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"Juggernaut" by Rick Bass starts off:
When I was seventeen, Kirby and I had a teacher who was crazy. This happened in the last year before Houston got big and unlivable.
Big Ed, we caled him: Eddie Odom. Mr. Odom. He taught geometry as an afterthought; his stories were what he got excited about. Class began at nine o'clock. By 9:20, he would be winded, tired of sines and cosines, and he would turn to the clock in a way that almost arounsed sympathy--so tired!--ten minutes before going into his stories. The thrill that Kirby and I felt when he lurched into these stories following a halfhearted geometry lecture--there would be no warning whatsoever, we would suddenly be listening to something as fantastically wild and free as geometry was boring, and we wouldn't have done anything to earn it, we'd find ourselves just pulled into it, in the middle of it, and enjoying.
And that's exactly where Bass has his reader at this point--in the middle of it and enjoying. And he continues doing that, while seemingly jumping from story to story across Houston with Kirby and the narrator (and Big Ed again, later on). And it goes on and on until ending with:
Anything is possible.
Which also fits well with Bass' writing in this story--anything does seem possible in his hands. Had I read this back in '87, I definitely would have looked for more writing by Rick Bass
At first I thought the title of Pamela Schirmeister's "Greving" was a typo (which seemed more than odd for this particular journal), but realized shortly into it that it was correct and that greves were a type of African birds the main characters were watching.
Okay, my stupidity out of the way, I kept noticing the introductory sentence to each paragraph as I read the story:
"For six days and nights now ithas been raining, a small August rain, bouncing on the roof of the tent."
"Perhaps Brand is vanishing, but at least there is very little to disturb us here."
"I do not think I would mind the rains were it not for the greves, which are very difficult to look for in the rain."
"Perhaps that makes little difference, either, since Brand speaks hardly at all these days and often takes to the tent."
"It must be admitted that there was a time when we thought of nothing but the greves."
"On the way, the rain let up quite suddenly, with a big wind coming to blow us around, and then the sky deepened, as if to leave us room."
These sentences almost tell the story on their own, but there is also something, well, "off" seems to be too strong a word, but to me, Schirmeister has a way with words all her own. It isn't passive, but it rarely takes on the subject--verb structure. Not in a way that distracts, but more in a way that kept my interest.
A guest post!
Flashes of Insight in a
Short Story: Wendell Berry and Shann Ray
In his 1963 essay “The Lonely Voice” Frank
O’Connor argues that the short story is closer to its nimble older sister lyric
poetry than to its hefty brother the novel. In my teaching I’ve settled on a
shorthand distinction between the two prose genres that claims for the short
story a flash of insight, a revelation, and for the novel extended development,
exploration of facets.
opening short story in Wendell Berry’s 2012 collection A Place in Time furnishes a perfect example of the kind of flash of
insight by which many stories earn the lyric moment that makes the events
worthwhile. The story is set in Berry’s own Yoknapatawpha, Port William,
Kentucky during the later days of the Civil War. Occupying Port William are bands
of soldiers from both armies, joined by a third category: dangerous makeshift
guerrilla outfits using the war as an excuse to settle scores completely
unrelated to the war. The town shuts itself to all of these groups “like a
terrapin closing its shell” because the
intruders are likely to “requisition” horses, take already scarce food and
weapons, prosecute suspected enemies on hazy grounds, and recruit young men.
story brings Rebecca Dawe, 16, into focus as someone who has left her river
bottom home to help her aunt in town with that aunt’s children. Already scarred
by the war—her brother was shot by a neighbor as he left to join the
Confederate Army—she fears and so hates all of the intruding men in the area.
Her uncle Thomas, formerly the town’s blacksmith, was arrested by Union troops
and placed in a federal prison in Louisville for helping the wrong person shoe
get the lyric moment that makes it a story, the necessary flash of insight,
near the end when Rebecca watches a line of riders pass by out a window. These
riders are described as follows: “They were like biting dogs. Emboldened by the
fear they had caused, they longed for pursuit, but they had found as yet nobody
to pursue. The last of the riders sees Rebecca in the window, makes eye contact
with her, stops his horse, and stays for a time looking up at her. Rebecca
faces him, unflinching. Master that he
is, Berry lets this moment of tension extend for over half a page before the
young man, who under different circumstances might have been described as
handsome, says, “Get your ugly face out of the window.” In response, even
though she is “a young woman of principled modesty” immediately after the
encounter Rebecca allows herself a glance in the mirror and thinks to herself,
“articulating the words deliberately as if saying them aloud: ‘That is not an
this story seems a good one to furnish an illustration of how flashes of
insight into characters work in stories because here we have a literal glance
into a mirror demonstrating for us the ways in which this moment illuminates
Rebecca Dawe’s character. It shows us how she refuses to let a passing invader,
this interloper, have any power in incorrectly defining her. Even though the
story reminds us that a literal shooting in this tense moment is entirely
possible, instead of a literal shot the man’s volley carried the potential of
making a dangerous, insidious incursion into Rebecca’s identity. Her response
after glimpsing herself in the mirror, reveals that her identity is too strong,
too well fortified against the invaders, to allow the moment any traumatic
influence. Her character is fortified to withstand the moment; her courageous
gaze back at the man has won the day, somehow. The riders words were more about
himself than her; Rebecca’s unflinching gaze became a mirror for him. The story
resonates with Berry’s steadfast message about being true to one’s place, one’s
own local, inherent beauty in the face of rootless, marauding forces that would
unmoor you, convince you otherwise.
can find parallels between flashes of revelation like this one in short stories,
and the small turns by which poems earn their poemhood. Some readers of William
Carlos Williams’ poem “This is Just to Say” have argued that the poem earns its
status as poem in the small turn at the final lines from one sensual register
to another— from taste to feeling, “so sweet” to “so cold.”
you can locate them in a story, these revelations are like the ruby in the
bucket of dimes. They glimmer with the presence of more of the valuable stuff
of insight than the other lines. They are the molten lava core in the game of
hot and cold the reader plays in a story, though they depend upon every other
moment in the story to supply them with their heat.
some cases short stories bring their readers to a well-wrought figure, a
paragraph or series of lines that at first seems strange and unconnected to
what has come before but which points to where the heart of the story lies. The
story proceeds into the new paragraph faithful that readers will use their
natural and honed instincts for narrative to help them bridge the gap. The
opening story to Shann Ray’s 2012 collection American
Masculine, “This is How We Fall” ends with just such a powerful figure.
We’ve been introduced to a couple, Benjamin Killsnight and Sadie, who we see in
love (for his part, at any rate) and in the throes of their drinking together. When
she is unfaithful to him, he throws the other man into the snow and beats him
up. He sobers up and asks her to do the same. Instead, she leaves him and
experiences several years of a rambling, panhandling life, moving from place to
place and man to man. She comes back into Benjamin’s life just before the end
of the story. They have a brief scene together, in which we see her wish to
come back to him, his initial reluctance in the face of his abiding feeling for
her. The scene ends with the suggestion
that they will try to be together again. Then without making any explicit
connections but trusting that readers will make their own, the story moves on to
end with the following lines, a memory located in Ben’s interior of a time he
witnessed two golden eagles locking talons:
recognized the birds and set the glasses on them and saw distinctly their
upward arc far above the ridgeline. He followed them as they reached an
impossibly high apex where they turned and drew near each other and with a
quick strike locked talons and fell. The mystery, he thought, simple as that,
the bright majesty of all things. They gripped one another, and whirled
downward, cumbersome and powerful and elegant. He followed them all the way
down, and at last the ground came near and they broke and seemed suddenly to
open themselves and catch the wind again and lift: Their wings cleaved the air
as they climbed steadily until at last they opened wide and caught the warm
thermals that sent them with great speed arcing above the mountain. There they
dipped for a moment, then rose again on vigorous wingbeats all the way up to
the top of the sky where they met one another and held each other fiercely and
started all over, falling and falling.”
any judgment, but with some subtle suggestions about the story’s aims, the
paragraph builds its figure and asks the reader to make connections. The
effectiveness of this passage lies in its ambiguity in relation to the rest of
the story, the mystery of this image from the natural world that is first of
all only itself in all of its dramatic glory—two raptors with locked talons soaring
then falling. But the passage also begs for interpretation in relation to the
preceding story. How are we to make sense of the extended figure considered
beside the characters we’ve left on the brink of deciding to try to be together
again despite how badly things went the first time? The ambiguity renews the
old, tired figure of “falling in love” by supplying it with a fresh, specific,
living and breathing image appropriate to the story’s setting, like most of the
others in this collection, in Montana. It reminds us of the fierce talons of Eros,
and makes us wonder whether this time Benjamin and Sadie may find a way to make
it work, or whether it will once again be a life-ruining mistake. The eagles
soar when they are alone. Does this mean that our two characters would be
better off alone and that on some level Benjamin knows this? The eagles’
falling is dangerous and cumbersome, but it’s also majestic and gives meaning
to the soaring. Does this mean it’s better to risk the falling? How are we
meant to map the characters’ trajectory alongside Benjamin’s free floating
memory of the birds? We’ve been thrown
into a consideration of the possibilities for meaning and in the bargain
brought into a consideration of nothing less than the nature of love, its risks
and demands, its burning necessity, its burdens and majesty.
the power in literary short stories seems to reside in their ability to carefully
orchestrate a flash of insight, their ability to bring us, suddenly, through
some move—a gesture, an image, a figure, a line of dialogue, a thought-- and
sometimes following what had seemed a set of unpromising narrative details,
close to a lyric moment, into zones redolent with mystery, rich fields of
possible meaning in which our minds can engage in the serious kind of play that
might change us or make us change our lives.
Scott Elliott's latest novel, Temple Grove, came out earlier this month. You can read about it here.
A guest post!
As our celebration of the short story nears its end, don’t
we think of the beginning? Don’t we look
back over this artform, as if over a playroom littered with miniature monsters
and beauties? Yes, consider the commodity, this “strange object covered with
fur which breaks your heart,” as one of Donald Barthelme’s characters put it.
Or there’s Poe’s definition, less carnivalesque: a piece that
can be “read at one sitting.” He wrote that in 1846, which provides as good a
DOB as any for the short story as we know it. The literary product that fills
our anthologies found its genesis in the cutting-edge media of the early 19th
Century, namely, newspapers and magazines. In those years print technology
became easy enough, and a leisured readership widespread enough, to support serial
publication that demanded all sorts of content — including the nightmares of a port-swilling
Baltimore depressive, poor Edgar, forever scuffling after cash.
“The Cask of Amontillado,” in other words, was something
besides a luscious, lingering taste of amorality. For Poe, it was a paycheck. Consider
the commodity, I’m saying. Guy de Maupassant left a long shelf of stories,
studded with perfect specimens, but each one was paycheck (and de Maupassant, like
Poe, could never hold a straight job). This bread-and-butter purpose held true
for a century and a half; writers sought to titillate as many bourgeois as
possible, in the process perhaps illuminating their lives as well. Collette’s
short stories made her the Madonna of her time. Fitzgerald didn’t live off Gatsby, which flatlined quick, but off
stories like “The Camel’s Back.” And if a John O’Hara should discover he had a
knack for what the market wanted, well, why fight it? The New Yorker kept O’Hara in whiskey and cigars well into the 1970s.
But the media have moved on, as has the invisible hand of
the market. The cash cow has lost its ecosystem. Nevertheless —miracle! — short fiction flourishes now more than ever.
Thousand of pieces see print every year, in hundreds of venues.
It’s a rare pub that’ll pay for so much as a coffee date, but
is that necessarily bad for the form? Couldn’t we, instead, be supplying fresh
nutrients to the human storytelling instinct, via the proliferation of creative
writing programs and DIY technology? If the product “short story,” developed
for earlier economic conditions, has adapted so handily to new ones, shouldn’t
that spur a new appreciation?
The difference I notice is that,
nowadays, good readers and writers recognize an alternative guiding principle,
for the short story. Aficionados know that, even as O’Hara was hacking away
efficiently (and, give him credit, turning out the occasional gem), Jorge Luis
Borges handled the form in a different way altogether. Reaching back to the
pre-Socratics, or to the Thousand Nights
and a Night, Borges sought to forge a fresh sense of wonder in just a few
pages. So too, even as Hemingway poeticized the pain of his tough guys, Kafka
turned them to beasts and bugs, giving fresh bite to parables out of the
Testaments. His nightmares proved worse than Poe’s, in that they came true for
the whole Judenkultur of Europe.
The short story is dead, I’m
saying, long live the short story. In such impossibility, the form has found
its new home. Storytellers these days acknowledge their more terrifying and
honorable former function, as seekers of meaning around the tribal fire — which
isn’t to say there’s no place any more for a terrific realist like (to choose a
Dzanc cohort) Laura Van den Berg. Rather, I’m arguing that now a writer like
Van den Berg works with an awareness that her short fiction may have larger
stakes than sketching a contemporary heartache. She too now knows the approaches
from out of left field, and can try on an alternative sensibility. The best
short-story writers these days, like Brian Evenson, treat the empirical
universe and its hard knocks as something that can be tuned according to the
demands of the fiction. In one piece, we’re in dumb old Mormon Utah, in
another, in the howling wilderness of the prophets.
My hope would be these few weeks on
Emerging Writers, hunkered down with the form, have helped inform its fresh
array of choices, for both readers and writers. Myself, I’m happy for this
opportunity to stroke the strange object’s fur, while watching for whatever
strange move it might make next.
A guest post!
Brian Evenson’s “Windeye” By Richard Thomas
Brian Evenson may be the king of genre bending, slipstream
fiction. For years now he has taken the best of genre fiction—the tension and
terror or horror, the illusion and mystery of noir—and paired it with the
elevated language and insightful focus of literary fiction, to write some of
the most compelling stories out there. With his story “Windeye” (collected in Windeye, and originally published in Pen America) he creates one of the most
unsettling, disorienting, and touching stories I’ve read in a long time.
Evenson does several things really well in this story—in his
fiction in general. The first is to set the stage, to pencil in an outline of
the setting, so we can place ourselves “en media res,” Latin for “into the
middle of things.” From the first words we get a sense of the house, the land,
“They lived, when he was growing up, in a simple house, an
old bungalow with a converted attic and sides covered in cedar shake. In the
back, where an oak thrust its branches over the roof, the shake was light
brown, almost honey. In the front, where the sun struck it full, it had
weathered to a pale gray, like a dirty bone. There, the shingles were brittle,
thinned by sun and rain, and if you were careful you could slip your fingers up
behind some of them. Or at least his sister could. He was older and his fingers
were thicker, so he could not.”
Not only does he hint at what’s to come, with the inclusion
of the words “dirty bone” implying death or disease, but also with the idea of
thin, brittle shingles, hinting at a vulnerability, and then immediately
assigning that to the protagonist’s little sister.
Another aspect of his stories that adds to impact is his air
of authenticity. When he talks about the “windeye” he brings up an old story,
told to the boy by his grandmother, about windows, and how sometimes a window
can be a “windeye.” These games they play as children, the boy and the girl,
they often have a sinister edge to them. They played a game with the shingles,
his sister working her fingers under them, watching to see if they would crack:
“His sister would turn around and smile, her hand gone to
knuckles, and say, ‘I feel something. What am I feeling?’ And then he would ask
questions. Is it smooth? he might
ask. Does it feel rough? Scaly? Is it
cold-blooded or warm-blooded? Does it feel red? Does it feel like its claws are
in or out? Can you feel its eye move? He would keep on, watching the
expression on her face change as she tried to make words into a living,
breathing thing, until it started to feel too real for her and, half giggling,
half screaming, she whipped her hand free.”
Later, when they encounter a window that can only be seen
from the outside, and not from the inside of their house, “how the wind looked
into the house…not a window at all,” we are given a hint of what is to come. But
in reality, we have no idea what is about to happen, not all of it, not the
scope an—the lengths that Evenson will go to in order to tell the full story.
“The problem is the number of windows. There’s one more window on the outside
than on the inside.” And indeed, that is part of the problem.
The final trait of an Evenson story that really resonates is
his ability to take the story in a direction that is unexpected, and to keep
going with it. He not only takes a step into the darkness, but goes deeper and
farther than you knew the story could go. In this case, it is the “windeye” of
course, the sister the one that is egged on, pushed to look closer, to touch
it. When she dissolves into smoke, are we really surprised? Not entirely. But
it is when the boy goes to his mother, terrified by what he has seen,
explaining what has happened as best he can, talking too fast, trembling and
upset, that we get the full weight of what has happened. It is the response of
the mother that twists your gut in knots, that makes you break out in a sheen
of sweat, when she says, “You don’t have a sister. You never had one. Stop
pretending. What’s this really about?”
Perhaps it is because I grew up watching The Twilight Zone, or reading the “real”
Grimm Fairy Tales—with all of their baby snatching, devils and wolves, girls
without hands—that I always expect the worst, that I even lean into the
stories, waiting for that moment, that epiphany and engulfing dreadful
knowledge. Maybe I seek out cautionary tales so that I can avoid these horrors
in the real world—urban legends, myths and folklore, worst-case scenarios come
true. But whatever draws me to the darkness, Brian Evenson is one of the master
storytellers, an author who has the lyricism, intellect, and courage to tell
unique stories that hold nothing back, that take chances, and wander off into
forests that might better be left unexplored.
I’m going to go turn a few lights on now, check the locks on
all the doors, maybe even cross myself. But I know one thing I won’t be doing—and
that's counting the windows on the outside of my house.
Richard Thomas writes and writes and writes (my bio of him, not his), and oten about other writers. He's published a few books that are readily available and blogs here.
A guest post!
Virginia Pye, author, debut novel, River of Dust, Indie Next Pick for May,
In college, Black Tickets, with its hard-edged prose
about hard-edged people, hit me hard. I’d read Hemingway’s short stories in
high school. Fitzgerald and Chekov short stories, too. And Isaac Babble, and
Isaac Bashevis Singer, and that one about the yellow wallpaper that everyone had
to read. Unlike the novel, short stories seemed the place to start for a young
aspiring writer. They offered miniature worlds that most often tied up nicely
at the end. But when I tried to write them, mine tended to sprawl. My pages became
dense and overwritten as I said too much. Then I read Jayne Anne Phillips’s Black Tickets and saw that when you use
restraint you create meaning in a more powerful way. You could keep it minimal
and leave your reader aching for more.
sentences were as tough and clean as Carver’s, but she wrote about girls and
young women, people like me at my age. Her short story, Home, felt like one I’d been trying to write for years. It lacked sentimentality
and yet was full of nostalgia for childhood. It showed a struggle with growing
up and a recognizable tension between mother and daughter. She said so much by saying
so little. The short, declarative sentences left room for the reader to fill in
the blanks with emotion. As I read and reread them, their meanings only became
found any other writers who were so direct and seemed to speak to and for me so
well. In my second year of college, I carried Black Tickets with me everywhere. When I sat down to write a short
story for my first-ever writing class, I had it splayed open on my desk, as if
I could will her words—her way of thinking--over to my pages.
style, Carver’s style, Beattie’s style stuck with me for years.
realize you’re being influenced by your time until you finally get some
perspective and look back. I started writing in the 80s and my short stories
tend to be minimal and aspire to understatement. That’s harder to do in a
novel, because the urge to expand is so strong. As I’ve experimented with
length and styles of writing, I still carry Jayne Anne Phillips in my head as
an example of how to show the complexities of the human
heart while using a few crisp and well-chosen words. At least, that remains my goal, because she
did it so well for all of us who have followed.
Learn more about Virginia Pye and her debut novel here.
A guest post!
Castle” by Jean Stafford by Pamela Erens
does a writer convey to readers highly subjective states of mind? I’m
fascinated by this challenge. What interests me most, in my own writing, is not
so much what people do as how they feel--that is, whether their characteristic
way of being in the world is cheerful, melancholy, anxious, aggressive, or
something else, and how that shapes what they experience. As a result I’m
constantly waging an exhausting war against vagueness and abstraction. If a character
in a story hits another over the head with a rock, a reader can easily picture
and experience such an event. She can feel the weight of the rock in the
assailant’s hand, feel the sickening thud of stone against skull.
But if, by contrast, the point of a
scene is not external drama but internal weather--if one wants to portray not a
moment of violence but an ongoing state of anxiety or grief or rage, how do you
do it? How do you find a language for it and keep it interesting?
A story that helps me think about
such questions is Jean Stafford’s “The Interior Castle.” first published in
1946 and included in her Collected
Stories of 1970. Stafford set herself an extreme task: to convey the inner
anguish and terror experienced by a young woman, Pansy Vanneman, who has been
in a car accident and is lying nearly immobile day after day in a hospital
room. “The Interior Castle” is one of the most disturbing, dread-inducing
stories I have ever read. And yet it is almost devoid of incident. In the first
several pages, nurses come in and go out of Pansy’s room; the light changes;
she wakes and sleeps. She is emotionally withdrawn and apparently resigned to
the fact that her face has been shattered. She never complains and rarely
speaks, leading the nurses to both marvel over her and resent her. After six
weeks, she has recovered enough to have an operation to reconstruct her
“crushed and splintered” nose.
Pansy is terrified of the operation
because of a tormenting idea that the surgeon will get too close to her brain--will
“scratch” or “bruise” it. The fear is not based on any very accurate sense of
physiology or even the long-shot possibility of a botched surgery leading to
brain damage. It’s more otherworldly than that; it belongs to the realm of the
subconscious. Pansy imagines her brain as something “lying in a shell-pink
satin case,” completely self-sufficient and remote from the rest of her body.
Of course in real life the brain is not a
sealed-off organ; it is fed by and feeds a huge network of blood vessels,
nerves, tissues, and so on. But Stafford isn’t interested in what’s “real.”
She’s interested in what Pansy imagines, thinks, and feels, on the meaning of “brain” to Pansy.
The account of the nurses prepping
Pansy for surgery (it involves the excruciating “packing” of her broken nose
with cocaine-soaked gauze) and the surgery itself, which at times proceeds in
unanesthetized areas, is harrowing. A strong but less masterful story would
simply make us feel this pain, a difficult enough accomplishment, as pain is so
subjective. But Stafford goes further and makes us understand that, for Pansy,
physical pain is nothing compared to her existential fear of being maimed or
violated, of being annihilated in some not-quite-defined way.
How does Stafford do it?
Stafford’s language has been called
mandarin, and her style definitely sets itself in opposition to that of many
prominent writers of her day. Saul Bellow’s breakthrough novel The Adventures of Augie March, with its
mix of high and low diction, was
published within a few years of “The Interior Castle,” and it wouldn’t be all
that much longer until the wildly colloquial Portnoy’s Complaint hit the scene. But Stafford was loyal to a more
traditional, cool, and patient type of prose. “The Interior Castle” opens in
Vanneman, injured in an automobile accident, often woke up before dawn when the
night noises of the hospital still came, in hushed hurry, though her half-open
door. By day, when the nurses talked audibly with the internes [sic], laughed
without inhibition, and took no pains to soften their footsteps on the
resounding composition floors, the routine of the hospital seemed as bland and
commonplace as that of a bank or a factory. But in the dark hours, the
whispering and the quickly stilled clatter of glasses and basins, the moans of
patients whose morphine was wearing off, the soft squeak of a stretcher as in
rolled past on its way from the emergency ward--these suggested agony and
These are the first three sentences
of the story, and we’re already at agony and death. But note how concrete the
sentences are, though focused on only one sense, that of sound: nurses’
laughter, clinking glasses, pain-racked voices, squeaking stretchers. In a
moment sight will come in as well: a light, a priest administering last rites,
bed quilts, nurses’ hands. Stafford takes care to root what will be a highly
internal story in the indisputably material world.
But even light and curtains and
night noises would get tiresome fairly quickly. So Stafford brings in the
landscape that Pansy can see through the window as she lies in bed. It is
winter, and through Stafford’s descriptions, we can intuit the despair and
bleakness Pansy is experiencing inside:
brick buildings nudged the low-lying sky which was pale and inert like a
punctured sac. . . . The trees could
neither die nor leaf out again.
Of course it is also Pansy who is
pale and inert and has been literally punctured. And she is neither dead nor
quite alive: breathing, but seemingly uninterested in recovering and returning
to her previous existence. Something in her has been deeply wounded; it’s
unclear whether spring is going to come again for her.
So, we have concrete details and we
have a mood established via the metaphorical use of Pansy’s environment. So
far, it’s fairly Fiction 101. Next, Stafford unexpectedly switches point of
view, and for a good stretch, we see Pansy completely through the eyes of her
nurses. Here’s a bit of that passage:
itself was never rumpled. . . . So perfect and stubborn was [Pansy’s]
immobility that it was as if the room and the landscape, mortified by the ice,
were extensions of herself. Her resolute quiescence and her disinclination to
talk, the one seeming somehow to proceed from the other, resembled, so the
nurses said, a final coma.
It is one thing to show a character
feeling passive, another to have another character or characters witness that
passivity and even see the rebellion in it. (“Among themselves, they [the
nurses] scolded her for what they thought a moral weakness: an automobile
accident, no matter how serious, was not reason enough for anyone to give up
the will to live or to be happy.”) Pansy feels real, not merely like a loosely
tied bundle of sensation, because we get to see her as others do--as a fact as
material as bed quilts and medicine bottles.
By the time Stafford gets to the
heart of her story--Pansy’s sensations and thoughts as the surgeon is wielding
his probing and cutting tools inside of her--she has prepared us through this
deep immersion in the external world She’s now ready to flirt with what is more
evanescent. Even here, Stafford makes sure to keep us rooted in the external details of the surgery--the doctor’s
small talk, the clipping of a scissors--and when she does, like the doctor, “go
inside,” she renders pain and fear by means of vividly sensual metaphors:
There was a
rush of plunging pain as he [the doctor] drove the sodden gobbet of gauze high
up into her nose and something bitter burned in her throat so that she retched.
The doctor paused a moment and the surgical nurse wiped Pansy’s mouth. He
returned to her with another pack, pushing it with his bodkin doggedly until it
lodged against the first. Stop! Stop! cried all her nerves, wailing along the surface
of her skin. The coats that covered them were torn off and they shuddered like
naked people screaming.
Once the anesthesia kicks in,
Stafford manages to make even non-feeling concrete:
All the cloth
was frosty; everything was white or silver and as cold as snow. Dr. Nicholas, a
tall snowman with silver eyes and silver fingernails, came into the room
soundlessly, for he walked on layers and layers of snow that deadened his
footsteps. . . . His laugh was like a cry on a bitter still night. `I will show
you now,’ he called across the expanse of snow, `that you can feel nothing.’
The pincers bit at nothing, snapped at the air and cracked a nerveless icicle.
Pansy called back and heard her own voice echo: “I feel nothing.”
Finally, Pansy’s sense of her threatened
brain is also rendered concretely. She sees it
now as a
jewel, now as a flower, now as a light in a glass, now as an envelope of rosy
vellum containing other envelopes, one within the other, diminishing
infinitely. It was always pink and always fragile, always deeply interior and
As passive as Pansy is, as immobile,
her imagination is always tactile and spatial, and often enough active (those
screaming nerves!)-- so that the fatigue that can overtake one when reading
about someone else’s thoughts and ideas never sets in. Of course, Stafford has
a mastery of language that keeps us alert and admiring, and her wicked sense of
humor (aimed mainly at the narcissistic figure of Dr. Nicholas) doesn’t hurt
either. She has also built a complex network of associations that has to do
with the sixteenth-century work by St. Teresa of Avila from which this story
takes its title. St. Teresa envisioned communion with God as a journey through
a series of increasingly intimate and interior “mansions” or spaces--an image
echoed in Stafford’s “an envelope containing other envelopes.” Stafford also
uses the saint’s understanding of the pain, self-surrender, and ecstasy that
are part of the inward journey to inform Pansy’s experience.
It’s not necessary to notice or
understand these parallels to fall under the spell of “The Interior Castle.”
Nor does it explain that much if you know that Stafford was in a car accident
(Robert Lowell, her husband, was the driver) that led to the disfigurement of
her face and painful surgeries. The real-life incident gave her her situation
and some of its details, but her story is not about the tragedies that can
befall us in life, nor what it’s like to undergo terrible physical pain. It’s
about the psyche of someone who is not sure she can go back to the ordinary
world, who feels that her true self is folded up deep within, and who struggles
to have a language for that self. It’s a masterpiece of interiority, and I go
to it for lessons in how to accomplish the nearly impossible.
Pamela Erens next novel, The Virgins, hits this August. Learn more about her here.
A guest post!
Story Month: Dawn Raffel, “Our Heaven”
hard to pick just one story from Dawn Raffel’s amazing
collection, Further Adventures in the Restless Universe,
because they play with and inform each other so well, but “Our Heaven” is one
of my favorites. What seems like a loose, list-like collection of memories of
the narrator’s family and childhood home in Illinois is actually a multilayered
painting puzzle that uses repetition, symbolism, juxtaposition, and word choice
to great effect.
begins with a funeral, in the present tense, of a neighbor’s child, a boy with
whom the narrator and her sister used to play. “This is the way we learned
about heaven,” Raffel explains in the opening page, as themes of life and
death, of timelessness and time’s passage, are subsequently woven throughout.
narrator remembers that she and her sister used to play war with the neighbor’s
boys in the neighborhood bushes. The “gunner on the corner,” who recurs in
brief shots throughout the story, functions not only as a symbol of war—both
the of narrator’s playtime and their father’s service in World War II, as well
as memories of the holocaust—but as a reaper of shorts, a remember of time’s
precariousness and inevitability, whether one dies from old age, from mass
extermination, or “a fluke infection—in the lungs.”
Heaven” is divided in 15 sections—some as long as a few paragraphs, others as
short as a sentence—and scenes of past and present alternate between them—the
narrator’s phone conversation with her mother, who wants to tell her where her
car is being serviced in case anything happens to her, memories of their
father, who served in the Air Force during the war, a bachelor uncle who was a
hoarder of sorts, particularly of news of the holocaust, and a visit back to old
house when the narrator is an adult. Events are repeated among the sections,
opening up new meanings, reinforcing others. For instance, in a section in the
middle of the story, we find that when the narrator father’s died, “no one knew
where the car was parked,” which explains her mother’s insistence on passing
along the mechanic’s address, and also that her grandfather would drive well
into his nineties and “enter people’s driveways, thinking they were streets to
fitting sentence, because “Our Heaven” is full of streets to someplace else. From
one street, “We were taught to spray the telephone for reasons of hygiene,” we
can turn onto another: “[My mother] also, I can hear it on the phone, has a
cough” and another “[S]he would give us a bandage for anything cut.” From “there
was a name on the sidewalk, written in cement” to “they were buried alive.”
is a sense of T.S. Eliot’s precision and confessional tone of “The Love Song of
J. Alfred Prufrock” in these sentences, which makes sense, given that Raffel’s
self-described editing process is cutting and more cutting. The bones that
remain reveal an intimacy we have not earned but that is there, bursting, full
of life. And yet, when one reads the sentences I have listed above, they so
sound random, so ordinary. The magic occurs when they are read together, read
aloud, and one can feel the weave of Raffel’s crazy quilt against one’s skin. Our
heaven, indeed.—Jen Michalski
Jen Michalski is author of the novel The Tide King (Black Lawrence Press, 2013), winner of the 2012 Big Moose Prize, the short story collections, From Here and Close Encounters, and the novella collection Could You Be With Her Now. She is the founding editor of the literary quarterly jmww, a co-host of The 510 Readings and the biannual Lit Show, and interviews writers at The Nervous Breakdown. She also is the editor of the anthology City Sages: Baltimore, which Baltimore Magazine called a "Best of Baltimore" in 2010. She lives in Baltimore, MD, and tweets at @MichalskiJen. Find her at jenmichalski.com.
A guest post for Short Story Month:
Lorrie Moore Breaks Rules
I’ve waited for this opportunity! (Please note the exclamation points.)
In the throes of my own book anxiety/promo, I have earnestly
hoped that someone (anyone) would ask me to talk about Lorrie Moore’s influence
on my writing. I’ve longed. I’ve prayed. I’ve thrown her name around. I’ve
hinted, without any subtlety whatsoever, that there are legitimate
similarities. While no one has laughed in my face, no one has exactly
I don’t know what the problem is. I mean, we’re two peas in
a pod. (Just please don’t tell Lorrie I said that. I’m afraid she’ll sue me. Or
just hate me.)
Lorrie Moore taught me everything I know about the
exclamation point and more. First, I’ll discuss the exclamation point. Then, I’ll
discuss the more (the Moore!).
I don’t know exactly how it happened, but apparently some
poor shlub who was overly zealous in the grammar and mechanics
department—someone not too unlike me, except it was probably a guy—said out
loud, and over and over, No exclamation
points! Stop with the exclamation points!
Except it was probably more like this: No exclamation points. Stop with the exclamation points.
Despite the quietude, I guess everyone heard him. Except for
May I quote the entirety of the opening paragraph to “People
Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” which can
be found in Moore’s Birds of America
(1998)? I’m going to make a hard admission here. This was the first thing I
ever read by her, and so it’s pretty obvious: I was late to the game. Everyone
already knew about her. I had just started my MFA program. I was reading whatever
people told me to read, and I was doing it voraciously.
I came upon this story, this opening paragraph:
“A beginning, an end: there seems to be neither. The whole
thing is like a cloud that just lands and everywhere inside it is full of rain.
A start: the Mother finds a blood clot in the Baby’s diaper. What is the story? Who put this here?
It is big and bright, with a broken khaki-colored vein in it. Over the weekend,
the Baby had looked listless and spacey, clayey and grim. But today he looks
fine—so what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse
heart packed in snow? Perhaps it belongs to someone else. Perhaps it is
something menstrual, something belonging to the Mother or to the Babysitter,
something the Baby has found in a wastebasket and for his own demented baby
reasons stowed away here. (Babies: they’re crazy! What can you do?) In her
mind, the Mother takes this away from his body and attaches it to someone
else’s. There. Doesn’t that make more sense?”
I was—as clichéd as it is to say—hypnotized by this prose. Then,
I sucked it in, absorbed it, and copied it. Copied it, okay? I. Copied. It.
The style, I mean.
You might not want to do that, but you might want to note
some lessons here. Lessons à la Lorrie. (Incidentally, I just
wrote in the second person point of view, which is something else unorthodox
Lorrie does quite well.) Exclamation points—much like the f-word, I might
add—serve a great purpose when used sparingly and carefully. In the above
passage, an exclamation point is used pretty much to exploit the mood: denial. Elsewhere, Moore uses them to
express humor, irony, and absurdity—rarely for the expression of exclamation.
The point doesn’t add to the clamor. Rather, it is often a coping mechanism, a
way for the protagonist to deal with a tragedy. Tragedy! What tragedy? Lesson
Then, there’s that amazing image that still makes me
shudder: The blood clot in the baby’s diaper is compared to a “tiny mouse heart
packed in snow.” Lorrie, I’d give you
large sums of money if I had large sums of money for that simile alone. You
rock. This is the more/Moore
part. (If you’re unfamiliar with Moore’s work, she’s infamous for her stellar
wordplay.) I read this and fell over, because it’s gross and it’s beautiful.
It’s so gross, it’s beautiful. I’m constantly bringing up the tiny mouse heart
in creative writing classes and, if my students don’t love it, I fail them. This
is writing that works; it works hard.
Am I losing you with the clever talk? One of my students once said something
apt about a Moore story we read in class. She didn’t like it very much. I was
in the process of getting out my red pen to give her the Big “F,” when she said
that she felt like she was being pelted with ping-pong balls when she was
reading Lorrie. The pelting: an assault. No one was going to die or anything,
but it was pretty uncomfortable.
I guess I love that. Maybe I’m into sadomasochism. Not sure,
but I doubt it. I also love Mark Twain and J.D. Salinger, so I don’t know how
those guys would fit into the equation. What I do know is that Lorrie’s stories
consistently—pretty much, always—blend
comedy with tragedy, just like that unlikely blending of the gross with the
beautiful. Using that word menstrual
is gross. Thinking about demented baby
reasons is funny. You read this, and you’re going through all kind of
emotions at once.
Do you know what this story is about? A baby’s cancer scare.
The mom’s experience of spending time in the pediatric oncology ward. If you’re
a mom, and you’ve ever spent time in a pediatric hospital, you know it’s hell
on earth. It sucks like nothing else sucks. Would you believe that Moore
captures the fear, the terror, the hell-on-earthness of it, while making you
laugh the whole time? I think Moore knows the truth about the tiny mouse heart
packed in snow. It’s disgusting. It’s startling. It’s dramatic. It makes you
wince and maybe your cheeks flare red because it’s funny too. A mouse heart!
But it’s a blood clot in a baby’s diaper. And that just doesn’t make sense.
But Moore’s stories make sense. She is masterful. She knows
funny. She knows sorrow. I admire the depth of the humanity explored in her
work. I flatter myself every time I drop her name, but I continue to do so
lavishly. If I say it enough, maybe it’ll be true. When I first read Lorrie
Moore, I staggered from her unorthodox punctuation, her bravery in imagery. Who
will admit to the beauty of the mouse heart?
And, just so you know, “How To Become A Writer” is also a
gem, and I wouldn’t mind if someone had that inscribed on my grave. Or urn,
since I want to be cremated. Wait. I don’t want
an urn, either. Scatter my
ashes. Someone just e-mail that story to my loved ones.
Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, THE FREAK CHRONICLES (Dzanc
Books 2012) and LOVE SLAVE (Unbridled Books 2012). Additionally, she
blogs at "Bosco's Going Down," and she's half of Snotty Literati. Visit
her at www.jenniferspiegel.com.
Stop Here, My Friend was originally published in 1963 and is a wonderful short story collection that I have had the pleasure of reading to proof read the eBook that Dzanc Books is putting out in our rEprint collection--this title should be available this forthcoming week.
Reading one of the later stories again very early this morning, I hit the line:
"The wound of my Aunt Beth's grave isnot yet healed, and beside it a new one is open."
This thought by the protagonist, Janet, at the funeral of her Uncle Ben. Her
Aunt Beth had been dead less than a year; there was still not even a tombstone at the site of her grave.
For whatever reason that image jumped into my head and I realized just how many times Merrill Joan Gerber had done that in this collection--taken a pretty common moment and created a unique image or thought about that moment. With maybe the most amazing thing about that to me is that this collection is being re-released 50 years afterit first appeared and yet the stories and writing are still extremely relevant. In the early 60's, Merrill Joan Gerber was writing things in a way that I'm still not seeing today on a regular basis.
The above line comes from the story "We Know That Your Hearts Are Heavy," which was published by The New Yorker as was one other. Other stories inthe collection were published by Mademoiselle, Redbook and The Sewanee Review.
The more I read from Gerber's work the more excited I get to have found a writer with a shelf plus full of books to fall into whenever I want, not having to wait 2 or 3 years for her next book to come out (side note--not SSM related, but Gerber related--her newest work, the novel The Hysterectomy Waltz, has just printed and will be available online and in stores extremely soon!). Pick up one of her eBooks now and see if you don't get hooked too. (one other side note--Gerber also does water paintings and the artwork from the cover is from her as well).
Last week Dzanc Books sent out an email and announced at their website that they had received an anonymous matching donation up to $6,000 for any donations received before December 31, 2012.
Any size donations are helpful--a dollar means two dollars, five means ten and so on.
Truly, ANY amount helps--that five that turns into ten helps us get two to three review copies of our books our to reviewers; money goes to our publishing, our promotion of literature, as well as our programs like the Dzanc Writer in Residence Program with a writer visiting/teaching the same class of children once per week in the schoolroom about the power of words--to write and read creatively.
www.dzancbooks.org/support/ is the place to visit and donate. ALL donations, no matter the amount, will see the wonderful person donating to Dzanc put into a drawing to potentially receive a copy of every title we published in the year 2012.
A little over a month ago, I saw Norene Cashen read and really loved one of her new poems. She's been kind enough to allow me to post the poem here at the EWN:
By Norene Cashen
I’ve never seen peace.
I’ve seen a foxhole, combat boots, a drill sergeant
and a gun. I’ve heard the gun rattle
and talk and talk and talk
in its fast language, the clink of brass casings
spit out after each syllable.
I’ve seen girls in dog tags and dust
crawling under the barbed wire of the world
as if their mothers waited for them
on the other side, but there is no other side.
That’s what you learn.
There’s only more war.
There’s war outside and inside
war speeding on the highway
to get to work on time.
There’s war in our mouths, our hair,
our eyes. The best wars are in the movies
where we eat popcorn and tell ourselves
nobody dies. Then somewhere in the middle
of Afghanistan a boy from Wisconsin
is smeared inside a turret
just like the old poem says. It’s possible
we’re all walking cages
and it’s our job to keep ourselves closed
to keep the violence
from shaking out of our bones.
2 years sounds like a very long time--long enough, one would assume, that I'd stop thinking I'll call mom and see what she thinks,
before catching myself. Not long enough though, that there isn't a little
guilt when I realize I've gone a few days without thinking about her and
mourning at least a little. We missed out on sharing a lot with her this past twelve months family, friends, and Dzanc related.
As is typical around here, there is a great deal going on today. Kids
to be driven to school, picked up from school, to practices, a birthday to celebrate, a list
of things to do for Dzanc longer than my arm, etc. But at some point
during the day or evening, I will honor her by spending some time
reading--something that causes pleasure any time I do it, and one that certainly derives from my parents.
I recently raved about Alan Sepinwall's The Revolution was Televised here at the EWN, and after reading some more from his website, asked if he'd be willing to answer a few questions. He was kind enough to say yes and do so.
I know you spent some time re-watching
episodes (or maybe even entire series) as you wrote the various chapters of
this book--did any of the shows seem maybe a little more dated than the others?
Are there some within the group you wrote about that you feel have very little
chance of ever feeling dated?
Formally, Oz feels a little more dated than some of the others, simply because
it was the first of its kind and you can tell that the show is aware of itself
and its uniqueness in a way that the later shows weren't. And 24 feels much
more a property of its time than most of the others.
And technology is always an issue. The Buffy episode about the demon who's on
the Internet ("I Robot, You Jane") is pretty horrible, for instance,
and what we know now about cell phone culture makes Stringer Bell look like a
much worse businessman than he did at the time after he says he's dumping all
his telecomm stocks because the market is maxed out.
But all of these shows will eventually feel dated in some way. So many of them
are about millennial angst, post-9/11 angst, and other things we were going
through as a country at the time.
It was interesting reading about the
various creators of the shows and seeing how there's a bit of a family tree
effect running through the shows that you wrote about. Are there any writers on
some of the more recent of the shows focused on in your book that you see as
creating, or the type that might create, the next wave of shows that you might
see writing a book about in another decade or so?
Probably. There's a writer on Boardwalk Empire, for instance, named Howard
Korder who seems to be to that show what Terence Winter was to The Sopranos,
and you can see a clear uptick in quality whenever his name is on the script.
I'm looking forward to Meredith Stiehm's new FX show because of how good her
Homeland episodes have been, but of course she's already created a show (Cold
Case). And I imagine someone whose name I'm not even paying attention to
who will be responsible for a great new show.
As you took the time to talk to those
behind the scenes of the shows you wrote of, especially creators and writers,
as well as network executives, if you had to name one creator that no matter
the topic or tagline of their next show, you'd give it a shot, who would that
Probably David Simon, but only because he has a long track record of creative
success in this era, between The Wire, Treme and his two HBO miniseries. Most
of the others only created one show during that time (though Winter and Matt
Weiner both worked on Sopranos, Howard Gordon was on 24 the whole time, and
Milch did two other shows — one which was a mess, one which was becoming great
as it was canceled). But I'd be excited to hear about any of these people
working on a new show.
One thing that seemed to happen over
and over, there was a creator with a show that was ready to push some sort of a
boundary, and it happened to be finding a network with an executive ready to
push the boundaries a bit and willing to sit back, for the most part, and let
the creators do their thing? Do you believe this is the only way we'll see more
great, revolutionary shows like those you write of? Or do you believe that
there's still room for one to sneak in through with established stations
and established executives?
It's certainly the easiest way for one of these shows to get on the air, but
not every show of this kind got on the air this way. 24 and Friday Night Lights
were developed under a relatively normal process, at networks with stable
leadership (Kevin Reilly had no idea Zucker was going to replace him with Ben
Silverman a year later), and Homeland, Justified and the recent HBO shows were
all developed at networks that have been doing this a while and have an
entrenched system for it. But I'm definitely looking to some new outlet —
whether it's a cable channel, or Netflix with their new shows — to kick off the
next phase of things.
What do you see as the next network
ready to explode the way HBO, FX, and AMC have?
As I said above, Netflix seems the most likely, though I have yet to see House
of Cards. But that's going to reinvent "TV" in a whole lot of ways,
including the idea that they'll make every episode of their shows available at
the same time.
I typically end with a question asking
if the author were a character in Fahrenheit 451, what book(s) would
they memorize for posterity? I'm going to tweak that and ask if you could
memorize one episode of one television show, what would it be?
The thing of it is, what made most of these dramas great was the cumulative
power of them. If I pick, say, "Long-Term Parking" from The Sopranos,
it doesn't mean as much if I haven't seen the whole Adriana arc leading up to
it. So I'll go with a Simpsons episode instead, and pick my favorite:
"Homer the Heretic."
Thanks, Alan, it was a great pleasure
reading your book and getting you to answer some questions.
Again if you're a fan of tv, or want to consider being a critic of any art form, I highly recommend the book that led to this interview.
Watching Color Me Obsessed, the documentary about The Replacements, directed by Gorman Bechard (based on an idea by Hansi Oppenheimer) reminds me of just how many different ways there are to tell a story.
No band member appears in the film. None of their music is present either. Instead, Bechard puts together a boatload of interviews with friends, fans, and professionals with thoughts on, or stories about, the band.
For the most part, the film goes through the band's history in chronoligical fashion--starting with the trio of Bob Stinson, Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars forming Dogbreath, and having Paul Westerberg, a janitor at the time, hiding in the bushes outside the house they practiced in figuring out how to become included. It discusses each album the band made, including unofficial things like The Sh*t Hits the Fans, a rather readily available bootleg from a show in Oklahoma.
The thoughts from critics, from other musicians (Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, Titus Andronicus, Greg Norton and Grant Hart from "rival" Minneapolis band, Husker Du, and all 3 members of The Goo Goo Dolls) add some authority to the stories and thoughts of fans. The fans spread from friends, to people from Minnesota that saw dozens of shows on up to celebrities viewers of the film might recognize (George Wendt, Dave Foley, and Tom Arnold).
The film covers commonly argued Mats issues such as whether or not Bob's "firing" was the moment they lost whatever "it" they might have had, or did the band sell out when they left Twin Tone, how poorly was Tim's sound quality, and the list goes on. Most Mats fans have opinions on all of these issues going in and I'm not sure you'll be swayed away from them, but it's interesting hearing the various arguments onscreen.
If you're a fan of the band, this is very worthwhile. If you're a writer, you might want to check it out to remind yourself of the various ways of telling a story.
Book Review 2012-017
The Revolution was Televised by Alan Sepinwall
202 by What's Alan Watching, 306 pages
(I bought this via kindle two days ago)
I check in on Grantland fairly regularly and not just for the sports related posts. The other day there was an excerpt from The Revolution was Televised, by Alan Sepinwall. It was a portion of the chapter from this book about the television show Lost. It was a fascinating explanation of how the show came together--and just how crazy and unlikely it was that it did, and even more unlikely that it became a hit. Being a television junkie, I did some searching online and find out that the author of the book has been a prolific television critic since the days of NYPD Blue. Not only that, but the list of shows he's written about in this book (a quick look showed me not only Lost, but The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, The Shield, Friday Night Lights, and more) looked like a laundry list of those piled up collected season DVD's on my bookshelves. A purchase was inevitable.
Just as inevitable was how fast I was going to go through the book--and I don't think that will just happen to me. The way Sepinwall has put the book together--one big chapter on a dozen different television shows, shows that he shows were revolutionary in one way or another, in a style somewhere between narrative and oral history, with plenty of interviews of the creators of the shows, as well as network executives, has the book read like an easily downed box of chocolates; you might mean to simply eat one or maybe two, but a few hours later you're staring at little paper wrappers and an empty box.
Sepinwall was a newspaper critic in New Jersey, and at least of portion of the reason he got that initial job was the website he'd created for covering NYPD Blue when he was in college. At the time he felt like he was witnessing a golden age of television watching the aforementioned NYPD Blue, Homicide, as well as their predecessor, Hill Street Blues. What Sepinwall comes to realize is that while those shows began pushing boundaries, the shows that he focuses full chapters on all took bigger steps than simply pushing a boundary or two--they bounded forward, doing something revolutionary in how they changed television.
Sepinwall shows his historical knowledge by starting off not with The Sopranos, but with its HBO predecessor, Oz. HBO had done some of their own shows prior to Oz, but they really hadn't invested hard into their own scripted series. Oz was their first real launch into this, and as a series set in an experimental ward of prison, with creators Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson, there were plenty of story angles and methods of telling them, that could simply not be told on network television.
Each chapter has a similar way of being told--the reader is given a bit of history of the show, how the creators came up with it and pitched it, how the network took it on and in some cases, why. These are done with either new interviews, or in a few cases, pieced together from prior interviews Sepinwall had done with these individuals. There would be an explanation as to the revolutionary aspect about the show.
The Sopranos giving us an anti-hero; The Wire as television in novel form; Deadwood as television via auteur via David Milch; Buffy the Vampire Slayer as sci-fi/horror breaking down our expectations--the monsters needing to be scared of the pretty blonde for once, and how these "monster" stories really told tales of high school angst with an entertaining flair; and so on for each show right on through two shows still currently running, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. And each of these explanations are more than plausible and feel exactly right. And again, they're put together in both fascinating and entertaining ways.
Not only all of that, but he gives Terriers a couple of positive nods. If he needed it, this would have been worth half a star alone. He didn't need it.
If you have any interest in television, especially in the most critically acclaimed shows of the past fifteen years, this book should be on your shelf, right there with all of your DVD's of these wonderful shows.
The latest issue of New York Tyrant (Volume 4 Issue 1) arrived a few weeks ago and I finally took some time to sit and read it early this morning and as usual, it delivers the goods.
This issue was guest edited by Luke Goebel, and designed by Adam Robinson and they both do well to continue the fine tradition that publisher Giancarlo Ditripano set forth with the first eight issues.
I've not finished the issue yet, but skipped around and enjoyed the opening works by Cooper Renner, a couple of solid flash fictions, an interesting short story from Brandon Hobson, a two and a half page from Gordon Lish with not a word out of place (as expected).
As noted, I still have more works from within these great pages to read, but so far some standouts include Pamela Ryder's wonderful father/daughter story, David McLendon's story (the first of his that I've read, though I'm familiar with his writing and his tastes which are incredible), and Robert Lopez's story/confessional (not his confession, the story itself feels like a confessional). Also the longer stories by Paula Bomer and Amber Sparks. It's a nice mix so far, between shorter works and longer works. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the issue.
Book Review 2012-016
The Rebel League by Ed Willis
2004 by McClelland and Stewart, 277 pages
(I bought this a couple of months ago)
I've always beena big fan of rival sports leagues--eventhough I believe the USFL is really the only one that was ongoing and local to me during my active sports fandom. The 70's saw three sports leagues pop up to contend with the NBA (the American Basketball Association), the NHL (the World Hockey Association), and the NFL (the World Football League) that saw many of the same players involved in the behind the scenes motions, and early ownership groups. While the WFL fizzled pretty quickly and without even the fanfare that the USFL would see nearly two decades later, both the ABA and the WHA were responsible for quite a few changes to the sports landscape in general, and to their respective rival leagues in particular, and both ended with a handful of teams being assimilated into the longer standing rival leagues.
While Terry Pluto's oral history of the ABA, Loose Balls, might never get knocked out of its spot as the top literary recording of one of these leagues, Ed Willis has done an excellent job with The Rebel League. There are times within that I wish he'd have gone the route Pluto did with the oral history--but that's probably more due to my love of that format than because of anything lacking in this book--there are a couple of minor instances that I'm just not sure who his source for a story is.
One gets a great sense of how amazing it was that the league ever worked--you had guys that were lawyers that had some involvement in the first three years of the ABA (which began in the late 60's) getting together and deciding hockey was in need of a competitive league. That is, guys that knew very little about hockey--Bill Hunter, President of the Western Canada Junior Hockey League was brought in early on to discuss the idea:
"I was impressed with them only as promoters," said Hunter. "They knew nothing about hockey. Absolutely zero."
And so it began with many of the money guys simply wanting a shiny new toy to play with. The league established itself quickly by signing legendary superstar Bobby Hull away from the Chicago Black Hawks of the NHL--this is a high point in the book as Willis talked to everybody involved from the Winnipeg Jets owners to the WHA hierarchy to Bobby Hull and his agents, etc. and the story ofthe back and forth discussions, the way that the league had each team kick in money and not just Winnipeg as they knew getting somebody like Hull could make their league viable immediately, Hull's waiting to verify the check cleared before he officially signed his contracts (he had to sign one in the US and then one in Winnipeg for publicity reasons), etc. has a fantastic suspense factor to it.
It's scenarios like this one, where Willis has had access to multiple players and owners and personnel, that the book really shines. There are some minor negatives--there are entire teams that might see one or two very small mentions (the Michigan Stags, for instance, are mentioned on half a page of the book), and the appendix simply shows what teams played in each year--this could pretty easily have been bulked up to show their records, show the playoff series results and even show what teams moved from one city to another.
But those are minor, and even moreso when compared to the Hull story, the setting up of the league stories, the in-depth sections on Gordie Howe and his sons playing together, the Birmingham (Baby) Bulls and how one team signing a handful of 18 year olds helped push the NHL over the edge into agreeing to a merger, and many other stories like these. Willis writes with knowledge of the sport and it's clear that he had a great time talking to the many players quoted directly in the book.
If you're a fan of hockey, or of sports in general, this one belongs on your shelf.
Host Aaron Burch rocks the megaphone
How big of an event was last night's reading in Ann Arbor, a Hobart reading that took place in the basement at Ashley's? A) Steve Gillis was there, B) Aaron Burch (pictured to the left), the host of the event, felt the need (okay, really he just thinks it's cool) to use a megaphone to speak over the crowd noise while introducing the readers, and C) people came from Ohio.
Elizabeth Ellen, in the middle of her own touring for her wonderful story collection, Fast Machine, read a short story to lead things off.
She was followed by Eugene Cross, who came in from Chicago and read from his debut story collection, Fires of Our Choosing, for which Matt Bell was the editor--Eugene spent a fair amount of time explaining how Matt had made the book a better collection of better stories with better sentences.
Did I mention how crowded the basement was? Packed. Dwayne and Jessica from Absinthe: New European Writing were there. Kyle Minor was there. Robert James Russell of Midwestern Gothic was in attendance as well. So was David McLendon, mastermind behind Unsaid. Mary Gillis was there. David Andrew Speer was there. Joe Sacsteder was there
Amanda Goldblatt reading from a Work in Progress
from EMU. Jessica Bell was there. Zack Ravas was there. I'm going to stop there because there were many more, some I most likely know and other I don't, but now I'm at that point where I could start to feel bad for not
Matt Bell (what's that in his hand?)
remembering somebody I should.
Amanda Goldblatt read after Eugene Cross and even though she didn't read from her incredible Catalpa (go order it now--you'll thank me), instead reading from a work in progress, her work was still mesmerizingly good.
And Matt Bell wrapped things up reading from a co-written novel from his past (it's a bit shady so I'll leave the title behind, suffice to say there's a lot of writing that will remind you of Beckett) and a short section from his forthcoming novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (I was so damn close to having this title correct without looking--I for the "In").
Really the only negative to the evening is knowing that 30 to 36 hours after it was completed, that Matt and Jessica would be on their way to making Marquette, MI a better place.
The wonderful literary journal, Diagram, published a tenth anniversary deck of cards worth of work. 54 cards including two jokers containing short stories, schematics, and more.
I love the journal itself and so was not at all surprised to see many authors I'm familiar with and generally looking forward to new work from, within the box holding this deck. It also provided some new names for me to start looking for as well.
And the fact that they had Sean Lovelace write up one of the Joker cards seems just about perfect.
Some card examples:
Per the Dzanc Books News blog:
ANDY PLATTNER WINS DZANC MID-CAREER NOVEL AWARD
August 14, 2012, Ann Arbor, MI—Dzanc Books is pleased to announce that Andy Plattner is the winner of our 2011 Mid-Career Novel Award. Plattner’s manuscript, Offerings from a Rust Belt Jockey, was selected from more than 100 submissions. This collection will be published in October 2013.
Steven Gillis, Publisher and Co-Founder at Dzanc Books, notes: “Andy Plattner's Offerings From A Rust Belt Jockey is a dead on the money infectious novel. The writing is hilarious and touching, the narrative, and each of Andy's fully realized characters, presents a perfectly pitched tale of love and ambition, honor and betrayal. The ability to be at once funny as hell and at the same time heartbreakingly accurate in the depiction of what it means to be human with all of our flaws and wants and needs is captured with a marksman's eye. Dzanc is pleased and proud to have Andy Plattner as the winner of our Mid-Career Novel Award.”
“Dzanc is a smart, purposeful press,” Plattner said upon winning. “I know my manuscript will benefit from this collaboration.”
ABOUT ANDY PLATTNER
Andy Plattner’s first story collection, Winter Money, originally published in 1997, is set to be re-released in paperback from the University of Georgia Press at the start of 2013. (The collection won the Flannery O'Connor Award in 1997.) His second story collection, A Marriage of Convenience, was published last year. He has stories in the current editions of The Southern Review and Fiction, have forthcoming work in The Sewanee Review and apt. Plattner lives in Atlanta with his wife, Diana.
The short list of finalists consisted of novels from Margo Berdeshevsky, Maria Flook, Karen Osborn, Micah Perks, Russell Rowland, Chris Torockio, Mary Troy, and Edra Ziesk.
ABOUT THE MID-CAREER AWARD
While at times it seems the publishing industry is only interested in the next big thing, we at Dzanc recognize the value of experienced writers who have gone through the process of creating and publishing two or more books. Mid-career writers are the backbone of our industry yet often these writers are overlooked and have a harder time finding a publisher than first time writers. More details can be found at www.dzancbooks.org/submissions/
The latest edition of The Review of Contemporary Fiction (Spring 2012/Vol. XXXII, Dalkey Archive) has just recently come out and it's wellworth the eight dollar price tag for the 270 pages about, or by, Robert Coover in honor of his 80th birthday.
35 essays, letters, fictions, poems, and plays written and/or inspired by Robert Coover. There are pieces from Dawn Raffel, Brian Evenson, John Barth, Kate Bernheimer, Bradford Morrow, William Gass, Mary Caponegro, Shelley Jackson, Percival Everett, Georges Borchardt, Rick Moody, Rikki Ducornet, and others that I was until now not as familiar with.
Some standouts to me (removing the pieces by Coover from the equation) include "Robert Coover and the Neverending Story of Pinocchio," by Elisabeth Ly Bell; "The First Time I Heard the Name Robert Coover...," by Shahrnush Parsipur; "Introducing Robert Coover (A Mixtape by Request) by Michael Joyce; "Letter to Bob Coover on Revisiting The Origin of the Brunists and Related Letters, 1961-1967," by James Ballowe; and "Between Here and There (for Robert Coover)," by Percival Everett. They either gave me information about Coover and his work I'd not known, or were properly inspired by his work.
This was edited by Stephane Vanderhaeghe, whose own Robert Coover & the Generosity of the Page is forthcoming from Dalkey Archive right around the end of the year.
The Emerging Writers Network started as a bit of a lark--me seeing just how lousy a book review I could write. It was intended to be newspaper-style and was of Alyson Hagy's Keeneland (that sad little review can still be read over at Amazon--I'll not be providing you a link though). That first year (2000) was fun, I was reading again (something I'd somewhat given up for a five year period--hmm, my first was born in 1995...) and people were actually emailing me and asking to be put on this mailing list I had created that sporadically sent out book reviews.
By 2002 those poor bastards were receiving an email just about every other day as i reviewed 102 books and interviewed over 30 authors during that calendar year.
2005 was a highlight year though. Sometime in late 2004/early 2005 I got some confirmation that a small publisher I was excited about was going to take on a manuscript of an author that I really liked, and had put in touch--my first bit of agenting (though at the much less than standard, zero percent take). Somewhere around the same time, a person I'd befriended online, another reviewer (though one who also wrote fiction) with similar tastes as my own, David Abrams, found out he was being sent to Iraq via Kuwait. I was one of the fortunate few that was on his email list when he began sending journal entries back home. After some asking and his verifying it wouldn't lead to a court marshal on his end and me disappearring from the world--we received permission for me to share these journal entries with the Emerging Writers Network. At the end of each entry I'd add something about David's military address and how was a voracious reader that liked movies and sand was everywhere and snacks were cool, etc.
And here's where the bit of pride comes in--the members of the EWN, political views non-withstanding, thoughts on the war set aside, flooded David with books and dvd's and chocolates and baby wipes and thank yous and praise. It was fantastic knowing I had a small part in seeing that happen.
February 28, 1995. That would be the day I received an email from super-agent Nat Sobel noting he'd been reading the journal entries and wondered if David had an agent. If I remember hard enough, I think I can hear David yelling ARE YOU KIDDING ME, OF COURSE I KNOW WHO NAT SOBEL IS in reply to my email to him asking if it was okay to pass along his contact information.
Today Fobbit, the novel David wrote that are at least somewhat based on his meticulous journals from his time over there, is officially published. While I received a galley not long ago, I purchased a final copy Saturday morning. David was overly kind in his acknowledgments section stating:
My thanks to:
Wickett who posted some of my journal entries from Iraq at his Emerging WritersNetwork blog in early 2005. The result
was an outpouring of care packages full of not baby wipes or
foot powder, but the finest kind of surprise a soldier like me could have found
after he ripped away the packing tape: books.
The EWN members kept me well-supplied with enough reading material for five
deployments. Thank God it never
that. Aside from the wartime support, Dan's EWN introduced me to an
entire army of writers who have continued to support me over the years
as I hunkered down at the keyboard. I've met some of those writers, but
for the others, I remain little more than a mute avatar on Facebook.
They have never stopped buoying me up with encouragement and for that, I
am truly grateful.
It was great reading that and reliving the experience of watching something go wildly beyond whatever motion I thought I could nudge forward. It's the sort of thing that makes me realize I need to make better efforts at keeping this site alive daily so people continue to stop by with visits.
announces the Dzanc Poetry Collection Contest, an annual prize for a
book of poetry. The judge for the
inaugural contest will be C. Dale Young. The contest is open to new and
published poets, and we invite submissions of poetry in all modes and aesthetics.
The Dzanc Poetry Collection Contest-winning manuscript will be published in
high quality trade paperback and eBook versions. The winning author will receive
a $500 advance and a standard Dzanc publishing agreement including support for
readings and distribution via Consortium and our network of eBook distributors.
Finalist and runner-up manuscripts may also be considered for publication.
C. Dale Young
is the author of three collections of poetry: The Day Underneath the Day (Northwestern 2001); The Second Person and Torn (Four Way Books 2007, 2011).
His poems and stories have appeared in numerous magazines, journals, and
anthologies, including several installments of The Best American Poetry series. A recipient of fellowships
from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, he practices medicine full-time,
edits poetry for the New England Review,
and teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.
deadline is January 31, 2013.
- The winner
will be announced in the second quarter of 2013. All entrants will be notified
of the winner by email before the announcement is made public.
published excerpts or individual pieces are acceptable as part of your entry,
but the manuscript as a whole must be unpublished.
submissions are acceptable, but entries should be withdrawn immediately if
submitted, manuscripts may not be revised without a complete withdrawal
and the payment of a new entry fee.
- You may enter
the contest as many times as you like, but each entry will require its own
separate entry fee.
close friends, and/or former students of C. Dale Young should not enter this
contest, and will not be eligible to win in the case of their entry. If such a
winner is selected, the manuscript will be disqualified at our discretion, and
no refund of entry fees will be granted.
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I had the good fortune to make it out to the October Wednesday Night Sessions two nights ago in Farmington, MI where a crop of SE Michigan based publishers and literary journals sponsor a monthly reading series.
Each month they bring a trio of writers to read and this month the readers were: Jeremy Schall, Norene Cashen, and Anca Vlasopolos.
Jeremy read from one of his books and then some poems from a new collection he's working on. I'd seen Jeremy read recently at one of the last readings at Leopold's which happened to be a little more crowded than Wednesday night's reading (there was little thing competing with the reading called Game One of the World Series) but I noticed that the difference in crowd size didn't dissuade how Jeremy reads at all. His style is an interesting one as he makes sure to make some sort of eye contact with everybody listening between and during each poem.
Norene Cashen read poems that had been published in literary journals (from the journals), as well as new work herself. Norene's style has developed over the years to include interesting introductions to her reading in general, to the specific poem she's about to read, and beyond and it works great for her. I've seen her read probably half a dozen times over the past decade and each time seems better than the time before.
Anca Vlasopolos read poems from a couple of different previously published collections and then two new poems from a collection she's working on. She also gave good introductions to her works.
There was also an excellent story about Ingmar Bergman and his father that Dwayne Hayes, MC of the event, told after Norene read that worked nicely with her own introduction to her reading.
This series is a consistently solid one and I'm really looking forward to next month when Christina Kallery comes back to town to read, along with Steven Gillis and I have to apologize as I do not remember who the third person is going to be.