaste.  Skimming through the first few pages, I was further convinced that this is destined to be one of the top books of the Fall season.  Opening Lines:
I have a thing about last meals. Not as in prisoners about to be executed—they know it’s going to be their last. But as in just about everyone else, most all of us. Whatever’s coming, there’s going to be that last thing we eat. My folks, for example. They did pretty well in the last-meal department, beautiful restaurant, family all around them, perfect sandwiches made by someone who truly cared about food. Lunch, as it happened. Their last meal, I mean. For my sister it was breakfast, but that was years later, and I’ll get to all that. The point is, I like to eat every meal as if it were the last, as if I knew it were the last: savor every bite, be there with the food, make sure it’s good, really worthy. And though it’s an impossible proposition, I try to take life that way, too: every bite my last.
Jacket Copy:  At seventeen, David “Lizard” Hochmeyer is nearly seven feet tall, a star quarterback, and Princeton-bound. His future seems all but assured until his parents are mysteriously murdered, leaving Lizard and his older sister, Kate, adrift and alone. Sylphide, the world’s greatest ballerina, lives across the pond from their Connecticut home, in a mansion the size of a museum, and it turns out that her rock star husband’s own disasters have intersected with Lizard’s—and Kate’s—in the most intimate and surprising ways.  Over the decades that follow, Lizard and Kate are obsessed with uncovering the motives behind the deaths, returning time and again to their father’s missing briefcase, his shady business dealings and shaky finances, and to Sylphide, who has threaded her way into Lizard’s and Kate’s lives much more deeply than either had ever realized. From the football fields of Princeton to a stint with the NFL, from elaborate dances at the mansion to the seductions lying in wait for Lizard, and ultimately to the upscale restaurant he opens in his hometown, it only takes Lizard a lifetime to piece it all together.  A wildly entertaining novel of murder, seduction, and revenge—rich in incident, in expansiveness of character, and in lavishness of setting—it’s a Gatsby-esque adventure, a larger-than-life quest for answers that reveals how sometimes the greatest mystery lies in knowing one’s own heart.

A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins (Penguin Press): Scott is another author who, along with me, pitched his book to the lunchtime crowd on the final day of the PNBA show.  He read a selection from A Working Theory of Love which was alternately funny and touching.  I'm really looking forward to reading more about his protagonist Neill Bassett, a San Francisco man who is adrift on the singles scene after the implosion of his marriage just months after the honeymoon (ouch!).  The Jacket Copy is a little wordy, but if you can cut your way through the jungle of language, you'll get a good idea of Hutchins' high-concept plot:  When Neill’s father committed suicide ten years ago, he left behind thousands of pages of secret journals, journals that are stunning in their detail, and, it must be said, their complete banality. But their spectacularly quotidian details, were exactly what artificial intelligence company Amiante Systems was looking for, and Neill was able to parlay them into a job, despite a useless degree in business marketing and absolutely no experience in computer science. He has spent the last two years inputting the diaries into what everyone hopes will become the world’s first sentient computer. Essentially, he has been giving it language—using his father’s words. Alarming to Neill—if not to the other employees of Amiante—the experiment seems to be working. The computer actually appears to be gaining awareness and, most disconcerting of all, has started asking questions about Neill’s childhood.  Amid this psychological turmoil, Neill meets Rachel. She was meant to be a one-night stand, but Neill is unexpectedly taken with her and the possibilities she holds. At the same time, he remains preoccupied by unresolved feelings for his ex-wife, who has a talent for appearing at the most unlikely and unfortunate times. When Neill discovers a missing year in the diaries—a year that must hold some secret to his parents’ marriage and perhaps even his father’s suicide—everything Neill thought he knew about his past comes into question, and every move forward feels impossible to make.  Blurbworthiness: "A brainy, bright, laughter-through-tears, can’t-stop-reading-until-it’s-over kind of novel. Fatherless daughters, mother-smothered sons, appealing ex-wives, mouthy high school drop-outs—damn, this book’s got something for everyone!"  (Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story)

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan (Riverhead):  Cathy was another author with whom I shared the podium at the PNBA trade show.  Her presentation on this, her second novel, was so smooth, so professional, and so passionate, that I knew this book had to be something that came directly from her heart.  Her first novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, has been on my to-be-read list for years (lame-but-true excuse: not enough hours in the day) and now this one looks like it will join it in the queue.  Here's the Jacket Copy for The Painted Girls: 1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.  Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde. Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other. Blurbworthiness: "Sisters, dance, art, ambition, and intrigue in late 1800s Paris. The Painted Girls offers the best of historical fiction: compelling characters brought backstage at l’Opera and front and center in Degas’ studio. This one has 'book club favorite' written all over it."  (Meg Waite Clayton, author of The Wednesday Sisters)

The Shelter Cycle by Peter Rock (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):  As a young newspaper editor and reporter in Montana (shortly before I joined the Army and left the state for 20 years), I was witness to the growth of the Church Universal and Triumphant (abbreviated to "CUT" by those of us who lived in Livingston).  Its belief system, according to Wikipedia, included "elements of Buddhism, Christianity, esoteric mysticism, the paranormal and alchemy, with a belief in angels, elves, fairies, and other beings it calls elementals (or spirits of nature)."  It was led by Elizabeth Clare Prophet, a self-proclaimed messenger of God who always seemed to me to be a bit....um, unstable (years later, it was revealed that she had Alzheimer's).  Novelist Peter Rock worked on a sheep and cattle ranch just north of Yellowstone National Park during the heyday of CUT's apocalyptic predictions--which included stockpiling weapons in underground bunkers where CUT members would wait out the Destruction of the Earth and then emerge to populate a new Eden (my words, not an endorsed Church philosophy).  Years later, Rock met a young woman at the college where he teaches who told him she was a child who went underground into one of the bunkers.  Intrigued by her story, Rock started thinking about what it must have been like to be a child of the Paradise Valley cult.  Here's the Jacket Copy: Francine and Colville were childhood friends whose families belonged to an extreme religion, the Church Universal and Triumphant, whose members built elaborate underground shelters to protect themselves from a nuclear apocalypse that never came. Reunited twenty years later by the search for an abducted girl, Francine and Colville must reckon with the powerful memories of their former church's teachings, and the haunting feeling of leading adult lives in a world they once believed would be destroyed.

The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell (Harper):  This debut novel has what are perhaps my favorite Opening Lines of the year:
      Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard.
      Neither of them were beloved.
It just gets better from there.  Here's the Jacket Copy:  Hazlehurst housing estate, Glasgow, Christmas Eve 2010. Fifteen-year-old Marnie and her little sister Nelly have just finished burying their parents in the back garden. Only Marnie and Nelly know how they got there. Lennie, the old guy next door, has taken a sudden interest in his two young neighbours and is keeping a close eye on them. He soon realises that the girls are all alone, and need his help -- or does he need theirs?  As the year ends and another begins, the sisters' friends, their neighbours, and the authorities -- not to mention the local drug dealer, who's been sniffing around for their father -- gradually start to ask questions. And as one lie leads to another, darker secrets about Marnie's family come to light, making things even more complicated.  Blurbworthiness: "The Death of Bees is completely addictive. A beautiful and darkly funny story of two sisters building a fantasy within a nightmare." (Alison Espach, author of The Adults )

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (Ecco):  I'm always a little wary of fiction written in punctuation-less lowercase sentences--something I'd call "stunt narrative"--but Leyshon's story of an illiterate 19th-century farm girl intrigued me by its Opening Lines:
      this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.
      in this year of lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am reached the age of fifteen and i am sitting by my window and i can see many things. i can see birds and they fill the sky with their cries. i can see the trees and i can see the leaves.
      and each leaf has veins which run down it.
      and the bark of each tree has cracks.
      i am not very tall and my hair is the colour of milk.
      my name is mary and I have learned to spell it, m. a. r. y. that is how you letter it.
I like that bold and forthright "this is my book" (if she was a 21st-century teenage girl, I can imagine Mary appending "and you better not mess with it, motherfucker!").  It also sets the tone for the rest of the lower-case novel: "Take it or leave it, but this is how I'm coming at you, the reader."  The Jacket Copy tells us Leyshon's book is "about an illiterate farm girl’s emotional and intellectual awakening and its devastating consequences. Mary, the spirited youngest daughter of an angry, violent man, is sent to work for the local vicar and his invalid wife. Her strange new surroundings offer unsettling challenges, including the vicar’s lecherous son and a manipulative fellow servant. But life in the vicarage also offers unexpected joys, as the curious young girl learns to read and write — knowledge that will come at a tragic price."

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (Hogarth):  The advance reading copy of Marra's debut novel is crowded with praise from big-name writers, including this nice Blurbworthiness from Ann Patchett: "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is simply spectacular.  Not since Everything is Illuminated have I read a first novel so ambitious and fully realized. If this is where Anthony Marra begins his career, I can't imagine how far he will go."  Okay nice words, but what about the plot?  Here's the Jacket Copy:
In the final days of December 2004, in a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa hides in the woods when her father is abducted by Russian forces. Fearing for her life, she flees with their neighbor Akhmed--a failed physician--to the bombed-out hospital, where Sonja, the one remaining doctor, treats a steady stream of wounded rebels and refugees and mourns her missing sister. Over the course of five dramatic days, Akhmed and Sonja reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal, and forgiveness that unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate.
That's all well and good, but it was really the Opening Lines (the pudding's proof) that really convinced me to add this book to my tote bag at the trade show:
On the morning after the Feds burned down her house and took her father, Havaa woke from dreams of sea anemones. While the girl dressed, Akhmed, who hadn't slept at all, paced outside the bedroom door, watching the sky brighten on the other side of the window glass; the rising sun had never before made him feel late. When she emerged from the bedroom, looking older than her eight years, he took her suitcase and she followed him out the front door. He had led the girl to the middle of the street before he raised his eyes to what had been her house. "Havaa, we should go," he said, but neither moved.

The Fall of Alice K. by Jim Heynen (Milkweed Editions):  It was the Opening Lines of Heynen's new novel which grabbed me in a quick chokehold--you know the feeling when you read something in which every word feels necessary and urgent.  I don't know if the rest of the novel sustains this kind of tension, but I'm willing to bet it does:
Alice Marie Krayenbraak was standing on the screened porch when she heard shots coming from a neighbor's farm--one loud blast after another, the sounds of a twelve gauge. Each time she thought the shooting had stopped, it would start again. Some shots were followed by moments of silence, but others were followed by guttural squeals, like pathetic last-second objections. Sometimes a new blast came before the last squeal stopped. The time between shots got shorter, as if someone was hurrying to get this done.
Here's the Jacket Copy: Seventeen-year-old Alice Marie Krayenbraak is beautiful, witty, a star student, and a gifted athlete. On the surface, she has it all. But in Alice’s hometown of Dutch Center, Iowa, nothing is as it seems. Behind the façade of order and tidiness, the family farm is failing. Alice’s mother is behaving strangely amid apocalyptic fears of Y2K. And her parents have announced their plans to send her special-needs sister Aldah away. On top of it all, the uniformly Dutch Calvinist town has been rattled by an influx of foreign farm workers. It’s the fall of senior year, and Alice now finds herself at odds with both family and cultural norms when she befriends and soon falls in love with Nickson Vang, the son of Hmong immigrants. Caught in a period of personal and community transformation, Alice and Nickson must navigate their way through vastly different traditions while fighting to create new ones of their own.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Trailer Park Tuesday: Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth

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.

Here's proof that a (moving) picture is worth more than a thousand words.  The video for Jenn Ashworth's new novel Cold Light goes right to the bleak, chilled heart of the book which is being compared to Tana French and Laura Lippman.  On the other hand, the publisher's marketing copy is as bland as yesterday's bowl of oatmeal: "A dark tale with a surreal edge, it follows two fourteen-year-old girls, best friends, as they confront the dangers of a predatory adult world, where truth is cruelly sacrificed in the name of innocence."  Tune in to the book trailer, however, and you'll be haunted by the sight of twenty-four-year-old Laura (aka Lola), fingers wrapped around a mug of coffee, staring at the camera with haunted eyes and telling us the story of her teenage years with best friend Chloe.  The girls had such bright hopes for the future--escaping from their small English town, going to work at a department store perfume counter, eating arctic roe every night and watching Leonardo DiCaprio movies.  "We'd spend all our money on skirts and beads and blue bottles of alcohol in nightclubs," she says.  "But Chloe never made it to the perfume counter.  Instead, she'll always be fourteen."  Enter Carl, a much older boy who--at least in the trailer--reeks of skeevy danger.  Without giving too much away, the video hints at something horrible that happens to the three of them that summer.  And that, more than any flak copy, makes me want to pick up the book and uncover the whole mystery behind Laura, Chloe and Carl.

Monday, October 22, 2012

My First Time: Sue Kushner Resnick

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 Sue Kushner Resnick, author of You Saved Me, Too: What a Holocaust Survivor Taught Me about Living, Dying, Fighting, Loving, and Swearing in Yiddish, just released by Globe Pequot Press.  Her previous books were Goodbye Wifes and Daughters and Sleepless Days: One Woman's Journey Through Postpartum Depression.  She earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing from Goucher College and has had her work published in The New York Times Magazine, The Boston Globe, The Boston Herald, BrainChild, The Dallas Morning News, Utne Reader, Montana Quarterly, The Writer, Boston Magazine, Natural Health, Salon, and Parents, among others.  She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and had an essay listed in Best American Essays.  She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two teenagers, and teaches creative writing at Brown University.  Visit her website here.

My First Delayed Gratification
It’s the question non-writers always ask: how long did it take you to write the book?

I’m sure they believe the answer is simple, but they’re so wrong about that. Even without adding the time it takes to craft a proposal, find an agent, receive rejections from publishers, sign a contract and navigate production schedules and delays, it’s not easy to calculate the time it takes to actually construct a nonfiction book. The nature of gathering truthful information means we creative nonfictionists can’t just sit down and say, “This is the day I start my book.” (Many fictionists probably can’t do so, either, if their stories require research.) But we usually have to start twice, once to report and write a few chapters for the proposal, and again to continue reporting and finish writing the actual book.

So to answer the question accurately, one must get mathy: reporting time + writing time x 2 – sitting-around-waiting-for-responses time + rewriting time = X.

Using that formula, I’d say my first book took only about a year of writing time. I “reported” for four months, taking detailed, surprisingly-lucid journal notes during my belly crawl through postpartum depression. Then, with my freshly Zoloft-coated brain, I applied to an MFA program and turned those notes into a memoir that had almost written itself while I was going crazy.

The path of my second book, a narrative, was more straightforward. I reported on a historic coal mine disaster, over the phone and in person, at distant archives and from my home library’s microfilm machine, for about a year. Then I organized and wrote for about nine months, though from story conception to publication date took nearly five years. University presses usually require outside vetting of the finished book before official acceptance, which upped my waiting-around time to more than double my typing time.

My third book is a hybrid of hybrids. It’s a reported memoir, an autobiographical biography, and a historical call to action. It took fifteen-and-a-half years to write.

15 and a 1/2.

Okay, so there was downtime. Enough, in fact, to start and finish those other two books, to work as a newspaper reporter, and to consider dumping the literary life for nursing or social work several times.

I was getting over the postpartum depression when I took the first note of what would become the long-gestating You Saved Me, Too: What a Holocaust Survivor Taught Me About Living, Dying, Loving, Fighting and Swearing in Yiddish. As is evident from the cumbersome subtitle, a lot went on between note one and final acknowledgements for the finished product. Not counting all the personal adventures my subject, Aron, and I experienced together, there was also an entire proposal that went in a different direction, followed by an entire set of rejections from impressive publishers. There was boxing up the teeny cassette tapes and steno notepads and stowing the carton in my attic, though even after that surrender I continued to take notes and write anecdotes about Aron. He regularly asked me how the book about him was coming along. I regularly told him this: I’m still working on it, but I don’t know what to say about you.

You see, I knew I had a story. I just had no idea what that story was. I did, however, recognize that I was still in the midst of whatever I’d eventually write about. Improbably, as I went from my early 30s to my late 40s, I gained the patience and perspective to wait it out.

“The end hasn’t happened yet,” I’d tell people when they asked me about “the book on the old man.”

And then it did. As I drove to Aron’s deathbed, I figured out the story. It wasn’t the end of his life that showed me what I needed to say. It was the imminent end of our long relationship that crystallized the story. I wasn’t writing a book about him after all. I was writing a book about myself and how knowing him had changed me. Hence the biography became a memoir.

He died. I arranged the funeral. Then I started to write. I vowed to finish the book even if no one but myself published it. Maybe that faith in the story is what led me to a wonderful new agent, who found me a wonderful editor, who happened to be the editor of the postpartum book. I’d written a scene that included Aron in that book; the editor had no idea I’d continued to follow him for so many years.

If she’d told me when we first worked together that I’d eventually publish a whole book about Aron, but that it would take until my baby was old enough to drive before I saw it in print, I wouldn’t have listened. I have the attention span of a muffin, so I would have doubted I could wait that long for anything.

Yet here I am, ready to answer the inevitable question.

How long did it take me to write this book?

As long as it needed to.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Friday Freebie: The Soul of a Whore and Purvis by Denis Johnson

Congratulations to Bob Alexander, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers.

This week's book giveaway is Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse by Denis Johnson, one of the undisputed masters of contemporary American literature.  It's no secret I'm a fan of Johnson's Tree of Smoke and Train Dreams, and so I'm happy to offer a new hardcover copy of Johnson's latest book to Quivering Pen readers: two dramatic works which offer the same gritty pleasures of his novels and short stories.  Flavorwire praised Soul of a Whore and Purvis by saying “These plays are everything you’d expect and want from a dramatic creation written by Denis Johnson—grit, poetry, passionate prose, a host of devilishly dirty characters steeped in backbreaking honesty, and a whirlwind ride that takes us to the polar reaches of the human experience.”  Here's the plot summary from the publisher:
In his poetry, short stories, novels, and plays, the National Book Award-winning author Denis Johnson has explored the story of America—especially of the West, land of self-made men and self-perpetuating myths—with searing honesty and genuine sympathy. These two plays, written in verse at once hypnotic and clear, confirm his position as one of our great verbal stylists and a literary conscience for our times. In Soul of a Whore, a lively cast of characters—faith healers, pimps, strippers, actual demons—converge, with unexpected hilarity, as Bess Cassandra awaits execution for the murder of her infant daughter. Purvis’s seven reverse-chronological scenes catalog the fall and rise of Melvin Purvis, the G-man who brought down John Dillinger and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Johnson takes us from Washington’s back rooms to a Midwestern cornfield, dramatizing the seductive allure of power and our own human capacity for both pettiness and grace. In these furiously entertaining, occasionally terrifying works, Johnson chronicles and questions America’s myths, heroes, and everyday realities with verve and elegance, revealing himself once again to be at the height of his linguistic and insightful powers.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of The Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays in Verse, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to thequiveringpen@gmail.com

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Oct. 25at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Oct. 26.  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 blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you've done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying "I've shared" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Fobbit Tour: Powell's

That's me, no doubt saying something self-deprecating as I hold up a copy of Fobbit and make Karl Marlantes crack up.  I love this picture, snapped by book blogger Diane Prokop at Powell's, because it so perfectly captures the warmth and generosity of Mr. Marlantes.  As anyone who's read Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War or What It Is Like To Go To War knows, Karl is a man who visited Hell and returned to tell us about it in such eloquent passages as this description of Marlantes' alter-ego Lieutenant Mellas facing combat head-on in Matterhorn:
      He felt that this was possibly his last moment of life, here behind this log with these comrades, and knew it was indescribably sweet. A longing sadness arose with the fear, and he looked one more time at his comrades’ intent faces. He wet his lips and said good-bye, silently, not wanting to leave the safety of the log and their warm bodies.
      Then he stood up and ran.
      He ran as he’d never run before, with neither hope nor despair. He ran because the world was divided into opposites and his side had already been chosen for him, his only choice being whether or not to play his part with heart and courage. He ran because fate had placed him in a position of responsibility and he had accepted the burden. He ran because his self-respect required it. He ran because he loved his friends and this was the only thing he could do to end the madness that was killing and maiming them….He ran, having never felt so alone and frightened in his life.
I had the honor of being joined by Karl for two recent events: at University Bookstore in Seattle and at Powell's in Portland.  The two of us talked about our diverse combat-zone experiences, the ratio of truth to fiction in our novels, and how long our war novels had to ferment before publication (35 years for Karl, 6 years for me).

Frankly, I've got a case of Book Tour Brainfog right now (and I'm only just over halfway through the number of my stops), and I can't remember all the details of what went on that night at Powell's (other than the fact I got to meet authors Alexis Smith and Peyton Marshall [whose novel Goodhouse about genetics forthcoming from Farrar, Straus & Giroux sounds phenomenally good], reconnected with novelist Pauls Toutonghi, and finally met e-friends Deb and Andrew face to face).  So, rather than write a piece of fiction about what went down that night in the bookstore, I'll turn it over to Diane Prokop who so skilfully documented it for her blog:
      Before reading from his book, Abrams talked about the genesis of Fobbit saying that while he was deployed in Iraq, he kept a journal. “Out of that journal, stories started to form, and eventually they coalesced into what I’m holding in front of you now. I started writing Fobbit while I was in the war zone and really worked on it in earnest when I came back in 2006.”
      Marlantes asked Abrams whether he had known he was going to write Fobbit when he was deployed. Abrams said, “When I went over to combat, I went over as a novelist. I had already written books. I’d been writing short stories published in places like Esquire and small literary reviews and magazines. I went over with the idea that this experience would probably change me in some way, and I would eventually get something out of it. I didn’t know it was going to take this shape or form or that it would be a comedy. I just figured I should pay attention to what was going to happen to me over there in the war zone. As I was over there keeping my journal and recording things that went on in the task force headquarters where I was at, some of the absurdities started to come through. The story kind of wrote itself, really.”
Read the rest of Diane's report here

My choice of book to buy on this tour stop grew naturally out of a lunch I had earlier that day with Diane and her husband.  We were joined by Pauls and another writer, Scott Sparling.  Earlier that morning, I made the second of my pilgrimages to Powell's to buy Scott's debut novel, Wire to Wire.  I read the first two chapters while sitting in Powell's cafe, sipping a latte and eating a bacon-cheddar biscuit.  As good as that biscuit was--and it was VERY GOOD--Scott's novel was even better.  It's a black-veined noir thriller set primarily in Michigan and involves hobos, glue-sniffers, corrupt sheriffs, a showgirl named Vulva Voom, a trunk full of dynamite, and some of the best damn writing I've stumbled across in the last year or two.  I hope to have a proper review of Wire to Wire here in the near future, but for now let me just say that if you like your stories dark, bitter, and occasionally funny, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of the book as soon as you can.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Trailer Park Tuesday: Illuminations by Mary Sharratt

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.

"My name is Hildegard.  I'm eight years old.  My parents gave me as a tithe to the monks."  Thus begins the short trailer for Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen, the new book by Mary Sharratt. I remain a big fan of Sharratt's previous novels, The Vanishing Point and The Real Minerva, and I'm excited to see what she will do with the life of Hildegard, a Benedictine abbess and Marian visionary of the Middle Ages.  The trailer is narrated by the young Hildegard (if I have one criticism it's that the child actress' delivery is sometimes hard to understand) and it's chilling as she describes how she's confined to a small room, the doors to the outside world bricked up so there's no escape.  "We are dead to the world, buried with Christ," the little girl says.  But then she finds spiritual release in heavenly visions (skillfully rendered in the video).  Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt last week, Illuminations has already drawn praise from places like Booklist, which wrote: "In this affecting historical novel, Sharratt imagines the inner life of Hildegard, first as an angry child, then as a young woman nurturing the other girls forced into this restricted life, and finally as a mature woman leading her companions out of the anchorage, establishing the first monastic institution for women in Germany, and advocating an idea of religious devotion based on love rather than suffering. Psychological insight, passages of moving spirituality, and abundant historical detail—from straw bedding and hairshirts to turtle soup and wooden dolls—make this a memorable addition to the genre of medieval historical fiction."  Readers looking for a little spiritual enlightenment in their Fall fiction are well-advised to get a copy of Sharrat's novel.

Monday, October 15, 2012

My First Time: Richard Kramer

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 Richard Kramer, author of the new novel These Things Happen from Unbridled Books. Kramer has won multiple Emmy and Peabody Awards as a writer, director and producer of numerous TV series, including Thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, Tales of the City, and Once and Again. His first short story appeared in The New Yorker while he was still an undergraduate at Yale.  These Things Happen is his first novel.

My First Line of Dialogue 

Where to begin? An author has many first times. I could choose the first time someone said about something I'd written Hey! I sort of liked that....But who was it, and when? Then there's the first time I was asked Am I missing something here? I don't remember the details around that, either, just the shadow of a feeling, let's say at nine years old, that I was clearly Ahead of My Time. And then there was the first time I sold something, but I don't know how to tell you that in a way I haven't told it a thousand times, to the point where I’m not quite sure which parts are, or were, actually true.  

But three moments suddenly live again, the thirds adding up to one first time. Google tells me they happened at around the same moment, within a year or two of each other, what’s now a half century ago. I'm ten, eleven, at Jean Brodie's impressionable age, ready to see that sentences that made me laugh, or moved me, or just lingered long after I'd read or heard them come from an actual person, and that person was: a writer. 

The first sentence, a line of dialogue, came from Singin' in the Rain. I saw it on Saturday Night at the Movies, in the upstairs den with my brothers while my parents were either having a dinner party or guests at one a few blocks away (I still have my mother's stroganoff-centric Thoughts for Buffets). All of a sudden Lina Lamont, the blonde, screech-voiced silent star, grandly informs some studio lackey (full disclosure: words Googled) "What do they think I am? Dumb or something? Why, I make more money than--than--than Calvin Coolidge! Put together!" I laughed, and even as I did something woke up in me; some small new creature opened its eyes for the first time to peek out at a waiting world. Somebody wrote that. Somebody sat down, typed that up. Somebody--could I ever be somebody like that? It was a long time before I realized this particular Somebody was, in fact, two Somebodies, and it was longer still before I had the chance to tell screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green what those words had meant to me. It was during a meeting in Mr. Green's apartment when we discussed a project that would never come to pass (a cartoon musical to be set in ancient Egypt).

"Singin' in the Rain?" said Mr. Green. "Never saw it."

"So we made you a writer?" said Ms. Comden.

Then, as one, they asked: "Are you suing?" 

That was 1993; come back with me to '63, and the next two seismic events. It was winter, at the start of that year; one day I was surprised to find my mother waiting in her station wagon outside what we called in those days a grammar school. "I have a surprise," she said; she wouldn't say what it was as we took the LIE into Manhattan, through a light snow that, by the time we were coming back from the surprise, would have grown to record proportions. 

The surprise was Radio City Music Hall, and a movie which had recently opened there. As it began, a woman’s voice gently set the scene. "Maycomb, "she said, "when I knew it, was a sleepy town" And, again, as with the shrill Lina, something in me sat up to not only listen, but to hear. I think I know now what I could only guess at then, that here was a story being told, by an actual person, who was owning the story even as she told it. When I knew it....The tale belonged to someone--we had to trust her, we were in her hands--and even though these words were disembodied I still sensed they were those of a writer.

A surprise waited for me when we got home, too (my birthday was that day, which is how I'm able to date it); it was a book, in the waning moments of the time when the gift of a book was still a disappointment. But maybe that started to change with this one, because when I unwrapped it, I found To Kill a Mockingbird, the film of which ("Hey, Boo...") we'd just seen.

I still have that copy; it was $3.95; Lippincott published it, a house whose status, Wikipedia informs me, is “defunct." But no first time can ever be defunct, not in memory, especially when looking back you see how it was the start of something, how it--by which I mean words, voice, trust, surprise--began there and, so far, begin again for me every day.  

Author photo by Beau Deshotel

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Walking the Beats in San Francisco

Hey Jack, now for the tricky part,
when you were the brightest star
who were the shadows?

Of the San Francisco beat boys
you were the favorite.

Now they sit and rattle their bones
and think of their bloodstoned days.
Playing the 10,000 Maniacs song "Jack Kerouac" on my Walkman (then Discman, and now iPod) was the closest I ever came to the Beats.  I'm a little ashamed to admit this because my publisher, Grove/Atlantic (nee Grove Press), was at one time the primary proponent of the Beat Movement in the 1950s.  Grove was like Main Street running through Beatsville.  Kerouac, Allen Ginsbeg, and William S. Burroughs were all published by Grove Press under the watchful eye of the late Barney Rossett.  All my life, the Beats have been like vegetables (beets!!) everyone says I should eat.  But still I resisted.  Even my daughter turned out to be a big fan of On the Road, and yet I never cracked it open. The Beats just weren't my groove.  Perhaps I'm tainted by the memory of some 1960s movie or TV episode (whose name I can't recall) in which the leading lady finds herself in a dim jazz club filled with black-clad, turtlenecked poets in berets who "applaud" the music by snapping their fingers.  Very hip, very cool, very...WTF?!

This weekend, I could no longer avoid it: I came face to face with the Beats.

I was in San Francisco to talk about Fobbit to booksellers at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association convention--

[Interruptive Interlude: I had such a blast at NCIBA--brief though that blast was.  Friday night, I was one of thirty authors who sat behind pyramids of their books at little tables around the perimeter of the convention center's Oyster Point Room, wearing smiles which stayed rigidly in place for more than an hour, as booksellers came up to our tables to talk with us and get signed copies of our books.  I really enjoy these events because it gives me a chance to connect, one-on-one, with the people who are the bridges between writers and readers.  Friday night, I had the pleasure of talking with enthusiastic booksellers from places like Copperfield's, Green Apple BooksFace in a Book, and A Great Good Place for Books.  I was delighted to learn some of them had already read Fobbit and were fans; and others told me they'd been hearing good buzz about the book and were eager to start reading it.  What's even more gratifying is the fact that the vast majority of those who wanted to talk to me about Fobbit were women.  I'm happy to see they weren't put off by what might, on the surface, look like a male-oriented military book.  Cheers to all of you for taking a chance on the novel!]

--and so, when I found myself with a day's-worth of time on my hands, I decided to head into the city and see what I could see. 

Every time I looked up, I found a mix of the old and new

After walking the hills, taking photos of the cable cars (then suddenly craving a bowl of Rice-a-Roni), pulling in a crazy stew of smells through my nose, and having a nice lunch in a Nob Hill bistro, I made my way to City Lights Bookstore--as any literary pilgrim to San Francisco is well-advised to do.

Founded in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, City Lights prides itself on being a marketplace for radical, sometimes anarchistic, literature.  There's even a section devoted to "Muckraking."  It's a wedge-shaped building, with the renowned "Jack Kerouac Alley" running along one side.

Zooming in, I see someone's hung their Big Panties out to dry

Stepping inside City Lights, I was immediately struck by how small, but very efficient, the store actually is.  There are three floors of books and the flow of traffic moves through a narrow maze of shelves and polished-wood floors.  Just as Ferlinghetti and all the others at City Lights have championed free speech over the years, the bookstore as a whole champions literature and the love of reading.  There are bold, quirky displays all over the store and you'll find several "staff recommendations" calling your attention to books you might have otherwise overlooked.

Of course, as any self-respecting debut novelist would do, I immediately went on the hunt for Fobbit and found it in this big, bold display:

There it is--sixth shelf down--my City Lights moment

Since I was at Ground Zero for the Beat Movement, I decided I couldn't leave without filling in at least one gap in my library's paltry Beat section.  I walked out of City Lights with a nice Penguin edition of Big Sur, Kerouac's 1962 novel.  I started reading it on the BART ride back to my hotel, and quickly found myself slipping into the liquid flow of Kerouac's language.  And so, I'll leave you with the opening from the book, which includes a mention of City Lights--thus bringing my day full circle:
The church is blowing a sad windblown 'Kathleen' on the bells in the skid row slums as I wake up all woebegone and goopy, groaning from another drinking bout and groaning most of all because I'd ruined my "secret return" to San Francisco by getting silly drunk while hiding in the alleys with bums and then marching forth into North Beach to see everybody altho Lorenz Monsanto and I'd exchanged huge letters outlining how I would sneak in quietly, call him on the phone using a code name like Ada Yulch or Lalgy Pulvertaft (also writers) and then he would secretly drive me to his cabin in the Big Sur woods where I would be alone and undisturbed for six weeks just chopping wood, drawing water, writing sleeping, hiking, etc. etc.----But instead I've bounced drunk into his City Lights bookshop at the height of Saturday night business, everyone recognized me (even tho I was wearing my disguise-like fisherman's hat and fisherman coat and pants waterproof) and 't'all ends up a roaring drunk in all the famous bars the bloody "King of the Beatniks" is back in town buying drinks for everyone.