Sunday, April 1, 2018

Quivering Pen: The Resurrection

Just like General MacArthur, a bad penny, and that ugly sweater you got from your Aunt Julie last Christmas, I have returned.

For a variety of reasons too complicated and personal to go into here, I let this blog lapse into a four-month silence. While I had plenty to occupy my time and engage my attention this past winter, I always felt the gentle yet insistent tug of The Quivering Pen: Come back to me. Put blood in my veins once again.

And so here I am. Here we are. For now, at least. I don’t know how rigorous or frequent my writing here at the blog will be going forward from this day (because, after all, I am starting work on a new book and I have my priorities in order), but I’ll try not to let so much time pass between posts again. I’ll soon be bringing back all the old regulars: My First Time, Friday Freebie, and Sunday Sentence, along with the occasional guest post and, if I can make the time for it, my own stream-of-consciousness musings about reading, writing and publishing.

(By the way, even though I’m posting this on the first day of April, this is no joke. The Quivering Pen is, indeed, back.)

One reason—which may seem small to you, but felt huge to me—why the blog jumped the tracks back in January was the Best of 2017 posts I’d planned to write, highlighting my favorite books and literary moments of the past year. I’d made notes all year long, but had never gotten around to actually stringing all those words into something coherent and interesting. I always meant to get it done, but I never carved out enough hours during the day to finish those blog posts. Time passed. More time passed. Too much time passed. And then it seemed silly to be posting a “Best of” feature halfway into the next year. And so The Quivering Pen drifted off into silence.

That in itself is silly, of course. Why should the calendar—and the fact that everyone else had posted their lists back in November and December—keep me from publicly expressing my love for certain books published in 2017? Who wrote the rule that no best-books lists should be posted after January? Probably the same jerk who once said it was gauche to wear white after Labor Day.

And so, without further ado and dithering (and with minimal commentary because I’m still fighting those irrational feelings of “don’t bother posting this if it isn’t a long and comprehensive review”), here are my various picks for the cream of 2017’s literary crop, starting with


by Dani Shapiro
This is my new gold standard for how memoirs should be written: tight, poetic, and deeply-felt. Shapiro charts the course of her 18-year marriage to “M.” in the space of 161 beautiful pages. Along the way, she covers a wide swath of territory, including thoughtful meditations on how external forces like luck (good and bad), family history, and those damned grains of sand in the hourglass can bend, but not always break, a relationship. On the surface, Hourglass may look like a small book, but open it up and it becomes a candle in a dark room whose light reaches all corners of the heart.

Lincoln in the Bardo
by George Saunders
In my personal reading history, Saunders’ unique novel about Abraham Lincoln’s grief over the loss of his son is as rare as an albino Tyrannosaurus Rex: I loved this book so much that I read it twice, once on audiobook and then in print. That never happens, mainly due to the constant flood of new books coming into my home. But Lincoln in the Bardo is so full of nuance that a second time through was just as rewarding. It is easily one of my favorites of the year, in any format.

Letters to a Young Writer
by Colum McCann
I can think of no better compliment for McCann’s book of advice to writers (and all creative artists) than to say the ink in my new highlighter pen ran dry halfway through reading. Open my copy and all you’ll see is canary-yellow lines shading brilliant bits of wisdom.

Imagine Wanting Only This
by Kristen Radtke
Can a book about urban decay move me to tears? If we’re talking about Radtke’s graphic memoir about ruined places like deserted cities in the American Midwest, an Icelandic town buried in volcanic ash, and islands in the Philippines, then the answer is a most emphatic “Yes!” Like the equally-brilliant Building Stories by Chris Ware and Here by Richard McGuire, Imagine Wanting Only This made me think long and hard about what we love, what we leave behind, and what ultimately crumbles back to dust and rust.

We Could’ve Been Happy Here
by Keith Lesmeister
This is a criminally-overlooked collection of short stories about contemporary Midwesterners that had me running out the door and grabbing everyone by the shoulders and shouting, “You have GOT to read this!”—on social media, rather than in real life, of course, because I am at heart a shy person. Consider your shoulders shaken, dear blog reader. You really must give this collection a try, not only because it was issued by a small press that, despite all good efforts, wasn’t large enough to make this book ping your literary radar, but also because Lesmeister writes beautiful lines like “The autumn sun felt like a quilt” and “I felt like a rusty nail getting hammered into the knot of a two-by-twelve, getting all bent up, going nowhere.”

Theft by Finding: Diaries: 1977-2002
by David Sedaris
I knew this diary would be funny. What I didn’t expect was how moving and thought-provoking it would be. And yes, the section previously covered in The Santaland Diaries is just as brilliant the second time around.

See What I Have Done
by Sarah Schmidt
The opening pages of Schmidt’s debut novel about Lizzie Borden are drenched in blood, but don’t let that deter you from this breath-taking historical thriller, a stunning book that makes us reconsider that 1892 crime in a new light. Schmidt tells the tale via a chorus of voices, each offering a slightly different perspective on what happened in that house, leading us to think long and hard about Lizzie’s so-called “forty whacks” with the axe. Did she or didn’t she do it? When the writing is this good, who cares?

Draw Your Weapons
by Sarah Sentilles
After my reading from Brave Deeds at Powell’s last summer, bookseller Kevin Sampsell came up to me and said, “Have you read this?” I took one look at the cover with its paintbrush morphing into bullets and said the same thing to the book that I did to my wife when we met thirty-four years ago: “Where have you been all my life?” I don’t say this lightly: Draw Your Weapons will completely change your outlook on art, war, and religion. Sentilles does an incredible job of blending the stories of two men: Howard, a conscientious objector during World War II, and Miles, a former prison guard at Abu Ghraib. Reading this felt like putting on a pair of prescription glasses after squinting at the blurry world my whole life. Thanks again for the recommendation, Kevin!

The Girl of the Lake
by Bill Roorbach
Let me just put this out there: I love Bill Roorbach, I love his sentences, and I really love this book of short stories. All nine stories in the collection are terrific, but my favorites are “The Fall” and “Harbinger Hall.” Dive in, readers!

The Shape of Ideas
by Grant Snider
I have loved Snider’s Incidental Comics series for years and so I greeted the news that the best of them would be collected into a hardbound book by tooting a horn, releasing a cloud of butterflies, and taking my menagerie of pet alligator, turtle, cheetah, and camel for a parade down Main Street. Oh wait, that was Snider’s alter ego doing those things in these pages. Still, that’s the kind of joy I always feel when encountering Snider’s offbeat imagination, so perfectly inked in panels that teem with inspiration. If I were the Secretary of Education, I would make Congress pass a law that said every graduating high school student should get a copy of The Shape of Ideas along with their diploma.


Phoebe never hated her husband more than when she visited him in prison.
       The Widow of Wall Street by Randy Susan Meyers

Despite protests from the Kirkwood Neighbors’ Organization and bad press in the local paper, they bulldozed the house where I lost my virginity.
       Flight Path by Hannah Palmer

I left Indiana and drove toward happiness.
       Should I Still Wish by John W. Evans

Killing, Balint discovered, was the easy part. Not killing required discipline and restraint.
       The Mask of Sanity by Jacob M. Appel

My mother had two placentas and I was living off both of them.
       Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash

After my mom hangs herself, I become Nancy Drew.
       The Art of Misdiagnosis by Gayle Brandeis

In a coffee shop on Dead Elm Street, Norma arranges chicken bones on her plate, making an arrow that points to her stomach, where the chicken now resides.
       The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt

Francis never expected the silverware would be his undoing.
       The World of Tomorrow by Brendan Mathews

The index finger is in my pocket feeling like a soft twig, or a bent piece of stale licorice in my warm palm.
       What’s Wrong With You Is What’s Wrong With Me by Christian Winn


The Age of Perpetual Light by Josh Weil, design by Nick Misani

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, design by Rachel Willey

Exes by Max Winter, design by Strick&Williams

To Die in Spring by Ralf Rothmann, design by Oliver Munday

Heating & Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly, design by Alex Merto

The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo, design by Alison Forner

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler, design by Allison Saltzman

The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, design by Alex Merto

Isadora by Amelia Gray, design by Na Kim

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips, design by Jason Ramirez

Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash, design by Karl Engebretson, illustration by George Boorujy

Release by Patrick Ness, design by Erin Fitzsimmons

I’m Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking by Leyna Krow, design by Zach Dodson

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt, design by “committee”


  1. Good to see you back, David. Who cares if those books are last year's? You've made me want to read them.

  2. I second those sentiments, good to have you back.

  3. Welcome back, Mr. Abrams. And I'm eagerly awaiting your next novel. . . .
    Chris in Osaka

  4. I missed reading your blog and am glad you are back. But I am happier to know you are working on your next book! Best wishes!

    1. Thanks, Nancy. Progress on the new book is slow...but at least it's steady. :)

  5. Glad you're back & thanks for the list. Books aren't like egg salad -- they don't go bad -- so I'm looking forward to adding many of these to my never-ending book buffet ;)

    1. I hate these things I have to sign up on to leave a comment -- I always do it wrong or don't get it done at all... I don't go for anonymous comments in any forum; the comment above, & this one is by me -- Sara Walsh

    2. Sara,
      Good to hear from you, and glad you're going to add some of these books to your literary buffet feast.
      And sorry about the sign-up requirements. That's totally Blogger's fault, and not something I set up as a requirement. I'm glad you added the second comment, though, so I'd know it was you.
      Hope all is good with you, my friend.

    3. I figured it wasn't you torturing the technically challenged with such requirements;) Other than such frustrations, all's well in our camp. Hope it is in yours as well.

  6. I love that your "best of" list came later in the year. There are A LOT of those "best of" book lists to read though at the close of a year! I'm reading LINCOLN IN THE BARDO now and have SEE WHAT I HAVE DONE up on deck! Love your fave cover picks, too!

  7. Great to read you again. Thanks for sharing the recommendations, book covers, and tasty tidbits.