What I Read in July

July 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach. The best book I have read since Franzen’s Freedom and Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. Harbach gets the modern game of baseball right, but what dynamizes the book is the honest interactions among the four male characters each intent on their obsessions and the one female who is trying to find her place in and around them. Allusions to classic literature, particularly Melville but also the mythic baseball novels of W. P. Kinsella, are not forced. It feels as complete as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay did.

The Same Terrible Storm, Sheldon Lee Compton. Compton’s stories are about heartache and physical ache and people with ropy muscles and demons and an underlying bitterness at the unforgiving landscape that makes escape from those demons impossible. He immerses you so deep in a place you can hear the porches creak and smell the truck exhaust and feel the wind blow dust in your ear.

[PANK] # 5. I bought this back issue along with a [PANK] t-shirt because a number of the contributors (including the aforementioned Compton) were familiar to me. My favorite pieces were two short stories about ambivalent young protagonists: Neal Peters’ “Sulfur” and Gabriel Welsch’s “The Burdens of Being Progressive,” which opens with the can’t-miss line: “One Tuesday, Kathy decides to write CUNT with a red magic marker in the bottom of Happy Meal boxes.”

The Groucho Letters, Groucho Marx. I found this used hardcover in the Strand for 20 dollars. The years spanned by this collection start when Groucho and his brothers are well past the twilight of their film careers. (Zeppo doesn’t even get a mention.) There is a lengthy exchange with the television writer and humorist Goodman Ace, who I hadn’t heard of before, but it’s clear throughout the back-and-forth that Groucho retains the edge in wit. More interesting is Groucho’s correspondence with people outside the industry whom he admires, including T. S. Eliot and Joseph N. Welch (most notable for lambasting McCarthy with the line, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” as Special Counsel for the Army during the McCarthy hearings).

Masscult and Midcult, Dwight Macdonald. A collection of curmudgeonly essays by the Cold War-era critic, produced in a new edition by NYRB Classics. Picked it up mainly because a modern critic whom I admire, Louis Menand, penned the introduction. Covers such subjects as the Book-of-the-Month Club, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged (a subject obviously near and dear to my heart), and what he calls Tom Wolfe’s “parajournalism” (coined apparently before “New Journalism” took hold. Informative though dated, and not as enlightening to read today as, say, Trilling or Sontag.

The Common #3. Where the beautifully produced journal of Amherst College shines most is in its essays, specifically Bret Anthony Johnston’s “A Skimpy Primer on Skateboard Wheels” and Rolf Potts’ “Tourist Snapshots,” a discourse on photography with nods to Sontag and Roland Barthes, told through images captured by the author in his travels.


Payback For Those Who Have Wronged You

July 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Rule No. 3: Write what you know. Bellow once said, “Fiction is the higher autobiography.” In other words, fiction is payback for those who have wronged you. When people read my books “My Gym Teacher Was an Abusive Bully” and “She Called Them Brussels Sprouts: A Survivor’s Tale,” they’re often surprised when I tell them they contain an autobiographical element. Therein lies the art, I say. How do you make that which is your everyday into the stuff of literature? Listen to your heart. Ask your heart, Is it true? And if it is, let it be. Once the lawyers sign off, you’re good to go.

From “How to Write,” by Colson Whitehead, in The New York Times Book Review this week. Whitehead is one of my favorite novelists (though I haven’t found the courage to try Zone One yet), and while just about all of this article is tongue-in-cheek, this part aligns most closely with my own tongue-in-cheek one-word answer that I supplied on my Fictionaut profile page for why I write: Revenge. Meaning, it is a chance to re-write the real-life encounters that never went your way.

No Summer Slump This Year

July 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

I wrote a 4,000 word story in about two weeks. I don’t know if it’s any good or even finished (my approach is to forget about it for a while and then come back with fresh eyes), but it has a beginning, middle, and end, and the fact that I was able to write it so fluidly in the middle of summer—there was never any point where I got stuck, I knew what the next scene would be and the voice of the story just took over—is an encouraging sign.

I guess I should thank the Red Sox for being so terrible this year. Consider this your backhanded contribution to one man’s fledgling art.

What Happened with the Pulitzer

July 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Utter objectivity, however, is not only impossible when judging literature, it’s not exactly desirable. Fiction involves trace elements of magic; it works for reasons we can explain and also for reasons we can’t. If novels or short-story collections could be weighed strictly in terms of their components (fully developed characters, check; original voice, check; solidly crafted structure, check; serious theme, check) they might satisfy, but they would fail to enchant. A great work of fiction involves a certain frisson that occurs when its various components cohere and then ignite. The cause of the fire should, to some extent, elude the experts sent to investigate.

Michael Cunningham, one of the jurors responsible for nominating selections for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, reveals as much as he can into the nomination process and his speculation why the Pulitzer board ultimately decided not to pick a winner. First of two parts.

The Parking Lot Problem

July 8, 2012 § Leave a comment

While writing today I noticed that an inordinate number of the stories I’ve written (both published and not) have final scenes that take place in parking lots.

That includes both of my print publications, and, barring revision, the story I’m working on now. An early version of my unpublished story “Grand Fury” ended the same way, until I cut that scene out.

There might be a simple explanation: a story builds up to a confrontation, upon the conclusion of which the protagonist makes an exit, either for dramatic effect or the first moments of isolated reflection, and of course, outside most buildings are parking lots. The hero heads home, moves on, ideally a more complete figure than when the story began.

But part of me wonders if there’s an “A & P” influence at work, knowing that a) Updike is perhaps my favorite writer, and b) my first encounter with the story was in an undergrad creative writing course at Merrimack. Perhaps it set the model, in my mind, for narrative endings. Sammy stands up to his boss by defending Queenie and her friends, quits his job, ditches his bow tie, and makes his exit, thinking he’s changed the world with this act of courage, but then the girls are gone and he looks back through the windows to see Lendel in his old slot, ringing customers through:

His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’d just had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.

Million Writers Award: And the Nominees Are

July 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

The ten nominees for the 2012 storySouth Million Writers Award have been posted. Check ’em out, give ’em a read, and vote for the best one.

Book Voyeurism on the Metro

July 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

Somehow I fear I am the last person in the world to know about the Underground New York Public Library.

I have been waiting for the Internet to get this right. It took a few tries. People Reading cracked open the idea of showing folks enjoying books in public, and included interesting follow-up inquiries to willing participants, while CoverSpy emphasized the Book Cover Bingo aspect, with unseen readers reduced to mysterious police descriptions (“F, 20s, rolled-up jean shorts, peach tank top, big blue backpack, Union Square”) with the occasional revealing act of character (“M, 50s, yellow Nike shirt, balancing Diet Coke on book, Grand Central”).

But the UNYPL catches people wholly unawares, immersed in the peaceful act of reading, while trains speed and rumble through tunnels and people bump through aisles and talk on phones and announcements blare overhead.

What makes the site a must-visit is that the photographs are simply beautiful. Ourit Ben-Haim launched UNYPL as a photography project, explaining that she is “fascinated by how we apply ourselves to stories and discourse. In so doing, we shape who we understand ourselves to be.”

Working on crowded Metro trains and platforms with a Canon (not an iPhone, so no locker-room subterfuge going on here), Ben-Haim demonstrates an impeccable ability to frame the shot (a number are taken through windows, some of the train on the next track over) and, I imagine, split-second timing. She doesn’t zoom in on her subjects, so often we see them in a grander context, their bored fellow passengers (chatting on their phones; staring into space) being the chaos from which they seek asylum.

Also impressive is the fieldwork that Ourit does to identify the title that the person is reading, even linking to the correct edition on Amazon (when possible). For titles she cannot identify, she enlists the help of the Tumblr community in a Friday post.

Ourit admits on her Common Questions page that, while perfectly legal, there is an “ethical gray area” to photographing people in public without their permission or awareness. “I’m not running amok taking photographs without any regard for my subjects,” she says. “Street Photography is a complex art form with its own subtle language of communication. I listen to cues when I see them and I present my subjects respectfully.” The splendor of the subject’s faces seems to affirm that objective.

In the age of eReaders, the game of Cover Spying threatens to become stripped of its serendipity and mischief (Ourit includes a Friday eReader photo as a wry acknowledgment of this), and that is probably why the UNYPL has acquired a loyal following. It completes the act of people watching to which we all subscribe when we find ourselves idle, wishing we in a story somewhere.

Making Out on the Fourth of July

July 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

The mosquitoes showed up before dusk fell, drawn to our sugar drinks and our sweat, and the next-door neighbor’s underground pool. The party lights were turned on: cylinders of red, white, orange, yellow and green set up to dangle from the clothesline. We ate cookies and ice cream and I sipped from another heavy soda. Butchie said the bonfire was definitely going to happen, a friend of his came by and said so. Sometimes you heard rumors about stuff that like happening but the cops would break it up before it ever got off the ground. But this time it was real.

At Fictionaut, my story “A Spark and a Flash,” posted a year ago. A sort of fiction/memoir hybrid that I wrote to try to capture the mythic and dangerous elements of childhood. In real life I don’t have a sister, but I do remember begging my mother to go see the bonfire, and panicking when I saw the flames reflected in the windows of a house nearby.

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