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1. EWN will be back to posting veeeeeery soon

It's been way too long and there have been too many great books published, read and not written about since that last post.

Coming soon will be some reviews of Merrill Joan Gerber's backlist.

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2. Source of Lit - The Quarterly - Summer 1987 - Rick Bass

Quarterly 2"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

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3. Source of Lit - The Quarterly - Summer 1987 - Pamela Schirmeister

Quarterly 2At 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.

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4. Short Story Month 2013 - Scott Elliott on Wendell Berry and Shann Ray

A guest post!

 

Flashes of Insight in a Short Story: Wendell Berry and Shann Ray

By Scott Elliott

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.

The 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.  

The 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 his horse.

We 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 ugly face.’”

Perhaps 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. 

We 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.”  

When 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.

In 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:

“He 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.”

Without 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.

 Much of 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.

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5. Short Story Month 2013 - John Domini on the Short Story

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.

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6. Short Story Month 2013 - Richard Thomas on Brian Evenson

A guest post!

 

SSM LogoBrian Evenson’s “Windeye” By Richard Thomas

WARNING: SPOILERS

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, the backdrop:

“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.

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7. Short Story Month 2013 - Virginia Pye on Jayne Anne Phillips

A guest post!

 

SSM LogoFollowing Black Tickets

Virginia Pye, author, debut novel, River of Dust, Indie Next Pick for May, 2013

 

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.    

Phillips’s 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 deeper.

I hadn’t 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.

Phillips’ style, Carver’s style, Beattie’s style stuck with me for years. PyeYou don’t 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.

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8. Short Story Month 2013 - Pamela Erens on Jean Stafford

A guest post!

 

“The Interior Castle” by Jean Stafford by Pamela Erens

How 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 this way:

Pansy 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 death.

             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:

 Cold red 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:

The bed 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 invaluable.

             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.

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9. Short Story Month 2013 - Jen Michalski on Dawn Raffel

A guest post!

 

SSM LogoShort Story Month: Dawn Raffel, “Our Heaven”

It’s hard to pick just one story from Dawn Raffel’s amazing Further Adventures Cover Finalcollection, 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.

Raffel 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.

The 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.”

“Our 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 someplace else.”

A 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.”

The 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.

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10. Short Story Month 2013 - Jennifer Spiegel on Lorrie Moore

A guest post for Short Story Month:

SSM LogoLorrie Moore Breaks Rules

Finally! 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 acquiesced either.

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 Lorrie.

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. The panache.

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 #1.

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.

More more/moore. 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 Spiegel author 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.

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11. Short Story Month 2013 - Stop Here, My Friend by Merrill Joan Gerber

SSM LogoStop 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 Gerber - Stop Here, My Friend - Final CoverAunt 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).

 

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12. Dzanc Books Receives Matching Donation

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.

 

Thank you.

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13. Poem by Norene Cashen

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:

 

WAR
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.

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14. Two Years

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.

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15. Mini-Interview with Alan Sepinwall

Sepinwall - the revolution was televisedI 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.

 

Dan:

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?

Alan:

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.
 
Dan:

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?

 Alan:

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.

Dan:

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 be?

Alan:

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.

Dan:

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?

Alan:

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.

Dan:

What do you see as the next network ready to explode the way HBO, FX, and AMC have?

Alan:

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.

Dan:

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?

Alan:

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."

Dan:

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.

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16. Storytelling

Color me obsessedWatching 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.

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17. Book Review 2012-017: The Revolution Was Televised by Alan Sepinwall

Sepinwall - the revolution was televisedBook 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.

5 stars

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18. Source of Lit - The New York Tyrant V 4 N 1

NY Tyrant 4.1The 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.

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19. Diagram - 10th Anniversary Deck of Cards

2012-08-13 17.07.08The 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:

2012-08-13 17.04.45 2012-08-13 17.05.22

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20. Andy Plattner Receives Dzanc Books Mid-Career Novel Award

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.

FINALISTS

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/

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21. Source of Lit - The Review of Contemporary Fiction - Robert Coover Festschrift

TRoCF - CooverThe 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.

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22. A Pride-Inducing Note Regarding the EWN

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:

Dan 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 came to 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.

 

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23. Dzanc Books Poetry Collection Competition

Logo

Dzanc Books 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.

 THE JUDGE

 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.

 SPECIFICS

 The contest 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.
  • Previously published excerpts or individual pieces are acceptable as part of your entry, but the manuscript as a whole must be unpublished.
  • Simultaneous submissions are acceptable, but entries should be withdrawn immediately if accepted elsewhere.
  • Once 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.
Relatives, 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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24. Reading review - Wednesday Night Sessions

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.

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25. Book Review 2012-016: The Rebel League by Ed Willis

Willis - the rebel leagueBook 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.

4 stars

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