Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid


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



Daisy was Carole King, she was Laura Nyro. Hell, she could have been Joni Mitchell. And they wanted her to be Olivia Newton-John.

Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Saturday, March 16, 2019

A Dead Man’s Books: Jennifer Spiegel’s Library



Reader:  Jennifer Spiegel
Location:  Phoenix, Arizona
Collection Size:  No real clue.
The one book I'd run back into a burning building to rescue:  None. See below. That doesn’t mean that I don’t love them.
Favorite book from childhood:  I actually saved a ton for my kids, but my favorites are the Oz Books by L. Frank Baum. I’m pretty sure they changed my life. I love them so much.
Guilty pleasure book:  Maybe The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I’ve also been known to read a zombie novel or two, though I think I’ve met my quota and I’m done. Oh, and I like political memoirs. And U2 coffee table books. I see a coffee table book next to me, and it’s about Tiny Houses.


I love my nonsensical, random collection of books. My shelves cannot purport to be a library. That’s too noble. I do, however, have a house full of books.

I had a sobering moment in 2015. In the late spring of that year, I helped my mom pack up and officially downsize. She’d been a widow since 2002, and she had lived in the same house since the seventies. Both of my parents were avid readers (though I spent a great deal of time making fun of my dad’s James Michener habit and all of those Cold War thrillers that were turned into Cold War movies). She was moving to a guest house, and she’d hold onto a handful of books collected over a lifetime.

She picked out her keepers. I scavenged and pulled out a few, like Leon Uris’s QB VII, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, and Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War. And then I took boxes and boxes and boxes to sell at a used bookstore. It wasn’t because we didn’t love them; it was because we had no room for them. I must’ve had that Sybil book in there (Flora Rheta Schreiber), and Alex Haley’s Roots. James Clavell’s Shogun. Ken Follett, Mario Puzo, Norman Mailer, John Le Carré, too. Maybe one woman: The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough. All of these books, these special and beloved books, these demarcations of eras and these veritable points on a map. A lot of my father.

I packed them in boxes.

I loaded them into my car.

I drove to a bookstore.

And they gave me a couple of bucks for them.

That was my sobering moment.

You Can’t Take It With You.

I still keep my books. Most of them, anyway. I still believe in houses full of books. Shelves runneth-ing over. But—and I do not say this lightly—I might value them a little less than I once did. (I might be crying as I write this.)

I will, though, still say this boldly, brazenly: Shame on you if you do not own books.

So, in lieu of a library, I offer you this vision of my shelves.


My beloved travel books, disorganized, with a smattering of others like a Rolling Stone picture book and the scripts to sex, lies, and videotape and Do The Right Thing. That Let’s Go Europe book is from 1990, and readers of my new novel might note its treasured role.



Selected Books-I-Must-Save. Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Salman Rushdie’s Fury and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and B.J. Novak’s One More Thing. Please note that Ta-nehisi Coates is next to Rick Springfield. I think that Coates’ book is the definitive book on the Obama years. I can’t explain Rick Springfield (we go back) except to say this:




These are mostly my kids’ books: Harry Potter, Little House on the Prairie, and Oz. Below that are the textbooks from my MA program in International Relations, from my defunct politics days.



And these are books that I will undoubtedly make my kids read. Many classics. A lot of Hemingway. Bleak House. Cry, The Beloved Country. Catch-22. The Good Earth. Wait! And what’s that I see? Mockingjay? (And a little stack of my books.)



My kids. I do not have an Allegiant-thing. Sesame Street, yes. Allegiant, no.



You have the Childcraft books, right? I mean, we all do, yeah?



Miscellaneous! Because sometimes you want poetry and sometimes you want Disney and sometimes you want Leaves of Grass, the Bible, and U2.

I fill shelves. Some of my shelves are from Ikea. Some are from friends who were getting rid of them. Some are nice. We even have a secret door in our house, a passageway.

But when I die, you can take my books. They are yours.


Jennifer Spiegel is mostly a fiction writer with three books and a miscellany of short publications, though she also teaches English and creative writing. She is part of Snotty Literati, a book-reviewing gig, with Lara Smith. She lives with her family in Arizona. More information is available at www.jenniferspiegel.com. And So We Die, Having First Slept, a new novel, is about marriage, youth, middle-age, Gen X, and fidelity. Currently, Spiegel is working on a memoir, Cancer, I'll Give You One Year: A Non-Informative Guide To Breast Cancer, or Cancer, I'll Give You One Year: How To Get Your Ba-Da-Bing Boobies On The House!

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their 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.  Email thequiveringpen@gmail.com for more information.


Friday, March 15, 2019

Friday Freebie: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions and Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna by Mario Giordano


Congratulations to Phil Milio, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Bellflower by Mary Vensel White.

It’s Auntie Poldi Week at The Quivering Pen! This week’s giveaway is for two mystery novels by Mario Giordano featuring the Prosecco-loving detective: Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions and Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna. I have a hardcover copy of each novel to give away to one lucky reader. Keep scrolling for more information on the books and how to enter the contest...


The Sicilian Lions: On her sixtieth birthday, Auntie Poldi retires to Sicily, intending to while away the rest of her days with good wine, a view of the sea, and few visitors. But Sicily isn’t quite the tranquil island she thought it would be, and something always seems to get in the way of her relaxation. When her handsome young handyman goes missing—and is discovered murdered—she can’t help but ask questions. Soon there’s an investigation, a smoldering police inspector, a romantic entanglement, one false lead after another, a rooftop showdown, and finally, of course, Poldi herself, slightly tousled but still perfectly poised. This “masterly treat” (Times Literary Supplement) will transport you to the rocky shores of Torre Archirafi, to a Sicily full of quirky characters, scorching days, and velvety nights, alongside a protagonist who’s as fiery as the Sicilian sun.



The Vineyards of Etna: When Prosecco‑loving Auntie Poldi retired to Sicily from Germany, she never dreamed her tranquil days would be interrupted by murder. But Sicily had other plans, and Poldi found herself honor‑bound to solve the disappearance of her beloved (and cute) handyman. Now she’s finally ready for some peace and quiet—interrupted by romantic encounters with handsome Chief Inspector Montana, of course—when the water supply to her neighborhood is cut off and a dear friend’s dog is poisoned, telltale signs that a certain familial organization is flexing its muscles. Poldi knows there will be no resolution without her help. She soon finds a body in a vineyard, tangles with the Mafia, and yet again makes herself unpopular in the pursuit of justice. But once wine and murder mix, how could she possibly stay away? This is a sexy and thrilling follow‑up to Mario Giordano’s debut novel, Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, hailed by Adriana Trigiani as “an explosion of color [and] a celebration of the palette of Italian life and the Sicilian experience in its specificity, warmth and drama.”

If you’d like a chance at winning the Auntie Poldi books, simply e-mail your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on March 21, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 22. 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 e-mail 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.


Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky


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


In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money

in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)

lived happily during the war.

Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky

Friday, March 8, 2019

Friday Freebie: Bellflower by Mary Vensel White


Congratulations to Emma Cazabonne and Martha Burzynski, winners of last week’s Friday Freebie: 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich.

This week’s giveaway is for Bellflower by Mary Vensel White. I have one copy to give away to one lucky reader. Here’s what Deborah Reed, author of The Days When Birds Come Back, had to say about the book: “Told in Vensel White’s dazzling, clear-eyed prose, Bellflower is as sharp as it is nuanced, as nostalgic as it is foretold. These layered stories are filled with a yearning to uncover where the characters have been, and with an openhearted longing, accept all that is still to come. A small gem of a novel, each vignette comes as a surprise, and each is a testament to how, just like in life, everything is woven and fused and pulling toward the other.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...


At a party thrown by his wife’s PTA friend, Glen Hanley makes a reckless choice. Terri Moore’s life has finally settled after an unexpected divorce, until her son reveals stunning news. Elderly and alone, Mrs. Hallowicz finds solace in her flowerbeds and pet turtle, but the pain of a long-buried tragedy threatens to unhinge her. Mary Vensel White’s kaleidoscopic novel-in-moments spans the lifetimes of these three characters and the network of family and friends connecting them. On the shaky ground of California, foundations can suddenly shift. Bellflower is about the mysteries of fate and chance, the delicate balance of relationships, and the resilient human spirit that keeps us striving to complete our own stories, in our own way.

If you missed it earlier at the blog, you can take a tour of Mary’s home library: New House, New Shelves

If you’d like a chance at winning Bellflower, simply e-mail your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on March 14, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 15. 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 e-mail 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.


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

New House, New Shelves: Mary Vensel White’s Library



Reader:  Mary Vensel White
Location:  Southern California
Collection size:  750ish
The one book I’d run back into a burning building to rescue:  I wouldn’t run back into a burning building! As much as I love my books, most are replaceable, one way or another.
Favorite book from childhood:  A four-volume set of illustrated Disney stories
Guilty pleasure book:  Hm. I can’t think of anything in the book department I feel guilty for reading. I do watch a lot of bad television, however.

What I miss most about the house where I lived for almost eight years until this past August are the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves installed at the top of the stairs, in the landing area on the second floor. The space was blank when we bought the house, a perfect place for the shelves, which were white with mustard yellow backing that matched the nearby walls. My entire collection fit on these shelves, along with a column for children’s books (favorite picture books through the Young Adult novels my kids read before they stopped reading outside of school), yearbooks, assorted reference and coffee-table books, and rows of probably way too many photo albums. It wasn’t the first version of my library, but it was the most fully realized. I loved those shelves, loved having my books in one place with room to grow.

I started collecting books as a student. I kept everything: novels and non-fiction but also textbooks, anthologies, dictionaries. Every time I moved—seven times in three states—I faithfully boxed, stacked and unpacked them. There were various arrangements for books in the various homes. Several portable bookshelves followed along from place to place.

The first major culling of the collection happened when my children were very small. I decided to build a three-piece bookshelf from a Home Depot kit for the condo we had just purchased and renovated. While the babies slept, I assembled and painted this thing in the garage: white, with a wine-colored background (I’ve always been a fan of the colorful background). And when it came time to unbox the majority of the library that had been stored since the move, I ended up donating about forty percent of the books. I decided that moving forward, I would only keep books I believed I’d have occasion to re-read or reference in the future, or books I loved, either rationally or irrationally. Most of the school-related books went, also, novels for which my feelings were anything less than deep affection or admiration.


Four more moves in about six more years, and the books came along. Of course, the collection grew, even under the new rules for keeping. One house had a built-in office with two tall shelves; another had shelves in the family room. And then, we found the house where I thought I’d be for a very long time. Maybe, for good.

When I moved to this new place last year, it required another reshaping of the collection. Books of my soon-to-be ex-husband’s that had been part of the library for over two decades were boxed and sent his way. In some cases, ownership wasn’t entirely clear but because I was doing all of the labor, I used my best judgement and perhaps took some liberties.

Two weeks before I moved to this home, my home, I got the keys and began slowly moving things over. First on the list: the library. I took many bags to Goodwill. I packed up books that had been on my To Read pile for much too long. I got rid of books for which my affection had waned over the years. I moved box after box to the new house, lined the books up along the walls of my bright, spacious bedroom. And on a sunny day, I paid an installer to put together three new shelves—two for the landing at the top of this second floor, one for the crowded but cozy corner of my bedroom which serves as my office.

This library is a pared-down, leaner, much less concentrated and more mobile version of its former self. On the landing are mostly novels and just two shelves for children’s books from middle grade to present. The picture books and most of the photo albums are stacked in plastic bins in the garage, no room for them here. Next to my desk are literary theory and poetry, spiritual books, history and biography, books on writing, miscellaneous others. My new, smaller To Read pile is probably still too unwieldy.


Downstairs, a glass-enclosed bookshelf houses the coffee table books and a series about art that belonged to my mother. Also, that Disney set from childhood. On this home’s only built-in shelves, above a desk set off from the living room, you’ll find anthologies and collections, leather-bound classics I also brought from my mother’s house when we cleared out her library after she passed last year.

It occurs to me that my library, in its current incarnation, is a spread-out, breathing, but non-permanent thing. I think about a scene from my favorite movie, Moonstruck, when Loretta’s father says the pinky ring her fiancé has given her looks stupid. She says “It’s temporary!” and he fires back “Everything is temporary!” But I like the feeling of having my books settled into places, even if it’s several places, even if perhaps this newest arrangement is also quite temporary. The books are not. They have been with me through everything. They live on their shelves and in me, no matter where we find ourselves next.


Mary Vensel White is a graduate of the University of Denver and DePaul University. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, The Rumpus, The Wisconsin Review, Author Magazine, and other places, and she is a contributing editor at LitChat.com, and owner of TypeEighteenEditing.com. Her debut novel, The Qualities of Wood, was the first book published under HarperCollins’ Authonomy imprint. Her second novel, Bellflower, was published this year. Here’s what Deborah Reed, author of The Days When Birds Come Back, had to say about Bellflower: “A small gem of a novel, each vignette comes as a surprise, and each is a testament to how, just like in life, everything is woven and fused and pulling toward the other.” Mary Vensel White lives in southern California with her four children. Click here to visit her website.

My Library is an intimate look at personal book collections.  Readers are encouraged to send high-resolution photos of their 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.  Email thequiveringpen@gmail.com for more information.


Sunday, March 3, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown


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


Goodnight nobody
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

Saturday, March 2, 2019

I've Been Meaning to Talk to You About Procrastination



I.

In the past three weeks, I have written one book, begun work on another, and cranked out three short stories, not to mention all those stanzas of poetry. It is some of the most brilliant writing I’ve ever done.

It’s all been in my head.

I have composed sentences, strung together into paragraphs, running the full length to pages, but they are all invisible, all silent words tumbling like avalanche snowflakes in my snow-globe skull. As I shower, as I drive the icy streets of Butte, as I half-listen to conference calls at work, I am all the time writing. My head is florid with language.

This is merely half-writing, the first stage of art. I don’t, as they say, bring it to closure. The sentences too-rarely make their way to page or screen. This is the worst of procrastination: the mental doesn’t have the mettle to become material.

But lately, I’ve been wondering something. It’s a cute little newborn thought, not yet strong enough to leave the nest, but I gave it a good ponder and then jotted a few thoughts in my journal (hey, actual writing!):
       If I think of a sentence, compose a really good one in my head, but never write it down, is it still art? If so, is that art appreciated by an audience of one (me), or does it continue to toll, like the lingering hum of a struck bell, somewhere else? Is there someplace invisible to us—call it heaven, call it death—where all the words we’ve ever thought live as unrecorded art? I like to think of my scraps of writing flying through the air of heaven, bright as butterflies, swift as swallows.
       By this point in our earth’s age, it should be painfully obvious to us that all of our so-called art—the paintings, the books, even the music which has a physical presence in the air—all of it is temporal and already in a state of decomposition even as it’s being created. Nothing on earth will survive forever, so what does the act of physically creating an already-rotting piece of art say about us? Is art just a self-congratulatory statue to ourselves and we just fail to notice the rust flecks appearing at the base? Since all art begins invisibly, within the artist, maybe that’s all that’s needed; maybe it’s okay for some art to remain invisible, silent, abstract. I mean, if art falls to the forest floor and no one is around to hear it, is it still art?
       But maybe, just maybe, our art-thoughts live forever in the Other Place; maybe, just maybe, thinking a good artful sentence is as valid as writing it down. Maybe, just maybe, the skies of heaven are full of word-birds and we’re able to see and feel and hear Art all the rest of our days in that eternal aviary.
       This is not an argument for me not writing, but you have to admit that it gives a glimmer of hope for us procrastinators and do-nothingers.

And then, not five minutes after I typed those words, I picked up my current poetry book (New Poets of England and America), and read this poem by the never-heard-of-before poet Wesley Trimpi (“To Giotto”):
                 And must
The paint which holds your thought,
Dissolving flake by flake
To dust, now join your dust
In final dissolution?
You hoped too much to make
These figures always stay
Ageless and calm, for now
Even your blues and greens
Cause meaning to decay,
And none can comprehend
What dissolution means.


II.

I have been listening to Dani Shapiro’s memoir Devotion (read by the author) on audiobook. I’ve been enriched by her thoughtful, artful account of her spiritual quest. It has touched me as a father, a husband, a once-devout Christian, and as a writer. I promise you this: pick up any book by Dani Shapiro and you will be rewarded with sentences, paragraphs, and pages that pop like fireworks in both the head and the soul.

Today, Dani read more of her book to me and spoke these words straight to my heart, my terrible awful procrastinating heart that always does its best to clog that spot between my head and body:
       Writers often say that the hardest part of writing isn’t the writing itself; it’s the sitting down to write. The same is true of yoga, meditation, and prayer. The sitting down, the making space. The doing. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Unroll the mat. Sit cross-legged on the floor. Just do it. Close your eyes and express a silent need, a wish, a moment of gratitude. What’s so hard about that? Except—it is hard. The usual distractions—the clutter and piles of life—are suddenly, unusually enticing. The worst of it, I’ve come to realize, is that the thing that stops me—the shadow that casts a cold darkness across the best of my intentions—isn’t the puppy, the e-mail, the UPS truck, the school conference, the phone, the laundry, the to-do lists. It’s me that stops me. Things get stuck, the osteopath once said with a shrug. He gestured to the area where the neck meets the head. The place where the body ends and the mind begins. Things get stuck. It sounded so simple when he said it. It’s me, and the things that are stuck. Standing in my way.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get out of my own way...


Friday, March 1, 2019

Friday Freebie: 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich


Congratulations to Lisa Murray, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: And So We Die, Having First Slept by Jennifer Spiegel.

I’m pleased to announce this week’s giveaway is for my current (and long-lasting) reading obsession: 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich. I have two signed copies to give away to two lucky readers. This week’s book is subtitled A Life-Changing List and I can vouch for that to be true: 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die has already begun to improve my life in the four months I’ve been reading it. More on my love for the book below....


From the first of what I hope to be many blog posts about 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die (but I have to admit, I have a pretty poor track record so far), here are a few words about my trip through the book....

Another book telling us what books to read? Sigh. Yes, yes, yes, we live in a list-obsessed Buzzfeed culture these days, and certainly there are already plenty of “books to read before you die” lists floating around out there (How many have you read? Take our quiz now!), and I am hardly the last one to preach about the saintliness of not wasting time on obsessively counting how many books one has and hasn’t read. Hell, this blog is, in one sense, an ongoing summation of my reading habits. I love to tally. And then, too, there is an undeniable authoritarian nature of lists in general: you must read these! We feel sadly incomplete if we don’t score at least 90 on those quizzes. Or maybe that’s just me.

Having said all that, I have happily embraced falling into the thick-paged delights of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die. On October 31, 2018, I embarked on the kilo-volume journey, working my way, one book per day, through Mustich’s list. That puts me at a target date of July 27, 2021 for finishing this book (Note to Future Nitpickers: please don’t hold me accountable to that exact date; I need a little wiggle room for the interruptions of life, as well as the potential for burnout around the letter F). There is also the possibility that I’ll die before finishing this book. C’est la vie, shrugs the reader who, as he gets older, has found himself accelerating his reading speed in order to, impossibly, Read All the Books before he hits the grave.

I am four months into this 1,000 Books project (which you can follow on a daily basis on Instagram and Facebook) and I can say, unequivocally, that it is a pleasure to learn. Every day, I discover something new, or am reminded of the pleasures of books I’ve already read.

1,000 Books to Die Before You Read is organized alphabetically by the author’s last name, starting with Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire) and wrapping up 900 pages later with Carl Zuckmayer (A Part of Myself). There are 948 books which get individual entries; the other 52 are mentioned in the endnotes “More to Explore” and “Booknotes.” Selecting the titles could not have been easy: a combination Herculean and Sisyphean task, to be sure. As Mustich writes in his Introduction:
A book about 1,000 books could take so many different shapes. It could be a canon of classics; it could be a history of human thought and a tour of its significant disciplines; it might be a record of popular delights (or even delusions). But the crux of the difficulty was a less complicated truth: Readers read in so many different ways, any one standard of measure is inadequate. No matter their pedigree, inveterate readers read the way they eat: for pleasure as well as nourishment, indulgence as much as well-being, and sometimes for transcendence. Hot dogs one day, haute cuisine the next.
Haute dog challenge accepted, Mr. Mustich!

Click here to read more of that blog post, which includes mention of my own Reading Essentials list.

You’ll be just as happy as my cat Ember to get 1,000 Books in the mail

If you’d like a chance at winning 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, simply e-mail your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on March 7, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 8. 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 e-mail 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.


Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sunday Sentence: O Yes by Tillie Olsen


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


Exultant spirals of sound.
“O Yes” from Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen

Friday, February 22, 2019

Friday Freebie: And So We Die, Having First Slept by Jennifer Spiegel


Congratulations to Julie Geisler, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Midnight by Victoria Shorr.

This week’s giveaway is for And So We Die, Having First Slept by Jennifer Spiegel (author of The Freak Chronicles and Love Slave). Here’s what Tim Horvath, author of Understories, had to say about the new book: “Jennifer Spiegel’s much-anticipated second novel teems with intelligence and candor, assuredly. But oh, more than that, even, it’s that voiceit darts, it vamps, it dives, and most of all it scrutinizes, squarely, head-on, witty and withering. In this multitudinous soliloquy of a book, we get the relentless quest of a self-determined to narrate itself into being and becoming. Devour it; I did.”

Keep scrolling for more information and how to enter the contest...


And So We Die, Having First Slept is a novel about marriage, youth, middle-age, Gen X, and fidelity. Brett is older than Cash by a decade; both are world-wearyone from negotiating brain trauma and rehab and the absence of pretty boys, the other from addiction and road trips and even a Billy Graham crusade. Bath salts and babies work on their ten-year relationship, forcing them to begin again one way or another.

While you’re waiting to see if you won the contest, be sure to check out Jennifer’s essay in the My First Time series (hers is called Not My First Time).

If you’d like a chance at winning And So We Die, Having First Slept, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Feb. 28, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 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.


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Front Porch Books: February 2019 edition


Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of new and forthcoming booksmainly advance review copies (aka “uncorrected proofs” and “galleys”)I’ve received from publishers. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released. I should also mention that, in nearly every case, I haven’t had a chance to read these books, but they’re definitely going in the to-be-read pile.



The Cassandra
by Sharma Shields
(Henry Holt)

Jacket Copy:  Mildred Groves is an unusual young woman. Gifted and cursed with the ability to see the future, Mildred runs away from home to take a secretary position at the Hanford Research Center in the early 1940s. Hanford, a massive construction camp on the banks of the Columbia River in remote South Central Washington, exists to test and manufacture a mysterious product that will aid the war effort. Only the top generals and scientists know that this product is processed plutonium, for use in the first atomic bombs. Mildred is delighted, at first, to be part of something larger than herself after a lifetime spent as an outsider. But her new life takes a dark turn when she starts to have prophetic dreams about what will become of humankind if the project is successful. As the men she works for come closer to achieving their goals, her visions intensify to a nightmarish pitch, and she eventually risks everything to question those in power, putting her own physical and mental health in jeopardy. Inspired by the classic Greek myth, this 20th century reimagining of Cassandra’s story is based on a real WWII compound that the author researched meticulously. A timely novel about patriarchy and militancy, The Cassandra uses both legend and history to look deep into man’s capacity for destruction, and the resolve and compassion it takes to challenge the powerful.

Opening Lines:  I was at the mercy of the man behind the desk. I needed him to see my future as clearly as I saw it. He held four pink digits aloft, ring finger belted by a fat gold band, and listed off the qualities of the ideal working woman.
       “Chaste. Willing. Smart. Silent.”
       I swallowed his words, coaxed them into my bloodstream, my bones. I crossed my ankles and pinned my knees together, morphing into the exemplary she.
       The man eyed me with prideful ownership. “Frankly, Miss Groves, you’re the finest typist we’ve interviewed. Your speed and efficiency are commendable.”
       I opened up my shoulders, smiling. “They named me Star Pupil at Omak Secretarial.”
       “You’re not a bad-looking girl, you know that?”
       “Thank you. How kind of you.”
       “A little large. Plumper than some. But a nice enough face.” The man smoothed open the file on his desk. “Good husband stock at Hanford, Miss Groves. Plenty of men to choose from.”
       In my lap my hands shook like tender newborn mice. Such sweet, dumb hands. Calm down, you wild darlings. I focused on the man’s sunburnt face. It reminded me of a worm’s face, sleek, thin-lipped, blunt. He was handsome in a wormish way, or wormish in a handsome way. If I squinted just a little, his head melted into a pink oval smudge.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Cassandra feels powerfully―chillingly―relevant to our own political moment, even as it unfolds against the bleak splendor of the 1940s American West. It’s a harrowing story, beautifully told, of patriarchy and violence intertwining to make a combustible monster; and of the woman who speaks the truth about this monster, only to be dismissed as unhinged.” (Leni Zumas, author of Red Clocks)



Dawson’s Fall
by Roxana Robinson
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  In Dawson’s Fall, a novel based on the lives of Roxana Robinson’s great-grandparents, we see America at its most fragile, fraught, and malleable. Set in 1889, in Charleston, South Carolina, Robinson’s tale weaves her family’s journal entries and letters with a novelist’s narrative grace, and spans the life of her tragic hero, Frank Dawson, as he attempts to navigate the country’s new political, social, and moral landscape. Dawson, a man of fierce opinions, came to this country as a young Englishman to fight for the Confederacy in a war he understood as a conflict over states’ rights. He later became the editor of the Charleston News and Courier, finding a platform of real influence in the editorial column and emerging as a voice of the New South. With his wife and two children, he tried to lead a life that adhered to his staunch principles: equal rights, rule of law, and nonviolence, unswayed by the caprices of popular opinion. But he couldn’t control the political whims of his readers. As he wrangled diligently in his columns with questions of citizenship, equality, justice, and slavery, his newspaper rapidly lost readership, and he was plagued by financial worries. Nor could Dawson control the whims of the heart: his Swiss governess became embroiled in a tense affair with a drunkard doctor, which threatened to stain his family’s reputation. In the end, Dawson—a man in many ways representative of the country at this time—was felled by the very violence he vehemently opposed.

Opening Lines:  He wakes as he is falling.
       He feels himself plunging into space, a great wheeling emptiness below. He’s been on the edge of a cliff, grappling with a man trying to shoot him. Dawson grabs him, wrestling for the gun, but he wrenches away, pulling Dawson off-balance. The man presses the gun against Dawson’s chest; he hears the great enveloping sound of the shot. Then he feels the sickening shift beneath his feet as he loses his grip on the world.

Blurbworthiness:  “Acclaimed writer Roxana Robinson delves into her own family history as she sets her sights on the Civil War at its very heart, South Carolina, with spectacular results. Like Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, her own Dawson’s Fall will be a revelation to many readers in its profound and nuanced depiction of Southerners’ widely varied feelings about the Civil War and its aftermath. The past springs brilliantly to life in this tragic and compelling story, as accurate and fully realized a depiction of daily life and the extraordinary events of this time as has ever been written.”  (Lee Smith, author of Dimestore: A Writer’s Life)



The Vagabonds
by Jeff Guinn
(Simon and Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  The Vagabonds is the fascinating story of two American giants—Henry Ford and Thomas Edison—whose annual summer sojourns introduced the road trip to our culture and made the automobile an essential part of modern life, even as their own relationship altered dramatically. In 1914 Henry Ford and naturalist John Burroughs visited Thomas Edison in Florida and toured the Everglades. The following year Ford, Edison, and tire maker Harvey Firestone joined together on a summer camping trip and decided to call themselves the Vagabonds. They would continue their summer road trips until 1925, when they announced that their fame made it too difficult for them to carry on. Although the Vagabonds traveled with an entourage of chefs, butlers, and others, this elite fraternity also had a serious purpose: to examine the conditions of America’s roadways and improve the practicality of automobile travel. Cars were unreliable and the roads were even worse. But newspaper coverage of these trips was extensive, and as cars and roads improved, the summer trip by automobile soon became a desired element of American life. In The Vagabonds Jeff Guinn shares the story of this pivotal moment in American history. But he also examines the important relationship between the older Edison and the younger Ford, who once worked for the famous inventor. The road trips made the automobile ubiquitous and magnified Ford’s reputation, even as Edison’s diminished. The automobile had come of age and it would transform the American landscape, the American economy, and the American way of life. Guinn brings to life this seminal moment when a new industry created a watershed cultural shift and a famous businessman became a prominent political figure. The Vagabonds is a wonderful story of two American giants and the transformation of the country.

Opening Lines:  Bad weather plagued much of Michigan during the late summer of 1923. Unseasonably cool temperatures combined with near-constant rain, trapping residents indoors and tamping down what had been, for the last fifteen years or so, an ever-increasing influx of tourists eager to enjoy the state’s bracing mix of sprawling woodlands, arching hills, and sparkling lakes.



Temper CA
by Paul Skenazy
(Miami University Press)

Jacket Copy:  Joy Temper grew up wandering the woods of Temper, CA, a Gold Rush town her family helped establish in the 1840s. When she returns to Temper for her grandfather’s funeral, she discovers that the stories she’s long traded on about her hippie upbringing have little to do with reality. Her struggles to face who she once was, and what she now desires, force her to confront family secrets and long-suppressed memories in a novella both familial and romantic, contemporary and historical.

Opening Lines:  It was July—not the skin-scorching July I knew as a child growing up in Temper but the overcast chill of San Francisco summer mornings. I was at my kitchen table feasting on my usual Saturday morning breakfast of self-loathing, wondering why I needed to drink myself into a hangover every weekend Angie was away. Dad’s call was a relief.
       “Joy, your grandpa died last night.”

Blurbworthiness:  “Paul Skenazy’s fiction misbehaves. It swerves, it revisits ground and digs deeper, it confounds expectations. He has the gift of creating characters who are sympathetic not in spite of their prickliness but because of it, and of depicting human bonds that are all the tenser for being so strong.” (Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom)



Copperhead
by Alexi Zentner
(Viking)

Jacket Copy:  All Jessup wants is to enjoy his senior year at Cortaca High and get a scholarship to attend college. It doesn’t seem impossible. He’s a standout varsity football player. A good student. He works at the local movie theater to help his mother make ends meet. But it’s hard to live a normal life when everybody in town knows that your stepfather is a white supremacist—a white supremacist who was involved in a violent encounter with two young black college students. And who is about to be released from prison. But his stepfather, David John, also saved Jessup’s family from imploding, rescuing his mother and giving Jessup and his siblings a safe home for the first time. David John’s release from prison sets off a chain of events that will forever define Jessup’s entry into adulthood, dragging him into the swirling currents of irreconcilable ideologies, crushing loyalties, and unshakeable guilt. Told with unflinching honesty and a ferocious gaze directed at contemporary America’s darkest corners, Copperhead vibrates with the energy released by football tackles and car crashes. Alexi Zenter unspools the story of boys who think they’re men of the entrenched thinking that supports a split-second decision; and asks whether hatred, bigotry, and violence can ever be unlearned.

Opening Lines:  He spins the wheel hard, angry. He cannot pull away from the house fast enough. The truck lurches forward. A bee-stung horse. Snow and ice spit out from under the wheels, like a curse from a teacher’s mouth, like buckshot scattering through the air and bloodying the breast of a duck flushed from the water. The back end of the pickup, light and bouncy, skids wide and loose.
       When it happens, he feels the sound of the impact as much as he hears it: like a soda can crushed by a stomped foot. But it’s two distinct sounds: the heavy thud of the boot and the gossamer crinkle of metal folding on itself.

Blurbworthiness:  “Rendered in sparse, impressionistic prose, Copperhead is an incredibly ambitious undertaking, even for a writer of Zentner’s prodigious gifts—not just another bold stylistic reinvention, but a deeply personal and unflinching interrogation of the battle between self and history from a writer who never shies from unnerving his readers or wrenching our sympathies or forcing us to reckon with the quotidian nature of society’s most horrific impulses in ways we would prefer never to imagine.”  (Téa Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife)



Like Lions
by Brian Panowich
(Minotaur Books)

Jacket Copy:  Brian Panowich burst onto the crime fiction scene in 2015, winning awards and accolades from readers and critics alike for his smoldering debut, Bull Mountain. Now with Like Lions, he cements his place as one of the outstanding new voices in crime fiction. Clayton Burroughs is a small-town Georgia sheriff, a new father, and, improbably, the heir apparent of Bull Mountain’s most notorious criminal family. As he tries to juggle fatherhood, his job and his recovery from being shot in the confrontation that killed his two criminally-inclined brothers last year, he’s doing all he can just to survive. Yet after years of carefully toeing the line between his life in law enforcement and his family, he finally has to make a choice. When a rival organization makes a first foray into Burroughs territory, leaving a trail of bodies and a whiff of fear in its wake, Clayton is pulled back into the life he so desperately wants to leave behind. Revenge is a powerful force, and the vacuum left by his brothers’ deaths has left them all vulnerable. With his wife and child in danger, and the way of life in Bull Mountain under siege for everyone, Clayton will need to find a way to bury the bloody legacy of his past once and for all.

Opening Lines:  Annette memorized every board in the floor. It had taken her months to get the pattern right. She knew which slats creaked and moaned when she stepped on them, so she was careful to keep her bare feet only on the few that were nailed down tight. Those particular strips of seasoned oak had become her partners in crime. She’d let them become her friends. She trusted them not to betray her. She couldn’t say the same about anyone or anything else. Still, she was cautious, because this was her first attempt to navigate the route in the dark. She counted to ten every time she eased her weight down on each of them, and stepped in a slow-motion zigzag pattern down the main hall of the house.

Blurbworthiness:  “If Elmore Leonard and Flannery O’Connor had a love child who grew up reading William Faulkner, pulp fiction, and a Shakespearean tragedy or two, he’d write like Brian Panowich. His characters are knotty, tangled people who try and fail and frustrate yet keep going, fueled by something as bone deep as family or fear, or both…You’re in for a hell of a ride.” (Christopher Swann, author of Shadow of the Lions)



The Paper Wasp
by Lauren Acampora
(Grove Press)

Jacket Copy:  In small-town Michigan, Abby Graven leads a solitary life. Once a bright student on the cusp of a promising art career, she now languishes in her childhood home, trudging to and from her job as a supermarket cashier. Each day she is taunted from the magazine racks by the success of her former best friend Elise, a rising Hollywood starlet whose life in pictures Abby obsessively scrapbooks. At night Abby escapes through the films of her favorite director, Auguste Perren, a cult figure known for his creative institute the Rhizome. Inspired by Perren, Abby draws fantastical storyboards based on her often premonitory dreams, a visionary gift she keeps hidden. When Abby encounters Elise again at their high school reunion, she is surprised and warmed that Elise still considers her not only a friend but a brilliant storyteller and true artist. Elise’s unexpected faith in Abby reignites in her a dormant hunger, and when Elise offhandedly tells Abby to look her up if she’s ever in LA, Abby soon arrives on her doorstep. There, Abby discovers that although Elise is flourishing professionally, behind her glossy magazine veneer she is lonely and disillusioned. Ever the supportive friend, Abby becomes enmeshed in Elise’s world, even as she guards her own dark secret and burning desire for greatness. As she edges closer to Elise, the Rhizome, and her own artistic ambitions, the dynamic shifts between the two friends—until Abby can see only one way to grasp the future that awaits her.

Opening Lines:  I wore red capris on the plane. After I’d resolved to go to you, I couldn’t imagine wearing anything else. The red made me feel bold, like a matador.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Paper Wasp was a crazy joy ride of a novel; a bold and joyous take on female friendship, outsider ambition and the secret powers of loners. It gives us a heroine who is selfish, weird, manipulative, and sometimes just plain nasty, and makes us root for her with all our selfish, weird, manipulative, and nasty hearts. I loved every second of it.”  (Sandra Newman, author of The Heavens)



The Sun on My Head
by Geovani Martins
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Jacket Copy:  In The Sun on My Head, Geovani Martins recounts the experiences of boys growing up in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in the early years of the twenty-first century. Drawing on his childhood and adolescence, Martins uses the rhythms and slang of his neighborhood dialect to capture the texture of life in the slums, where every day is shadowed by a ubiquitous drug culture, the constant threat of the police, and the confines of poverty, violence, and racial oppression. And yet these are also stories of friendship, romance, and momentary relief, as in “Rolézim,” where a group of teenagers head to the beach. Other stories, all uncompromising in their realism and yet diverse in narrative form, explore the changes that occur when militarized police occupy the favelas in the lead-up to the World Cup, the cycles of violence in the narcotics trade, and the feelings of invisibility that define the realities of so many in Rio’s underclass.

Opening Lines:  Woke up blowtorches blazing. For real, not even nine a.m. and my crib was like melting. Couldn’t even see the rising damp in the living room, everything dry. Only the stains left: the saint, the gun, the dinosaur. Clear it was gonna be one of those days when you walking ’round and the sky’s all fogged up, things shiftin’ about you like hallucinating. Check it, even the breeze from the fan was hot, like the devil’s fuggy breath.



The Grand Dark
by Richard Kadrey
(Harper)

Jacket Copy:   From the bestselling author of the Sandman Slim series, a lush, dark, stand-alone fantasy built off the insurgent tradition of China Mieville and M. John Harrison—a subversive tale that immerses us in a world where the extremes of bleakness and beauty exist together in dangerous harmony in a city on the edge of civility and chaos. The Great War is over. The city of Lower Proszawa celebrates the peace with a decadence and carefree spirit as intense as the war’s horrifying despair. But this newfound hedonism—drugs and sex and endless parties—distracts from strange realities of everyday life: Intelligent automata taking jobs. Genetically engineered creatures that serve as pets and beasts of war. A theater where gruesome murders happen twice a day. And a new plague that even the ceaseless euphoria can’t mask. Unlike others who live strictly for fun, Largo is an addict with ambitions. A bike messenger who grew up in the slums, he knows the city’s streets and its secrets intimately. His life seems set. He has a beautiful girlfriend, drugs, a chance at a promotion—and maybe, an opportunity for complete transformation: a contact among the elite who will set him on the course to lift himself up out of the streets. But dreams can be a dangerous thing in a city whose mood is turning dark and inward. Others have a vision of life very different from Largo’s, and they will use any methods to secure control. And in behind it all, beyond the frivolity and chaos, the threat of new war always looms.

Opening Lines:  The Great War was over, but everyone knew another war was coming and it drove the city a little mad.



Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories
by Kelly Barnhill
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  When Mrs. Sorensen’s husband dies, she rekindles a long-dormant love with an unsuitable mate in “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch.” In “Open the Door and the Light Pours Through,” a young man wrestles with grief and his sexuality in an exchange of letters with his faraway beloved. “Dreadful Young Ladies” demonstrates the strength and power—known and unknown—of the imagination. In “Notes on the Untimely Death of Ronia Drake,” a witch is haunted by the deadly repercussions of a spell. “The Insect and the Astronomer” upends expectations about good and bad, knowledge and ignorance, love and longing. The World Fantasy Award–winning novella “The Unlicensed Magician” introduces the secret magical life of an invisible girl once left for dead—with thematic echoes of Barnhill’s Newbery Medal–winning novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon.

Opening Lines:  The day she buried her husband—a good man, by all accounts, though shy, not given to drink or foolishness; not one for speeding tickets or illegal parking or cheating on his taxes; not one for carousing at the county fair, or tomcatting with the other men from the glass factory; which is to say, he was utterly unknown in town: a cipher; a cold, blank space—Agnes Sorensen arrived at the front steps of Our Lady of the Snows. The priest was waiting for her at the open door. The air was sweet and wet with autumn rot, and though it had rained earlier, the day was starting to brighten, and would surely be lovely in an hour or two. Mrs. Sorensen greeted the priest with a sad smile. She wore a smart black hat, sensible black shoes, and a black silk shirt belted into a slim crepe skirt. Two little white mice peeked out of her left breast pocket—two tiny shocks of fur with pink, quivering noses and red, red tongues.

Blurbworthiness:  “The eight short stories and one novella in Barnhill’s collection are haunting and beautifully told...Each story is written in intensely poetic language that can exult or disturb, sometimes within the same sentence, and evokes a dreamlike, enchanted mood that lingers in the reader’s mind. These tales are made to be reread and savored.”  (Publishers Weekly)


Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sunday Sentence: Staff Picks by George Singleton


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


More lightning flashed, its prongs reaching the ground like an upturned vase of a half-dozen dead roses, and then the rain went horizontal.
Staff Picks by George Singleton

Friday, February 15, 2019

Friday Freebie: Midnight by Victoria Shorr


Congratulations to Lawrence Coates and Patrick Hicks, winners of last week’s Friday Freebie: War Flower by Brooke King.

This week’s giveaway is for Midnight by Victoria Shorr. Subtitled Three Women at the Hour of Reckoning, it weaves a trilogy of mini biographies: Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Joan of Arc at critical moments in their lives. Keep scrolling for more information and how to enter the contest...


Midnight is a study in the courage of three women―Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, and Joan of Arc. Jane Austen was poor in 1802, unmarried and homeless. She had outlines, ideas, and first drafts of her future novels but no place to sit and write them. It is at this bleak moment that she receives an offer of marriage from a rich man. Midnight takes us to the hour of her decision between financial security and her writing life. When sixteen-year-old Mary Godwin elopes to France with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she scoffs at the cost―life as an outcast. Together they travel through Europe, reading and writing, but Midnight finds her alone, eight years later, pacing a terrace overlooking the Italian shore, watching for Shelley to sail home over stormy seas in a shaky boat. Joan of Arc, imprisoned in chains, kept her faith for a long year. Be brave, daughter of God, her saints had whispered, you will be saved―and she believes it, until she is taken to be burned at the stake. Midnight is the story of Joan’s final days, between her terrified recantation and her heroic return to the stake.

If you’d like a chance at winning Midnight, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Feb. 21, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 22. 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, February 12, 2019

Trailer Park Tuesday: Sounds Like Titantic by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman





Milli Vanilli did it. Ashlee Simpson did it. And now Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman does it. In her memoir Sounds Like Titanic, the violinist describes how her orchestra fake-played in front of audiences: string synching instead of lip synching, if you will. Sounds Like Titanic is on my shortlist of books to read this year, and I think you can see, both by the terrific video for the book (above) and by this plot description, how it landed at the top of my pile:
When aspiring violinist Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman gets a job with a professional ensemble in New York City, she imagines she has achieved her lifelong dream. But the ensemble proves to be a sham. When the group “performs,” the microphones are never on. Instead, the music blares from a CD. The mastermind behind this scheme is a peculiar and mysterious figure known as The Composer, who is gaslighting his audiences with music that sounds suspiciously like the Titanic movie soundtrack. On tour with his chaotic ensemble, Hindman spirals into crises of identity and disillusionment as she “plays” for audiences genuinely moved by the performance, unable to differentiate real from fake.
I am fascinated by this story and, to paraphrase Celine Dion herself, Sounds Like Titanic is a reminder that near, far, wherever you are/I believe that the art does go on...


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


Monday, February 11, 2019

My First Time: Stephen Evans



The First Time I Heard the Audience Laugh

I had heard audiences laugh before, of course. Most of my time in the theater was spent as a performer: a singer by choice, an actor (though not much of one) by necessity. But this was different.

In the early 1980s, I was playing Rosencrantz in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to small bewildered houses in a theater outside Washington, DC. The play is a marvelous take on Hamlet as seen through the eyes of two minor characters, Hamlet’s two old pals.

During the run, I got an idea to write a play, a comedy about a playwright inspired by Shakespeare to write a play. I had never written a play before, but I didn’t know enough then to let that stop me. I managed over the next year or so to write the first act. But the second act stopped me and I did not finish the play.

About seven years later, I joined two of my oldest pals (also veterans of local theater) in starting a theater company. Our first show would be a fund-raiser, a musical review. Our second show would be my play—for which I now had to find a second act.

Production schedules wait for no man, or playwright. With lots of encouragement from my two friends and Shakespeare, I finally managed a second act to my play, now entitled The Ghost Writer. As opening night approached, it occurred to me that this was no longer just a personal intellectual challenge: could I write a play? An audience was actually going to answer that question for me.

I think of myself as a playwright who writes books. And I feel differently about publishing and producing. Publishing usually has a wider audience, and someone somewhere may let you know what they think. But it is distributed in time, and for me that lessens the impact. With a play, at least the first production, you are for better or worse usually right there sitting the audience. Everything is magnified, and very direct.

The lights went down on the audience of about 30 people, many of them friends. The curtain didn’t go up; it went sideways, which was suddenly how I expected the play to go. Then the lights came up onstage.

Sitting in the dark in the back row of the small theater, I was inundated with emotion. But more than anything—more than excited, more than terrified—I felt exposed. My thoughts, my words, my imagination were all going to be on display.

On opening night, the actress went about her opening business. No one got up and left. So far so good. Then the next actor entered. They exchanged a few lines. And then a miracle occurred.

Someone laughed.

Then more people started to laugh. They started to laugh together (this phenomenon of an audience coalescing to react in unison never ceases to fascinate me).

There were different kinds of laughter coming from that one small audience. I began to study them. There were the explosive laughs that erupted and subsided quickly, the wave laughs that started small and grew, the quantum laughs that jumped around the audience unpredictably, the lonely laughs from the one person (other than me) who thought it was funny, and the delayed exposure laugh, where it took a couple of beats for the audience to catch up before the laugh.

The audience, that blessed audience, continued laughing throughout the play. Not at the play. At the lines. The ones I had written.

I was hooked. From that moment on I knew that writing funny lines was what I wanted to do. Thoughtful funny lines. Funny lines laden with deep philosophic meaning that would change people’s lives.

Or just make them laugh.

That would be more than enough.


Stephen Evans is a playwright and the author of several books, including The Marriage of True Minds, A Transcendental Journey, Painting Sunsets, and The Island of Always. He lives in Maryland. Click here to visit his website.

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. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.