Saturday, June 30, 2012

Publishers Weekly calls Fobbit "an instant classic"

Things have been a little topsy-turvy in my head since I got the email from my editor at Grove/Atlantic a few days ago giving me a sneak peek at Publishers Weekly's pending starred-and-boxed review of Fobbit.  I'm not a man who cries easily, but I'll admit that when I finished reading those 264 words of praise I had to reach for a Kleenex.  I was living every debut novelist's dream, sitting bull's-eye in the moment for which I'd been waiting nearly 30 years.

Since the review was embargoed until late last night, I had to sit on the news....but now I'm free to share what will appear in the July 2 print issue.

I am humbled and eternally grateful to PW for this vote of confidence for my first novel:
Abrams’s debut is a harrowing satire of the Iraq War and an instant classic. The Fobbits of the title are U.S. Army support personnel, stationed at Baghdad’s enclave of desk jobs: Forward Operating Base Triumph. Some of the soldiers, like Lt. Col. Vic Duret, are good officers pushed to the brink. Others, like Capt. Abe Shrinkle, are indecisive blowhards. But the soul of the book is Staff Sgt. Chance Gooding Jr., a public relations NCO who spends his days crafting excruciating press releases and fending off a growing sense of moral bankruptcy. A series of bombings, street battles, and media debacles test all of these men and, although there are exciting combat scenes, the book’s most riveting moments are about crafting spin, putting the “Iraqi Face” on the conflict. A sequence in which a press release is drafted and edited and scrutinized, held up for so long that its eventual release is old news, is a pointed vision of losing a public relations war. Abrams, a 20-year Army veteran who served with a public affairs team in Iraq, brings great authority and verisimilitude to his depictions of these attempts to shape the perceptions of the conflict. Abrams’s prose is spot-on and often deadpan funny, as when referring to the “warm pennies” smell of a soldier’s “undermusk of blood,” or when describing one misshapen officer: “skull too big for the stalk of his neck, arms foreshortened like a dinosaur... one word came to mind: thalidomide.” This novel nails the comedy and the pathos, the boredom and the dread, crafting the Iraq War’s answer to Catch-22.

Earlier in the week, PW gave another nod to Fobbit in an article by Mike Harvkey, called "Gone Hollywood," in which he picked the book for a Top 10 list of literary fiction* coming out this Fall: "I'm going with FOBBIT by David Abrams, because he has looked at the horror [of the Iraq War] and had the same reaction that Stanley Kubrick had when trying to find the art in thermonuclear war."  That made me about as happy as Slim Pickens riding bareback on a bomb.

*The list also included The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu, A Working Theory of Love by Scott Hutchins, One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper, The Lawgiver by Herman Wouk, Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan, The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling, Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe, The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin, and The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Friday Freebie: Gilded Age by Claire McMillan

Congratulations to Carol Wong, winner of last week's Friday Freebie.  Carol will soon be enjoying the literary pleasures of The World Without You by Joshua Henkin and Menage by Alix Kates Shulman.

This week's book giveaway is Gilded Age by Claire McMillan.  Here at the blog, I've already championed this novel--a contemporary take on Edith Wharton's The House of Mirtha couple of times.  Plus, you can read Claire's guest post in the My First Time series.  What more can I say except "Buy.  This.  Book."?  (That is, if you don't win this contest, of course.)  Okay, I'll add this endorsement from Publishers Weekly:
      McMillan’s debut novel, inspired by Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, is a hard-edged look at the vacuous, insipid elite of modern-day Cleveland, Ohio. Ellie Hart, back home after rehab and divorce, quickly falls into her old ways, charming men in her search for a wealthy husband, and alienating women. She hooks up with old friend William Selden, who seems more substantial than Ellie’s shallow “friends.” But when Ellie’s divorce settlement disappears in a Ponzi scheme, and her wild ways send Selden away, her desperation leads her to the ambitious, social-climbing Leforte and the comforts of his “enfolding luxury.” While the novel tips its hat to House of Mirth, a simple comparison doesn’t do McMillan justice. Her choice of alternating narration—from first-person (in the form of a childhood friend) to third, rather than wholly omniscient—allows the reader to get to know the increasingly unlikable narrator, a woman trying to absolve herself of guilt over her friend’s downfall.

And then there's this nod from the Cleveland Plain Dealer (which I'd imagine knows a thing or two about Cleveland society):
      Recasting a classic plot as a contemporary story is a common ploy among fiction writers. Helen Fielding took the scaffold of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to craft Bridget Jones's Diary; Jane Smiley adapted King Lear to an Iowa farm family in A Thousand Acres.
      Now Claire McMillan retells The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton's classic exploration of society ruthlessness, in a new novel set in Shaker Heights and its environs.
      Wharton's tragic heroine Lily Bart becomes Ellie Hart [who] endures a messy divorce from a Wall Street trader, then a month in Sierra Tucson rehab.
      She comes home to Cleveland, she tells childhood friends, because New York has become too harsh. She wants to relaunch her life in a safer place—she thinks.
      To McMillan's credit, Ellie Hart's conundrum seduces us. Clevelanders will find the book studded with intriguing and accurate morsels, set among the city's old-money WASP conventions, updated with sexting and tequila body shots.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of Gilded Age, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address 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 July 5at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on July 6.  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 blog, 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.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Flash Fiction: 79-word "Squirrels"

Today, I got up at 3:30 a.m., microwaved a cup of coffee, then went downstairs and wrote three short stories.

I'm not bragging, just stating the facts.

Would it make a difference if I told you those three stories were each 79 words long?  And would you believe me if I told you I agonized over those 79 words as much as--maybe even more than--a 7,900-word story? 

I wrote the three stories in preparation for entering Esquire magazine's current fiction contest in which all stories are limited to 79 words (in honor of the magazine's 79th anniversary this year).  I worked on those three stories for two hours until I felt that the 237 words were the best they could be.  Then, since I could only enter once, I selected what I thought was the best of the threesome.

I don't really care if I win, because it was a pleasant exercise in quick, flash-fire creativity.  Here's one of the two stories I didn't enter in the contest, in its entirety....


Tim and Tina jolted awake at 3 a.m.  Their eyes snapped open like cartoon windowshades as they lay listening to what was in the walls--the claws, the teeth, working through the wood of their house like a ravenous man sawing at a stale, hardened loaf of bread with a serrated knife.  It was relentless.  Outside, the wind disturbed the branches of the now-vacant Georgia pines.  The squirrels no longer needed the trees; they had Tim and Tina’s house.

Monday, June 25, 2012

My First Time: Claire McMillan

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 Claire McMillan, author of Gilded Age, which has just been released by Simon and Schuster. The novel takes Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth and recasts it in contemporary Cleveland.  Library Journal wrote: "McMillan cleverly uses Wharton’s classic novel to draw parallels between the social mores of two starkly different centuries....An engrossing first novel."  McMillan grew up in Pasadena, California, and now lives near Cleveland on her husband’s family’s farm with their two children. She practiced law until 2003 and then received her MFA in creative writing from Bennington College.

My First Writing Critique

The first time my writing was ever critiqued seriously, Alice Mattison told me to take what I’d written, place it upside down on my desk, open a new computer file, and rewrite the whole thing without looking at the old piece.  "Maybe you can peek once," she’d said. I was at Bennington College in my first writer’s workshop. 

In the Bennington MFA program, you attend a ten-day residency and then exchange packets with a faculty member for six months until you are in residency again for ten days and are assigned a new teacher.

I took Alice’s advice and diligently rewrote the piece and, as per requirements, I submitted a new story.

With the new story, she suggested, maybe I put it outside in the hall while I rewrote it.

Or in the trash can, I thought.

Alice was my first serious writing teacher.  The first one who would just tell me something was bad.  Yet she managed not to crush me when she did it.  She has some mix of world weary been-there-done-that with a touch of sincere optimism that keeps you going.

As the semester wore on she advised me, as she is famous – to “get sleepy and stupid.”

I spent the bulk of my days then as an attorney writing legal briefs, a very particular type of writing, almost like technical writing.  I was too locked-in and confined by it.  She advised me to try actually writing in bed, first thing if I could.

When stories stalled out she would encourage me to come up with five things that could happen, always starting with an asteroid hits Earth and everyone dies.  Don’t keep it too precious, she was saying.  Let some air in.

When I was writing my novel Gilded Age, which is inspired by Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, I wrote most of it in bed in the mornings, as Alice advised and as Edith Wharton herself wrote her books in bed.  And though the thought of rewriting her revered classic was intimidating, I told myself that when things got sticky, an asteroid could kill them all.

All these years later, it is an act of synchronicity that Alice and I share a publication date.  Her latest novel, When We Argued All Night, was published on June 12, as was Gilded Age.  It’s an amazing feeling to share this date with Alice, the first person who took my writing apart and helped me put it back together again, the first one who took it seriously.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Friday Freebie: The World Without You by Joshua Henkin and Menage by Alix Kates Shulman

Congratulations to Michael McClure, winner of last week's Friday Freebie contest.  Michael will soon be enjoying Half In Shade: Family, Photography, and Fate by Judith Kitchen and Mrs. Robinson's Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady by Kate Summerscale.

This week's book giveaway is another double-header: The World Without You by Joshua Henkin and Menage by Alix Kates Shulman.  Both are novels about the disruption and potential disintegration of families, and both are high on my to-read list this summer.  Here are the publisher's plot summaries for each of them:

It’s July 4, 2005, and the Frankel family is descending upon their beloved summer home in the Berkshires. But this is no ordinary holiday. The family has gathered to memorialize Leo, the youngest of the four siblings, an intrepid journalist and adventurer who was killed on that day in 2004, while on assignment in Iraq. The parents, Marilyn and David, are adrift in grief. Their forty-year marriage is falling apart. Clarissa, the eldest sibling and a former cello prodigy, has settled into an ambivalent domesticity and is struggling at age thirty-nine to become pregnant. Lily, a fiery-tempered lawyer and the family contrarian, is angry at everyone. And Noelle, whose teenage years were shadowed by promiscuity and school expulsions, has moved to Jerusalem and become a born-again Orthodox Jew. The last person to see Leo alive, Noelle has flown back for the memorial with her husband and four children, but she feels entirely out of place. And Thisbe —Leo’s widow and mother of their three-year-old son—has come from California bearing her own secret. Set against the backdrop of Independence Day and the Iraq War, The World Without You is a novel about sibling rivalries and marital feuds, about volatile women and silent men, and, ultimately, about the true meaning of family.  Praise:  “The World Without You is an immeasurably moving masterpiece that tracks the intricate threads connecting children to parents, sisters to brothers, wives to husbands. To say I ‘cared’ about these characters would be to hugely understate their consuming effect on me. Like all loving—and complicated, and generous—families, they extended a thread to me. I too, was connected. I lived in their midst, I learned from them, and their poignant struggles continued to affect me long after I read the final page.” (Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishers)

Heather and Mack McKay seem to have it all: wealth, a dream house in the suburbs, and two adorable children along with the nannies to raise them. But their marriage has lost its savor: she is a frustrated writer and he longs for a cultural trophy to hang on his belt.  During a chance encounter in LA, Mack invites exiled writer Zoltan Barbu—once lionized as a political hero, now becoming a has-been—to live with him and his wife in their luxurious home. The plan should provide Heather with literary companionship, Mack with cultural cachet, and Zoltan himself with a pastoral environment in which to overcome his writer’s block and produce a masterpiece.  Of course, as happens with triangles, complications arise—some hilarious, some sad—as the three players pursue a game that leads to shifting alliances and sexual misadventures. Shulman pokes fun at our modern malaise (why is having it all never enough?), even as she traces the ever-changing dynamics within a marriage. Ménage is a bravura performance from one of America’s most renowned feminist writers.  Praise:  “In this wry and delicious novel by the author of Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, a couple in a boring marriage offer to share their lavish home with a celebrated but penniless writer…The trio is not a sexual threesome, but each individual lusts for something, and the household dynamic seethes with the raging needs of their egos…The characters are selfish and self-absorbed, but the sharp and entertaining satire that emerges from their comic triangle expertly skewers modern notions of marriage, celebrity and success.” (People Magazine)
If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of both books, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on June 28--at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on June 29.  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 blog, 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, June 21, 2012

Front Porch Books: June 2012 Edition

Front Porch Books is a monthly tally of books--mainly advance review copies (aka "uncorrected proofs" and "galleys")--I've received from publishers, but also sprinkled with packages from Book Mooch, Amazon and other sources. Because my dear friends, Mr. FedEx and Mrs. UPS, leave them with a doorbell-and-dash method of delivery, I call them my Front Porch Books. In this digital age, ARCs are also beamed to the doorstep of my Kindle via NetGalley and Edelweiss. Note: most of these books won't be released for another 2-6 months; I'm just here to pique your interest and stock your wish lists. Cover art and opening lines may change before the book is finally released.

Little Century by Anna Keesey (Farrar Straus Giroux):  One look at the cover of Anna Keesey's debut novel and two things come to mind: Buffalo Bill and Larry McMurtry.  As it turns out, neither are too far off the mark.  Oh, it may not have the showmanship of B. B. or the epic length of Lonesome Dove, but Little Century has enough going for it to make me put it near the top of my To-Be-Read pile.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Orphaned after the death of her mother, eighteen-year-old Esther Chambers heads west in search of her only living relative. In the lawless frontier town of Century, Oregon, she’s met by her distant cousin, a laconic cattle rancher named Ferris Pickett. Pick leads her to a tiny cabin by a small lake called Half-a-Mind, and there she begins her new life as a homesteader. If she can hold out for five years, the land will join Pick’s already impressive spread.  But Esther discovers that this town on the edge of civilization is in the midst of a range war. There’s plenty of land, but somehow it is not enough for the ranchers—it’s cattle against sheep, with water at a premium. In this charged climate, small incidents of violence swiftly escalate, and Esther finds her sympathies divided between her cousin and a sheepherder named Ben Cruff, a sworn enemy of the cattle ranchers. As her feelings for Ben and for her land grow, she begins to see she can’t be loyal to both.
Blurbworthiness: ''Here is a fine novel, written with grace, about the settling of Oregon and the evening redness in the West. In the desert town of Century, haunted by Indian blood and barren to the core, the cattlemen hate the shepherds and the shepherds hate the cattlemen. But as the community is about to consume itself with greed and vengeance, a young orphan from Chicago shows up with a moral clarity that outstrips her age, to remind us that character matters and that justice is pursuant to conscience. Little Century is a frontier saga, a love story, and an epic of many small pleasures.''  (Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End)

We Only Know So Much by Elizabeth Crane (Harper Perennial): This novel wins the award for Most Arresting Voice out of all the books to land on my front porch this past month.  I'll just give it to you like a tumblerful of whiskey--neat, no rocks:
      At the moment, the Copeland family is a bit at odds.
      First of all, Priscilla is a bitch. Or at least a brat. An extreme brat. Look, we're just reporting what we've heard. Maybe bitch is too harsh. Let's say it this way:  her attitude is often poor. The reasons are currently unclear. For one thing, her parents might have done better to rethink that name. Right? It's not very contemporary. Something about it's just bitchy-sounding. Maybe she knew that when she was little. She's been this way since she was born and she's nineteen now and it's only gotten worse. What are you supposed to do when your daughter's like this? No one wants to believe their own kid isn't the nicest person, but think about it, girls like this aren't born in a void. Jean and her husband, Gordon, have punished her, of course, told her no, admonished her, this sort of thing, but nothing's worked. They've come to think it's just innate. That may or may not be true. Maybe she got it from her great-grandmother. Genetically or otherwise. Just a thought. And Priscilla's like this everywhere. At home, at work, at school, everywhere. Let's hope that if you're a waiter she never sits at your table. If she sits at your table she will be sending some shit back, and if you do that waiter thing where you introduce yourself, you will rue that choice because she will use your name so many times that by the time she leaves you will want to change it. Jean and Gordon almost never take her to restaurants anymore. Dinner at home is tough enough.
And with that, a TBR-pile resident is born. I don't know about you, but I definitely get a Franzenesque vibe from these first few pages--which, I should add, is meant as a compliment.  Here's the Jacket Copy to offer more evidence why you should add We Only Know So Much to your must-read list this summer:
Jean Copeland, an emotionally withdrawn wife and mother of two, has taken a secret lover—only to lose him in a moment of tragedy that leaves her reeling. Her husband, Gordon, is oblivious, distracted by the fear that he's losing his most prized asset: his memory. Daughter Priscilla (a pill since birth—don't get us started) is talking about clothes, or TV, or whatever, and hatching a plan to extend her maddening reach to all of America. Nine-year-old Otis is torn between his two greatest loves: crossword puzzles and his new girlfriend. At the back of the house, grandfather Theodore is in the early throes of Parkinson's disease. (And he's fine with it—as long as they continue to let him walk the damn dog alone.) And Vivian, the family's ninety-eight-year-old matriarch, is a razor-sharp grande dame who suffers no fools...and still harbors secret dreams of her own. With empathy, humor, and an unforgettable voice, Elizabeth Crane reveals what one family finds when everyone goes looking for meaning in all the wrong places.
Blurbworthiness: “The beauty in Crane’s novel is her sweep from acid commentary to heartfelt portrayal of real-life loves and losses.” (Kirkus Reviews)

Wild Delicate Seconds: 29 Wildlife Encounters by Charles Finn (Oregon State University Press):  I first became aware of Charles Finn's slender, meditative book when he swept through Montana on a reading tour.  Unfortunately, I didn't get the chance to attend one of those readings (when it comes to book tours, Butte is almost always bypassed and overlooked--a gas-stop along the interstate, at best).  But now I've got his book in my hand and I have to say, it's a thing of beauty--like holding an edelweiss flower against the back-light of the sun, or cupping a downy-feathered fledgling in my palm.  Here's how Finn describes his book in the Preface:
What follow are twenty-nine nonfiction micro-essays, each one a description of a chance encounter I had with a member (or members) of the fraternity of wildlife that call the Pacific Northwest home....It's no surprise that over the years my journals have filled with descriptions of black bears and bumble bees, mountain lions and muskrats, elk, pygmy owls, ravens and flying squirrels. What follows are those stories. With the exception of the snowy owls, sandhill cranes, and golden eagles, which I specifically went to see, all of these encounters were complete surprises: as I came inside from chopping wood a red-shafted flicker flapped against my cabin window; as I rested in the shade by a river a red fox suddenly appeared trotting toward me; lost, driving to a new job, and coming up over a small rise, I saw a hundred bison on the slope below me, their unmatched authority haloing them in the morning sun.  Because of the unexpectedness of these meeting they held a special quality for me. Always there was a timelessness, a residue of the sacred, and a lingering feeling that I was witnessing something spectacular. And I was. Because these encounters were often so brief (usually just a matter of minutes, sometimes seconds) it seemed appropriate that I kept my accounting of them equally concise this way only the most important details survive, those few shimmering moments I spent lost to the world, alive in the company of these "other nations," as Henry Beston describes them, the wild, feathered, and furred creatures we share this planet with.  Finally, I must note that there is very little adrenaline here. There are no maulings. No narrow escapes. It is not that kind of book. Instead, it is a quiet book made up of quiet moments that any of us might have....
And here's the first paragraph from the first wild encounter in the book ("Black Bear"), which gives you a sense of the lyricism flooding Finn's pages:
Bear. It's a big word. Say it in casual conversation and people halfway across the room will stop and cock an ear, setting their drink down or halting a fork in mid-air. Everyone wants to talk about them and everyone wants to see one. They are the denizens of our forests. They have myopic, grandfatherly eyes, bionic noses, and half-dome cartoon ears. Their can-opener claws resemble hay rakes and when they exhale it's with a fetid, composted air. Born in the dead of winter they are blind as new kittens, no bigger than shoes, pink as a ribbon you might win at a fair, nuzzling their mother until the rich milk river flows.

Here Lies Hugh Glass: A Mountain Man, a Bear, and the Rise of the American Nation by Jon T. Coleman (Hill and Wang): Hugh Glass' encounter with a grizzly in 1823 wasn't as delicate or pleasant as Finn's moments with wildlife.  If you didn't grow up in the Rocky Mountain West (as I did), you might not be familiar with the gory legend of Hugh Glass.  Once you've heard the story, however, you won't soon forget it.  Here, I'll let Professor Coleman describe it in his introduction to this book:
Hugh Glass nearly ended his days as meat. In August 1823, a female grizzly bear attacked him. She caught him as he scrambled up a tree, slicing a gash with a fore-claw from scalp to hamstring. She bit his head, punctured his throat, and ripped a hunk from his rear. The bear tore him "nearly to peases," and actually swallowed a few mouthfuls before Glass's associates shot and killed her. Expecting his hunter to die soon, Colonel Andrew Henry bribed two men to wait and bury the body. The expedition traveled on, and after six days the death watchers left, too, abandoning their comrade, who was still sucking breaths through a punctured trachea. Unable to walk, subsisting on insects, snakes, and carrion, an enraged Glass crawled and hiked two hundred miles to Fort Kiowa to kill those who had left him to die.
Source material was undoubtedly scant and often unreliable, but as you can see, Coleman puts hair on the chest of the myth.  Here's more from the Jacket Copy:
The acclaimed historian Jon T. Coleman delves into the accounts left by Glass’s contemporaries and the mythologizers who used his story to advance their literary and filmmaking careers. A spectacle of grit in the face of overwhelming odds, Glass sold copy and tickets. But he did much more. Through him, the grievances and frustrations of hired hunters in the early American West and the natural world they traversed and explored bled into the narrative of the nation. A marginal player who nonetheless sheds light on the terrifying drama of life on the frontier, Glass endures as a consummate survivor and a complex example of American manhood.

The Girl Giant by Kristen den Hartog (Simon and Schuster):  I'm a huge fan of The Giant's House by Elizabeth McCracken, as well as The Time Traveler's Wife, A Prayer for Owen Meany and any number of other novels featured quirky, potentially-doomed characters who observe our society from the fringes.  So, Kristen den Hartog's new novel should be a good fit for my offbeat tastes.  Here's the Jacket Copy:
Ruth Brennan is a giant, “a rare, organic blunder pressed into a dollhouse world,” as she calls herself. Growing up in a small town, where even an ordinary person can’t simply fade into the background, there is no hiding the fact that Ruth is different: she can see it in the eyes of everyone around her, even her own parents. James and Elspeth Brennan are emotionally at sea, struggling with the devastation wrought on their lives by World War II and with their unspoken terror that the daughter they love may, like so much else, one day be taken away from them. But fate works in strange ways, and Ruth finds that for all the things that go unsaid around her, she is nonetheless able to see deeply into the secret hearts of others—their past traumas, their present fears, and the people they might become, if only they have courage enough.
One other thing to note: The Girl Giant is packaged in a smallish trade paperback edition by Simon and Schuster. An ironic gesture, I'm sure--"Read about a giant in a book you can hold in the palm of your hand!"--but it's such a handsome little volume that I'm willing to overlook the obvious.

The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya (Hogarth):  I've been immersed in contemporary war literature lately (Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War by Matt Gallagher, Dust to Dust: A Memoir by Benjamin Busch, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, and The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers), but here's a novel that has a little different slant on modern combat--it puts us on the other side of the concertina wire ringing the American compounds in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The Watch takes the classic story of Antigone and puts in the tense, frightening setting of sand, heat and hair-trigger nerves.  The Jacket Copy explains:
Following a desperate night-long battle, a group of beleaguered soldiers in an isolated base in Kandahar are faced with a lone woman demanding the return of her brother’s body. Is she a spy, a black widow, a lunatic, or is she what she claims to be: a grieving young sister intent on burying her brother according to local rites? Single-minded in her mission, she refuses to move from her spot on the field in full view of every soldier in the stark outpost. Her presence quickly proves dangerous as the camp’s tense, claustrophobic atmosphere comes to a boil when the men begin arguing about what to do next.  Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s heartbreaking and haunting novel, The Watch, takes a timeless tragedy and hurls it into present-day Afghanistan. Taking its cues from the Antigone myth, Roy-Bhattacharya brilliantly recreates the chaos, intensity, and immediacy of battle, and conveys the inevitable repercussions felt by the soldiers, their families, and by one sister. The result is a gripping tour through the reality of this very contemporary conflict, and our most powerful expression to date of the nature and futility of war.
Blurbworthiness: “We watch as the resistance of an isolated American garrison in Afghanistan is ground down, not by force of arms but by the will of a single unarmed woman, holding inflexibly to an idea of what is just and right.”  (J. M. Coetzee, author of Disgrace)

Brand New Human Being by Emily Jeanne Miller (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt):  Miller's debut novel has Hollywood written all over it, starting with these classic Opening Lines: "My name is Logan Pyle. My father is dead, my wife is indifferent, and my son is strange. I’m thirty-six years old. My life is nothing like I thought it would be."  Can't you just hear someone like John Cusack narrating that as the camera tracks along an autumn-leaf-strewn street in a small Montana town?  Miller started writing her fiction when she was living in Missoula while getting a Master's degree in Environmental Studies so there's plenty of verisimilitude at work here.  Though her setting has been fictionalized, there's enough crisp mountain air blowing through her sentences to call northwestern Montana to mind.  Here's the Jacket Copy to fill us in on the story of Brand New Human Being:
Meet Logan Pyle, a lapsed grad student and stay-at-home dad who’s holding it together by a thread. His father, Gus, has died; his wife, Julie, has grown distant; his four-year-old son has gone back to drinking from a bottle. When he finds Julie kissing another man on a pile of coats at a party, the thread snaps. Logan packs a bag, buckles his son into his car seat, and heads north with a 1930s Louisville Slugger in the back of his truck, a maxed-out credit card in his wallet, and revenge in his heart. After some bad decisions and worse luck, he lands at his father’s old A-frame cabin, where his father’s young widow, Bennie, now lives. She has every reason to turn Logan away, but when she doesn’t, she opens the door to unexpected redemption—for both of them.

Walt Disney's Uncle Scrooge: "Only a Poor Old Man" (Vol. 1) by Carl Barks (Fantagraphics Books):  Surely I'm not the only kid in America who went through a phase of saying everything in a Donald Duck voice--a speech impediment that involved rattling a considerable amount of spittle between one's jaw and cheek.  Though I was a rank amateur compared to the late great Clarence Nash, there was still something satisfying about sitting around the dinner table and asking my mother to pass the mashed potatoes in a blustery hissing voice which, in hindsight, probably sounded more like I was coughing up a loogey than it did Donald Duck's voice.  Oh well, it still quacked her up every time.  You know what else is completely quackers?  The fact that such a short-tempered, preening duck in a sailor suit could have such a rich, worldly uncle who, as the cover of Fantagraphics' new release reminds us, spent the majority of his time swan-diving (duck-diving?) into heaps of gold coins.  If Donald Duck was the sassy hero of our childhood days, then Uncle Scrooge was the adult duck we all aspired to be.  I mean, who wouldn't want to have a fortune of one multiplujillion, nine obsaquatumatillion, six hundred and twenty-three dollars and sixty-two cents?  The miserly misanthropic moneymaker was created by Carl Barks in 1947 for a Donald Duck comic, "Christmas on Bear Mountain" published by Dell Comics.  In time, Unca Scrooge went on to have his own series of comic books, which Fantagraphics presents in this volume with their typical finesse and color-popping beauty.  Starting with "Only a Poor Old Man," the book takes us through more than two dozen classic Scrooge McDuck tales in which fortunes are lost, fortunes are gained, and eyes go ka-ching! with dollar signs.  In his Introduction, George Lucas writes: "I think the reason Carl Barks's stories have endured and have had such international appeal is primarily their strength as good stories.  Yet on a deeper level, they display American characteristics that are readily recognizable to the reader: ingenuity, integrity, determination, a kind of benign avarice, boldness, a love of adventure, and a sense of humor."

The Pleasures of Men by Kate Williams (Hyperion):  This debut novel, set in Victorian London, joins a long list of my favorite novels like The Crimson Petal and the White, The Dress Lodger, and of course just about any Dickens narrative you could name.  The Pleasures of Men is narrated by a nineteen-year-old girl who becomes obsessed with a series of murders that are ravaging the underbelly of London.  As Catherine Sorgeiul is pulled deeper into the underworld, the serial killer is drawn closer and closer to her.  On the surface, the plot sounds like it could be surgically transplanted into any number of other novels on the new-release tables these days, but what really grabbed me here were the Opening Lines.  With your indulgence, I'll give you the entire first scene of the novel in all its grisly, grimy, gruesome glory:
      Night comes late to Spitalfields Market, across the dump at the back used by the traders for the detritus of old vegetables and splintered crates. The stall holders pack up their apples and cabbages, gather their pieces of meat, oysters and bags of fish, the battered hardware and cheap clothes, down the last dregs of ale, then wrap their arms around each other for the short journey to the lights of Lely’s gin house on the corner. I stay behind, near the dump, see the mass glistening as maggots slither out of the soft flesh of the discarded beef.
      The first scavengers are the younger men, dismissed soldiers hiking useless legs, crawling up the dump and delving in their hands. Then women, babies swaddled to their breasts, picking off the heads from trout and cockerels and pulling scraps of pork from the bones. Huddles of rheumy children come next, biting off carrot tops and around potato eyes, licking at the old boxes, rubbing their feet in the last juice of the meat. And when all the others have departed, the old woman comes, baring her rotted teeth at the pile, her lifeless bosoms like dirty moons, pulling herself around the sides of the stack, racking herself with laughter.
      At first, when she screams, no one hears but me. Not the seamen outside the gin shop, talking about money and girls, or the women in darkened red dresses and thin shawls, waiting along street corners, or even the scavenging children, fighting over their spoils in the corner of the marketplace. She does not stop. The sound hurtles over the walls until they seem to echo to her cries and so the children look up and the women hear, and the sailors put aside their bottles and soon real men come, significant, responsible men with dressed hair and long black cloaks, who never give those who work in the market or the scavengers a single thought. They look at the madwoman, rocking in the blood, and think that she is the one dying.
      Then they see what lies behind her. A girl, her blue dress ragged ribbons around her legs. She has been stabbed twenty times, they guess, over and over until her skin lies like ruffled feathers over the darkening flesh. Her arms and legs have been bent back so she is all chest, and her pale hair has been plaited and thrust into her mouth. A blue ribbon and a feathered comb cling to the edges of her hair. Over what remains of her bosom, the killer has gouged a deep star. And then they peer further and see a one-pence coin, perched on the still warm core of her heart.

The Secret Life of Objects by Dawn Raffel (Jaded Ibis Press):  I'll confess that when I first picked up Raffel's book, I thought it was a collection of short stories.  The front and back covers on my advance reading copy were no help in telling me what the book was about--it was an object that held its own secrets, it seemed.  It only took me a few pages to realize that what I held in my hands was a unique, evocative memoir, told in a series of short micro-essays.  Raffel is the author of two short-story collections (Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In The Year Of The Long Division) and a novel (Carrying the Body) and this short memoir is written with all the wild bloom of imagination that fiction brings to the table.  As she says early in the book, "All memoir is fiction."  The Secret Life of Objects tells the story of Raffel's family in vignettes about material possessions, starting with a coffee mug she finds when going through her mother's belongings after that woman's sudden death.  It's an interesting way to tell a life story: we are what we own.  In Raffel's case, a tea set can spiral her off into a memory of her father with his whistling hearing aid, or a dress will remind her of the summer of 1984, holding in its weave "the heat, my young body, the necklace--all hearts--that I wore with it that broke, our rooftop in twilight, the city below us, the promise of the life I planned to live."  Blurbworthiness: "'Sometimes things shatter,' writes Dawn Raffel in The Secret Life of Objects. 'More often they just fade.'  But in this evocative memoir, moments from the past do not fade--they breathe on the page, rendering a striking portrait of a woman through her connections to the people she's loved, the places she been, what’s been lost, and what remains. In clear, beautiful prose Raffel reveals the haunting qualities of the objects we gather, as well as the sustaining and elusive nature of memory itself."  (Samuel Ligon, author of Drift and Swerve)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Judging a Book: New P. G. Wodehouse covers from W. W. Norton

Introducing a new, occasional feature here at The Quivering Pen called "Judging a Book," in which I put a little cover-design eye candy on display.  Before I begin, however, I'll admit I just spent the better part of 30 minutes trying to track down the origin of the phrase "You can't judge a book by its cover."  Some sources say it came from a 1946 murder mystery by Edwin Rolfe and Lester Fuller called Murder in the Glass Room, in which a character says, "you can never tell a book by its cover."  (Maybe not, but I can certainly tell a lot about Murder in the Glass Room by its pulpy cover.)  Much earlier than that, there was this exchange in George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss:
      “Why, what book is it the wench has got hold on?” [Mr. Tulliver] burst out at last.
      “The ‘History of the Devil,' by Daniel Defoe,—not quite the right book for a little girl,” said Mr. Riley. “How came it among your books, Mr. Tulliver?”
      Maggie looked hurt and discouraged, while her father said,— “Why, it's one o' the books I bought at Partridge's sale. They was all bound alike,—it's a good binding, you see,—and I thought they'd be all good books. There's Jeremy Taylor's ‘Holy Living and Dying' among 'em. I read in it often of a Sunday” (Mr. Tulliver felt somehow a familiarity with that great writer, because his name was Jeremy); “and there's a lot more of 'em,—sermons mostly, I think,—but they've all got the same covers, and I thought they were all o' one sample, as you may say. But it seems one mustn't judge by th' outside. This is a puzzlin' world.”
      “Well,” said Mr. Riley, in an admonitory, patronizing tone as he patted Maggie on the head, “I advise you to put by the ‘History of the Devil,' and read some prettier book.
And there you have it.  Now, on to the prettier books....

Here's a set of P. G. Wodehouse lovelies coming from W. W. Norton in early July.  The art design is by Albert Tang, the text design inside the book (which is just as lovely) is by Judith Abbate.  The paperbacks are part of an ongoing series from Norton and neatly capture the whimsical spirit of Wodehouse.  When I opened the box from Norton (advance copies sent to me for review), I literally gasped.  The colors are bold and bright, the fonts are clever and inventive, and there's enough variety in layout between all the books that my eyes didn't skim over the back-cover contents (as they are wont to do when confronted with a series like this).  Here's how much I love these cover designs: I already own a handsome set of Wodehouses released by Overlook Press about a decade ago, but I'm keeping these Norton editions despite my hard-and-fast "no duplicates on the bookshelves" rule.

Heavy Weather, illustration by Siyu Chen

Summer Lightning, illustration by Koren Shadmi

Blandings Castle, illustration by Matthew Taylor

Uncle Fred in the Springtime, illustration by Jordan Crane

And my favorite of all the covers: Leave It to Psmith, illustration by Matthew Woodson

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Trailer Park Tuesday: Blue Asylum by Kathy Hepinstall

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.

By the end of the 70-second trailer for Kathy Hepinstall's new novel Blue Asylum, you'll want to do one of two things: run and hide from the skin-crawling spiders....or run right out to your local bookstore and buy a copy of the book. Hepinstall and her publisher are, of course, hoping you choose the latter option, but you'll be excused if you also do a backwards crab-scuttle away from the unsettling images on your computer monitor.  Blue Asylum is set on Sanibel Island off the Florida coast during the Civil War.  After being convicted of "madness" in a trial, the novel's protagonist Iris Dunleavy, the headstrong wife of a Virginia plantation owner, is sent to an asylum on the island "to be restored to a good, compliant woman."  Here, she meets an assortment of crazies like the ones she introduces in the video: "a woman who saves a place at the table for her dead husband, a man who thinks Sunday is a wolf, another one who thinks every spider he's ever killed have joined together and are waiting for him behind a tree."  And there's a soldier haunted by an atrocity he committed in the war who can only be calmed by the color blue.  Iris is drawn to this troubled veteran with his gentle, dark eyes and that's when the Civil War version of The Snake Pit turns into a love story (but really, aren't all romances just tales of madness at their heart?).  My only criticism of the trailer is that it doesn't establish the time period very well.  Apart from a daguerreotype late in the video, we have no clue this is set during the Civil War.  But that's a small complaint because overall the trailer does a fine job of putting us in the right frame of mind.  It's creepy, efficient, and gives a good sense of the novel's plot.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go wash the spiders off my skin.

Monday, June 18, 2012

My First Time: Pauls Toutonghi

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 Pauls Toutonghi, author of the forthcoming novel Evel Knievel Days.  His writing has appeared in Granta, The New York Times, Zoetrope: All-Story, The Boston Review, Five Chapters, One Story, Sports Illustrated, Book Magazine, and numerous other periodicals.  He received a Pushcart Prize for his short story, Regeneration, which appeared in The Boston Review in 2000.  His first novel, Red Weather, came out from Random House in 2006.  After receiving his PhD in English Literature from Cornell University, Toutonghi moved from Brooklyn, New York to Portland, Oregon, where he now teaches at Lewis & Clark College.  You can visit his website here to learn more about Evel Knievel Days, a novel that moves from Butte, Montana (Knievel's hometown) to Cairo, Egypt, as a young man searches for his family's roots.  Garth Stein (author of The Art of Racing in the Rain) called it “A funny, heart-warming, compulsively readable novel about the unbreakable bonds of family — and baklava.”

My First Early Success

I wrote my first short story at the age of 23.  It took me about 48 hours.  I wrote most of it in one sitting, and then tinkered with a few things--including the ending--the next day.  I was excited to try short fiction after eight years of writing poems.  I didn't see that there was much distinction between poetry and fiction; after all, words were words.  Language was language.

I put the short story in a manila envelope and sent it, along with a reading fee, to The Boston Review's short story competition.  And then I forgot about it.  A few months passed.  I moved from Seattle to the suburbs of Washington, DC, where I lived in a gargantuan tract apartment complex in Annandale, Virginia.  There was a McDonalds on the corner, and two Korean massage parlors.  Nobody walked anywhere, ever.  It was perhaps the ugliest city in America.

One day, my phone rang.  It was Jodi Daynard, the fiction editor of The Boston Review.  I'd won the contest, she informed me.  Congratulations!  Would I come to Boston to read from the story in the Spring?

I was, of course, astonished.  And I was astonished again when, a few months later, the story won a Pushcart Prize.  That was one damn good story, I realized.  Who knew?

The problem with this, of course, is that it was just too easy.  It was too much success, too soon.  It changed my perception of what writing was.  I developed an overconfident, sloppy attitude toward things.  I would never write a second draft, I told my friends (who must have loathed me, quietly).  Anything more was a burden on the joyous fervor of the creative process.  I mean, hadn't Kerouac himeself once said, "First thought, best thought"?  Or Wordsworth: "Fill your pages with the breathings of your heart."

Ah, how the mighty have fallen.

What I discovered over the next decade was that no, in fact, it wouldn't work like this every time.  As I revised and revised and revised--and revised and revised (and revised)--my second novel, Evel Knievel Days, I became painfully aware of the other side of things.  Sometimes, work takes forever.  Or seems to, anyway.  And there's nothing you can do about it.  Just show up, pound your forehead on the page, and repeat.

I have one short story that I've been working on now for five years and it's probably another five from being done.  I used to think writers were lying when they said things like: "I worked on that story for decades."  Now I know, from personal experience, they are telling the brutal, unexaggerated truth.

I still don't know what alchemy occurred when I sat down to write "Regeneration."  Any explanation (and I've written drafts of a few, here, already) seems wrong.  Maybe I'll get lucky and it will happen again.  Maybe it won't.  But the lessons that I've learned from revising--from the careful, painstaking construction of a solid story--have been much more valuable, all in all.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day: A Triptych

September 22, 1984: The air in the room is heavy, suffocating, moist.  We are on the second floor of a 100-year-old house near downtown Eugene, Oregon.  There is a small wooden sign on the patch of lawn in front of the building: Lucinia Birth Home.  We've been here all through the night, pacing, murmuring, moaning.  The room is dim in the pre-dawn hours.  There is a single lamp lit with a small bulb somewhere in a corner of the room.  It's like we're cave explorers, my wife and I, feeling our way by touch through this new phase of our life; where we'll come out, God only knows.  Our midwife is here with us, slumped against the wall, too exhausted to even raise her head from her knees.  She has been riding the waves of contractions with us, but now she has given up and fallen by the wayside, dozing in a corner.  We could care less; she doesn't matter; she's only a speck in our lives, come and gone in an instant; and in twenty-eight years we will no longer remember her name.  There are only two people of importance in that room and that's us--a 21-year-old boy and a 24-year-old girl--trying to get through this as best we can.  We are panting in the thick, moist air and our eyes are locked.  This is happening.  This is really happening.  We are excited, we are scared, we are curious.  Our child--sex still unknown since we have adamantly refused an ultrasound--shifts beneath my wife's skin and she releases another low, trembling hum which in other circumstances might have sounded like a growl.  Our right hands grip tighter.  With my left hand, I reach up to brush aside a rope of hair, heavy with salted sweat, which has fallen across the bridge of her nose.  She shakes her head, silently telling me, "Not now.  Not now."  Because it has arrived, the now we've been waiting for.  This is the moment, the penultimate push, the last huge gulp of air we will take as a single couple, the final breath of childlessness.  A sudden sharp cry rises from my wife, splits the air of the room like a knife slicing a bedsheet hung on a laundry line.  She has been so brave for hours, relentlessly stoic in her approach to the pain, and I know she feels even this brief yelp is a sign of weakness.  "It's okay, it's okay," I whisper.  Her cry cuts the heavy air, dividing it between the Before and the After.  Because now it is Now.  Beneath the lingering pulse of my wife's triumphant yell comes a wet, slithering sound.  I have moved from my night-long position next to her ear, where I've counted and sympathy-panted and encouraged, to the place between her legs where the drama is unfolding.  And so I can see it happen: my son's entrance into this world.  For nine months, he has been this mystery--identity unknown, a shifting shape behind the barrier of my wife's skin.  To us, he's been only pieces and parts--a kicking foot here, the knob of an elbow there--but now here he is, pink and wet and complete.  He comes out of my wife's body and his arms spring open wide, as if he's at the end of a dream about falling from a skyscraper.  He gasps--the very first sound he'll make in this world--as he takes it all in: the dim, close room (not unlike the place he has just left) and the giant faces leaning in to welcome him to the world.  I take him into my arms and bring him to my wife and together the three of us cry.

Deighton Taylor Abrams

March 15, 1986:  "Don't you think you ought to--"  My wife holds up her hand and says, "Not now, Mom.  Not now."  Then she takes my arm in a death grip and we continue to pace the floor on the second-story of the birth home, by now a familiar path from two years ago.  My mother-in-law is hurt and offended by my wife's sharp rebuke and I throw her an apologetic glance.  She sniffs and nods, then goes back to her seat next to the bed.  I know she means well, she only wants to help her daughter get through this experience--which, to her disappointment, is not taking place in a hospital, but in a dim, unsterile room with nary a set of surgical scrubs in sight--but by this point, my wife and I think of ourselves as pros.  We've done it before, we can do it again.  We walk fifteen paces, stop, turn, walk another fifteen paces, stop, turn.  I go slow, holding myself back to my wife's pace though what I really feel like doing is running, skipping, pirouetting through the air.  This is happening again!  We're bringing another one into the world!  Right now, my wife is a little less excited.  This is a harder labor, her body objects to this repeat performance.  It knows what's coming and it does not like it one bit, no it doesn't.  My wife stops in mid-pace, leans against the wall, moaning with a pain I will never be able to appreciate (even my vasectomy, when it comes years later, will be a tickle by comparison).  My wife's fingers turn into a falcon's claws gripping my upper arm, squeezing as the tide of a contraction washes through her body.  I'll have a bruise on my arm the next day, but I don't care.  If this is how my wife needs to bear through the agony, then so be it.  I look up at my mother-in-law and smile through the pain.  It's cool--we're pros--nothing to it.  My mother-in-law clucks and looks away.  Even though she was with us here in this very room for our first son's birth, she's still not convinced in the value of birth homes and will hold on to her disparaging attitude until precisely two hours and twenty-three minutes later when she will stand next to me and watch my second son come into the world.  My mother-in-law is not one to surrender easily to emotion.  She holds everything inside with an impressive will and determination.  In the few times I've seen her cry, it's like watching a drop of water being squeezed through the crack of a dam.  On this day, at this moment, however, the dam breaks.  I put my son into her arms and she coos, then starts to cry openly.  She looks up at me and tries to speak, but nothing comes out.  It's okay, though.  I know what she is trying to say: "This all worked out just fine.  You knew what you were doing."  Yes, we did--to the extent that any scared young parents can know how to do this impossible task of creating another person.  My mother-in-law hands our son to my wife, then quickly runs her fingers across the hollows of her eyes to brush away the tears.  I pretend I never noticed her crying.  I turn to look out the window of the birth home.  The sun cracks the horizon and bleeds orange across the buildings of downtown Eugene.  It's a sight I would never dare to write into my fiction because it's an eye-rolling cliche.  My son, the sun--both arriving at the same time.  If I hadn't been standing there at that window watching it happen, feeling the day's new warmth spread across my face, I would never have believed it.  The others in the room are oblivious to this poetry.  The small moment is mine and mine alone.  I smile and turn from the window, then ask, "Anyone hungry?"  My wife looks up from our son nursing at her breast and says, "Starved!"  My mother-in-law says, "I doubt you'll find any place open at this hour."  But I do.  I drive through the streets of Eugene in the soft morning and, in another impossible miracle, I find a Chinese restaurant that's open for breakfast.  I bring the food back to the birth home, holding up the bags with all the triumph of a hunter returning with a deer slung around his neck.  The three of us sit on the bed, plates balanced on our laps, and stare at the miracle of my new son as he sleeps in a nest of bedsheets.  It is the most delicious Chinese food I've ever eaten.

Schuyler Daniel Abrams

December 1, 1988:  On the day my wife's body is once again being split up the middle with pain--wrenched apart like a Thanksgiving wishbone in the hands of a malicious 8-year-old--I'm clinging to a log forty feet above the floor of a forest on Fort Knox, Kentucky, thinking I'm about to die.  My wife has been walking through a shopping mall in Albuquerque, her mother at her side, both of them trying to encourage the onset of labor.  The pain has now arrived, ringing the doorbell with an insistence she cannot ignore.  At the same time, 1,300 miles away, I'm feeling my own sort of pain.  I'm in the eighth week of Army basic training and it's killing me.  This day, our platoon has gone through a confidence course, the drill sergeants' vein-popping screams goading us through the obstacles: a rope climb, a 15-foot wooden wall, rows of crotch-high beams which we must step over while keeping our hands locked on top of our heads.  We call it The Nutcracker.  I navigate it with aplomb (albeit groaning aplomb) because, frankly, I no longer need my nuts.  I'm about to have my third child and my wife and I have agreed to call it quits after this one, even if it's not the daughter we're hoping for.  This child is one of the reasons I've signed up for the Army in the first place.  We've been strapped for cash ever since I graduated with a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Oregon a year ago--we're what's known as "the working poor"--and I want to raise my children with the security of money the Army will provide.  Now, halfway through the confidence course, I'm not so sure I've made the right choice.  The rest of my platoon has already passed through this obstacle known as The Weaver, a pyramid of irregularly-spaced logs through which we must thread ourselves like a cross-stitch needle going across fabric: over under over under.  The logs are thick--impossible for me to fully wrap my arms around in a hug--and they are slick from decades of use, shiny from the passage of a hundred thousand other scared soldiers.  I go up and up, higher and higher.  Far below, the forest floor is hard and cold as concrete.  I am two logs from the peak of The Weaver's pyramid when I make the mistake of looking down.  I am terrified of heights--always have been, always will be--and now I freeze, despite the outraged screams of my drill sergeants.  My arms cannot hold on to this sweat-greased log much longer.  I close my eyes and think of my wife.  I think of her standing at the base of the pyramid, holding my sons' hands, and calling to me with words that, yes, fill me with confidence.  I take a deep breath, summon one last surge of energy from my fright-numbed muscles, and go over under over under, wriggling like a snake through the remaining logs.  Four states away, my wife is doing the same thing--willing herself to ride through the peaks and valleys of pain--but I have no idea this is taking place.  To prevent the "real world" from distracting us, the Army only allows soldiers in basic training to make one "morale call" per week (this is long before email, cell phone texts, and Facebook updates).  Each Sunday, we line up at the bank of telephone booths near our barracks and wait to make our one call home.  My wife goes into labor on December 1, a Thursday, but I'm not able to call her until December 4.  I dial the number to her parents' house in Albuquerque where she has gone to stay during my nine weeks of basic training.  My mother-in-law answers the phone.  "Well?" I say.  "Am I a father?"  There is a pause.  "No one told you?" my mother-in-law asks.  "Told me what?"  Another pause.  "Here, let me put her on."  Another long pause during which the phone is passed between hands and my mind races to any number of tragedies--stillbirth, umbilical cords wrapped around throats, deformed limbs.  My wife comes on the line.  "I can't believe they didn't tell you."  "Tell me what?"  I'm leaning against the wall of the phone booth, my legs still weak and trembling from The Weaver.  "Tell.  Me.  What?!"  Through the grimy glass of the phone booth, I can see other soldiers standing in line, checking their watches, glaring at me.  My wife's voice crackles through the phone--half of it static, half of it her voice breaking with emotion: "How does it feel to be the father of a little baby girl?"  My own throat clogs.  "Really?  A girl?"  "Yes, and she's absolutely beautiful.  A perfect little baby."  Now I am openly crying and I don't care how long those other soldiers have to wait in line.  I'm a father.  Of the daughter we'd been waiting for.  "When?" I ask.  "Three days ago.  I can't believe they didn't tell you.  God, I hate the Army!" (This was the first, but not the last, time my wife would say this over the next 20 years.)  "It doesn't matter, hon," I say.  "It's not that big of a deal.  I'm a father.  And that's all that matters."  My wife dries her tears, then asks, "Do you want to say hello?  She's nursing right now, but I'll hold the phone close to her so you can hear."  Then, through the interstate hiss of static, I hear it: a tiny, soft suckling sound.  Proof of life.  I walk out of the phone booth ten minutes later with a wet face.  I'm not ashamed.  In fact, I want all those other angry, impatient shave-heads to see I've been crying.  And let them try to figure out why I'm also smiling.  Later that night, I'm in the barracks polishing my boots when the drill sergeant bellows at me from his office at the other end of the room: "C'mere, Private!"  I scramble to my feet, hustle along the polished wooden floor, stand front-and-center at parade rest in front of his desk.  "I hear you got some news this morning."  "Yes, Drill Sergeant!"  "I hear you're a father."  "Yes, Drill Sergeant!"  He squints at me, like he's measuring the distance between his boot and my ass.  Then he grunts and reaches down to pull something from his desk drawer.  "Congratufuckinglations, private!"  He thrusts a cellophane-wrapped cigar at me.  "Th-thank you, Drill Sergeant."  The grimace returns to his face and he looks like he's about to cock back his leg for a swift ass-kick.  "Now get the hell out of my office, Private!  Who the hell you think you are standing here talking to me?  You think you're my best friend or something?"  "No, Drill Sergeant!"  I beat a hasty, nervous retreat from his office, clutching the cigar to my chest.  I will never smoke that stogie and somehow it will be lost or stolen before I graduate from basic training.  But that night I go to sleep with it on the pillow next to my face.  Each time I breathe in the woodsy aroma of tobacco, I pretend I'm sniffing the baby-powder scent which rises from the warm crown of my new daughter's head.  Just before I drop off to sleep, I tell the cigar I love it and that I'm proud to be its father.

Kylie Caitlin Abrams