Simply put, the best sentence(s) I've read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.
War for me, though brief, had been a soul-shaking trauma.
Shrapnel: A Memoir by William Wharton
Elm Howells has a loving family and a distinguished career at an elite Manhattan auction house. But after a tragic loss throws her into an emotional crisis, she pursues a reckless course of action that jeopardizes her personal and professional success. Meanwhile, talented artist Gabriel Connois wearies of remaining at the margins of the capricious Parisian art scene, and, desperate for recognition, he embarks on a scheme that threatens his burgeoning reputation. As these narratives converge, with disastrous consequences, A Nearly Perfect Copy boldly challenges our presumptions about originality and authenticity, loss and replacement, and the perilous pursuit of perfection.A Nearly Perfect Copy has been justly receiving high praise since its release in April. Here, for instance, is what Kevin Brockmeier (author of The Brief History of the Dead) had to say about it: "Just when you think you know where A Nearly Perfect Copy is going, it swerves, like life, in some new direction. Allison Amend has packed this book with wit, style, yearning, risk, damage, truth, and compassion, populated it with characters who breathe with their own individual mystery, and along the way written what just might be the definitive fictional treatment of art forgery."
p. 43: But it is a damn nose job. "Damn" expresses my ruefulness about it.Fast forward 20 years and many books and articles later. These days I write a column for an online magazine whose publisher has the same sensibility as my Villard editor, and I still am ready to put up my dukes and fight about poop jokes, dicks and the F word, none of which are preferred in the Baltimore Fishbowl. I struggle with the same fervor as always, though I have often noticed that a cleaned-up piece is not a whole lot different than the dirty version I was trying so hard to keep. And I do get away with shit sometimes.
p. 45: The puke and the hosing off are part of the unglamorous, pedestrian suburban acid experience I am trying to describe. Yes, it's a little gross but so what.
p. 47: As for "suck my dick," I think it is humorous in its absurdity--after all, it's my 14-year-old sister saying it. I've taken out the use of "dick" in "On Being Gay," so at least we're down to one dick overall.
He led me to a floodlit, garbage-swept concrete parking lot surrounded by a chain link fence. With no further preliminaries, a furious make-out session was in progress. It was fun, but Zach and I had different ideas of what came next. I wanted to discuss our relationship; he wanted me to give him a blow job. This seemed beneath my dignity as a fifty-two-year-old mother of three so I regretfully declined and we went back inside. He seemed to be about one millimeter from either puking or alcohol poisoning but was still on his feet when I left.When I read this passage, I felt a little betrayed. Who was this writer who was making me look so desperate and trashy and lacking in self-respect? Just a couple days before, I had read another woman's memoir where I'd been taken aback at her crass attitudes about men. Now I was having that same reaction to myself. And though I'd pressed send on that email too fast to redact the demeaning words, now I had another chance.
The next day my dignity went into remission and I emailed him to ask if he was having regrets, and if he wasn't would he like to fuck my brains out.
An inspiring story that shows how dogs can be rescued, and can rescue in return. With her critically acclaimed, bestselling first book, Scent of the Missing: Love and Partnership with a Search-and-Rescue Dog, Susannah Charleson was widely praised for her unique insight into the kinship between humans and dogs, as revealed through her work in canine search and rescue alongside her partner, golden retriever Puzzle. Now, in The Possibility Dogs, Charleson journeys into the world of psychiatric service, where dogs aid humans with disabilities that may be unseen but are no less felt. This work had a profound effect on Charleson, perhaps because, for her, this journey began as a personal one: Charleson herself struggled with posttraumatic stress disorder for months after a particularly grisly search. Collaboration with her search dog partner made the surprising difference to her own healing. Inspired by that experience, Charleson learns to identify abandoned dogs with service potential, often plucking them from shelters at the last minute, and to train them for work beside hurting partners, to whom these second-chance dogs bring intelligence, comfort, and hope. Along the way she comes to see canine potential everywhere, often where she least expects it – from Merlin the chocolate lab puppy with the broken tail once cast away in a garbage bag, who now stabilizes his partner’s panic attacks; to Ollie, the blind and deaf terrier, rescued moments before it was too late, who now soothes anxious children; to Jake Piper, the starving pit bull terrier mix with the wayward ears who is transformed into a working service dog and, who, for Charleson, goes from abandoned to irreplaceable.Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review and said: "You don’t have to be an animal lover to be moved by this beautifully written and impassioned account of the author’s work rescuing dogs from shelters and training them to be service animals...This is the rare book that can change minds about the reality of animals’ emotional lives."
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The Great War is modeled in part on Mateo Pericoli's wordless Manhattan Unfurled, a beautiful, accordion-style foldout drawing of the city's skyline. As a comic book artist, however, I felt impelled to provide a narrative, so the Bayeux Tapestry, which tells the story of the Norman invasion of England, was my touchstone. In the interest of making the drawing compact, I referenced medieval art in other, stylistic ways, namely by dispensing with realistic perspective and proportion. Thus a few inches in the drawing might represent a hundred yards or a mile of reality. However, I have tried to get the details--the field kitchens, the horse ambulances--right.World War I was known as "the War to End All Wars." That, as we all know, was dozens of wars ago. And now we're left with the continuous taste of death and destruction in our mouths.
Making The Great War wordless made it impossible to indict the high command or laud the sacrifice of the soldiers. It was a relief not to do these things. All I could do was show what happened between the general and the grave, and hope that even after a hundred years the bad taste has not been washed from our mouths.
After the reading, I approached the old college friend. “Do you remember when you brought the bread bag of cocaine to my apartment?” I asked. “Of course,” he said. “Was it almost full?” I asked. “Because in my memory it was almost full.” “More like three-quarters full,” he said.That bread bag of drugs is the fulcrum point of her latest novel, The Wonder Bread Summer--a book which Laura van den Berg called "a lightning strike of a novel, sexy and dangerous and aglow with adventure." Here's the plot summary of Blau's new novel:
In The Wonder Bread Summer, loosely based on Alice in Wonderland, 20-year-old Allie Dodgson has adventures that rival those Alice had down the rabbit hole. Or those of Weeds’ Nancy Botwin. Allison is working at a dress shop to help pay for college. The dress shop turns out to be a front for drug dealers. And Allison ends up on the run—with a Wonder Bread bag full of cocaine. With a hit man after her, Allison wants the help of her parents. But there’s a problem: Her mom took off when Allison was eight; her dad moves so often Allison that doesn’t even have his phone number. Set in 1980s California, The Wonder Bread Summer is a wickedly funny and fresh caper that’s sure to please fans of Christopher Moore, Carl Hiaasen, and Marcy Dermansky.
Benjamin Benjamin has lost virtually everything—his wife, his family, his home, his livelihood. With few options, Ben enrolls in a night class called The Fundamentals of Caregiving, where he is instructed in the art of inserting catheters and avoiding liability, about professionalism, and on how to keep physical and emotional distance between client and provider. But when Ben is assigned to tyrannical nineteen-year-old Trevor, who is in the advanced stages of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, he soon discovers that the endless mnemonics and service plan checklists have done little to prepare him for the reality of caring for a fiercely stubborn, sexually frustrated adolescent with an ax to grind with the world at large. Though begun with mutual misgivings, the relationship between Trev and Ben evolves into a close camaraderie, and the traditional boundaries between patient and caregiver begin to blur as they embark on a road trip to visit Trev’s ailing father. A series of must-see roadside attractions divert them into an impulsive adventure interrupted by one birth, two arrests, a freakish dust storm, and a six-hundred-mile cat-and-mouse pursuit by a mysterious brown Buick Skylark.The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving has just been released in paperback, but the winner of this contest will receive a shiny-new hardback. And hey, if you don't win the contest, I highly recommend you cough up the 15 simoleons and go buy yourself a paperback copy. It's good stuff, ladies and gents. But don't just take my word for it--here's what The Boston Globe had to say: "With its extremely cinematic plot and collection of quirky scenes, the novel might remind you of Little Miss Sunshine meets Rain Man....The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving is even-keeled, big-hearted, and very funny, and full of hope."
Humans have a powerful and innate resistance to killing other humans. Something in the heart curdles at the prospect. The sound of screams, the sight of blood, the evidence of pain: all arouse an urgent need to quit. The human recognizes itself in the other. Within the military, this deep empathetic response causes profound problems. To be effective soldiers, men must be persuaded to kill other men. They must be persuaded to give up their recognition of another man's humanity.This echoes what Karl Marlantes wrote in his masterpiece of war literature, What It Is Like to Go to War: "You can’t be a warrior and not be deeply involved with suffering and responsibility. You’re causing a lot of it. You ought to know why you’re doing it. Warriors must touch their souls because their job involves killing people."
That June, in Ramadi, insurgents started sending rockets and mortars onto the base. The perimeter fence kept them at a distance, so they couldn't see where they were sending them. They just lobbed them over at random. Sometimes the mortars missed everyone and everything, exploding harmlessly, and sometimes they were duds and didn't explode at all, and sometimes they took someone's leg off, like Kuchnik, who was in their sister platoon and was on his way over to the mess hall with his buddy, Colbert.I've read that passage four different times, always marveling at the way Robinson tells the story, layering the details until the reader reaches that final devastating line.
Halfway there, Kuchnik remembered a letter he wanted to mail to his girlfriend. He went back for it, and Colbert went on ahead. Kuchnik got the letter and started back to the mess hall and was nearly there when the rocket landed. It didn't hit him, though, it landed right beside him. It hit a utility pole, and the impact detonated the rocket's hot-metal penetrator. White-hot metal shards pierced Kuchnik's thigh, severing the femoral artery. Kuchnik lay in the sand outside the mess hall, screaming and bleeding out, still holding the letter. Doc Whitman came running, but he was on his way to the shower and was wearing only his PT shorts, and he didn't have a tourniquet.
They finally got Kuchnik tourniqueted and medevaced out to Landstuhl, in Germany, where the trauma hospital was. But by then he'd lost a lot of blood, and even though they got him stabilized on the flight over, two days after he got to Frankfurt, he died of organ failure.
He was twenty feet from the door of the mess hall, which had sandbags around it to protect it from blasts. Colbert had already gone inside and was standing in line. Afterward it was impossible to get all the blood out from the sand, and for weeks after, going in and out of the mess hall you walked over a dim stain on the ground from Kuchnik. At the beginning, when he was still alive, you thought of it as blood, but after he died, you thought of it as Kuchnik.
The thing was that he couldn't see where he was going. It was like heading toward a dam. He couldn't see past it, over the edge. All he could see was air, though he knew about the drop. He was waiting for something to click into place. In the military you had orders, and a task. Now what he had to do was keep moving. Without orders or a task.That's how Conrad feels in the early pages of the novel. It only gets worse for him as time goes on and he's squeezed tighter and tighter into an inescapable corner.
It was too much to expect the end of this, but he hoped for a lessening. He hoped for a kind of hope. He wouldn't use large words like redemption, or grace. He was hoping for something humbler, something small and private.Robinson's message is clear as a bell: wounded warriors need to take these small steps toward recovery and we, as supporters, as caregivers, as a nation which complicitly sent them off to war, need to walk patiently beside them. All we can do is hope for hope.
I had a car, but on most days in that fall of 1973 I walked to Joyland from Mrs. Shoplaw’s Beachside Accommodations in the town of Heaven’s Bay. It seemed like the right thing to do. The only thing, actually. By early September, Heaven Beach was almost completely deserted, which suited my mood. That fall was the most beautiful of my life. Even forty years later I can say that. And I was never so unhappy, I can say that, too. People think first love is sweet, and never sweeter than when that first bond snaps. You’ve heard a thousand pop and country songs that prove the point; some fool got his heart broke. Yet that first broken heart is always the most painful, the slowest to mend, and leaves the most visible scar. What’s so sweet about that?
It's not clear how or when the term flapper first wound its way into the American vernacular. The expression probably originated in prewar England. According to a 1920s fashion writer, "flapper" initially described the sort of teenage girl whose gawky frame and posture were 'supposed to need a certain type of clothing--long, straight lines to cover her awkwardness--and the stores advertised those gowns as 'flapper dresses'."Well, pour me some bathtub gin and put an Al Jolson platter on the phonograph, I'm ready to Charleston my way into this book!
"Shortly after the closing shots of World War I, the word came to designate young women in their teens and twenties who subscribed to the libertine principles that writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and actresses like Clara Bow popularized in print and on the silver screen.
An early reference in Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defined the flapper as "A young girl, esp. one somewhat daring in conduct, speech and dress," a designation that at least one eighteen-year-old woman in 1922 seemed ready to embrace. "Of all the things that flappers don't like," she boldly explained to readers of The New York Times Book Review and Magazine, "it is the commonplace."
We writers spend our days making something out of nothing. There is the black page (or screen) and then there is the fraught and magical process of putting words down on that page, as if through a mist. Is it a mirage? Is it real? We can't know. And so we need a sense of structure around us. These four walls. This cup. The wheels of the train beneath us. This borrowed room. The weight of this particular pen. Whatever it is that makes us feel secure in our physical space allows us to make the leap hoping that the page will catch us. Writing, after all, is an act of faith. We must believe, without the slightest evidence that believing will get us anywhere.I closed the book. I closed my eyes. I rested in the cradle of Shapiro's words. I thought about how the page would catch me if I just took that leap with an insuck of breath and a modicum of faith. I opened my eyes and vowed, right then and there, to begin each day by reading a few pages of Still Writing (the book is conveniently fenced into short, sip-length essays). It will be like my morning matin, a linguistic Our Daily Bread, my devotion to this craft.
The children have colored the cards,He also has some new poetry in the Spring issue of The Iowa Review, a journal which sits high atop my To-Be-Read pile. For those who seek the artful truth of war, I highly recommend Hugh Martin's poetry.
dated from December,
with Christmas trees, piles of presents,
snowmen smiling, waving. Sara wants
a doll. Evan, a dog. Kyle promises
to pray for us.
Outside the hooch, we open mail,
hundreds of letters
from youth groups, scout troops,
classes of school children.
Kearns wants to write back,
ask for pictures
of older sisters.
We tape our favorites to the door.
In blue crayon, a stick-figure soldier poses
as he’s about to toss
a black ball,
at three other stick figures,
red cloth wrapped over faces,
across stick chests.
|One of my favorite novels about Take Your Kitty to Work Day|
They are depressed. Writers are miserable. Think of some of the saddest people in history--Woolf, Plath, Hemingway, Sexton, Poe, Tom Clancy--and ninety per cent of them are writers. They write because they are depressed. Even Dan Brown is depressed. Every single person you pass in the street has happier brain chemistry than Dan Brown. Probably. That's why he has to hang upside down like Bruce Wayne between paragraphs. Possibly. And why he believes life is a kind of Countdown Conundrum designed by Dante or Da Vinci or albino priests. Possibly. And look, US website health.com says that writing is one of the top 10 professions most likely to lead to depression. So be jealous of happier people, like undertakers and debt collectors. Being a writer is deciding to live your whole life as if it was soundtracked by Radiohead.This makes me sad. But you know what would make me happy? If you were to buy Matt's new novel, The Humans, out next month from Simon & Schuster. It's all about aliens secretly observing the human race and taking notes on what they find--including, I assume, the puzzle of depressed writers.
"[W]rite what you know" is, in fact, a very limiting piece of advice and I don't suggest anyone follow it beyond getting a basic starting point every once in a while. My collection, Flashes of War, features characters in and around the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the stories are written in first person, from the point of view of soldiers or civilians. I've never served in the military, don't know anyone currently serving, don't know any Iraqi or Afghan citizens, and have never been to the Middle East. But I felt compelled to write the stories in that book, and I was able to research and imagine with enough precision to pull it off. More than writing what I know, the exercise of writing what I don't know stretched me to become a more precise, conscious, dedicated writer, and I'm better off for it.
Three of the eleven commandments all boil down to this same rule: that one must stay focused and true to a single project, and give it one's fullest attention. On this particular trip, I had days upon days of glorious solitude, including lots of driving time: a 10-hour drive from Akron, Ohio down into rural Virginia, via small, winding roads, past horse farms and plantation houses and wooded hillsides. An evening drive through foggy Appalachian country. And the days that followed: more drives past vineyards and lavender farms and the past the James River and up mountains to wonderful trailheads (good hiking and trail-running country, in addition to good writing country). All those drives gave me lots of happy time to think, and when I'm happy, book ideas multiply. On the 10-hour drive to Virginia alone, my brain was so occupied dreaming about two separate new book ideas and one new idea for an abandoned-novel revision that I had to keep forcibly harnessing my mind and pulling it back to the novel I am currently working on, the one I had come to Virginia to write. (Once I was at my desk at the retreat, it was blessedly easy to focus. It was only once I hit those winding roads again that my polygamous brain wanted to start new relationships with more new book ideas.)Like Andromeda, my brain has a hard time being quiet. For instance, if you were to hook a seismograph to my frontal lobe right now, these are the things which would send the needle flying: three short stories, a novella, a one-act play, half a dozen blog posts, and Dubble (my novel which is still a work in progress). So much activity can't be good for me. I need to find my zen of writing. Right after I finish this blog post.