The Authors in the Middle Respond

August 10, 2014 § Leave a comment


On pages A8 and A9 of the New York Times today is a two-page letter, signed by over 900 authors, condemning Amazon for its recent strong-arm tactics against Hachette and its harmful targeting of the Hachette authors who, as a result, find their books disadvantageously priced or else entirely unavailable through the online retailer.

The letter was written by one such affected author, Douglas Preston (The Codex), and signed by such writers as John Grisham, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, Jennifer Egan, and Valerie Plame under the moniker of an organization called Authors United. Taking out the ad space for the letter cost $104,000.

“As writers—most of us not published by Hachette—we feel strongly that no bookseller should block the sale of books or otherwise prevent or discourage customers from ordering or receiving the books they want,” it reads.

Later on, it says: “Without taking sides on the contractual dispute between Hachette and Amazon, we encourage Amazon in the strongest possible terms to stop harming the livelihood of the authors on whom it has built its business.”

The letter then encourages readers to contact Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos with their opinions on the matter.

If there were any impressions that Amazon, with its sweet discounts and undeniable convenience, was ever meant to be a friend to the publishing industry, they may have been dashed for good by George Packer’s article in the February 17, 2014 New Yorker, where he writes:

It wasn’t a love of books that led [Bezos] to start an online bookstore. “It was totally based on the property of books as a product,” Shel Kaphan, Bezos’s former deputy, says. Books are easy to ship and hard to break, and there was a major distribution warehouse in Oregon. Crucially, there are far too many books, in and out of print, to sell even a fraction of them at a physical store. The vast selection made possible by the Internet gave Amazon its initial advantage, and a wedge into selling everything else. For Bezos to have seen a bookstore as a means to world domination at the beginning of the Internet age, when there was already a crisis of confidence in the publishing world, in a country not known for its book-crazy public, was a stroke of business genius.

So Familiar and So Startling

July 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

Roger Angell, 93 years old, New Yorker fixture, former fiction editor for the magazine and the son of Katharine White, stepson of E. B. White, will be awarded the J. G. Taylor Spink Award for writers during induction ceremonies at the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend.

When he accepted the award Saturday at Doubleday Field, Angell said that he collected “.300 lifetime talkers like a billionaire hunting down Cézannes and Matisses”— loquacious folks like Keith Hernandez, Roger Craig, Bill Rigney and Dan Quisenberry. And he gave his thanks to baseball, “which has turned out to be so familiar and so startling, so spacious and so exacting, and so easy looking and so heartbreakingly difficult that it filled my notebooks in a rush.”

As Joe Bonomo writes:

“…Angell’s best writing about baseball is always simultaneously the best writing about living, because he writes with passion, intelligence, economy, and humanity, and because, as in all great writing, his narrow subjects naturally give way his larger subjects. Angell shows us, again and again, how our loves, small or great, full of heartbreaks, disappointments, and diminishing returns, take many shapes. Angell’s is diamond-shaped.”

Angell’s best writing didn’t profile players in their prime, but when they faced crossroads—such as Steve Blass, who completely lost the ability to throw strikes in 1973, and David Cone, the veteran pitcher who was trying to keep his career alive with the Red Sox after a baffling season of terrible luck with the Yankees in 2000. That article, “Before the Fall,” was expanded into a book, A Pitcher’s Story:

He’d been smoking more. I almost never saw him light up, even when he was at home, but Lynn said he’d stopped inviting me to drive up to the Stadium with him or back home after a game, as he sometimes had, because he smoked in the car and didn’t want me to know. When I asked how many cigarettes a day he smoked, he said more lately but less than a pack. Lynn said he was way up over that by now. Cone did tell me that his doctor, John Olichney, had recently prescribed Zyban, a mild antidepressant that would help you get off nicotine when you were ready. One of its side effects was powerful dreams, and in August David said that only the night before he’d found himself pitching for the Red Sox, in a dream. It was all perfectly clear—the green wall behind him and the red letters on the uniform. “It wouldn’t be bad there, at that,” he said musingly. “That would be a change—pitching with those fans on my side. And I like Jimy Williams as a manager. I’ve always wondered what living in New England would be like…”

The New Yorker has opened up its archives, but since I can’t get the link to work, here’s a post with links to some of Angell’s featured baseball writing, and an earlier one from David Remnick made after Angell’s induction was announced.

Writing Blog Tour

July 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

So my troublemaking friend Adrienne Nunez went and tagged me in this writing blog tour thing where I’m supposed to talk about my writing process and what kind of things I am working on at the moment and it is nerve-wracking because I don’t know any of the answers because I didn’t study because I didn’t know there was going to be a quiz. But since I’m going to be a famous astronaut I don’t see why I should care about my GPA, so here goes nothing.

What am I working on?

Short stories are pretty much the only thing I write. For what little chance I have had to write this summer, I have been trying to revisit a couple of pieces that need work in order to get them ready for submission by fall. Two of them are stories that I workshopped in the Barrelhouse Online Fiction Workshop last summer.

Once in a while I entertain thoughts of writing a novel. They don’t entertain me back. If I do write a novel, I suspect it will be about a father and a son, because fathers and sons have been on my mind lately and I think there are a lot of fathers out there who need to have their stories told.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It’s awesome, obviously.

More seriously: I don’t know. Is it really a writer’s job to know? If you worry from the beginning what your work achieves that others’ work does not, it cripples you rather quickly, I suspect. If there is anything distinctive, I guess I try to bring a little humor to the darker side of things, and bring the reader safely through a journey of the confusing and the heartbreaking and the absurd.

Why do I write what I do?

I have asked this question to myself, wondering if there are any overarching themes to my work, something emerging that would unify my stories were I to arrange them into a collection. What interests me about these people? Most of them are lonely to some degree. They are trying to figure themselves out, where they fit. They haven’t caught on to the rules of society and perhaps are prone to embarrassing themselves a bit, for better or for worse. And I particularly think about people and the disparities between how they perceive themselves and how others perceive them.

How does my writing process work? 

When you work full-time you have to scrape to find any useful time to write, and the lack of a set schedule makes it difficult. You cannot just sit down at the computer and expect to focus off the bat and pick up from where you left off. On good days I might come up with material during my idle time—in the shower, during the commute on Interstate 91—and hopefully write it down when I get the chance and bring it back to the computer later. This is also useful when I need to break out of the framework of a story, not let its logical progressions dictate the scenes I want to write. Sometimes the scenes that work best are scenes that hadn’t been part of the plan.

Did I bore you with all this? 

Nah. I just hope my responses weren’t boring, either. It’s tough to worry about such things when you’re training to be an astronaut.


July 11, 2014 § Leave a comment

Stymie Magazine announces that it will cease publishing new content.

The magazine has seen itself featured in places like ESPN The Magazine, The Writer, The Classical and others. We published a trading card series. Stymie tried to break new ground or at least introduce people to the notion that literature and sports could intersect in a serious way.

Sports and literature go hand in hand in many ways—the loneliness of mission, the need for completion, the impact of moments—and Stymie did a lot of innovative things in the name of stretching the subject of the sporting life and creating literature out of it. I’m sorry to see it go, but I feel fortunate I was able to get my own small contribution in just under the wire.

What I Read in May and June That Wasn’t By or About John Updike

June 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

[As promised, I've been working through the Rabbit books again alongside the Begley biography, which I just finished. I am halfway through Rabbit Is Rich. A separate post devoted exclusively to that project will be coming later.-N.]

Freight, Mel Bosworth. I’ve gotten to know the author a little bit since coming across his writing in fwriction : review and other places. Freight, published in 2007, comes with a bit of a twist: submitted in pieces, the novel is designed to be read either in usual linear fashion or by skipping around according to the directions shown in the sidebar (e.g., “>>>PG 158 She pretended to sleep…”), a multi-pathed approach likened to a kind of leaping across text platforms via hyperlinks.

Since this was my first time reading the book, I opted to adhere to the linear format. It is about a young, nameless man who carries a lot of emotional baggage, as implied by the title. We learn early on about a young woman with whom our hero feel an obvious attachment, but who has slipped from his grasp. We hear anecdotes and reflections about bad behavior and regret colored by a yearning for connection. The musings of the lonely protagonist are patient and even, like those of a man who has spent a lot of time thinking about what to say before he writes it down:

All those years I put down a lot of alcohol a lot happened. A lot of friends grew sick. Some died. Others collapsed into themselves like dying stars that weren’t quite dead. And dying stars have a lot of gravity when they collapse because they grow dense. They pull us close. Sometimes it’s hard to get away from them. And even if we do get away from them, the gravitational pull messes up our lives. It messes up my life. Because they’re still in it. Because I’m carrying them even though I put them down. I think nothing ever goes away and nothing ever dies.

Because everything we carry touches everything we touch. Every word and every glance has weight. It’s all part of our gravity. It’s all part of our freight.

The False Inspector Dew, Peter Lovesey. As written about here, I had a flashback to my childhood when I saw this book lying on the bargain table at my local bookshop. I don’t read many mysteries anymore, so I was, perhaps, a little more cautious with this one than I would any other novel, knowing that a reveal was on the way, a mental antenna raised to the logic and evidential details.

The novel, set in 1921, begins with a love triangle: the young Alma Webster, her dentist Walter Baranov, and Walter’s wife, Lydia, who is about to leave him to pursue a career in Hollywood (she believes she has an in with Charlie Chaplin). They plot to murder Lydia while she is sailing across the Atlantic on the Cunard vessel Mauretania. To do so, Walter takes on a false identity, that of the Scotland Yard police inspector Walter Dew, who earned renown for cracking an earlier case relating to the sinking of another Cunard vessel, the Lusitania. (This choice of persona seems the biggest stretch of the book—wouldn’t someone seeking to commit a murder prefer to lay low?)

While on board, a real murder—not the one Walter planned—takes place, and a woman’s body is seen being tossed overboard. Since the legendary detective Walter Dew, now retired, just happens to be among the passengers, he is brought in to investigate and restore order.

Cruise ships, I suppose, make ideal settings for murder mysteries since the contained space places a cap on the number of possible suspects. And, in theory, those suspects—here a cast of card sharps and newlyweds—can’t get away. The False Inspector Dew doesn’t waste time on false leads and trickery. The brisk, comic narrative is less about bringing a killer to justice and more about the farce of Walter keeping up his charade. Toward that end, it wasn’t a bad read.

Incidentally, the Mauretania was a real ship, retired from service in 1934 and scrapped the following year. In addition to Dew, it was also the setting for Clive Cussler’s The Thief.

Fun Camp, Gabe Durham. A book that almost never happened, Fun Camp was originally to be published by MudLuscious Press before that press folded in 2012. Thankfully, Publishing Genius, out of Baltimore, swooped in and grabbed the rights of this fun and quirky book. I read it in one afternoon on Memorial Day weekend.

Summer camp stories were a staple of my reading as a kid, particularly Joel Schwartz’s Upchuck Summer (written by a psychiatrist) and Gordon Korman’s I Want to Go Home! (which I recall making me laugh out loud; incidentally, it is strange that the unhappy protagonist in Korman’s book has the same name, Rudy, as the loner kid opposite Bill Murray in Meatballs). The worst I had to do was a YMCA-affiliated day camp for two weeks when I was nine. We spent part of it raising money for the camp, earning pledges for how many laps we could swim, even though it was something our parents were already paying for. I came away with no idea still how to swim.

Camp stories makes for good narrative because they’re a setting where young people are left to figure out their own rules, how they fit in, and work out their own terms for happiness. But Fun Camp is not just about children; its vignettish format jumps around to include Head Counsellors Dave and Holly, letter-writer Billy, Chefs Grogg and Puddy and Marimba, and skeevy Tad Gunnick. With only glancing allusions and insider correspondences, Durham is able to draw a full picture of this community of individuals abiding by their own governance.

Booth #6. Purchased to read my friend Daniel Hales’s superb novel excerpt Run Story, already previewed here. This issue picks up where number 5 left off, doubling down on Booth’s apparent preference for emotionally damaged characters coping with their limitations in the face of uncooperative scenarios. Ian Golding’s “In the Essence of the Gourd” imagines Charlie Brown and Linus from Peanuts as older men living in poverty, busking in the streets by means of performances drawing from their once-thriving TV special careers. It’s a story loaded with ironic tricks, not because of the cynicism of these once-precious, optimistic characters (from the Great Pumpkin to Lucy’s football to the kite-eating tree, Peanuts is full of lessons regarding cynicism in the face of adversity), but because the of the new, strident level of desperation at which Golding has placed them, removed from the security of backyards and schoolrooms:

Linus stared at his army fatigues and shook his head in disappointment. He’d always hated You’re Not the Only Charlie, Charlie Brown.

“Now, for the last time, we’re Vietnam vets and the Man let us down. I saw kids getting sprayed in machine-gun fire. Kids, man. Kids.”

“What about me?” Linus said, his blanket dragging on the sidewalk, his stomach growling. It was the first time he’d left the Great Pumpkin and Boot Face alone. It was weird.

“You breathed in enough Agent Orange to shrivel your voice box, and now you can’t say a peep about pumpkins,” Charlie said, ruffling up his hair. “But show some emotion.”

The issue also includes “How I Came to Work at Wendy’s,” a sweetly somber graphic fiction by Nick St. John, and the prize-winning “Real Family” by Lenore Myka.

Hurry Someday at Stymie Magazine

June 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

On this Bloomsday I’m happy to have a new story, “Hurry Someday,” up at Stymie Magazine. It is the third in a series of stories I’ve written about a group of Little Leaguers-turned-high schoolers in the 1990s, following “Where the Sun Don’t Shine” at Atticus Review and “Duster” at Cobalt Review. Many thanks to editor Erik Smetana and fiction editor Jeanie Chung.

Butterfly in the Sky

June 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

I was in the second grade when Reading Rainbow premiered. I want to say that the first episode had the magician Harry Blackstone as a guest, but I’m not certain about that and the Internet doesn’t know.

My third-grade teacher, Mrs. Lemme, was not only into reading, she was into rainbows, so naturally she was a champion of the show. I remember when Bill Cosby did the reading for Arthur’s Eyes, which was the first book featured on the show that I had already read. (It’s required when you have glasses at age seven.)

Now LeVar Burton wants to bring Reading Rainbow back, and the host has launched a Kickstarter toward that end.

Because Generation X loves projecting its childhood staples on millennials, lest every awesome thing be lost to history, it took a mere 12 hours for Reading Rainbow to reach its million-dollar goal. It is now trying to reach $5 million within thirty-five days. “With the additional money,” says Alex Knapp at Forbes, “the company [RRKidz] aims to get not only on the web, but also to Android, game consoles, smartphones, and other streaming devices.”

The bridge across technologies would seem to be an obvious requirement for any media project in the twenty-first century. The new challenge, then, might not be instilling in children a love of storytelling via the written word but how to do so when the modern digital paradigm does all it can to tempt readers away from the confines of straight linear narrative. There is a delay in gratification when you read a book–that’s part of its social contract–and its enjoyment demands an uninterrupted streaming of engagement. And Reading Rainbow, as hard as it tries, cannot be anything other than a passive experience, one that teaches us less to enjoy reading than to enjoy being read to. (Adults have a similar relationship with NPR’s Selected Shorts). What the show cannot do is put books in kids’ hands and turn on the itch to dig deeper to find bliss.

But I’m glad it’s here to try.


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