Sunday, April 5, 2020

Sunday Sentence: “Anyone Can Do It” by Manuel Munoz


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


Sundays were always so peaceful, Delfina thought, no matter where you were, so serene she imagined the birds themselves had gone dumb.

from “Anyone Can Do It” by Manuel Munoz in
Best American Short Stories 2019


Monday, March 30, 2020

My First Time: Elizabeth Kadetsky



My First In-Depth Encounter with an Actual Author

In 1990, the summer before I enrolled at Columbia Journalism School, a friend had passed along her job as amanuensis to a man whom I will call Harry Dewitt because, really, he was a very nice man, and I appreciate the exposure he gave me to an old-fashioned view of the publishing industry. It is not his real name.

Harry met me in his floor-through Park Avenue apartment, a grand if faded space adorned with dusty oriental carpets and rattan. I remember a French sculpture that resembled Rodin’s The Kiss. Harry appeared to be in his eighties, with pressed slacks belted too high, a stoop, and prominent eyebrows. He looked at me shyly and actually said, “You’ll do,” though his manner was less intimidating at first than bashful, almost like a boy on a first date.

“The new amanuensis,” he added, to himself. He spoke with an antiquated New York accent similar to the one I’d often heard in Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn movies, speaking to a sort of continental, American but not quite American persona. Or maybe it was Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success that his accent evoked for me. Harry said he’d been working on his memoirs—memoihhss—but that until he had a better sense of my abilities we’d start with correspondence. They were putting on a new production of one of his plays in Bonn. He named the play by title. I’d heard of it, hadn’t I, he asked, and of him? I avoided the questions by saying that I’d been living in California, though I did tell him honestly that my friend had caught me up to date on his biography.

He set me up at an IBM Selectric typewriter and began dictating from a large oak desk with small pieces of primitive-style art that seemed mildly erotic in nature. “Verlag Straussberg, ” he began, adding an address with a multisyllabic German street name.

“Excuse me. One g or two in Verlag?” I interrupted.

He looked at me with contempt. “My dear. Where did you go to college? Verlag. Publisher, in German, of course. Excuse me,” he added. He walked to the end of the large room, probably the apartment’s fifth or sixth bedroom, then he walked back officiously and began pacing as he continued to dictate.

“Dear George. My fourth play, first produced on Broadway in 1934, is being restaged in Bonn this coming January. I trust you recall the extent of my oeuvre, which spans forty debut productions in cities including Dusseldorf, Bruges and Trieste.

“The production in Bonn marks the first staging of works by, and I quote, ‘distinguished American playwright Harry Dewitt, author of several powerful plays about men struggling in the vortex of history. They advocate ideas, suffer, often are executed, but eventually their ideas win.’”

“Do you want to add the citation?” I asked.

“Citation? Oh no, no. It’s from the New York T…” he said, trailing off—I later discovered it was from not the Times, but from a small weekly newspaper upstate. He walked up behind me. “My dear, you are an awfully slow typist.” He put on his reading glasses and peered at the page, which by now, it was true, had more correction fluid than type. “Comma!” he added. “My God! What are they teaching you in California? Don’t you know that the last item in a series always takes a comma!?”

This of course was not categorically true; even I knew that the Chicago Manual of Style offered caveats for the Oxford comma, but I added the comma as he wished, in the space between the words Bruges and Trieste.

“Oh no no!” he cried, watching. “A Space. A space!” He reached across me from behind so close I felt a wind at my ear. He tore the paper from the typewriter. “Start again.” He handed me a new piece of his stationery, from a full, double-ream-sized box. The page had his name and Upper East Side address embossed in raised, shiny letters.


I would have been offended at his maltreatment of me, but I did feel sorry for Harry Dewitt. It went on like this. He re-dictated the same letter fourteen times that first day, addressed to, I think, every German publisher whose address he’d been able to locate in a directory then useful, before Google, called the Gale Directory. The letter didn’t actually have a point, just to remind the reader that he existed. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I could easily just copy it while he went back to his important work creating oeuvres treating the struggle of man against will, evil, and ignorance.

Later he introduced me to his wife, Daphne, also in her eighties, a sharply-dressed white-headed woman with sparkling pins in her hair who treated her husband with all the regard he’d come to expect given his stellar career. “Ah, the new amanuensis,” Daphne had said, upon meeting me, with no trace of humor or irony in her voice at all.

Later, once I enrolled at Columbia, I met several students who’d worked as assistants to actually famous writers, such as Mary Gordon, David Halberstam, and Gail Sheehy. None of these students had ever heard the word amanuensis.

I suppose one’s relative standing in the world of writers determines the relative length of the words they must use to describe their importance. Harry, I think, benefitted less from my actual typing and secretarial skills than from the mere fact I played a role that enhanced his own.

Today I see that Harry Dewitt is easily Wikipedi-able, and that his Wikipedia page was obviously written by himself. I’d typed its exact words many times. He was born in 1906 and lived to a hundred. Such stamina. But was he the real thing? Did his stamina, post-1940, when his fourth play was produced in Lausanne, ever get channeled to his work, or was it devoted for the next fifty years solely to the task of promoting the creations of his younger genius. Too bad for Harry he didn’t live to see Facebook. Okay, maybe he was a fraud. Maybe his labors with his revolving door of amanuenses provide just a cautionary tale. But working for Harry Drewitt showed me an old way of life. And it also showed me that in the Facebook and Twitter era, self-promotion has merely taken another form. Literature and the pursuit of status will always be intertwined. Sometimes I remember Harry as I read Facebook to myself. I put on his Cary Grant accent and read aloud, and I am possessed of a feeling I have gained a greater perspective on our literary times.


Elizabeth Kadetsky’s memoir-in-essays, The Memory Eaters, explores family illness, addiction, inherited trauma, and the secrets of her inherited past. She is author of the memoir First There Is a Mountain, the short story collection The Poison that Purifies You, and the novella On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World. A professor of creative writing at Penn State and nonfiction editor at the New England Review, she is the recipient of fellowships from the Fulbright Program, MacDowell Colony, and Vermont Studio Center.

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.


Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sunday Sentence: Edison by Edmund Morris


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


The revolution Edison had wrought was so unobtrusive and at the same time so world changing that few, if any, of the people who experienced it realized what had happened: an end to the counterbalance of night and day that had obtained for all of human history, mocking the attempts of torchbearers and lamplighters and gas companies to alter it with their puny waves of flame.

Edison by Edmund Morris


Friday, March 27, 2020

Friday Freebie: Prairie Fever by Michael Parker


Congratulations to Carl Scott, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Lanny, the new novel by Max Porter (author of Grief is the Thing With Feathers).

This week’s contest is for Prairie Fever by Michael Parker, out in paperback from Algonquin Books in April. I have a copy to put in one lucky reader’s hands, and soon they can enjoy a novel that captures “a time, place, and sisterhood so perfectly it hurts to turn the last page. A riveting, atmospheric dream of a novel” (according to Dominic Smith, author of The Last Painting of Sara de Vos).

If you would like to add Prairie Fever to your bookshelf, keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...


Set in the hardscrabble landscape of early 1900s Oklahoma, but timeless in its sensibility, Prairie Fever traces the intense dynamic between the Stewart sisters: the pragmatic Lorena and the chimerical Elise. The two are bound together not only by their isolation on the prairie but also by their deep emotional reliance on each other. That connection supersedes all else until the arrival of Gus McQueen. When Gus arrives in Lone Wolf, Oklahoma, as a first time teacher, his inexperience is challenged by the wit and ingenuity of the Stewart sisters. Then one impulsive decision and a cataclysmic blizzard trap Elise and her horse on the prairie and forever change the balance of everything between the sisters, and with Gus McQueen. With honesty and poetic intensity and the deadpan humor of Paulette Jiles and Charles Portis, Parker reminds us of the consequences of our choices. Expansive and intimate, this novel tells the story of characters tested as much by life on the prairie as they are by their own churning hearts.

If you’d like a chance at winning Prairie Fever, 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.

The Fine Print
One entry per person, please (or, two if you share the post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on April 9 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on April 10.

The Finer Print
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).

The Finest Print
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 25, 2020

Fresh Ink: March 2020 edition


Fresh Ink 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 Last Bathing Beauty
by Amy Sue Nathan
(Lake Union Publishing)

Jacket Copy:  Everything seemed possible in the summer of 1951. Back then Betty Stern was an eighteen-year-old knockout working at her grandparents’ lakeside resort. The “Catskills of the Midwest” was the perfect place for Betty to prepare for bigger things. She’d head to college in New York City. Her career as a fashion editor would flourish. But first, she’d enjoy a wondrous last summer at the beach falling deeply in love with an irresistible college boy and competing in the annual Miss South Haven pageant. On the precipice of a well-planned life, Betty’s future was limitless. Decades later, the choices of that long-ago season still reverberate for Betty, now known as Boop. Especially when her granddaughter comes to her with a dilemma that echoes Boop’s memories of first love, broken hearts, and faraway dreams. It’s time to finally face the past—for the sake of her family and her own happiness. Maybe in reconciling the life she once imagined with the life she’s lived, Boop will discover it’s never too late for a second chance.

Opening Lines:  Any other bride might have gazed into the mirror, stepped away, and then glanced back over her shoulder for another peek. Not Betty. She hadn’t looked at herself once today, and in fact she’d avoided her reflection all week. She knew the person looking back from the mirror would not be her. Betty Claire Stern no longer existed. She wanted to say she died, but Betty was mindful of her reputation for melodrama.

Blurbworthiness:  “In this reimagining of Dirty Dancing, Nathan demonstrates expert storytelling when we meet the charismatic Betty ‘Boop’ Stern as a young woman, and also as an eighty-four-year-old as she looks back on a difficult choice that altered the path of her glittering future. Told with empathy and lyrical prose, The Last Bathing Beauty is a winning tale of friendship, regret, and second chances with a ring of endearing and spirited women at its heart.” (Heather Webb, author of Meet Me in Monaco)

Why It’s In My Stack:  It’s spring, there’s rotten snow clinging to the mountains in Montana, and I’m ready for something summery with beauty pageants, beach balls, and broken hearts. Even if that beach is in Michigan and not Atlantic City.



That Left Turn at Albuquerque
by Scott Phillips
(Soho)

Jacket Copy:  A hardboiled valentine to the Golden State, That Left Turn at Albuquerque marks the return of noir master Scott Phillips. Douglas Rigby, attorney-at-law, is bankrupt. He’s just sunk his last $200,000—a clandestine “loan” from his last remaining client, former bigshot TV exec Glenn Haskill—into a cocaine deal gone wrong. The lesson? Never trust anyone else with the dirty work. Desperate to get back on top, Rigby formulates an art forgery scheme involving one of Glenn’s priceless paintings, a victimless crime. But for Rigby to pull this one off, he’ll need to negotiate a whole cast of players with their own agendas, including his wife, his girlfriend, an embittered art forger, Glenn’s resentful nurse, and the man’s money-hungry nephew. One misstep, and it all falls apart—will he be able to save his skin? Written with hard-knock sensibility and wicked humor, Scott Phillips’s newest novel will cement him as one of the great crime writers of the 21st century.

Opening Lines:  Heading up the 5 and in a hyper-enervated state, he stopped in Mission Viejo at Manny’s Liquor and Variety Store, where he knew a working pay phone was attached to the brick wall outside. Scored and pitted, covered with graffiti and rust, for all Rigby knew it might have been the last one in Southern California. Next to it stood a skeletal derelict with a week’s growth of beard and stiff, ancient jeans gray with filth, looking as though he was waiting for a call. Rigby decided to go inside and buy a celebratory bottle, in case the tweaker decided to shove off on his own.
       This might be the seedier side of Mission Viejo, but that still meant a fine selection of champagnes and a patronizing sales clerk. “We have a nice Veuve Clicquot here for sixty-four ninety-nine,” he said, nostrils flaring, eyeing him sidelong. “I imagine that’d do you nicely.” Minus the condescension, that would have been fine for Rigby’s purposes, but he felt compelled to put the salesman in his place.
       “That’s white trash booze,” he said. “How much for the Krug?”
       “That’s vintage. 2003.”
       “Swell. How much?”
       “Three hundred nineteen dollars and ninety-nine cents.”
       “Great, and stick a bow on it.”

Blurbworthiness:  “Many writers bill themselves as noir, but if you want to experience what the word truly means, in its finest expression, then pick up That Left Turn at Albuquerque, a brutally funny, wickedly clever nightmare that heralds the triumphant return of Scott Phillips, the twenty-first century’s greatest purveyor of crime fiction.”  (Blake Crouch, author of Recursion)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’m a huge fan of Phillips’ debut, The Ice Harvest; HUGE: as in, cut me with its pages and I bleed like a stuck two-timing embezzler caught with his red hands trying to hold his pants up. And my blood is black, noir black. I’m looking forward to suffering from many more cuts as I toss the pages to the left in That Left Turn at Albuquerque.



The Last Summer of Ada Bloom
by Martine Murray
(Tin House Books)

Jacket Copy:  In a small country town during one long, hot summer, the Bloom family is beginning to unravel. Martha is straining against the confines of her life, lost in regret for what might have been, when an old flame shows up. In turn, her husband Mike becomes frustrated with his increasingly distant wife. Marital secrets, new and long-hidden, start to surface―with devastating effect. And while teenagers Tilly and Ben are about to step out into the world, nine-year-old Ada is holding onto a childhood that might soon be lost to her. When Ada discovers an abandoned well beneath a rusting windmill, she is drawn to its darkness and danger. And when she witnesses a shocking and confusing event, the well’s foreboding looms large in her mind―a driving force, pushing the family to the brink of tragedy. For each family member, it’s a summer of searching―in books and trees, at parties, in relationships new and old―for the answer to one of life’s most difficult questions: how to grow up? The Last Summer of Ada Bloom is an honest and tender accounting of what it means to come of age as a teen, or as an adult. With a keen eye for summer’s languor and danger, and a sharp ear for the wonder, doubt, and longing in each of her characters’ voices, Martine Murray has written a beguiling story about the fragility of family relationships, about the secrets we keep, the power they hold to shape our lives, and about the power of love to somehow hold it all together.

Opening Lines:  Ada found a forgotten windmill. She was walking with PJ in the patch of bush between her house and Toby Layton’s. She was already nine and still wearing her jumper back to front. PJ was old and broad as a wombat, with three legs that worked, so he waddled along and Ada often had to stop and wait for him. She swished a stick, absentmindedly whacking at the teatree and singing over and over again, “Did you ever come to meet me, Farmer Joe, Farmer Joe?” She couldn’t remember the next line. She wasn’t sure the words were right, but because she was alone, and because it was her traveling-along song, she sang as loudly and confidently as a trumpet.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Bloom family will absolutely have your heart. Ada Bloom is a sweet, precocious girl traversing that strange territory on the edge of childhood. Her sister Tilly and brother Ben are testing the waters of adulthood, each in their own way. Their parents, Martha and Mark, are both tempted by people in their lives, old and new, in disastrous ways. Readers will be spellbound by this honest and tender accounting of each Bloom family member, told in a chorus of voices, revealing a intimate and flawed family portrait that leaves you feeling connected to everyone around you. Martine Murray's stunning debut is a true delight.”  (Julia Fierro, author of The Gypsy Moth Summer)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Frankly, just about anything Tin House Books decides to publish will get an automatic look from me. Their taste is impeccable and never disappointing. This debut novel looks especially good at glueing eyes to the page. A brief skim through the chapter openings assures me there is some good, tight writing waiting for me behind the deceptively-sunny cover.



A Registry of My Passage Upon the Earth
by Daniel Mason
(Little, Brown)

Jacket Copy:  From the bestselling, award-winning author of The Winter Soldier and The Piano Tuner, a collection of interlaced tales of men and women facing the mysteries and magic of the world. On a fateful flight, a balloonist makes a discovery that changes her life forever. A telegraph operator finds an unexpected companion in the middle of the Amazon. A doctor is beset by seizures, in which he is possessed by a second, perhaps better, version of himself. And in Regency London, a bare-knuckle fighter prepares to face his most fearsome opponent, while a young mother seeks a miraculous cure for her ailing son. At times funny and irreverent, always moving and deeply urgent, these stories cap a fifteen-year project. From the Nile’s depths to the highest reaches of the atmosphere, from volcano-racked islands to an asylum on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, these are tales of ecstasy, epiphany, and what the New York Times Magazine called the “struggle for survival....hand to hand, word to word,” by “one of the finest prose stylists in American fiction.”

Opening Lines:  Born a winter child in the Bristol slums, in the quayside heap known only as “The Rat,” Jacob Burke, who would come to battle the great McGraw on that fateful day in 1824, was a son of the stevedore Isaac Burke and the seamstress Anne Murphy. He of Bristol, son of James, son of Tom, son of Zebedee, lifters all. She of Dublin and the cursed Gemini of Poverty and Fertility: Jacob was the twelfth of eighteen children, the third of the eight who lived.
       It was a common quayside childhood, of odd jobs and shoe-shining; of quinsy, croup, and the irresistible temptation of diving from the piers. He grew up quickly. Thick-necked, thick-shouldered, steel-fisted, tight-lipped, heavy-on-the-brow, the boy knew neither a letter nor the taste sweet until his tenth year, when, in the course of a single moon, he learned to sound out the rune on the shingle at Mulloy’s Arms and stole an apple from a costermonger on the road to Bath.

Blurbworthiness:  “An enchanting cabinet of curiosities and wonders... Mason is one of our best historical novelists, creating panoramas of rich detail, propulsive plot, and artful character development... In his first story collection, he shows how quickly and completely he can immerse readers in a foreign place and time... Nine tales of human endurance, accomplishment, and epiphany told with style and brio.”  (Kirkus Reviews)

Why It’s In My Stack:  The title hooks, but the contents reel me in. These stories have just enough variety in time and place to make me think I’m going to get a full package of entertainment in these pages. Register this one on my Must-Read List.



New Bad News
by Ryan Ridge
(Sarabande Books)

Jacket Copy:  In New Bad News, the frenetic and far-out worlds of fading celebrities, failed festival promoters, underemployed adjuncts, and overly aware chatbots collide. A Terminator statue comes to life at the Hollywood Wax Museum; a coyote laps up Colt 45, as a passerby looks on in existential quietude; a detective disappears while investigating a missing midwestern cam girl. Set in Kentucky, Hollywood, and the afterlife, these bright, bold short-shorts and stories construct an uncannily familiar, alternate-reality America.

Opening Lines:  These days he strums his guitar with an unregistered handgun in an alleyway at the Psychedelic Street Fair. The acoustics are astonishing.

Blurbworthiness:  “New Bad News is tenderness and mordancy awash with California moonlight and Kentucky ghosts, too. Ryan Ridge’s strange transmissions glow like buzzing neon in the dim and make us feel less weird and alone. This! This is a book of brilliant, zappy echoes we can touch.” (Leesa Cross-Smith, author of So We Can Glow)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Earlier in this space, I mentioned how my 2020 reading year was shaping up to be full of short stories (thus far, four collections have been added to the book log I keep). So what do the good folks at Sarabande Books do? They add balance another interesting-looking collection of short fiction at the top of the already teetering stack of my “must-reads.” In all honesty, I’m a sucker for flash fiction—the very very very short stories that are sometimes no longer than a few sentences (and occasionally not even that long)—and Ryan Ridge’s book looks like it’s full of some good quick-as-lightning, strong-as-thunder stories. The good news is I’ll be reading these soon.



The Mystery of Charles Dickens
by A. N. Wilson
(Harper)

Jacket Copy:  Charles Dickens was a superb public performer, a great orator and one of the most famous of the Eminent Victorians. Slight of build, with a frenzied, hyper-energetic personality, Dickens looked much older than his fifty-eight years when he died—an occasion marked by a crowded funeral at Westminster Abbey, despite his waking wishes for a small affair. Experiencing the worst and best of life during the Victorian Age, Dickens was not merely the conduit through whom some of the most beloved characters in literature came into the world. He was one of them. Filled with the twists, pathos, and unusual characters that sprang from this novelist’s extraordinary imagination, The Mystery of Charles Dickens looks back from the legendary writer’s death to recall the key events in his life. In doing so, he seeks to understand Dickens’ creative genius and enduring popularity. Following his life from cradle to grave, it becomes clear that Dickens’s fiction drew from his life—a fact he acknowledged. Like Oliver Twist, Dickens suffered a wretched childhood, then grew up to become not only a respectable gentleman but an artist of prodigious popularity. Dickens knew firsthand the poverty and pain his characters endured, including the scandal of a failed marriage. Going beyond standard narrative biography, A. N. Wilson brilliantly revisits the wellspring of Dickens’s vast and wild imagination, to reveal at long last why his novels captured the hearts of nineteenth century readers—and why they continue to resonate today.

Opening Lines:  “I have no relief, but in action. I am become incapable of rest...Much better to die, doing,” the hyper-energetic, over-sexed, tormented, exultant, hilarious, despondent Charles Dickens had written to a friend, thirteen years before he actually died.
       Dickens was good at dying. If you want a good death, go to the novels of Dickens.

Why It’s In My Stack:  If, at one of my public appearances, you have stood up and asked me to name my favorite author; if you have ever visited my home and spent any amount of time browsing my bookshelves; if you are a regular reader of this blog and have noticed that Charles Dickens is the most-tagged author in the ten-year history of The Quivering Pen, then it should be no mystery why A. N. Wilson’s biography of the great writer is in my stack. It is, in short, a rather big “duh.”



Last Mission to Tokyo
by Michel Paradis
(Simon and Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  In 1942, freshly humiliated from the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States was in search of a plan. President Roosevelt, determined to show the world that our nation would not be intimidated or defeated by enemy powers, demanded recommendations for a show of strength. Jimmy Doolittle, a stunt pilot with a doctorate from MIT, came forward, and led eighty young men, gathered together from the far-flung corners of Depression-era America, on a seemingly impossible mission across the Pacific. Sixteen planes in all, they only had enough fuel for a one-way trip. Together, the Raiders, as they were called, did what no one had successfully done for more than a thousand years. They struck the mainland of Japan and permanently turned the tide of the war in the Pacific. Almost immediately, The Doolittle Raid captured the public imagination, and has remained a seminal moment in World War II history, but the heroism and bravery of the mission is only half the story. In Last Mission to Tokyo, Michel Paradis reveals the dramatic aftermath of the mission, which involved two lost crews captured, tried, and tortured at the hands of the Japanese, a dramatic rescue of the survivors in the last weeks of World War II, and an international manhunt and trial led by two dynamic and opposing young lawyers—in which both the United States and Japan accused the other of war crimes—that would change the face of our legal and military history.

Opening Lines:  How do you tell a man that he will be killed tomorrow? Sotojiro Tatsuta confronted this question on the evening of Wednesday, October 14, 1942. He had just gotten off the phone with his boss in Nanking. As the warden of the Jiangwan Military Prison, the Japanese Army’s brig on the outskirts of Shanghai, China, this execution would be his responsibility.
       Tatsuta gathered the three American prisoners who would soon hear this news together. Higher-ups had spared the five other Americans, who were still back in their cells. Only these three men would be shot through the head the next morning. Tatsuta’s job was to organize it all, and at this moment, his job was to tell them.
       A skinny man with a gold tooth that tended to flash when he talked, Tatsuta was conflicted. Yes, these men were his enemies—or at least the enemies of Japan. Yes, they had been duly convicted of atrocities against his people. And yes, only three men would have to die tomorrow, instead of all eight, thanks to the mercy of Emperor Hirohito. But these kinds of rationalizations, all perfectly good and reasonable, were hard to keep at the front of his mind as he looked at the still living, breathing, blinking young men—barely more than boys, really—whose every hope, dream, fear, ambition, and debt would soon be rendered moot. A single bullet was scheduled to break through their foreheads, scramble their brains, and leave nothing but paperwork.

Blurbworthiness:  “Last Mission to Tokyo is a thoroughly compelling true story of legal intrigue in the most unexpected of settings. Impeccably researched and beautifully written, it captures the reader with the first sentence and never lets go.” (John Grisham, author of Camino Winds)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’ve seen (and loved) the 1944 Spencer Tracy movie Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, but Paradis’ book adds an intriguing coda to the story of the mission with a courtroom drama that even has John Grisham applauding. And how about the final sentence of those opening lines I quoted above? Wowzers!



In the Valley
by Ron Rash
(Doubleday)

Jacket Copy:  From bestselling and award-winning writer Ron Rash comes a collection of ten searing stories and the return of the villainess who propelled Serena to national acclaim, in a long-awaited novella. Ron Rash has long been a revered presence in the landscape of American letters. A virtuosic novelist, poet, and story writer, he evokes the beauty and brutality of the land, the relentless tension between past and present, and the unquenchable human desire to be a little bit better than circumstances would seem to allow (to paraphrase Faulkner). In these ten stories, Rash spins a haunting allegory of the times we live in—rampant capitalism, the severing of ties to the natural world in the relentless hunt for profit, the destruction of body and soul with pills meant to mute our pain—and yet within this world he illuminates acts of extraordinary decency and heroism. Two of the stories have already been singled out for accolades: “Baptism” was chosen by Roxane Gay for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories 2018, and “Neighbors” was selected by Jonathan Lethem for The Best American Mystery Stories 2019. And in revisiting Serena Pemberton, Rash updates his bestselling parable of greed run amok as his deliciously vindictive heroine returns to the North Carolina wilderness she left scarred and desecrated to make one final effort to kill the child that threatens all she has accomplished.

Opening Lines:  They came at dawn, ground crackling beneath the trample of hooves, amid it the sound of chickens flapping and squawking.

Why It’s In My Stack:  This will be a good excuse to re-read one of my favorite books of the early 2000’s: Serena. As if I ever needed an excuse to read anything by the great Ron Rash.


Sunday, March 22, 2020

Sunday Sentence (Special Grandson Edition): Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson


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

NOTE: Content has been a little thin at the Pen lately. There’s a very good reason for that: I’ve just spent the last week in North Carolina where I was incredibly blessed and lucky to witness the birth of my first grandchild, a healthy, happy, cute-as-a-button little lad named Ludo. Four days later, with my new best friend tucked in the crook of my arm like a swaddled butternut squash, I asked his mother (my daughter) to reach over to the nearby bookshelf for one of the books I’d brought with me from Montana. And then, clearing my throat, I proceeded to read Ludo his first book, a real classic. (That’s my wife holding the book in this picture―yeah, we may have politely fought for “baby time” during our visit.) These are two of my favorite sentences from those pages...



He didn’t want to get lost in the woods. So he made a very small forest, with just one tree in it.

Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson


Sunday Sentence: Plot It Yourself by Rex Stout


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


Squab marinated in light cream, rolled in flour seasoned with salt, pepper, nutmeg, clove, thyme, and crushed juniper berries, sautéed in olive oil, and served on toast spread with red currant jelly, with Madeira cream sauce poured over it, is one of Wolfe’s favorite tidbits.

Plot It Yourself by Rex Stout


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Sunday Sentence: So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith


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


You kiss me with the deliberateness of carefully pouring acid from one beaker to another―the slightest mistake and we could have a Situation.

"Dandelion Light" from So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith


Friday, March 13, 2020

Friday Freebie: Lanny by Max Porter


Congratulations to Katrina Roberts, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: four books from Algonquin Young Readers: Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, The Dark Lord Clementine by Sarah Jean Horwitz, Naked Mole Rat Saves the World by Karen Rivers, and Cub by Cynthia L. Copeland.

This week’s contest is for Lanny, the new novel by Max Porter (author of Grief is the Thing With Feathers).

“Reading Lanny is like going to the back of the garden to find the exact spot where magic and menace meet. It’s delightful and dark, stark and stylish, and as strange as it is scary.” (Claire Cameron, author of The Bear)

If you would like to add Lanny to your garden (er, bookshelf), keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...


There’s a village an hour from London. It’s no different from many others today: one pub, one church, redbrick cottages, some public housing, and a few larger houses dotted about. Voices rise up, as they might anywhere, speaking of loving and needing and working and dying and walking the dogs. This village belongs to the people who live in it, to the land and to the land’s past. It also belongs to Dead Papa Toothwort, a mythical figure local schoolchildren used to draw as green and leafy, choked by tendrils growing out of his mouth, who awakens after a glorious nap. He is listening to this twenty-first-century village, to its symphony of talk: drunken confessions, gossip traded on the street corner, fretful conversations in living rooms. He is listening, intently, for a mischievous, ethereal boy whose parents have recently made the village their home. Lanny. With Lanny, Max Porter extends the potent and magical space he created in Grief Is the Thing With Feathers. This brilliant novel will ensorcell readers with its anarchic energy, with its bewitching tapestry of fabulism and domestic drama. Lanny is a ringing defense of creativity, spirit, and the generative forces that often seem under assault in the contemporary world, and it solidifies Porter’s reputation as one of the most daring and sensitive writers of his generation.

If you’d like a chance at winning Lanny, 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.

The Fine Print
One entry per person, please (or, two if you share the post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on March 26 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 27.

The Finer Print
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).

The Finest Print
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 8, 2020

Sunday Sentence: So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith


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


Billie Holiday is singing and singing and singing, her dusty paper-flower voice echoing off the tiled walls.

"Home Safe" from So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith


Friday, March 6, 2020

Friday Freebie: Four Books from Algonquin Young Readers


Congratulations to John Smith, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: two new releases by Ander Monson: I Will Take the Answer (essays) and The Gnome Stories.

This week’s contest is for four new(ish) books from the good folks at Algonquin Young Readers: Tigers, Not Daughters by Samantha Mabry, The Dark Lord Clementine by Sarah Jean Horwitz, Naked Mole Rat Saves the World by Karen Rivers, and Cub by Cynthia L. Copeland. I have new copies of each book to put in the hands of one lucky reader. The first three titles are hardcover, Cub (a graphic novel) is softcover. Keep scrolling for more information on the books and how to enter the contest...


In Tigers, Not Daughters, a stunning follow-up to her National Book Award-longlisted novel All the Wind in the World, Samantha Mabry weaves an aching, magical novel that is one part family drama, one part ghost story, and one part love story. The Torres sisters dream of escape. Escape from their needy and despotic widowed father, and from their San Antonio neighborhood, full of old San Antonio families and all the traditions and expectations that go along with them. In the summer after her senior year of high school, Ana, the oldest sister, falls to her death from her bedroom window. A year later, her three younger sisters, Jessica, Iridian, and Rosa, are still consumed by grief and haunted by their sister’s memory. Their dream of leaving Southtown now seems out of reach. But then strange things start happening around the house: mysterious laughter, mysterious shadows, mysterious writing on the walls. The sisters begin to wonder if Ana really is haunting them, trying to send them a message—and what exactly she’s trying to say.



Dastardly deeds aren’t exactly the first things that come to mind when one hears the name “Clementine,” but as the sole heir of the infamous Dark Lord Elithor, twelve-year-old Clementine Morcerous has been groomed since birth to be the best (worst?) Evil Overlord she can be. But everything changes the day her father is cursed by a mysterious rival. Now, Clementine must not only search for a way to break the curse, but also take on the full responsibilities of the Dark Lord. But when it’s time for her to perform dastardly deeds against the townspeople—including her brand-new friends—she begins to question her father’s code of good and evil. What if the Dark Lord Clementine doesn’t want to be a dark lord after all?



Twelve-year-old kit-with-a-small-k likes shopping at the flea market with her best friend, Clem, roller-skating, climbing to the roof to look at the stars, and volunteering at an animal shelter. Until suddenly she has a really big, really strange secret that makes life more complicated than she’s prepared for: Sometimes, without warning, she turns into a tiny naked mole rat. It first happened as kit watched Clem fall and get hurt during a performance with her acrobatic-troupe family on TV. Since then, the transformations keep coming. Kit can’t tell Clem, because Clem hasn’t been herself after the accident. She’s mad and gloomy and keeping a secret of her own: the real reason she fell. Months later, kit and Clem still haven’t figured out how to deal with all the ways they have changed—both inside and out. Somehow, kit has to save the day. But she’s no hero, and turning into a naked mole rat isn’t a superpower. Or is it?



Twelve-year-old Cindy has just dipped a toe into seventh-grade drama—with its complicated friendships, bullies, and cute boys—when she earns an internship as a cub reporter at a local newspaper in the early 1970s. A (rare) young female reporter takes Cindy under her wing, and Cindy soon learns not only how to write a lede, but also how to respectfully question authority, how to assert herself in a world run by men, and—as the Watergate scandal unfolds—how brave reporting and writing can topple a corrupt world leader. Searching for her own scoops, Cindy doesn’t always get it right, on paper or in real life. But whether she’s writing features about ghost hunters, falling off her bicycle and into her first crush, or navigating shifting friendships, Cindy grows wiser and more confident through every awkward and hilarious mistake.

If you’d like a chance at winning ALL THE 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.

The Fine Print
One entry per person, please (or, two if you share the post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on March 12 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 13 (yes, a Friday).

The Finer Print
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).

The Finest Print
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 1, 2020

Sunday Sentence: The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn


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


The sun gleamed chilly silver.

The Boys of Summer by Roger Kahn


Friday, February 28, 2020

Friday Freebie: I Will Take the Answer and The Gnome Stories by Ander Monson


Congratulations to Amanda Symes, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year by Jennifer Spiegel.

This week’s contest is for two new releases by Ander Monson from Graywolf Press: I Will Take the Answer (essays) and The Gnome Stories. I have a new paperback copy of each to put in the hands of one lucky reader. Will it be you? Keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...


The idea of connection permeates I Will Take the Answer, Ander Monson’s fourth book of utterly original and intelligent essays. How is our present connected to our past and future? How do neural connections form memories, and why do we recall them when we do? And how do we connect with one another in meaningful ways across time and space? In the opening essay, which extends across the book in brief subsequent pieces, a trip through a storm sewer in Tucson inspires Monson to trace the city’s relationship to Jared Lee Loughner, the gunman who shot Gabrielle Giffords and killed six bystanders, along with how violence is produced and how we grieve and honor the dead. With the formally inventive “I in River,” he ruminates on water in a waterless city and the structures we use to attempt to contain and control it. Monson also visits the exuberantly nerdy kingdom of a Renaissance Faire, and elaborates on the enduring appeal of sad songs through the lens of March Sadness, an online competition that he cofounded, an engaging riff on the NCAA basketball tournament brackets in which sad songs replace teams. As personal and idiosyncratic as the best mixtape, I Will Take the Answer showcases Monson’s deep thinking and broad-ranging interests, his sly wit, his soft spot for heavy metal, and his ability to tunnel deeply into the odd and revealing, sometimes subterranean, worlds of American life.



The Gnome Stories focuses on characters who are loners in the truest sense; who are in the process of recovering from mental, physical, or emotional trauma; and who find solace―or at least a sense of purpose―in peculiar jobs and pursuits. A man whose wife has left him is robbed, so he decides to start doing his own breaking and entering, into his neighbors’ homes. When another man’s girlfriend is cryogenically frozen by her family after a car accident, he becomes a maintenance worker at the cryogenic facility, eavesdropping on visitors as they whisper secrets to their frozen loved ones. A woman serves as an assistant to the Starvationist, whose methods to help clients lose large amounts of weight are unorthodox, sadistic―and utterly failproof. Another woman and her robot assistant have been hired to tinker with the troubling memories inside a celebrity’s brain. With The Gnome Stories, Ander Monson presents eleven unforgettable stories about oddly American situations: as surreal as an urban legend and at the same time perfectly mundane.

If you’d like a chance at winning I Will Take the Answer and The Gnome Stories, 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.

The Fine Print
One entry per person, please (or, two if you share the post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on March 5 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on March 6.

The Finer Print
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).

The Finest Print
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 23, 2020

Sunday Sentence: So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith


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


Reminded him of that morning after church when her hair was baptism-wet. How she sat at the kitchen table, born again, drowning in the sunlight.

"Knock Out the Heart Lights So We Can Glow" from
So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith


Friday, February 21, 2020

Friday Freebie: Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year by Jennifer Spiegel


Congratulations to Sylvia Danforth, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Bramble and the Rose by Tom Bouman.

This week’s contest is for a book I am especially pleased to be giving away to one lucky reader: Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year by Jennifer Spiegel (Love Slave). I had the privilege of reading an early copy of Jennifer’s witty (and sobering) account of surviving cancer, told in a “real-time” journal format. Here’s what I said by way of a blurb for the cover of the book:
On the first page of her no-holds-barred memoir, Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year, Jennifer Spiegel tells us I’m just another writer trapped inside my truth. The truth is, this book that reads like a diary about her “cancer-tainted marriage” comes loaded with knockout punches that will leave readers reeling with awe for her bravery in the face of breast cancer (though Spiegel would probably make gagging sounds over me saying that). The truth of the matter is also that this is a gut-honest book that will make you laugh and squirm and get nose-prickly with tears and want to run every pink-ribboned marathon in support of cancer research. I can think of few other books in which the author has bared her heart as wholly and generously as Spiegel has in these pages.
Keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...


Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year: A Non-Informative Guide To Breast Cancer, A Writer’s Memoir In Almost Real Time is not about eating kale. The book is 100 percent narrative nonfiction and 0 percent self-help. It was actually written for the author’s children in case she died. This sounds morbid, but maybe “pointed” and “candid” are better words. Embracing candor as an aesthetic, this real-time story hits upon the sacred, the profane, a trip to Epcot, a colonoscopy, her kids’ responses to everything, and O. J. Simpson’s parole hearing. Writing-centric, voice-driven, and conscious of a death sentence―no diets or exercises are offered, but the author may give horrible parenting advice. It’s undoubtedly funny, but also a meditation on meaning.

If you’d like a chance at winning Cancer, I’ll Give You One Year, 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.

The Fine Print
One entry per person, please (or, two if you share the post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Feb. 27 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 28.

The Finer Print
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).

The Finest Print
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, February 20, 2020

Fresh Ink: February 2020 edition


Fresh Ink 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.



Where You’re All Going
by Joan Frank
(Sarabande Books)

Jacket Copy:  In her quartet of novellas, Joan Frank invites readers into the inner lives of characters bewildered by love, grief, and inexplicable affinities. A young couple navigates a strange friendship and unexpected pregnancy; a woman recalls the bizarre fallout of her former lover’s fame; a lonely widow is drawn to an arrogant young man; a wealthy spiritual seeker grapples with what wealth cannot affect. Witty and humane, Frank taps the riches of the novella form as she writes of loneliness, friendship, loss, and the filaments of intimacy that connect us through time.

Opening Lines:  They’re not true, you know. The platitudes.
       God, the itching. Tops of my hands. Base of my skull. Possible symptom of hyperstrong coffee―guilt to match.
       Platitudes, Pleiades.
       He’s in a better place. Who says? Who knows?

Blurbworthiness:  “Each of these novellas is as satisfying as a whole book, but what I really love is the way, together, they tell a much bigger story―about love and loyalty and family and fear and joy. Where You’re All Going is full beauty and bounty.”  (Ramona Ausubel, author of Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Several years ago, I read the first of the novellas, “Biting the Moon,” bound in this collection. I was blown away by the story of a woman remembering her lover, a film-music composer, after his death. On that day, I became a lifelong fan of Joan Frank’s writing.



This Little Family
by Ines Bayard (translated by Adriana Hunter)
(Other Press)

Jacket Copy:  This astonishing debut inhabits the mind of a young married woman driven to extremes by disgust and dread in the aftermath of a rape. Marie and Laurent, a young, affluent couple, have settled into their large Paris apartment and decide to start trying for a baby. This picture-perfect existence is shattered when Marie is assaulted by her new boss. Deeply shaken by the attack, she discovers she is pregnant, and is convinced her rapist is the father. Marie closes herself off in a destructive silence, ultimately leading her to commit an irreparable act. In a first novel of extraordinary power and depth, Inès Bayard exposes disturbing truths about how society sees women and how women see themselves in turn.

Opening Lines:  Little Thomas didn’t have time to finish his stewed apple. His mother hadn’t given him the slightest chance. The speed with which the poison circulated through his blood simply meant he didn’t suffer when he died.

Blurbworthiness:  “Remarkable...Bayard’s writing is sharp, cold, precise, and sends chills down your spine. You read this novel with bated breath.”  (La Presse)

Why It’s In My Stack:  That first, short chapter is a startle of shock and heartbreak. It’s so good and hard to read that it ensures I simply cannot look away from what follows.



The Guest List
by Lucy Foley
(William Morrow)

Jacket Copy:  A wedding celebration turns dark and deadly in this deliciously wicked and atmospheric thriller reminiscent of Agatha Christie from the author of The Hunting Party. On an island off the coast of Ireland, guests gather to celebrate two people joining their lives together as one. The groom: handsome and charming, a rising television star. The bride: smart and ambitious, a magazine publisher. It’s a wedding for a magazine, or for a celebrity: the designer dress, the remote location, the luxe party favors, the boutique whiskey. The cell phone service may be spotty and the waves may be rough, but every detail has been expertly planned and will be expertly executed. But perfection is for plans, and people are all too human. As the champagne is popped and the festivities begin, resentments and petty jealousies begin to mingle with the reminiscences and well wishes. The groomsmen begin the drinking game from their school days. The bridesmaid not-so-accidentally ruins her dress. The bride’s oldest (male) friend gives an uncomfortably caring toast. And then someone turns up dead. Who didn’t wish the happy couple well? And perhaps more important, why?

Opening Lines:  The lights go out.
       In an instant, everything is in darkness. The band stop their playing. Inside the tent the wedding guests squeal and clutch at one another. The light from the candles on the tables only adds to the confusion, sends shadows racing up the canvas walls. It’s impossible to see where anyone is or hear what anyone is saying: above the guests’ voices the wind rises in a frenzy.

Blurbworthiness:  “I didn’t think Lucy Foley could top The Hunting Party, but she did! I loved this book. It gave me the same waves of happiness I get from curling up with a classic Christie. A remote, atmospheric island, a wedding no one is particularly happy to be at, old secrets—and a murder. The alternating points of view keep you guessing, and guessing wrong. I can’t wait for her next book.” (Alex Michaelides, author of The Silent Patient)

Why It’s In My Stack:  They had me at Agatha Christie—plus that wind-battered, darkness-plunged opening paragraph which sets the scene for a deadly wedding night.



The Mountains Sing
by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore not just her beloved country, but her family apart. Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope. The Mountains Sing is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s first novel in English.

Opening Lines:  My grandmother used to tell me that when our ancestors die, they don’t just disappear, they continue to watch over us. And now, I feel her watching me as I light a match, setting fire to three sticks of incense. On the ancestral altar, behind the wooden bell and plates of steaming food, my grandma’s eyes glow as an orange-blue flame springs up, consuming the incense. I shake the incense to put out the fire. As it smolders, curtains of smoke and fragrance spiral toward Heaven, calling spirits of the dead to return.

Blurbworthiness:  “The Mountains Sing is an epic account of Việt Nam’s painful 20th century history, both vast in scope and intimate in its telling. Through the travails of one family, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai brings us close to the horrors of famine, war, and class struggle. But in this moving and riveting novel, she also shows us a postwar Việt Nam, a country of hope and renewal, home to a people who have never given up.”  (Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of The Sympathizer)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Because I want to learn more about a country whose very name stirs strong emotion in many Americans even today. Because I like discovering new voices. Because, as Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn) says, “Good literature frees us from being trapped in our own skins by allowing us to identify with characters and see the world through their eyes. Reading this novel, I was moved by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s beautiful, even poetic, depictions of enduring courage. I came away with a deeper understanding of the war in which I fought.” Because there are always two sides to every story.



Burn
by Patrick Ness
(Harper Collins)

Jacket Copy: Sarah Dewhurst and her father, outcasts in their little town of Frome, Washington, are forced to hire a dragon to work their farm, something only the poorest of the poor ever have to resort to. The dragon, Kazimir, has more to him than meets the eye, though. Sarah can’t help but be curious about him, an animal who supposedly doesn’t have a soul but who is seemingly intent on keeping her safe. Because the dragon knows something she doesn’t. He has arrived at the farm with a prophecy on his mind. A prophecy that involves a deadly assassin, a cult of dragon worshippers, two FBI agents in hot pursuit—and somehow, Sarah Dewhurst herself.

Opening Lines: On a cold Sunday evening in early 1957—the very day, in fact, that Dwight David Eisenhower took the oath of office for the second time as President of the United States of America—Sarah Dewhurst waited with her father in the parking lot of the Chevron gas station for the dragon he’d hired to help on the farm.

Why It’s In My Stack: Every now and then, I fancy reading a book whose pages have been singed by dragon-fire.



Greenwood
by Michael Christie
(Hogarth)

Jacket Copy:  It’s 2038 and Jacinda (Jake) Greenwood is a storyteller and a liar, an overqualified tour guide babysitting ultra-rich vacationers in one of the world’s last remaining forests. It’s 2008 and Liam Greenwood is a carpenter, sprawled on his back after a workplace fall, calling out from the concrete floor of an empty mansion. It’s 1974 and Willow Greenwood is out of jail, free after being locked up for one of her endless series of environmental protests: attempts at atonement for the sins of her father’s once vast and violent timber empire. It’s 1934 and Everett Greenwood is alone, as usual, in his maple-syrup camp squat, when he hears the cries of an abandoned infant and gets tangled up in the web of a crime, secrets, and betrayal that will cling to his family for decades. And throughout, there are trees: a steady, silent pulse thrumming beneath Christie’s effortless sentences, working as a guiding metaphor for withering, weathering, and survival. A shining, intricate clockwork of a novel, Greenwood is a rain-soaked and sun-dappled story of the bonds and breaking points of money and love, wood, and blood—and the hopeful, impossible task of growing toward the light.

Opening Lines:  They come for the trees.
       To smell their needles. To caress their bark. To be regenerated in the humbling loom of their shadows. To stand mutely in their leafy churches and pray to their thousand-year-old souls.
       From the world’s dust-choked cities they venture to this exclusive arboreal resort—a remote forested island off the Pacific Rim of British Columbia—to be transformed, renewed, and reconnected. To be reminded that the Earth’s once-thundering green heart has not flatlined, that the soul of all living things has not come to dust and that it isn’t too late and that all is not lost. They come here to the Greenwood Arboreal Cathedral to ingest this outrageous lie, and it’s Jake Greenwood’s job as Forest Guide to spoon-feed it to them.

Blurbworthiness:  “Ingeniously structured and with prose as smooth as beech bark, Michael Christie’s Greenwood is as compulsive as it is profound. A sweeping intergenerational saga that explores trees and their roots—from the precious evergreens that become commodities in the entertainment business of the future to the intricately tangled trees of family—all of it is dazzlingly delivered in a framework inspired by the actual growth rings of a tree. Every one of Greenwood’s characters burrowed their way into my heart. Beguilingly brilliant, timely, and utterly engrossing, Greenwood is one of my favorite reads in recent memory.”  (Kira Jane Buxton, author of Hollow Kingdom)

Why It’s In My Stack:  This will be the second book on my forestry must-read list for 2020; the top position is (still) held by The Overstory by Richard Powers, which has been there in the upper branches for two years. If everyone would just leaf me alone, I’d have time to read all of these novels.



The Women I Think About at Night
by Mia Kankimäki (translated by Douglas Robinson)
(Simon and Schuster)

Jacket Copy:  In The Women I Think About at Night, Mia Kankimäki blends travelogue, memoir, and biography as she recounts her enchanting travels in Japan, Kenya, and Italy while retracing the steps of ten remarkable female pioneers from history. What can a forty-something childless woman do? Bored with her life and feeling stuck, Mia Kankimäki leaves her job, sells her apartment, and decides to travel the world, following the paths of the female explorers and artists from history who have long inspired her. She flies to Tanzania and then to Kenya to see where Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame lived in the 1920s. In Japan, Mia attempts to cure her depression while researching Yayoi Kusama, the contemporary artist who has voluntarily lived in a psychiatric hospital for decades. In Italy, Mia spends her days looking for the works of forgotten Renaissance women painters of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, and finally finds her heroines in the portraits of Sofonisba Anguissola, Lavinia Fontana, and Artemisia Gentileschi. If these women could make it in the world hundreds of years ago, why can’t Mia? The Women I Think About at Night is part travelogue and part thrilling exploration of the lost women adventurers of history who defied expectations in order to see—and change—the world.

Opening Lines:  I’m M. I’m forty-three years old. On countless nights over the years I’ve thought about women—and it has nothing at all to do with sex.
       I’ve thought about women on those sleepless nights when my life, my love, or my attitude is skewed, and it seems there is no end to the dark night of my soul. On those nights I have gathered an invisible honor guard of historical women, guardian angels to lead the way.

Why It’s In My Stack:  I’m intrigued by the interesting set-up of this travelogue-memoir-history lesson. The variety of places and eras is just enough to spark my interest and encourage me to book a trip through these pages.


Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sunday Sentence: So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith


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


Leigh closed her eyes and pictured every flower every bush every vine every tree every root every green or brown or white or yellow or red or pink or purple or orange thing snapping and whipping loose and wrapping itself around her, around both of them, suffocating them as they gave their ghosts to the petal-scents and thorns.

"A Tennis Court" from So We Can Glow by Leesa Cross-Smith


Friday, February 14, 2020

Friday Freebie: The Bramble and the Rose by Tom Bouman


Congratulations to Carl Scott, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Little Constructions by Anna Burns.

This week’s contest is for The Bramble and the Rose by Tom Bouman. This is Book Number 3 in the Henry Farrell series, of which Craig Johnson (Longmire) advises: “You would be hard-pressed to find a finer new series than Tom Bouman’s Henry Farrell novels because of the complexity of the plots or the richness of the characters, but what it really comes down to is just damn good writing.” I have a hardcover copy of the new book to put in the hands of one lucky reader. Will it be you? Keep scrolling for more information on the novel and how to enter the contest...


A headless stranger is found in the woods of Wild Thyme, a small town in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania. All signs point to a man-killing bear, and Officer Henry Farrell would just as soon leave this hunt to the Game Commission. But doubts arise when he discovers the victim was a retired investigator. What drew the investigator to sleepy Wild Thyme? Before Henry can find answers, his own nephew disappears into the hills. Then an old flame dies under suspicious circumstances, leaving Henry as the prime suspect. Torn between protecting his family and clearing his name, Henry fights to protect the most he’s ever had to lose.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Bramble and the Rose, 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.

The Fine Print
One entry per person, please (or, two if you share the post—see below). Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Feb. 20 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 21.

The Finer Print
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).

The Finest Print
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.