Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Year of Reading: By the Numbers

This year saw the passing of the legendary reader/reviewer Harriet Klausner who allegedly finished four to six books per day. While I could never reach Klausnerian heights (short of being sentenced to prison or shipwrecked on a desert isle), I did read my fair share of books in 2015.

I’m not one for making resolutions (or, at least, I’m not known for keeping them), but if I was, I doubt I’d be lifting a glass of champagne tonight, vowing to read more books in 2016. As I approach the border between these two years, I realize it would be pretty hard to consume more books than I did in 2015. These past twelve months, I exceeded even my own high expectations.

As faithful readers of The Quivering Pen know, I’ve kept a book log every year since returning from my deployment to Iraq with the Army in 2005. In a Word document on my computer, I write down author, title and page count; at my Library Thing account, I also record the date I started/finished the book, a rating, and other details. Here’s how it's gone for the past ten years:
2005:  50
2006:  40
2007:  61
2008:  66
2009:  46
2010:  54
2011:  55
2012:  56
2013:  81
2014:  106
This year, however, the grand total of books was....drumroll, maestro....

114 books

(cymbal crash, applause, triumphant bows)

Given my work schedule (40 hours at the Day Job, slightly-fewer hours at the writing desk, and seven hours a week helping my wife at her shop, The Backyard Bungalow) and my domestic life (cooking, cleaning, shoveling snow, etc.), I honestly don’t know how I can do better. But maybe I’ll surprise myself a year from now when I look back at my 2016 book log.

Here’s how it broke down numerically in 2015:
  • The average page count was 304 (up from 254 pages in 2014, which was up from 231 the previous year).
  • The shortest book was Approaching Winter: Poems (50 pages) by Floyd Skloot, the longest was It (1,376 pages) by Stephen King.
  • 29 of the 114 were e-books.
  • 48 were published in 2015, 6 were advance copies destined to be released in 2016, and the rest were from prior years.
  • 71 were written by men, 37 by women, 6 were a mix of both (anthologies or collaborations), and 0 were written by dogs or other household pets.
All in all, I’d have to say 2015 was a very good year of reading, indeed. And now, on to the next page, the next chapter, the next year...

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Year of Reading: Best Books From Other Years

While most of the books I read in 2015 were released this year, I have to give a hearty nod of appreciation to those volumes published in years gone by—from the near-past to the farther-distant classics. The piles of books scattered in varying heights throughout my house are populated by authors and their works that I’ve been longing to read for years. Regrettably, most of them are rudely elbowed to the back of the line by louder, shinier, more-impatient releases of the here and now. Every so often, though, I’ll turn to those older, slightly-dusty books and say, “Okay, you’ve waited long enough; your time has come.”

In the near future, I’ll announce my favorite books published in 2015; but for now, here is the best of the backlist I read this year. They are ranked by the order in which I read them.

The Fever
by Megan Abbott
This was my first foray into Megan Abbott’s work. It won’t be my last. Not only does her writing smell like Teen Spirit, this novel about a mysterious illness infecting girls at a high school moves along at a blood pulse. From start to finish, The Fever had me in its grip.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
by Elizabeth McCracken
“This is the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending,” Elizabeth McCracken writes in this memoir about losing her baby in the ninth month of pregnancy. While there’s nothing inherently uplifting about miscarriage, McCracken tunnels into her grief and re-emerges with a gem of a book that left me profoundly stricken with both sorrow and, yes, joy—the kind of joy that comes from reading a sad story bravely and beautifully told.

by Louis L’Amour
I’ve made it an annual tradition to begin the new year by reading one of the nearly 100 Louis L’Amour paperbacks on my shelf—after closing out the old year by reading one of the Agatha Christie mysteries I’ve collected over the years (maybe—but probably not—I’ll work my way through their entire canon before I die). I typically regard L’Amour westerns as palate-cleansers: entertaining diversions that never really reach literary heights. Hondo was different. Without hesitation, I gave it five stars at my Library Thing account. This tense and tender story of a lonely pioneer woman, a rugged gunman, and an Apache warrior on the warpath is flat-out great. The John Wayne movie is terrific, too.

by Stephen King
This year’s reading was dominated by the inimitable King of Horror. Not only did I finally get around to reading this doorstopper-whopper of a novel about a time-traveling schoolteacher who goes back to try and stop Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of John F. Kennedy, but I also read It (which splashes over into 11/22/63’s plot) and re-read The Stand for the first time in more than three decades. I’d always touted The Stand as my favorite of Stephen King’s books; unfortunately, it didn’t hold up as well for me this go-round. With a jaunty nudge of its elbow, 11/22/63 knocked The Stand right off its pedestal. The newer novel is King at his best. It’s complex, full of heart, and wound tight with nail-chewing tension.

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel
If the apocalypse turns out to be as beautiful as Emily St. John Mandel describes in this novel, then I can’t wait for the end of the world. Sure, there’s plenty of misery, starvation and deprivation in this tale about how the world puts itself back together after a pandemic, but the ultimate outlook of Station Eleven is one of hope. This is a book I plan to re-read just for the sheer pleasure of going back over Mandel’s pitch-perfect sentences.

Fourth of July Creek
by Smith Henderson
This was a big novel—as big as the Big Sky state of Montana in which it’s set—but it never felt loose or flabby. Quite the opposite, in fact. I connected with social worker Pete Snow from the very first chapter and never let go for the next 450 pages as he struggled to hold his life together while trying to mend other broken families. It’s still hard for me to believe this was Smith Henderson’s debut novel. It has the depth and heft of a writer at the polished height of his career.

The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh
by Michael Chabon
As a long-time fanboy of Chabon’s work, I can’t believe it took me nearly two decades to get around to reading The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. But when I did, I took a slow swim through the lush language of his debut. Chabon’s narrator, Art Bechstein, has a voice as memorable as that of The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. And that opening line? “At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.” I was snagged hook, line and sinker.

by Peter Stark
Peter Stark’s excellent book has the unwieldy subtitle “John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival,” but it really could be boiled down to a simple “Hardship and Endurance.” I started reading Astoria just before my wife and I took a road trip to the titular Astoria, Oregon during Memorial Day weekend. Whenever possible, I like to have the full-immersion, Sensurround experience while reading books. Of course, the route the members of the 1810 Astor Expedition took on their three-year journey to forge an American empire on the Pacific Coast is radically different now. Those poor, bedraggled explorers probably could have used a warm croissant and a steaming cappuccino from Starbucks right around the time they were eating the soles of their boots in the Idaho wilderness. Stark put me there on the cross-country trip, every step of the way, and made me feel the misery.

The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Stewart O’Nan drove me to drink…and to read F. Scott Fitzgerald. Midway through West of Sunset, O’Nan’s brilliant novel about the last days of Fitzgerald, I made it a habit at the end of each workday to pour a few fingers of whiskey, neat, and sit at the bar in my basement with a copy of the three-inch-thick collection of Fitzgerald’s short stories, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Sure, I’ve read and re-read many of Fitzgerald’s classic novels and have been a long-time fan of his work, but for the most part his short fiction had remained an undiscovered country. What a pleasure to explore these expertly-crafted stories and to roll them around on my tongue like the sweet smoke of bourbon! (Oh, and West of Sunset is pretty damn fine, too.)

The Lay of the Land
by Richard Ford
Though I normally put Richard Ford to the top of the To-Be-Read heap as soon as he releases a new book, it’s taken me nine years to get around to The Lay of the Land. Truth be told, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels. While I thought The Sportswriter and Independence Day were well-written, I’ve always had a more emotional connection with Ford’s fiction set in the American West (Rock Springs, Wildlife and Canada). Bascombe always left me feeling a little meh. The Lay of the Land was different. Maybe it’s because Bascombe and I are close in age (he’s 55, I’m a few years behind that), or maybe the time was right for me to read about a white male in 2000 riddled with anxiety over the unresolved presidential election results, his wayward children, his ex-wife, his real estate business, and—most of all—a recent diagnosis of prostate cancer, or maybe because there’s some damn fine writing on these pages—whatever the cause, I connected with this Bascombe in a deeply spiritual way.

Related posts:
A Year of Reading: Best Poetry of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best Gift Book of 2015 for Bookworms
A Year of Reading: Best Short Stories of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best Book Cover Designs of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best First Lines of 2015

Monday, December 28, 2015

My First Time: Rebecca Yount

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 Rebecca Yount, author of When Half Spent Was the Night, the fifth book in the Mick Chandra mystery series. A published poet, Rebecca trained from childhood as a concert pianist and worked in education reform in Washington, D.C., but she always wanted to be an author. In 2010, Rebecca underwent open heart surgery which left her unable to write for two years. When she returned to it, she decided to publish the entire Mick Chandra series herself as e-books. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband, author and columnist David Yount. You can find Rebecca online at her website and on Facebook.

My First Advocate

“You will be a writer.”

Such was the prediction of my third-grade teacher who, unlike her predecessors, saw “something” in me. I will spare you the typical writers’ screed, such as: I was an unexceptional child, I was a troubled teen, I was a drug addict in my early adulthood, I suffered from middle-age angst, I robbed the Bank of England.

Just indulge me this one concession: I was a sickly, shy kid who was born with a heart defect that made my formative years a sloughing challenge. That dodgy valve taunted, “You think you can beat me? Ha! Take that.” It was like trying to shake off my own shadow.

My parents attempted to soothe and encourage me with stories about Robert Louis Stevenson and Teddy Roosevelt, both of whom had been sickly children who went on to accomplish great things as adults. After years of getting up only to be knocked down again, even those inspiring tales offered me cold comfort. So my teacher’s endorsement was a beacon beaming through the crack of a closed door.

“Can you deliver a collection of your poetry to me by the end of this term?” she asked.

“Sure,” I said, and meant it.

I delivered, and received an A+.

My fate was sealed. I was going to be a writera famous writer, swanning about the literary circles of New York, London, and Paris. Men would swoon over me and women would want to be me. I would be celebrated. People would seek my opinions. I would be on Oprah. I might even be featured in a commercial for my favorite vodka.

Of the few seminal moments I’ve experienced in my life, receiving my teacher’s unqualified approval was by far the most memorable. And then it all went south.

My situation became much like that of the pretty girl who posts the most fab photo of herself on Facebook assuming it will go viral, then waits for Channing Tatum to call. Not gonna happen.

If one day there is a contest to determine who has received the most turndowns by agents and publishers, I’m fairly certain I would win. I recently read an interview with a popular novelist who stated, “Do you know, it took me five years to get published.” Try eighteen years. I prefer what Joanna Trollope said: “It took me twenty years to become an overnight success.”

At one point, when I was prepared to walk away from this madness, a friend of mine who remembers that day when my teacher sealed my fate, insisted, “You can’t do that! Our teacher said you’re a writer, so you’re a writer. You can’t let her down. She had faith in you.” My friend was right. So I prevailed, and have been successfully published in e-book format for three years.

Why do we write at all? I can’t answer for others, but I know why I do it. I write so I can make sense of the things in life that don’t make sense. In my genre, which is crime fiction, I create a fractured universe that can be pieced back together, if not entirely restored.

Thinking back on Truman Capote’s book, In Cold Blood, I recall the ending in which he is mesmerized by the sun refracting off of a young girl’s hair as she walks away from him. It was as if Capote acknowledged that we will never understand the senseless, brutal murders he wrote about, but even the simplest, most unexpected image can ground us to restore our sanity.

It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that a surgical procedure was perfected to repair my damaged heart valve. I am the grateful recipient of a second chance.

And what of those A+ poems I wrote long ago? They faded into obscurityliterally. I had written them on high-fiber tablet paper with a #2 pencil and, over time, the fiber absorbed the graphite. Another lesson learned.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Sunday Sentence: “Crazy Sunday” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary. This week, I’m going to cheat by picking two sentences from the same story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I couldn’t decide which one was “best.”

It was Sunday—not a day, but rather a gap between two other days.

There she was, in a dress like ice-water, made in a thousand pale-blue pieces, with icicles trickling at the throat.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Stories to Punch Your Heart: People Like You by Margaret Malone

Of all the books I read in 2015and there were manyfew infected me quite like People Like You by Margaret Malone. This debut collection of stories embodies everything I love about short fiction: it dances on boxer’s feet, moves in quick, punches hard, and then leaves my head ringing. Malone writes about people who are sometimes distraught, sometimes depressed, often anxious, and occasionally misguided; but one thing they arealways, always, alwaysis real. It’s no accident the book is titled People Like You.

These stories stir up the kind of excitement in my readerly bones that I haven’t felt since I first read the works of writers like Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jamie Quatro, Ron Carlson, Benjamin Percy, Lee Smith, and even Ernest Hemingway. Yes, I’d unhesitatingly add Margaret Malone to that pantheon of authors. Her work embodies the best qualities of each of those writers: terse, detailed, empathetic fiction that is very often funny as hell. It can also be as painful as a tooth extraction. As I wrote earlier here at the blog:
In “People Like You,” average American married couple Cheryl and Bert attend a surprise birthday party for a “friend” they don’t particularly like. They get lost en route, drink too much once there, and leave with some stolen balloons. On the surface, it’s an ordinary evening; but what sets this story apart, what gives it an electric buzz that tastes like you just licked a lamp socket, is what doesn’t happen. With remarkable restraint, Malone takes us on a tour of the tip of the iceberg without feeling the need to state the obvious: there's a massive, continent-sized chunk of ice right below our feet. A current of tension between Cheryl and Bert hums throughout the story. Their marriage is in free fall when we begin our 13-page eavesdrop and they’re both (or at least Cheryl is) frantically scrabbling their hands across their bodies, trying to find the ripcord that will open the marriage-saving parachute. It may or may not happen. That’s not the point. The point is the ride: the wry, jolting, cynical, sweet, hilarious ride Malone takes us on with her sentences. Sentences like: “We drive in silence for minutes, the inside-car hush of our motion, all the best-times feelings dissolving, the thick familiar air starts up between us. Me, driving. Him, sitting there.”

As you can tell by that excerpt from the title story, married characters (in particular Bert and Cheryl who make frequent reappearances) often find themselves standing on opposite sides of a widening gulf of misunderstanding and miscommunication. I keep hoping these men and women will start gathering materials to build a bridge, meeting halfway across the canyon. Though they may come across as dark, these stories always left me warm with optimism. Maybe it’s the way Malone created such believable characters, but I always wished the best for them by the time I reached the final period of the story.

Rather than write a full-blown review of People Like You (because the rest of this post would just be more evangelizing on my part as I beat you across the ears with increasingly harder slaps of cliche-riddled praise), I thought I’d give you the most convincing argument for buying Malone’s book that I could: a collection of my favorite sentences. As I thumb back through the pages of my copy, I find that many of them are covered with marginalia: stars, arrows, emphatic dots. Here then, is a collection of People Like You’s Greatest Hits...

From “The Only One,” in which a girl in middle school is on the verge of discovering the fabulous and scary Kingdom of Sex (this also has a line which made me laugh out loud):

     Kissing was on the way to sex and I knew that I wanted to know what sex was but I also knew I wasn’t supposed to have sex because having sex would mean I was a slut and if I was a slut everyone would want to have sex with me, and then I’d be stuck having sex with everybody all the time, which sounds exhausting. I don’t know when I’d have time to practice the piano.

The opening lines of “Yes”:

     Chuck rings the doorbell and I have my luggage all ready set go by the front door but when I let him in, instead of reaching for my suitcase, Chuck kneels on the hard tile in the entryway and says will you marry me and so I say all right: Chuck’s mom Gladys is watching the whole thing from her car right out front, engine idling, window rolled down, extra long cigarette burning between two straight fingers. After that I yell goodbye to my dad who says bye back but doesn’t come out of the garage to say it, then Chuck helps me squeeze my suitcase and backpack into the crammed trunk of his mom’s car and slam the lid shut. And we’re off.
     So now I’m engaged. I am reserved, like a table at a restaurant.

Also from “Yes”:

     Gladys smokes like it was just invented, brand new and full of possibility.

     Reno is a smudge of tallish buildings and neon-signed casinos, dry desert mountains all around. It’s almost a tiny Vegas but feels unfinished, like someone took a lunch break in the middle of building it and never came back.

     If I could propose, what I’d want to marry is that feeling I feel when Chuck and I are riding fast on his bike, winding our way up the forested incline, our bodies intuitively leaning left and right with the weight of the beautiful machinery underneath us, the two-lane road all ours except for the passing of the occasional car headed in the opposite direction and oh how we feel sorry for them, those passengers, they do not know what they’re missing, the warm air against my bare shoulders, the streams of sunlight sneaking through the heavy pines, the smell of dusty heat and warmed pavement and the cool damp of the forest floor, my arms wrapped around Chuck, my smile so wide I have to tuck my face into his shoulder so I don’t swallow air, my whole body, each cell, singing with the abandon of being part of every single thing.

The opening line of “Saving the Animals”:

     My boss Barb is wearing her tailored black raincoat with her pajamas underneath.

From “Good Company”:

     Marcus and I are going on two years together but we have sex like couples that have been married for twenty. Not in terms of frequencywe do it a lot. But we do it the way a person might do something really challenging over and over again with no real hope of reward, like taking the SATs for the tenth time to raise a score above 1,000. A labor of love, without the love part.

     We pass the synthesized singing of a group of slot machines, like squat levered birds. Plastic chips fall into other plastic chips, deadened against the quiet of felt.

I’ll leave you with this passage, from “Welcome to Samsara,” a heartbreaking story about a couple’s miscarriage and their visit to a grief counselor which ends like this:

     He reached out to shake her hand with his free hand and for a moment the three of us formed a human chain, like together we might break out into song to oppose senseless killings or an oppressive regime; but what had happened to us wasn’t anything like that: it was only a miscarriage, the single quiet slipping away of something that wasn’t quite something enough yet.

Unlike that lost child, these stories are quite something indeed.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Happy Delusion of Christmas

That's me on the right, mesmerized by flames
1969, Kittanning, Pennsylvania
“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fire-side and his quiet home!”
       –Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers

Maybe I’m deluded, but Christmastime really does take me back to my early days as a kid who could practically sniff the magic in the air. It swirled like snowflakes, smelled like sugar, and clicked like reindeer hooves. I’m older now and beaten down by stress and anxiety and busy-ness–all needless, senseless temporary things–but I still get a little wispy with nostalgia when I look at these photos which my mother just emailed me.

1963, Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania
“I know what I really want for Christmas. I want my childhood back. Nobody is going to give me that. I might give at least the memory of it to myself if I try. I know it doesn’t make sense, but since when is Christmas about sense, anyway? It is about a child, of long ago and far away, and it is about the child of now. In you and me. Waiting behind the door of our hearts for something wonderful to happen. A child who is impractical, unrealistic, simpleminded and terribly vulnerable to joy.”
       –Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

My mother, my brother Jonathan, and me with my stuffed-animal menagerie
1967, Kittanning, Pennsylvania

I typically write a Big Christmas Read blog post during Yuletide, describing the seasonal books I put at the front of my reading queue; but this year, I got scrunched for time (see stress, anxiety, busy-ness above) and I back-burnered it into oblivion. Here then, is a brief list of what I read this Christmas season: The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum (the mythology of Saint Nick wrapped in Wizard of Oz-ian sentimentality), Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris (a wicked-funny, scathing indictment of the season’s silly traditions, but which also manages to have a heart as big as post-conversion Grinch and Scrooge combined), The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge by Charlie Lovett (the reformed Scrooge not only keeps Christmas in his heart all year long, he won’t shut up about it–even in the middle of summer), The Homecoming by Earl Hamner Jr. (the Walton clan worries about patriarch John who is late in returning to his Blue Ridge Mountains home), and Christmas Bells by Jennifer Chiaverini (the modern story of a children's choir is interwoven with the Civil War drama of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as he endures hardship, grief, and tries to write the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”). They were all wonderful books which filled me with sugar and snowflakes.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a Christmas dinner to cook and consume.

Wishing you the warmest and brightest of days,

David, your abiding book evangelist

Friday Freebie: Academy Gothic by James Tate Hill

Congratulations to Julie Jane, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Journey of the Penguin by Emiliano Ponzi.

This week’s book giveaway is a copy of Academy Gothic by James Tate Hill. Read on for more information about the book.

Hardboiled noir meets academic satire in Academy Gothic. Tate Cowlishaw is late for another faculty meeting when he discovers the body of Scoot Simkins, dean of Parshall College. Cowlishaw might be legally blind but sees that a man with three bullets in his head didn't put them there himself. The police disagree. When Cowlishaw investigates, he is told his teaching contract won't be renewed. Suspects aren't hard to come by at the college annually ranked Worst Value by U.S. News & World Report. While the faculty brace for a visit from the accreditation board, Cowlishaw's investigation leads him to another colleague on eternal sabbatical. Before long, his efforts to save his job become efforts to stay alive. A farcical tale of incompetence and corruption, Academy Gothic scathingly redefines higher education as it chronicles the last days of a dying college.

Be sure to check out James’ “My First Time,” posted earlier this week at the blog.

If you’d like a chance at winning a copy of Academy Gothic, simply 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 Dec. 31, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Jan. 1. 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.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Year of Reading: Best Poetry of 2015

Poetry forms the core of my well-being. I begin each day by reading two to four poems, cleansing my brain first thing in the morning with compressed stanzas sturdy as bars of soap. I recommend this kind of ablution to everyone. (Of course, verse is perfectly acceptable for noontime or eventide reading as well.)

This year, my poetry reading was dominated by Edna St. Vincent Millay. While reading Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford’s first-class biography of the early 20th-century poet (as well as a trip through Erika Robuck’s novel, Fallen Beauty), I savored my way through the Library of America collection of Millay’s poems and then proceeded to re-read Millay’s 1928 collection, Buck in the Snow and Other Poems. I love the title poem, which includes these lines:
White sky, over the hemlocks bowed with snow,
Saw you not at the beginning of evening the antlered buck and his doe
Standing in the apple-orchard? I saw them. I saw them suddenly go,
Tails up, with long leaps lovely and slow,
Over the stone-wall into the wood of hemlocks bowed with snow.

Now he lies here, his wild blood scalding the snow.

This was also the year I discovered, in depth, the poetry of William Carlos Williams (also courtesy of the Library of America); I learned he was so much more than wheelbarrows glazed with rainwater. Other non-2015 poetry collections which floated to the top of my list this year included Seth Brady Tucker’s We Deserve the Gods We Ask For from last year, poetry which boils with all the courage and outrage of our contemporary wars; Jane Kenyon’s 1997 Otherwise (another re-read for me), which breaks my heart because I wish she could have lived longer and written more beautiful poems like these; and Gabrielle Calvocoressi’s The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart, published in 2005, which is an astounding collection that travels through time to various stops along a spectrum of America in its most memorable hours.

And now, on to my favorite poetry books which were published in 2015...

Station Zed
By Tom Sleigh
(Graywolf Press)
There was a Bay, there was a Pig, there was a Missile.
There was a Screen, there was a Beard talking loud talk
in Spanish, there was the Screen in English calling him Dictator.

There was the floor of the room, a checkerboard
of brown and white squares, there were Moves
that were the right ones, and Moves that meant War.
       —from “Songs for the Cold War”
Tom Sleigh, a journalist, has done tours of duty in hotbeds of violence like Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq and Libya. He distills that experience into images that sear and burn and leave grill-marks on our hearts. I mean, just try forgetting a line like “The AK talks the talk of what guns talk.”

Emblems of the Passing World
By Adam Kirsch
(Other Press)
The high white collar and the bowler hat,
The black coat of respectability,
The starched cuff and the brandished cigarette
Are what he has decided we will see,
Though in the closet hangs an apron flecked
With bits of brain beside the rubber boots
Stained bloody brown from wading through the slick
That by the end of every workday coats
The killing floor he stands on.
       —from “Butcher’s Apprentice”
This has to be one of the most unique poetry collections I read this year. Adam Kirsch bases his poems off the work of August Sander, a German photographer whose haunting images caught his countrymen in the uneasy transition between World War One and the rise of Nazism. Kirsch’s words illuminate the photographs and imagine backstories to the war-weary people we see here. (Rather than include the cover of the book, I posted the photo above which accompanies the poem “Butcher’s Apprentice.”) As Kirsch writes in his Introduction: “The snapshot is meant to preserve not just an image but the moment of its taking; its intention is not documentary so much as memorial, and when we look at it we are remembering more than we are actually seeing.” One hundred years from now, a poet will undoubtedly do the same for our generation, writing a book called The Arm’s-Length Ego of the 21st-Century Selfie.

Dream Sender
By David Huddle
(Louisiana State University Press)
depressed is loading the shotgun in the car
to head for the woods when you’re not a hunter
or sitting with your back to the window
all day, and not even noticing you’ve
peed your pants.

                        Soon enough I’ll be Mister
Cheerful. Meanwhile I’m taking this class
for credit at the University of Twilight.
       —from “Okay”
In his poem “Gun Notes,” David Huddle wrote what I consider the epitaph for this sad, baffling year we’ve just gone through: “Violence-addicted gun-idiot/America, I’d shed you like a rattlesnake/scraping off its old skin except I’d still/be a rattlesnake.” Whether it’s dead schoolchildren in Newtown, high school band members who “reek of valve oil,” flu shots at Costco, or memories of his mother’s harsh discipline with a hairbrush, Huddle delivers accessible poems rendered in grounded imagery.

Cloudshade: Poems of the High Plains
By Lori Howe
(Sastrugi Press)
Dusk crosses
slender blue wrists
over the lake.
with augers
and bright jackets
haul away fishhuts
weathered as silver mines
from the Sierra Madres.
       —from “On the Ice”
Lori Howe finds exquisite beauty in the sometimes-barren, occasionally-stark and nearly-always-windswept landscape of Wyoming. In Cloudshade, Howe writes of abandoned houses overtaken by tree roots that ache like phantom limbs of amputees, “useless and attached to nothing/but memory;” of long-awaited rain that forms “a graceful glaze/on windows;” and of pigeons on telephone wires that look like “glad, warm bundles/of pewter/and blue.” These poems, more than any others this year, made me feel washed clean from the inside out.

Approaching Winter
By Floyd Skloot
(Louisiana State University Press)
The night the Martians landed in New Jersey
my father was just across the Hudson River
asking for my mother’s hand in marriage.
My grandfather is supposed to have said
You can have all of her. Then they drank
a schnapps, toasting life, toasting my mother
pacing in another room, and sat on the sofa
listening to chaos rising from the street.
       —from “October 30, 1938”
Starting with that marvelous poem in which his father proposes to his mother on the night of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast which panicked hundreds of people in 1938, Floyd Skloot casts his stanzas in the sepia of memory. Skloot, who is now approaching the winter season of his life, writes of growing up in New York in the 1950s, of the night his father died when “wind-blown snow raged at my bedroom window,” and of the tenderness of his own marriage. There’s also a series of poems about moments (some real, some imagined) in the lives of Dylan Thomas, Handel, Thomas Hardy, and Samuel Beckett who throws out the first pitch at a Dodgers’ game. Reading this collection, I felt like I’d been embedded, like a wayward BB pellet, under Skloot’s skin and lived his life. And isn’t that the aim of all great memoirists?

Dark Sparkler
By Amber Tamblyn
(Harper Perennial)
The body is lifted from the red carpet,
put in a black bag,
taken to the mother’s screams
for identification.

The Country says good things
about the body.
       —from “Brittany Murphy”
I’m familiar with the too-short lives of actresses like Jean Harlow, Jayne Mansfield, Dominique Dunne and Brittany Murphy...but Amber Tamblyn wants me to never forget the too-soon deaths of other celebrities and starlets like Thelma Todd, Judith Barsi, Peg Entwistle, Carole Landis, Anissa Jones, and the sad list goes on and on. Nobody rides off happy into a Tinseltown sunset here. Tamblyn’s poems burn, burn, burn with the sulfuric acid of accusation, sorrow and regret. Do you need a wake-up call to the ways Hollywood destroys us even while it entertains us? Read Dark Sparkler.

Related posts:
A Year of Reading: Best Books From Other Years
A Year of Reading: Best Gift Book of 2015 for Bookworms
A Year of Reading: Best Short Stories of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best Book Cover Designs of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best First Lines of 2015

Monday, December 21, 2015

My First Time: James Tate Hill

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 James Tate Hill, author of Academy Gothic, winner of the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. His fiction has appeared in StoryQuarterly, Sonora Review, and The Texas Review, among others, and he is the fiction editor for Monkeybicycle. Originally from Charleston, West Virginia, he lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Lori. Find out more at or follow him on Twitter @jamestatehill.

My First Failure

His clients included writers who were anthologized in my college textbooks. It seemed unlikely he’d be interested in my romantic comedy set in the wacky world of professional wrestling, but a writer friend he also represented thought I should send it to him when it was ready. That he was now calling me on the phone, less than two months after I mailed him the manuscript, struck me as odd. Agents didn’t call to reject you, did they? When he called me “old chap,” I felt a warm hand welcoming me into the canon of American letters.

My agent had a kind, gentle demeanor and decades of experience in the publishing industry. To this day, I remain surprised and grateful that someone of his esteem took a chance on a writer in his late twenties whose only publication was a short story in a literary journal with a circulation of five hundred. He gave me some feedback for revisions, which I implemented over the rest of the summer. In the fall, while my then-girlfriend quit her job to begin an editing program across the country, funded largely by my adjunct’s salary of $18,000 per year, my agent e-mailed to say, “That is a fine job on the ending and I will call tomorrow to discuss where we should send your novel.”

We sent it first to only one editor, whose purchase of my book would be called a “pre-empt,” I had learned from my obsessive online reading about how books were sold. That my novel would sell seemed an inevitability—to sell a book one had only to acquire a good agent, which mine sure as hell was—so I didn’t pester him for updates. Instead, I busied myself with student papers and articles on picking the perfect engagement ring to suit one’s budget.

My ignorance of the publishing world circa 2005 was rivaled only by my ignorance of relationships, specifically which ones should end in marriage and which ones should simply end. If the three thousand miles that separated my girlfriend and me that fall made our hearts grow fonder, the distance also obscured how consistently miserable we had made each other as recently as a year earlier. We hadn’t learned how to be happy together so much as how to coexist, but never mind all that: we had a wedding to plan, largely funded by my adjunct’s salary of $18,000 per year. And never mind the finances because an advance for that first novel was heading my way in the coming months, if not weeks, and if advances for romantic comedies set in the wacky world of professional wrestling weren’t what they used to be, well, at the very least I could parlay the publication of a novel into a tenure-track job at a college or university of my choice.

After two months, the first editor had not yet made an offer, and we sent the novel to four additional houses. When more than one of them expressed interest, the resulting sale would be called an auction, according to my research. While visiting my then fiancée in Seattle, I went ahead and purchased a twenty-five dollar bottle of Oregon merlot for when I got the good news. To say I wasn’t writing much at this time would be a charitable assessment. I had an idea for a new novel, but my anxiety surrounding the one that hadn’t yet sold prevented me from making real headway. Let’s see if the first one’s seaworthy, I was thinking, before I build another with the only blueprint in my possession.

One by one, the rejections started to come in. Before we had sent my novel to that first editor, my agent asked if I wanted to see rejections that came in. I had said no. Remembering that exchange, I felt a little better—he had expected this, I thought, this mild turbulence through which my veteran pilot knew how to navigate. His phone call late that spring, however, in which he said my novel seemed to have run its course, was nothing I had expected.

At my agent’s suggestion, I took a look at the rejection letters, hoping for insight into what I might fix. I had heard stories of novels being rejected dozens of times, and we had sent mine to fewer than ten publishers. With a couple of exceptions, the letters were complimentary, if vague, most of them stating in various ways how difficult it would be to market “a book like this.” Was there anything I could do? Could we try smaller publishers? Was my novel dead? Questions like these quickly morphed into questions about my future as a writer. What had I been doing with my life these past several years? What was I going to do with the rest of my life? These might have been topics to explore in conversation with my fiancée, a fellow writer, but we weren’t particularly good at talking to each other—about anything, really, let alone our personal failures. Instead, we watched a lot of television. Hours after that fateful phone call from my agent, I came upon Dustin Hoffman being fawned over by James Lipton on an episode of Inside the Actors Studio. Hoffman spoke of watching so many of his peers find success in Hollywood while he continued to perform at the Pasadena Playhouse, recalling the moment he decided that yes, if this was all the success he ever achieved he would still be happy; it was the acting itself he needed, not the external validation.

The next morning I sat down at the computer for hours, finally making progress on that new novel. All summer we packed for Nashville, where my fiancée had landed a terrific job that would pay more than twice what I was making as an adjunct, and she would repay the time I had given her in school with a semester to do nothing but finish this new novel. Fifteen months later, I printed the first draft, all four hundred ninety-seven pages of it, and had my then-wife take my picture as I stood on the manuscript, smiling at how much taller it made me. Let’s not mention that a week before that photo was taken we tearfully acknowledged the end of our eleven-month marriage. Let’s not dwell on the ten years that would pass between that phone call from my first agent and the publication of my first novel, the result of a book contest. Tempting as it is to memorialize rejection, what I remember most vividly are those spring mornings in front of the computer, working on what would become my second failed novel. A few chapters in, I had no idea if it was any good, if I was any good, but I knew what I’d be doing the rest of my life.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

A Not-Quite-Definitive Young Adult Reading List

A few days ago, a friend of mine posed a question to me on Twitter: Any good recs for very smart 15 year old girls? I have 2 on my list, and I’m looking for things I don’t know about.

While I’ve read and enjoyed my share of Young Adult literature (starting from the time I was a young adult myself), the genre has really bloomed and boomed in recent years, leaving me a little out of the loop. So, I turned to the Hivemind in my social media circles and asked them for recommendations. To put it mildly, my Facebook account exploded. Golly, you people sure are passionate about your favorite ’tween reads! There were so many terrific (and terrifically diverse) suggestions that I decided to compile them here in one place. You’re welcome.

Before diving into the roster, you should know a few things: this list is far from complete. It begs for additions, which you are free to put in the comments section. Second, I’ve included some books which might not be typical reading fare for teenage girls (I drew the line at including Fifty Shades of Grey, which one Facebook friend suggested--hopefully with tongue firmly planted in cheek). I leave it to the parents and young readers themselves to decide what level of maturity they’re ready for.

I should add that I have only read an embarrassingly small fraction of these, so I can’t vouch for the quality of everything on here. I can tell you, however, that I’ll be using this as a starting point to upgrade my own YA reading.

One last thing: though the original request was for books which would appeal to a teenage girl, I don’t think that should stop any young gentleman from dipping into, and enjoying, this list.

I’ll begin with some personal favorites of my own which didn’t get mentioned by my Facebook users. I have read these and recommend you put them at the top of your reading pile:

Tunnel Vision by Susan Adrian
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Smile by Raina Telgemeier
Sisters by Raina Telgemeier
Drama by Raina Telgemeier

And now on with the rest of the list...

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Never Always Sometimes by Adi Alsaid
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson

Mosquitoland by David Arnold
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Eucalyptus by Murray Bail
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo
The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black
Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block
Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

The Miseducation of Cameron Post by emily m. danforth
Dreamland by Sarah Dessen
Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The Nursery Crime series by Jasper Fforde
The Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde
The Basil and Josephine Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
Inkspell by Cornelia Funke
Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
Conviction by Kelly Loy Gilbert
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
The First Part Last by Angela Johnson
Alice, I Think by Susan Juby
Miss Smithers by Susan Juby
Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen
I Crawl Through It by A. S. King
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
The Midwife’s Tale by Gretchen Moran Laskas
This Raging Light by Estelle Laure
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Very Far Away from Anywhere Else by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Astrologer’s Daughter by Rebecca Lim
How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Inexcusable by Chris Lynch
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall
The Rowan by Anne McCaffrey
The Dragonriders of Pern books by Anne McCaffrey
Wildwood by Colin Meloy
Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millett
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven
Wonder by R. J. Palacio
Sweet Valley High series by Francine Pascal
Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
The Lightning Queen by Laura Resau
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
Glow by Amy Kathleen Ryan
Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
Winger by Andrew Smith
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The Lies About Truth by Courtney C. Stevens
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
The Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
Honor Girl by Maggie Thrash
Homecoming by Cynthia Voigt
The Color Purple by Alice Walker

We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach
This Side of Home by Renee Watson
Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
The Once and Future King by T.H. White
Night by Elie Wiesel
Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

And no list of literature for young readers would be complete without mentioning one of my favorite literary periodicals, One Teen Story magazine. A subscription would make a wonderful year-round gift for your favorite young reader.