Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Trailer Park Tuesday: The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter

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.

The premise for Stephen L. Carter's new novel The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln begins with a simple question: What if Abraham Lincoln hadn't been killed by that bullet on April 14, 1865? (Just like Seth Grahame-Smith's lower-brow novel asked, "What if Abe Lincoln was a vampire killer?")  Carter's alt-history fiction takes up the story in 1867 when Lincoln is on trial for overstepping his constitutional authority as President.  The fast-and-furious book trailer only hints at what's in store for readers (Mary Todd Lincoln drowns, Lincoln's lawyer and a prostitute are murdered), but it's enough to intrigue those who weren't already hooked by the title.  Even though it's short, I like this trailer for its juxtaposition of driving rock music and old-fashioned typeface which comes straight from handbills of the 19th century.  It reflects the tension of What Was and What Might Have Been which propels the plot forward.  This is one trial I'm eager to witness.

Monday, July 30, 2012

My First Time: Gregory Spatz

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 Gregory Spatz.  His new novel from Bellevue Literary Press is called Inukshuk.  According to the publisher, it "slips through time, powerfully evoking a modern family in distress and the legendary Sir John Franklin crew’s descent into despair, madness, and cannibalism on the Arctic tundra." Born in New York City, Spatz holds degrees from Haverford College, University of New Hampshire, and The University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He is also the author of the novels Fiddler's Dream and No One But Us, as well as the short story collections Wonderful Tricks and Half as Happy. His short stories have appeared in literary journals and magazines such as Glimmer Train Stories, New England Review, Kenyon Review, Epoch, Santa Monica Review and he has published numerous book and music reviews for The Oxford American. He's won numerous grants from the Washington State Artist Trust, as well as a Washington State Book Award, and in 2011 he was named Individual Artist of the Year by the Spokane Arts Commission.  He now lives in Spokane, Washington, where he teaches in the MFA program at the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, Eastern Washington University.  His website can be found here.

My First New Yorker Rejection (and Acceptance)

My first rejection from The New Yorker was for a story I wrote in a burst of inspiration immediately after having finished my first stint of graduate school at the University of New Hampshire, in 1990.  It flew out in about two to three weeks between teaching in a program for at-risk high school kids called Upward Bound, and editing and re-typing (for pay) a 1,000-page sci-fi/fantasy manuscript for a pair of aging hippies.  I no longer remember the name of that epic hippy tome, but I remember that every page of it smelled so strongly of smoke (cigarette and dope) that I’d have to leave it in a box outside my office door overnight to keep it from stinking up the office.  And no matter how many times I washed my hands, for hours after touching its pages, my fingers would smell like greasy smoke.  I liked thinking of my management of that manuscript as a kind of objective correlative by which to measure my ability to block off and guard my own writing time from the outside world.  I’d open the door, let in the stinky hippy pages only so many hours a day, typing away furiously and trying not to get bogged down in its sentences or wacky logic (Bob Dylan had taken the place of the Messiah, and there was some kind of Harley-riding, tattooed princess in charge of all earthly commerce…and maybe the main characters were named Frog and Toad--I don’t remember because, like I said, I was trying hard to keep that manuscript and its fraught logic from becoming too entangled in my mental circuitry).  Then I’d shut it out, and turn my attention back to my own story.

That story was “Riding Miss Big.”  Voice-heavy, first person, present tense--it was, in most ways, not much like any fiction I write nowadays.  In it, a teenage boy is back east visiting his father for the summer, trying to figure out his college plans.  East Coast?  Or West Coast?  His parents are totally estranged and have not spoken for years.  During the school year, the narrator lives exclusively with his mom, a San Francisco lesbian chef, and her partner.  Most of the story focuses on the father and son riding horses together, the son continually goading the father to get a reaction, then feeling guilty because it’s just too easy getting a rise out of him.  It had a strong closing paragraph, father and son with their ears pressed together and sharing a handset to talk to the mom in SF, and a big moment of disclosure from the dad, all about his former, unfettered affection for the mother.

I didn’t know what I thought of the story, really, but I liked the voice of it and the closing paragraph.  I wrote it in a kind of ebullient, high-flying state of over-confidence.  In finishing my MA, I had finally written some good, break-out pages (what would eventually become the opening pages of my first novel, No One But Us) and I had the mistaken idea that from here on my work would only get better, faster and easier.  I didn’t understand yet how good and bad stories have an ongoing, back-and-forth symbiosis in a writer’s life; you don’t get one without the other.  Good work grows out of bad work, and vice versa.   In most ways, I didn’t have the bigger picture--a necessary blindness probably, otherwise I might not have cleaved so tenaciously to the other really important thing I was beginning to understand:  that through it all, whatever happens, you have to plug on.  Persist.

Here’s the weird thing about “Riding Miss Big”:  everywhere I submitted it for publication, I received back an enthusiastic handwritten note from an editor, and always with a completely different reason for why the story was unacceptable for publication.  We don’t like the ending, we don’t like the beginning, we love the ending, get rid of the horses, love the horses…there was no consensus in any of it, no clear way I saw to revise; so I’d send it back out, unchanged.  Those days you sent hard copies with a stamped self-addressed manila envelope for return of the manuscript, and then you sent the dog-eared, creased and folded-in-half manuscript itself back out again and again, until it fell apart.  That was the way, and “Riding Miss Big” got plenty creased and worn in the submission process.  It also got me a foot in the door and a personal connection with editors at a number of journals which eventually accepted my work (most notably The New England Review, Shenandoah, and The New Yorker) but in all it would take 53 submissions and several years before that story found a home--Chattahoochee Review--still unrevised from its initial form.

The handwritten rejection for “Riding Miss Big” from The New Yorker came on a rainy day.  I remember ripping open the top of the manila envelope and dodging raindrops, and then when I saw the signed, personalized note at the bottom of the form rejection letter, folding it in half and running up the stairs the rest of the way to get inside so I could read it again, closely.  Damn, I remember thinking.  I’ll take a rejection like that any day!  It was from a junior editor, Deb Garrison:  “Very well done--but we never felt we got to know the narrator quite well enough to grasp the changes that take place at the end.  The issues remained a bit fuzzy somehow.  But the details are memorable, and we enjoyed seeing this.  Will you try us again, please?”

Try us again, please? Definitely! From then on, every story I finished, first thing, as soon as I knew it was really done, off it went to Deb Garrison.  In my office I still have a folder of rejection letters from her, spanning a period of four to five years, mostly handwritten, a few typed, one long and detailed, in response to a baggy 11,000-word story which she’d asked me to revise before kindly refusing.  I don’t know why I save them.  An archive of persistence and failure which I rarely review, but which I’d certainly miss if it were gone, reminding me that you have to keep trying.

The story she finally accepted, “Wonderful Tricks,” truly caught me by surprise.  I’d written it immediately after arriving in Iowa City in 1994 and before starting classes at the Writers’ Workshop, during a few hot summer weeks when my apartment was unexpectedly invaded by a painting crew and before I had any real friends in town.  A few months later, after workshopping it with Frank Conroy--his comments:  It’s a half an ejaculation!  Half an ejaculation!  Find the rest of the story!--I sent it off to my agent at the time.

It was, in fact, the only story of mine that agent refused to submit for me. “Try the quarterlies,” she said.  “I just can’t see submitting this one.  Sorry.”

I think I believed her that “Wonderful Tricks” was no good…but I also had this stubborn habit of sending stuff out anyway (remember, 53 times for “Riding Miss Big”) just because.  Just to see.  Because it couldn’t hurt.  Because you never know.  Because it might lead to another publication somewhere down the road, or whatever.  So I sent it to Story Magazine and The New Yorker.  Nowhere else.  Lois Rosenthal, Story’s editor, said “No” within weeks--no surprise there.  And then I mostly forgot the story existed.  I didn’t submit it anywhere else, didn’t talk about it with anyone.  I was discouraged by my agent’s response and out of practice doing my own submissions.  Also, it was summer, no quarterlies were reading submissions, and I was pretty absorbed in working through final edits and proofing for No One But Us.  I knew I’d eventually return to “Wonderful Tricks,” reevaluate, take another stab at revising, but for the moment it just wasn’t a priority.  Seasons passed.  My personal life suddenly turned hectic with a live-in girlfriend actress from New York…we got cats…I was never alone…the cats were everywhere, always underfoot, the girlfriend was always leaving or coming back.

And then one day in the middle of the morning’s writing hours, the phone rang.  Of all things, it was Deb Garrison asking me about this story “Wonderful Tricks” and apologizing for the long delay.  Was the story still available?  The ending didn’t quite work, she said, but the rest of it, she loved.  What I remember of that conversation, after all those years of written correspondence with her, is her matter-of-fact tone and her slightly husky, New York voice--also trying very hard to match her coolness and to stay focused and matter-of-fact in my responses.  I remember taking deep breaths, thanking her, telling her yes it was still available and then describing for her how it had ended in earlier drafts, before trying to find Frank’s elusive other half of an ejaculation and adding on pages and pages of the narrator running around barefoot in the dark and getting his feet cut up and so on.  “That sounds just right,” she said.  “That sounds actually more like what I was picturing for the ending.  Can you send it to me like that, with that other ending?  If you don’t mind?”

Putting the old ending back together and re-attaching it was probably the easiest piece of revision I’ve ever done.  Frank’s suggestions might have spurred me to write past the true ending of the story, but he’d been right--the scenes leading up to the re-attached original ending (a break-up sex-scene in a dying tomato patch, with a literal ejaculation) were what had been missing after all.  The old ending grafted right onto that without a problem.  The story hadn’t been missing an ending, it hadn’t needed 16 more pages, it just needed a better penultimate scene.

Off it went to Deb again.  And a few weeks later, another phone call, and we were celebrating for real.

“Wonderful Tricks,” as it turned out, was one of the last stories Deb worked on and accepted during her tenure at The New Yorker.  In retrospect I think I was even luckier than I knew--not just to have connected with her all those years earlier with “Riding Miss Big,” but to have connected with her when I did, and with time enough for her to accept a story before she moved on in the world.

Photo by Brett Hall Jones

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Pauls Toutonghi at Evel Knievel Days

That's novelist Pauls Toutonghi sharing a laugh with one of his newest fans at Evel Knievel Days yesterday.  Pauls had a table set up just outside the Hotel Finlen in uptown Butte, Montana--midway between the Wall of Death and one of the Great Wallendas walking a tightrope 50 feet above the street.  A novelist hawking his wares at the raucous, booze-breath, creaking-leather-chaps festival might at first glance seem a little odd.  After all, who's gonna be able to read with all those revving engines and airborne motorbikes?

But Pauls' book is about as apropos as they get.   Evel Knievel Days doesn't have an appearance by the Jumpsuited One, but the spirit of Evel hovers over the early pages which are set in Butte.  The book's protagonist, Khosi Saqr is an Egyptian-American living in the Mining City with his half-baked mother, a wild-haired woman he tries to keep in line.  It seems to be a losing battle--one minute she's maniacally tearing up her garden because she hates the onions, and the next she's seeking calm in her house by turning off all the power.  Khosi, an OCD neatnik, suffers a series of emotional crises in the early chapters which cause him to realize he may not have as firm a grasp on his life as he'd thought.  The out-of-control Evel Knievel Days roaring in the background doesn't help soothe his nerves either. I'm only about 70 pages into the story so far--just before Khosi sets off for Cairo in search of his deadbeat father--but I'm already charmed by the characters and by Pauls' quick wit on the page.

Pauls himself is one of the nicest guys I've ever met.  He stayed at our house last night after a somewhat harried day selling books through the hazards of wind gusts and inebriated revelers claiming they wouldn't buy a book about Evel Knievel if it was shoved up their ass.  Later, over a glass of Riesling, Pauls and I had a chance to deconstruct this particular plain-spoken criticism and we concluded that shoving a book up your ass would, admittedly, be a hard way to read it.  Unless you had a flashlight.

Most of the other Evel-doers who stopped at Pauls' table were a little more kind, if not outright puzzled by the stacks of novels which shot up on either side of the author like the fountains at Caesars Palace.  Pauls sweetened the deal with a hand-written cardboard sign which promised a free drink with the purchase of every book.  Many a satisfied biker could be seen making his way to the bar outside the Finlen, a novel in one hand and a coupon for a free Bud Light in the other.  Well, that's one way to convert America into a nation of readers.  If it was a stunt, then I'd say Pauls Toutonghi just did the novelist's equivalent of jumping a motorcycle over a line of school buses.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Friday Freebie: A Graywolf Threebie--Red Plenty by Francis Spufford, The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine and The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka

Congratulations to James Stolen, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows by Brian Castner.

This week's book giveaway is a triple-scoop treat from Graywolf Press: Red Plenty by Francis Spufford, The Life of an Unknown Man by Andreï Makine and The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka.  We're well past the middle of summer and by now your "beach reads" are probably depleted.  While Graywolf books aren't exactly light brain food on the order of 50 Shades of James Patterson, they're a lot healthier for you--full of 8 essential literary vitamins and minerals.  So whether you're going to the beach, the forest, or the in-laws in Wisconsin, why not skip the junk food and pack a 'wolf (or two or three) in your luggage?  This week's Friday Freebie serves up some tantalizing international cuisine.  Blurbs and publisher's jacket copy follow.

Nick Hornby, writing in The Believer, called Red Plenty "a hammer-and-sickle version of Altman’s Nashville, with central committees replacing country music.  [Spufford] has one of the most original minds in contemporary literature."  What it's about: Strange as it may seem, the gray, oppressive USSR was founded on a fairy tale. It was built on the twentieth-century magic called “the planned economy,” which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things that the lands of capitalism could never match. And just for a little while, in the heady years of the late 1950s, the magic seemed to be working. Red Plenty is about that moment in history, and how it came, and how it went away; about the brief era when, under the rash leadership of Khrushchev, the Soviet Union looked forward to a future of rich communists and envious capitalists, when Moscow would out-glitter Manhattan and every Lada would be better engineered than a Porsche. It’s about the scientists who did their genuinely brilliant best to make the dream come true, to give the tyranny its happy ending. Red Plenty is history, it’s fiction, it’s as ambitious as Sputnik, as uncompromising as an Aeroflot flight attendant, and as different from what you were expecting as a glass of Soviet champagne.

The Observer praised The Life of an Unknown Man thusly: "Like all [Makine's] work, this novel has a wonderful flavor of a contemporary Chekhov with a splash of Proust.  What starts out an intimate account bursts out into something more ambitious and universal. Ultimately it's a haunting story, beautifully told."  What it's about: In The Life of an Unknown Man, Andreï Makine explores what truly matters in life through the prism of Russia's past and present.  Shutov, a disenchanted writer, revisits St. Petersburg after twenty years of exile in Paris, hoping to recapture his youth. Instead, he meets Volsky, an old man who tells him his extraordinary story: of surviving the siege of Leningrad, the march on Berlin, and Stalin's purges, and of a transcendent love affair. Volsky's life is an inspiration to Shutov--because for all that he suffered, he knew great happiness. This depth of feeling stands in sharp contrast to the empty lives Shutov encounters in the new Russia, and to his own life, that of just another unknown man.

Jamil Zaidi at The Elliott Bay Book Company raved about The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by saying, "This is one of the most astonishing novels I've read in a long, long while. The Legend of Pradeep Matthew transcends fiction archetypes and takes on a rhythmic, breathing, life force of its own. Just when you think you've got the story pegged, it refracts in a direction you didn't expect towards a conclusion that doesn't seem possible. Yes, there is cricket in this novel, but there is much, much more. To refer to The Legend of Pradeep Mathew as a book about cricket is a sin tantamount to calling Moby Dick a book about a whale. I have not felt that tingle at the back of my neck since my first experiences with Murakami and Bolano."  What it's about: Aging sportswriter W.G. Karunasena's liver is shot. Years of drinking have seen to that. As his health fades, he embarks with his friend Ari on a madcap search for legendary cricket bowler Pradeep Mathew. En route they discover a mysterious six-fingered coach, a Tamil Tiger warlord, and startling truths about their beloved sport and country. A prizewinner in Sri Lanka, and a sensation in India and Britain, The Legend of Pradeep Mathew is a nimble and original debut that blends cricket and the history of modern Sri Lanka into a vivid and comedic swirl.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of all three books, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to thequiveringpen@gmail.com

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 Aug. 2at which time I'll draw the winning name. I'll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 3.  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 any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying "I've shared" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fobbit for your ears (and other related miscellany)

Thanks to Tantor Audio, Fobbit will soon be burrowing into your head through your ear canals.  Ladies and gentlemen.....

Tantor selected a wonderful narrator, David Drummond, and I'm very excited to hear his interpretation of the novel.  He and I talked on the phone this morning to discuss some of the particulars of pronunciation and voice characterization.  Apart from having a short essay of mine read on Montana Public Radio's Reflections West program, I've never heard anyone else read my words.  And now Mr. Drummond, God bless him, is going to tackle all 97,000 of them in Fobbit.  According to the Fobbit page at Tantor, the CDs (clocking in at 11-1/2 hours) should be available sometime in September.  But you're allowed to pre-order them now, of course.

Even puppies like listening to Fobbit!

In other Fobbity news:

1.  I'm pleased to announce that the book has been chosen as an Indie Next pick for September (it's not listed on the IndieBound website yet, but it will be sometime in the near future).  Huge thanks and a big Bob-Eubanks-Newlywed-Game air kiss (mmwah!) to all those independent booksellers who nominated me for the honor.

2.  Goodreads is currently hosting a giveaway for advance reading copies of FobbitClick here to visit the novel's Goodreads page, then click the Enter to Win button.  My publisher has very generously donated 75 copies to the contest, so the odds are in your favor.

3.  I still have a stack of postcards for anyone who wants to be part of the Fobbit "street team."  If you'd like to distribute the cards around your community to booksellers, librarians, book clubs, community bulletin boards in laundromats, grocery stores, military barracks or wherever you think people would be interested in hearing about the book, then feel free to email me.  Let me know how many postcards you'd like, give me your mailing address, and I'll send them to you posthaste.  The cards can also be used as bookmarks, coasters, or--in a pinch--signalling devices if you're ever stranded on a desert isle.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Trailer Park Tuesday: Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel

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.

Self-deprecating novelists who pitch their books with ironic smirks always make the best book trailers.  Carolyn Parkhurst's self-promotion video for The Nobodies Album remains the untopped classic, but now here comes Laurie Frankel as a top contender for the title.  At the outset of her trailer for Goodbye for Now ("a novel about love, loss and social networking"), Frankel says she's been told that one of the most important things about launching a new book is getting famous people to offer blurbs on its behalf.  "I thought it was going to be hard because I don't know any famous people."  But she forgot about her finger-puppet friends who were (ahem) on hand to sing the praises of her novel.  So, for the next two minutes, we're treated to a hilarious parade of dead celebs talking about Goodbye for Now.  We get Albert Einstein riffing on Adam Sandler, Jane Austen pining for "Colin Firth in a wet shirt" and Andy Warhol declaring, "It's fabulous! It deserves an hour of fame."  But my favorite blurbing digit has to be The Scream (the one by Edvard Munch): "OH MY GOD THIS BOOK IS AMAZING!  I CANNOT EVEN BELIEVE HOW GREAT IT IS!!  IT TOTALLY BLEW MY MIND!!!"

Monday, July 23, 2012

My First Time: Tupelo Hassman

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 Tupelo Hassman.  Her novel Girlchild came out earlier this year from Farrar, Straus & Giroux to great acclaim.  Publishers Weekly wrote: "Rory Hendrix will soon be a character readers around the country will know.  She’s the young heroine of Tupelo Hassman’s debut Girlchild, a novel that drops us into her home in a Reno trailer park and invites us to be the only other member of her Girl Scout troop."  Susannah Meadows, writing in the New York Times, had this to say: "Ms. Hassman is such a poised storyteller that her prose practically struts.  Her words are as elegant as they are fierce.  A voice as fresh as hers is so rare that at times I caught myself cheering....I don’t know about you, but I’d go anywhere with this writer."   Tupelo Hassman graduated from Columbia’s MFA program.  Her writing has been published in the Portland Review Literary Journal, Paper Street Press, Tantalum, We Still Like, and Zyzzyva, and by 100 Word Story, Five Chapters.com, and Invisible City Audio Tours.  Visit her website here and find her on Facebook here.

My First Writing Closet

A closet was, once upon a time, a sacred place where valuables were kept, heirlooms, linens and jewelry held in a transgenerational grip, items as irreplaceable and fantastic and necessary to a family as the phrase “once upon a time.”  The very same words I have written here, from inside a closet: once upon a time a sacred place, as recently explained by Lucy Worsley, discussing this lost bit of home history and her book, If Walls Could Talk: A History of the Home, on NPR’s Fresh Air.

I started writing in closets four years ago, when I moved to Oakland, California.  The inaugural closet, what I began calling “my cubby,” was big enough for a desk and had a small window, it felt fairly like an office and marked the first time my voodoo had a room of its own.  It was the first time I’d had a singular place to accumulate my writing tchotchkes, the things we gather around us before we plumb the depths, ready to explore words that are so mysterious, words like “plumb,” that they can at once by synonymous with stonefruit and yet slip in a silent b, a spy in the house of summer.  Writing is a spelunker’s journey, my writing cubby is my miner’s helmet or it is the elevator to the underground or it is a vein of metaphors for mining yet to be unearthed.  It’s where I go to shine the light.

The cubby’s window sill is crowded with the curios that move my mind.  A toy soldier holding binoculars stands lookout because a cubby is, above all, a private space and what’s in it must be guarded.  The soldier keeps watch over the fortune cookie slips that can’t be discarded, Despair is criminal, and Hallelujah!, the bit of ribbon embroidered with bicycles, the god box that shelters my concerns about how this essay might go, the expired lottery ticket that eternally wins $2.  From the window sash hangs a set of wind chimes that are of frightening size to the toy soldier but miniature to the rest of us, barely four inches tall and yet the clacker and the command it gives is the royal one of any writing space, loud and clear: LISTEN.

So I sit in my cubby and I listen and I begin to hear the stories of a house, I see the points of power where voodoo accumulates: the nightstand, the hidden shoebox, the kitchen window sill.  This cubby’s window sill isn’t so different from the ones created by my mother and grandmother and by many of the other mothers I’ve known, in the room that was their main work space.  What gathered on their kitchen sills is as powerful: pictures of grandchildren, wishbones, recipes, a coupon for Promise spread, the items in life that invite meditation.

The true work in a house isn’t in washing dishes or writing essays, but in attending to what has arrived.  And so, while I cherish my cubby and wish for us all to have a precious few square feet to sort out our metaphorical gear, I see that it isn’t as necessary to the writing life as what writers bring to any space anyway: their attention.  Whatever corner of the house we manage, whatever bit of sky seen from it, we are our own alert soldiers, we are our own winning lottery tickets, we write our own fortunes and promises and we are our own wind chimes demanding an ear.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Death by Acronym: "OIF" by Phil Klay

When I joined the Army in 1988, I dove into a deep bowl of alphabet soup and nearly drowned.  AAFES, TDY, POV, FTX, CQ, HHC, MOS, OPSEC, CENTCOM, FORSCOM, ARCOM.  In basic training (BCT), I struggled to learn not only how to properly load my rifle (M16) and how to march in formation (D&C) but also how to figure out this new lexicon.  Military acronyms can be an impossible wall to scale for the new recruit.  The acronyms were born out of necessity--a shorthand to telegraph meaning quickly in combat when time is of the essence.  But acronyms also keep us at a distance--cold, hard block letters stripped of language's emotional resonance.

In his short story "OIF," Phil Klay beautifully exploits those roadblocks the military deploys around its secret language.  We're plunged head-first into the bowl of alphabet soup from the very start as the narrator, a young Marine serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, fires off acronyms like rounds coming out the barrel of an M16.

EOD handled the bombs. SSTP treated the wounds. PRP processed the bodies. The 08s fired DPCIM. The MAW provided CAS. The 03s patrolled the MSRs. Me and PFC handled the money.

The unnamed narrator--the "twitchiest guy in Iraq"--is clinically detached, holding himself at arm's length from the brutal horror of war through his use of acronyms.  Even the central character of "PFC" is never named (though others riding in the humvee are).  He comes to us as a rank only--a private first class who thinks it would be "cool" to get hit with a roadside bomb..."long as no one got hurt."  Famous last words.

Klay's story originally appeared in Granta but was recently republished as part of Electric Literature's Recommended Reading series which "publishes one story a week, each chosen by today's best authors or editors."

"OIF" was hand-picked by Nathan Englander who notes that in short-short stories, "a writer faces a particular set of stumbling blocks when attempting to build a fully realized world in so tight a space. What makes 'OIF' particularly special is that Klay not only succeeds in establishing voice and character, he not only manages to walk us through the narrative with confidence, but—for the majority of the story's audience, unfamiliar with its lexicon—Klay teaches us a new language that we come to understand as we read."

Indeed, it's the compression of "OIF"--mirroring the acronyms themselves--that impressed me the most.  Klay crash-lands us in unfamiliar terrain but quickly establishes landmarks so we can find our way around.  With the constant barrage of abbreviations, "OIF" can be challenging--even to 20-year military vets like me--but there's a huge pay-off in the final paragraph.  Get there and you'll see what I mean.  It's a total OMG.

You can read "OIF" at this link, or you can get it for your Kindle, as I did, at this link.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Friday Freebie: The Long Walk by Brian Castner

Congratulations to Thomas Baughman, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: Windeye by Brian Evenson.

This week's book giveaway is The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life That Follows by Brian Castner.  It's on my shortlist of Modern War books to read in the near future (a list that also includes Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds, Stephen Dau's The Book of Jonas, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya's The Watch and Rachel Maddow's Drift).  The way things are going in my increasingly wound-tight schedule, you'll probably read The Long Walk before I can.  From the sounds of it, you'll be blown away by Castner's memoir (sorry for the unforgivably bad pun).  I'll step out of the way and let the editorial team at Amazon tell you more about The Long Walk, which they chose as a Best Book of July:
To those trained in Explosive Ordnance Disposal, the last-resort tactic for defusing bombs is known as the Long Walk: a soldier dealing with the device up close, alone, with no margin for error. The Long Walk is Brian Castner's tale of two wars. He fought the first in Iraq, serving two tours dismantling roadside bombs before they exploded, or wading through the grisly carnage of unchecked detonations. The second battle began when he returned home, his life exploding as he stepped from a curb into what he calls the Crazy: a consuming froth of panic and undiagnosed pain that alienated him from his family and compelled him to rig his minivan with ammunition clips for faster reloads while driving through suburbia. With its tense and claustrophobic portraits of the violent streets of Kirkuk, Castner's account is a dead-on description of modern warfare in an unfamiliar land. But it also offers sober insight into the stresses of war on the human body and mind (the effects of blast waves on soft tissues--especially in the brain--are chilling), destruction wrought on those left behind, and the long, lonely walk home.

If you'd like a chance at winning a copy of The Long Walk, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to thequiveringpen@gmail.com

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 July 26at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on July 27.  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, July 19, 2012

Three July 19s

Here are three Polaroid snapshots from my journal, three moments from three different July 19s in my life: one involving my mother-in-law, one written when I was in Iraq, and one from the vantage point of a bathroom stall in the Pentagon.  In some instances, the names have been changed.

July 19, 1998:  Jean said her mom used the phrase “an author of consequence” when referring to me yesterday.  Something like, “When David becomes an author of consequence, you’ll be able to afford to do things like that.”  An author of consequence.  Imagine that.  I guess I’m just an inconsequential writer right now.

July 19, 2005:  I get this e-mail from someone at the press desk at Corps headquarters (where we send all our press releases to be released under the Corps masthead—even though we also, simultaneously, release them to our own media list):
Please help me out here. I’m not looking to take the answer to my question anywhere, and I’ll keep mum, but I have to know. Why is Major Bumbledore [a public affairs officer] constantly spinning these releases?  It makes it difficult for me to justify the news value – I have instructed all my folks to strip the quotes and IO from any 3ID release before they go forward from here. Is it that he feels it’s a value-added thing? I’m hoping you folks – the writers – have already asked that question and maybe just got told to face forward and march. I’m really beginning to wonder. Please give me the straight answer.
            I sit there staring at that e-mail for the longest time.  I just don’t have a good answer for him because he’s right.  Major Bumbledore spins because he’s been told to spin by his commander and he doesn’t have the intestinal fortitude to stand up to the commanding general, or the chief of staff, and say, “We just need to give them the real deal without any pre-packaged bullshit.  Shoot straight from the hip, and so on.”  But, for whatever reason, he doesn’t.

Another day, another migraine

            If you think I’m being unfair, here’s another prime example of his wishy-washy nature…

           There is a young Private First Class in the 256th Brigade, by name of Tschiderer (pronounced “Shitterer”—I know, we got a good laugh out of it, too) who was at a security checkpoint a few weeks ago when he was shot in the chest by terrorists.  Tschiderer fell to the ground beside his humvee….then bounced right back up onto his feet and ran for cover behind the humvee.  He was all right—the bullet struck his thumb, then glanced off the armored plates in his flak vest before ricocheting away.  His chest had a bright red bruise the size of a teacup, but he was alive.  As soon as Tschiderer took cover, he told his teammates where the gunfire had come from and then, ears still ringing from the bruising bullet, he and his squad jumped in their humvees and pursued the terrorists.  They chased them through the neighborhood, firing at the fleeing terrorists and wounding the guy who had shot Tschiderer.  Here’s where it gets good.  Tschiderer is a medic, so as soon as he had put flex-cuffs on the guy who shot him, he started treating his wounds.  The guy shoots an American, gets shot by that same American, then as he’s writhing on the ground in pain, his victim—who he was certain he’d killed with a bull’s-eye to the chest—starts bandaging him up.  Here’s the other interesting part: the attempted assassination of Tschiderer was caught on tape, filmed by the terrorists to be used as propaganda for how they are slaughtering the Americans.  You can hear them praying to Allah as they squeeze the trigger and you see Tschiderer crumple to the ground.  But then, when he pulls his Lazarus trick, there is stunned silence from the terrorists, followed by immediate panic as the U.S. humvees head directly for their position.  Someone drops the camera and that’s the end of the tape (which was later confiscated by the Americans).

            As soon as we put out the press release, we started getting inundated with calls and e-mails from the media who saw a potential ratings coup in the human interest story.  When they found out there was also video of the kid getting shot, well then, all bets were off and the phone never stopped ringing.  With Bumbledore's blessing, Tschiderer started giving interviews to newspapers and TV.  Fox News interviewed him.  CNN met with his parents and did a lengthy feature piece on their reaction and included an interview with the kid via our satellite linkup.  Once the CNN piece aired two days ago, there was another spike in interest and Good Morning America, along with six other TV news networks, arranged to do an interview with Tschiderer yesterday afternoon at around 4 p.m.  GMA had even secretly arranged for a camera crew to be at his parents’ house and they were going to do a live, two-way interview with the whole family—the sort of gushy, feel-good stuff GMA is known for.  Coordination was made and Lt. Jackson was on his way to the front gate to pick up the news team with its satellite truck and cameras and microphones, when Bumbledore called the whole thing off.

            “No more interviews,” he said.

            “Why?” we asked.

            “Because,” he said.

            “Because why?” we asked.

            “We just don’t think the story has any news value.”

            “No news value?” we cried in disbelief.  “Sir, this is a GREAT story.  Besides, it’s already been all over the news.  There’s no stopping it.  That toothpaste is already out of the tube.  Sir, if we may ask, is this decision coming from the command group?”

            Bumbledore was mute as a stone.

            “This is a great story, sir,” we kept advocating.  “We can’t see anything but good from it.  It’s all about ‘love thy enemy’ and so on.”

            In his heart, Bumbledore may have agreed with us but he wouldn’t argue the point with the chief of staff, ole Colonel Laser Beam Eyes.  All Bumbledore would say was, “We think that if the terrorists see that video, they’ll realize they can shoot our soldiers in the chest and we’ll survive.”


            Yeah.  We wouldn’t want them to know what they already know, huh?  It’s not like the goddamned tape hasn’t already been played over and over again on TV.  It’s not like they don’t have VCRs where they can record the sniper video.

            Gah!  I was so frustrated over this one small inanity that I went home in a boiling rage yesterday.  Like I told Master Sergeant Coughlin, we expose our vulnerabilities every time we write a press release around here.  We can’t go around second-guessing what the enemy will figure out from our press releases—“Ah-ha!  That IED was successful, thank Allah.  Let’s do it again and maybe they’ll write another press release to tell us how we did, praise Allah.”

            So now, even though Tschiderer’s story has already been out there and the sniper video is easily accessible on the internet, we are canceling all future interviews.  Thanks to Major Jellyspine, we left Good Morning America stranded at the gate and, furthermore, we pissed off ABC News.

            Not a good way to conduct business.

July 19, 2007:  As I sit in the bathroom stall, I can hear the Pentagon tour guides walk down the hallway, lined with memorial quilts which were sent in after 9/11.  The tour guides have a memorized speech which they recite like programmed robots, rushing through the words without inflection, pause or heartfelt emotion (okay, maybe one or two of the tour guides put some effort into it, but they are a rarity).  “Ladies and gentlemen, the area we are walking in right now has actually been rebuilt twice.  After workers were nearly completed with the original renovation, the Pentagon was subjected to a terrorist attack on September 11th, Two-Thousand-and-One.  This did not deter the workers from completing the project on time.  They vowed to have this section of the Pentagon re-opened within a year.  Now, this was not part of their contract, this is something they strongly believed they needed to do.  This was known as the Phoenix Project, named after the mythical creature which rises, reborn, from the ashes.”

            I work in Room 1E460, the precise spot where the nose of Flight 77 struck the building.  My office is where the plane entered and barreled through, all the way to C Ring.  If I’d been sitting here on that day, I would have been vaporized.  It’s spine-chilling to think about all those people who once sat where I now tap on my keyboard.  Every day, I work with ghosts.

            Our halls and bathrooms are cleaned by contractors and most of them are workers with disabilities.  There’s John, the rotundly cheerful black guy who comes in every day to vacuum our floor.  He will always chat with us while he’s moving about the office with his feather duster.  He also likes to swipe hairpins from my female co-workers’ desks.  Then there’s the Muttering Chinaman who is always pushing a wide floor broom around our hallway.  He talks to himself in Chinese, sometimes stopping to laugh at something he’s just said, then resuming his low, incoherent babble.  Major Oliveras thinks he’s not really brain-damaged, but is actually a spy collecting intelligence.

Monday, July 16, 2012

My First Time: Lydia Netzer

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 Lydia Netzer, author of Shine Shine Shine, a novel about astronauts, hairless women, autism, parenting, and robots.   Sara Gruen (author of Water for Elephants), read the book and was charmed: "A funny, compelling love story from the freshest voice I’ve heard in years.  Shine Shine Shine picked me up and left me changed in ways I never expected.  Intelligent, emotional, and relentlessly new, Netzer answers questions you didn't know you were already asking and delivers an unforgettable take on what it means to love, to be a mother, and to be human."  Netzer was born in Detroit and educated in the Midwest. She lives in Virginia with her two home-schooled children and mathmaking husband. When she isn’t working as a teacher, blogging, or drafting her second novel, she writes songs and plays guitar in a rock band.  Visit her website and find out, among other things, which 10 movies really need robots.

My First (and Second and Third) Time
in the Big Apple

I have been to New York City three times.  But the first time, I was holding my breath.

The first time I went to New York City, my husband Dan and I were on our way to Connecticut with the kids, and we took a detour to drive through the city.  Dan loves to drive in city traffic (Roman roundabouts are his idea of a good time) so with him zipping around like a maniac and the kids and I staring out the windows, we saw Times Square, Bleecker Street, Wall Street, and Central Park.  There was a parade--it was Puerto Rico Day and we were stopped for a while.  “Do you want to get out of the car?” Dan asked.  “No,” I said.  I may have made excuses; I don’t remember.  I could have said “We don’t have time,” or “There’s no place to park.”  I probably did not say, “No, because I haven’t finished my novel yet.”  But that’s what I was thinking.  And I think Dan probably knew it.  I felt like a foreigner in another country, a country whose language I could already speak, whose customs I already knew, but I didn’t have a passport.  My papers were not in order.  Being Dan, he did not say I was being irrational.  He just kept driving until I had seen enough, and then we went on to Connecticut in the dark.

The second time I went to New York, I did breathe.  And I laughed, even.  Within a few hours of getting off the plane, I was tromping down a snowy sidewalk in Manhattan, laughing my face off.  I was traveling with my friend Joshilyn Jackson, and we were visiting our friend Karen Abbott, having a girls weekend to celebrate Joshilyn’s birthday, and her new book The Girl Who Stopped Swimming.  Joshilyn and I have been friends for 20 years.  I am an only child, and I have always done well in the role of little sister to my friends.  This trip to New York was a safe excursion, because I was with my “big sister” Joshilyn, and she knew her way around.  Not just around the subway, but around this whole New York world.  We went to the offices of her publisher, Grand Central Press, and I met her publicist.  Her editor, Caryn Karmatz Rudy, took us to lunch.  I remember sitting there, listening to Caryn and Joshilyn talk about her book, about numbers and plans and the state of publishing.  I was happy to listen.  Happy to put in a word here or there.  My kids were eight and four.  I had spent eight years working on a novel that I thought would never be right.

Last June I went to New York for the third time.  I had been to Paris, Los Angeles, London, and Rome.  But this trip to New York had me goofy and nervous--fussing with scarves, worried about my hair, indecisive about shoes.  I was worried because this time I was the one sitting in the writer seat.  My novel had sold to St. Martin’s Press one month previous, and I was going to New York to meet with Caryn Karmatz Rudy, who had now become my agent, and my new editor Hilary Teeman.  I imagined that my agent and editor spent their days tip-tapping down the streets of New York, rushing hither and thither and having important conversations, signing contracts, sipping cocktails, and making money.  I spent most days driving my kids to karate and riding lessons, teaching them how to read and spell vowel digraphs, and occasionally stepping out in infinite glamour to pick up dog poop or peel ancient banana peels off the floor of my minivan.  How could I trick them into thinking I belonged in the city?  I took my friend Andrea Kinnear with me on the trip for moral support, but during the business part of that first day, she split off to visit the MOMA, and I was on my own.

The three of us met at the restaurant: Hilary, Caryn and I.  Now, in order to understand the scene, you should know that my agent, my editor and I are all short.  In fact, I think I may be the tallest of us, measuring a staggering 5’1”.  And they are both, like, constantly radiating coolness.  Just effortlessly wise and slick and completely together.  Next to them I felt like a half-drunk wildebeest.  Next to them I felt like a pretender.

We three small ladies all sat down to lunch, and I was tongue tied.  I am not usually a person who is at a loss for words.  In fact, I usually have to be hit with a mallet in order to get me to shut up.  But as we sat there at the restaurant, I listened to Hilary and Caryn talking about publishing stuff, about people they both knew, and I was so charmed by them, and so full of total disbelief that I was sitting there in New York City at a lunch meeting and that the writer they were talking about was me, and that these tiny, smart, interesting women were making it their business to publish and promote my book.  The one that I wrote, that I never thought would be right, but that had strangely, miraculously been sold by this one to that one, and here we were.  I almost felt, for a minute, like I couldn’t breathe.  I just wanted them to continue making words come out their mouths, so I could continue trying to convince myself that this was real.

Then we started talking about that book of mine.  Though it was sold, it was not perfect, and we had issues to work out.  Some characters needed more depth, some mysteries needed clarification, some holes needed filled in.  And as we began to talk about this stuff, I suddenly felt my brain begin to open up.  Before long, we were no longer two New Yorkers and one noob dork from the suburbs.  We were three English majors sitting there trying to fix a novel, using our common language, working out our ideas.  The lunch went on for hours.  I remember one moment, when Hilary brilliantly came up with the pine needles (in the context of the book that will make sense, I promise!) and I knew that I was in the exact right place.  I felt completely at ease, totally happy, and excited to begin this relationship.

What I understood for the first time, sitting there, was that I was only part of the puzzle.  That I had my job to do and they had theirs.  That the noob dork from the suburbs had to write, and that the cool editor chick had to do the editing, and the wise agent had to keep everything on track for the long term, and the marketing person and the publicist and the sales person--we all had our jobs.  And this was no longer “my book” but “our book” and that together we would all make it work.  I walked away from that lunch completely exhilarated.  Andrea and I did some shopping, some strolling, some dining, some celebrating.  We found our way around, tip-tapping around with the rest of them, and when we went to our minivans and banana peels it was with a happy sigh.

As for New York City, well, I can’t wait to go back.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Booklist on Fobbit: "Think M*A*S*H in Iraq"

Booklist is the latest publishing industry trade magazine to weigh in on Fobbit.  I still can't put into adequate words how these early, positive reviews are making me feel.  Like a kid stunned to be receiving Christmas gifts in July, for one.  Like a writer finally seeing payoff for all those isolated nights down in his basement, for another.

One of the things I appreciate about this Booklist review is the mention of General Bright's toenail clippings.  In their own way, those little shavings are some of the funniest, but most-overlooked, characters in the novel.  It's nice that somebody noticed.

In west Baghdad, while the infantry fights the war on terrorism, a team of public-affairs soldiers play computer solitaire and clip toenails in the relative safety of the Forward Operating Base (FOB), waiting for the latest death reports. This is the story of the Fobbits, as they're perjoratively called, and, in particular, Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr., who types up the latest suicide bombing into something palatable for Americans digesting his words over breakfast. It's the story of Lieutenant Colonel Vic Duret, knee-deep in the heat, stench, and gore of combat instead of working on nation rebuilding, who hates those Fobbits in their cushy cubicles avoiding combat. It's the story of incompetent Captain Abe Shrinkle, who has something to prove and becomes a burr in the boot of the U.S. Army. First-novelist Abrams punches up the grittiness of war with the dark, cynical humor that comes from living it (he served as a Fobbit in Iraq), crafting images that will haunt readers long after they pry their grip from the book. Think M*A*S*H in Iraq.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Friday Freebie: Windeye by Brian Evenson

Congratulations to Sharon Borrege, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms by Carmela Ciuraru.

This week's book giveaway is Windeye by Brian Evenson, recently published by Coffee House Press.  This collection of 25 short stories is unnerving, unsettling, and invigorating--each of them fine-honed tales of literary horror.  Here's the publisher's blurb to tell a little more about the book:
A woman falling out of sync with the world; a king's servant hypnotized by his murderous horse; a transplanted ear with a mind of its own—the characters in these stories live as interlopers in a world shaped by mysterious disappearances and unfathomable discrepancies between the real and imagined. Brian Evenson, master of literary horror, presents his most far-ranging collection to date, exploring how humans can persist in an increasingly unreal world. Haunting, gripping, and psychologically fierce, these tales illuminate a dark and unsettling side of humanity.

I put Windeye to the standard first-paragraph test and found several instances of creepy prose which could stand strong beside the best of writers like Edgar Alan Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, or Peter Straub.  Here are just a few of my favorites:
In early spring, Harmon's sister disappeared. One moment she was standing at the edge of the property, near the back fence, the dog just beside her, listening to him plow. The next both she and the dog were gone. He noted their absence passively as he turned the tractor to cut the next set of rows, and thought nothing of it. Later, once he was done, he went into the house and called, was surprised when neither she nor the dog came. The dog he found a half-day later, just outside the back fence, its throat slit open. Of his sister, however, there was no sign.
      --from "The Dismal Mirror"

When they had grown tired of prodding the old man with a stick, they left the stick where it was and continued down the tunnel, Jansen trailing along the left wall, Lindskold along the right. It grew darker and for a time Lindskold couldn't see. He moved forward solely by touch and by listening to Jansen's feet. Then the light grew a little better, the ceiling punctuated every ten or so meters by a plate-sized grate through which leaked a pale light. Jansen's missing hand, Lindskold noticed only then, seemed to have grown back.
      --from "The Tunnel"

I lost my eye when I was a child, running through the forest as part of some game or other. At the time I was with two other children, a boy and a girl, a brother and sister, neither of whom I knew or, indeed, had even seen before. It was one of them, the skinny shoeless boy, who suggested the game. I cannot now remember much about it, only that when I lost the eye I had been giggling and chasing the girl, though was also being pursued by the boy. In my flight, a thin, barbed branch snapped back and lashed like a wire, slashing a deep scar across my nose and tearing the eye itself free of the socket to leave it unseeing and ruptured on the cheek.
      --from "The Absent Eye"

If you'd like a chance at winning a new paperback copy of Windeye, all you have to do is email your name and mailing address to thequiveringpen@gmail.com

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 July 19at which time I'll draw the winning name.  I'll announce the lucky reader on July 20.  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, July 12, 2012

Soup and Salad: Fobbit ARC winner, Matt Bell's new novel, Pulitzer-fail followup, David Cronenberg and Don DeLillo Together Again for the First Time, Stinking Kindles, Thank You For Killing My Novel, Sere Prince Halverson's Sense of Place, Charles Dickens Stamps

On today's menu:

1.  Congratulations to Diana Wagman, winner of the Fobbit prize package.  My sincerest thanks to everyone who entered the contest.  You overwhelmed my inbox with support, love, and anticipation for the book (which officially publishes on Sept. 4).  A little bird at Grove/Atlantic tells me there will be another Fobbit giveaway coming soon; so be of good cheer, all you losers!

2.  Speaking of anticipation, I was excited to see this announcement of Matt Bell's novel (coming from Soho Press in 2013) at his blog.  In addition to possessing one damned fine title ("the longest title in Soho history," according to the publisher's Facebook page) and a kick-ass cover (which, hopefully, will be the final design), In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods has this intriguing plot summary: it's "the story of a newly married couple who take up a lonely existence in the title's mythical location.  In this blank and barren plot far from the world they've known, they mean to start the family the unnamed husband wants so obsessively.  But their every pregnancy fails, and as their grief swells, the husband─a hot-tempered and impatient fisherman and trapper─attempts to prove his dominion in other ways, emptying both the lake and the woods of their many beasts.  As the years pass, the wife changes too, her suddenly powerful voice singing some new series of objects into being, including a threatening moon hung above their house, its doomed weight already slowly falling, bending their now-starless sky.  In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is about marriage, parenthood, and the dreams parents have for their children─as well as what happens to a marriage whose success is measured solely by the children it produces, or else the grief that marks their absence."  Spring 2013 can't come soon enough for me.

3.  Remember the kerfuffle over the Pulitzer Prize committee's decision to leave the fiction category unawarded this year?  Michael Cunningham--who, along with Maureen Corrigan and Susan Larson, was one of the three jurors who forwarded their recommendations to the committee--writes about his reaction in a two-part essay at The New Yorker:
We were, all three of us, shocked by the board’s decision (non-decision), because we were, in fact, thrilled, not only by the books we’d nominated but also by several other books that came within millimetres of the final cut. We never felt as if we were scraping around for books that were passable enough to slap a prize onto. We agreed, by the end of all our reading and discussion, that contemporary American fiction is diverse, inventive, ambitious, and (maybe most important) still a lively, and therefore living, art form.
While he admits the three jurors faced an almost impossible task ("the attempt to name a 'best' book, as if books were cucumbers at a county fair"), in the end "an American writer has been ill served and underestimated. Readers have been deprived of what might have been a great literary discovery or might have offered them the bittersweet but genuine satisfaction of saying, 'Really? That book? What were those people thinking of?'"  Read Part One here, and Part Two here.

4.  This Recording offers an early critique of David Cronenberg's forthcoming adaptation of Don DeLillo's novel Cosmopolis, starring Robert Pattinson as the bored billionaire who spends the majority of the book and movie riding around in his limousine looking for a good haircut.  It's not a favorable review and is, among other things, critical of how Cronenberg has brought the "dysfunctional language" of the novel to the screen: "This is not the dialogue of Harold Pinter; this was not written to be said out loud."

5.  The Casual Optimist offers this solution for Kindle owners who miss the beautiful, smelly mess of used books:

6.  Janet Maslin reviewed Patrick Somerville's new novel This Bright River for the New York Times.  She panned it, calling it "soggy."  This was a real bummer for Somerville.  But then he read the review a little closer, a little more slowly, and realized that--gasp!--Maslin "had made a simple reading error within the first five pages of my novel.  She'd mixed up two characters.  It was really important to not mix up those characters."  So, going against the long-standing wisdom that authors should not react publicly to bad reviews, Somerville decided to write to the New York Times in order to set the record straight about the error.  What ensued turned out to be one of the classiest author-reviewer responses I've ever seen.  Much better than taking your reviewer's book out to the back yard and shooting it with a pistol.

7.  Sere Prince Halverson, author of the novel The Underside of Joy, recently gave a wonderful TEDx talk on how geography and a "sense of place" has impacted her life. I really love the story about the time she and her husband, urban dwellers, took their son to the mountains for the first time when he was a toddler. The boy reached down, grabbed a handful of dirt and started belly-laughing. Sere's husband turned to her and said: "Man we've got to get this kid off the pavement more often." Here's the 13-minute video (it's worth watching all the way to the end):

8.  I've always liked Charles Dickens, and now I find I can lick him, too.  His characters--Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Bumble, The Marchioness, Mrs. Gamp, Captain Cuttle, and Mr Micawber--are featured on a new set of postage stamps in the UK.