Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunday Sentence: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

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

Moreover he was in possession of a functional and frankly rather clamorous conscience.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Call of the Wild: Through Glacier Park and Tenting To-night by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The lure of the high places is in your blood.  The call of the mountains is a real call.  The veneer, after all, is so thin.  Throw off the impedimenta of civilization, the telephones, the silly conventions, the lies that pass for truth.  Go out to the West.  Ride slowly, not to startle the wild things.  Throw out your chest and breathe; look across green valleys to wild peaks where mountain sheep stand impassive on the edge of space.  Let the summer rains fall on your upturned face and wash away the memory of all that is false and petty and cruel.  Then the mountains will get you.  You will go back.  The call is a real call.

Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote those words in Through Glacier Park, first published in 1916.  Those of you who are aficionados of vintage mystery literature may not readily associate Rinehart with the high, thin, bracing air of Montana's Rocky Mountains.  "Isn't she the one who wrote The Bat and The Circular Staircase?" you ask.  Yes, she is.  The author of more than fifty books--including the classic mystery The Door, which is said to have inspired the phrase "the butler did it"--Rinehart was also an intrepid adventurer and prolific journalist.  She traveled to the front-line trenches of World War I Belgium and, in 1916 and 1918 (Tenting To-night), she wrote about her visit to Montana's crown jewel, Glacier, which was still in its first decade of national parkhood.

She traveled on horseback with a party of 42 others, some of them city slickers--the sort, she wrote, who "must have fresh cream in its coffee, and its steak rare, and puts its hair up in curlers at night, and likes to talk gossip in great empty places"--and others who were "cowboys in chaps and jingling spurs; timorous women, who eyed rather askance the blue and purple mountains back of the hotel; automobile tourists, partly curious and partly envious; the inevitable photographer, for whom we lined up in a semicircle, each one trying to look as if starting off on such a trip was one of the easiest things we did; and over all the bright sun, a breeze from the mountains, and a sense of such exhilaration as only altitude and the West can bring."  Artist Charles M. Russell was also along for the ride, famously spinning yarns around the campfire each night.

The 1915 party
Through Glacier Park is, like the very air of the park, bracing and exhilarating in its descriptions of high-mountain meadows, plashing streams, and diamond-sharp peaks.  It is, on occasion, also very funny:
There is only one thing to do if a bear takes a sudden dislike to one. It is useless to climb or to run. Go toward it and try kindness. Ask about the children, in a carefully restrained tone. Make the Indian sign that you are a friend. If you have a sandwich about you, proffer it. Then, while the bear is staring at you in amazement, turn and walk quietly away.

Upper Two Medicine Lake
Rinehart opens the first chapter of Through Glacier Park with these paragraphs:
      This is about a three-hundred mile trip across the Rocky Mountains on horseback with Howard Eaton. It is about fishing, and cool nights around a camp-fire, and long days on the trail. It is about a party of all sorts, from everywhere, of men and women, old and young, experienced folk and novices, who had yielded to a desire to belong to the sportsmen of the road. And it is by way of being advice also. Your true convert must always preach.
      If you are normal and philosophical; if you love your country; if you like bacon, or will eat it anyhow; if you are willing to learn how little you count in the eternal scheme of things; if you are prepared, for the first day or two, to be able to locate every muscle in your body and a few extra ones that seem to have crept in and are crowding, go ride in the Rocky Mountains and save your soul.
Dawson Pass
This Labor Day weekend, my wife and I hope to find some Glacier Park salvation.  For the last six months, we have been diligently laboring--me at my full-time Day Job, she almost single-handedly running The Backyard Bungalow here in Butte, Montana--and we've really only had one proper day off each week: Sunday, which is too often consumed with mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, or rearranging the furniture at The Backyard Bungalow.  It's time we heeded Glacier Park's call.

I'll be heading north with Rinehart's two books in hand.  Because we're limited to one all-too-brief day of hiking along what Rinehart called "trails of a beauty to make you gasp," we won't exactly retrace her steps (or, more accurately, hoofbeats); but we hope to find that same refreshing call of the high places.

Cities call–I have heard them. But there is no voice in all the world so insistent to me as the wordless call of the Rockies. I shall go back. Those who go once always hope to go back. The lure of the great free spaces is in their blood.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Friday Freebie: The Bully of Order by Brian Hart and The Big Crowd by Kevin Baker

Congratulations to Elaine Panneton, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil, Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel, and The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith.

This week's book giveaway is a pair of novels sure to appeal to lovers of riveting historical fiction.  Up for grabs: The Bully of Order by Brian Hart and The Big Crowd by Kevin Baker.  The Bully of Order is a hardcover, The Big Crowd is a brand-new trade paperback.  Read on for more information about each of the books....

Set in Washington Territory in 1886, The Bully of Order is about Jacob and Nell Ellstrom who step from ship to shore and are struck dumb by the sight of their new home--the Harbor, a ragged township of mud streets and windowless shacks.  In the years to come this will be known as one of the busiest and most dangerous ports in the world, and with Jacob's station as the only town physician, prosperity and respect soon rain down on the Ellstroms.  Then their son, Duncan, is born, and these are grand days, busy and full of growth.  But when a new physician arrives, Jacob is revealed as an impostor, a fraud, and he flees, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves.  Years later, on a fated Fourth of July picnic, Duncan Ellstrom falls in love.  Her name is Teresa Boyerton, and her father owns the largest sawmill in the Harbor.  Their relationship is forbidden by class and by circumstance, because without Jacob there to guide him, Duncan has gone to work for Hank Bellhouse, the local crime boss.  Now, if Duncan wants to be with Teresa, he must face not only his past, but the realities of a dark and violent world and his place within it.  Told from various points of view, Brian Hart's novel follows the evolution of the Harbor from a mudstamp outpost to a city that rivals the promise of San Francisco.  The Bully of Order is a meditation on progress, love, and identity; a spellbinding novel of fate and redemption--told with a muscular lyricism and filled with a cast of characters Shakespearean in scope--where everyone is as much at the mercy of the weather as they are of the times.  “An epic novel of violence, depravity, and mayhem…Brian Hart writes like Cormac McCarthy in overdrive.  What talent, what nerve, what a wondrous and spellbinding book.  The Bully of Order is part creation myth, part apocalyptic thriller, and it’s peopled with charlatans, swindlers, and murderers who will haunt your dreams.”  (John Dufresne, author of No Regrets, Coyote)

In The Big Crowd, Kevin Baker (Paradise Alley) gives us a portrait of New York City politics and organized crime in the 1940s.  Tom O'Kane has always looked up to his brother, Charlie, latching onto him as a surrogate father as soon as he arrived in America from County Mayo.  Charlie is the American Dream personified: an immigrant who worked his way up from beat cop to mayor of New York.  But what if Charlie isn't as wonderful as he seems?  Based on one of the biggest unsolved mob murders in history, the heart of The Big Crowd is a mystery.  More than a decade after Tom arrives in New York, he is forced to confront the truth about Charlie while investigating the mysterious "suicide" of "Kid Twist," Charlie's star witness against the largest crime syndicate in New York.  As Tom digs deeper, the secrets he uncovers throw everything he thinks he knows about his beloved brother into question.  In The Big Crowd, Kevin Baker brings the 1940s to indelible life, from the beaches of Acapulco to the battlefields of World War II, from Gracie Mansion to the Brooklyn docks.  Booklist said, "Baker takes another juicy bite out of the Big Apple, demonstrating once again that nobody does old New York—in all its glamour and its grit—better."

If you’d like a chance at winning 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 Sept. 4, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Sept. 5.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your 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.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Look What I Found: Big Leaguer by William Heyliger and One Minute to Play by Harold M. Sherman

I was never what you'd called sportific.  Artistic, yes; but not sportific.  Save for the occasional Winter Olympics and a two-year fondness for the Braves when I lived in Atlanta, I couldn't care less.  To me, the wide world of sports was loud, boisterous, and boring.   If there is such a thing as a "typical male" (which I doubt very much), I never fit that mold.  I've always preferred an evening with Kurosawa or a combo of Vivaldi (ears) and Austen (eyes) over a two-hour couch-slump with Wade Boggs.

So why was I standing in a Couer d'Alene, Idaho antique shop, excited at the prospect of buying the two books--Big Leaguer by William Heyliger and One Minute to Play by Harold M. Sherman--I held in my hands?  For one thing, the books (published in 1936 and 1926, respectively) were dust-jacketed beauties exquisitely preserved in a mylar wrapper with tight bindings and no loose pages.  I'm a sucker for a tight binding.

More than pristine condition, though, the two novels drew me in with their nostalgic charm.  Geared toward teenage boys, Big Leaguer (baseball) and One Minute to Play (football) describe a sports world relatively free of overpaid athletes, steroid junkies or merchandise blitzkriegs.  From what I can tell by reading the flap copy and the first chapter of each book, these are simple stories about young men trying to better themselves through physical exertion and learning some Serious Life Lessons via the scoreboard.  In this case, I think sentiment trumped my sports-aversion.

Big Leaguer is about Marty Gage, catcher for Arrowhead Prep School and son of "Silent Bill" Gage, the manager of a big league ball team.  Marty spends his summer on the road with the pro players, then takes his "big league ideas" back to his classmates at the prep school.  The book crackles with slang like this patch of dialogue:
"I felt the hits in my bones. Like as not I could have poled out another solid poke if your old man had let me take a cut at the ball in the fourth instead of laying one down. I had that pitcher measured like I was a tailor with a tape."
That's as far as I got in the book before I set it aside, but the flap copy promises it's "one of the most fascinating baseball stories ever written for boys."  The book I found in the Idaho antique store is inscribed to "Lawrence, from Mother & Dad."  Judging by the tight-binding, intact-pages condition of the 78-year-old book, I doubt Lawrence ever read Mr. Heyliger's school-athletics adventure story.  Maybe he was off listening to Antonio Vivaldi and reading Jane Austen.

One Minute to Play, the novelization of a 1926 movie (in which, apparently, Clark Gable was one of the extras), is geared for older boys.  For one thing, there's a love interest: high school half-back Red Wade has a meet-cute moment with "pretty fair-haired" Sally Rogers aboard a Pullman railcar carrying him to college.  The book also sets up a highly-charged showdown between Red and his father, as seen in this synopsis for the movie:
"Red" Wade, a star high-school football player, has intentions of going to Claxton College, which has a powerhouse football team, but changes his mind when he meets the sister of the pitiful Paramlee team and goes to college there, just as his father, an alum of the school, had wished. But his father has ordered him not to play football. "Dad" Wade, has offered a $100,000 endowment to his old school, not knowing his son has joined the football team, but is going to withdraw it if his son plays in the Big Game against Claxton. This puts "Red" between a rock and a hard place.
Like I said, Scoreboard Life Lessons.

*     *     *

The gym was filled with the humidity of boysweat and the chirp of two dozen sneakers squeaking on the polished maple floor.  From the bleachers, I could hear a mid-level murmur, not a decibel-breaking roar, from the parents and half-bored students who just wanted this game to end so they could go home and start dinner.  They had nothing to worry about.  That end was coming soon.

There were 30 seconds left on the clock.  The scoreboard read 38 (Visitor) to 16 (Home).  My freshman basketball team was getting creamed.

I, on the other hand, was doing pretty good at my assigned job: warming the bench.

Like I said, I am not now, nor ever was, athletic material.  As a teenager, my chest was concave and my arms were matchsticks.  If it was possible for a body to have a negative amount of muscle, then I qualified.

Looking back, I can't remember why I joined the freshman basketball team at Jackson Hole High School.  I think maybe I was prompted/encouraged/ forced by my father who thought high school sports would break me out of the shy, socially-awkward rut in which I was traveling.  Perhaps the phrase "meet other boys your own age" was thrown into the conversation--the one-sided conversation--between my father and I.  There might have been some arm-twisting involved, along with a brokered deal ("If you go out for the team, I'll let you stay up an extra hour on school nights so you can read your books").

Whatever the circumstances, I found myself dressing out for the team in the locker room--moist and overheated--as the other boys banged and clamored and jeered.  I was scared to death and knew I was just one wrong word away from having my jockstrap yanked up my ass-crack in a "hilarious" wedgie.  I stayed quiet and tried to melt into the background, while at the same time inhaling as deeply as I could so my chest might flip out to more of a convex shape.

Practice sessions were just shy of Spanish-Inquisition levels of muscle failure.  Because the JV and Varsity players had more privilege and prestige, the freshman team was forced to meet before school, starting at 6:30 a.m.  The older b-ballers enjoyed the luxury of after-school practice when they could show off their moves and muscles for all the pert-breasted girls sitting in the bleachers pretending to do their homework while they ogled Steve and Jim and Bob.  My 1978 Rustler yearbook says "the boys had a really great season."  With a 12-6 record, the Broncs went to the state championships for the first time in seven years.

We lowly freshmen arrived in the early-morning dark to a soundless, cavernous gym still cold from the bitter Wyoming winter winds.  Coach Hoagland, a doughy-faced man who wore V-necked sweaters with the sleeves pushed above his elbows, was there greet us in a voice heavy with coffee and sleep cobwebs.  "Get dressed, boys.  We've got a lot of work to do."  A silver whistle gleamed like jewelry in the V of his sweater.

We ran, we hustled, we took jump shots.  We sprinted to the free-throw line and back, then to the half-court line and back, then all the way to the other side of the court and back.  This was the "fun" part of the practices, competitive races to see who could be the first to come back across the painted lines.  I was always the last one; I didn't even have the luxury of having a fat kid on my team.  All the sports movies I'd ever seen had a token fat kid, so I felt a little robbed.  No one cheered encouragement to me as I puffed and lagged, my lungs screaming, my muscles burning--the solitary runner left on the court.  No one clapped for me because they were all too busy plotting future locker-room wedgies.

I knew I was a disappointment (and a mystery) to Coach Hoagland.  I could see it in the flat dough of his face every time my jump shot bounced off the backboard.  There was no question about it: I would never play a game with his team.  And Coach kept that promise to himself, leaving me to rot on the end of the bench, completely forgotten and ignored.

Until the day came when we were down 22 points in that game against Pinedale and there were only 30 seconds left to be thrown away in sorrow.  Heads hung low on the bench and some bad words were said about the Pinedale players' mothers.  Our ball boy was already gathering up the loose basketballs and stuffing them into a canvas sack.  It was over.  We were defeated.

At my end of the bench, I'd stopped calling out encouragement--"Come on, guys!" and "You can do it, Gene!" and "Let's go, Broncs, let's go!"--and I was already thinking about all the homework I had to do, mentally working out some algebra problems (at which I would also suffer ignominious defeat).  I watched the scoreboard seconds tick down and started gathering my things for the shameful walk to the locker room.

"Abrams, c'mere."  It was Coach Hoagland and he was looking at me.

"Me, Coach?" I squeaked.  I was surprised he even knew my name.

"Yes, you.  Get out there and replace Erbe."  His voice held no enthusiasm or hope; it was completely Last Resort at this point.

As I walked the length of the bench to where Coach Hoagland stood, one of the other boys stuck out a foot and I nearly tripped, but I caught myself in time to stumble up and ask, "What do you want me to do, Coach?"

He winced like I was asking the stupidest question in the world (which I was).  "Go over to the scorekeeper's bench, tell them you're subbing for Erbe, then get out there and play defense."

"Okay, Coach.  I'm ready!" I panted.

I was not ready.

As Kevin Erbe came in off the court, breathing hard from playing nearly the whole game, I didn't even have the chance to ask him who I was supposed to be guarding.  So I took a vague position around a couple of the Pinedale players.  The ref blew his whistle and suddenly we were rushing en masse from one side of the court to the other.  It was the Spanish Inquisition Sprints all over again.

The clock ticked down.  22....21....20....

Then, with 16 seconds left, it happened.

The Pinedale center took a shot and it bounced off the rim.  Like a million-dollar, once-in-a-lifetime sweepstakes win, the ball came through the air straight for my face.  I flinched, reached out my hands, and caught the rebound.

There was a stunned silence from the Bronc bench and then, with one breath, everyone was yelling at me at the same time: "Pass it!"  "Give it to Caresia!"  "Abrams, pass the ball!  Pass the freakin' ball, Abrams!"

I looked down at the orange globe in my hands.  Where did this come from?  Why was I holding the ball?  Oh God oh God oh God!  What'll I do?  What'll I do?

My teammates on the court were whistling and clapping their hands to get my attention.  They wanted me to pass them the ball, but the Pinedale players were moving in on me like wolves suddenly scenting a crippled elk.  My mouth went dry.  I looked down at the ball again.  The shadow of a Pinedale player fell across the pebbled orange surface.  I had to do something.

I broke to the left, and started dribbling down the court toward our basket.  The Pinedale wolves gave chase, nipping at my heels.  I stopped at the free-throw line.  I eyed the basket, then I crouched and leapt, my arms bursting like released springs above my head.  The ball shot off my fingertips into the breath-held air of the gymnasium.

*     *     *

If I'd been Marty Gage or Red Wade, this story might have a different ending.  If I was a character in a school-athletics boys' book, I would have sunk the shot.  I would have been fouled by a Pinedale player in the process.  I would have stepped to the free-throw line and earned us another three points with a couple of nothing-but-nets.  The stands would have come alive with a roar, parents roused from their bored torpor, my classmates putting two fingers to their mouths and whistling, the pretty little brunettes leaping up and bouncing, bouncing, bouncing.  Coach would have put Kevin Erbe back in the game and I would have returned to the bench to a series of blackslaps and cries of "I can't believe you just did that!"  Our freshman team would have rallied and incredibly, miraculously tied the score in the remaining 12 seconds.  They might have made a movie about us.

None of that happened.

The ball left my hands too hard, too fast, too full of bundle-of-nerves pressure.  It descended from a high arc and smacked the metal rim of the basket then, with a mocking ping, shot sharply to the East (bound, perhaps, for Pinedale itself).  Someone from the opposing team grabbed the rebound and took it back down the court and that was that.

My 30-second basketball career was over.  All that remained was the inevitable locker-room wedgie.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Soup and Salad: The Best American Writer You Don't Know, Banging Out Words With Ben Marcus, Kids & Typewriters, 100 Actual Titles of Real 18th-Century Novels, Dumps and Death Threats and Book Tours, The Beauty of Josh Weil's Glass Sea, Zadie Smith's Reading Habit, Caroline Leavitt's Backlist, Matthew Thomas Listens to His Manuscript

On today's menu:

1.  ”Why should I let best-seller lists spoil a happy life?”  That's William Maxwell with some practical advice for writers, as quoted at Head Butler, Jesse Kornbluth's never-disappointing blog about arts and culture.  With something akin to stabbing an icicle into my conscience, Mr. Kornbluth reminds me that I still haven't read Maxwell's acclaimed 135-page novel So Long, See You Tomorrow.  What the hell is wrong with me?  It's not like I don't have the time--I mean, just this past weekend, I devoted several hours to reading 208 pages of a lame-ass Tom Swift adventure story.  Head Butler persuasively argues that I really should read Tomorrow today.  Yes, the book is a mere 135 pages, Kornbluth writes, "but that’s not to suggest you can race through it, because, with William Maxwell, every word matters.  Every word matters because Maxwell had learned from editing how to pare a story to its essentials; there’s no fat in these pages."

2.  Speaking of good writerly advice....if you're a keyboard-wrangler, you must read Ben Marcus’ "Dear Writer" letter at The Story Prize blog.
     Dear Writer:
     I trust this finds you immersed in your work, suffering alternating spells of doubt and excitement, doing your best not to entertain impossible questions like What is fiction for? and Who will read my work? Good. Those questions can churn in the background, along with other larger unanswerables, but right now you need your best head space for getting something done.
     You’ve heard all of the advice already—show don’t tell, write what you know—and after giving it serious due, you’ve laughed in its face. Then you stepped on it. Also good.
     Your blinders are on, your Internet is off, and you have somehow carved out a daily schedule into your very hectic life. Fine. You probably also have some goals. At a thousand words a day you’d finish a draft of your novel in two or three months, an absurdly quick pace. But did you do the math that suggested that at two hundred and fifty words a day you’d finish a draft in a year or so, still ridiculously fast, as far as novels go? And if you lowered your word count expectations, wouldn’t it stand to reason that those words would be more sharply gathered, more coherent, more precise? Would they be truer to your vision of your book, and would they more forcefully invite readers into the world you’re creating? Because you could bang out two hundred and fifty words and then revise them about a hundred times each day, maybe perfect them, rather than charging ahead just to get more words. More words are a fallacy. But you know that. It’s about the right words, and, well, if it so happens that you can rightly order a thousand of them or more a day, well then you should. Still, you have a strong suspicion that this obsession with word count is somehow deeply beside the point. And your suspicion is correct.

3.  Good Lord, this makes me feel old.

4.  Purely for your amusement: The Toast provides us with a list of 100 Actual Titles of Real Eighteenth-Century Novels....

The Adventures Of A Pin, Supposed To Be Related By Himself, Herself, Or Itself.

Atrocities Of A Convent.

He’s Always In The Way.

The Interesting Adventures Of A Hackney Coach, (As Related By The Coachman)

Isn’t It Odd? By Marmaduke Merrywhistle.

The Travels Of Hildebrand Bowman, Esquire, Into Carnovirria, Taupiniera, Olfactaria, And Audinante, In New-Zealand; And In The Powerful Kingdom Of Luxo-Voluptot. Written By Himself; Who Went On Shore In The Adventure’s Large Cutter; And Escaped Being Cut Off, And Devoured, With The Rest Of The Boat’s Crew, By Happening To Be A-Shooting In The Woods; Where He Was Afterwards, Unfortunately Left Behind By The Adventure.

Wine And Walnuts.

5.  For Those About to Book Tour, We Salute You...
       At The Daily Beast, Bill Morris (Motor City Burning) writes about Dumps and Death Threats, Hecklers and Vindication: True Tales from Today’s DIY Book Tour:
      The night before, during my reading at A Cappella Books in Atlanta, the audience included one of my literary heroes, Charles McNair. After the reading, McNair told me that he, too, had mounted a DIY book tour for his second novel, Pickett’s Charge, which was published in 2013, a whopping 19 years after his debut, Land O’ Goshen.
      He regaled me with stories of driving all night with Cheetos littering his car’s floorboards, of sleeping on friends’ sofas, of bouncing to some 50 bookstores, book clubs, universities, libraries, foundations, museums, barrooms, and radio and TV studios. At a bookstore in Nashville, a customer who belonged to a local militia expressed his loud displeasure with McNair’s portrayal of a militia in his first novel.
      When McNair asked mildly if the man wanted to defend his right to bear arms, the offended militiaman brandished a copy of McNair’s book and roared, “I don’t need a gun! I could kill you with this book!”
The literati at Literati Bookstore
And then, flipping over to Salon, we find the road adventures of best buds Josh Weil (The Great Glass Sea) and Mike Harvkey (In the Course of Human Events) as they go in search of America, Simon and Garfunkle-style.  Their account begins at a urinal.
      Our first bathroom break came 300 miles in, still shy of Buffalo (the sign said “An All American City”): one of those manufactured rest stops with an, um, Canadian Tim Horton’s. Entering the cavernous bathroom, one of us asked, “We gonna pee next to each other?” and we both made straight for opposite ends of the urinal line. Ten empty toilets between us.
      One week before September 11 we met as creative writing students in Columbia University’s MFA program. Over the next decade we became best buds and first readers for just about everything we wrote. A few months back, our first novels hit shelves just weeks apart. Now, both of us staring down the double barrel of middle age — Josh expecting his first baby and Mike returning to real life after a year of backpacking around the globe — we decided to push against the busy lives that put a whole country between us, coming together on a classic adventure: We’re crossing the entire country, reading together in bookstores from Kalamazoo to Laramie, hiking America’s mountains, swimming America’s rivers and getting eaten alive by America’s bedbugs in cheap roadside motels.

5a.  Speaking of The Great Glass Sea, if you've reached page 288 and the chapter titled "Heaven's Breast," you have just arrived at what will probably be the most beautiful passages in fiction you will read this year--and, perhaps, for a good chunk of surrounding years.  You will read about a great ice storm pelting the glass of the giant greenhouse (the Oranzheria) which is being built over vast acres of cropland in Russia.  You will about the thousands of workers on top of the "great glass sea" moving "with plastic-edged shovels and rubber tipped scrapers and wide push brooms, thousands of them side by side in lines like the peasant harvesters who, sickles synchronized, once filled fields centuries ago.  But as fast as they cleared it, the sleet filled in their tracks."  You will read about a cold front descending so hard and sharp, "like a nail slammed down by a hammer blow," that flocks of birds freeze in midflight, "so frozen by the time they hit the ground that their legs simply shattered, small black icicles tipped with frozen bulbs of red, skittering down the frost-white streets."  You will read about how all those thousands of workers scramble for safety through escape hatches, descending to the warmth for one man who climbs to the top of the ice-sheeted greenhouse, dons a pair of skates, and begins to glide and from below it looks like "two pen tips inscribing long arcs in the ceiling, curves and curls and loops, as if some giant of the old fables--some Koshchei or Norka--had reached down to scrawl his sign into the man-made sky."  And then maybe you'll half-close the book, bookmarking your spot with a finger, and maybe you'll tip your head back and look at the ceiling or the sky or whatever's overhead, as if to see a pair of winking, glinting skates skywriting a message to you and you alone, and maybe you'll close your eyes, but not before a solitary tear leaks out--a tear of pure delight and sublime happiness--because this, this is such beautiful writing that you must stop reading for a brief moment because if you don't, your head will explode into a hundred bouquets of flowers.
      Or maybe that's just me.

6.  At Oprah's website, Zadie Smith pretty much sums up my malady (which, I suspect, might be your malady, too):
Quite often I am asked to recommend, as a practice, the habit of "reading." I like to do this, though I always feel a little phony. To recommend something implies that its presence in your life is a positive choice, like playing tennis or avoiding gluten. For me, being a reader, in summer or at any other time, isn't a "lifestyle choice." Rather, I made the choice—if that's what it was—so long ago, it has taken on an inescapable character in my mind. I think that if I were a very good swimmer, I would be proud to be so, but being proud of being a reader, in my case, is like being proud you have feet. I don't feel much pride when, on the way to somebody's house for dinner, I stuff several books into my handbag for...well, for what? Can I really not manage a brief subway ride without textual support? Is that normal? Are there other people who, when watching a documentary set in a prison, secretly think, as I have, Wish I had all that time to read?

7.  O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!  Open Road Media/Dzanc Books is reprinting Caroline Leavitt's backlist!  At her blog, Caroline gives some backstory to each of the books, including this tale about her first novel, Meeting Rozzy Halfway:
      I never intended to be a novelist. I was going to be a short story writer, and I could have papered my walls with rejections. Meeting Rozzy Halfway is about two sisters growing up in Boston, tightly bound together until one of them begins to slowly go mad. I wrote the story and sent it off to Redbook magazine’s Young Writers Contest (I was really young), expecting nothing. Months later, I was coming home from another terrible job I was fired from (this one was working at a puzzle factory that made obscene puzzles) when I saw the big brown envelope that I knew meant rejection. I tore it in a million pieces, spreading it like confetti on my front stoop.
      And then I happened to see one word: congratulations. I leaped down and put all the pieces together. it turned out I won First Prize! They wanted the story! And publishers began calling!

8.  I'll leave you with another bit of writing advice from Matthew Thomas (his debut novel We Are Not Ourselves is near the summit of my always-growing To-Be-Read pile, aka Mt. NeveRest).  In this Q&A at Bloom, Matthew says we writers need to cock an ear close to our manuscripts and listen:
      If you pay enough attention to the rhythms of sentences, paragraphs, and books, you eventually develop a version of the “shit detector” Hemingway sees as essential to all good writing. An ability to see what wasn’t working was probably my greatest ally when I was writing without feedback. It gave me faith that I wasn’t going down blind alleys.
      Seeing what there was to fix streamlined the editing process for me. In the middle of writing the book, I could see I had a lot of work ahead of me, and I figured potential readers were probably going to tell me the same things I was telling myself, so I simply cut that step out by deciding to keep the book to myself as long as possible. I wanted to be as hard on the book as I could, for as long as I could, until I handed it over. Teaching made it easier to see the weak areas, because in spending the day analyzing stories with the kids and going over how to improve their essays, I inhabited a mindset not unlike the one an editor would bring to a text.
      And then, after I turned the book over to my early readers, I quickly saw that no matter how honed you think your own perceptions are, no matter how clearly you think you see your work’s flaws and blind spots, there are always problems you’re unaware of....
      Eventually there came a time when I would read the book over and not hear the nagging voice that had told me to change this, fix that, cut this, add to that. I found I was just reading it. That was when I knew it was time to send it out.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Trailer Park Tuesday: Dispatches From the Drownings by B. J. Hollars

Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies.

What you've just seen is a murky video of what I'm guessing is a rose floating--and drowning--in a swimming pool.  I'm also guessing that the visual muddiness in the trailer for Dispatches From the Drownings by B. J. Hollars is intentional.  The subtitle of the new book from the University of New Mexico Press is "Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction" and, though I've not yet seen a copy, I gather that Hollars is all about the blurry, the muddy, the permeability of boundaries.  So, while I may be a bit frustrated by the book trailer, I'm definitely intrigued by the book's contents.  Here's the jacket copy to topple fence-sitters to one side or the other:
Disturbed by stories of drownings in the river behind his home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, writer B. J. Hollars combed the archives of local newspapers only to discover vast discrepancies in articles about the deaths. In homage to Michael Lesy's cult classic, Wisconsin Death Trip, Hollars pairs reports from late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century journalists with fictional versions, creating a hybrid text complete with facts, lies, and a wide range of blurring in between. Charles Van Schaick's macabre, staged photographs from the era appear alongside the dispatches, further complicating the messiness of history and the limits of truth.
Here's a nice bit of praise from Jill Talbot (author of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction):
"In this fascinating blend of fact, fiction, and photography, B. J. Hollars offers a chilling exploration of death by drowning in the waters of Wisconsin. Through historical collaboration and artistic collage, Hollars considers how the facts we're left with after unexpected (and unbearable) loss shape shadows from what will never be known. This book is at once a commentary on the limitations of journalism and the slipperiness of storytelling. Hollars has created a mesmerizing experience for the reader, an experiment that re-creates the way our minds piece together stories from the murky depths of what is there and what is imagined. I read this in one sitting, and I'll read it again."
For more on Hollars' writing and his research into Eau Claire drowning reports, I direct you to this interview with Joe Bonomo.  By the way, this is not Hollars' first Trailer Park Tuesday appearance; long-time Quivering Pen readers may remember the video I posted in early 2013 for his short story collection, Sightings.  Further digging around the internet for information about Dispatches From the Drownings led me to the author's wonderful blog in which he reviews books in the context of his daily life (i.e., reading Eula Biss' On Immunity as his child is born, or Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine while assembling lawn furniture at the start of summer).  It proves Hollars is both an interesting writer and reader.

Monday, August 25, 2014

My First Time: Jennifer Murphy

Nataworry Photography
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 Jennifer Murphy, author of I Love You More, a debut novel about a murdered serial lover which Kirkus calls "a thoughtfully written, original and entertaining exploration of events ignited by love and lies."  Over the course of her writing career, Jennifer has studied writing with Joyce Maynard, Ann Hood, Ursula Hegi, Lynn Freed, Helena Maria Viramontes, Stacey d'Erasmo, Helen Schulman, Karen Shepard, Whitney Otto, and Ron Rash.  She is a regular attendee of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference as well as the Tin House conference.  Jennifer holds a BFA, MA, and MFA in visual art and architecture and is the founder and president of Citi Arts, a public art and urban planning firm.  She is currently pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Washington in Seattle.  Click here to visit her website.

My First Non-Pretend Published Novel

I used to fly a lot for my (real) job, and I don’t know what it is about me, but no matter how hard I tried to ignore the person sitting next to me, he or she wasn’t having it.  It was like cats–you know, whenever you ignore them, they rub all over you?  What’s worse is that I looked forward to those few hours in the air.  It was “virtual” time, time without borders, time without physicality, time when I could fade into my own space and write.

“What are you writing?” he or she would ask, even though I was clearly engrossed.

I’d get immediately irritated.  “I mean, seriously,” I wanted to say.  “Can’t you see that I don’t want to talk to you?  I haven’t made eye contact with you.  I haven’t smiled.  I didn’t even look up when you were loudly and chaotically organizing your person, or when you hemmed and hawed about getting the aisle instead of the window.”  Invariably, being the polite person I was taught to be, I’d try to think up some nice, but curt response that would nip the conversation.  I couldn’t tell him or her that I was writing a novel because though I was, technically I wasn’t.  Can you call it a novel when you don’t have an agent or publishing contract?  Because certainly the next question my row mate would ask is when and where they could buy it, or they’d tell me about the novel they planned to write.  I didn’t want to say I was working on some sort of report for work because then I was risking the, “What do you do?” question.

Now my job wasn’t easy to describe.  I wrote master plans for the creation of public art programs.  Not surprisingly, most people didn’t know what a master plan was, or a public art program for that matter, which just raised a bunch more questions.  So usually I just smiled and said, “A thesis on the mating rituals of the Pygmy Marmoset.”  Generally, that shut them up.

I remember the exact day I told a woman sitting next to me the truth.  There was just something about her, a kind face, warm smile.  Or maybe it had something to do with my long day, the politics of the job I was working on, or the three glasses of wine each of us had had, but I was feeling like I’d met my new BFF.  I was aglow with bonding potential and the prospect of sharing my deepest secrets with her like I once had with my best friend Cindy Bishop, who lived down the street from me.

“I’m writing a novel,” I said.

“You are?” she asked.  “How wonderful.  I love to read.  What’s it about?”

I gave her some long explanation, which included a bunch of plot points and character names, which should have been my first clue to the fact that I wasn’t writing a novel at all.  More like a long, drawn out manifesto.  But, this woman being the sweet, nurturing person she was, took out a pad and paper and wrote down my name and the title of the book.  And I mean, wow.

Sometimes I think about that woman, and I wonder if she’s still looking for that book, which of course she’ll never find, because it never got published, and neither did the next one I wrote.  But the thing is, during those few flight hours, with her help, I’d allowed myself to pretend otherwise.  In that moment I was a soon-to-be published author, and the way that felt, the exhilaration, the pride, the sense of accomplishment was like nothing else.  After that whenever I flew, though I didn’t tell anyone else the truth of what I was writing, I told myself.  I’d pretend I had an agent.  I’d pretend the novel was getting published.  I’d pretend I was an author.  Sometimes I’d pretend so well that I could actually see it.  But then the pilot would announce our landing, and I’d close my notebook or my computer, and really and literally come back to earth.

For many years I only wrote on airplanes, or late at night after my daughter was asleep.  I was a single mom, and balancing my writing life with my work and family lives was challenging.  For many years (the exact number will go unsaid) I wrote and wrote and wrote whenever I could fit it in, and as previously indicated I finished more than one novel.  Sometimes what I finished went right into a drawer or a computer file, but twice I thought what I’d finished was worthy of publication, so I did what every starry-eyed (read green) writer does.  I sent it out.   And I got the standard rejection letters.   Always polite.  Generally more than merely form letters.  Often encouraging.  But by then I’d all but convinced myself that writing was no more than a guilty pleasure.  I’d gotten remarried, so I was clearly writing at the expense of more important obligations.  I needed to be a better friend, a better mom, a better wife.  And who was I fooling?  What made me think that I, out of all the brilliant and talented writers out there, would be published?

Seven years ago, I decided to give up.  Not on writing.  I’ll never give up on writing.  I gave up on pretending.  Instead, I decided to just write without the pressure of worrying about publication.  I decided to explore the craft of writing.  I decided that meant I should attend a writing conference.  I lived in North Carolina and there was this small conference in the Blue Ridge Mountains called Wildacres.  I sent in my writing sample, got in, went, and met the folks that would change my life: actual writing friends, and an actual novelist workshop teacher–Ann Hood.  Ann was the first person other than my good friends who told me I was a good writer.  The next year I went to Tin House and then Bread Loaf.  I got thrown some hard criticism.  I cried.  I thought I sucked.  I received positive feedback.  I thought I didn’t suck.  I was told, “this is an interesting concept (about my synopsis) but it’s not on the page.”  I had no idea what that meant.  I thought I more than sucked.  I met a few agents, all of whom very nicely told me to send them my novel when it was finished, all of whom I saw again the following year, all with whom I periodically checked in.  But, though I guess you could call this networking, that’s all I did.

In those six conference years, which included two Wildacres, two Tin Houses, and five Bread Loafs, I never once sent anyone anything.  Perhaps all those previous rejections and the tough workshop feedback had shattered my confidence, or perhaps it had something to do with being around all that amazing talent–clearly people much more talented than I–or perhaps I’d just not been sending stuff out for so long that it had become my story, but I’d take the cards those agents or editors gave me, stare at their names and their agency or publisher logos, and for whatever reason tell myself I wasn’t ready yet.  I needed to get better, I needed to write something more amazing, and in the meantime I just needed to write.  Write for the sake of writing.

You’ve probably figured out by now that this story has a happy ending, but I must say it came about in the most unusual manner.  My husband and I were having an argument.  I’d cut back my real job work schedule because it was giving me major anxiety attacks and, truthfully, so I could also write more.  AND I’d decided I wanted to get my MFA in Creative Writing.  My diminished workload had greatly challenged our financial situation, and this on top of spending even more money for school, had gotten us to the point that we’d need to consider lifestyle changes.  So maybe it wasn’t exactly an argument as much as it was a Come-to-Jesus.  We said a lot to each other that night–all good and valuable of course–but what I remember the most was him saying something like, “Jen, if you want to write instead of work you might want to consider taking a risk and sending something out,” which ticked me off.  So I went upstairs, opened the novel I’d just finished and pushed Send.

Three days later I had an agent, Mitchell Waters with Curtiss Brown, a few months later I Love You More was purchased by Doubleday, and around a year-and-a-half later, it was a real book.

I’ve heard many stories about how authors got their first novels published, and everyone has a unique story, but there are three things most of us seem to have in common: it took several years to get there, the ride was circuitous, and no matter how many years it took them or how many stops and starts there were along the way, ultimately the ride was worth it.

So my advice to other writers out there is this: Keep writing and keep sending your work out.  It just takes one agent.  It just takes one editor.  I say this while thinking back on that plane ride with that woman whose name I now can’t remember.  I’ll call her Josephine.  She looked kind of like a Josephine.

“Josephine, if you’re out there, just in case you’re still looking for a book by some slightly inebriated woman you met on a flight from San Diego to Charlotte eight years ago, there really is one now.”

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sunday Sentence: The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil

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

Nothing bold was ever built without someone deciding where to lay the first stone.

The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil

Friday, August 22, 2014

Friday Freebie: The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil, Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel, The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith

Congratulations to Michelle Reynolds, winner of last week's Friday Freebie: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton.

This week's book giveaway is a "Sea" trio: The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil, Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel, and The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith.  The Great Glass Sea and The Story of Land and Sea are hardcovers; Sea Creatures is a trade paperback.  Oh, and The Great Glass Sea is a signed copy!

A giant greenhouse, mirrors floating in space, sibling rivalry, and a Russia unlike the one we know--these are some of the elements that make up Josh Weil’s new book, The Great Glass Sea.  Here’s the jacket copy from the publisher: “Twins Yarik and Dima have been inseparable since childhood.  Living on their uncle’s farm after the death of their father, the boys once spent their days helping farmers in fields, their nights spellbound by their uncle’s tales.  Years later, they labor together at the Oranzheria, a sea of glass erected over acres of cropland and lit by space mirrors that ensnare the denizens of Petroplavilsk in perpetual daylight.  Now the twins have only work in common—stalwart Yarik married with children, oppressed by the burden of responsibility; dreamer Dima living alone with his mother, wistfully planning the brothers’ return to their uncle’s land.  But an encounter with the Oranzerhia’s billionaire owner changes their lives forever and soon both men find themselves poster boys for opposing ideologies that threaten to destroy not only the lives of those they love but the love that has bonded them since birth.  A breathtakingly ambitious novel of love, loss, and light, set amid a bold vision of an alternative present-day Russia.”  On a personal note: I'm halfway through The Great Glass Sea right now and I'm here to tell you that it’s simply fabulous (and fabulist, in places).  I think this blurb from Sherri Flick (writing in Ploughshares about Josh's earlier collection of novellas, The New Valley) perfectly sums up how I feel about this novel: “[Weil’s] language is exquisite, his sentences glorious.  In fact, [he] writes the kinds of sentences you want to go sniff and then slosh around in your mouth for a while before heading into the next paragraph.  The kind that make you set the book down and think, the kind that can break your heart with their truthful simplicity.”

In Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel (author of Stiltsville), a mother must make the unthinkable choice between her husband and her son.  When Georgia Quillian returns to her hometown of Miami, her toddler and husband in tow, she is hoping for a fresh start.  They have left Illinois trailing scandal and disappointment in their wake, fallout from her husband's severe sleep disorder.  For months, their three-year-old son has refused to speak a word.  On a whim, Georgia takes a job as an errand runner for a reclusive artist and is surprised at how her life changes dramatically.  But soon the family's challenges return, more complicated than before.  Late that summer, as a hurricane bears down on South Florida, Georgia must face the fact that her decisions have put her only child in grave danger.  Sea Creatures is a mesmerizing exploration of the high stakes of marriage and parenthood.  Writing in Wisconsin State Journal, Jeanna Kolker had this to say about the novel: “A sophisticated story that holds the reader rapt….[Daniel] sets up each scene in Sea Creatures with masterful strokes….She builds momentum from the opening chapter, leading up to the crescendo….Daniel drives into tumultuous waters and emerges with a mesmerizing, beautiful novel.”

Set in a small coastal town in North Carolina during the waning years of the American Revolution, The Story of Land and Sea follows three generations of family--fathers and daughters, mother and son, master and slave--characters who yearn for redemption amid a heady brew of war, kidnapping, slavery, and love.  Drawn to the ocean, ten-year-old Tabitha wanders the marshes of her small coastal village and listens to her father's stories about his pirate voyages and the mother she never knew.  Since the loss of his wife, Helen, John has remained land-bound for their daughter, but when Tab contracts yellow fever, he turns to the sea once more.  Desperate to save his daughter, he takes her aboard a sloop bound for Bermuda, hoping the salt air will heal her.  Years before, Helen herself was raised by a widowed father.  Asa, the devout owner of a small plantation, gives his daughter a young slave named Moll for her tenth birthday.  Left largely on their own, Helen and Moll develop a close but uneasy companionship.  Helen gradually takes over the running of the plantation as the girls grow up, but when she meets John, the pirate turned Continental soldier, she flouts convention and her father's wishes by falling in love.  Moll, meanwhile, is forced into marriage with a stranger.  Her only solace is her son, Davy, whom she will protect with a passion that defies the bounds of slavery.  You can read more about Smith's novel (including a brief excerpt) at the June edition of Front Porch Books right here at The Quivering Pen.

If you’d like a chance at winning all three 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 Aug. 28, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Aug. 29.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your 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.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Soup and Salad: Special "I've Got You Covered" Edition

On today's menu....I thought I'd depart from the usual potpourri of book-world news and bring you a special edition devoted to cover designs.  Because everyone likes a menu with lots of pictures, right?

1.  The consistently-wonderful Causal Optimist blog has rounded up some recent book cover designs from the U.S. and other countries which feature maps (and a couple of floor plans).  My favorites from the collection include The Coat Route by Meg Lukens Noonan (designed by Allison Colpoys), The Norfolk Mystery by Ian Sansom (designed by Jo Walker), and The Snow Tourist: A Search for the World's Purest, Deepest Snowfall by Charlie English (cover art by Mike Topping).  The latter is a 2009 book I'd never heard of, but would probably pick up regardless of the cover design because, frankly, I love snow.

2.  Earlier this month, The Casual Optimist rounded up "Book Covers of Note" for August.  My raves and faves included H is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald (cover art by Christopher Wormell) and A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall by Will Chancellor (design by Richard Ljoenes).

3.  At The Huffington Post, designer Charlotte Strick describes the many rejected cover designs for Lydia Davis' new collection of short stories Can't and Won't.  Early in the process, Strick fixated on the longest story, "The Cows."  At first, she and illustrator Ariana Nehmad tried several different bovine-heavy designs, including these two (which I rather like, actually):

"These early sketches look so fussy to me now," she writes, "though Ariana’s painting style is simple and sophisticated and the color would be just as limited in the final jacket design.  That 'final' design was actually one of my very first ideas, scribbled in a notepad, but instead of working it out I’d been seduced by Davis’s bovine neighbors and lost my way.  Often you need to build a jacket design till it’s dense with ideas–then find the time, will and clarity to strip, strip, strip away.  Lydia’s writing is that stripped down too, and to get a design right for her work I need to remind myself of this."  In the end, nothing but words were left on the cover:

4.  At Amazon's Omnivoracious blog, designer Chip Kidd talks about how he was influenced by these sentences from Haruki Murakami's new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: “You know, in a sense we were the perfect combination, the five of us.  Like five fingers.”  And so Kidd came up with this colorful design using "finger windows" cut into the jacket.  I've got Colorless Tsukuru on order at Books and Books here in Butte and hope to have it, ahem, in hand tomorrow.

5.  When I posted Penguin's cover for a re-issue of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on my Facebook page, the response was pretty strong: howls of protest and vomiting in the aisles.  My social media followers weren't the only ones with a violent reaction ("You're destroying my childhood!").

I was under the mistaken impression that this apparent depiction of Violet Beauregarde would be one of a series of designs highlighting different characters from the book (which is, admittedly, darker and creepier than our golden-nostalgia memories want us to believe).  Knowing this is the only cover for the re-issue, however, I too am vomiting and howling.  The wrong-headed cover led The Guardian to post its candidates for "Worst Book Covers Ever."  Do you agree with their lineup of five design criminals?

6.  I leave you with Flavorwire's "20 YA Book Covers That Are Actually Gorgeous."  I'm in lurve with The Floating Islands by Rachel Neumire (cover art by Fernando Juarez), The FitzOsbornes at War by Michelle Cooper, Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma (cover photograph by Elena Kalis; art direction & design by Linda McCarthy), Hourglass by Myra McEntire and Jackaby by William Ritter (design by jdrift designs).