Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Wordle, a fun new internet distraction I recently discovered. Wordle is marvelously simple: you cut-and-paste text into a text box, or type in a URL (as I did for The Quivering Pen's RSS feed). The website then spits out a cluster of words, giving greater prominence to those that appear more frequently in the source text. Wordle allows you to tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes.
Here, for instance, is what happened when I plugged in the text to Flannery O'Connor's short story "Good Country People" (click the images in order to read all the words the clouds):
When I pasted all 97,366 words of Fobbit into the Wordle machine, here's what resulted:
I was a little disappointed to find the word "like" had been used so frequently. I guess I'm a metaphor kind of guy....but even so, it's something I'll need to guard against in future novels (like a vampire killer standing on a castle turret scanning the sky for bats). I'm not too surprised to see "Gooding," "Abe," "Shrinkle," "Harkleroad," and "Duret" show up--they're the main characters of Fobbit. But I am surprised the f-bomb and all its variations didn't appear in this word cloud. In my mind, Fobbit is heavy on the profanity and I'd assumed it was peppered with what Norman Mailer once so craftily called "fug." Apparently not. The only four-letter cursing in this cloud is the tiny "shit" (top center, just to the right of "Shrinkle"). This is one way Wordle is effective and valuable, showing writers language patterns and repetitions in their work, against all our assumptions of what we think is in the manuscript. Wordle, it turns out, knows our stories better than we do.
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies. Unless their last name is Grisham or King, authors will probably never see their trailers on the big screen at the local cineplex. And that's a shame because a lot of hard work goes into producing these short marriages between book and video. So, if you like what you see, please spread the word and help these videos go viral.
Click the YouTube icon to see a larger version of the trailer
belting pop love songs atop a bejewelled elephant statue. So, I don't really mind hearing Jack White scream "Love is blindness, I don't want to see/Won't you wrap the night around me?" while The Great Gatsby trailer comes to a frenetic climax (Giant champagne bottles! Tom Buchanan growling "What kind of a row are you trying to cause in my house?"! The eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg! 3-D Gatsby storming in out of the rain with his HULK SMASH face!). I could be wrong, but I think Luhrmann's Gatsby will be a thrilling--but very loose--adaptation of West Egg melodrama.
What about you? What do you think of this sneak peek? Let loose in the comments section.
Monday, May 28, 2012
My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is John Clayton, essayist, technical writer, teacher, and author of The Cowboy Girl: The Life of Caroline Lockhart. His biography of a Philadelphia journalist turned western novelist at the turn of the century has drawn high praise from critics and readers alike. Novelist Mark Spragg (An Unfinished Life) said: "Clayton has rendered a riveting portrait of a woman both troubled and brave; a character caught up in the fiction of her own life." Clayton's work has been published in Montana Quarterly, Montana Magazine, Horizon Air, The Denver Post, High Country News and several other places. Visit his website HERE.
My First Theory of Nudity
I gained a sense of satisfaction when I figured out that nakedness was the great secret adults were hiding.
Until then, I’d been puzzled. Being a young child meant I was puzzled about a lot of things, of course, but when I hit on the concept of clotheslessness I was impressed by how many of them tied together.
Take the whole concept of dressing rooms. Why did department stores have dressing rooms? Especially when there were so many mothers in the boys’ dressing rooms and boys in the mothers’ dressing rooms--what point did all of this serve, and why was it such a prominent feature of the department store? (The department store had two prominent features: dressing rooms and escalators. I don’t really recall it having any other departments.)
Then there was the time I drew the picture of the babysitter. She was not a very nice babysitter. She didn’t know any of our games. She hadn’t brought anything interesting with her. And she decided that my sister and I should draw pictures. She insisted even after I told her I didn’t want to. I didn’t much like drawing, wasn’t very good at it, and had an especially hard time coming up with ideas for things to draw.
But after she insisted, I drew a picture of her without any clothes on. I was actually quite proud of myself: I’d come up with an idea, it was imaginative (since it was something I couldn’t actually see), and unlike many of my drawings you could tell when you looked at it what I had intended to portray. But boy did it make people upset!
Then there were the not-quite-out-of-earshot jokes and worried conversations. The magazines at that one barbershop. The posters for other movies at the theater. All seemed to center on clothes, and the removal of them among people who were not married couples.
My insight came so profound and unexpected that I’ll always remember where I was when it popped up out of nowhere. We were driving home, in front of the playground two blocks from my house. I was sitting in the back right seat of the blue station wagon, with my seat belt on, looking up and to the west. And suddenly I understood.
Nakedness! Adults gain the privilege of seeing each other naked! Suddenly whole new worlds opened up for me: visions of adults at parties sitting around eating dinner while naked! Watching television while naked! Discussing world politics while naked! At some point in the distant future (high school graduation?) I would formally be granted access to this world held secret from the children.
My satisfaction came from simply having a theory. I was not too concerned with whether the theory was correct--though I was entertained to find additional behaviors that it explained. No, the point was that I had come up with a theory. It was the first time I was aware of having done so.
Nor was it terribly important to share the theory with others. I never told my parents, any more than I told them I’d figured out about Santa Claus. After all, there was always the risk that Santa’s presents would stop arriving once I acknowledged that he didn’t exist. Theories were obviously powerful things, things you had to keep to yourself.
I wasn’t even troubled by the fact that the theory made no apparent sense. After all, naked bodies were not terribly interesting. Their forbidden status made them seem interesting, but when you got right down to it they were all quite similar and mundane. A kaleidoscope was interesting. A television. A puppy. They were constantly changing. A naked body just sat there. Why would I want to stand around drinking cocktails with naked people, even after high school graduation?
The way everyone cared so much, and kept focusing on the tie to marriage, you’d have thought the secret would have been something bigger. It would have made more sense, for example, if they were getting upset about people eating ice cream with people they weren’t married to. Or going to the beach. Or peeling sunburned skin.
But such doubts did not diminish my fascination with my theory. And later, when I heard a more elaborate theory about the secrets of nakedness in the adult world, I’d already figured out dozens of other theories about dozens of other things, and thus had lost a good deal of my wonder at the power of an explanation.
Sunday, May 27, 2012
The "Chekhov of the suburbs" had been wrestling with his work-in-progress, The Wapshot Scandal, a follow-up to his previous novel, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957). His biographer Blake Bailey tells us:
It wasn't falling into place, and was far too gloomy for a writer whose work had been celebrated for its "wonder" and "brightness," a writer who was trying, once again, to hear the dragon's tail swishing among the leaves....By the end of March, he was able to report that the end and the beginning seemed all right: "But the middle, aiie, aiie. The middle is wreckage." He'd taken to sleeping (he said) with the manuscript between his legs; he'd made bargains with the devil. Finally, as another spring came to an end, he didn't finish so much as arrive at a point where he couldn't think of anything else to write or revise.
So, the novel was finished. What now? Cheever later wrote:
When The Wapshot Scandal was completed my first instinct was to commit suicide. I thought I might cure my melancholy if I destroyed the novel and I said as much to my wife. She said that it was, after all, my novel and I could do as I pleased but how could she explain to the children what it was that I had been doing for the last four years. Thus my concern for appearances accounted for the publication of the novel.
Soon after the final draft of Scandal was completed, Cheever sent the manuscript to William Maxwell, his friend and editor at The New Yorker, accompanied by what Bailey calls a "sheepish" cover letter: "A great many people felt that the [Wapshot] Chronicle was not a novel, and the same thing is bound to be said about this, perhaps more strongly. I do hope you'll like it, but if you shouldn't I will understand."
Maxwell didn't immediately respond and Cheever worried that the novel had "embarrassed him into speechlessness." Maxwell's silence ate away at the novelist. He couldn't sleep; he chain-smoked in the bathroom; he was overwhelmed by depression.
Finally, on his fifty-first birthday, Cheever took a matinal slug of whiskey and gave Maxwell a call: "He seems plainly unenthusiastic about the book if not gravely troubled by its failure. This is the devastation of my most intimate aspirations and dreams."
I hear ya, John. I, too, have known the fragility of ego and spirit while waiting to hear back on the status of a manuscript. In these days of instant communication, it's even more agonizing when more than a day has passed and you don't get a response to your email. My mind so easily pole-vaults that gap of silence and I start to doubt every word I ever poured into my fiction. I don't smoke (anymore), but if I did, I could easily see myself in Cheever mode: pacing and puffing at midnight, pausing like a madman to click Refresh on my inbox--sad, unfulfilling behavior.
So, I share his melancholia (what writer, at heart, doesn't?) and now that I've learned we share a birthday (this just became apparent to me last week--how had I gone all these years without knowing?), I feel a closer bond with him. Even if it's just the ridiculously trivial fraternity of a calendar date, he is now even more special to me. I want to know more about him and plan to swan dive into his works.
Cheever's reputation is a little dimmer today than it was 20 years ago at his death. But it should not be that way. Cheever, along with John Updike and Richard Yates, was brilliant at capturing the darker side of mid-century American life. We should read him to learn about ourselves, our parents, our country. I like how James Wolcott begins his review of Bailey's biography in Vanity Fair:
If a tinge of melancholy haunts the cocktail hour, if a croquet mallet left derelict on the lawn evokes a broken merriment, if the bar car of a commuter train gives off a stale whiff of failed promise and bitter alimony, pause and pay homage to John Cheever. Light a bug candle on the patio in his honor. For Cheever—novelist, master of the short story, prolific diarist—is the patron saint of Eastern Seaboard pathos and redemption, the Edward Hopper of suburban ennui, preserving minor epiphanies in amber.
In truth, my familiarity with Cheever is mostly limited to the billboard-size labels which have been slapped on him over the years: Drinker. Ruggedly masculine swimmer of icy waters. Self-loathing, closeted homosexual. I have read "The Swimmer," of course, and maybe a handful of other short stories. But that's it--I possess a severely-shortchanged Cheever education.
But now that I know we're birthday soulmates, all that is about to change. I'm adding The Wapshot Chronicle to the To-Be-Read pile, along with the The Stories of John Cheever, The Journals of John Cheever and Bailey's biography.
Cheever would have been 100 years old today, had he lived past his 70th year. I propose we all raise a glass in his honor. Whether it's filled with whiskey or milk is up to you.
Saturday, May 26, 2012
As lovers of short fiction already know, we’re in the waning days of National Short Story Month. Those who were unaware of this calendar distinction were probably off celebrating May as National Asparagus Month, National High Blood Pressure Month, or National Correct Posture Month (and if you think I’ve made any of those up, I challenge you to Google me wrong). In honor of Short Story Month, I posted a list at Book Riot of my most-anticipated collections coming out in 2012 (a few of these you can already find in bookstores).
But first, a few bits and bobs of other short-story items of interest....
Electric Literature has just launched their new online magazine Recommended Reading. Taking One Story as a model, Recommended Reading will publish a single story each week. You can read it for free on your web browser, or get it on your Kindle for 100 cents. They launch with Ben Marcus (author of The Flame Alphabet) and his "Watching Mysteries With My Mother" which begins like a bullet out of the barrel:
I don't think my mother will die today. It’s late at night already. She’d have to die in the next forty-five minutes, which doesn’t seem likely. I just saw her for dinner. We ordered in and watched a mystery on PBS. She kissed me goodnight and I took a taxi home. For my mother to die today, things would need to take a rapid turn.
As always, the Emerging Writers Network has spent the merry month of May championing short fiction. The latest blog post highlights a story by Merrill Joan Gerber. Opening lines:
Martha stood under the bright dining-room light behind her mother-in-law, snipping deftly at the gray hairs high on the thick, slightly wrinkled neck. Funny, she thought, that she would trust me at her back with a sharp instrument. She clipped the hairs neatly, feeling them brush her legs as they fell to the floor. When she got home, she would have to shake out her shoes.
Open Road Media is celebrating the short stuff with a special collection which includes tales by F. X. Toole and Edna O'Brien. They also have a video of writers talking about their craft (Kaylie Jones: "My father [James Jones] said that writing a novel is like having a terrible illness with a sort of low-grade fever that lasts and lasts and lasts....and that writing a short story is more like having a terrible flu but only for five days"). Take a look:
And now, on to the list of my most-anticipated Short Reads of 2012:
Together We Can Bury It by Kathy Fish: For nearly a decade, Fish has been quietly, patiently writing short stories in small-circulation literary journals and various corners of the internet (I first came across her work on Fictionaut.com), and now she has brought many of those pieces together in one book. Here you’ll find characters caught “in the midst of separation, divorce, widowhood, and desperation” (according to the jacket copy). Fish’s images are startling and precise—like the couple who is watching a foreign film which has a soundtrack “exactly the sound of an accordion squeezing the life out of a kitten.”
Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret: Like Fish, Keret specializes in flash fiction. In general, short-short stories are often too enigmatic to emotionally engage the reader. I mean, how do you reduce a universe of meaning to something smaller than the size of a breadbox? Etgar Keret makes it look easy. His stories are odd, jarring juxtapositions which can spin off into magical realism at the drop of a single word. But they’re also thrilling and wholly satisfying. The first line of the first story in this book begins with a pistol-wielding man giving an order to the narrator, “Tell me a story.” And so, Keret the writer gladly complies.
Four New Messages by Joshua Cohen: Upon the publication of his novel Witz, Cohen earned critical comparisons to Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, and the spirits of both those writers also seem to hover over this quartet of stories coming from Graywolf Press in August. These are tales of internet addiction, viral blogs which reveal embarrassing habits, architecture, porn, and, in one instance, “a frustrated pharmaceutical copywriter.”
Windeye by Brian Evenson: Evenson is a writer who has been humming like a quiet menace in the literary horror genre for years, earning fans and critical acclaim for his thoughtful, twisted fiction. He’s been a finalist for the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the World Fantasy Award, and the winner of the International Horror Guild Award, and the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel. His new collection from Coffee House Press spans a range of time from feudal to post-apocalyptic and features, among other things, a murderous horse and a transplanted car with a mind of its own. Bolt the doors and wrap yourself in a blanket to ward off the chill of these stories.
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman: Walk into a bookstore these days and you’ll be surrounded by dozens of well-meaning “pet memoirs” (both those penned by the owners and, coming soon, one “written” by Uggie, the star of this year’s Oscar-winning The Artist). But I doubt any of them have the impact of Bergman’s stories about the intersections and interactions between humans, animals, and nature. The author is married to a veterinarian and is surrounded by “a menagerie of animals” on their Vermont farm, so she drew inspiration from scenes outside her window. But the fiction goes deeper than feel-good pet tales—these are stories that always seek the broader human experience in their resolutions.
No Animals We Could Name by Ted Sanders: Like Bergman, Sanders also writes of human-animal encounters….but at a decidedly odder angle. A grieving mother makes a lion out of bedsheets, a lizard’s owners try desperately to keep him alive, and an angler and a halibut engage in an Old Man and the Sea-ish tug-of-war for survival. The zoo in Sanders’ collection also includes bears, deer, horses, octopi, and—as we see at the start of “Opinion of Person”—a frisky feline: “The cat was into the curtains; his goddamn claws were pricking and popping. Even from the bed, Julie could see the new little starholes he was making in the cloth. The fabric swung as Rory’s shadow twitched, high up between the sheers and drapes where he was hanging. Julie waited for him to fall. ‘You’ll die, you dumb animal,’ she said.”
The Greatest Show by Michael Downs: This collection of linked stories recounts, in part, the haunting tragedy of the Hartford, Connecticut circus fire of 1944. I’m attracted not only to the story (which was told so well in Stewart O’Nan’s The Circus Fire) but also to Downs’ writing. Like this from the story “Ania”: “At that moment, a flash of orange appeared on the other side of the big top, then rose up the wall of the tent. Ania thought it must be part of the performance, it seemed such a miraculous thing. But the crowd fell quiet, and then a thunder rumbled from all around and someone yelled ‘Fire!’ and the thunder exploded, flames charging up and across the billowing roof of the tent, people rushing from the bleachers, knocking chairs underfoot. A trapeze artist jumped from his platform, and Ania watched him twist through air to the sudden ground.” The Greatest Show spans five decades of the city haunted by the tragedy of the fire. As the publisher’s synopsis says, it raises “questions about wounds and healing, memory and forgetting, and about the human capacity for kindness–with all its futility and power–in the midst of great loss.”
Fires of Our Choosing by Eugene Cross: I was sucked into Cross’ collection by the opening of his first story, “Rosaleen, If You Know What I Mean,” in which a boy deals with the death of his father and abandonment by his brother through a savage playground beating: “The day after his brother left the house for good, Marty Hanson picked out the smallest boy in his sixth grade class and waited until the boy was alone. He approached him, telling him that he’d found a dead dog decomposing in a far corner of the school’s courtyard.” That scene ends with the victim’s screams which sound “like a car peeling out, like the high-pitched squeal of rubber on asphalt.” Here’s a taste of what you’ll get in the rest of Cross’ collection: a young man confronts his own troubled history when asked to hire on his girlfriend’s strung-out brother in an attempt to keep him out of prison; a teenage babysitter works through a scorching-hot summer afternoon that will prove to alter her life forever; a grieving widower finds comfort in the unlikeliest of places, a recently-built casino; an itinerant farm worker visits the same former lover in South Dakota year after year while following the Harvest north; two friends search for excuses and fail to claim responsibility for their own decisions after one loses his father, and the other’s house burns to the ground; and a taxidermist falls in love with the ex-wife of his high school bully and tries to convince her to marry him despite her son who seems to share his father’s bullying mentality.
This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz: A collection of new short stories from Diaz is as much cause for celebration as news of a new book from Alice Munro (see below). I loved his splashy debut, Drown, and like many of you, I was sucked completely into The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. So, I’ve got a dozen calendar reminders set for the release of this new collection of short stories in September. The publisher’s synopsis is short on specifics and long on gauzy, vague summation, but it does promise an exploration of love: “the heat of new passion, the recklessness with which we betray what we most treasure, and the torture we go through—‘the begging, the crawling over glass, the crying’—to try to mend what we’ve broken beyond repair.” This will be one of the biggest short story collections of the year and I doubt it will disappoint.
Dear Life by Alice Munro: The prolific Munro releases a fresh collection once every three or four years and Dear Life—set for a November release—is right on schedule after 2009’s Too Much Happiness. Once again, she’ll be taking us to the interior lives of men and women living in her particular universe: countryside and towns around Lake Huron. We will learn much about the human condition and, for those of us who are writers, we will be paralyzed with awe at her unmatchable craft. I’ll join the chorus of those calling Munro our North American Chekhov.
Aerogrammes: and Other Stories by Tania James: Here’s another collection that’s been building buzz lately. James’ short stories are set in locales as varied as London, Sierra Leone, and the American Midwest and there’s a restless, rootless nature permeating the pages. This is how the publisher summarizes some of the plots: In “Lion and Panther in London,” a turn-of-the-century Indian wrestler arrives in London desperate to prove himself champion of the world, only to find the city mysteriously absent of challengers. In “Light & Luminous,” a gifted dance instructor falls victim to her own vanity when a student competition allows her a final encore. In “The Scriptological Review: A Last Letter from the Editor,” a young man obsessively studies his father’s handwriting in hopes of making sense of his death. And in the marvelous “What to Do with Henry,” a white woman from Ohio takes in the illegitimate child her husband left behind in Sierra Leone, as well as an orphaned chimpanzee who comes to anchor this strange new family. Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!, praises Aerogrammes by saying, “I would recommend this collection to anyone looking for proof that the short story is joyfully, promiscuously, thrillingly alive.”
Signs and Wonders by Alix Ohlin: Talk about an overachiever! This June, Ohlin will see two books published simultaneously—the novel Inside and this collection of short stories. At his blog Three Guys One Book, Jason Rice had an early review of the title story in Signs and Wonders, writing, “There are no magic tricks in this story, it just rolls out like a fine carpet, and perfectly fitting the room Ohlin has constructed.” In these 16 stories, Ohlin rolls out a cast of characters who are frail, flawed, cracked. We meet jilted lovers, divorcees, privileged college students brought low, and a happy couple whose inability to conceive causes the wife to seduce a teenage boy—in order to save the marriage, of course.
Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins: Drawing early comparisons to the work of Cormac McCarthy, Denis Johnson, Richard Ford, and Annie Proulx, Watkins’ stories are set mainly in the arid stretches of Nevada and populated by down-on-their-luck hermits, prostitutes and (one suspects) gamblers. A friend of mine who has read an advance copy of Battleborn wrote to tell me why she fell hard for this book: “From the epigraph (Stephen Crane’s ‘In the desert/I saw a creature, naked, bestial,/Who, squatting upon the ground,/Held his heart in his hands,/And ate of it…’) to the final story ‘Graceland,’ we are in a blast furnace, the American desert west, blazing sun, lots of empty, little hope. People die (lots of people die), people make terrible horrible mistakes, people can’t connect, people are very, very lonely. And yet, the collection feels somehow hopeful. Just as a green shoot in the middle of the desert seems miraculous, so, too, tiny acts of kindness or tenderness become revelatory in these stories.” I can’t wait to read this one for myself. As they say, “You had me at Cormac.”
Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu: The author already dazzled critics and readers with How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and now he looks like he’s up to some similar meta-fictional tricks in this collection of stories about, among other things, zombies showing up at a big-box store during (what else?) the graveyard shift and a company that outsources grief (“Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you.”). Fans of Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams need to add this one to their shopping list.
The Pretty Girl: Novella and Stories by Debra Spark: I’ll admit I’m drawn to the cover image on this collection, but based on Spark’s reputation as a brilliant writer, I’m sure I’ll be wholly satisfied by what’s inside as well. The novella and six stories in Spark’s fourth work of fiction revolve around artists and their sometimes unsettling deceptions. The settings take us from New York’s Lower East Side to Victorian London to Paris and Switzerland. The publisher assures us that “readers who love magical realism, illusions, Jewish literature, and art, will be captivated by Spark’s wonderfully textured The Pretty Girl.”
Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber: This one looks like another great ride—with the kind of stomach-clenching joy you feel on the wildest of rollercoasters. I’ll just go straight to the publisher’s blurb to give you an idea of why I’m looking forward to this one: “Mothers and daughters ride the familial tide of joy, regret, loathing, and love in these stories of resilient and flawed women. In a battle between a teenage daughter and her mother, wheat bread and plain yogurt become weapons. An aimless college student, married to her much older professor, sneaks cigarettes while caring for their newborn son. On the eve of her husband’s fiftieth birthday, a pilfered fifth of rum, an unexpected tattoo, and rogue teenagers leave a woman questioning her place. And in a suite of stories, we follow capricious, ambitious single mother Ruby and her cautious, steadfast daughter Nora through their tumultuous life—stray men, stray cats, and psychedelic drugs—in 1970s California.” If you want to sample a full story by Serber, head on over to the excellent Five Chapters site and read "Developmental Blah Blah."
Stray Decorum by George Singleton: If anyone is worthy to pick up the fallen baton from the great Southern writers we lost this year (Lewis Nordan, William Gay, and Harry Crews), it’s Singleton. In Singleton’s previous collection Why Dogs Chase Cars, he describes the town of Forty-Five, South Carolina thusly: “a town best known for its ‘Widest Main Street in the World!’ and ‘Second Largest Population of Albino Squirrels!’” It’s a place with “a gene pool so shallow that it wouldn’t take a Dr. Scholl’s insert to keep one’s soles dry.” His characters are oddball, frank in their desires and proclivities, and will never give your laughter muscles a rest. Dzanc Books is releasing this new collection of Singleton’s short fiction this Fall. Autumn couldn’t come soon enough, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got my emergency ration of Depends at the ready just in case there are any, you know, “accidents” while I’m working my way through Singleton’s hilarious stories. I’ll gladly risk the humiliation.
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: After the gargantuan, 1,026-page novel The Instructions, Levin turns his attention to the short form. The Millions reports: “From his own descriptions of the stories, Levin seems to be mining the same non-realist seam he excavated with his debut. There are stories about legless lesbians in love, puking dolls, violent mime artists, and comedians suffering from dementia.”
The Best American Short Stories anthology. This year’s edition is guest edited by Tom Perrotta and will, no doubt, feature a lion’s share of stories from The New Yorker. If they weren’t so consistently good, you’d probably hear me complaining. But BASS never fails to remind me that sometimes the best fiction comes in the smallest packages.
Friday, May 25, 2012
Congratulations to Jennifer Gibbons, winner of last week's Friday Freebie, The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty.
Goliath by Susan Woodring, a novel Michael Parker (The Watery Part of the World) calls a "careful, contemplative study of the rhythms of collective grief." Here's the plot summary:
When Percy Harding, Goliath’s most important citizen, is discovered dead by the railroad tracks outside town one perfect autumn afternoon, no one can quite believe it’s really happened. Percy, the president of the town’s world-renowned furniture company, had seemed invincible. Only Rosamond Rogers, Percy’s secretary, may have had a glimpse of how and why this great man has fallen, and that glimpse tugs at her, urges her to find out more. Percy isn’t the first person to leave Rosamond: everybody seems to, from her husband, Hatley, who walked out on her years ago; to her complicated daughter Agnes, whose girlhood bedroom was papered with maps of the places she wanted to escape to. The town itself is Rosamond’s anchor, but it is beginning to quiver with the possibility of change. The high school girls are writing suicide poetry. The town’s young, lumbering sidewalk preacher is courting Rosamond’s daughter. A troubled teenaged boy plans to burn Main Street to the ground. And the furniture factory itself—the very soul of Goliath—threatens to close. In the wake of the town’s undoing, Rosamond seeks to reunite the grief-shaken community.
By the way, in case you missed it earlier this week, here's Susan's "My First Time" guest blog: The First Time I Spoke With My Agent on the Phone.
If you'd like a chance at winning a signed copy of Goliath, all you have to do is answer this question:
In the opening lines of Goliath, what does a teenage boy, "coming in from an afternoon of lighting fires along far-flung creeks," find splayed out in the mud? (You can find the answer in this excerpt posted on Susan's website.)
Email your answer to firstname.lastname@example.org
Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. One entry per person, please. Please e-mail me the answer, rather than posting it in the comments section. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on May 31--at which time I'll draw the winning name. I'll announce the lucky reader on June 1. If you'd like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week Quivering Pen newsletter, simply add the words "Sign me up for the newsletter" in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).
Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you've done either or both of those, send me an additional e-mail saying "I've shared" and I'll put your name in the hat twice.
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Look What I Found is an occasional series on books I've hunted-and-gathered at garage sales, used bookstores, estate sales, and the occasional pilfering from a friend's bookshelf when his back is turned. I have a particular fondness for U.S. novels written between 1896 and 1931. If I sniff a book and it makes me sneeze, I'm bound to fall in love.
This has little to do with the copy of Peter B. Kyne's 1927 novel They Also Serve I found at an estate sale in Silver Star, Montana, but everything to do with iron-fisted librarians circa 1942. I have several Kyne novels in my collection--all unread--and this one appears to be about a couple of cowboys who enlist in World War I and use terms like "blatherskite" and "salt-sack." Furthermore, it appears to be narrated by a horse. Opening lines:
The never-ending talk about the Great War that goes on between the Skipper and the Top is what got me started on this story. Were I a man instead of a horse I would write it and call it my autobiography, because in my story I am going to include everything of any importance that has ever happened to me up to the present-when nothing happens any more. For I consider I have lived my life, and hereafter about all I shall do will be to stand around, switch files and talk about the portion of my life wherein I truly lived.
Black Beauty meets War Horse? Whatever. The point here is not the book, it's the sticker I found pasted inside the front cover:
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1. Books can be kept out two weeks only, except by those living two or more miles away, who are allowed three weeks, except 7 day books.
2. New Books can be kept out one week only, and renewed once and one only in each family.
3. The number of books taken by a family must not exceed one for each reading member thereof.
4. Any person who shall lose or injure a book shall be required to account for the same as provided by the laws of the City.
5. Any person keeping a book out longer than the limit, shall pay a fine of ten cents per week or fraction thereof, for the time so retained.
It's a wonder that Twin Bridges, Montana isn't known today as The Town Afraid to Read. Don't get me wrong--I love librarians, my first job* was in a library, and mylar-covered library books are at the foundation of my early reading history. But, wow, these are some draconian rules, aren't they? Notice the underlying threat of resorting to "the laws of the City." Was Twin Bridges experiencing some sort of library crime spree during World War II? Were times so hard, the town budget so tight that they had to knuckle down on habitually-overdue readers? Did a be-badged Library Cop go around to local ranches, ordering them to surrender their delinquent/injured books or face time in the stocks, perhaps a little whipping and pillorying? By God, those librarians would get their 10 cents one way or another!
I'm sure the present-day Twin Bridges Library is a sane and reasonable place. According to this website, "The collection of the library contains 8,000 volumes. The library circulates 6,682 items per year. The library serves a population of 689 residents." Here's a picture of what it looks like today:
Here's a close-up of that cool mural, which was painted by Jim Shirk:
I don't know for sure, but I'd like to think that's the same location where the library was housed in 1942. I also like to imagine there was a motto engraved in stone above the doorway: "Abandon Books All Ye Who Enter Here."
Speaking of Twin Bridges, here's one of my favorite photos from the past three years, taken while I was standing outside the Old Hotel before I went in for a meal (one which rates high in the Top 10 Meals of My Life):
Speaking of the Old Hotel, if you go there this week, here are just a few of the items you'll find on the menu (which changes each week): for an appetizer, try Jarlsberg Cheese Stuffed Mushrooms with White Wine Butter Sauce; for the main course, you can have Bacon Wrapped Diver Scallops with Hoisin Mahogany Glaze; and for dessert, why not indulge in Bittersweet Chocolate Torte with Turkish Coffee Caramel. I told you they were good, didn't I? In fact, they're so good, my only birthday-gift** request to my wife was, "I'd like to have dinner at the Old Hotel in Twin Bridges." If we go, I just hope I'm able to finish everything on my plate and I don't dawdled too long over coffee. Otherwise, I'm afraid the Library Ghosts will slap an overdue fine on me, according to the laws of the City.
*Teton County Library in Jackson, Wyoming, circa 1977-1979: Shelver, card cataloguer, duster of books.
**May 27, for anyone who cares.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning
by Hallgrimur Helgason
Reviewed by Amy Henry
The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning, who continually reminds us just how skilled he is at murder. Immediately, we start to wonder how this will play out: is he going to turn into a valiant hero, or will he maintain his tragic vision and become the rarely seen, fully fledged anti-hero?
“…I’m really proud of my hitman work. I always try to do a good job. ‘Victim first’ is my motto.”Determined to come across as a fully-accredited badass, the protagonist narrates his every thought and action as he flees the U.S. after a hit goes wrong. Seeing the FBI on his tail, he quickly changes his plans, kills another stranger, and steals his identity. He awakes on a plane bound for Reykjavik, Iceland. The odds are good his escape plan will work, except that his new identity is that of a well-known fundamental Christian leader with a schedule of appearances awaiting him. Deciding to play along with the ruse, he manages to record some disturbing radio sermons and manipulate his somewhat confused hosts, all while looking for a way out of Iceland.
Author Hallgrimur Helgason often channels Quentin Tarantino with action similar to the film director’s style: fast-paced violence, pop culture references, saturated with sarcasm. This is completely intentional, as Tarantino gets mentioned (as do Beyonce and Creed) several times in the storyline. The frenetic pace makes it difficult to absorb just how despicable the character is, and I found myself grasping for some quality to make him likable, some redeeming quality that would explain his often disturbing actions.
“Usually I don’t want to know anything about my victims. It’s like back in the war. I kill strangers. I don’t feel for them. They’re just another head to swamp my bullet into…Usually they have refused to pay their tithe, failed to deliver for Dikan, or they show up with the same tie as he at the Mafia Oscars.”See that? He manages to radiate disinterest and boredom, while at the same time making a really bad joke. Unfortunately, that becomes the theme of this novel. When hiding in an attic looking himself up on Google, he jokes, “I’m Anne Frank online.” Upon remembering a group of beautiful women, he shares his wishes for “mass rape.” He is endlessly amused at the low murder rates in the country, and spends his time remembering the better days in the States where he celebrated each kill with glee.
It becomes clear at the midpoint of the novel that there is a source of his internal conflict and external bravado: he served in the Balkan war, and with his father and brother, saw and participated in terrible atrocities. Helgason inserts the details slowly, and it’s possible to feel a tiny bit of pity for the protagonist. But it doesn’t last, as experiences of war don’t seem sufficient to mitigate his present behavior. If anything, the arc of the Balkan storyline appears so far into the novel that it feels too late to make up for his actions. Of course, mindlessly killing a small dog doesn’t exactly make him appealing. And yet his self-awareness grows, likely because he’s out of his element and who he had been can’t exist anymore. In one brief moment, he admits, “everybody must have figured out I am the monster who lives under the bridge.”
On the surface, the premise of The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning is very clever, but the delivery is so unsavory that it is neither tragic nor comic. The sarcasm and humor feels forced, almost like a joke told by a comedian who is trying far too hard to get a laugh. I get the feeling that Helgason is trying to reinforce just what a “monster” Toxic is due to his past experiences, yet there’s no evidence that he’s left the past behind. The other characters he encounters seem flat, as if they are only tools to further reveal Toxic’s depravity.
Perhaps this can be attributed to the Stieg Larsson effect. Scandinavian crime novels boomed with his “Girl” trilogy, but the dark mystery novels were nothing new. Other authors, such as Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, Karin Alvtegen and Arnaldur Indridason have created suspenseful and imaginative crime stories in the same setting for years before the region became comparatively “hot” in the literary world. While those authors don’t often present characters quite as colorful as Toxic, they usually succeed in developing deeper characters with a more compelling warmth.
Amy Henry is a reviewer at The Black Sheep Dances, as well as a copper fold-forming artist, university student and highly-skilled octopus wrangler who is addicted to the BBC. Follow her on Twitter: @blacksheepdances
Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Welcome to Trailer Park Tuesday, a showcase of new book trailers and, in a few cases, previews of book-related movies. Unless their last name is Grisham or King, authors will probably never see their trailers on the big screen at the local cineplex. And that's a shame because a lot of hard work goes into producing these short marriages between book and video. So, if you like what you see, please spread the word and help these videos go viral.
Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms takes no prisoners. It zips along at a sprightly pace with 100-year-old graphics supporting 21st-century PowerPoint whirligig effects while jazzy Dixieland trumpets and banjo punctuate the soundtrack. It all makes Ciuraru's group biography of pseudonymous authors sound like so much....fun. Which it is. I've got a paperback copy of Nom de Plume (out at the end of this month from Harper Perennial) tucked under my elbow as I type this and I can assure you Ciuraru's style is anything but stodgy. Joyce Carol Oates praised the book by saying, "Nom de Plume is a fascinating collection of stories--populated by individuals whose 'doubleness' is so distinct that they acquire secondary personalities, and, in some notable cases, multiple personalities." Each chapter of the book is an encapsulated life of an author who wrote behind the mask of an alias. Ciuraru dives right in from the first sentence of each mini-biography. Here she is on a renowned Portuguese poet, for instance: "You will never get to the bottom of Fernando Pessoa. There are too many of him." The chapters are preceded by a page with a single statement about the author we're about to meet. Some of my favorites: "She had a big nose and the face of a withered cabbage" (George Eliot/Marian Evans), "He slept with prostitutes, hated bad smells, and dressed like a tramp" (George Orwell/Eric Blair), and "She found sexual satisfaction in picking her nose" (Sylvia Plath/Victoria Lucas). Oh, what secrets we keep tucked in the pockets of our personalities!
Monday, May 21, 2012
My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today's guest is Susan Woodring, author of the new novel Goliath (St. Martin’s Press) and the 2008 short story collection Springtime on Mars (Press 53). Ann Hood (author of The Red Thread) had this to say about Goliath: “Like a contemporary Winesburg, Ohio, Susan Woodring’s Goliath brings small town life beautifully, achingly alive. Sprinkled with marching bands, baseball, and parades, and a cast of southern characters who will charm the pants off you, Goliath is a memorable novel, written in a new memorable voice.” Woodring’s short fiction has appeared in Isotope, Passages North, turnrow, and Surreal South, among other anthologies and literary magazines. She currently lives in western North Carolina with her children and her husband. Visit her website here.
The First Time I Spoke with My Agent
on the Phone
on the Phone
First, it needs to be said: I am a special kind of freak.
Typical of writers, I am an introvert who cares passionately about people. I do. I love people. They amaze me. And not only from a writerly standpoint, but from a very human one. I take my kids to the park and a very old woman sits next to me on the bench. She observes the knitting on my lap and somehow connects that to a job she had serving lunch at an elementary school cafeteria fifty years ago. Her connections are hazy, but she is so dear, I want to hug her. I want to follow her home and sit in her living room and watch “Wheel of Fortune” with her. I want to do her laundry. Sweep her floor. I want to, in the least, ask for more. More about her life and the cafeteria and living in this town, my town, for the past eighty or so years. Tell me more, I want to say.
Another day, the cashier at Walmart looks so very tired, tells me it’s been crazy in there, it’s the end of the month when everyone and their brother is in there shopping away their paycheck, and I want to shut down her lane for her. I’m thinking about buying her a huge bag of peanut M&Ms because they’re my favorite, and I want to share that with her: the comfort of peanut M&Ms. I want to take her to the beach. Read to her. Somehow I know she is the most wonderful human being in the world—to be a cashier at Walmart on the state employees’ payday!—and it becomes crucially important, suddenly, for me to tell her so.
But, what do I do? Me, the special freak who loves people but has substantial deficits when it comes to actually talking to anyone? I tell the old woman, “Wow,” and turn my head back down to my knitting. My heart is pounding in my ears for all the things I want to say. And then, to the cashier at Walmart, I say, “I hope you’re getting off soon.” I’m too shy to buy her the M&Ms though I want to, dammit. I really, really do.
I am like this everywhere. With the parents of my kids’ friends, with fellow townspeople I run into at the post office, with other writers and editors at conferences and workshops. I simply turn plain stupid.
You might guess that I was not at all prepared to participate in the kind of professional banter, the small talk and polite inquiries, necessary when The Call finally came. You would be right.
When the man who would be my agent calls for the first time, I am grateful to tears, to ecstatic, nearly orgasmic leaps of joy at his offer to represent my novel. But instead of imparting some reasonable-sized morsel of my gratitude, I instead tell him how very sad I was at the passing of Michael Jackson.
This book, my Goliath, that I didn’t know if it was worth anything or not. This book that only two other people had read before this man, this man talking to me now on the phone. This man who is on my shortlist of agents I’d love, love, love to have. This man who is in the process of helping me make my dreams come true, telling me how much he likes my book…and I’m talking Michael Jackson.
What I mean to say, of course, is how pleased I am by his interest in my work and how thrilled I am by his offer. I mean to speak eloquently and intelligently (or, at least, intelligibly) about the themes in the book, the characters, the setting. The current state of publishing and the market and submission possibilities and the like.
I blabber on and on about all these truly stupid things, and finally, he says, “Does this mean you accept my offer of representation?”
In my world, “Wow” means “Tell me more,” “I hope you’re getting off soon,” means “May I buy you a bag of M&Ms?” and, “Michael Jackson is dead,” means, “Yes. Represent me. Please. And thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
It’s been a few years, and I’m still an idiot on the phone with him, and with my editor, but they are both gracious and really wonderful people who listen politely to my yammering and to my um…um…um. They have become experts at getting out the information from me that they actually need, and they’re both good-humored and very patient about the whole ridiculous process. God bless them both.
And God bless the very old woman at the park who interpreted my “Wow,” rightly and talked on. About seat-belts and other changes in our world. Who, rising to leave, said she had enjoyed talking with me. And the cashier at Walmart who smiled at my meager comment about her getting off work soon. Maybe she heard my attempt at sympathy for her and her long, hard day even if the M&Ms thing didn’t translate.
Saturday, May 19, 2012
Soup and Salad: Richard Ford's Attempt to Revive His Father, Chris Ware Covers Crockett Johnson, Dan Chaon's Dark Shadows, Max Barry Explains the Publication Process, Authors Who Slack Off, John Updike's Childhood Home, Walking With F. Scott Fitzgerald, One-Word Book Titles, Jennifer Miller Defends Autobiographical Fiction, Author Introductions, The Difficult Second Novel, 15 Ways to Stay Married 15 Years
On today's menu:
1. Did you know Richard Ford was 16 when his father had a heart attack? And did you know he tried to revive him, but couldn't? Neither did I. You'll learn this and a few other things about the author--including tacit acknowledgement of the infamous Colson Whitehead spitting incident--in a short but revealing interview in the New York Times Magazine:
I remember being waked up on a Saturday morning by my father gasping for breath in the next room. My mother was trying to wake him up by shaking him, and she was saying his name, “Carrol, Carrol.” He kept having these big upheaval gasps, and I got into the bed with him and breathed in his mouth to perform some kind of resuscitative magic, but I think he was dead. My mother became hysterical at that point.
2. The recent deaths of Maurice Sendak and Jean Craighead George have us thinking about children's literature a lot more these days--at least, those of us who are above a certain age and fondly recall days curled up with stories of wild rumpuses and girls who live with wolves. That's why just seeing Chris Ware's cover design for an upcoming biography of Crockett Johnson (author of Harold and the Purple Crayon) and Ruth Krauss provoked such a visceral reaction in me. The book is called Crockett Johnson and Ruth Krauss: How an Unlikely Couple Found Love, Dodged the FBI, and Transformed Children's Literature and won't be out until September. In the meantime, we can all enjoy Ware's clean, beautiful design which spreads across the entire dustjacket, front and back (if I'm not mistaken, those shadowy FBI figures are on the book's spine, neatly dividing the cover):
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3. January Magazine sat down to talk with novelist and short story writer Dan Chaon and the conversation predictably turned to his childhood and how it influenced the dark themes in his fiction:
I grew up in a very small town in Western Nebraska. One of those little “grain-elevator towns” along the Union Pacific railroad line--not unlike the one in “St. Dismas,” actually. There were about 50 people there when I was growing up, and most of them were my relatives. I was the only kid my age in town. I learned pretty quickly to entertain myself, and books were a big part of that. I loved Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, all kinds of dark fantasy and horror. From quite a young age, I was obsessed with Alfred Hitchcock. I thought I was going to be a writer/film director/composer. I walked around my little town, a single block, playing with various concepts, acting them out and directing them. I can't say exactly what attracted me to the weird and bizarre, except that first of all, there was something quite gothic about the Nebraska landscape itself. And also, I was a real scaredy kid--terrified of the dark, of monsters, serial killers, everything. Jaws frightened me so badly I was afraid to go into a swimming pool, despite the fact that I'd never been to the ocean. Oddly enough, the thing that made me feel better was making up creepy stories. I guess it made me feel somehow in control--perhaps I hoped that if the monsters knew I was on their side, they'd leave me alone.
4. This may only be funny if you're a writer--and only truly hilarious if you are a debut novelist anticipating the publication of his book in four months (4 months?? YIKES!!), but Max Barry has nailed it, pinned it to the wrestling mat, plugged a bullet through the bull's-eye heart of what it's like to take a book through the editorial process. (Warning: egregious misuse of the English language--e.g., "fantasticer.")
5. Speaking of process and publishing, if you're an author who only produces one book per year, you're a slacker. I blame impatient readers. And James Patterson.
6. Literary tourism alert: John Updike's childhood home in Shillington, Pennsylvania will be turned into a museum. Updike lived here until he was 13, so I doubt there will be too many artifacts from his Episcopalian sex years. The John Updike Society anticipates it will be "a destination for writers and scholars."
7. Speaking of author's homes, have you been on the F. Scott Fitzgerald walking tour through St. Paul's neighborhoods? Warning to the architecturally-obsessed: this is nothing but 100% house porn.
8. As the author of Fobbit, should I be worried? At The Millions, Bill Morris talks about the appeals and perils of one-word titles: "....they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand." Morris examines everything from Hamlet to Swamplandia!.
9. Another Fobbit-related piece at The Millions talks about how much of the novelist's personal experience should be poured onto the page. It will come as little surprise to anyone who knows my background as an Army journalist who worked in public affairs for 20 years and deployed to Iraq in 2005 that there are some very autobiographical scenes in the book. Fobbit is heavy on outrageous characters and situations who sprang wet and squalling from the womb of my fertile imagination, but there are also many pages of "truthiness" to be found. At The Millions, Jennifer Miller (author of The Year of the Gadfly) has a splendid essay In Defense of Autobiography: "....if you talk to writers who have taken the autobiographical plunge, you’ll hear an almost universal relief — that writing about yourself allows you to follow your best instincts."
10. Sticking with The Millions a moment longer, here's some required reading for every bookstore emcee: How to Introduce an Author. There are some pretty jaw-dropping examples of what not to do in those first few minutes of a reading. To wit:
The worst author introduction I ever saw is making me cringe, right now, as I remember it. The co-owner of the bookstore started by reading through the store’s upcoming events flier, pausing to extemporize on each event. This took a full 10 minutes. Then she spent 5 minutes talking about the plight of independent bookstores, and how they need money to do things like community book nights, and hey she’s got this newsletter sign-up sheet that she’s going to pass around. And while we’re at it, the store actually has two different email newsletters that they send out, and she described them both in great detail. Another sign-up sheet is passed around. Having already wasted close to 20 minutes of our time, she launched into a synopsis of the book, interspersed with her own impressions, leaving no secondary character or minor scene unnamed. Worst of all, the book has a rather large twist in the second half, and she was explicitly hinting at what it is. Someone in the audience actually yelled out, “Don’t give it away!” This was advice she did not take.
11. At the Book Pregnant blog (where I'm an occasional contributor), Lydia Netzer (Shine Shine Shine) confesses to The Difficult Second Novel:
It's sitting there in a file on my computer. My second novel, as yet untitled. It is a first draft, which means it hulks and skitters across the page. It is unfinished, which means I don't know all its secret agendas and devious little plans yet. It might change. It's full of stupidly repeated words. It's got place-holder dialogue and language, like "Describe the institute lobby here, fool, if you can." And I'm a little afraid of it.
12. Non-book-related but essential--nay, REQUIRED--reading for anyone who's made it this far in Soup and Salad: in addition to her fantastic novel Shine Shine Shine (coming soon to a bookstore near you), Lydia Netzer has also written one of The. Best. Marriage Primers I've ever read. Whether you've been married 50 years, 5 years, are engaged, are dating, or are single and wondering about the secret ingredients in Mate Soup, I urge you to take note of Netzer's "15 Ways to Stay Married 15 Years." You may not agree with all the rules (I'm not endorsing Rule #1, for instance), but I guarantee you will come away thinking about how you can improve your relationship. Or, at the very least, how to become the perfect "sex machine" for your partner.