What I Read From January Through March

April 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

This is not a complete list. I did eventually finish Little Women; the weird vanity-press edition that I found in my mother’s nightstand only contained the first half of the book, so I had to pony up the ninety-nine cents to read the rest of the book on the Kindle.

I am making a resolution to read lit journals again, and started with two produced right here in my backyard of western Massachusetts.

The Common #8. The Common always impresses me with its ability to find well-written work that evokes place without seeming like it is reaching to meet that objective. It occurred to me while reading this issue how much the identity of a place is tied into its history—the rivers that cut away the earth, the pioneers and settlers who brought their customs and languages.

Sara Smarsh’s “Death of a Farm Family” is greater than a history of her family, beginning with how her grandfather, Arnie, met her grandmother, Betty, and persuaded her to move with her teenage daughter onto his wheat farm west of Wichita. It is a history of habits adjusted to meet the demands of one’s environment—such as the need to stock up on food staples when stores are far away. “By summer the air is so dry that thunderstorms are smelled before they are seen,” Smarsh writes. Then:

[Betty] learned the blowing dirt of the country summer, when teeth turn gritty in the wind and shower water turns brown between shoulders and toes. She rode the combine with Arnie, a rite of passage for any would-be farmer’s wife, and woke up the next morning with clogged sinuses. She sweated the harvest nights of midsummer, when fans blow hot air through hot bedrooms, and sleep is impossible but for the day’s exhaustion, and humor is found in shared suffering.

Smarsh writes well about the security of memories and traditions—the mosquito bites and scratches from haywire—against the readjustments that must take place within a large family after its patriarch passes. The farm is abandoned, its machines and structures and mouse-chewed linens left there.

Smarsh is five years younger than me, but her grandparents are almost the same age as my parents—in the summer of 1977 my mother was thirty-four and my father forty-four. The closer generations place the characters in Smarsh’s essay in a dynamic that feels strange to me, as when young Sara rides with Betty in a canoe hauled in a truck driven by Arnie.

Meat for Tea #7.3. This little journal appears to be an individually run operation and features a number of local voices. I recognized several of the names, including my friend Daniel Hales, who has two poems featured. Western Massachusetts makes its presence felt in much of the content, too, such as in Miles Liss’s poem “Springfield, MA,” with its opening mention of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Some of the writing in the fiction here is a bit stretched—do we need to know that a boy’s bicycle is shiny and red? And how does a truck door “groan in agony”?

I thought Sara Rauch’s story “Swell” had an authentic Western Mass feel to it, but it is also a tender story about two lovers caught in the in-betweenness of wanting both to lock each other in place and move forward:

–Perhaps it is too soon, Alex says. Alex has dark curls and wears baggy denim cutoffs. She is secretive and familiar. A martini drinker and reciter of classical poetry.

–No, we are passionate and bold, Rose says. Rose whose family disowned her. Alex’s family drives up from the city on weekends. They sleep late and drink all day and tease Rose when she returns from the trees with twigs in her hair, her skirt full of mushrooms that might be poisonous.

Hobart #15. This issue is dedicated to the theme of hotel culture. Hotels make for a rich setting in fiction: they are where affairs happen, where business folks misbehave, where transients cross paths and regular people are afforded the opportunity to pretend to be someone they are not. You also stand a chance of running into a random celebrity—someone there as a guest, just like you. (On a recent stay in Boston, my wife and I stayed at the same hotel as a whole tour of UFC fighters, even chatting with them in the elevator at one point.) So a story like Katrin Gibb’s “As Elvis,” about a professional impersonator at an impersonators’ convention, is simultaneously exotic and realistic.

Becky Adnot-Haynes’ “Thank You for the _____” is only three and a half pages long, but probes deep into the psyches of a couple displaced (literally) by a natural force:

I watch my husband sop up red sauce with a piece of bread. He is less handsome in profile than he is straight-on, his chin weak and baggy and his nose slightly too large, with a bump in it, and I feel suddenly irritable with him. “You know,” I say, “they can hide in the spines of books.”

He swallows. “What can?”

“Bedbugs.”

He turns to me so that he’s straight-on, his face now the better version of itself, but I’m already mad. “You think I brought them in?” he says.

“It seems highly possible.”

Tempo Maps, Daniel Hales (Ixnay Press): I heard the author, who is a good friend, read this chapbook of poems in its entirety last year. They are arranged to be read starting at either end and working toward the middle, then starting at the other end and doing the same. Reading them slowly, one sees a curiousness emerge about ambient noise and its enchanting patterns, not only produced by nature but the incidental workings of pre-digital technologies:

The notation insists that you are an instrument in this

says here comes the mallet

now radiate like a stuck vibe

(“Minor Symphony: Score”)

finding the day

gray

or beautiful somehow because of

fuzz from a dirty connection

moving parts’ audible hiss

(“Crosswalks, Revised”)

It may wake us later like the printer

cleaning its heads at three a.m.

it may hum what you meant to write

on the back of your hand

(“Marker”)

the pharmacy robot garbles your name

on the answering machine

like it’s a tropical disease

(“Beats Per”)

These allusions are not coincidental, especially when one considers the book’s title as well as the fact that 9 of the poems are titled “Minor Symphony” with a parenthetical object of study: snow, sweep, toads, signatures. The book is paired with a CD of Hales’ music.

Swell, Corwin Ericson. I am acquainted with the author. Swell came recommended by several people close to me, and it’s unlike any book I have ever read. Set on a fictional island called Bismuth (the names here alone are eyebrow-raising—the narrator is named Orange Whippey–and the fake geography is imaginatively laid out) off the coast of New England, the novel manages to be fantastical and realistic at the same time; what struck me is how believably its eclectic cast of characters, living in such close quarters, interacted with each other: naturally unsurprised by each other’s quirks, yet frustrated at certain moments through their lack of options. There is a resignation that the geographical limitations of their homeland are something they have accepted. (The TV series Northern Exposure came to mind, even though I never really watched much of it.)

There is a plot, too, involving a scheme to erect a cell-phone network using an army of coastal whales and a narrator who is somehow tasked with locating a critical package that has gone missing. There is also an element called seagum whose valuable properties are both functional and orgasmic, making it high in demand and the object of underhanded maneuvering. With all of these stretched objectives, the middle is ballasted with a hefty amount of explaining, which the narrator’s jokey manner of reacting to challenge offsets.

The Gardner Heist, Ulrich Boser. I was 14 years old when, early in the morning of March 18, 1990, two thieves dressed as policemen entered the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston, tied up two guards, and made off with thirteen priceless works of art, including Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and Vermeer’s The Concert and five sketches by Degas. Twenty-five years later, despite numerous leads and a $5,000 reward, the works have never been found. The empty frames of the Rembrandt and Vermeer still hang in the museum’s Dutch Room.

Boser profiles the detective charged with investigating the case, Harold Smith, an eccentric who, in true noir style, wears a false nose and an eyepatch due to disfigurement from skin cancer. When Smith dies in 2005, Boser is given Smith’s notes, as well as blessings from the investigator’s family to take over the case. Among the suspects he approaches are small-time crooks and infamous members of Boston’s criminal underworld—Myles Connor and William Youngworth and David Turner, among others–all of whom bask in the journalist’s attentions as well as the whiff of a reward. They drop enough pearls in front of Boser for him to keep listening to them and continue his cat-and-mouse enterprise until it ropes in the Boston Irish Mafia and its most famous member, mastermind Whitey Bulger (captured in 2011, convicted on charges of racketeering, extortion, and accessory to murder in 2013).

Since the publication of the book in 2009, investigators now believe they “know the identities of the thieves and could trace the art from Boston to Connecticut and Philadelphia,” but have not released the names of the suspected thieves, nor have they indicated knowledge of the current whereabouts of the art.

How to Catch a Coyote, Christy Crutchfield. Another local author. This novel from Publishing Genius Press is an honest and spare book about a family sundered by tragedy. You cannot write honestly about family without getting into its dark closets, its secrets poorly kept, its slights and grudges and stretches of forgiveness, and the author achieves this through a careful manipulation of her characters and what she chooses to reveal about them.

Reading How to Catch a Coyote is like viewing an album of photographs spilled out of order. Events cover a span of thirty years: a chapter set in 1978 is followed by one set in 2005, then one in 1997. We also jump around from one character and viewpoint to another—though one character, Daniel, provides its moral center, and the act that happened to his older sister, wayward Dakota, is the fissure that sets the family to ruin.

Nature is presented as an unforgiving force against which humans struggle to behave. Coyotes threaten the neighborhood, including the woods behind the Walkers’ home. At the encouragement of a friend, Daniel’s father—named Hill Walker, a name that evokes a laboring against the obstacles of nature—sets traps to try to catch and kill them. The animals’ presence is a constant against the flux in which the family finds itself, which explains why, at the beginning of the book, Daniel attempts to write a family history for a class and titles it The Encyclopedia of Coyotes—a work from which we are treated to excerpts throughout How to Catch a Coyote.

This is an earthy and sensitive book that gives voice to the quiet human struggle. I am impressed with Crutchfield’s ability to allow Daniel’s and Dakota’s characters to become polished with maturity as the age but remain consistent in personality. And I think the soul of the book lies in the interaction between the two siblings:

“Where do you go at night?” Daniel asked Dakota.

“Away.”

She prepped him for when she would leave for good, told him to picture a bigger room. She asked him to choose a parent, but he never could.

The moon was a bitten-off fingernail the night before he left, when she let Daniel sit on the roof with her, when they could touch the telephone wires but he promised he wouldn’t. She let him tap on her cigarette pack before she smoked.

Rufus had been gone for an entire day, and they were sure he’d been eaten.

It was the night Daniel trapped a moth in his hands and she punched him hard in the shoulder until he let it go.

It was the night Dakota said, “Promise me something, Daniel. Promise me your first kiss will be someone with dark hair and dark skin. Promise me she’ll look nothing like you.”

It was the night he finally said, “I think I’d pick Dad,” because his mom was yelling all the time back then.

This wasn’t the right answer, and he’d had to struggle back into the window by himself.

After Dakota left, Daniel poked the bruise on his shoulder every day until it didn’t hurt anymore. Rufus came back two days later. No signs of hunger, no signs of struggle.

Selected Stories of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. I read this book as part of a course on 19th-century American Realist and Naturalist Fiction. It introduced me to a number of authors I still check back on—William Dean Howells, Stephen Crane. I’m not sure what inclined me to keep it, or to check out the stories again when I haven’t read them in twenty years.

A lot of the stories begin with descriptions of the landscape or the weather:

A damp air was blowing up, and the frogs were beginning to peep. The sun was setting in a low red sky. On both sides of the road were rich green meadows intersected by little canal-like brooks. Beyond the meadows on the west was a distant stretch of pine woods, that showed dark against the clear sky. Aurelia Flower was going along the road towards her home, with a great sheaf of leaves and flowers in her arms. (“A Gatherer of Simples”)

The New England ethic in Freeman’s work is strong—characters live in villages and attend church, and pride of self-reliance is both a virtue and a complicating motive:

Harriet’s face brightened. “Thank ye, Mis’ Simonds,” she said, with reluctant courtesy. “I’m much obleeged to you an’ the neighbors. I think mebbe we’ll be able to eat some of them doughnuts if they air tough,” she added, mollifyingly, as he called turned down the foot-path.

“My, Harriet,” said Charlotte, lifting up a weakly, wondering, peaked old face, “what did you tell her them doughnuts was tough fur?”

“Charlotte, do you want everybody to look down on us, an’ think we ain’t no account at all, just like any beggars, ‘cause they bring us in vittles?” said Harriet, with a grim glance at her sister’s meek, unconscious face.

“No, Harriet,” she whispered.

“Do you want to go to the poor-house?”

“No, Harriet.” The poor little old woman on the doorstep fairly cowered before her aggressive old sister. (“A Mistaken Charity”)

Comfort Me With Apples

April 4, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Found in the corner lending library of our favorite local breakfast hangout.

Apple Paperbacks were a staple of my late elementary-school reading, though I honestly can’t say I remember them hewing so closely to assigned gender targets as Boys Are Yucko! obviously tries. Certainly there were books tailored for girls that I avoided: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (a Dell Yearling paperback) was practically radioactive in both cover and title. But there was other books with female protagonists that were less pinpointed in their themes. I do remember reading Freaky Friday, which had a girl protagonist who was into a boy. And I might have read Katie’s Baby-Sitting Job—the cover looks familiar—but I don’t remember for sure.

From this fan’s collection I remember reading Just Tell Me When We’re Dead! and the original Upchuck Summer (mentioned in this post), neither of which got much into coming-of-age subject matter, as I recall. Also, of the titles mentioned here, I believe Aldo Applesauce was, appropriately, an Apple Paperback.

According to Anna Grossnickle Hines’ website, Boys Are Yucko! is the sequel to an earlier protofeminist treatise, Cassie Bowen Takes Witch Lessons (Dutton, 1985).

European Gaze

March 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

Reading Karl Knausgaard’s New York Times Magazine piece about his trek from New Brunswick from Minnesota:

One of my favorite books about the U.S. is Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” which among many other things is also a kind of road novel. It describes a journey through the small-town world of post-World War II America, where the protagonist, Humbert Humbert, is constantly on the lookout for distractions for his child mistress, and therefore stops at an endless series of attractions, which every single little town seemed to be in possession of. The world’s largest stalagmite, obelisks commemorating battles, a reconstruction of the log cabin where Lincoln was born, the world’s longest cave, the homemade sculptures of a local woman. Humbert’s gaze is European, deeply sophisticated, cultivated and ancient, but also perverted and sick, while the things he observes on the journey across America are superficial, childishly un-self-conscious, ignorant of history, but also innocent and possessed of the freshness of the new.

There’s an opportunity to read a criminally reduced book in a whole new light–one that finds echoes in real-life crimes purported perpetrated out of immigrant disaffectation. I am thinking of the Boston Marathon bombing, among other things.

One Story and a Demonstration of Narrative Range

March 1, 2015 § Leave a comment

IMG_0338 (2)My reading so far in 2015 has been scattered across the board, as I continue to catch up on New Yorkers and wander in and out of Little Women and, in January, dipped into a couple of long-put-off books by local friends. In between, I’ve been getting to know the selections from One Story.

Toward the end of last year I realized that some of my lit journal subscriptions had lapsed, so I looked around for new ones to try out, and decided I should take a look at this one. Five issues in, I’m really glad I did.

There aren’t many outlets around for long-form fiction, particularly in print, where space limitations make it a challenge. The five stories I have read from One Story show off a range of narrative structures, including:

-First-person present tense that reads like third-person, with asides for expansive ancestral backstory (Issue # 197, “North” by Aria Beth Sloss);

-Exposition and commentary from an untrustworthy first-person narrator (Issue # 201, “All Lateral” by Matt Sumell);

-Second-person history of a woman’s life measured out by her history of boyfriends and lovers (Issue # 198, “An Inventory” by Joan Wickersham);

-A helicoptering third-person-omniscient story of manners set at a party honoring a wealthy South African businessman (Issue # 200, “A Party for the Colonel” by F. T. Kola).

In Sloss’s story, the narrator is the daughter of an explorer with ambitions to reach the North Pole via hot-air balloon; she tells a story she was not around to witness, because she was in utero during the events. We learn in the first line that the voyage toward which the story builds up ended in tragedy:

My father made it as far as Little Iceland. That was the name of the iceberg they found his notebook frozen into, interred like a fossil.

So what we get is a tale regaled in second-hand fashion, with its ending spilled from the start, but that deftly wields the present tense to create intimate scenes of domestic tension:

My mother sits across the table from him, smoothing the napkin across her knees. She pretends not to notice how quickly he eats, moving his fork mechanically back and forth until his plate is clean. When dinner is done, he gets up immediately and goes to the little desk by the window and sits down. Opens his notebook to a new page.

Supplies needed for the construction of a balloon, he writes.

(I love the elision of the subject in the final line of the first paragraph. It is typical of the pacing here, which is one of the story’s strengths.)

Sumell’s story is right up my alley, its narrative pushed forward by a voice out to cause damage with a number of acidic lines:

He lit a cigarette. “Hate to lose you,” he said, exhaling smoke out of only one nostril. “Everybody likes your dog.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Let me know when you get back and I’ll see what I can do.”

“I appreciate that too,” I said.

It should have ended there but didn’t, because Tommy spent the next few minutes telling me about a chili cook-off he went to before we finally shook hands and I rushed off to pack the truck with whatever and the dog bed and headed north.

Like Jim Gavin’s Costello, Sumell’s factotum narrator is resigned to a life passing him by and has his character informed by wry observations of others. He gets off on being unapproachable and unapologetic:

But then she asked what I did for work, and I told her.

“I pump fuel at the marina fuel dock for eight dollars an hour, but mostly I read magazines and eat sandwiches, or watch my dog laze in the sun and lick pelican shit off the cement.”

The look changed, got scrunchier.

We are eventually clued in that the narrator is not immune to emotional challenge—there is something he does care about and it is almost taken away from him.

Wichersham’s story is about the decisions of youth, tinged with reflective wisdom and not a small amount of ruefulness. Which means that while the second-person ostensibly puts the reader in the position of the decision-maker, the story reads more as a series of received actions, in the manner of a This Is Your Life-style reminiscence:

By now you had begun to gaze at Boy 18, who was in your English class in the spring of junior year. You liked his quiet, sprightly, manly dignity. He had a way in class of reading poetry aloud that conferred on each poem the tone it required. “Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving”—you don’t remember anymore who wrote the poem, but you can still summon up the mournful bell-toll of his voice reading it. He had delicate yellow hair, pale blue eyes; every day he wore a tweed sport coat and a white shirt, while the other boys were all dressing like lumberjacks and stevedores. He had an air of sadness, you thought, but it was somehow a pragmatic sadness, as if he were saying, “Yes, life is pointless, but then why not just get on with it?”

Strangely, the one story out of these five that I didn’t care for was by the far-best-known author, Ann Beattie (# 199, “And Then Someone Came From So Very Far Away”). It is about small-town New Englanders of late middle age, and pie recipes and farmers’ markets and the antagonisms that arise when the narrator’s sister visits from Pennsylvania. Although the story touches upon heavier themes such as drug addiction, I feel that its heft is supplied by too many internal thoughts and suppressed slights:

“When did chicken and fish become ‘protein’?” Prue said. “At the same time hair conditioner and gels became ‘product’?”

Her sister could be amusing. Her complaints were often bemused observations. What did Prue complain about, really? Prue, in spite of her childhood tendency to just give up difficult things if she didn’t see the end in sight, was funnier and a better observer than Nona. It had always been true.

Recently Enjoyed

February 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

It’s the evening of July 4th and the fireworks are blooming in sawtooth spirals, but the math is off, the spirals are uneven. We are mixing drinks in the living room. There are a whole pyramid of options, three of them spiked with MDMA—come play the American Roulette, we yell. God Save the Queen is the response from the balcony and we all laugh. We laugh until we bend and the corners of our ribcages are almost touching like a tunnel that’s caving in on itself. Soon we’ll be a complete circle of pale, snapped bones. Stonehenge of the body.

-Joy Clark, “Smoke Left Behind,” at Juked

“This can’t go on,” she said. “We need to sit down with the children,” she said. “We need to tell them something.”

Jenny wanted him to give some variation of the speech everyone else was apparently giving their children. She recited a version of it to him. She said, “We need to tell them something like ‘Mommy and Daddy aren’t living together because they don’t love each other anymore. But we both love you, very, very much. And we will always be here for you. That will never change.’”

He was silent. She’d asked him to leave, yes, she’d told him she was in love with someone else, yes, but she’d never come right out and said she didn’t love him anymore.

We’ll say something like that,” she said. “The children need to hear something like that.”

-Stephany Aulenback, “The Lot,” at Hobart

I was searching for something in every photo, in every update, in every public message someone had written him. I wanted a reason why he didn’t love me or want to be with me regularly. I needed a story to tell myself, to answer the why. I blamed my body. I was so much curvier than his previous girlfriends. I blamed my lack of experience. I’d only been with two other people prior to him and one of those people had been my husband. I blamed my lack of career aspirations. He owned his own furniture-building business too, although he spent most of the time working on his mother’s house down the road. This should have told me something about his lack of ambition, but I misconstrued it to mean he really cared about his mother, which was a good quality in a man, one that would supposedly predict how he would treat me.

-Amanda Miska, “The Online Stories We Tell,” a Saturday essay at The Rumpus

A Form That Accommodates the Mess

February 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

Samuel Beckett, dead some twenty-five years, is nonetheless giving inspiration from the grave in some of the unlikeliest places. First, there is MBecketTA, playwright John J. King’s Tumblr juxtaposing aptly chosen Beckett quotes with bleak photos of snow-crushed Boston. (Hat tip: Jenn Monroe.)

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If that isn’t enough, playwright Danny Thompson has put together a seamless and very believable film showing Beckett in the opening credits of a fictitious 70s-era cop show. (Hat tip: Clay Ventre.) As Ayun Halliday notes:

The title sequence hits all the right period notes, from the jazzy graphics to the presentation of its supporting cast: Andre the Giant, Jean Paul Sartre, and Jean “Huggy Bear” Cocteau. (Did you know that Beckett drove a young Andre the Giant to school in real life?)

To Resurrect a Mockingbird

February 5, 2015 § Leave a comment

What are we to make of the sudden news that Harper Lee will publish a pre-sequel, for lack of a better term, of To Kill a Mockingbird? The literary community appears to be responding to the news that Go Set a Watchman, a novel set in Maycomb, Alabama twenty years after the events of Mockingbird with Scout Finch as its protagonist, is due to be published this summer with a mixture of hopeful enthusiasm and understandable apprehension.

At Jezebel, Madeleine Davies offers fair warning that we should be suspicious:

Sadly, this news is not without controversy or complications. Harper Lee’s sister Alice Lee, who ferociously protected Harper Lee’s estate (and person) from unwanted outside attention as a lawyer and advocate for decades, passed away late last year, leaving the intensely private author (who herself is reportedly in ill health) vulnerable to people who may not have her best interests at heart.

Harper Lee is 88 years old. When I saw her name pop up on my phone via a New York Times Breaking News alert, I feared that she had died. Her vision and hearing were both severely impaired by a stroke eight years ago, and Davies writes that Lee “often doesn’t understand the contracts that she signs.”

Mockingbird was supposedly written at the suggestion of an editor who read Go Set a Watchman and wanted to know what Scout and Jem Finch were like as children. Did Alice Lee know something about the contents of Watchman that made her wish to shelter it (but not Mockingbird) from the light of day? Did she fear it would harm the universality of the first book, or did she think that the second book just wasn’t any good? And can we trust that all aspects of authorial intent will continue to be respected if the book’s author is no longer of sound mind?

My hope is that, if Watchman is ultimately published, its editors leave the text alone. Let its assumed flaws as a young writer’s first novel remain in place, if only for the historical value. We might be surprised: the fact that Watchman was written before Mockingbird could suggest that there won’t be much of an emotional “distance” from the first book (Scout, you’ll recall, is already an adult when she narrates Mockingbird); the characters had not taken hold in the public consciousness as they have over the past six decades, and since Lee did not write the book with any kind of pressure, perhaps she would not have had the impulse to do anything contrived, loud, or forced to the narrative. At best, the two books could be part of a larger, more expansive twentieth-century portrait of a young woman growing up in the Deep South during the civil rights era. It will be strange to behold these characters sprung from the frame through which we have long regarded them, but I suspect that, even if Go Set a Watchman turns out to be awful, Atticus and Scout and Jem and Boo Radley will retain their cultural import, as humans seeking to live moral lives free of prejudice and pressure and fear.

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