Sunday, June 14, 2020

Sunday Sentence: Blood Ties & Brown Liquor by Sean Hill


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

       A flock of starlings alights in a tree and chatters,
       each a night of twinkling stars on its back, then
       the hush and inexplicable lighting out en masse,

       black whirlwind wheeling against blue, rippling
       like breeze-ruffled trees, the path of prayers,
       searching before coming down to light again.




Sunday, June 7, 2020

Sunday Sentence: Blood Ties & Brown Liquor by Sean Hill


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

       Lord, I wish I knew what ails me. If I was good
       enough to be a dog I’d lose my bark.




Friday, June 5, 2020

Friday Freebie: The Mountains Sing by by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai


Congratulations to Carole Mertz, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Brave Deeds by David Abrams. Thanks to everyone who participated in the blog’s 10th Anniversary celebration!

This week’s contest is for The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. You may remember hearing about this debut novel earlier at the blog; now I’m offering one lucky reader a chance to win a new hardback of the book The New York Times calls “[An] absorbing, stirring novel . . . that, in more than one sense, remedies history.” Keep scrolling for more information on The Mountains Sing and how to enter the contest...


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.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Mountains Sing, 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 June 11, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 12.

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, June 4, 2020

Breaching the Levee of Rage


It’s hard to write this week. And yet, I composed something: a raw draft of my thoughts after returning from a peaceful vigil at the Montana State Capitol on Sunday. This is a departure from the usual book conversation on this blog, but now, I think, is the time to take a break from the everyday comfort of our lives and to read something that makes us shift in our seat.


Breaching the Levee of Rage

An acquaintance, someone you don’t know personally, emails you an invitation to attend a peaceful protest and vigil for George Floyd, the middle-aged man who died in Minneapolis after a cop knelt on his neck for eight minutes.

You share that invitation with your wife, who is in another part of your small apartment, on her own laptop reading news stories about protests in other cities (“Listen to this: they’re even protesting in London and Germany!”), and though neither of you say anything aloud in the quiet Sunday morning hush of the city apartment, and though neither of you have ever been to a protest or raised a sign in anger, there’s an unspoken understanding: you’ll both go. After passively reading headlines for too long, the levee of your rage has been breached. You are flooded with resolve.

You make signs.

You drive to the State Capitol building and think ahead to park under the shade of a wide-branched tree two blocks away. Who knows what will happen in the next two hours? Who knows how hot you’ll be after the rally? Who can predict if you’ll also be running for your life, lungs full of teargas and rubber bullets ricocheting off the street around you at the end of those two hours?

Hold on, you think. This is Montana, the so-called Last Best Place, and the chance of your day turning into one of smoke and screams is relatively low. This is not Minneapolis, this is not Washington, D.C.

But you never know. Anything can happen in this new world.

You are wary but feeling brave. You are unsure how to properly “act” at a protest but you’re ready to stand and occupy space on a sidewalk for two hours.

You approach the great lawn of the Capitol grounds and are disappointed to see the crowd is not a blocks-long, seething blanket of bodies and signs, but more like a child’s palmful of salt and pepper sprinkled along the sidewalk. The paper will eventually report 150 individuals were at the event that day. You are reminded of the importance of showing up and the dangers of complacency.

You join the others with signs markered with “Black Lives Matter,” and “De-Militarize the Police,” and “Justice for George.” Your sign is the bottom half of a sturdy cardboard box: you haven’t torn it apart to make one flat piece of cardboard—it is still itself, a box bottom, and can easily be reassembled with its top half, the two parts rejoined as one box. Your wife stands next to you with the other half of the box. You can each grip your box half by the finger holes cut into the side of the box and hold the flat, markered side out to the world. Your wife’s box has the words “I Can’t Breathe.” Your box is simply a line drawing of George Floyd’s face (rendered by author Edward Carey) taped to the center of your box-bottom, with “1974” running down one side and “2020” on the other.

You step to the curb. You raise your arms. You hold George Floyd’s face and the span of his life to the sky. Beside you, your wife’s box pleads, “I Can’t Breathe!”

You stand near the corner at a four-way intersection where cars are forced to slow and stop.

You hold your sign above your head and stare at the passing windshields, willing them with your mind to look at your sign, to flick their gaze from the road to see George’s face and to remember that here was a man who was suddenly famous, worldwide, simply because he died. You hope that driver passing you will think about the fact that the only reason he or she knows about George Floyd is because George Floyd is no longer on this earth and how incredibly sad that is, the fact that a man is now famous for no longer existing.

Some drivers honk and cheer, flashing upraised thumbs in your direction.

A greater majority of cars glide by silent as coffins. You think bad thoughts of those people. But then you have to remind yourself that just because someone doesn’t honk doesn’t mean they don’t support your cause. In fact, you yourself are generally a non-honker; why, just the previous day you drove past a young woman sitting at a cardboard table along Park Avenue to get people to sign a petition for a cause you support and your hand never touched the horn. You vow to start being a supportive honker.

You try to think good thoughts about all people.

Cars slide by, passengers and drivers pivot their heads to look at you. Some stare, some glare, some scoff with a harsh cough of contempt, some rigidly refuse to look in your direction. If you don’t see me, I don’t exist, right?

You are flipped off. Someone purposefully rolls down their window and insults your group with a terrible slur, their voice trailing out of their truck like a banner ragged and frayed at the edges.

Your back tenses, hardens like the concrete you’re standing on, and knots up with a half dozen marbles of pain. You take a deep breath and push your sign higher.

Cars honk. Cars don’t honk.

Some people in the crowd of 150—a weak, scattered few—try to start up a chant, but it doesn’t get off the ground. There are too many syllables and nobody really knows what anyone else is saying, so the chant ripples weakly, like a snake struggling to come to life, but eventually dies into a mumbling murmur and embarrassed laughter.

You start thinking about headlines from other protests. You look down and realize you and your wife are half in the gutter and half on the black tar of the street. You have a sudden image of your bodies flipping into the air over the hood of a car. You nudge your wife and tell her to step back onto the sidewalk.

An older man, maybe in his seventies, walks through the crowd carrying a huge American flag on an eight-foot pole. Even though he has a gentle face and appears harmless, he is surrounded by other protestors who question his intentions. You yourself wonder why he is so adamantly waving this flag, this symbol that now seems tainted by “the other side.” Your wife whispers, “I think he’s okay. I think he’s one of us.”

You think about those words. Us. Them. It’s come to this, then? You know it has and it feels like a tide too strong to resist.

At 12:50 p.m., protest organizers circulate and remind the crowd of the pre-planned moment of silence at 1 p.m.

When the time comes, a new ripple runs across the crowd. Voices hush, knees bend, and—pretty much in one accord—the crowd drops to the ground, one half of a stadium “wave” (remember those?).

You begin the eight minutes of silence: the length of time Office Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck on May 25.

Your left knee digs into the sidewalk. You prop your body with your right foot. You lift your sign above your head. You are uncomfortable but you are alive.

Your muscles clench, the grit presses into the skin of your knee, your breath comes faster and faster, strained through the thick sieve of your mask. You think you will die.

Only four-and-a-half minutes of silence have passed.

You think of George Floyd: he had no choice, he had to go the whole eight minutes, not knowing when or if that knee would lift off his throat.

You start to think of George’s jaw, pressed and wrenched and scraped against the pavement. Your face swells with tears.

Your body is now shaking uncontrollably.

Then the eight minutes are reached, the silence is broken by a low murmuring in the crowd, and you are alive again. You are a white person who is still alive on a sidewalk in Helena, Montana on a nice Sunday afternoon. Birds might even be singing in the trees over your head.

You stand, with the rush of blood flowing out into your veins from your knees, and you feel an electric surge of hatred for all those who flipped you off, called you that horrible word, and all those iron-necked drivers who, worse yet, refused to look at you. You surge with emotion, something like a growl even rips up and out of your throat.

You stay on the sidewalk for another five minutes after the moment of silence has passed, then you turn to your wife and say, “Are you ready to leave?” and she nods. You lower your signs then carry your boxes with George and his plea for breath back across the State Capitol lawn. Other people at the edges of the crowd are doing the same.

You are done. You have said, or not said, what you have come to say. You know it is not enough—it will never be enough—but you stood and you will stand again because now you have a fire in your belly. You are agitated and you are an agitator.

You go home, log on to Facebook and write this on your wall: “Thank you to the dozens and dozens of horn-honking supportive Helena drivers for your Symphony of Horns. Thanks also to the drivers who flipped us off and called us names—you helped us keep our perspective and remember that the world is not yet completely rid of tiny-hearted assholes. Keep fighting the good fight, my brothers and sisters.”


Sunday, May 31, 2020

Fresh Ink: May 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.


Becoming Duchess Goldblatt
by Anonymous
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Jacket Copy:  Becoming Duchess Goldblatt is two stories: that of the reclusive real-life writer who created a fictional character out of loneliness and thin air, and that of the magical Duchess Goldblatt herself, a bright light in the darkness of social media. Fans around the world are drawn to Her Grace’s voice, her wit, her life-affirming love for all humanity, and the fun and friendship of the community that’s sprung up around her. @DuchessGoldblat (81 year-old literary icon, author of An Axe to Grind) brought people together in her name: in bookstores, museums, concerts, and coffee shops, and along the way, brought real friends home—foremost among them, Lyle Lovett. But who is the Duchess? In their own words: “The only way to be reliably sure that the hero gets the girl at the end of the story is to be both the hero and the girl yourself.”

Opening Lines:  I must have slept weird, folks. My backstory is killing me.

Blurbworthiness:  “After reading this unforgettable memoir, I figured out who Duchess Goldblatt is: all of us. Behind her brilliantly witty and uplifting message is a remarkable vulnerability and candor that reminds us that we are not alone in our struggles—and that we can, against all odds, get through them. As though casting a magic spell on her readers, she moves, inspires, and connects us through her unvarnished humanity. It was, for this therapist, a form of therapy I didn’t know I needed.” (Lori Gottlieb, author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone)

Why It’s In My Stack:  As a long-time follower/worshipper of The Duchess, I, like many of their royal subjects, am curious to discover what they look like behind the Twitter avatar.



Riding with the Ghost
by Justin Taylor
(Random House)

Jacket Copy:  When Justin Taylor was thirty, his father, Larry, drove to the top of the Nashville airport parking garage to take his own life. Thanks to the intervention of family members, he was not successful, but the incident would forever transform how Taylor thinks of his father, and how he thinks of himself as a son. Moving back and forth in time from that day, Riding with the Ghost captures the past’s power to shape, strengthen, and distort our visions of ourselves and one another. We see Larry as the middle child in a chilly Long Island family; as a beloved Little League coach who listens to kids with patience and curiosity; as an unemployed father struggling to keep his marriage together while battling long-term illness and depression. At the same time, Taylor explores how the work of confronting a family member’s story forces a reckoning with your own. We see Taylor as a teacher, modeling himself after his dad’s best qualities; as a caregiver, attempting to provide his father with emotional and financial support, but not always succeeding; as a new husband, with a dawning awareness of his own depressive tendencies; as a man, struggling to understand his relationship to his religion and himself. With raw intimacy, Riding with the Ghost lays bare the joys and burdens of loving a troubled family member. It’s a memoir about fathers and sons, teachers and students, faith and illness, and the pieces of our loved ones that we carry with us.

Opening Lines:  My father had decided that he would end his life by throwing himself from the top of the parking garage at the Nashville airport, which he later told me had seemed like the best combination of convenience—that is, he could get there easily, and unnoticed—and sufficiency—that is, he was pretty sure it was tall enough to do the job. I never asked him what other venues he considered and rejected before settling on this plan. He probably did not actually use the word “best.” It was Mother’s Day, 2013.

Blurbworthiness:  “Justin Taylor’s relentless, peripatetic, and tender search for reconciliation with his late troubled father blooms into a full-throated song of joy about his own life lived through music, teaching, travel, and literature. Riding with the Ghost is gorgeously layered and deeply felt.” (Lauren Groff, author of Florida)

Why It’s In My Stack: Well, Father’s Day is coming up....



A Small Crowd of Strangers
by Joanna Rose
(Forest Avenue Press)

Jacket Copy:  How does a librarian from New Jersey end up in a convenience store on Vancouver Island in the middle of the night, playing Bible Scrabble with a Korean physicist and a drunk priest? She gets married to the wrong man for starters—she didn’t know he was ‘that kind of Catholic’—and ends up in St. Cloud, Minnesota. She gets a job in a New Age bookstore, wanders toward Buddhism without realizing it, and acquires a dog. Things get complicated after that. Pattianne Anthony is less a thinker than a dreamer, and she finds out the hard way that she doesn’t want a husband, much less a baby, and that getting out of a marriage is a lot harder than getting into it, especially when the landscape of the west becomes the voice of reason. A Small Crowd of Strangers, Joanna Rose’s second novel, is part love story, part slightly sideways spiritual journey.

Opening Lines:  It was things like reading all of John Updike, and all of Elmore Leonard, and doing the crossword in the middle of the afternoon when she didn’t have to work, with the all-classical station pouring out the windows of her apartment over the dry cleaner’s. That’s what being thirty was about.

Blurbworthiness:  “As a fan of Joanna Rose’s groundbreaking novel, Little Miss Strange, I was eager to read the next, A Small Crowd of Strangers. Lucky readers—this novel, too, is buoyant, tender, and it’s so easy to invest in her lively characters and the gorgeously described landscape. At the center of the novel is Pattianne Anthony, a quirky reference librarian who is smart and witty, but who also tends to make major life choices on a whim. One of those is to marry a charming schoolteacher, Michael Bryn, and move from her childhood home in New Jersey to St. Cloud, Minnesota. It’s Pattianne’s discovery of self that most captivates through these pages—her budding realization that she has let life lead her instead of her leading life. As Pattianne ventures out, we witness her profound discoveries about love, family, faith, and the abiding strength of an eclectic community, and in this way Rose’s novel becomes sweetly intimate, a joy to read.”  (Debra Gwartney, author of I Am a Stranger Here Myself)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I thoroughly enjoyed the opening paragraphs which had enough kinetic energy to pull me right into the rushing current of words. I want to read more and more and more.



Barcelona Days
by Daniel Riley
(Little, Brown)

Jacket Copy:  Whitney and Will are a perfect couple by all appearances, their relationship rock-solid, and their engagement soon to be announced. Before their impending nuptials, however, Whitney suggests a lighthearted experiment: why not give each other three romantic “free passes” before getting married? Three opportunities to imagine other lives before returning with new appreciation for each other. On what’s meant to be the last night of a romantic Barcelona vacation, they agree to regale one another with details of these harmless trysts. They grin and bear it, and fall asleep feeling mostly satisfied, and relieved to be firmly together again. But then a volcano erupts overnight, spewing a cloud of ash across Europe and grounding all flights indefinitely. Trapped in Barcelona, their paths intertwine with a star basketball player, his future dashed by a crippling injury, and a foreign exchange student with a double life, about to return home and face reality. Whitney and Will flirt, provoke, dance, and drink. Over the next three days, they will use and be used by their new friends, once again testing the boundaries of their relationship—but this time, can it survive?

Opening Lines: “To you and me,” Will said, lifting his wine, a local something, butcher red. The label said it was from Penedes, just down the coast, and it featured a bull with roses where its horns should be.
       “To 1-2-3,” Witney said, lifting her glass to match, and they clinked a heavy clink, and it rang out around the dining room like a good idea.

Blurbworthiness:  “From beginning to end, the reader walks with Whitney and Will along the precipice marking an edge they may or may not have crossed. With dry humor and involving dialogue, Riley steps boldly into territory other authors have only tentatively approached.” (Enobong Tommelleo)

Why It’s In My Stack:  My first impression (based on the barest of skims through its opening pages) is that Barcelona Days gives off a Sheltering Sky vibe; this summer feels like a good time to immerse myself in literary affairs.


Sunday Sentence: I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott


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


If you met him, you would want to marry him. But you can’t, because I already did.

*     *     *

When I am packing a suitcase and I’ve crammed every last rectangle of folded clothing into the bag and added shoes, makeup, a just-in-case-it’s-cold cardigan and a panicked last-minute backup outfit or two, and I’m mashing everything down as hard as I can, and I go from zero to psycho in a second because I can’t get the bag zipped, and I’m stomping on the bag and hammering at it with my fists, he calmly opens it, rearranges a few things, and zips it.

I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott


*I chose three. Sue me.

**I am breaking the rules this week, but I can’t resist commenting on how rich with humor both of these selections are: the first with a sort of snap-snap feel to it, and the second has an admirable momentum that should be used as an example of How to Write a Long Tightly-Coiled Sentence in writing classrooms. I mean, tear it apart and count the syllables and breath-beats to marvel at how MLP turns the first part of the sentence into luggage itself, full of details and hyphenated adjectives and verbs like crammed and mashing and stomped and then see how her husband comes in and acts as the zipper, closing the sentence with neat efficiency. Zzzzzip! Now that’s how you sentence, people!


Friday, May 29, 2020

Friday Freebie: Brave Deeds by David Abrams


Congratulations to Teresa Sweeney, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Fobbit by David Abrams (That’s-a me!).

This week, I’m rounding out the Quivering Pen’s 10th Anniversary celebration with the other novel written during this blog’s lifespan: Brave Deeds, published in 2017 by Grove/Atlantic. Like Fobbit, Brave Deeds is set in Baghdad during the Iraq War, but it’s written in a much darker shade of ink. “[Brave Deeds] builds to an emotionally wrenching and tension-filled climax . . . Filled with vivid characterizations and memorable moments, this novel . . . turns a single military action into a microcosm of an entire war.” (Publishers Weekly)

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


From Fobbit author David Abrams, Brave Deeds is a compelling novel of war, brotherhood, and America. Spanning eight hours, the novel follows a squad of six AWOL soldiers as they attempt to cross war-torn Baghdad on foot to attend the funeral of their leader, Staff Sergeant Rafe Morgan. As the men make their way to the funeral, they recall the most ancient of warriors yet are a microcosm of twenty-first-century America, and subject to the same human flaws as all of us. Drew is reliable in the field but unfaithful at home; Cheever, overweight and whining, is a friend to no one—least of all himself; and platoon commander Dmitri “Arrow” Arogapoulos is stalwart, yet troubled with questions about his own identity and sexuality. Emotionally resonant, true-to-life, and thoughtfully written, Brave Deeds is a gripping story of combat and of perseverance, and an important addition to the oeuvre of contemporary war fiction.

“In one very full, very messed up and hair-raising day, Brave Deeds delivers everything we could ever ask for in a novel, no less than birth, death, and all points in between. David Abrams has written a flat-out brilliant book of the Iraq War, one that reads like a compact version of the Odyssey or Going After Cacciato. Soldiers on a journey—it’s one of humankind’s oldest stories, and Abrams has given us the latest dispatch from the field, to stunning effect.” (Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk)

“At the beginning of Brave Deeds I was laughing out loud, and enjoying the feeling of being among the Army squad, even one making an insane walk through Baghdad. But by the end of the book I was silent: I was really undone by it. David Abrams has done something very powerful, drawing together the different layers of this story so beautifully, and drawing us down below the surface to a place of darkness and sadness. It’s a tour de force. Bravo.” (Roxana Robinson, author of Dawson's Fall)

If you’d like a chance at winning Brave Deeds, 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 June 4, at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on June 5.

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, May 27, 2020

Birthday Bash



I don’t remember this day at all. It was my 10th birthday, a decade of life, so you’d think even my young brain would have marked it as a milestone: a day to remember.

But it wasn’t until my mother (seen here in mid-sing of “Happy Birthday” on May 27, 1973) sent me this photo three days ago that the memories came, not flooding back but seeping through a thick filter of age. The dining room table set, hand-crafted and painted by the Amish and purchased by my parents in Lancaster, Pennsylvania when they were newlyweds. My mother’s coffee mugs hung on that hand-painted sign that insists “Happiness is Togetherness” (and yet, I spent so much of my childhood totally content in my solitude). And that old narrow kitchen of ours branching off the dining room of the parsonage, soon to be torn down and remodeled when my father’s church budgeted for a renovation. But so many other things about that photo, the unseen life beyond the pixels, elude me.

Who was I in 1973? Certainly, I was already well into my career as a reader. I can’t say for sure, but I believe my pre-teen To-Be-Read list would have included Nancy Drew, Big Red, and The Borrowers. I was still a couple of years away from the day my parents came home with a Chocolate Lab puppy, Shane, who became my best (at times, my only) friend all the way through high school. On this sunny May day in 1973, I was shy and anxious and fighting off lingering traces of a childhood stutter. Overall, though, I think I was happy. I had kind parents, the weather was nice, and I had a library card.

The picture is also a good way to illustrate the fact that this blog turned 10 earlier this month. The way I’m looking at that cake is how I tend to look at books: with surprise, with hope, and with hunger.

Update: My mother helpfully provided this addendum today in a Facebook comment: We had been in Jackson, WY for less than a year. I wonder what I wrote on that cake? And yes you were an avid reader even then. We arrived at our new home in Jackson the previous November and before we even got to our home you were begging us to find the library!


Sunday, May 24, 2020

Sunday Sentence: The Wasp Eater by William Lychack


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


At the bottom of everything, they were a family of silence—nothing but blind, black, coal-crumbling silence, his father never anchored or steady like his mother, his mother never sanguine or loose like his father.

The Wasp Eater by William Lychack

Friday, May 22, 2020

Friday Freebie: Fobbit by David Abrams


Congratulations to Jane Rainey, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Incredible Journey of Plants by Stefano Mancuso.

As I mentioned earlier, this month marks the 10th Anniversary of The Quivering Pen. So, in honor of that decade of blogging, I’m offering up a signed copy of the book that was there at the very beginning: Fobbit, by yours truly. The blog proved to be a sort of child’s growth chart for the novel: I wrote about the process and content for several months before Fobbit was fully polished and eventually accepted for publication by Grove/Atlantic in 2012. Thanks to all of you who have reviewed the book over the years and who have come out through all kinds of weather to the bookstore readings. Your support has been one of the two-by-fours holding this blog upright throughout the years. Anyway, by now you Friday Freebie regulars know the drill: Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...



In the satirical tradition of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, Fobbit takes us into the chaotic world of Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Triumph. The Forward Operating base, or FOB, is like the back-office of the battlefield – where people eat and sleep, and where a lot of soldiers have what looks suspiciously like a desk job. Male and female soldiers are trying to find an empty Porta Potty in which to get acquainted, grunts are playing Xbox and watching NASCAR between missions, and a lot of the senior staff are more concerned about getting to the chow hall in time for the Friday night all-you-can-eat seafood special than worrying about little things like military strategy. Darkly humorous and based on the author’s own experiences in Iraq, Fobbit is a fantastic debut that shows us a behind-the-scenes portrait of the real Iraq war.

If you’d like a chance at winning Fobbit, 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 May 28 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 29.

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.


A Decade of Quivering



Ten years ago this month, I found myself closing in on the end of the first draft of my first published novel. [cue montage of furrowed brow, fingers tapping keys, pencil gripped between teeth]

At the same time, I was feeling full of book chatter, bursting at the seams like I’d just overeaten at Heavy-Meats Burger Shack, but had no one with whom to converse. I was lonely for a book community. [cue montage of staring out the window, heavy sighs, the silvery track of a single tear caught in mid-afternoon light]

So, I birthed this blog.

It arrived on May 2, 2010, 8 pounds, 6 ounces and full of self-doubt, wallowing in “dreams of Mailer, Updike, and Dickens.” In that first blog post, titled “And So It Begins...,” I began by saying: “I am standing on the threshold of the first draft of my second novel (the first, an oddly funny story about a midget stuntman, remains unpublished—and perhaps unpublishable). I am days away from typing the final period of Fobbit: A Novel.”

Fourteen days, to be precise.

And, in another two years, the messy manuscript became a reality between covers.

Random, idle, self-serving chatter about Fobbit soon faded to the background and more outward-focused book chatter commenced. And has been commencing and re-commencing, in fits and starts, over the decade.

When I started The Quivering Pen in 2010, I didn’t know how long I could sustain it. Would it last a year? Would it flash in the pan and then join the other fads of my life: stamp collecting, flip-phone games, that time I reigned as mayor of Foursquare, etc.?

Well, I’m here, and you’re here, so something must have gone right....

Damn the self-doubt and full steam ahead! Until...

Two weeks ago, a friend of mine blurted out in mid-conversation to me: “Blogs—does anybody really read them anymore?”

I hid my wince with a laugh and an “I know, right?!

All I can say is, blogs may be as useless as the appendix, but at least we carry those around for a while before they’re taken out.

I like this blog because it carves me a space, a tiny little scrape of the penknife against the Internet, where I can talk about the books I love and all the ones I think I will love in my future. It is a place where I can share bits and pieces of my own writing, hesitantly and nervously. It is a big overstuffed chair where I can settle in at the end of the day and open up my mail and show you the new books that came. And this blog has also been a microphone to which I’ve invited other writers to step up and share the stories of their “first time” or perhaps to take us on a guided tour of their home library. This blog has been all this—plus recipes and music—for ten years.

And yet, sometimes I fret that this blog is obsolete, that I’m trying to drive a dinosaur-drawn carriage with a whip. Does anyone read this blog anymore? (cups ear, waits for echo)

Well, even if I’m back to being alone, even if everyone else has moved on to other platforms (high, towering platforms from which to dive into new ways of communicating that are cleaner and simpler), even if I’m typing into the void, I think I’ll keep on doing it—maybe not for another ten years, but at least for another ten months. Somehow, it feels like a good time to be talking about books. We need them now more than ever.

[cue montage of dinosaur-rider wheeling his mount around, clicking between his teeth, “Giddyup, T-Rex,” and riding toward the sunset.]


Sunday, May 17, 2020

Sunday Sentence: The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson


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


In war, as in farming, topography was fate.

The British Are Coming by Rick Atkinson

Friday, May 15, 2020

Friday Freebie: The Incredible Journey of Plants by Stefano Mancuso


Congratulations to Columbus Moore, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: The Memory Eaters by Elizabeth Kadetsky.

This week’s contest is for The Incredible Journey of Plants by Stefano Mancuso. Perhaps you’ve been spending your quarantine life starting a little indoor garden, or maybe you just miss walking through a field of wildflowers, inhaling deeply with every other step. Either way, this richly-illustrated book about the flora in our lives should prove to be some interesting reading for you. Here’s what Salon had to say about The Incredible Journey of Plants: “A gripping series of evolutionary history vignettes about plants that have coexisted either in spite of or due to human intervention...a new perspective on that hazy term, nature.” Keep scrolling for more information on the book and how to enter the contest...
When we talk about migrations, we should study plants to understand that these phenomena are unstoppable. In the many different ways plants move, we can see the incessant action and drive to spread life that has led plants to colonize every possible environment on earth. The history of this relentless expansion is unknown to most people, but we can begin our exploration with these surprising tales, engagingly told by Stefano Mancuso. Generation after generation, using spores, seeds, or any other means available, plants move in the world to conquer new spaces. They release huge quantities of spores that can be transported thousands of miles. The number and variety of tools through which seeds spread is astonishing: we have seeds dispersed by wind, by rolling on the ground, by animals, by water, or by a simple fall from the plant, which can happen thanks to propulsive mechanisms, the swaying of the mother plant, the drying of the fruit, and much more. In this accessible, absorbing overview, Mancuso considers how plants convince animals to transport them around the world, and how some plants need particular animals to spread; how they have been able to grow in places so inaccessible and inhospitable as to remain isolated; how they resisted the atomic bomb and the Chernobyl disaster; how they are able to bring life to sterile islands; how they can travel through the ages, as they sail around the world.

If you’d like a chance at winning The Incredible Journey of Plants, 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 May 21 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 22.

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.


Friday, May 8, 2020

Friday Freebie: The Memory Eaters by Elizabeth Kadetsky


Congratulations to Mike Cooper, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie contest: Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him by Tracy Borman.

This week’s contest is for The Memory Eaters by Elizabeth Kadetsky. If you haven’t already done so, you should check out Elizabeth’s recent guest posts here at the Pen: A Suitcase of Books and My First In-Depth Encounter with an Actual Author. Her new book has just been released and readers are already singing its praises: “The Memory Eaters functions as love letters to single mothers, to New York City of the ‘70s and ‘80s, to the fashion industry, to graffiti artists, and to Kadetsky’s own mother, of course. And, like all the best love letters, it’s simultaneously wistful and romantic and cutting and sublime.” (Jeff Parker, author of Where Bears Roam the Streets)

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


On autopsy, the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient can weigh as little as 30 percent of a healthy brain. The tissue grows porous. It is a sieve through which the past slips. As her mother loses her grasp on their shared history, Elizabeth Kadetsky sifts through boxes of the snapshots, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, and notebooks that remain, hoping to uncover the memories that her mother is actively losing as her dementia progresses. These remnants offer the false yet beguiling suggestion that the past is easy to reconstruct—easy to hold.

Here’s even more praise for the book: “At the heart of Elizabeth Kadetsky’s exquisitely written memoir, The Memory Eaters, is a profound narrative about longing―longing for the past, for family, for home, for lost innocence, and for memory itself. Kadetsky deftly weaves her search for family secrets with stories about her own past trauma, her sister’s addiction and homelessness, and her mother who was tragically struck down by early Alzheimer’s. This is a powerful book, beautifully told.” (Mira Bartok, author of The Wonderling)

If you’d like a chance at winning The Memory Eaters, 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 May 14 at which time I’ll draw the winning names. I’ll announce the lucky reader on May 15.

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.


Monday, May 4, 2020

My First Time: Margo Orlando Littell



The First Time My Life Imitated My Art

In 1889, Oscar Wilde claimed in an essay, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” I found this to be all too eerily true when I began researching and writing my novel The Distance from Four Points. I set the novel in a fictionalized version of my hometown, an impoverished former coal-mining town in the Appalachian foothills of southwestern Pennsylvania, and many details of my setting are drawn from life: blighted homes, neglected commercial properties, a sweeping, general abandonment of anything approximating decent real estate. Decades ago, my hometown had more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country—now a quarter of the (small) population lives below the poverty level. That collapse is reflected in the once-grand homes now crumbling along the main street of town. My novel is, in part, about aggressively negligent small-town landlords; I’m drawn to ruined homes, especially the ones who’ve held onto shadows of their former beauty. Old woodwork, original stained glass, intricate pavers visible beneath the weeds. My novel was inspired by these relics. Art imitating life.

The protagonist of my novel, Robin, becomes a small-town landlord when her husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her with nothing but a handful of “investment properties” he’d blown their savings on. She has a fraught relationship with one particular ruined house, and ultimately finds herself involved in its restoration. She encounters squatters, destructive tenants, month after month of missing rent payments. She becomes a member of a landlording group full of men whose moral code of squeezing tenants for every penny she can’t abide, but who offer her a path to survival she believes she has no choice but to follow.

It’s a grim setup, and Robin doesn’t get a lot of mercy from me for most of the novel.


It was a fun book to research. To shape my descriptions of the rentals Robin inherits, I scoured photos on Zillow and Craigslist, amazed at the lack of care landlords took when listing their properties. Laundry piles, overflowing garbage, obvious damage to walls and windows—what you see is what you get, they were saying. Don’t bother us, we won’t bother you. During a visit to my hometown, I had a realtor take me through some available properties, and I witnessed the neglect firsthand. Though most of the properties seemed uninhabitable, tenants were either living there or had only recently moved out.

And yet. Some of the historic homes—enormous houses that had been split into badly maintained triplexes—beckoned. Beneath the grime and grit, they retained some of their old glory. The house at the heart of my novel was based on an actual house in my hometown, a particularly tragic beauty. Red brick, with a round turret from ground to attic, the pointy peak long missing, the windows in the round turret rooms broken and boarded. It was just a block away from my parents’ house, and I’d admired it my entire life. This house happened to be on the market while I was researching my novel, and I was able to go inside for the very first time. There was woodwork; there was original stained glass; but the smell of cats and garbage was physical, the neglect and destruction total. The house was destined to be condemned and, eventually, demolished. I was grateful for the chance to have seen it, and the new details inspired my work on the book.

Then two big events turned art-imitates-life upside down: a landlord friend bought that house, intending to flip it; and, a few months later, I joined in as an equal partner. The moment my name was added to the title, I became a small-town property owner, just like Robin. Fast forward through an extensive restoration process, and an unsuccessful attempt to find a buyer. Instead of selling the house, we rented it out—and voila, I was a landlord, just like Robin. Our first tenant bounced all her checks and refused to leave, becoming a squatter. In my novel, a squatter lives in the fictionalized version of this house. Many tenants lied on their applications, an egregious trick that was both humiliating and enraging, and I found myself getting counsel from my hometown’s most notoriously negligent landlords—just as Robin finds herself aligned with the local landlords who are harder and less merciful than she could ever be.

Every novel requires immersion: into setting, character, and story. I’ve dreamed about characters, fallen in love with them, heard their voices in my head. This time, this novel, was different. Deeper. My life inspired the art, consumed what I created, and then spit it back out as a new reality. I assumed the same burdens as Robin, trod the same fraught path, and now feel the same tight grip of anxiety that she does on the first of each month when the rent—again, again, again—fails to be paid.

I gave Robin a happy enough ending. Until I somehow find a buyer for my property, however, my landlording story will go on and on and on.


Margo Orlando Littell is the author of the novels The Distance from Four Points and Each Vagabond by Name, both published by the University of New Orleans Press. Each Vagabond by Name won the University of New Orleans Publishing Lab Prize and an IPPY Awards Gold Medal, was longlisted for the 2017 Tournament of Books, and was named one of fifteen great Appalachian novels by Bustle. Originally from southwestern Pennsylvania, Margo now lives in New Jersey. She is on Twitter and Instagram and her website is www.margoorlandolittell.com.

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, May 3, 2020

Sunday Sentence: Nebraska by Kwame Dawes


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


       It grows dark quickly here,
       and God no longer strolls
       the gardens, calling out
       the name of things with delight;
       not even the damp clump
       of a name.


“Transplant” in Nebraska by Kwame Dawes


Thursday, April 30, 2020

Here’s to Blithesome May (and e. e. cummings)



It’s the last day of National Poetry Month and I’ve been celebrating with poetry old (nineteenth-century poets) and new (Kwame Dawes, Eileen Myles, and M. L. Smoker to name a few). I’m also still thinking about the sometimes-tangled prosody of e. e. cummings whose Collected Poems dominated most of my 2019 in Verse. Today, I thought I’d say goodbye to April (you cruellest of months) and bid Hello to what the poet calls “blithesome May” in an excerpt from one of his earlier, more-accessible poems.

How’s the weather in your neck of the woods? Here in Montana, there were snowflakes swirling outside my fourth-floor apartment window a mere two weeks ago. So I’m more than ready for sun-showers and the burst of buds on the flowering trees in my neighborhood. For those of you, like me, who have been restlessly pacing the confines of quarantine, here’s a glimmer of meteorological hope from Mr. cummings, first published in The Cambridge Review in 1910 (in the month of May, naturally).


The Coming of May

We have wintered the death of the old, cold year,
We have left our tracks in the melting snow,
We have braved harsh March’s biting jeer,
And April’s gusty overflow.
And now, when Nature begins to grow,
And the buds are out, and the birds are gay
And all is well–above and below,–
Here’s to the coming of blithesome May.

Winter was good when he met us here,
With his sharp, clear days, and his flashing snow,
Bur we carried Winter out on his bier,
And buried him, many a month ago.
March was not hard with all his blow,
With April, Spring seemed on her way,
But we’ve reached the best at last, and so
Here’s to the coming of blithesome May.

Winter has ended his cold career,–
No more death, and no more woe,–
We’ve come at last to a different sphere,
With no more freezing, and–mistletoe.
Spring in coming was very slow,–
Altogether too much delay,–
But we’ve cheered her on from foe to foe:
Here’s to the coming of blithesome May.


Monday, April 27, 2020

Fresh Ink: April 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 Swallowed Man
by Edward Carey
(Riverhead)

Jacket Copy:  The ingenious storyteller Edward Carey returns to reimagine a time-honored fable: the story of an impatient father, a rebellious son, and a watery path to forgiveness for the young man known as Pinocchio. In the small Tuscan town of Collodi, a lonely woodcarver longs for the companionship of a son. One day, “as if the wood commanded me,” Giuseppe—better known as Geppetto—carves for himself a pinewood boy, a marionette he hopes to take on tour worldwide. But when his handsome new creation comes magically to life, Geppetto screams . . . and the boy, Pinocchio, leaps from his arms and escapes into the night. Though he returns the next day, the wily boy torments his father, challenging his authority and making up stories—whereupon his nose, the very nose his father carved, grows before his eyes like an antler. When the boy disappears after one last fight, the father follows a rumor to the coast and out into the sea, where he is swallowed by a great fish—and consumed by guilt. He hunkers in the creature’s belly awaiting the day when he will reconcile with the son he drove away. With all the charm, atmosphere, and emotional depth for which Edward Carey is known—and featuring his trademark fantastical illustrations—The Swallowed Man is a parable of parenthood, loss, and letting go, from a creative mind on a par with Gregory Maguire, Neil Gaiman, and Tim Burton.

Opening Lines:  I am writing this account, in another man's book, by candlelight, inside the belly of a fish. I have been eaten. I have been eaten, yet I am living still.

Blurbworthiness:  “A beautiful and dark meditation on fatherhood, mercy, redemption and the alchemy of isolation. Strange, moving and musical, it's a delight.” (A. L. Kennedy, author of Day)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Who knows how old I was when I first saw Disney’s Pinocchio: 4, 6, 7? I’m sure I still had a few baby teeth clinging to my gums when I first encountered the nose-growing puppet boy. And in all those years since that magic-tingled moment did I ever read the original story, as written Carlo Collodi? I cannot tell a lie: no, I haven’t read it...yet. But I’ve been meaning to and now with Edward Carey’s inventive re-telling, I think the time has finally come to trace those strings back to the puppet.



Miracle Country
by Kendra Atleework
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  Kendra Atleework grew up in Swall Meadows, in the Owens Valley of the Eastern Sierra Nevada, where annual rainfall averages five inches and in drought years measures closer to zero. Kendra’s family raised their children to thrive in this harsh landscape, forever at the mercy of wildfires, blizzards, and gale-force winds. Most of all, the Atleework children were raised on unconditional love and delight in the natural world. But it came at a price. When Kendra was six, her mother was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease, and she died when Kendra was sixteen. Her family fell apart, even as her father tried to keep them together. Kendra took flight from her bereft family, escaping to the enemy city of Los Angeles, and then Minneapolis, land of all trees, no deserts, no droughts, full lakes, water everywhere you look. But after years of avoiding the pain of her hometown, she realized that she had to go back, that the desert was the only place she could live. Like Wild, Miracle Country is a story of flight and return, bounty and emptiness, and the true meaning of home. But it also speaks to the ravages of climate change and its permanent destruction of the way of life in one particular town.

Opening Lines:  The valley lay dry that winter, and wind roared over the mountains.

Blurbworthiness:  “Can a book be both radiant with light and shadowy as midnight? Miracle Country can. I felt the thrill I once knew reading Annie Dillard for the first time. Kendra Atleework can really write. She flies with burning wings.”  (Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The House of Broken Angels)

Why It’s In My Stack:  I am looking for a book that will describe human connection to the earth in glowing, lovely turns of phrase; Miracle Country, which has scooped up bucketloads of praise already, looks like it will be my conduit back down to dirt.



American Birds: a Literary Companion
Edited by Terry Tempest Williams and Andrew Rubenfeld
(Library of America)

Jacket Copy:  Featuring some of America’s greatest writers and poets, this landmark anthology is both a celebration of the birds around and above us and a field guide to the American soul. Americans have always been fascinated by birds and from the beginning American writers have captured this keen interest in a variety of genres: poems, journals, memoirs, short stories, essays, and travel accounts. Now, editors Terry Tempest Williams and Andrew Rubenfeld bring together the very best of this writing on America’s birds in an astonishing collection that encompasses the Aleutian Islands and the Florida Keys, the Maine woods to the deserts of the southwest—and our own gardens and backyards feeders. What better companion to a field guide to the birds of North America than these personal accounts of birds and bird watching by a Who’s Who of American literature? Put your binoculars aside and listen to the exquisite beauty of three Native American songs about birds, follow Lewis and Clark as they encounter new species on their journey across the continent, look over Audubon’s shoulder as he sketches in New Orleans, and join Emerson and Thoreau rambling around Walden Pond. Here too are Theodore Roosevelt as he recalls the birds of his New York childhood, Rachel Carson observing a skimmer on the Atlantic coast, and Roger Tory Peterson casting a keen eye on snail kites and limpkins in the Everglades. Add to this an impressive array of modern and contemporary poets celebrating the wonder of birds and the joys of bird watching, including Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, Elizabeth Bishop, Sterling A. Brown, Cornelius Eady, Mary Oliver, Linda Hogan, and Louise Erdrich. This chronological survey of how and why Americans have watched birds makes the perfect gift for both the serious birder and the backyard watcher, indeed anyone who’s ever been drawn by the wonder of birds.

Opening Lines:  What is the date? It doesn’t matter. What is the time? My shadow is by my side. It is early spring, the dried leaves of cottonwoods are a reminder of what has been. I am sitting on sand the color of my skin and it comforts me. The valley we live in is quiet—save for the buzz saw I can hear in the background. Somewhere someone is building something. The gathering clouds are alerting me not to be seduced for long by the glory of this day—a sky the color of lapis against the red rock cliffs is suddenly interrupted by the wing beats of ravens.

Blurbworthiness:  “Evocative and absorbing....All who read it will find their own favorites among the 74 appealing selections and will marvel at the many different ways to see, think about, describe, and cherish birds and their place in our lives.”  (The Urban Audubon)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Now that I’m locked up tight indoors, I find myself staring out the windows more and more, soaking in the natural world I can no longer touch. Chief among my window-gazing pursuits are long episodes of what my cats like to call Bird TV; in particular, the shows involving those coo-chuckling comedians, The Pigeons (airing daily outside my office window between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., Mountain Standard Time). Watching birds, reading about birds—it’s all fun entertainment on the fly.



August
by Callan Wink
(Random House)

Jacket Copy:  Callan Wink has been compared to masters like Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane. His short stories have been published in The New Yorker and have won numerous accolades. Now his enormous talents are showcased in a debut novel that follows a boy growing up in the middle of the country through those difficult years between childhood and adulthood. August is an average twelve-year-old. He likes dogs and fishing and doesn’t mind early-morning chores on his family’s Michigan dairy farm. But following his parents’ messy divorce, his mother decides that she and August need to start over in a new town. There, he tries to be an average teen—playing football and doing homework—but when his role in a shocking act of violence throws him off course once more, he flees to a ranch in rural Montana, where he learns that even the smallest communities have dark secrets. Covering August’s adolescence, from age twelve to nineteen, this gorgeously written novel bears witness to the joys and traumas that irrevocably shape us all. Filled with unforgettable characters and stunning natural landscapes, this book is a moving and provocative look at growing up in the American heartland.

Opening Lines:  Bonnie and Dar were sitting at the end of the dock at Bonnie’s parents’ lake house. Torch Lake stretched out in front of them, so blue it seemed impossible, unnatural, almost as if it had been dyed.

Blurbworthiness:  “Callan Wink’s characters are as real and vivid as if they’d stepped into your living room, uninvited, to tell their stories. His style is as clear, precise, and starkly poetic as the young Hemingway’s, but with a more droll sense of humor. This book is simply super—a deft, beautiful, deeply engaging read.”  (Brad Watson, author of Miss Jane)

Why It’s In My Stack:  An instant fan of Wink’s first book, a little-read collection of short stories called Dog Run Moon, I am looking forward to exploring more from this fellow Montana writer.



Impersonation
by Heidi Pitlor
(Algonquin Books)

Jacket Copy:  Allie Lang is a professional ghostwriter and a perpetually broke single mother to a young boy. Years of navigating her own and America’s cultural definition of motherhood have left her a lapsed idealist. Lana Breban is a high-profile lawyer, economist, and advocate for women's rights with designs on elected office. She also has a son. Lana and her staff have decided she needs help softening her image in the eyes of the public and that a memoir about her life as a mother will help. Allie struggles to write Lana’s book as obstacles pile up: not enough childcare, looming deadlines, an unresponsive subject, an ill-defined romantic relationship on the verge of slipping away. Eventually, Lana comes to require far too much of Allie and even her son. Allie’s ability to stand up for herself and ask for all that she deserves will ultimately determine the power that she can wield over her own life. With the satirical eye of Tom Perrotta’s Mrs. Fletcher and the incisiveness of Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, acclaimed writer Heidi Pitlor tells a timely, bitingly funny, and insightful story of ambition, motherhood, and class.

Opening Lines:  I once saw a woman in a library pick up a biography of Mother Teresa. A few seconds later, she returned it to its display, and next, she reached for a Kennedy nephew’s memoir. The title, The House that Uncle Jack Built, was printed in a faux handwritten scrawl above the nephew’s name, itself set in a bold Baskerville twice as large as the title. The book could have been called Why I Love Pants; it was the man’s last name that would move copies.

Blurbworthiness:  “Impersonation is the book we need now: an unflinching look at our current moment, and at questions few of us dare to ask. If our personas do good in the world, does it matter what we did to create them? How much hypocrisy are liberals willing to tolerate? Can women raise good men? Provocative, heartfelt, and often hilarious, this is a novel I'll be thinking about for a long time to come.”  (Anna Solomon, author of The Book of V)

Why It’s In My Stack:  Just a few sentences into the first chapter, I was hooked by the author’s firm, commanding grip on the narrative, with a promise of many more good things to come in its pages. For years, I’ve been familiar with Pitlor’s name as the editor for the Best American Short Stories anthology series (I’m reading the 2019 edition right now), so it’s high time I dove into her own fiction.



Mad at the World: A Life of John Steinbeck
by William Souder
(W. W. Norton)

Jacket Copy:  This first full-length biography of the Nobel Laureate to appear in a quarter century explores John Steinbeck’s long apprenticeship as a writer struggling through the depths of the Great Depression, and his rise to greatness with masterpieces such as The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. His most poignant and evocative writing emerged in his sympathy for the Okies fleeing the dust storms of the Midwest, the migrant workers toiling in California’s fields, and the laborers on Cannery Row, reflecting a social engagement--paradoxical for all of his natural misanthropy—radically different from the writers of the so-called Lost Generation. A man by turns quick-tempered, contrary, compassionate, and ultimately brilliant, Steinbeck took aim at the corrosiveness of power, the perils of income inequality, and the growing urgency of ecological collapse, all of which drive fierce public debate to this day.

Opening Lines:  In the California winter, after the sun is down and the land has gone dark, the cool air slips down the mountainsides that flank the great Central Valley, settling over the fields and tules below.

Blurbworthiness:  “Brilliance follows brilliance in this illuminating biography of John Steinbeck. William Souder reveals his with a vibrant narrative and prose worthy of the master himself. Every page comes alive with the force of history, the wonder of place, and the friends, strangers, and dogs that shaped the sensibilities of the man who became the conscience of modern America.” (Jack E. Davis, author of The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea)

Why It’s In My Stack:  John Steinbeck is one of those cherished authors I like rather than love, admire rather than desire. So, when a new biography of the beloved writer comes along, my pulse doesn’t necessarily race, but it does settle into a steady thrum-thrum-thrum of heightened interest which accompanies any new book that opens the doors to reading about a stranger’s life. And when you add acclaimed biographer William Souder’s name to the mix, the pique factor shoots up even higher. I do love how the first line of his book is very Steinbeckian in its description of California’s landscape.



Marlene
by Philippe Djian
(Other Press)

Jacket Copy:  In this electrifying psychological drama, two veterans readjusting to civilian life find their friendship tested when ugly truths come to light. After returning from combat to a quiet garrison town, Dan and Richard struggle in their different ways to regain a sense of normality. Dan, desperate to prove to his bourgeois neighbors that he isn’t the violent, unstable veteran they’d expect, sticks to a rigorous routine and keeps his head down. Richard, on the other hand, doesn’t resist his impulses, repeatedly flouting the law and spending money he doesn’t have. All the while, his home life is gradually falling apart—unbeknownst to him, his wife has been having an affair, and his teenaged daughter is becoming increasingly distant and even hostile. The arrival of Richard’s sister-in-law, Marlene—a woman with a reputation for sleeping around and bringing bad luck wherever she goes—threatens to destroy what little peace the two men have, calling into question their seemingly unbreakable bond.

Opening Lines:  It wasn’t the smartest thing to do. It might even worsen the situation, which wasn’t great to begin with. But since she refused to let him in or hear him out, he rammed open the door with his shoulder.

Blurbworthiness:  “Marlene reads like noir cinema mixed with a dream. A subtle and haunting book that I couldn’t put down.” (Brian Castner, author of The Long Walk)

Why It’s In My Stack:  After weeks of reading some heavy, thick-bound books like the biography of Thomas A. Edison and a history of the American Revolution, I think I am ready for something thinner, sexier, and more modern (not that the other books I’m reading are bad; no, they’re very good—it’s just that I want a breather from dense non-fiction in favor of quick-on-its feet fiction). I haven’t read Djian’s other novels, but Marlene might just be a good tour guide to those earlier works.


Sunday, April 26, 2020

Sunday Sentence: Nebraska by Kwame Dawes


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


In truth, I have been reprimanded by my own guilt / for how easily have I silenced the noises of a world entering the terror of a dictatorship, / how I have pretended that in time it will pass—how I have carried in me the hope in / a constitution that says in another five years, the terrible order will change— / a kind of jubilee and yet I know that I am ignoring the bones scattered in the wake / of this horror, the deaths, the losses, the wounds, the debilitating wounds that will not heal; / how a generation of infants will have learned that the adults are allowed to sulk and scowl / in tantrums and no one is bold enough to do much about it—how the secret of the adult / is that we live in compromise each day, we seek our pleasures at the expense of others, / and this is enough for us as long as we remain silent.

from “Bones” in Nebraska by Kwame Dawes