Wednesday, July 31, 2013

New American Classic: The Son by Phillipp Meyer

The Son
by Phillipp Meyer
Reviewed by Shannon Nemer

Philipp Meyer's The Son focuses on three generations of The McCulloughs, a family made wealthy through years of oil drilling on their vast Texas ranch.  In alternating chapters, the novel begins with the family's patriarch Eli McCullough, who is kidnapped by the Comanches prior to the Civil War and slowly adopted by the tribe.  Haunted by an incident involving his landholding Mexican neighbors and unwilling to fully prescribe to the McCullough way of life, Eli's son Peter struggles to find his place in the early 20th century.  Jeanne Anne, Eli's great-granddaughter, looks back from modern day on her life as a fiercely independent businesswoman, wife and mother.
It occurred to me, as I watched the oil flow down the hill, that soon there will be nothing left to subdue the pride of men.  There is nothing we will not have mastered, except, of course, ourselves.
Meyer's novel starts small, allowing the reader to navigate both the McCullough family tree and the book's structure in short snapshots, but gradually builds to beautiful chapters that more deeply explore each character.  The Son is a perfect example of successful plot-building with a non-traditional narrative; despite a jumping timeline, it is easy to follow and feels like a fully-examined world.

The Son breaches a number of topics in its journey through the centuries--success, power, feminism, war, legacy--and seamlessly weaves them into the plot, making connections thorough the bloodlines of his central characters.  Each generation must live with the choices of the one before them while also trying to carve out a life of their own.

That struggle to find a compromise between the ideals of her great-grandfather, her father and the modern world is what makes Jeanne Anne such an incredible character; now one of my favorites from my reading history.  Meyer's ability to get into the mind of a strong-minded woman questioning her place in society, both as a single girl and later a married mother, is uncanny.  Yet, like all of the novel's characters, he holds her accountable for her choices, leaving her vulnerable to tragedy.
The Visigoths had destroyed the Romans, and themselves been destroyed by the Muslims.  Who were destroyed by the Spanish and Portuguese.  You did not need Hitler to see that it was not a pleasant story.  And yet here she was.  Breathing, having these thoughts.  The blood that ran through history would fill every river and ocean, but despite all the butchery, here you were.
A big read that begs to be both devoured and savored, The Son is an epic novel of a family's history that will soon find itself on shelves alongside our treasured American classics.

Shannon Nemer runs the River City Reading blog (where a version of this review first appeared).  You can find her on Twitter and Facebook or wherever good books are to be found.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Front Porch Books: July 2013 edition

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

Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):  This November marks the welcome return of Robert Stone whose last novel was published in 2003 (Bay of Souls).  A new book by Stone is always a cause for celebration least on my bookshelves it is.  In Death of the Black-Haired Girl, he examines the sticky moral questions of illicit romance and campus politics.  Jacket Copy:
In an elite college in a once-decaying New England city, Steven Brookman has come to a decision. A brilliant but careless professor, he has determined that for the sake of his marriage, and his soul, he must extract himself from his relationship with Maud Stack, his electrifying student, whose papers are always late and too long yet always incandescent. But Maud is a young woman whose passions are not easily contained or curtailed, and their union will quickly yield tragic and far-reaching consequences.
Blurbworthiness: "Stone imbues his characters with a rare depth that makes each one worthy of his or her own novel. With its atmosphere of dread starting on page one, this story will haunt readers for some time." (Publishers Weekly)

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford (Ballantine Books):  Here's another long-awaited return by a beloved author.  It's been four years since Jamie Ford brought us Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, a smashing debut which hit the New York Times bestseller list.  What has the Seattle native been doing in all the years since then?  Well, for starters, he's been busy speaking to the hundreds of book clubs which took Hotel to heart.  But he's also been at work on Songs of Willow Frost.  Was the wait worth it?  This novel moved Pat Conroy to tears (see blurb below), so that should tell you something.  Exhibit A, the Jacket Copy:
Twelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago.  On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost.  Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.  Determined to find Willow and prove that his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte.  The pair navigate the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star.  The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.  Shifting between the Great Depression and the 1920s, Songs of Willow Frost takes readers on an emotional journey of discovery.  Jamie Ford’s sweeping novel will resonate with anyone who has ever longed for the comforts of family and a place to call home.
Here are the memorable Opening Lines:
William Eng woke to the sound of a snapping leather belt and the shrieking of rusty springs that supported the threadbare mattress of his army surplus bed. He kept his eyes closed as he listened to the bare feet of children, shuffling nervously on the cold wooden floor. He heard the popping and billowing of sheets being pulled back, like trade winds filling a canvas sail. And so he drifted, on the favoring currents of his imagination, as he always did, to someplace else--anywhere but the Sacred Heart Orphanage, where the sisters inspected the linens every morning and began whipping the bed wetters.
Blurbworthiness: “Ford is a first-rate novelist whose bestselling debut, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was a joy to read.  With his new book, he takes a great leap forward and demonstrates the uncanny ability to move me to tears.” (Pat Conroy, author of South of Broad)

The Girl You Left Behind by Jojo Moyes (Pamela Dorman Books): After the breakout success of Me Before You, Moyes returns to American readers with a new novel that has an enticing hook (at least my attention has felt the snag of the hook's barb).  Behold, the Jacket Copy:
France, 1916: Artist Edouard Lefevre leaves his young wife, Sophie, to fight at the front.  When their small town falls to the Germans in the midst of World War I, Edouard’s portrait of Sophie draws the eye of the new Kommandant.  As the officer’s dangerous obsession deepens, Sophie will risk everything—her family, her reputation, and her life—to see her husband again.  Almost a century later, Sophie’s portrait is given to Liv Halston by her young husband shortly before his sudden death.  A chance encounter reveals the painting’s true worth, and a battle begins for who its legitimate owner is—putting Liv’s belief in what is right to the ultimate test.  Like Sarah Blake’s The Postmistress and Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key, The Girl You Left Behind is a breathtaking story of love, loss, and sacrifice told with Moyes’ signature ability to capture our hearts with every turn of the page.

Havisham by Ronald Frame (Picador): We all know the story of the lover jilted at the altar, the bitterly insane woman holed up in the house--still clad in her wedding dress and surrounded by cobwebs and a moldering wedding cake.  Charles Dickens created a singularly unforgettable character in Miss Havisham in Great Expectations.  But what do we really know about the woman?  Nearly a dozen film adaptations have tried to interpret Miss Havisham in different ways, but now Ronald Frame breathes new life into a character that Dickens describes as a cross between a waxwork and a skeleton.  Frame also gives her a first name: Catherine.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Before she became the immortal, terrifying, wedding dress-wearing Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, she was a young woman named Catherine, with all her dreams ahead of her.  Catherine Havisham was born into privilege.  Spry, imperious, she is the daughter of a wealthy brewer, and lives in luxury in Satis House.  But she is never far from the smell of hops and the arresting letters on the brewhouse wall—havisham.  A reminder of all she owes to the family name, and the family business.  Sent by her father to stay with the Chadwycks, Catherine discovers literature, music and masquerades—elegant pastimes to remove the taint of her family's new money.  But for all her growing sophistication Catherine is anything but worldly, and when a charismatic stranger pays her attention, everything—her heart, her future, the very Havisham name—is vulnerable.  In this astounding prelude to Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations, Ronald Frame unfurls the psychological trauma that made young Catherine into Miss Havisham, and cursed her to a life alone roaming the halls of the mansion in the tatters of the dress she wore for the wedding she was never to have.
Blurbworthiness: “Frame makes Dickens' ghostly Miss Havisham a real woman of flesh, blood, pain and guilt. He gives us a hopeful girl, caught between loss and class, and in doing so he makes her demons all the more powerful.  A rich, evocative and poignant work.”  (Stella Duffy, author of Theodora)

Unremarried Widow: A Memoir by Artis Henderson (Simon & Schuster): I'll start by giving you the Opening Lines to this memoir which is scheduled to hit bookshelves next January:
     My husband dreamed of his death in the fall of 2005, nine months before he deployed to Iraq.  He was twenty-three years old.  He told me about the dream on a Saturday morning as he dressed for work on Fort Hood, and I listened from the bed while he pawed through the BDUs hanging in the closet.
     "Our helicopter crashed," he said.
     He took a pair of camouflage pants off a metal hanger, shook them out by the waistband, and stepped in one leg at a time.
     "John Priestner and me."
     Already the Texas day was warm and our air conditioner chugged an unconvincing stream of cool air.  I squinted at Miles as he talked, trying to shake the sleep from my brain, while he disappeared back into the closet and returned with the jacket to his uniform.
     "We floated above the helicopter," he said, "while it burned to the ground."
     He pulled a pair of socks out of the dresser and sat on the edge of the bed.  He turned to look at me and I rested my fingers against the side of his face.  He covered my hand with his, and we sat for a time without speaking.  Then he pulled on his socks, laced up his boots, and walked into the living room.  I heard the metallic clink of his dog tags slip around his neck and the front door opened and a shaft of sunlight spilled in.  The door closed and I was alone.
That's the setup for what looks like a heartbreaking book--especially heartbreaking if you're a military spouse who's always on edge, waiting for the dreaded arrival of the chaplain and casualty assistance officer at your front door delivering the worst news you never want to hear.  Here's the Jacket Copy for Henderson's memoir:
In the tradition of The Year of Magical Thinking and What Remains, this breathtaking memoir by a young Army widow shares her heartbreaking, candid story about recovering from her husband's death.  A world traveler, Artis Henderson dreamed of living abroad after college and one day becoming a writer.  Marrying a conservative Texan soldier and being an Army wife was never in her plan.  Nor was the devastating helicopter crash that took his life soon after their marriage.  On November 6, 2006, the Apache helicopter carrying Artis’s husband Miles crashed in Iraq, leaving her—in official military terms—an “unremarried widow.”  She was twenty-six years old.  In Unremarried Widow, Artis gracefully and fearlessly traces the arduous process of rebuilding her life after this loss, from the dark hours following the military notification to the first fumbling attempts at new love.  She recounts the bond that led her and Miles to start a life together, even in the face of unexpected challenges, and offers a compassionate critique of the difficulties of military life.  In one of the book's most unexpected elements, Artis reveals how Miles’s death mirrored her own father’s—in a plane crash that she survived when she was five.  In her journey through devastation and heartbreak, Artis is able to reach a new understanding with her widowed mother and together they find solace in their shared loss.  But for all its raw emotion and devastatingly honest reflections, this is more than a grief memoir.  Delivered in breathtaking prose, Unremarried Widow is a celebration of the unlikely love between two very different people and the universality of both grief and hope.
Blurbworthiness: “Artis Henderson’s remarkable memoir allows readers into the seldom-seen and unexpected world of the war widow.  Henderson’s eloquently rendered grief honors the soldiers lost and the resilient widows who carry on, all while she reassembles her life by pursuing a dream of writing.”  (Siobhan Fallon, author of You Know When the Men Are Gone)

The Fifty-First State by Lisa Borders (Engine Books): I was so impressed by the Opening Lines of Lisa Border's new novel that I immediately wrote to the publisher and asked if I could quote the entire opening section here at the blog, believing that readers would be as gripped by the words as I was.  Victoria at Engine Books was kind enough to give me permission.  So here it is, the opening section called "The Accident":
      At the same time a white Dodge Ram pickup truck driven by Donald Corson, 66, of Oyster Shell, New Jersey drifted across three lanes of traffic on Route 42 in Bellmawr and grazed the side of a green Ford Taurus, Corson’s 17-year-old son, Josh, stood on line in his high school cafeteria in Floyd, New Jersey, pondering one bad offering after another— Sloppy Joe meat that looked like dog food, Chow Mein that looked like vomit—and opting for an apple and a carton of milk as his lunch.  While Corson’s second wife, Brenda, in the passenger’s seat of the pickup truck, was trying frantically to pull the steering wheel to the right, out of the way of the fast-moving traffic, even as she wondered at her husband’s sudden slump, the distant look in his eyes, their son stood in a corner of the cafeteria near a girl named Missy Dalton, a girl he’d been in love with since ninth grade, a girl who Josh knew was out of his league but he couldn’t help himself—she was just so, so.  While Missy was smiling, not unsweetly, and walking to her table of friends and Josh was internally berating himself for always saying the most incredibly lame things in the universe to Missy Dalton, Brenda Corson lost control of the steering wheel and the truck skidded in a few dizzy arcs.  While the truck was still spinning, Donald Corson’s daughter from his first marriage—a girl he and his wife had named Holly, but who had lived in New York for nearly twenty years and reinvented herself as Hallie—had just finished a photo shoot in the Lower East Side for a music magazine called Lush Life, a magazine that, as far as Hallie could tell, was highly regarded in New York and unheard of anywhere else in the country.  As Hallie was packing up her camera, lenses, light meter, shoving the flash and cord into her bag, cars piled up on Route 42 as a result of the Corsons’ skidding truck.  A red Toyota Tercel driven by a nineteen-year-old Rowan College sophomore with a heavy foot on the gas pedal who also happened to be text messaging her boyfriend while the Corsons’ truck went out of control in front of her and who, when she looked up and saw the skidding truck, hit her brakes far too hard and far too late, slammed into the Corsons’ pickup just as Hallie was getting into a taxi which would take her to Soho, where she was having lunch with a photo editor at Interview.  As Hallie was fretting in the cab that, at thirty-seven, she was too old to get work at a magazine like Interview—the photo editor would clearly see how she had squandered her youthful promise, would see that she was just Holly Corson, a nobody from a crappy little town on the Delaware Bay—a minister from an A.M.E church in Philadelphia’s Germantown section hit the side of the Tercel with his baby blue Honda Prelude after he tried, unsuccessfully, to steer around the wreck.  The moment Hallie pulled her cell phone out to let the editor know she might be late, that her taxi was stalled in traffic on Bowery Street, was the same moment the minister saw a tractor-trailer fast approaching in his rearview mirror with a horror that Donald and Brenda Corson and the college student—all three of them dead—were spared.
      As the tractor-trailer plowed into the three vehicles twisted together on Route 42—white, red, and blue, a macabre abstract Americana sculpture—and ignited a small fire, a brown-and-white dog, curled on the floor in an upstairs front bedroom of the Corsons’ comfortably run-down house—a neighbor’s long-suffering pet which Josh had snuck in the night before—kicked its leg four times in its sleep, growled slightly, then was still.
I don't think I need to say anything else to convince you to buy this book when it comes out in October, do I?

The Virgins by Pamela Erens (Tin House Books): The cover of Pamela Erens' new novel shows the torso of a young woman, handing cupping her crotch, as she lies on a bed of grass.  The designer has given us this titillating glimpse through a round circle, as if we're looking at the girl through a peephole. This, it seems to me, is entirely appropriate given the fact that The Virgins is narrated by what the Jacket Copy calls a "repentant narrator" (I like the complexity of that set-up):
It’s 1979, and Aviva Rossner and Seung Jung are notorious at Auburn Academy.  They’re an unlikely pair at an elite East Coast boarding school (she’s Jewish; he’s Korean American) and hardly shy when it comes to their sexuality.  Aviva is a formerly bookish girl looking for liberation from an unhappy childhood; Seung is an enthusiastic dabbler in drugs and a covert rebel against his demanding immigrant parents.  In the minds of their titillated classmates—particularly that of Bruce Bennett-Jones—the couple lives in a realm of pure, indulgent pleasure.  But, as is often the case, their fabled relationship is more complicated than it seems: despite their lust and urgency, their virginity remains intact, and as they struggle to understand each other, the relationship spirals into disaster.  The Virgins is the story of Aviva and Seung’s descent into confusion and shame, as re-imagined in richly detailed episodes by their classmate Bruce, a once-embittered voyeur turned repentant narrator.  With unflinching honesty and breathtaking prose, Pamela Erens brings a fresh voice to the tradition of the great boarding school novel.
Here are the Opening Lines of the novel, which is set in 1979:
      We sit on the benches and watch the buses unload. Cort, Voss, and me.
      We’re high school seniors, at long last, and it’s the privilege of seniors to take up these spots in front of the dormitories, checking out the new bodies and faces.  Boys with big glasses and bangs in their eyes, girls with Farrah Fawcett hair.  Last year’s girls have already been accounted for: too ugly or too studious or too strange, or already hitched up, or too gorgeous even to think about.
      It’s long odds, we know: one girl here for every two boys.  And the new kids don’t tend to come on these buses shuttling from the airport or South Station.  Their anxious parents cling to the last hours of control and drive them, carry their things inside the neat brick buildings, fuss, complain about the drab, spartan rooms.  If there’s a pretty girl among them, you can’t get close to her for the mother, the father, the scowling little brother who didn’t want to drive hundreds of miles to get here.  We don’t care about the new boys, of course.  We’ll get to know them later.  Or not.
Blurbworthiness:  “Like the unforgettable Aviva Rossner, The Virgins is small but not slight—intense, sublime, vivid, uncanny, irresistible.  It joins the ranks of the great boarding school novels while somehow evoking the twisted, obsessive narrations of Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Wharton’s Ethan Frome.  Pamela Erens is that rare writer who can articulate—and gorgeously—the secrets we never knew about ourselves." (Rebecca Makkai, author of The Borrower)

The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza (Farrar, Straus and Giroux):   The backstory to the publication of this whopper of a novel (685 pages) is as intriguing as the book itself.  Written by Goliarda Spaienza, an Italian actress and novelist who died in 1996, The Art of Joy languished for several years after being rejected by publishers.  As her husband Angelo Pellegrino notes in his foreword to the novel, "the manuscript lay for decades in a chest in my office, awaiting more fortunate times."  Though the thought of rejected pages gathering dust in a trunk seems conveniently dramatic and ready-made for a publishing Lazarus story of resurrection and redemption, there's no denying The Art of Joy looks like a big, bold, fascinating tale.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Rejected by a series of publishers, abandoned in a chest for twenty years, Goliarda Sapienza’s masterpiece, The Art of Joy, survived a turbulent path to publication.  It wasn’t until 2005, when it was released in France, that this novel received the recognition it deserves.  At last, Sapienza’s remarkable book is available in English, in a brilliant translation by Anne Milano Appel and with an illuminating introduction by Angelo Pellegrino.  The Art of Joy centers on Modesta, a Sicilian woman born on January 1, 1900, whose strength and character are an affront to conventional morality.  Impoverished as a child, Modesta believes she is destined for a better life.  She is able, through grace and intelligence, to secure marriage to an aristocrat—without compromising her own deeply felt values.  Friend, mother, lover—Modesta revels in upsetting the rules of her fascist, patriarchal society.  This is the history of the twentieth century, transfigured by the perspective of one extraordinary woman.  Sapienza, an intriguing figure in her own right—her father homeschooled her so she wouldn’t be exposed to fascist influences—was a respected actress and writer who drew on her own struggles to craft this powerful epic.  A fictionalized memoir, a book of romance and adventure, a feminist text, a bildungsroman—this novel is ultimately undefinable but deeply necessary; its genius will leave readers breathless.
Here are the electrifying Opening Lines:
     I'm four or five years old, in a muddy place, dragging a huge piece of wood.  There are no trees or houses around.  Only me, sweating, as I struggle to drag that rough log, my palms burning, scraped raw by the wood.  I sink into the mud up to my ankles but I have to keep tugging.  I don't know why, but I have to.  Let's leave this early memory of mine just as it is: I don't want to correct or invent things.  I want to tell you how it was without changing anything.
     So, I was dragging that piece of wood.  And after hiding it or leaving it behind, I entered a large opening in the wall, closed off only by a black curtain swarming with flies.  Now I'm in the dark room where we slept and where we ate bread and olives, bread and onions.  We cooked only on Sundays.  My mother is sewing in a corner, her eyes wide in silence.  She never speaks, my mother.  She either shouts or keeps quiet.  Her heavy fall of black hair is matted with flies.  My sister, sitting on the ground, stares at her from two dark slits buried in folds of fat.  All her life, at least as long as their lives lasted, my sister tracked her constantly, staring at her that way.  And if my mother went out — which happened rarely — she had to lock her in the toilet, because my sister wouldn't hear of being separated from her.  Locked in that little room my sister would scream, tear her hair and bang her head against the wall until my mother came back, took her in her arms and silently stroked her.
Blurbworthiness: “This massive book, unpublished when Sapienza died in 1996, first printed in a limited edition spearheaded by a friend, then reprinted to become a sensation in France, finally appears in English.  It’s easy to see why it . . . has such passionate promoters now: the story of Modesta, born poor in Sicily in 1900, passionate reader, lover of men and women, and fighter against fascism and patriarchy, is a stirring and potentially shocking tale of a woman’s awakening . . . The strong first section introduces Modesta just when she’s discovered the art of self-pleasure.  Surviving rape and fire, she’s taken into a convent where she discovers another source of pleasure: words, and the ability to manipulate others . . . With its specificity of place, experimentation (Sapienza switches between third- and first-person points of view, sometimes on the same page), and pugnacious determination to use one woman’s life to show a tradition-bound world struggling toward modernity, Sapienza’s singular book compels.” (Publishers Weekly)

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Counsellor by Cormac McCarthy

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

In the final seconds of the trailer for The Counsellor, Penelope Cruz asks Michael Fassbender, "Have you been bad?"  That is the essential question for anything flowing from the ink of Cormac McCarthy's imagination, isn't it?  McCarthy has rightfully earned a reputation for creating bad people in good books.  So it goes with The Counsellor, an original movie script written by McCarthy--parts of which you may have read earlier in The New Yorker.  Set in the contemporary Southwestern U.S. (aka "no country for old men"), the plot, boiled down to a teaspoon, is about a hot-shot lawyer (Fassbender) who gets in over his head with drug dealers.  Way over his head, by the looks of it.  The movie is directed by Ridley Scott and stars Fassbender, Cruz, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, and Cameron Diaz.  It's due to hit screens in October, so you'll have to wait until then to find out what the heck is up with that pet cheetah.

Monday, July 29, 2013

My First Time: Kevin P. Keating

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 Kevin Keating, author of The Natural Order of Things, a finalist for the L.A. Times' Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction.  After working as a boilermaker in the steel mills in Ohio, Keating became a professor of English and began teaching at Baldwin Wallace University, Cleveland State University, Lorain County Community College, and Lakeland Community College.  His essays and stories have appeared in more than fifty literary journals, including The Blue Lake Review, The Fifth Street Review, The Mad Hatter's Review, The Avatar Review, The North Coast Review, The Licking River Review, The Red Rock Review, Whiskey Island, Juked, Inertia, Identity Theory, Exquisite Corpse, Wordriver, and many others.  The Natural Order of Things is his first full-length book and garnered praise from Publishers Weekly and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler, who called it "a dark and utterly compelling work."  Keating currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio and is working on a second novel, The Captive Condition, scheduled for a hardcover release with Pantheon in 2015.

My First Trip to Los Angeles

From Culver City in the northeast to Venice Beach in the southwest, the immense concrete slab of Venice Boulevard runs diagonally through some of the least scenic terrain in all of Los Angeles, passing under Interstate 405 and bisecting the Mar Vista neighborhood until it reaches, after seven interminable treeless miles, the freakiest beach in North America where middle-aged men wearing floral pattern Speedos do drug-induced dances on the boardwalk with their 1980s boomboxes pressed to their ears and where thickly muscled acrobats hopping around on pogo sticks mesmerize large crowds of weekend sun-worshipers.

As I boarded the number 33 bus near Culver City I asked the driver, “How long does it take to get to the beach from here?”

The driver was strangely evasive.   “Uh…maybe…oh…twenty minutes or so,” he said, and I knew he was lying.

“Really?  But it’s only seven miles away.”

Standing behind me, swaying back and forth like a deckhand in stormy seas, a stout man of fifty tugged on his stylish el capitán mustache and slurred with indignation, “Twenty fucking minutes, my ass.  We’ll be on this fucking bus for an hour before we get close to the fucking beach.  Twenty minutes.  Fuck.  Ain’t no twenty minutes on this bus.”

Even though his breath already reeked of high octane gasoline and a carton of stale cigarettes, the poor fellow was probably parched and desperate for another cold cocktail, it being two in the afternoon and an unusually warm April day, but he seemed a far more reliable source of information than our duplicitous driver, and I appreciated his honesty.  The man tipped his greasy baseball cap, and for the next seven miles he shouted insult and slander at anyone who dared cross his path.

His colorful language would have been a lot more amusing, of course, had it not been for the fact that accompanying me on this impromptu excursion to the sea were my retired parents, my wife and my impressionable ten-year old daughter who, I’m ashamed to report, began to weep after mile three.  The bus was hot and overcrowded and stank of fast food.   Passengers taunted and threatened each other.  Infants wailed.  A man in a wheelchair kept fiddling with his colostomy bag.  A teenage couple molested each other with impunity.

All of this was my fault.  I had been warned.  Moments earlier, at the Metro stop, I had inquired about which bus went to the beach.  A jowly police officer leaning against one of the turnstiles looked at me for a moment, his sleepy eyes slowly growing wide with mirth, and answered, “Oh, you wanna take the number 33, pal.  I’ll tell ya what, you’re really gonna enjoy that ride.  You sure will.  You and your little girl.”  As a college instructor I’ve come to abhor sarcasm from my eighteen-year old students, and I wasn’t especially impressed when it came from a cynical civil servant.

This was my first visit to Los Angeles, and because I was unfamiliar with the lay of the land, as it were, I had to rely on luck and instinct, neither of which has ever served me well, to navigate this labyrinth of dusty thoroughfares and chaotic bus lines.  I was in town because my novel The Natural Order of Things (Vintage Contemporaries, 2013) had been selected as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize/First Fiction Award, and during my brief stay I had grown accustomed to the finer things.

The ceremony took place on the beautiful campus of the University of Southern California (“The old joke,” a graduate later told me, “is that USC stands for the University of Spoiled Children”), and for the first time in my career as a struggling scribe I felt like a pampered brat.  For an entire weekend I had the extraordinary and rather disquieting experience of being treated like a celebrity, a very minor one needless to say, the sort of celebrity who has to tell people that he’s a celebrity, but I soon discovered that there is something truly magical about possessing even a modicum of fame.  For example, if someone important casually dismissed me at a reception I would simply lift my chin and say, “But, sir, I’m a finalist for an L.A. Times Book Prize,” at which point the sycophantic smiles and vigorous handshakes and embossed business cards and free drinks would appear.

Over the weekend I attended swanky parties, participated in panel discussions, hobnobbed with scholars, signed a whole box of books, and gorged myself on the fantastic food in the so-called “green room,” which turned out to be an enormous banquet hall with beveled glass doors, crystal chandeliers and stained glass windows.  Anyone craving humility in that ostentatious setting could find, conveniently located next door, the Little Chapel of Silence where for a small fee they could purchase white votive candles and beg God’s mercy for these neo-Gilded Age excesses.

My own lesson in humility came early on.   Prior to the awards ceremony, the finalists and their guests were treated to an informal reception on the outdoor patio of the hotel where I imprudently imbibed in a glass or two or three of pretty decent red wine.  I was giddy and spoke to a man at length about his biography of James Brown.

It was almost time to go when the Xanax started to kick in.  Feeling confident that the prize was in hand, I marched with the other finalists along the cobblestones of the picturesque campus and turned to the genteel old lady walking next me and said, “Aw, to hell with this silly awards ceremony.  Hey, whaddya say we sneak out and grab us a drink at the bar?”  The scandalized septuagenarian pursed her already tight lips, adjusted her silver-stranded bouffant, and with a practiced flourish of her silk scarf (evidently she was used to dealing with bores and vulgarians) she pulled ahead of me by about ten strides.  An omen.

That evening my novel did not receive the prize for First Fiction, and after two hours without an intermission the ceremony started to drag.  I squirmed in my seat and loosened my tie.  Jet lag was beginning to play terrible tricks on my mind.  Finally, at the end of a very long night, a star-struck presenter introduced the recipient of the prestigious Innovator’s Award.  “Ladies and gentleman, Margaret Atwood!”

Imagine my horror as the old lady who only hours earlier regarded me like some kind of insect took to the stage and quietly regaled the reverent audience with stories about her charmed life as a writer.  “Oh, I do so love Loose Angeleeez,” she said.  “Loose Angeleeez has been so very kind to me,” etc.  I stewed in my seat, my cheeks burning with this ritual humiliation.  I have a knack, you see, for always sticking my foot in it.

For the remainder of my stay I tried to purge from my mind all memory of this embarrassing encounter with Ms. Atwood, and I did all of those touristy things one is expected to do when in La La Land--the studio tours, a stroll along the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a guided tour in an open air bus to ogle and envy the homes of Lucille Ball and Joan Crawford, a drive through Beverly Hills with a quick stop on Rodeo Drive to admire a fleet of Maseratis parked outside the boutique shops and stylish cafés.  We visited old friends who lived in the city and had cocktails in the hotel lobby and dressed up like F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald for an uproarious night on the town.  But nothing seemed to do the trick.  Until I boarded the number 33 bus for Venice Beach.  And then nothing in the world mattered except the survival of my family.

The bus dumped us a few blocks from the beach, and from there things got progressively worse.  Instead of the plentiful hyacinths that scented the palatial homes in the Hollywood Hills, the infamous boardwalk of Venice Beach reeked of urine and medical marijuana drifting from newly established dispensaries.  As a twenty-one year old kid fresh out of college I would have been in heaven, but as a forty-one year old dad with a miserable little girl clinging to my arm, I thought I was in Dante’s third circle of hell.  In Canto VI of his Inferno, the inimitable Florentine poet tells us that it’s in the third circle where, in the Robert Pinksy translation, “the triple sparks of envy, greed, and pride ignite the hearts” of the damned.  And so it was for me.

Perhaps as punishment for my unwarranted pride, for daring to believe even for a single moment that I might have a real shot at taking home the coveted Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, I was transported to this madcap place so I could say to my whimpering daughter, “Look, honey, look what Daddy has accomplished.”  The Festival of Books had been a fantasyland of celebrity writers, but here, on the cigarette-strewn boardwalk of Venice Beach, I had an opportunity to see the real stars of L.A., a spinning constellation of spaced-out drifters, derelicts and drug peddlers, a vast pinwheeling galaxy of bronzed bodybuilders, tattooed ladies and Spandexed drag queens gracefully shimmying in and out of pedestrian traffic on rollerblades, my kind of people, the same genuine and unpretentious characters who on sweltering summer days roamed the wicked streets of my hometown and who always managed to worm their way into my fiction.

Several days later, back in Cleveland and confronted by the blank pages of my novel-in-progress, I thought often of my bus ride along Venice Boulevard and how I inadvertently managed to offend a highly esteemed Booker Prize-winning author.  My fifteen minutes were over, but still I craved celebrity, fame, recognition, and somewhere in the back of my disordered little brain I heard the unrepentant sinners of the third circle beckoning to me.  Then I remembered.  While in Los Angeles I reluctantly visited Madame Tussauds where my wife photographed me sitting next to an unnervingly realistic wax figure of Jack Nicholson decked out in a tux, bowtie and signature black shades.

Now I couldn’t help myself.  I logged into Facebook and posted the picture with the caption: “Look who showed up to the L.A. Times Book Prizes ceremony.”  Within seconds the comments started pouring in: “I am so jealous!”  “That’s a definite framer for the living room!”  “It doesn’t get any better!”  “This is fantastic on so many levels!”  “It looks like he’s negotiating a role for the movie adaptation of your novel!”  “By far the most incredible moment of your trip!”  Ah, yes, the timeless allure of stardom meets the brave new world of instant gratification.

I let the gag run its course for twenty-four glorious hours before guilt got the better of me, and then with my ego in check I meekly confessed to my Facebook friends the disappointing and unremarkable truth.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Return to Oakpine by Ron Carlson

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

The two men sat in the quiet bar.  Suddenly the light dimmed again under a cloud, and it was a moment that went out on them, through the big plate-glass window across the gray street and up above the town in a moment, reaching past the last house and the few bad roads newly bladed into the prairie and the antelope in clusters on greengray hillsides beyond that and then hovering beyond and beyond, the world, their lives, the full gravid sense of afternoon.

Return to Oakpine by Ron Carlson

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Cooling off with Mr. and Mrs. North

It was too hot to do anything but seek the cool comfort of the snappy, cocktail-party repartee of Mr. and Mrs. North.

While I'm enjoying the literary pleasures of Ron Carlson's new novel, Return to Oakpine, I was in the mood for something a little lighter at the end of an unbearably hot day.  (Did I mention that our home in Butte, Montana doesn't have air conditioning and that the mercury in the thermometer has taken up residency north of 85 degrees* for the past two weeks?)

So I set aside Oakpine and went on a browse through my vintage mystery novels shelf.  That's when Jerry and Pam North waved their hands and called out, "Oh, hello, darling!  Nice to see you again."  I'd visited the Norths once before in the 1941 novel Murder Out of Turn and really enjoyed their company.

For those who have yet to make their acquaintance, a brief primer: book publisher Jerry North and his charming wife Pam always happen to be in the right place at the right time to assist the New York Police Department in solving whatever murder has just fallen into their laps.  While most police departments in amateur detective novels are conveniently inept, the gumshoes in the North novels are good fellows--Lt. Bill Weigand and his assistant Sergeant Aloysius Mullins--who just happen to work for an inept department.  The Norths are childless (at least in the two books I've read so far) and lead sparkling lives of champagne, laughter and parties in their Greenwich Village social circles.  The writing is so good in these books, solving the mystery is almost beside the point.

You'll find echoes of Mr. and Mrs. North in the Nick and Nora Charles Thin Man series, but for my money they more closely resemble Susan St. James and Rock Hudson in McMillan and Wife, a Sunday night television mystery series to which I was glued as a young boy.  Pam North, like Sally McMillan, is the prime crime-solver.  While neither Jerry nor Mac are merely dense lugs just along for the ride, it's the women who really have the bold pluck and gumption to get to the bottom of things.

The Mr. and Mrs. North series of 26 novels were written by the husband-wife team of Frances and Richard Lockridge starting in 1940 and continuing until Frances' death in 1963.  After she passed away, Richard wrote no new North novels (though he did continue to write other series which he and his wife had started, including books featuring Lt. Heimrich, Nathan Shapiro, and Paul Lane).  According to this post at,
The characters were originally invented by Richard for some vignettes he wrote for the New York Sun during the early thirties and which he later resurrected in the short domestic comedies he contributed to The New Yorker, by which time the Norths had acquired their full names but not yet their abilities as amateur detectives.  A collection of the stories was published in 1936 as Mr. and Mrs. North.  The crime novels originated when Frances Lockridge started writing a mystery during one summer vacation.  Stuck on a plot complication she called on her husband for help and the writing team was launched.  Because the Norths already had some name recognition, the Lockridges decided to use Pam and Jerry as their central characters and retain the humorous tone and the playful interaction between the couple from the earlier stories.
As with many amateur sleuths in the Golden Age of Mystery Novels, the Norths spawned a TV series, a radio show, a Broadway play, and a movie (starring Gracie Allen as Pam).  You can see a couple of the TV episodes on YouTube here and here.

As for me, I decided upon the 1955 novel Death of an Angel which opens with the Norths attending a Broadway play written by one of their friends, Sam Wyatt, and starring the enormously popular actress Naomi Shaw.  During an after-show party, rich playboy Bradley Fitch announces he's going to marry Naomi and whisk her away from the theater, causing quite a stir and more than a few astonished tete a tetes among the guests.  Young Mr. Fitch is later found dead as a doornail--poisoned!--in his apartment and the Norths soon find themselves at the center of the case when one of their cocktail napkins is found in the corpse's apartment.

I pulled the book off the shelf, poured myself a drink (whiskey, neat), settled into a relatively cool spot in the house (the living room), and started to read.  I found this amusing passage early on in Chapter 1 in which the Norths are discussing the writer Sam Wyatt--who is oddly down in the dumps about the success of his play--as they return to their seats after intermission:
     "Writers are strange things, aren't they?" Pam asked.
     "Yes," Jerry said.
     They went down the aisle, found their seats.  The house lights were still up.
     "Has he always been like this?"Pam asked.
     A good deal like this, Jerry told her.  When Wyatt was a novelist--merely a novelist--it had been very hard to get him to read proofs.  When he was got to read them, it was very hard to prevent him from rewriting, in entirety; a practice of which publishers disapprove.
     "Once he's done with anything, he hates it," Jerry said.  "Sees no possible good in it.  If critics like it, the critics are fools.  If it sells, the public is a fool."
Ah, writers....I could compose an entire blog post on how I am Sam Wyatt incarnate in this regard.  But I'll save that for a later day.  For now, I've got to help the Norths solve a mystery.

*I know 85 would be a relatively arctic pleasure to those suffering in the triple digits elsewhere in the U.S. this summer; but trust me, anything above 75 in Montana makes me feel like oven-baked Shrinky-Dinks.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Friday Freebie: Ballistics by D. W. Wilson

Congratulations to Kelly Dolson, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer and Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer.

This week's book giveaway is Ballistics, the new debut novel by D. W. Wilson (author of the story collection Once You Break a Knuckle). Here's more about the book from the publisher:
It is summer and the Canadian Rockies are on fire.  As the forests blaze, Alan West heads into their shadows, returning from university to his grandfather's home in the remote Kootenay Valley, where the man who raised him has suffered a heart attack.  Confronting his own mortality, the tough and taciturn Cecil West has a dying request for his grandson: track down the father Alan has never known so that the old man can make peace with him.  And so Alan begins his search for the elusive Jack West, a man who skipped town before his son could walk and of whom his grandfather has always refused to speak.  His quest will lead him to Archer, an old American soldier who decades ago went AWOL across the border into Canada.  Archer has been carrying a heavy burden for many years, and through him Alan learns the stories of two broken families who came together, got too close, and then fell apart in tragic ways.  Ballistics is a remarkable first novel, about family ties and the wounds that can linger for generations when those relationships are betrayed.
If you'd like a chance at winning Ballistics, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Aug. 1, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 2.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Jennifer Miller and the Year of the Book Club

Jennifer Miller is a firecracker whose fuse is a quarter-inch away from the gunpowder.  She's a tea kettle whose lid is rattling from pent-up steam, ready to burst out in a hot whistle.  She's irrepressible, infectious, and would be the first to describe herself as "bubbly."  If you're in a book club and invited Jennifer ("Jen" to her friends) to join you for a talk about her debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, she'd be the focal point of the room, the tractor beam pulling the Millennium Falcon into its force field.  I guarantee that even if you arrived at that book club meeting at the end of a bad day of bitter disappointments and grumpy frustrations, you would walk out of there that night with a smile plastered on your face.

Just ask any of the 80-plus book clubs who have hosted Jennifer this month and they'll undoubtedly agree: this is one author who is out to spread enthusiasm about writing and publishing like a cheerleader shaking her pom-poms.  Call it the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Debut Novelist.

Wait a minute, you say.  I think you had a typo back there--you mean 80 book clubs this "year," not "month," right?

Nope, nothing wrong with your eyes or my typing.  I meant 80 book clubs this month.  You see, Jennifer Miller is out to break a world record for a single author visiting the most book clubs in one month.  Her original goal was to do 100 Book Clubs in One Month to celebrate the paperback release of Gadfly.  With only a week left in the month, she's probably going to fall short of that century mark (unless Quivering Pen readers rally behind her at the last minute and start inviting her to their get-togethers).

That doesn't matter to Jennifer at this point.  It's all about connecting readers with The Year of the Gadfly, a novel that tells the story of a 14-year-old high school journalist who talks with the ghost of Edward R. Murrow as she sets out to expose a secret society at her school.  Glamour magazine called it "Part Dead Poet's Society.  Part Heathers.  Entirely addictive."

Jennifer Miller loves her novel with the parental devotion of a first-time novelist and now she's out to spread the gospel of Gadfly to as many book clubs as she can during this peak month of a hot summer.  To do this, she's combining live, in-person visits with virtual appearances via Skype.  As Ron Charles noted in the Washington Post's Style Blog at the start of Miller's quest:
For the purposes of her record, any group of five will count as a separate book club.  Rather than racing around the country, she plans to make most of these appearances over Skype.  But there will be some racing around the country.  “I’m trying to set up some events at book stores where multiple clubs will come together,” she says from her home in Brooklyn.  “I’m already going to Fountain (Bookstore) in Richmond, Va., for one such event.”
The Guiness Book of World Records attempt isn't the first thing Miller has done to garner more visibility for her novel--which, as she admits, is just one drop in a sea of 60,000 titles published last year.  She described her other marketing ideas in a short profile in the Washington Post's Lifestyle section:
I organized an out-of-pocket three-month book tour last fall, and I invented the Novelade Stand: a lemonade stand for books, in which I set up a sidewalk table with colorful signs, homemade cookies and copies of Gadfly.
I first "met" Jennifer when she introduced herself via email after we bumped into each other on Twitter in early 2012.  Then, during my trip back to New York City last month, I had the joy of meeting Jen in person when she came to an event I was moderating at Barnes & Noble.  When she and I, along with several other friends, descended on a nearby bar afterwards, I was immediately caught in her tractor beam of positive energy.  (I also made sure to keep all open flames away from her powderkeg.)

That night in the bar, Jen started describing her plans for the 100-Book-Club project and I made a note to feature it here at the blog.  Sadly, life intervened, I got distracted with other writing projects, and now here we are at the end of the month when Jen is sprinting hard for the finish line.  Nonetheless, she was kind enough to answer a battery of questions I recently sent to her about the book club tour.  Jen being Jen, she decided to answer me via video (with assistance from her husband and videographer Jason).  Buckle your seatbelts, and press Play:

So now you're dying to sign up to be part of the 100 Book Clubs, right?  Maybe you even want to be the 100th.  Cool!  All you have to do is gather at least four other people for the "event" and you'll get the following swag from Jennifer:

• One FREE copy of The Year of the Gadfly
• Signed book plates
• An official mention on
• Entry into the "Prep School Pack" giveaway. (Jennifer's favorite prep school novels, movies, and after school snacks.)

If you'd like to participate in The Month of the Gadfly, contact Jennifer directly at jnymlr (at) gmail (dot) com

If you don't have a book club, or are unable to arrange a visit from Jen, you can still participate in her infectious ambition to plaster the world with Gadflies.  Take a photo of yourself with her paperback and you can be part of her People Wearing My Book Cover Tumbler page.  Like this:

Don't be shy.  Jennifer Miller certainly isn't.

Monday, July 22, 2013

My First Time: David Samuel Levinson

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 David Samuel Levinson, author of the novel Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence, which has just been published by Algonquin Books.  His story collection, Most of Us Are Here Against Our Will, was published by Viking Penguin in 2004.  His stories have appeared/are appearing in The Brooklyn Review, West Branch, Prairie Schooner, and Post Road.  Currently, he's the fiction fellow at Emory University.  Click here to visit his website.

My First Editors

Don’t tell anyone but Jenny Schecter was a big hero of mine.  Played by Mia Kirchner, Jenny was the neurotic, sanctimonious young novelist on the defunct hit show, The L Word.  Beautiful, tetchy, and unpredictable, she was the girl we all loved to hate.  She entered the show a suicidal, repressed bisexual, then transformed herself into a lover of all things labial, going so far as to write an autobiographical novel, Les Girls, based on her friends and lovers.  Yet I didn’t adore Jenny for any of this.  I adored her for what and who she represented—a writer with an unyielding, unbreakable spirit.

Sure, she was a conniving monster and, sure, she brought out more insincere, cheesy grins than Britney Spears, but she was also a girl with chutzpah and integrity, someone for whom to root, an inspiration to writers everywhere.

Having been beaten down by various writing instructors, who told her she’d never be a professional writer, Jenny did write and ended up selling Les Girls to a big NYC publishing house.  Yet after a visit to meet her new editor, who had a completely different take on the novel—this editor saw the book as too dark and wanted Jenny to go in a completely different direction—Jenny fired her, saying, to her publisher, “She’s just not the right editor for my novel.”

I cringed while watching this episode, though secretly I cheered Jenny on.  What kind of person—what kind of writer—dissed her editor like that?  As far as I could tell, she had committed literary suicide.  She was finished, done in by the very integrity that had kept her writing.  I felt for her, yet hated her all the same.  “Idiot,” I roared at her.

This was TV, I reminded myself, not real life, yet somehow I felt tethered to Jenny and her struggle, which for me was a story of perseverance and determination.  It is for this reason and none other that I remain a devoted fan, as fascinated by Jenny today as I was all those years ago.

Like Jenny, I too had been told I’d never be a professional writer and like her, I too had persevered.  After three different agents, a hundred rewrites and a bidding war, I finally sold my first novel, Antonia Lively Breaks The Silence, in August 2007 to a big NYC publisher.  And like Jenny, I thought I’d finally made it.  Even after I’d met with my new editor and she subsequently dismissed the second half of the novel, saying it needed a total overhaul, I’d gone away happy and excited.  Our editorial collaboration was under way, and I basked in the certainty of our budding relationship—I had an editor!  I had a publisher!

After that first meeting, I feverishly revised and had a new batch of pages to hand over a month later.  On the phone, however, my editor told me that I’d rushed, that she wanted me to slow down and not worry about the deadline.

So I didn’t worry about the deadline and I slowed down.  I sent her new pages again in January of 2008, yet I was met with the same refrain.  “I just don’t think we’re seeing eye to eye on this,” she said.  “Tell me what your novel’s about.”

Back in May 2007, I’d spoken to many editors—including her—all of whom were keen on the sale.  All of them, except my future editor, gushed over the novel, telling me how amazing the story and writing were.  One of these editors, a gentleman who worked for a small publisher in North Carolina, talked about it so beautifully that he brought tears to my eyes.  In complete contrast, my conversation with my future editor was hurried and brusque, as if she were squeezing me in.  When her bid came in, however, it outmatched everyone else’s, including the gentleman’s in NC.  I went with the money.  Who could blame me?

Well, Jenny for one, especially in light of what happened.

Having spoken to my editor for the last time in February, I’d outlined what I planned to do during this round of revisions: I’d take every single one of her suggestions.  She was giddy when I told her and said, “I just want to see the first one hundred pages.  And, David, don’t rush.”  Again that warning—Don’t rush—but I was in a better place, reinvigorated and ready to dive into the novel again.

Five months later, I sent the first one hundred pages to my agent, who loved them.

“The novel feels like it has a heart—a heartbeat.  You seem to have a real handle on the story at this point,” she wrote in an email.

I sent the pages to my editor and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  A week later, I called my agent, who told me she’d talked to my editor that morning.

“She’s read the first fifty pages and thinks it’s 300% better!”

I felt the possibility of everything again, but mostly I felt my editor and I were back on track and that we’d go far with this novel, if not many more.  Yet less than a week later, on a Monday morning, my agent called to tell me my editor had ended up disliking the pages.  “I just don’t think she’s the right editor for your novel,” she said.

As she said this, I thought about Jenny again and her meeting with her editor, the confusion and pain in her face when she’d stood up for what she believed, and took the book back.  After I hung up with my agent, I watched that episode of The L Word again, trying to see where I might’ve gone wrong and how I might have done things differently.

It’s not that I didn’t believe in or trust my editor’s opinions, it’s simply that it turned out I’d written a novel that she herself didn’t believe in or trust.  When we finally parted ways—an amicable parting, I might add—I wanted to call Jenny and tell her.  I wanted to sit across from her over coffee and discuss our respective experiences.  I wondered what she might have told me, although I’m pretty sure it’s exactly what I had been thinking all along: when the time is right, you’ll find another editor.

And I did.

And that experience—working alongside Chuck Adams at Algonquin Books—completely restored my faith, not only in myself as a writer but also in the world of books in general.  There has been nothing greater than seeing my novel—my creative vision, which I worked on for a decade—come into being.  Working with Chuck—always a gentleman, one of the last old-school editors—was a blessing.  Not that it wasn’t challenging, because it was, but it was also full of magic.  From my first editor, I learned a lot about myself as a writer and am still thankful that I got the chance to work with her.  Without Chuck, however, I’m not sure I’d be the person I am today.  He helped me to see deeper into my characters, who are reflections of me, of course.  He helped me to bring out parts of them and the story that I might not have otherwise.  Mostly, though, he helped me understand that I was writing to be read and that I needed to be aware of my readers, whoever they might be.

If Jenny had worked with him, I’m pretty sure she would have had a similar experience.  Sometimes, I still think about her and how proud she would have been of me.  I see her sitting across from me, applauding my tenacity and determination.  My courage.

“Congratulations.  You did it,” she’d say.

“If it hadn’t been for you,” I’d say.

“No, David,” she’d say, grinning her Jenny grin.  “If it hadn’t been for you.”

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sunday Sentence: Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg

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

She didn't see herself, the penetrating stare of mania gone soft, her jerky motions.  She couldn't hear the random and incoherent lurch from phrase to phrase.

Her Last Death: A Memoir by Susanna Sonnenberg

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Quivering Pen is looking for contributors

This blog would like to see your pen quiver.

I'm looking for contributors to write book reviews, author interviews, and essays on topics of interest to readers and writers.  For more than three years, I've been the sole captain at the helm of this blog-ship and now I'd like to open it up to outside submissions.  Read on for more details...

Book Reviews:  Lively reviews which objectively examine a book's merits and, if warranted, demerits.  The great John Updike had a set of rules which are the guiding philosophy of The Quivering Pen; potential contributors are well-advised to read them.  While the focus of the blog is primarily contemporary literary fiction, I'm also open to considering reviews of poetry, genre fiction, classic literature, and some non-fiction (biography/memoir, history, and narrative non-fiction).  [Please note: at this time, The Quivering Pen is not accepting reviews of books which have been self-published or author-subsidized.]

Author Interviews and Profiles:  Traditional Q & A or feature profiles of contemporary writers are always welcome.  Please query first before submitting the interview/profile.

Essays and Features:  General interest articles of interest to readers and/or writers.  Topics range from examining trends in fiction, anecdotes about the reading life, current issues in publishing, and just about anything which would appeal to people who are accused of "going around with their nose stuck in a book."

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

Fiction:  The Quivering Pen is also open to publishing flash fiction (250-1,000 words) or, in some very rare cases, serialized novellas (as we did last year with Henning Koch's "The Bones").  When submitting fiction, please indicate this by beginning the email subject line with "Fiction submission."

My First Time:  The Quivering Pen continues to welcome guest posts from published (or soon-to-be-published) authors for the My First Time series.  Have a story to tell about your first "virgin" experience in writing and/or publishing?  Send it to me, along with an author photo and a short bio note.  Email me for more guidelines.

Word length: Ideally between 1,000-2,500 words, but longer pieces will also be considered if the subject warrants.

Payment: At this time, I'm only able to compensate contributors with virtual hugs and handshakes of appreciation.  I wish I could pay you, but for now you'll have to settle for the satisfaction of knowing your words have reached an audience of about 20,000 per month.

Email queries or entire articles to

John Updike's Rules for Reviewing Books

1.  Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2.  Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3.  Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4.  Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.  (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants' revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative!  Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves.  And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

5.  If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere.  Try to understand the failure.  Sure it's his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser.  Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like.  Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an idealogical battle, a corrections officer of any kind.  Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author 'in his place,' making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers.  Review the book, not the reputation.  Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast.  Better to praise and share than blame and ban.  The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Friday Freebie: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer and Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

Congratulations to Kathy Poulson, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: High and Inside by Russell Rowland and The Raven's Gift by Don Rearden.

This week's book giveaway is another dynamic duo of fiction: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer and Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer. One lucky reader will win a copy of both (The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is a hardcover and Shine Shine Shine is the freshly-published paperback edition).  Greer's book, just released last month, is high on my To Be Read pile o' books (aka Mt NeverRest) and Netzer's novel was one of my favorites from last year.  Even if you don't win the contest, you should add them to your reading list.  Obey me.

Here's a little more about what waits for readers in The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells:
From the critically acclaimed author of the New York Times bestseller The Confessions of Max Tivoli comes The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, a rapturously romantic story of a woman who finds herself transported to the “other lives” she might have lived.  After the death of her beloved twin brother and the abandonment of her long-time lover, Greta Wells undergoes electroshock therapy.  Over the course of the treatment, Greta finds herself repeatedly sent to 1918, 1941, and back to the present.  Whisked from the gas-lit streets and horse-drawn carriages of the West Village to a martini-fueled lunch at the Oak Room, in these other worlds, Greta finds her brother alive and well—though fearfully masking his true personality.  And her former lover is now her devoted husband…but will he be unfaithful to her in this life as well?  Greta Wells is fascinated by her alter egos: in 1941, she is a devoted mother; in 1918, she is a bohemian adulteress.  In this spellbinding novel by Andrew Sean Greer, each reality has its own losses, its own rewards; each extracts a different price.  Which life will she choose as she wrestles with the unpredictability of love and the consequences of even her most carefully considered choices?
Blurbworthiness: “No one tells the secrets of the human heart more bravely or eloquently than Andrew Sean Greer. He has been called our Proust, our Nabokov, but with this novel he transcends all comparison. This is a genius-stroke of a book. Read it and weep.” (Julie Orringer, bestselling author of The Invisible Bridge)

In Shine Shine Shine, Lydia Netzer takes readers to equally fantastic and heartwarming worlds which we'd never be able to visit outside of fiction--unless, you know, we were an astronaut with a bald wife and an autistic kid.  Here's a little more about the novel which so delighted me last year (and continues to do so each time I think about it):
Sunny Mann has masterminded a life for herself and her family in a quiet Virginia town.  Her house and her friends are picture-perfect.  Even her genius husband, Maxon, has been trained to pass for normal.  But when a fender bender on an average day sends her coiffed blonde wig sailing out the window, her secret is exposed.  Not only is she bald, Sunny is nothing like the Stepford wife she’s trying to be.  As her facade begins to unravel, we discover the singular world of Sunny, an everywoman searching for the perfect life, and Maxon, an astronaut on his way to colonize the moon.
Blurbitude: "From the icy dead surface of the moon to the hot center of the human heart, Lydia Netzer's debut novel takes you on a rocket ride that will rattle your bones. This is an astounding first novel by a writer who is unique in her immense gifts." (Robert Goolrick, New York Times bestselling author of A Reliable Wife)

If you'd like a chance at winning both The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells and Shine Shine Shine, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on July 26, at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on July 27.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

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