Wednesday, February 29, 2012

And the Oscar (contest) goes to....

Congratulations to Mike Tedesco, the winner of the annual Quivering Pen Academy Awards Prediction Contest.  Mike was one of three entrants to correctly predict 20 out of the 24 winners of this year's Oscars (all three names were then entered into a blind drawing).  He'll soon be enjoying his prize package of the books Moneyball, The Hugo Movie Companion, Albert Nobbs, The Iron Lady, and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, plus the DVD of Days of Heaven from my personal collection.  Well done, sir!

Overall, Quivering Pen readers did a good job of predicting this year's Academy Award winners.  Here are the percentages of the voting results:

Best Picture: The Artist (88%)
Best Actor: Jean Dujardin for The Artist (55%)
Best Actress: Viola Davis for The Help (74%) Actual Winner: Meryl Streep for The Iron Lady (16%)
Best Supporting Actor: Christopher Plummer for Beginners (89%)
Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer for The Help (91%)
Best Director: Michel Hazanavicius for The Artist (76%)
Best Original Screenplay: Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris (80%)
Best Adapted Screenplay: Alexander Payne, Nat Faxton, and Jim Rash for The Descendants (78%)
Best Animated Feature: Rango (79%)
Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation (84%)
Best Original Score: The Artist (79%)
Best Original Song: "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets (81%)
Best Achievement in Art Direction: Hugo (76%)
Best Achievement in Cinematography: The Tree of Life (57%)  Actual Winner: Hugo (20%)
Best Achievement in Costume Design: The Artist (50%)
Best Documentary Feature: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (41%)  Actual Winner: Undefeated (15%)
Best Documentary Short Subject: The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (39%)  Actual Winner: Saving Face (34%)
Best Achievement in Film Editing: The Artist (63%)  Actual Winner: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (8%)
Best Achievement in Makeup: The Iron Lady (59%)
Best Animated Short Film: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (57%)
Best Live Action Short Film: The Shore (43%)
Best Achievement in Sound Editing: Hugo (60%)
Best Achievement in Sound Mixing: Hugo (71%)
Best Achievement in Visual Effects: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (62%)  Actual Winner: Hugo (24%)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies. Unless their last name is Grisham or King, authors will probably never see their trailers on the big screen at the local cineplex. And that's a shame because a lot of hard work goes into producing these short marriages between book and video. So, if you like what you see, please spread the word and help these videos go viral.

Claire Bidwell Smith has hiked deep into the valley of grief--she lost both of her parents to cancer by the time she was 25--and she's emerged from those dark shadows with a memoir that, among other things, reassures us "grief can be beautiful at times."  As she says in the trailer, The Rules of Inheritance "is about walking out into the world and not being afraid of it."  The trailer is mostly a talking-head video with a few family photos scattered throughout, but I think Smith does a great job of lucidly explaining her book to readers--not an easy thing with all those complicated emotions lying restless on the page.

Monday, February 27, 2012

My First Time: Amy Franklin-Willis

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Amy Franklin-Willis.  Her debut novel, The Lost Saints of Tennessee has just been published by Grove/Atlantic.  An eighth-generation Southerner, Amy Franklin-Willis was born in Birmingham, Alabama.  She received an Emerging Writer Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation in 2007 to complete The Lost Saints of Tennessee, a novel inspired by stories of her father’s childhood in rural Pocahontas, Tennessee.  Bookpage had this to say about the book: "In her powerful debut, Franklin-Willis expertly crafts a Southern novel that stands with genre classics like The Prince of Tides and Bastard out of Carolina....A measured, slow-burning book, with complex, compelling characters and secrets that reveal themselves slowly."  Franklin-Willis lives with her family on the West Coast where she has a full-time job as a university fundraiser.  Visit her website here (where, among other things, you can find a recipe for hummingbird cake).

My First Call

The first time I learned a publisher had made an offer to buy my novel The Lost Saints of Tennessee I was on a cell phone in the middle of the Oakland, California airport on March 24, 2010.

Oakland is the closest airport to my San Francisco Bay Area home and I had been flying back from a business trip to Portland, Oregon.  When I boarded the plane in Portland, I was an obedient passenger and shut down the cell phone.  I was not anticipating any important phones calls for either my fundraising or writing work.  The flight was short and uneventful.

After landing, I gathered my belongings and headed down the Jetway, grateful to be returning home to my wife and three daughters.  I juggled my purse and briefcase on the way to baggage claim as I turned my cell phone back on.  Being the mother of three young children requires that my phone is almost never off while I’m on terra firma.

My old Samsung Blackjack booted up at its typical leisurely pace, the email loading first.  I checked my personal account and saw that in the two hours since I’d shut the phone off, two emails from my agent had arrived.  The last one saying only, “Call me as soon as you get this.”

By that point, my agent and I had been working together for a few months and I knew she never just emailed me to check my emotional state or to give me a pep talk about how the right editor would find the book irresistible.  My breath caught and I had the distinct sensation of needing to throw up.

The phone finally discovered the nearest cell tower and began blinking the news of two missed calls and one voicemail.  All from my agent.  Caught in a tide of distracted and weary passengers trudging to claim their belongings, I found myself surrounded on all sides by strangers.  My feet pinched in their work heels as I tried to keep up the walking pace and call my agent back.  Never slowing down, just moving forward, one breath, one step.  One breath, one step.

The phone rang three times before my agent picked up.  Do you know how long three rings takes when you have been waiting eight years?

"I have good news for you," she said.  “One of the top literary editors in the country wants your book.”

Somehow I cut through people to find a spot out of the way.  I leaned against the broad panes of the windows overlooking the tarmac, clutching the phone against my ear.  The offer had come unexpectedly from my dream editor, Elisabeth Schmitz at Grove/Atlantic.  This was the woman who had found Charles Frazier’s beautiful novel Cold Mountain and made it a bestseller.

“Are you there, Amy?  Did you hear me?”

I could not give my agent a response.  Not yet.  Eight years of writing, revising, critiquing, crying, doubting, laughing, believing, hoping, praying, despairing prevented me.

I asked her to give me a minute and then I put the phone down.  I placed my arms around my stomach and bent down.  The dictionary defines overcome as:  to conquer; to surmount; to prevail over; to be victorious.  In those precious seconds, I felt none of those things.  Instead, I experienced a cascade of relief I can only compare to seeing my third daughter—whose conception and pregnancy had been plagued by uncertainty—born healthy.

The dream is true.

Amy Franklin-Willis' family getting the news of her book offer

Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday Freebie: The Lost Daughter by Lucy Ferriss

Congratulations to Michael Magras, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Norumbega Park by Anthony Giardina.

This week's book giveaway is The Lost Daughter by Lucy Ferriss (read her "My First Time" story about rejections).  The novel has just been published by Berkley Books to great acclaim.  Novelist Francisco Goldman (Say Her Name) called it "an achingly beautiful novel about marriage and love....the work of a master American realist, up there with Richard Yates."  Here's the jacket copy:
Brooke O'Connor--elegant, self-possessed, and kind--has a happy marriage and a deeply loved young daughter. So her adamant refusal to have a second child confounds her husband, Sean. When Brooke's high school boyfriend, Alex--now divorced and mourning the death of his young son--unexpectedly resurfaces, Sean begins to suspect an affair. For fifteen years Brooke has kept a shameful secret from everyone she loves. Only Alex knows the truth that drove them apart. His reappearance now threatens the life she has so carefully constructed and fortified by denial. With her marriage--and her emotional equilibrium--at stake, Brooke must confront what she has been unwilling to face for so long. But the truth is not what Brooke believes it to be.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of The Lost Daughter, all you have to do is answer this ridiculously easy question:

What's the title of Ferriss' memoir which is subtitled "The Misadventures of a Reluctant Debutante"? (Visit her website for the answer)

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on March 1--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on March 2.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you've done either or both of those, send me an additional e-mail saying "I've shared" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Barney Rosset (1922-2012)

Yesterday, the publishing industry came to a brief pause for shock and sadness at the mention of four words: "Barney Rosset is dead."

The newest publishing intern, still smelling like Wellesley and sipping her mocha-coconut frappuccino at the corner of Broadway and 54th, may say, "Barney who?"  But those who have been around for more than a couple of minutes--especially those whose college education was fueled by by the names Beckett, Burroughs, and Ionesco--knew one of the brightest lights in the book world had flickered out.  True, the bulb may have been dim for a number of years, but back in the 1950s and 1960s, Barney blazed.  Oh, how he blazed bright.

In 1951, Rosset bought a fledgling literary publishing company called Grove Press.  At the time, Grove had published only three books: The Confidence Man, The Verse in English of Richard Crashaw, and The Selected Writings of the Ingenious Mrs. Aphra Behn.  In an interview with The Paris Review, he said, "I was doing nothing at the time and thought, This might be interesting.  I think I paid fifteen hundred dollars for half—which included the inventory.  I took the inventory to my apartment on Ninth Street, all of it, in three suitcases."

Rosset's ownership of the fledgling press was an act that reverberated and gathered speed, like a rubber ball going down a staircase, until it landed in my own lap six months ago.  Grove was struggling when Rosset came on the scene but under his watch it would go on to publish the works of writers considered iconoclasts in their day but who are now regarded as central figures in our culture--names like Samuel Beckett, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Malcolm X, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Leroi Jones, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Marguerite Duras, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Joe Orton, Hebert Selby Jr., Kenzaburo Oe, Kathy Acker, and David Mamet.  As the introduction to his interview in The Paris Review states: "Attracted to books that in some way—through their form or content—challenged the status quo, Rosset published writers other presses passed up because they were too far out, too experimental, or violated the prevailing mores of the day."

He also kicked those prevailing mores in the balls.  Anti-obscenity laws of the fifties made it illegal to publish the unsanitized texts of books like D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (among others).  Rosset set out to deliberately defy those laws by publishing those two books and, through a series of landmark court cases, gave us all the freedom to enjoy one of Miller's characters shooting "hot bolts" into a woman's nether-regions* and turning her ovaries "incandescent."

In a 2008 Newsweek article called "The Most Dangerous Man in Publishing," Louisa Thomas wrote: "The story of Rosset's life is essentially one of creative destruction. He found writers who wanted to break new paths, and then he picked up a sledgehammer to help them whale away at the existing order."

As one of the newest members of the Grove family, I realize any rhapsodic tribute I may write about Rosset is a little like admiring a dusty-framed oil painting of a great-great-grandfather which has always hung in the second-floor hallway of the mansion (or, in Rosset's case, maybe it's more accurate to call it a portrait in Day-Glo spray paint across a brick wall).  But I can tell you this: even though I never met the man, his lasting effect on literature was felt on that day last September when I got the email from my agent saying Grove was interested in my novel and I shouted to my wife, "Grove!  It's Grove!"  Just ask her about the elevated, carnival-pitch excitement in my voice and you'll have some idea of the outstanding reputation Rosset helped establish.

Throughout the day yesterday as news spread about his death of complications from heart surgery, tributes from friends and fans lit up social media with words like "legendary" and "maverick" and "giant" and "hero."  Rosset once told the New York Times, "All my life I followed the things that I liked — people, things, books — and when things were offered to me, I published them.  I never did anything I really didn't like."

In a tribute yesterday in the New York Times, Douglas Martin wrote: "In 2008 the National Book Foundation honored him as 'a tenacious champion for writers who were struggling to be read in America.'  Other mentions were less lofty.  Life magazine in 1969 titled an article about him 'The Old Smut Peddler.'  That same year a cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post showed him climbing out of a sewer."

In his memoir The Tender Hour of Twilight (just published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), editor Richard Seaver recalls the first time he met Rosset in Paris before going to work for him:
Barney was a slight, intense, wired-up young man, whom I judged to be in his early thirties, although his receding hairline made him look older. He was wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses, and when he laughed--which he did often, though nervously, as if he weren't quite sure a laugh was appropriate to the remark--he looked strangely equine, baring both gums.
Seaver also recalls his wife's high opinion of his new boss:
True, he was opinionated. True, he sought and savored the limelight. True, he could be irascible, shoot from the hip, court trouble unnecessarily. But, boy, did he have guts! He also had brains. And what other publishing house was even remotely as exciting as Grove?
Rosset sold Grove in 1985 to Ann Getty, the oil heiress, and George Weidenfeld, a British publisher.  Part of the deal was that he would remain in charge, but he was fired a year later.  He sued, contending that the dismissal had violated the sales contract.  The dispute was settled out of court.  Grove's backlist was acquired by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1993, bringing us to what we know today as Grove/Atlantic.

Rosset has been gone from Grove for years and now he is gone from us all for good.  But the words for which he fought so hard remain:
I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive. A year ago, six months ago, I thought that I was an artist. I no longer think about it, I am. Everything that was literature has fallen from me. There are no more books to be written, thank God. This then? This is not a book. This is libel, slander, defamation of character. This is not a book, in the ordinary sense of the word. No, this is a prolonged insult, a gob of spit in the face of Art, a kick in the pants of God, Man, Destiny, Time, Beauty.
          --Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

*Miller, of course, repeatedly used a much stronger "c" word in Tropic of Cancer.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Soup and Salad: PEN/Faulkner and LA Times Book Awards, Ann Patchett on Stephen Colbert, When Genre and "Literary" Marry, Airplane Novels, Martin Amis' Secret Book, In Which Lydia Netzer Discovers Books Are Not Like VHS Tapes, "So Many Books, So Little Time"

On today's menu:

1.  Congratulations to the PEN/Faulkner Award finalists:
Don DeLillo, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories
Russell Banks, Lost Memory of Skin
Steve Millhauser, We Others: New and Selected Stories
Anita Desai, The Artist of Disappearance
Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
The winner will be announced March 26.

1.5  The Los Angeles Times has also announced the finalists for its annual book awards. Happy to see a few of my favorites on the list, including The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach and Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories by Edith Pearlman.  The full list is here.  The winners will be announced April 20.

2.  If you missed author (State of Wonder) and bookstore owner (Parnassus Books in Nashville) Ann Patchett on The Colbert Report, here's the clip as she more than holds her own against S. C.

3.  For another conversation in which two literary powerhouses trade intelligent words, check out this dual interview between Peter Straub and Bradford Morrow at Beatrice.  Morrow tells this story:
When I taught at Princeton, filling in for Russell Banks who was on sabbatical, Joyce Carol Oates invited Stephen King to give a reading. The auditorium was packed with not just students and other professors, but a coterie of devotees who rode in on motorcycles. When King got up to the podium, the first thing he did was hold up a copy of William Gass’ recently published novel, The Tunnel, and said something to the effect of Have you ever hear of this guy William Gass?, then proceeded to give a mind-blowingly inspired reading of a passage from the book that I had published in Conjunctions some fifteen years earlier. Pure magic. I sat there awestruck. The generosity, empathy, will always stay with me. When Gass and I were in Paris soon after, attending a highly literary conference, I told him that story, and I don’t think he believed me at the time. These genre and literary worlds truly meld more often than we might imagine. It’s ultimately about the dynamism of the writing itself, and of the vision.

4.  In the New York Times, Dominique Browning writes about the time she was on a plane and had a quasi-religious experience:
      This breakthrough came after years of....buying paperbacks of world classics, meaning to reacquaint myself with the stuff of college classes. After years of being tethered to my middle seat too near the lav, struggling distractedly through great prose, tough reporting, clear-minded thinking, biting analysis — and understanding nothing.
      Instead of reading, I used to worry about how long a delay was going to last; fret over the awfulness of the dried-out sandwich that was meant to be dinner; gently shove back the head of a slumped stranger snoring on my shoulder; feel a miasma of germs settle around my head and travel up my nose, down my throat, into my eyes; imagine the incipient thrombosis that would clog my heart, just because I was too timid to ask two grumpy people to get up once again so I could walk down the aisle.
      And then I finally found the literature that stands up to the tests of travel. The secret, dear reader, lies in narrative drive. Plain, old-fashioned, unrelenting, compelling storytelling. You’ve got to reach for the best-seller shelves.

5.  The Millions has the scoop on the book Martin Amis doesn't want you to know about.  Hint: it involves a joystick.

6.  When novelist Lydia Netzer (Shine Shine Shine) moved to a new house, she and her husband were faced with an emotionally gut-wrenching problem:
      In the mountain of stuff we no longer want that is now sitting grumpily in our new house, there are a mazillion VHS tapes. These are objects that should have been purged years ago. We haven't watched any of them since we moved the last time. We don't even have a VCR connected to our TV. If we did hook up a VCR, and managed to remember what the button "Rewind" does, I guarantee the tapes would look awful in 1080 resolution. It's at a point with these VHS tapes that I don't even think the Salvation Army wants them. I don't think anyone wants them. But every time we began to hustle them into bags to push them out the door, we got all oogly about it. Here's our copy of "The Long Kiss Goodnight," which we watched and rewound several times. Here's "Household Saints," one of the first movies I ever owned. "Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael." "Go." "Four Rooms." "Sweetie." Here's that copy of "City of Lost Children" that was almost impossible to get. "Evita." Shut up, I have the whole thing memorized. I have a romantic attachment to these objects -- they remind me of when we were younger, poorer, and dumber, when I was working at a 1/2 porn video store during graduate school, when our TV was small and given to fits of rage instead of large and austere and firmly in control of itself.
      So I put them, all, ruthlessly in the trash. I kept the ultrasound videos from my kids. I kept a couple of other personal things. But anything that I can get on DVD or download, I tossed.

7.  I don't know if Deb Vanasse owns any VHS tapes, but at the 49 Writers blog, she writes eloquently about being cocooned in books: "I still shortchange myself when it comes to reading. It feels too much like an indulgence, a reward squeezed in over lunch or at bedtime, unless it’s research for “real work.” This is wrong-headed thinking. I need to expand the book time in my day, to acknowledge that the guilty pleasure of working with words includes sustained and joyful periods of doing what I love."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Trailer Park Tuesday: Echolocation by Myfanwy Collins

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.  Unless their last name is Grisham or King, authors will probably never see their trailers on the big screen at the local cineplex.  And that's a shame because a lot of hard work goes into producing these short marriages between book and video.  So, if you like what you see, please spread the word and help these videos go viral.

Myfanwy Collins' debut novel Echolocation from Engine Books is about family tensions which rise to the surface when two sisters are reunited by the death of a relative.  The novel has drawn high praise from other authors like Pia Z. Ehrhardt (Famous Fathers and Other Stories) who says, "Myfanwy Collins' debut novel calls to mind the grim and radiant work of Daniel Woodrell.  From page one, I was chilled by the landscape, caught up in the trouble, and riveted by these women of northernmost New York who slam back together and figure out how to live with what's missing."  Through a series of photographs seen through a rain-specked windshield, Echolocation's trailer gives glimpses of that "little patch of nothing made up of dairy farms in the valleys and boarded up iron-ore mines in the mountains, a town of old folks waiting to die and young people dying to leave."

Monday, February 20, 2012

My First Time: Lucy Ferriss

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today's guest is Lucy Ferriss, author of the just-released novel The Lost DaughterKirkus Reviews called The Lost Daughter "an unflinching study of parenthood" full of "convincing, Franzen-style realism."  Ferriss has been writing fiction, poetry and literary criticism for many years.  In addition to five previous novels and a collection of short fiction, she has also published a work of literary criticism and dozens of short stories, poems, articles, essays and book reviews.  She has two sons and teaches at Trinity College in Connecticut. Visit her website at

My First Rejections

It’s hard to reconstruct now, but a time existed when I thought everything would fall my way.  An anthology had accepted three poems during my last semester in college.  I had spent two years working for the most distinguished literary press in California.  Moving on to grad school, I had the privilege of working with one of the best short-fiction writers in America, who had connected me with a New York agent.  Finally, I had plucked a notice off the grad school bulletin board about a year-long fellowship in New Hampshire, and the next thing I knew I was the Fellow, with a year’s full support to write.

The following winter, bitter and snowless, I put aside the patchwork novel I had submitted for my degree and dove into “the real thing.”  I worked all morning in my bathrobe (still do), then walked the dog through the New Hampshire village until my hands went numb from cold.  My prestigious agent sent encouraging notes.  She was shopping my short stories; she had great hopes.

One of those afternoons, I returned home brimming with new ideas for the book.  A package sat on my front stoop.  Opening it with frostbit hands, I found all my manuscripts inside, along with the rejection letters my agent had received from magazine and book editors over the preceding eight months.  On the top was a brief handwritten note: Gone to Arizona to dry out.  Closing the agency.  Best of luck, P.

I felt like Wile E. Coyote, happily racing after the rabbit, only to discover that his legs are churning through thin air above an 80-foot drop.

Carefully I went through the contents.  My stories, so carefully typed on 20% bond, seemed slight, amateurish.  The novella I had composed in a fever before leaving for New Hampshire read like, well, a fever dream.  The letters were mostly kind but dismissive—“Thanks for the opportunity,” “A voice with great potential,” “Sorry we have to pass.”  Later, I would attend a Halloween party as a rejected manuscript, with such notes pasted all over my clothing and a post-office stamp of “Return to Sender” tattooing my face.  But that winter, I was a rejection virgin.  I had assumed that an agent was like a parent: they shielded you from the worst, and they never gave up.

I drank a couple of glasses of wine, did several tours of the little Fellowship house, and returned to the disaster that had landed on my porch.  I plucked a rejection letter from the pile, one that seemed more sincere than the rest and invited my agent to keep in touch.  In the dying January light, I rolled a sheet into the typewriter and began: Dear Ms. C--- . . . .

Two weeks later, I met Ms. C as she packed up the New York office where she had been downsized out of editing fiction.  She gave me the name of another agent.  That agent helped me dial back from the “real thing” project to the earlier work, which with two more years’ worth of rewriting became my first novel, Philip's Girl. There have been plenty of ups and downs since then.  But when I think of the moment I joined the world of writers, I remember that package on the stoop; I remember exiting my comfort zone to write directly to that editor.  Nothing was going to float my way, I realized then, except—on very lucky days—the words themselves.  I was going to have to learn how to run through thin air.

Photo by John Marinelli Photography

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Juggling for Nazis: Germania by Brendan McNally

In today's dispatch from the Department of Whatever Happened To?, I dug up an old review I wrote of Brendan McNally's novel Germania for The Barnes and Noble Review.  Here's how that review began:
If the image of Albert Speer, a prominent Nazi, juggling rubber balls as a way to relieve stress in the waning days of the Third Reich doesn't make you sit up and say, "Mein Gott, vas is los?" then Brendan McNally's debut novel, Germania, might not be for you. On the other hand, if rollicking adventures of Jews masquerading as Nazis, secret wartime shipments of gold, SS officers dreaming of hunting walrus in Greenland, and the tense emotional dynamics of theatrical families intrigue you, then Germania will fit the bill quite nicely. At the heart of the novel are the Flying Magical Loerber Brothers, a popular German juggling act (in more ways than one, as it turns out), who split up just as Hitler is rising to power in the early 1930s.... 

I greatly enjoyed McNally's novel and often wondered why he hadn't published anything since Germania--which, frankly, didn't do as well in sales as Simon & Schuster was probably hoping.  His debut seemed to have joined that long list of novels deserving better treatment by the reading public than ending up in the Barnes and Noble Bargain Books section.  Sometimes you want to cheer for new writers, then cry disappointing tears when they don't take off like you'd hoped.

For that reason alone I feel some kinship with McNally.  His background is in journalism--specifically, writing about the defense industry--so we have that in common as well.  He's also worked as a merchant seaman, bookstore manager,  and oyster shucker (trades I have yet to pick up).  At his author page on the S&S website, he says one of his best qualities is his "endless curiosity," and that shows in his writing.  He goes on to say:
After bombing out of Art School, I went to work on a tugboat hauling oil rigs around the Gulf of Mexico. It left me a lot of time of read and during that time I read Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer. It was all extremely interesting, but what put the hook in me was his description of being in Flensburg in the days immediately after the fighting had stopped. In particular Speer mentioned two very bizarre things: how he and Werner Baumbach planned to take a flying boat and fly away to Greenland where they would hunt walrus, and fish and write their memoirs together. Speer also mentioned having the United States Strategic Bombing Survey come visit him and how they staged a faux-collegial "University of Bombing" in order to get him to spill his guts about how he kept the German war machine working despite all the unending Allied bombing campaigns. This put the hook in me and I decided to learn all I could about this very oddball moment in history.

I was delighted to find Germania was not McNally's one-hit wonder. About a year ago, he came out with an eBook called Friend of the Devil, which has this description on Amazon:
Herbert T. Barrow (a cousin of Clyde Barrow of Bonnie & Clyde) is a reefer-smoking, 1930s jazz musician on the run from the law. He is on his way to Del Rio, a Texas border town rolling in dough, thanks to a quack doctor whose ‘goat-gland cure’ brings in well-heeled suckers by the trainload. And just across the river, the Doc’s got a million-watt “border blaster” that he uses to advertise himself along with yodelers, pitchmen, preachers, mystics, and singing cowboys. There Herbert figures he can hide out in plain view. But then Herbert does a favor for a stranger in a jam who turns out to be the Devil himself. Now the Devil owes Herbert a favor, something Herbert, a fervent atheist, has absolutely no interest in collecting on. Next thing Herbert knows, he’s stuck in the middle of a convoluted wager between the Devil and God, both of whom seem to take his refusal to acknowledge their existence personally. Herbert vows revenge. Luckily he finds an ally in Rose Dawn, an underage, pregnant radio clairvoyant prone to sneezing fits.

Who can resist a plot summary like that?  I couldn't.  I clicked, I downloaded, I started reading.  I was pulled in by McNally's style right from the opening lines, set in Mississippi in 1933:
Old man standing at the side of the road, got on one of them black, old-time country preacher suits and he's waving at me, desperately, to please, please, stop and give him a ride. Now to begin with, I don't hold at all with preachers and I got my turn coming up in just a couple more miles. And being that I am presently a wanted fugitive, I don't want anyone slowing down my escapitude. Never mind the fact that with the Depression now in its fourth year, there's a million other dusty guys out on the road with eyes imploring and their thumbs out, and, like everyone else with any means, I stopped caring about them a very long time ago.
Chances are very good you never heard of Brendan McNally before you started reading this blog post.  But chances are also very good that if you read either of his novels, you won't soon forget his name.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

In Which I Wear My M-16 Like Jewelry

For the entire year I was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I never went anywhere without my M-16 rifle.  As I write at the beginning of my novel, "All soldiers, including Fobbits, were required to carry their M-16s with them wherever they went: back and forth to work, when they took a shit, even if they were just stepping out onto their porch for a smoke."  Yes, even us non-combatant Fobbit-types became welded to our weapons.  They slept with us like cold metal lovers; they waited for us just outside the shower stall, ready to hand us a towel; they pulled up a chair and sat next to us in the chow hall; they clung to us like shadows.  Some of us, slowly losing our minds in the sand and wind of Iraq even held long, lively conversations with our rifles.

I was skimming back through my war journal the other day and came across this entry, written exactly seven years ago:

Feb. 18, 2005:  I carry my M-16 with me like I’m the father of a newborn baby.  If I set it down, I keep a watchful eye on it, worried that someone might come along and snatch it.  When I’m walking around camp, I sling it around my neck, muzzle pointing down at the ground, one arm and shoulder through the sling so that my hand can rest on the stock or trigger housing.  The middle of the rifle falls comfortably around my torso, so that it feels like a large piece of jewelry--or if I were a woman I suppose I'd say, like a purse.  If, for some reason, I were to wander off and leave it somewhere, I would feel like I’m walking around without any pants on.  It wouldn’t take long for me to notice the extra-breezy sensation and realize something was wrong.  I have only “left” my weapon once—when I was delivering the 3rd ID's Marne Express newspapers to 1st Brigade at Camp New York in Kuwait.  Staff Sergeant Mills and I were carting bundles from the non-tactical vehicle into the Brigade Tactical Operations Center.  I was in a hurry as I grabbed my bundle of papers and hustled into the TOC.  A few seconds later, here comes Staff Sergeant Mills carrying his bundle, plus two weapons.  He hands me mine without making a big deal out of it.

“Oh my God,” I whisper, “I can’t believe I just did that.” (Losing your weapon is grounds for an Article 15, by the way.)

“Yeah,” says Mills, “I saw you walking away and I thought to myself, ‘Hmmm….there’s something wrong with this picture.’”

Since then, I have coddled my baby, hugging it against me wherever I go.  It’s getting a bit dirty and grimy by now, the handgrips sticky from all my palm-dirt and sweat.  The sling is starting to dig a groove around the back of my neck.  And the tip of the barrel is starting to get scratched from all the times I’ve banged it against a doorway.  But, as I told Jean on the morning I left Fort Stewart, this is “my new best friend for the next year.”  I hope my rifle never lets me down.  I hope it never betrays me and just walks off like I did, leaving me sitting there defenseless in this hot, harsh country.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday Freebie: Norumbega Park by Anthony Giardina

Congratulations to Lauren Bufferd, winner of last week's Friday Freebie "threebie."  Lauren will soon be enjoying her own copies of The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt, Obedience by Jacqueline Yallop, and The Detour by Andromeda Romano-Law.  By the way, in answer to last week's question, Lauren said her favorite historical novel is Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth.

This week's book giveaway is Norumbega Park by Anthony Giardina, a novel I've previously spotlighted in the Front Porch Books feature here at the blog.  The publisher's jacket copy describes the book thusly:
Richie Palumbo, the most prosaic of men, gets lost one night in 1969 while driving home with his family. He finds himself in the town of Norumbega—hidden, remote, and gorgeous, at the far edges of Boston’s western suburbs. He sees a venerable old house and, without quite knowing why, decides he must have it. The repercussions of Richie’s wild dream to own a house in this town lead to a forty-year odyssey for his family. For his son, Jack, Norumbega becomes a sexual playground—until he meets one ungraspable girl and begins a lifelong pursuit of her. Joannie, Richie’s daughter, finds that the challenges of living in Norumbega encourage her to pursue the contemplative life. For Stella, Richie’s wife, life in Norumbega leads to surprising growth as both a sexual and a spiritual being.
At NPR, Michael Schaub had these high words of praise for Giardina's novel (thus sealing the deal for me with the mere mention of the names Updike, Ford and Yates):
Norumbega Park, the beautiful, audacious fifth novel from author and playwright Anthony Giardina, follows the lives of Richie [Palumbo] and his family for 40 years....Giardina is a master of prose that’s engaging but never seems rushed—he covers four decades in just over 300 pages. But his pacing remains natural and unhurried. His characters are as emotionally rich and complex as any you’ll find in the novels of Richard Ford, John Updike and Richard Yates.....Like Updike, [Giardina] deals with some uncomfortable themes—much of Norumbega Park deals with the delicate, sometimes awkward intersection of family and sexuality—but he handles them beautifully. And while many authors reflexively lapse into despair and pessimism, Giardina sticks with a truer kind of realism. Things might be bad; they might even be worse than they seem; but there’s always at least a chance of redemption.....There are countless emotional pitfalls authors can fall into, but Giardina has avoided every one, and the result is majestic—Norumbega Park is one of the bravest, most memorable American novels in years.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of Norumbega Park, all you have to do is answer this question:

According to this Paris Review interview, which author has had the most influence on Giardina?

Email your answer to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Feb. 23--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on Feb. 24.  If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you've done either or both of those, send me an additional e-mail saying "I've shared" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

On the Wings of Words: The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore

I love Buster Keaton, I love The Wizard of Oz, but most of all, I love books.  The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, the Oscar-nominated 15-minute animated short film by William Joyce, combines all those elements (and more) to create a delightful visual experience about the curative power of words.  Like this year's Best Picture nominee The Artist, it's essentially a silent film which proves that less is indeed more.  I won't taint your viewing experience by saying else, except this: find the first available 15 minutes of your day and give yourself over to Joyce's colorful imagination.

Speaking of the Oscars, don't forget to vote in the 2012 Quivering Pen Academy Awards Prediction Contest.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Gambling on Love: The Odds by Stewart O'Nan

When it comes to putting American culture under a microscope, few novelists succeed as well as Stewart O’Nan.  Time after time, novel after novel, O’Nan has focused tightly on particular microbes of our society—people like you and me, to be blunt about it—and examined the foibles, the follies, and the flaws of the Way We Live.  In Songs for the Missing, he turned his attention to the grief of a family whose teenage daughter goes missing; in Last Night at the Lobster, it was the disappointment of the American economic dream; in Emily, Alone, it was the solitude of the elderly.

In his newest novel, The Odds: A Love Story, O’Nan puts a troubled marriage in the petri dish.  As we're told in the first sentence, Art and Marion Fowler are headed for Niagara Falls on "the final weekend of their marriage, hounded by insolvency, indecision, and, stupidly, half-secretly, in the never-distant past rule by memory, infidelity."  It's bloated with a few too many commas, perhaps, but that sentence works hard to jam a lot of information into the reader's head.  This is O'Nan's forte: economizing language while filling his sentences with details.  Here's another one just a couple of paragraphs down the page: "They weren't good liars, they were just afraid of the truth and what it might say about them."

In their early fifties and traveling along the time-worn ruts of their marriage, the Fowlers avoid the hard realities of their fizzled romance--to the point where this novel could be subtitled What We Don't Talk About When We Talk About Love.  The marriage is pocked with craters, a minefield of secrets which have brought them to the brink of divorce and, by consequence, the edge of bankruptcy.  They're $250,000 in debt, Art is six months out of work, and they're facing foreclosure on their home in Cleveland.  Now they're literally gambling on the future of their relationship in the casinos at the Niagara resort where Art has booked them a room on Valentine's Day.  They spend the mornings playing tourist at hokey stops like Ripley's Believe It Or Not with disastrous results as they desperately try to rekindle the romance of their honeymoon 30 years earlier.  At night, they make plans to gamble in the resort's casino (bright and "achime with ringing slot machines") with the last of their savings--the $40,000 they've smuggled across the border of Canada.

Both have cheated on the other.  Art has confessed his affair to Marion, but she has kept hers buttoned-up inside (perhaps because it was with another woman).  The adultery is the painted backdrop, but it's not the main action on the stage--the marital salvage effort is.

Art believes the marriage can be saved; Marion is less convinced, but is willing to give it one last shot.  Art latches on to the smallest sign of her yielding to his plan.  O'Nan masterfully illustrates a husband's delusion even in the face of disaster: "If, as he liked to think, his greatest strength was a patient, indomitable hope, his one great shortcoming was a refusal to accept and therefore have any shot at changing his fate, even when the inevitable was clear to him."  This becomes abundantly clear when the day of the big gamble comes as Art sits down at the roulette table, systematically playing the black, refusing to budge in the belief that things would get better: "Because eventually, with near even odds, they'd win. It was a question of patience and the willingness to lose big."  Marion thinks "his strategy was exactly like him, methodical to a fault."

O'Nan uses a telephoto lens, rather than a wide-angle, to zoom in on this one particular couple facing the romantic torpor common to so many long-term relationships. The Odds is a short book--less than 200 pages--but it says as much about marriage as any doorstopper the size of Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary.

This is essentially a two-character novel--three, if you count the "tireless" Falls with their "monolithic roar" thundering and hissing outside their hotel window.  You can bet O'Nan mines the Falls for every ounce of symbolism he can get: the marriage as a river, the precipice-and-plunge of adultery, the misty crash on the rocks below--it's all there, and told in grand literary style:
Here, hard by the rushing current, with a view of the rapids upstream, she could appreciate this wasn't just a river but a whole great lake pouring over a cliff. Feet from the edge, gulls stood on rocks as whitecaps surged past. The blue water turned a sea-green like the curl of a wave, broke and flew, foaming in overlapping sheets as it fell away, constantly, endlessly. She'd forgotten the raw force of it--the exhilarating danger the reason they were all there.

O'Nan also gets good mileage out of romantic metaphors.  Niagara is, of course, the kitschy-tacky destination of honeymooners and is never more potent than on this Valentine's Day weekend.  Then there's Art's first name, a truncation of "heart."  Heart also shows up--the rock band, that is--putting on a show at the resort.  And you can hardly turn around in this novel without bumping into the color red--in the nighttime floodlights on the Falls, in the rose Art buys for Marion, in the wine they drink, on the roulette wheel itself.

Like the ball skipping along the slots on the spinning wheel, O'Nan moves the novel's point of view between Art and Marion, gradually filling us in on clues to their past and what brought them here to the point of dissolution.  Of the two, Marion seems the most recalcitrant and unforgiving.  Art garners our pity, but also our dislike because he can be too passively inert.  It's easy to understand why Marion is fed up with his non-committal, eager-to-please behavior.  In truth, neither is a wholly likable person, but O'Nan gives just enough detail to make us sympathetic to their plight.  By novel's end--which comes quickly and abruptly--we're rooting for this marriage to be saved.  For such a short, 200-page relationship, I found myself incredibly moved by what happens to Art and Marion Fowler as they float down the river, calling for help from their barrel just before they go over the edge of the Falls.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A short story for Valentine's Day: "Love Pillow"

(Today, I bring you not flowers and chocolates, but a short-short story I wrote two years ago for the Significant Objects series.  The editors asked writers to provide a backstory for objects which the S.O. editors purchased at garage sales and thrift shops. I was sent a photo of this pillow and in a flash, my imagination tilted off in a off-kilter direction.)

In the end, the pillow came between them.  It was the last bone of contention, the impasse they faced after dividing the spoils of a nine-year marriage.

He said the pillow was his by rights; he’d bought it.

She took the stance that since he’d bought it for her, she could do with it as she chose.

He said he’d known from the first—the unmistakably crushed look in her eyes as he’d pulled it from behind his back—that she’d never really liked it, despite the fact it was her favorite color and plainly said LOVE in shimmering gold threads.  He always prided himself on how well he could read her face.

She claimed she had too loved it, considered it one of the few valuable artifacts of their years together.  And, archeologically speaking, this was all that was left of their marriage: artifacts.  She pictured herself crawling on her knees, scraping with a little tool and blowing off the dust with a brush.

He said, if she loved it so much why did she leave it on the bed, untouched, and never said a word when he started using it to prop up his head while reading?  See, see, there’s one of his hairs on it right now.

She said he was missing the whole point: it was a decoration, not an actual pillow.  You were supposed to hang it somewhere, she’d just never gotten around to it.  But now she had plans for it, had already picked out a spot in her new apartment.

He said, Oh yeah?

She said, Yeah!  And then she challenged him to remember where he’d bought the pillow.

That had shut him up for a moment.  He could remember it was Petaluma—or had they been in Susanville then?  Damn!  He knew he’d gotten it at one of those stores he’d always hated—home décor boutiques, the kind of places that made him itchy, like when she forced him to traipse after her into the lingerie section saying “Here, hold this” and “What do you think?” as she held the bras against her chest.  Back then, he was still willing to do these things for her.  He’d gone into the boutique, face burning, because he knew royal blue was her favorite color.

She said, I’m waiting.  Can you or can you not remember when you bought me this pillow?

And he shot back, Maybe I can and maybe I can’t, but what’s it to you?

She called him a name, then he called her a name, and on it went.

So, when Judge Solomon Twain of the 25th Circuit Court gave them their options for property settlement, both knew what they would choose.  They kept it to themselves—didn’t even tell their lawyers—but they harbored secret plans for pulling the LOVE pillow apart, seam by seam, thread by thread, until there was nothing left at all.

Monday, February 13, 2012

My First Time: Thomas Balázs

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Thomas Balázs, author of the new short-story collection Omicron Ceti III.  Kevin Wilson (author of The Family Fang) had this to say about the book: "Though many of the characters in Omicron Ceti III deal with isolation, either falling deeper into themselves or struggling to connect with others, each story is so unique in terms of voice, atmosphere, and narrative that they feel like undiscovered planets, strange new worlds. With this dazzling collection, Thomas Balázs boldly goes into unknown territory, and you should count yourself lucky to follow him wherever he travels."  Balázs teaches creative writing, Western humanities, and literature at The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.  His fiction has appeared in numerous journals, including The North American Review, Soundings East, and The Southern Humanities Review.  His work has also appeared in The Vermont College 25 Anniversary Fiction Anthology and Robert Olen Butler Prize Anthology 2004.  A recipient of a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, he was awarded the Theodore Christian Hoepfner Award for best short fiction 2010.  His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and the AWP Intro Journals Project Award.  He has also published scholarly work in The James Joyce Annual.  He lives in Chattanooga with his family.

My First Book

There I was standing before a small crowd of friends, colleagues, students, and other well-wishers with my first book in my hand open to the title story of the collection, about to start reading, when I felt the strain in my eyes.  It’s a generously-sized font, the type in my debut collection, Omicron Ceti III, but I had to call for a pause and fish in my pockets for the little half-spectacles I now try to remember to carry with me and lodge them on the end of my nose before commencing.  I had wanted to be a prodigy, but here I was needing reading glasses at my release party.  They put more than the letters in perspective.

I’ve wanted to be a writer, considered myself a writer, for almost as long as I can remember.  I say almost because I do recall, or think I recall, the moment of vocation, sometime in second grade when I made the connection, when sitting at my wood-and-steel hinged desk—the kind where you lift the top to store books and pencils and crayons in, the kind with a chair permanently attached—when I realized, waking up from a reverie, that some people made a life out of daydreams, that what I wanted to be was not a reindeer, as I first told my parents, but a writer.

I figured I’d get a novel out by the end of sixth grade, if not sooner.  And my teachers encouraged my dreams if not my delusions.  They told me I was a good writer, better-than-average, talented.  My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Rose, went so far as to give me hours alone to write a story for a children’s writing contest.  You were supposed to come up with text for an illustrated book.  I don’t remember much about the book except for a scene in which the little white bunnies played leap-frog in their burrow--that and having to do multiple rewrites because my handwriting was so bad, and then having to wait months for the results, only to find that my entry didn’t even make the top five hundred.  It was my first experience of literary rejection.  I guess you can never start too soon.

Around fourth grade, I plagiarized Ian Fleming’s Diamonds Are Forever, penning a play called Diamond Rings Are Forever.  Around fifth grade, I wrote a treatment for a comic-book character called “Moleculin, Master of Molecules!” that I mailed to Marvel Comics, but never got an answer on.  And in Junior High I wrote a few chapters of a fantasy novel, whose name I can’t remember, but which was inspired by a combination of Heart’s song “Dream of the Archer” from Little Queen and one of my first experiments with marijuana.  I still have the maps I drew somewhere.

The thing is, though I read a lot, and daydreamed about being a great author at a young age, I wrote comparatively little.  Compared to who?  Oh, I don’t know, Stephen King or the Bronte sisters or any one of those other writers we’ve all read about or heard of or met who began churning out fictions, however childish, as preteens, who filled leather-bound journals to bursting, or published their own 'zines using primitive  ink-roller copiers.  I wrote mostly for school, when we were assigned creative writing projects, and then I always, or almost always, got high marks for writing and imagination, but my spare time was devoted mostly to watching TV, reading the occasional fantasy, sci-fi or horror novel, and for just about all of my adolescence, getting high.

In college, I wrote maybe half a dozen short stories I showed my friends, did an independent creative writing class.  But I wasn’t part of a writer’s community, didn’t participate in the college literary magazine, didn’t read stuff written by other writers my age or, for that matter, by other writers who were still alive, with the exception of Vonnegut.

I wanted to publish a book by the time I got my BA.  I thought I’d write the definitive high-school  novel or maybe a collection of linked short stories telling the truth about suburban teenagers, but it never happened.  Too much assigned reading, too many papers, too much agonizing over the girl who loved me back just enough to make me crazy but not enough to make me happy.

After college, I thought I’d go away and spend a year in Paris, get myself a cheap little place on the left bank, and write the great American novel.  I know, so derivative.  But I couldn’t get my parents to back me, and I didn’t have the guts to just make it happen on my own, and, to be honest, I was a little afraid I’d get there and just spend twelve months drinking café au laits and staring at a blank pad.  So I got a job as a reporter instead, which I loved, and which improved my writing, but which didn’t leave me time for my own work—or at least that’s what I told myself.  And then I got my master’s in literature and went on for a PhD, all the while saying I needed to set myself up with a college-level teaching job, so I’d have time to write, conning myself that the ten years or so of immersing myself in literary theory and the scholarly study of texts would somehow lead to me writing that novel.  And so went my twenties and most of my thirties.

Finally, I got myself into an MFA program and started writing in earnest.  Then, not long after I finished my program, my father passed away, and I was left with a little money I used to quit my various part-time jobs and take a year to finally write that novel.  I went to Israel to research it.  It was to be a kind of spiritual quest novel, but instead of writing it, I actually went on a spiritual quest which led me to leave behind forty years of Christianity and embrace my Semitic roots.  I spent the year I had set aside for writing a novel to learn what it meant to be a Jew instead, and then it was time to figure out a way to make a living, to go back to school yet again.  I was going to get a teaching degree and work at a high school, since that PhD which delayed my writing career for a decade never got me the full-time teaching gig I was after.

And then I got a lucky break and landed a position teaching creative writing at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga and, because, it was a requirement of my job that I be published, and very much in my career interest to get a book out, I started working more seriously and diligently to complete a collection of short stories.  I hadn’t given up on the novel, but all the novels I ever conceived were epic tomes, and I just didn’t have the time for that.  The tenure clock was ticking.

And then I got lucky yet again and found a publisher and more than a year after getting the acceptance email and after months of back and forths on the galleys, the book came out last week.

It isn’t what I thought my first book would be.  It isn’t an epic.  It’s not even a novel.  It isn’t, I think, destined to be a New York Times bestseller.  Instead, it’s a collection of nine “literary” short stories, arranged as a triptych, that’s gotten some pretty good reviews and that, in the end, I’m proud of—even though I, who until my mid-forties had nearly perfect eyesight, now need glasses to read it.

I still hope to write that novel.  I still have epic dreams.  I also now have a wife and kid, two aging dogs, a needy cat, a 3,000-square-foot, 1954 house in endless need of repairs and improvements, three or more classes a semester to teach, independent studies, advising, a load of departmental administrative duties, committees, committees, and more committees, and a prohibition against working on Saturdays....I wonder what sort of prosthetic device I’ll require to read from my next book.

Photo by Carolyn Drake

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Soup and Salad: Slinkachu, Sh*t Book Reviewers Say, Hybrid Books, A Commonplace Book, #writerwithadayjob, Book-Spine Animals, Shelf-Conscious, The Legitimacy of Paperbacks

On today's menu:

"They're Not Pets, Susan"

1.  Have you seen Slinkachu?  Good Lord, I am in love with his work ("Abandoning Little People on the Streets Since 2006") in which he creates miniature street scenes on real-life streets using small action figures integrated into "found props."  I want him to design the cover of my next book.  Here's another stunning example of his art:

2.  It's the return of the Totally Hip Book Reviewer!  Ron Charles is "luminous," "stunning," and "unputdownable" in Sh*t Book Reviewers Say.  In fact, he may just be the next Edith Wharton.

3.   Sorry, e-Book Haters, the Kindle may be hanging around for a while (in one form or another).  This report at Publishers Weekly suggests "a hybrid market for books is developing in which readers will buy both print and digital books."  PW crunches the numbers so you don't have to....

4.  Book critic Harvey Freedenberg has been keeping a "commonplace book" for nearly 30 years.  It began as a collection of newspaper clippings and "words scribbled on scraps of paper" and stuffed into his wallet.  "Today," he says, "it’s housed in a battered blue Rite Aid spiral notebook, encircled by a rubber band to secure the cover and the pieces that threaten to tumble from it."  He writes of its value in a moving personal essay at Beyond the Margins:
      The book is a companion in times of both sorrow and joy. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s exhortation to “live your life as if it were a work of art,” provided inspiration for the eulogy I delivered at my mother’s funeral in 2005. The poet Danny Siegel’s vision of a life that “arrays itself to you as a dazzling wedding feast” helped enrich the celebration of the two great-grandsons’ circumcisions she didn’t live to see. And rereading an evocative essay by a writer friend inspired me to include E.B. White’s observation that “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer,” summing up in a single sentence the depth of a cherished friendship.
      There are too many here to name more than a few, so many wise and thoughtful and creative minds it would take several lifetimes to absorb all their wisdom. Walker Evans’ admonition to “Stare. Pry. Listen. Eavesdrop,” urges me to be more mindful of the world I inhabit. Kurt Vonnegut knew that “We are here on Earth to fart around,” encouraging me not to take myself or my daily struggles too seriously. With time I’ve added some personal thoughts, though like Auden, “I have tried to keep my own reflections…to a minimum, and let others, more learned, intelligent, imaginative, and witty than I, speak for me.”

5.  I don't talk much about my Day Job* here at the blog.  It's not that I'm ashamed of it or want to keep my blogging a secret from co-workers (some of them are regular readers of The Quivering Pen), but it's more because I've always considered my writing to be a "pastime."  I keep everything compartmentalized, putting the office and my creative keyboard into two separate cubicles, warning them, "Don't talk to each other.  Unless the building's on fire--in which case, you can say something."  This is one reason I get up at the ungodly hour of 3:30 am in order to blog and write creatively before I have to punch the clock at the office.  With the publication of Fobbit, that "hobby" may mushroom into something a little larger (though I still have no plans to quit the Day Job).  For now, I continue to live like Jekyll and Hyde, keeping the two halves of my life from ever meeting.  At her blog, The Practicing Writer, Erika Dreifus talks about why she's grateful for her non-writing employment and why she often appends #writerwithadayjob to her Tweets:
It’s true that the structure and routine of being expected in an away-from-home office–doing work for someone else–every day from 9 to 5 isn’t always a writer’s dream. But the structure and stability of a regular paycheck, health insurance, a retirement account, and paid leave are wonderful things.

6.  Go to your bookshelf.  Look at the spines of the volumes lined up there.  Chances are, you'll see a logo near the bottom of that spine.  Chances are also good that it's an animal of some kind: a penguin, a kangaroo, a seagull, a dolphin.  Ever wonder about the history behind the logos (called "colophons")?  No?  Well, I have.  The Publishing Trendsetter blog enlightens us.

7.  Speaking of shelves and spines, The Paris Review blog talks about writers' libraries and the history of bookcases in "Shelf-Conscious."
There are many varieties of nerd, but only two real species—the serious and the nonserious—and shelves are a pretty good indication of who is which. “To expose a bookshelf,” Harvard professor Leah Price writes in Unpacking My Library, a recent collection of interviews with writers about the books they own, “is to compose a self.”
Nicely said!  One of these days, I'll get around to writing about my own library here in the basement of my house in Butte, Montana.  For now, let me just say this: I have so many books, the thickness of the volumes insulates the walls and keeps me warm in the winter.  One more thing: my wife is a friggin' saint for putting up with my bibliomania for nearly 30 years.

8.  At the Women's Fiction Writers blog, Sarah Pinneo ponders the implications of her book coming out in trade paperback rather than hardcover:
     When my agent began to shop Julia’s Child, it was the editors of paperback imprints who showed the most interest. I’d always pictured the book as a hardcover, and not merely because I was having delusions of grandeur. The women’s fiction I’d read for years—Alice Hoffman, Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult—was always hardback. Soft cover, I assumed, was for chick lit and genre romance.
      So I decided to (very casually) ask my agent about it. “So…” I said, “is this because I’m a loser, and nobody will ever take me seriously?”
I've been asking myself the same question lately since--from what I've been told--Fobbit will be coming out in paperback.  Like Pinneo, I'm just happy to be a published writer.  I get down on my knees every morning and thank my lucky stars for the Grove gods who smiled upon me.  And yet...I wonder if an original paperback release will reduce Fobbit's legitimacy in the eyes of book reviewers.  No matter how many novels debut in paperback these days (and the number is rising sharply), there's still a wrongly-held impression they're somehow second-class books.  But on the other hand, I wonder if a lower cover price will attract more readers.  And that--readers' eyes--is the most important consideration when you come right down to it.  I don't care if they're reading my words printed on the back of dried potato skins with blue ink, as long as they're reading, right?  What do you think?  Does format matter?  Discuss in the comments section.

*If you really must know, I work for the Bureau of Land Management in Montana.