Memories of Lorem Ipsum

November 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

Having never really lived in anything like a city before, being able to pick up on a community’s the sense of humor, range of tastes, and common interests, just by stopping into the neighborhood bookstore, left a big impact on me. Between the shop’s rainy-day discount, campy pulp novels, handwritten employee recommendations on little notecards taped to the shelves, curated sections of fairly odd fairy tales, a how-to section filled with titles specifically beginning with the words “How To”, the prominently displayed primers on tap-dancing and left-handed calligraphy highlighted the strange and curious details of this new setting I was just beginning to understand.

(Peter Loftus, store manager)

At The Media, friends and staff members offer their memories of Lorem Ipsum Books, the Cambridge bookstore, tiny concert venue, literary salon, and communal hangout space that lasted for ten years before closing its doors last month.

I only met the founder, Matt Mankins, once, but he was a friend of my (now) sister-in-law, and my only visit to Lorem Ipsum came when the store was still finding its shape. Mankins had developed his own inventory and pricing software that set prices based upon a book’s scarcity according to searches of other inventories across the web. Lorem Ipsum began as an extension of his online business.

The store site became a neighborhood staple of Cambridge’s Inman Square before falling behind on its rent. An IndieGoGo campaign helped to stave off eviction for a little more than a year.

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What I Read in October

November 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

Iron Horse Literary Review 12.6/13.1, 2011. An all-fiction double-issue that boasts some rather big names: Alice Hoffman, Claire Vaye Watkins, Aaron Gwyn, Pam Houston, and Padgett Powell, among others. Steve Yarbrough’s “The Basement” is set on my native North Shore, with landmarks familiar to me. Yarbrough grew up in Mississippi and now teaches at Emerson College. The narrator is a wisecracking dishonest plumber. It’s a good, enjoyable story, but I find it hard to forgive the author for an offense such as this:

Food was one source of trouble between my wife and me. Everybody thinks Catholic’s Catholic, like gin’s gin, but I’m Italian whereas she comes from one of those Irish families where everybody’s been a fire-fighter going back to about 1910, and the stuff people eat would be rejected by a discriminating garbage disposal. You drive around any one of these little towns up here north of the city and, every block or two, you’ll see some hole-in-the-wall place with a sign that says, Roast Beef. That’s all they eat: roast beef with mashed potatoes smothered in gooey, glue-based gravy and, on the side, a few soggy green things that began life as Brussels sprouts. These people are not just uninterested in good food. They’re aggressively opposed to it.

When I moved away from the North Shore the first thing I noticed was a conspicuous absence of roast-beef establishments. I hadn’t realized they were a North Shore thing and immediately missed them. The establishments vary in quality: essentially, there is Kelly’s and all of the immigrant-owned corner shops that aren’t Kelly’s—but I’ve never had my beef with potatoes and gravy, more like on a bun with cheese and sauce and a cup of clam chowder. Order yourself a junior with cheese and sauce and get back to me, Mr. Yarbrough.

Puerto del Sol #49.2, Spring 2014. This journal is produced by the English Department of New Mexico State University. The name and origin would seem to encourage work evoking the American Southwest, but this issue goes for a more universal sensibility, and every so often comes back to the unserious. The story “First Blood” by Kate Folk, told in the first person, is about a childish man who sets up a duel of sorts in the woods with his pregnant wife’s lover. Later, Shane Allison has a poem comprised entirely of the names of mall stores. (“Casual Corner, Structure, American Eagle Outfitters, Styles, Gadzooks…”).

It’s not always easy to tell which prose pieces are fiction and which are not, since “prose” is the label used in the Table of Contents. Brad Efford’s “Believe” strives for the kind of lesson that a good personal essay attains. It is about a dad who accompanies his daughter and her friends to a Justin Bieber concert, juxtaposing with his own experience amongst an older crowd at a Jeff Magnum show:

A minute before showtime, the lights dim and the digital numbers on the screens begin to throb in and out like a 3-D movie or a heartbeat. Fifty-three. Fifty-two. Everyone is on their feet, legs spasming, lungs emptied of air that’s constantly streaming through the esophagus and out into the general ozone of the stadium. The noise level’s crazy, almost alarming.

Alarming, except that I’m screaming , too. Caught up, and giddy. Even the dad’s on board—he’s slipped the rest of his dinner beneath his seat and folded his hands across his enormous lap, looking almost content for the first time.

Twenty-eight, twenty-seven, twenty-six. It dawns on me—the absurdity of it, I mean. I do realize this is bit much. Can’t he just come out and start singing? Would that be so bad?

Yemassee, Vol. 21 Issue 2. I received two copies of this issue in the mail. It includes two stories that were runners-up in the magazine’s Short Fiction contest, but not the winner, which I assume was printed in the previous issue.

Michael Czyzniejewski’s “Memorare for the Ding Dong” manages to inject a streak of poignancy into a playful topic, the beloved snack cake in the title, which his college girlfriend knew by a different name in the part of the country where she grew up. More to the point, the essay is about the odd fondnesses that we take away from our relationships, even those that stray from us.

Middle Men, Jim Gavin. I was introduced to Gavin’s work when I read his story “Costello” in The New Yorker. It is the last story in this collection, paired with another story about the title character’s son, and it is the best story in the book. I felt renewed joy coming back to it, even though nothing much happens in it: Marty Costello, a plumbing supply sales representative in southern California, is nominated for a local award in the industry. As the middle man between wholesalers and plumbers, his job is to move things around and stay engaged in conversation, running interference when defective shipments are allowed into the marketplace. A widower with two adult daughters, his loneliness is tamped down by the wit and patience that Gavin installs in him:

“We’re turning on the barbecue tonight,” Rocha says. “Feel free to come by.”

A year of warm regards and kind invitations. A year of telling lies to avoid them.

“I’m meeting the girls for dinner,” Costello says. “Thanks, though.”

Rocha salutes and leaves the wall. A moment later, the sound of his diving board, then a splash of impressive magnitude. Jesse Rocha, a virtuoso of the cannonball.

Costello lights up. Tareyton, the taste we’re fighting for. No more sneaking them behind her back. Now he can kill himself out in the open, under a blue sky.

Costello floats for a few minutes, blowing smoke rings, idly snapping the Zippo. Nice and quiet. A dragonfly hovers over the water, touching down smooth and fast, then gone, zigzagging up and over the wall, a dustoff.

The telephone pole in the corner of the yard, like the mainmast of a ship. Galleons and caravels. Sailors in the crosstrees on lookout. Magellan and his crew, drifting on the equator, praying for wind.

He starts the crossword, but can’t concentrate. An uneasy feeling clutches his stomach. The lizard directly below, full fathom five. He pushes off toward the shallow end and disembarks, his feet slipping into the slimy water.

Gavin hews close to his comfort zones—the Dodgers and the Del Taco restaurant chain get frequent mentions—but in doing so enhances a consistency of place, which I suppose is apt for a book about characters not moving forward as quickly as they would like. His characters work in careers, like plumbing sales and TV production, that the author has worked in himself. As the title suggests, they are caught drifting around in the too-vast spaces between failure and significance, perpetually at risk of being skipped over; Catholicism and martyrdom pop up as themes. The stories are longer than your average short stories, shaped by delay and character ambivalence and a lack of urgency.

Famous Person Gets Story Published

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Tom Hanks has a story called “Alan Bean Plus Four” in The New Yorker this week. It’s also available online and there’s an audio version read by the actor/author himself in his dramatically trained voice.

It’s not a very good story. Set in the near future, it’s a first-person-narrated account of some friends’ attempt to orbit the moon in a homemade rocket. So there are app-based technologies and social media concerns and pop-culture currency, not to mention a very strong and unlikely conscientiousness with regard to the short history of space travel. And it is delivered with a waggishness meant to amuse the author:

The Americans who went to the moon before us had computers so primitive that they couldn’t get e-mail or use Google to settle arguments. The iPads we took had something like seventy billion times the capacity of those Apollo-era dial-ups and were mucho handy, especially during all the downtime on our long haul. MDash used his to watch Season Four of “Breaking Bad.” We took hundreds of selfies with the Earth in the window and, plinking a Ping-Pong ball off the center seat, played a tableless table-tennis tournament, which was won by Anna.

It even not-so-subtly makes allusions to Tom Hanks lore, including Apollo 13, but not the movie Apollo 13.

Naturally, people are criticizing The New Yorker for the decision to publish Tom Hanks’ fiction. The gist of the gripes being: he’s not a writer, he’s a famous guy who happens to have written something. “Couldn’t get James Franco to submit anything?” wrote one Facebook commenter. Not that The New Yorker has been an equal-opportunity for platform for emerging writers in recent years. And it doesn’t help that Tom Hanks is white and male.

Famous people publishing their stories is nothing new. If anything, the work rarely has staying power. I was working in a chain bookstore 15 years ago when John Travolta published the slim fable Propeller One-Way Night Coach, about a boy’s first journey on an airplane. It was supposedly written to amuse the actor’s friends, until someone decided to publish it. I don’t think we sold a single copy—Entertainment Weekly said, “there’s not a moral to be found in 42 pages of untrammeled, possibly unedited starry-eyedness”—and I doubt John Travolta was torn up about it.

And perhaps that’s the heft of the objection: the suggestion that Tom Hanks and John Travolta get opportunities to wade into the publishing scene without concern for critical fallout, much like a protected billionaire investor wading into a new industry, while the rest of us nobodies place full emotional investment and risk into our projects, the only things that offer us a chance to rise above the mundane. How do we know how much soul was spilled here? How can we know how important “Alan Bean Plus Four” is to its creator?

New Nobel Laureate

October 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

I seem to be among the majority that hasn’t read anything by the new Nobel Laureate, Patrick Modiano. That follows a personal trend. I hadn’t read anything by Elfreide Jelinek or Herta Muller, either, though I eventually read The Piano Teacher and have The Land of Green Plums on my shelf.

The Guardian live-blogged the announcement, waiting out media reaction with deployments of puff trivia:

The film database IMDb records that he is not only a fairly prolific screenwriter for both film and TV, but an actor, who appeared alongside Catherine Deneuve in the 1997 Raoul Ruiz film Genealogies of a Crime, playing a character called Bob.

None of Modiano’s books are yet available in the States, though Suspended Sentences, a collection of three novellas, will be released by Yale University Press in November.

Peter Englund of the Nobel Committee calls Modiano “a kind of Marcel Proust for our time, rewinding backwards,” and says his books, many about the World War II occupation of France, “speak to each other, … echo off each other, … are about memory, identity and seeking.” It is hard not to think of W. G. Sebald upon hearing that description, and among writers who perished before their time, Sebald, in my opinion, was most deserving of a Nobel.

What I Read in September

October 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

The Children in the Woods, Frederick Busch. Read again, for the second or third time. Frederick Busch is my favorite writer whom a lot of my fellow writers don’t know about. He is also a writer I try to emulate in style; I love how he tucks wryness and the pain that comes with the experience of disillusion into the folds of his sentences. One of the stories here, “Ralph the Duck,” was later expanded into my favorite novel of his, Girls, about a campus security officer in upstate New York who helps look for a missing teenager.

Several of the stories in The Children in the Woods reference fairy tales (“Bread”; “The Wicked Stepmother”; “Berceuse”), particularly “Hansel and Gretel,” and some reference the Holocaust, and more than one make sinister connections between the two. Busch explains his choice of subject in A Dangerous Profession, his excellent book about the writing life:

In the 1990s, I was drawn again by the story. I reread it. I thought about it. And I began to write stories in response to it. The stories were replies, I suppose, to the original story and to the interior self that kept returning to the first part of “Hansel and Gretel”—the part in which a mother convinces a father that they should abandon their children to the creatures of the forest so that the parents might survive.

In “Bread,” a brother and sister pack up the belongings of their parents, killed in a plane crash. How would you find a house that had been unlived in for a long while? Among other things, it makes sense that the smoke alarms would be dying:

First I went from room to chilly room, smoke alarm to smoke alarm. I saw little of the dust-fogged furniture or drapes, or the cobwebs blooming with cluster flies—the slatternly housekeeping for which our mother had been celebrated. Later, we discussed our pride in her carelessness. But this was first. I found the one. It was on the wall, near the molding, above the back-room cellar door. It squeaked like a floorboard, where no one had walked for a week, beneath someone’s foot. Every minute or so it squeaked . It was the battery. The battery gives out, and the gizmo makes its little I’m-a-ghostly-footfall cry, and you hunt it down and tear the failing battery away: one ghost less.

Most of the protagonists in The Children in the Woods are melancholy men who get their own jokes and find comfort in having their wits turned around, such as the oversized brothers in “Extra Extra Large”:

Bernie nodded judiciously. His lips frowned in evaluation and then turned up in approval. He said, “Bill, you’re looking good.”

I said, “For a dead person.”

“You keep up the regimen,” he said, “and you’ll be svelte. Does Joanne make sandwiches for you, with bean sprouts in them, on homemade whole-wheat bread? You’re so lucky. Does she nag you to drink mineral water and kiss your earlobes when you push your plate away?”

As I read I paid particular attention to the endings, which are quiet, subtle, natural, and yet carry weight, sometimes in one pinpointed line. In “Widow Water,” a plumber helps an inept homeowner understand why his sump pump isn’t working. The man’s limitations are revealed not just through the conversation, and his caution in dealing with the eccentric plumber, but his aggravation at his curious young son, whom he lashes out at for getting in the way. There aren’t many ways to end service-call stories. This one ends with a connection:

I picked the mouse up by its tail after the pump had stopped and Samuels, waiting for my approval, watching my face, had pulled out the plug. I carried my tools under my arm, the jeep can in my hand. I nodded to Samuels and he was going to speak, then didn’t, just nodded back. I walked past Mac on the steps, not crying anymore, but wet-faced and stunned. I bent down as I passed him. I whispered, “What shall we do with your Daddy?” and went on, not smiling.

An End to All Things, Jared Yates Sexton. A story collection picked up at AWP Boston. The characters in An End to All Things do not have extensive vocabularies and are confounded by situations they do not have the wit to turn around to their advantage. Living in the Midwest (many of the stories are set in the author’s native Indiana) in the 21st century, they possess skills without a corresponding market in the changing American economy. They argue, act out, and occasionally get distrustful with each other and violent. They are understandably exhausted and bewildered, and so the stories, many of which are told in the first person, are intimately told, complete with slants and hesitations, as in the voice of a friend spilling out his soul to another over drinks:

Once, I said to her, please, can you lay off?  She didn’t understand. Sober she was as sweet as a saint. I don’t know what to do, she said. I said, Hey, you’re gonna kill me. That’s what I said. You’re gonna kill me if you keep this up.

For awhile she was better. I’d get home from work on a Friday afternoon and the two of us would make a nice dinner and drink a little on the porch. Watch the neighbor kids walk around. We’d talk and things got back to normal. I was healing up and getting used to the peace and quiet.

Then she went out for drinks one night and called me close to three in the morning. Said there was trouble. I drove down and by the time I walked in there was this guy with a shaved head grabbing her by her shirt. Didn’t even have the chance to take off my jacket before she had me in it. (“A Man Gets Tired”)

Chicago Stories, Michael Czyzniejewski. Chicago is a city of diverse literary personalities, from Upton Sinclair to Studs Terkel to Carl Sandburg to Mike Royko to Oprah. This is a book of little one-page yarns in the voices of several real and imagined characters from the city, such as Jane Addams, Roger Ebert, Jane Byrne, and Shawon Dunston, with illustrations by artist Rob Funderburk.

An Untamed State, Roxane Gay. If you are a writer on social media you know about Roxane Gay. She is seemingly everywhere, with a story in every anthology released, serving as guest judge for every journal’s story contest, and this year saw the publication of two of her books—An Untamed State, and a collection of essays, Bad Feminist. She writes regular, flowing columns in The Guardian and The Millions on race and sexism and literary citizenship, putting hot-button issues into welcoming, but challenging, perspective. She is nothing short of a hero.

An Untamed State, set in Haiti, is a novel about a place struggling to reconcile its class war, where rules are not heeded, the privileged find ways to congratulate themselves among poverty, and civilization is lit by the cruel instincts of pride, resentment, and revenge. Mireille Jameson, a Haitian-born lawyer, visiting her family with her husband and young son in Port-au-Prince, is kidnapped at gunpoint in broad daylight, in front of her family, and held for ransom. Mireille is targeted because her father, a well-known architect and businessman, has money, and also for what her family represents: the walled-in Haitian elite, free to ignore the plight of the huddled masses.

Mireille is raped and tortured repeatedly by her captors, and the descriptions of these acts receive no short shrift, in fact serving as the bloody marrow of the first half of the book. Much like the attacks they describe, they are intended to stun at first and later leave one desensitized to their occasion. Mireille’s father, stunningly, refuses to negotiate the terms of her release, fearing that accession to her captors’ demands will only encourage them to kidnap others like Mireille, either in the family or elsewhere. This, we learn, is how lives are bargained over in Haiti.

Gay alternates between Mireille’s first-person narration and third-person relays of Michael and the family’s efforts to communicate to her. She also bounces between time-frames to provide backstory on Mireille’s and Michael’s complicated, tug-of-war courtship. The figurative sundering of Mireille’s flesh, psyche, and security lead up to the actual sundering of Haiti by the 2010 earthquake.

Gay equips Mireille with a voice of quiet fury and a realistic ambivalence that does not cooperate with her need to heal. The last thing a victim wants is to be told what to do and where to go, or follow instructions on whom to trust. All of the signals she receives are scrambled. Mireille is a complex, freshly resistant character, who at times questions her judgment of herself, along with her angles to happiness, and despite Gay’s structuring the novel like a fairy tale (it begins, cheekily, “Once upon a time, in a far-off land…”), bucks the archetype of the grateful heroine awaiting rescue. Unlike a fairy tale, there is very much an aftermath in An Untamed State. In the second half of the book, Mireille must come to grips not only with her lingering resentment (particularly at her father) but also her post-traumatic dread of anyone seeking to get close enough to help her heal, and Gay gives this aspect of the story the time and space it needs to play out.

After I finished An Untamed State I reread Gay’s short story “North Country” (in Hobart 12 and Best American Short Stories 2012), which has nothing to do with Haiti, but similarly features a proud character reluctant to let herself be won over. The courtship scenes in “North Country,” where the protagonist, a lonely, newly transplanted assistant professor of civil engineering in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is wooed by a persistent stranger named Magnus, reminded me of Mireille’s initial coldness and heartbreaking skepticism toward Michael at various points in the novel.

Desperate Characters, Paula Fox. Second read. I learned about Desperate Characters the same way almost everybody else has—Jonathan Franzen’s 1996 essay in Harper’s in which he fretted over the cultural status of novels at a time of so many other available distractions and informational stimuli. (This about ten years before social media.) He found a copy of Fox’s book on a shelf at Yaddo, and it “spoke directly to the ambiguities [he] was experiencing.” In response to the newfound attention, the book was re-released by Norton in 1999 with a new introduction by Franzen.

The novel’s plot etches a period of literary directness, which Franzen found encouraging:

The reader who happens on Desperate Characters today will be as struck by the foreignness of the Bentwoods’ world as by its familiarity. A quarter-century has only broadened and confirmed the sense of cultural crisis that Fox was registering. But what now feels like the locus of that crisis—the banal ascendancy of television, the electronic fragmentation of public discourse—is nowhere to be seen in the novel. Communication for the Bentwoods meant books, a telephone, and letters. Portents didn’t stream uninterrupted through a cable converter or a modem; they were only dimly glimpsed, on the margins of existence.

Otto and Sophie Bentwood are a cultured couple living in Brooklyn while the U.S. is in the midst of the Vietnam War. He is a lawyer who has had an apparent falling-out with his partner, who wishes to sever the partnership; she is a translator of French novels, and volumes of Goethe line their shelves. For all the bubble of protection they work to sustain, the couple struggles with indications of having that bubble shattered, beginning when Sophie gets bitten on the hand by a stray cat.

Sophie puts off getting the wound treated; infection sets in, literal and figurative. Things break in and walls break down. The couple drives to their Long Island vacation home, only to find it has been vandalized. In the final scene, an argument ends with Otto hurling a bottle of ink at a wall, the ink “running down to the floor in black lines.” Fox excels at inserting discomfiting details just off the corners of scenes; Otto and Sophie are streamed breathlessly through rooms and confrontations with reveals shadowing them:

“Who…?” he began. “At this time of night,” she said, as Otto went to the phone. But he didn’t touch it. It rang three more times, then Sophie pushed past him and grabbed the receiver. Otto went to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. “Yes?” he heard her say. “Hello, hello hello?”

No one answered, but there was a faint throb as though darkness had a voice which thumped along the wire. Then she heard an exhalation of breath.

“It’s some degenerate,” she said loudly. Otto, a piece of cheese in one hand, gestured to her with the other. “Hang up! For God’s sake, hang up!”

“A degenerate,” she said into the mouthpiece. “An American cretin.” Otto stuffed the cheese in his mouth, then snatched the phone from her hand and replaced it with a bang in its cradle. “I don’t know what’s the matter with you!” he cried.

“You could ask,” she said, and began to cry. “I’ve been poisoned by that cat.” They turned to look at the back door.

“My God! It’s back!” she exclaimed.

Best of the Net Nomination

September 30, 2014 § 1 Comment

It is an honor, as well as a surprise, to receive a nomination by the editors of Pithead Chapel for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net Anthology for my story “Baby Elephant Walk,” published back in May.

Thanks to editor Keith Rebec and fiction editor Ashley Strosnider.

Just the Type

September 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

At GrubStreet, Cam Terwilliger nails a problem I have only recently taken up in my own writing:

However, working too closely with what you have can create pitfalls as well. When we feel obligated to work on what’s already there we often become paralyzingly fixated on the sunk cost we have in the current text. When you have the draft in front of you, staring you in the face, you keep trying to find the way to make the scenes you have into scenes that work. This can be very distracting. And—more troublingly—it keeps you from envisioning radically different (but better) possibilities. What matters most during revision often isn’t what you have on the page. What matters is what should be on the page.

Terwilliger recommends retyping the story line by line to open up new possibilities for narrative, rather than shoehorn things into the framework that is already there. To this end I have been doing more writing away from the computer, in a Moleskine or on napkins, enough ingredients to bring back something new to the soup that wasn’t there before. It not only gives me more freedom to play around, but it makes me more excited to go back to the manuscript when I know I have something interesting to bring with me.

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