Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Top 10 Quivering Pen Posts of 2013

It was a year of change.  It was a year of distraction.  It was a year of heavy traffic.  It was a year of near-death.

Near-death?  Yes, unbeknownst to all but the most avid blog readers who have the Superman x-ray vision to see beneath the surface, there was a time when I considered closing down The Quivering Pen in order to devote more time to creative writing and, frankly, creative living.  I went through a period of malaise and burn-out in late summer and gave very serious thought to shuttering the blog and nailing boards across the windows.

But I gave it a few sleeps and a couple of wake-ups and decided to keep shoveling coal into the blog's engine.

And I'm glad I did because out of that black period, I decided to begin a couple of new features here at the Pen: Bookstore of the Month and the My Library series--both of which have refreshed the blog.  In 2013, I also opened the doors to outside contributions and I've been pleased with the guest reviews, field reports from writing conferences, and other book-related content readers have emailed me.

One other major change to The Quivering Pen this year came when I joined the Litbreaker ad network in August.  I thought long and hard for nearly a year about this, wondering whether or not I wanted to add ads to the borders of the blog.  People have been urging me to monetize The Quivering Pen from the start (and when I say "people," I mean "my wife"), and the quality and content of Litbreaker seemed like the best fit for the tone of what I'm trying to do here.  I certainly can't retire from the Day Job on what I've made so far in Litbreaker revenue, but I've been so pleased by the scrolling ads that it doesn't really matter how many sacks of coins I'm able to stockpile in my Scrooge McDuck Treasury Room.  That being said, I sure would appreciate it if you took the time to click on the banner ads each time you visit The Quivering Pen.  Who knows, maybe you'll stumble across a new and exciting author or publisher you've never heard about.

As I mentioned, it was a year of increased traffic to the blog.  For whatever reason, visits nearly doubled in 2013.  You came, you clicked, and you clicked some more....and for that, I'm sincerely grateful.  Thanks to everyone for your comments, your emails, and all the encouraging things you've told me in person at readings and book festivals.  The blog is still a one-man show--it's just me sitting at my desk in gym shorts and a T-shirt at 5 am every day--so every click and comment is like a gallon of encouragement to me.

Okay, enough with the mushy stuff.  On to the list of top content of 2013.  I compiled this roster of blog posts from the shaky science of Google Analytics, so take that for what it's worth.  I left off things like the weekly Friday Freebie book giveaways, the annual Academy Awards prediction contest, and the post where I put out a call for contributors (which, apparently, quite of few of you shared with your friends on social media).  I also limited myself to posts which first appeared in 2013--otherwise, older content would have dominated the list: posts like the one about Tobias Wolff's short story "Bullet in the Brain" (which is consistently one of the most-visited posts--primarily from students doing term papers on Wolff, methinks), a "Tuesday Tune" about "Poison and Wine" by The Civil Wars (RIP), and a post titled "Having Sex With Madame Bovary" (not hard to see why that earns so many search-engine clicks).  So, without further ado, here are the champions of 2013 with snippets from the original blog posts:

#1:  Front Porch Books: November 2013 edition
Let me begin by saying I live and breathe classic Hollywood--in particular, the years 1920 to 1949, and specifically film noir. If there's a scene with black guns, sharp shadows, and grey smoke curling from the end of a cigarette, I'm so there. Let me also add that my appreciation of Barbara Stanwyck came late in life. For years, as I was growing up, she was the steely white-coiffed matriarch of the Barkley Ranch on the TV series The Big Valley. She was an older actress--competent, but not half as interesting as, say, Jaclyn Smith on Charlie's Angels. It wasn't until I was in my 30s and popped Double Indemnity into the VCR that I realized what all the Stanwyckian fuss was about. With the glint off of one gold anklet, I was a total goner. Since that day, I've been a fan (to put it mildly). And so, when I heard about Victoria Wilson's biography of B.S., I knew I had to be first in line to get a copy. The biography is daunting in scope and heft--1,044 pages, and it only covers the first third of her life!--but I am ready to plunge happily, ecstatically between these covers. It's richly illustrated and impeccably researched and, by all appearances, it's written with all the snap and verve of Stanwyck herself.

#2:  The Best Books of 2013 (so far)
Taking a cue from novelist Elliot Holt's recent blog post, here are some late-summer reading recommendations from Quivering Pen headquarters--the creme de la creme of what I've read since January (not all of them published in 2013), roughly in the order in which I read them. Ms. Holt's novel, You Are One of Them, might well have made the list, save for one simple reason: I haven't yet read it (but it's in the To-Be-Read queue!). So, without additional commentary, here are the books I strongly suggest you add to your TBR stacks.

#3:  My First Time: Jessica Francis Kane
      For a long time, the thing I knew I had to do was publish a story. This would be the beginning, as I understood it, of a writing career. I knew that before this day could come, I would have to send out stories, lots of them, and receive many, many rejection letters. I accepted this. So I graduated from college with a degree in English and went to New York City to get started. I got a job at a mid-size publishing house. By day I was a publicity assistant; by night, a writer. I worked on my stories, crafted careful, polite cover letters, and always had the next self-addressed stamped envelope, or SASE, at the ready.
      As predicted, the rejection letters started arriving.
      But I knew this was a long, rough road. I’d read about one writer who papered his bathroom wall with rejections. I’d heard others speak of bulging file folders. I was not discouraged, not yet. I went to readings when I could. I read magazines at the library. I memorized the typefaces of every magazine and literary journal, knew the dimensions of each one’s pre-printed rejection slip.
      When my file folder started to bulge, I switched to a file box.
      After a time there were little glimmers of hope: handwritten notes, bits of encouragement. One letter I’ll never forget, from a famous glossy magazine, described the story I’d submitted as “a bit numbing” but went on to say, “you’re plainly a writer and I’m sure we should see more of your work.” How I rejoiced and agonized over those words. Was it an invitation? If so, why not just say, We’d like to see more of your work. Or, Send us another story.
      Meanwhile, I created a special area of my apartment where I kept my SASE supplies: envelopes, stamps, manila envelopes, paper clips, staples. I even invested in a little white plastic scale so that I could determine postage myself and cut down on time spent at the post office. I began to joke with my family that I was the fastest SASE-addresser in the west, though I lived in the east.
      It wasn’t a very funny joke.

#4:  Combat Panorama: a Sneak Peek at Joe Sacco's The Great War
      I came home yesterday to find a thin envelope from publisher W. W. Norton, heralding an advance copy of a book they thought I might like: The Great War. Inside: a piece of 8-1/2 by 11 cardboard that unfolded into an astonishing triptych of a battle scene drawn by Joe Sacco (author of Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, among others). These were three of twenty-four panels from Sacco's new "book" coming in November.
      I air-quoted "book" because though this will be a handsome volume packaged in a deluxe hardcover slipcase, it's more like a continuously unscrolling narrative. Imagine one 24-foot black-and-white drawing printed on heavyweight accordion-fold paper, an entire war-is-hell panorama stretched across the length of a room. There are no words in The Great War, only Sacco's soldiers, shell bursts, and trenches. Judging by the three panels I was privileged to see, this will be enough.

#5:  There's Nothing Funny About Breaking Your Humerus
      You're looking at an X-ray of what used to be the unblemished rod of my upper right arm bone.
      At approximately 4:45 p.m. yesterday, that bone snapped like a breadstick. The bone is called the humerus. I'm here to tell you there is nothing funny about breaking your humerus.
      Of course you'll want to know how it happened. At 4:44 yesterday, I was in my wife's soon-to-be-opened vintage mercantile shop here in Butte (The Backyard Bungalow at 1305 Kaw--for those of you who happen to be in the neighborhood with a bulging wallet). I was standing on a ladder, holding a board I was about to screw into the wall. We weren't sure if that board was straight or not, so my wife asked me to move to the right so she could see. I moved to the right. "A little more," she said. I moved a little more--without thinking of physics or consequences.
      On the .75-second journey to the floor, I thought, “Well, that was stu—”
      I didn’t blackout. It was more like I had a supreme moment of being Dazed and Confused. Shock and Awe. When I lifted my head, I could see my arm lying on the floor off to my right. It didn’t look like my arm. It looked like a Thing disconnected from the rest of my body. When I tried to sit up, it went off in a different direction.

#6:  My First Time: Colin Fleming
      Oh, this is going to suck. Sorry, sorry, sorry, readers: this will mostly be upsetting, but I’ll mix in some funny bits, too. The stuff about the liquid heroin is pretty amusing, even if it wasn’t at the time. But that’s getting ahead of everything.
      So: how my first book that wasn’t supposed to be my first book came to be, straight from hell. Or how one would-be first time in the life of a writer was scooped by another. I had a book called Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories that was slated to be my first, with a late spring 2013 release date that ended up being August 2013. The book was made up of stories that were written between September 1999 and August 2010. I was proofing it in late ’11, in my dream house, in beautiful Rockport, Massachusetts, a small town that was just perfect if you were into the sea and loved the fresh smell of brine and standing on cliffs watching lobstermen pull up their traps forty yards away from you. My wife and I had just closed on our house that November, after having gotten married at Christmas, the year before. She was the absolute love of my life, the person I trusted more than everyone else—and I have been blessed with great friends—combined. She had full access to my email, and saw what went down on a daily basis with editors, publishers, agents, just about everyone in publishing. She was the only person I had ever been with that I had no problem letting into my career, something I had become fiercely protective of after so many years of working twenty-hour days and getting everywhere I got on my own, without a single bit of help, a favor called in, a bleeding “mentor,” anything. She had come out of a physically abusive marriage with aspects that lingered on into ours. The ex-husband, who had the loan of my then-fiancée’s car when we were at my sister’s wedding in Chicago, allegedly loosened the tire so that it popped clean off when she was driving one day. That kind of thing. Very Hitchcock.

#7:  GivingThanks: A Writer's Primer
F is for Friends of Fobbit: As I was approaching the final stages of writing my comic novel about the Iraq War, I flew into a panic and plummeted in a smoky spiral of self-doubt. What if they didn't like it? And by "they," I was specifically thinking of military readers. Would they think I was mocking them? Would they not understand that I was on their side in the complexity of emotions surrounding our 21st-century wars? Would pissed-off readers drive thousands of miles across the country to stand on my front lawn and throw rocks at my house? My worry was, of course, unfounded and unnecessary. Certainly there were, are, and will always be readers who don't appreciate Fobbit's satirical look at the buffoonery of the war machine--and I'm totally cool with that. But since the book was published last year, I have been overwhelmingly touched by the positive response--from both civilian and military readers. Soon after the book was out in the world, I received this Facebook message from a reader:
      Sir: I am a Public Affairs Officer in the Canadian Army, trained at the Defense Information School and with two tours in Afghanistan. The first was with a Canadian Infantry BG down in Kandahar, but the second was at a Headquarters in Kabul deep in the Green Zone with all USAF/USN enlisted PA staff. Suffice it to say, Fobbit had me in tears I was laughing so hard and also shaking my head at some of the things you wrote that I knew to be true. Best post-War on Terror book I have read yet. Congrats on a fine novel.
Thank you, Ed. You made my day, my week, my month, my year. And a King-Kong-sized Thank You to all the other readers, silent and vocal, who took time out of their lives to read my book and later said that time was not wasted. I love you all.

#8:  Bookstore of the Month: Harvard Book Store
In 1932, a young man borrowed $300 from his parents to open a small shop selling used and bargain general interest books at 19 Boylston Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In 2009, that same bookstore (now under different ownership) launched its so-called "Green Delivery Service" which, in partnership with Metro Pedal Power, delivers books by bicycle to the greater Boston area, often with same-day service (take that, Amazon!). For those two reasons, among many others, Harvard Book Store was one of the featured booksellers here at The Quivering Pen. The bookstore has come a long way since Mark Kramer's plucky $300 back in the Prohibition era--it's moved, expanded, downsized, renovated, and added e-book service (courtesy of Kobo). It was one of the first bookstores in the country to add a cafe so customers could nosh-n-read. Four years ago, the store added a print-on-demand machine (lovingly called Paige M. Gutenborg).

#9:  My Year of Books: Best Cover Designs of 2013
Using a detail from Giovanni Boldini's Profile of a Young Woman for the cover of Joyce Carol Oates' novel The Accursed, designer Allison Saltzman focuses our attention on the exposed, alabaster-white neck—appropriate, given the fact that Oates' big novel about turn-of-the-century Princeton includes vampires in its cast of characters (along with Woodrow Wilson, Jack London and Mark Twain). One of the other things I love about this cover is how Saltzman echoes the bunch of lavender in the title's font color, with the blood-red of the author's name coming between them. For such a beautiful art design, there's a lot of underlying tension at work here.

#10:  Sherman Alexie and James Lee Burke Murder Mediocrity in Missoula
By the time I arrived at the 14th annual Humanities Montana Festival of the Book, Sherman Alexie had already set the town on fire. People kept coming up to me, wide-eyed and short of breath, asking, "Did you hear Sherman last night?" It was all "Sherman this" and "Sherman that" everywhere I turned in Missoula. It seemed I had missed the Event of the Year by arriving at the festival the day after the author of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian read to a packed house at the Wilma Theater. My only consolation was that I'd heard Alexie give a reading in Anchorage, Alaska in 2001. That night, he did indeed spark and crackle like the end of a live wire dancing near a puddle of gasoline. Let's put it this way, Sherman Alexie is not shy, he's not always polite, and he's never boring. That's why it's a good thing there were plenty of fire extinguishers on hand at the Wilma that night in Missoula.

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