What I Read in September

September 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote, edited by Gerald Clarke. The letters range from the early years of Capote’s career to the end of his life, and because he parked himself in a lot of remote places (Paris, Naples, Tangiers, Sicily, Spain, Switzerland), he used them as prime means of correspondence with such folks as Newton Arvin (literary critic and Smith College professor, with whom Capote had a two-year affair), Mary Louise Aswell (fiction editor at Harper’s Bazaar), Jack Dunphy (Capote’s longtime lover, post-Arvin), Robert Linscott (Capote’s editor at Random House), Bennett Cerf (Random House founder and publisher), Leo Lerman (his friend since childhood), Gloria Vanderbilt, William Styron, and later, when he obsesses over the fibers of research needed to complete In Cold Blood, the investigator in charge of the Clutter murders, Alvin Dewey, and Dewey’s wife and son, an aspiring writer. These letters, in particular, are borderline incestuous in how inappropriately far they go beyond the intent of the relationship, especially as the repeated postponements of Dick Hickok’s and Perry Smith’s executions become a dark inconvenience to the writer’s impatient self-interest.

The letters gush with the steam pressure of effusive Capote—everyone is “beloved” or “darling” or “dearheart.” As with most collections, the parts that are most interesting correspond with the years when he is writing and producing. For some reason, Clarke has found it necessary to [sic] the collection into submission, noting every instance in which Capote (who never finished high school) misspells maneuver or mille tendresses. The distraction is unnecessary. They are letters. The whole volume is a [sic].

Third Coast, Spring 2012. I ordered this issue mainly to check out Aubrey Hirsch’s “Other Aubreys I Have Known,” which at first glance I couldn’t tell was fiction or nonfiction. The other Aubreys, I soon realized as I read, are not actual Aubreys (at least, I don’t think they are), but people to whom the author has been assigned (much like the way we are assigned our names and birthdays) some kind of unlikely, under-the-skin connection, such as the near-identical twin for whom she gets mistaken during her first week at college, or the dive-bar waitress whose swollen thyroid gives away as having Grave’s Disease, which the author also has. Nothing wrong with the premise at all, and Hirsch is a solid writer (my familiarity with her work is why I wanted to read this essay), but something about the piece twisted me the wrong way—I want to say, perhaps unfairly, that it was the self-centeredness of it, the way we are supposed to grant the author this unique position that we as readers are not expected to relate to. Because if the situation weren’t unique, as nonfiction particularly, why would it be worth writing about?

The issue, though poorly copyedited, was enjoyable throughout. (Someone at Western Michigan University could use a tutorial on the plural possessive.) Stephanie Marker’s “Waiting” is a clever modern re-telling of Waiting for Godot, set outside a club in the freezing cold, where two friends wait into the wee hours to be let in by the bouncer. Josh Denslow’s “Too Late For a Lot of Things” is a funny portrait of an angry Christmas theme-park elf that manages to avoid cliché by forcing the protagonist to make a decision of moral decency. My favorite story came at the end: Claire Burgess’s “Upper Middle Class Houses,” in which a 14-year-old babysitter from a stifled, religious family, on the brink of her own sexual awakening, pries deeply into the intimate lives of her adult clients. Once again, the second person immerses us in the action, teasing our consciences:

It started a year ago and innocently, the slow advance into the bedrooms of the parents you babysit for. At first you would just stand in every room and observe the furniture, the layout, the knickknacks and photographs, interested and excited by the knowledge of these places you weren’t supposed to go. You liked passing a house on the way to school and knowing that inside the cabinet to the left of the sink, there was a stack of blue bowls. You enjoyed seeing one window lit up at night and knowing it was the study, which had a sagging futon and a reprinted painting of a Rocky Mountain vista and the entire series of Cheers on home-recorded VHS. And then you started pushing deeper, hesitantly opening jewelry boxes and dresser drawers. You never took anything—just looked. You started discovering more things, secret things. You knew a bottle of gin was hidden behind the linens in the Parkers’ hall closet. You knew Mrs. Stadler had a cache of romance novels in a file box behind her shoes. You knew the Monroes had one more birth certificate on file than they did children. You knew Mr. Aronson had a desk drawer filled with framed pictures of a woman, all of them turned face down. All these things just when your appetite. And then you started to find the sex things.

Hobart #10, 2009. The relaunch of the Hobart web site made me think about the print journal, so I decided to re-read the issue I had in my stash. On the back were a number of names I would not have recognized the first time I read it, but do now, including Mike Young (whose story “Susan White and the Summer of the Game Show” was a blast to read at Atticus Review) and Claire Vaye Watkins, profiled in the current Poets & Writers.  

Watkins’ “Graceland” establishes its theme of naturalistic cruelty and human smallness right off the bat:

All the great land mammals are dying. There were once birds the size of sheep. Pinnipeds used to be huge; walruses had tusks six feet long. Jackrabbits had feet like two-by-fours. Armadillos were as big as minivans.

The P & W profile depicted Watkins as a writer who evokes place, particularly her native Nevada, and this is very evident in “Graceland.” The protagonist, Cate, is a Las Vegas-born woman who left that city at 18 and has to share a plane with tourists when she goes back to visit her pregnant sister. Their mother has recently died. In “Graceland,” though (the title refers to the Paul Simon album), Watkins’ location of interest is the Sutro Baths, a private swimming complex on San Francisco Bay whose structures were destroyed by fire in the 1960s. The ruins are still there to visit, and Cate fears the rising sea levels will wash them away.

The story itself seems to drown in all of the character’s speculation of protracted ecological disaster; other than the dead mother, I’m not sure what the plot really is. It feels more like a springboard than a story.

Much like “Susan White and the Summer of the Game Show,” Mike Young’s “Stay Awhile If You Can” has a jumpy energy that demands a second reading. The protagonist is a muralist who learned the trade from his uncle, who now can’t seem to leave it; the elder has taken to painting on surfaces he was never authorized to paint and that the city must raise money to clean with a sandblaster. The younger man could use a change of scenery, but he is the only one who can relate the legend that casts the shadow from which he needs to escape:

But people around here don’t get ashamed. They don’t. They just grow beards and hope for a thicker rain.

It’s not like we need the murals anymore. Blueberries are the new fad, good for memory, with marionberries right behind. So “people” from California have begun to move here, opening fusion restaurants and comfortable sweater outlets. But when the town first hired my uncle, times were dry.

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, Ben Loory, 2011. I met Loory back in June at the Fictionaut Bash at the KGB Bar, then by coincidence came across this book in the basement of the Strand the next day. (I was looking for Ben Lerner’s book.)

Stories for Nighttime is a collection of contemporary fables told in the classical style, featuring nameless humans (and animals that talk like humans) operating in a kind of moral isolation. The clean sentences, in which the nouns do just about all of the work, offer a cold lesson in narrative structure:

“A man finds something in his throat. He reaches in and pulls it out.

It’s a snake.

What are you doing in my throat? the man says.

Nothing, says the snake. Just hanging out.

The man stares at it.

There’s something you’re not telling me, isn’t there? he says.

But all the snake does is look away.

(from “The Snake in the Throat”)

It is easy to rush through these stories, as the simple paragraphs leave a lot of blank space on the page. Their basicness, however, is the attribute that allows the reader to reset his focus on the weight of the episodes. The stories were originally published in a wide range of journals, from Wigleaf to The Antioch Review; the last story, “The TV,” appeared in the The New Yorker.

Post Road #22, 2012. This issue includes Julie Innis’s story “Little Marvels,” which is also found in her just-released collection Three Squares a Day With Occasional Torture. I like that the magazine interlaces little two-page “Recommendation” essays on books new and old with its fiction.

Two stories in the issue confront the topic of fatherhood and responsibility, both rather condescendingly.  In Ann Hood’s “Man’s Best Friend,” a man resists against impending fatherhood by pursuing an affair (never consummated) with a dance teacher. The title refers to the dog that the protagonist’s wife has insisted they adopt because “[s]he actually believed that getting a dog would ‘make him excited to do the next best thing.’”

But he had told her he wasn’t excited about the next thing, at least not yet. Maybe he shouldn’t have relented about the dog. Maybe it gave her the wrong idea. One night six weeks ago they’d smooshed their bodies together, and next thing he knew she was waving a pregnancy test at him as if he’d won something big, like Power Ball or the Pulitzer Prize.

The author seems to project an unrealistic motivation on her male character, giving him only a black and white moral choice (staying versus going). The wife’s character is drawn so flatly—the nagging spouse yanking her man by the ear toward respectability—that I read the story rooting against him going back to her.

In Jason Ockert’s “Sailor Man,” a man whose parents are recently deceased accidentally locks his toddler son in his wife’s car, then slightly injures the boy when he smashes the window to get to him. That episode overshadows the backstory, in which the deceased father had been a boxer and operated a vending machine that people still try to use, resulting in angry calls to the father’s house by people who get nothing for their money.

AWP Boston 2013

September 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

All signed up, hotel room booked. This will be my first year attending. Seeing as I only live about two hours from the convention site, I really had no excuse.

Exquisite Quartet

September 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

I was honored to be asked last month to contribute to the September edition of Meg Tuite’s Exquisite Quartet. The full story, “Living Off the Man,” is up now at Used Furniture Review. A hearty thanks to Meg and our co-Exquisitors, Misti Rainwater-Lites and Aleathia Drehmer, as well as UFR Editor Dave Cotrone.

So the end of October came and went and Violet had not mailed a check. No one else in the building had, either, like they had all agreed. Oglethorpe would have to leave his perch down in Florida or Bermuda or wherever he was and come up and find them.

Arts Eclective, Take 2

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

Today is Take 2 for the Greenfield Arts Eclective and Small Press Fair, running from 2-9 PM at the Energy Park in Greenfield, Mass. I go on right around prime mosquito hour at 6:00 PM, but the whole event–showcasing acts of poetry, fiction, music, and drama, as well as a Bob Dylan song circle–is worth turning out for. The full, revised schedule can be found on the event’s Facebook page.

New Hobart

September 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Hobart relaunches with a new publishing schedule, featuring daily web content. Such as: this sweet and enlightening interview with novelist Kyle Beachy (The Slide) on The Art of Skateboarding.



Acceptance: Where the Sun Don’t Shine

September 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Happy to receive my first acceptance of the fall submitting season, by Atticus Review, for my short story “Where the Sun Don’t Shine.” Date to be determined. Possible themes in which the story might fit (since AR produces weekly theme issues): sports (baseball), addiction, childhood, murder, basements, swearing.

Greenfield Arts Eclective & Small Press Fair

September 6, 2012 § Leave a comment


Excited to be a part of the 3rd Annual Greenfield Arts Eclective & Small Press Fair, this Saturday, September 8 at Greenfield’s Energy Park. I will be reading a selection of work old and new at around 6:00ish (hopefully that’s not when the freight train decides to roll on by), but the whole event is worth turning out for. Other featured readers include my friends, poet Christopher Janke and novelist Emily Arsenault. There will also be plays and musical acts, including Daniel hales, and the frost heaves., who will be playing tunes from their just-released album You Make a Better Door Than a Window, and whose lead singer is the hard-working guy mainly responsible for putting the whole shebang together. If you’re in the area, stop on by!

What I Read in August

September 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Frankly, not a whole lot, at least not in the way of books, as I tried to catch up on old New Yorkers and Poets & Writerses. Two short stories stood out: Tessa Hadley’s “An Abduction” (July 9 & 16), and, to show you just far behind I’ve fallen, Junot Diaz’s “Miss Lora,” from April 23.

It has been argued that, for a British writer, Hadley appears in the New Yorker way too frequently (she has published ten stories in the magazine since 2007, by my count). Her aesthetic doesn’t do any favors for the readership. But I enjoyed “An Abduction,” which is not really about an abduction, but about a girl who willingly gets into a car with some rakish young blokes. She helps them shoplift alcohol and gets taken to one of the boys’ parents’ house, where there is a dirty pool. Much of the energy of the story comes from the hazardous, hostile tone of the flirtation from the boys:

“I think we should swim,” Daniel suggested. “It’s just too fucking hot.”

Jane blushed: his word was so forbidden that she hardly knew how she knew it—the girls never used it at school. It was an entrance, glowering with darkness, into the cave of things unknown to her.

“But I haven’t got a costume,” she said.

“Bo Peep’s lost her sheep,” Nigel mocked.

“Swim nude,” Daniel suggested. “No one can see—except us, and we like you.”

“Miss Lora” is another story about an inappropriate relationship, this one between a sixteen-year-old boy and his adult neighbor, who comes with a reputation (“That woman needs to keep her clothes on, the mothers complained”; “Bitch made Iggy Pop look chub, and every summer she caused a serious commotion at the pool”) that he leverages against that of his cautious girlfriend, who wants to remain a virgin. The story is told in the second person, with you, the reader, in the role of the boy getting backslaps for making this mischievous fantasy happen, and it is set in 1985, which allows Diaz to open the narrative with distancing flashback:

Years later, you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother would you have done it? You’d remember how all the other guys had hated on her—how skinny she was, no culo, no titties, como un palito, but your brother didn’t care. I’d fuck her.

You’d fuck anything, someone jeered.

And he had given that someone the eye. You make that sound like it’s a bad thing.

The brother who would fuck anything is now dead of cancer, which doubles as inspiration and excuse for the boy’s acting out, and later, as the spectre of guilt:

She squeals with delight when she sees the plastic-covered sofa and the wooden spoons hanging on the wall. You admit to feeling a little bad for your mother.

Of course you end up downstairs in your basement. Where your brother’s things are still in evidence. She goes right for his boxing gloves.

Please put those down.

She pushes them into her face, smelling them.

You can’t relax. You keep swearing that you hear your mother or Paloma at the door. It makes you stop every five minutes. It’s unsettling to wake up in your bed with her. She makes coffee and scrambled eggs and listens not to Radio Wado but to the “Morning Zoo,” and laughs at everything. It’s too strange. Paloma calls to see if you are going to school, and Miss Lora is walking around in a T-shirt, her flat skinny rump visible.

In addition:

All the Conspirators, Christopher Isherwood. The British writer’s first novel, published in 1928, about an infantilized young man acting out against his doting mother, is flawed and careful the way many first novels are, and, like the novels of his British forbears, too focused on the delaying conflicts of manners (“I say, I hope I haven’t bored you dreadfully”). But I bought it used for $3.95 and when else am I going to read Isherwood?

Salamander, Vol. 17, No 2, Summer 2012. An all-fiction issue, with war and health care as central themes. There are, in fact, three consecutive first-person stories narrated by doctors, and the first two of those, oncologists. Cancer is overburdened throughout the issue with the twin jobs of antagonist and metaphor. I was glad to see new work by Sarah Hulse (whose “Sine Die” won the 2011 Willow Springs Fiction Prize), and I enjoyed Siobhan Fallon’s story “Tips for a Smooth Transition,” in which a woman vacations in Hawaii with her husband, back from Afghanistan and exhibiting behavior suggestive of PTSD. The wife was not completely faithful while her husband was away, and Fallon cleverly interweaves the narrative with excerpts from a condescending how-to book that the wife has consulted in an effort to aid his re-entry into society. On the whole, though, the issue clung much too neatly to its stated themes, and ended up feeling very repetitive by the end.

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