Recently Enjoyed

March 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

At some point, I just accepted that my “natural breath”—to use Frank O’Connor’s phrase—was longer. I don’t think I can understand my characters unless I see them in a complete world, with a distinct texture and sense of place. I like to take the time to build that world, and I like to have them bounce off other characters, and that takes up space, too.

–Jim Gavin, interviewed by Roxane Gay at The Rumpus. Gavin’s new collection Middle Men ends with the story “Costello,” which I greatly enjoyed in The New Yorker last year.

I am easily mesmerized by the greenness of peas. I am easily mesmerized by good china.  And she’s nearly through it, too, the kitchen, and on her way to the deadbolt safety of her bedroom when her mother, my wife, stabs through my plate with a steak knife, partly to get her attention and partly to make sure I’m giving mine.

–Mel Bosworth’s wonderful story “Tuesday,” at fwriction : review.

On the bus to school, Lily sucks fat purple grapes through her lips. Ruth tells herself to stop staring, but her eyes lock tight on Lily’s mouth. She watches until Lily catches her watching, then hops across the aisle and squishes into Lily’s seat. Lily clutches the bag of grapes to her chest, snarls, “Do you have to sit so close?”

“Did he invite you yet?” Ruth asks.

“Stop asking,” Lily says.

“Are you sure you’re eating enough?”

“If I eat more grapes, I’ll barf.”

Lily’s eaten nothing but grapes for a month. Chic magazine says grapes boost natural pheromones, attracting the boy of any girl’s dreams. Lily’s got her eyes on Bobby Litchfield, a senior with biceps thick like tree trunks and dimples on his knees. He’s Lily’s number-one hottie, and she’s laid her claim for prom. But as a ninth-grader, she needs him to do the asking. So she’s taking Chic‘s advice to heart. Now, it seems there might be a catch.

–from “Dye Job” by Tessa Mellas, at The Collagist.

For Updike’s Birthday

March 18, 2013 § Leave a comment

I was sitting in a parking lot in Ipswich, Massachusetts—just a few blocks from the house at 26 East Street where Updike lived when he began Rabbit, Run—late for work because I just had to get to the ending of Rabbit at Rest because I knew what was going to happen.

It was hot in the car.

From his expression and the pitch of his voice, the boy is shouting into a fierce wind blowing from his father’s direction. “Don’t die, Dad, don’t!” he cries, then sits back with that question still on his face, and his dark wet eyes shining like stars of a sort. Harry shouldn’t leave the question dangling like that, the boy depends on him.

“Well, Nelson,” he says, “all I can tell you is, it isn’t so bad.” Rabbit thinks he should maybe say more, the kid looks wildly expectant, but enough. Maybe. Enough.

And then I went to work, and I don’t think I got much done that morning.

John Updike would have turned 81 today.

AWP: The Morning After

March 11, 2013 § Leave a comment

AWP Swag 001

I didn’t bring a camera or laptop with me to AWP, nor did I have a smartphone or other means for live-blogging or tweeting the event. This was probably a good thing. Enough time is spent consulting maps, keeping track of your wallet (location and contents), and trying to figure out if or why a face looks familiar to worry about keeping score for those at home.

With the threat of snow making for treacherous motor travel through central Massachusetts, we arrived in Boston a day earlier than we had planned, the fine folks at Marriott Copley only more than happy to charge us the extortion rate for the extra night.

I started with the book fair on Thursday. My plan was to seek out those markets where I had published work, or perhaps had work rejected but with whom I had enlightening correspondence, or some other connection, and work from there. Panels would be less of a priority; I had a few circled on my program, but most of them, as usual, were tied to academia or were on some esoteric subject that wasn’t going to do much for me.

My first stop was the Barrelhouse table, where I got to meet both Mike Ingram of the BookFight! podcast and Dave Housley, who will be running the workshop I’m in later this month. I spun the wheel and won myself a copy of Issue 8 to go along with my purchase of Bring the Noise: The Best Pop Culture Essays from Barrelhouse.

It was great to meet up with folks who had either published me, or had nice things to say about my work that was either rejected or withdrawn, or who simply had let me into their worlds via social media. The fear of not belonging is wiped away when a stranger looks down at your badge and recognizes your name, and even better when they remember something you wrote.

I attended an interesting panel on the novella, featuring five writers who have recently each published one: K.E. Semmel, Owen King, Edan Lepucki, Derek Palacio (pinch-hitting for Daniel Torday), and Andrew Ervin.

As someone who has been trying to place a 9,100-word story that was once, before some merciless editing, a 11,200-word story, I have wondered if a market would ever emerge for stories in that “dead zone” between short stories and novels, taking too much page space in a print journal, not profitable enough for standalone production, and past the attention plateau that seems to plague Internet writing. The consensus seems to be that tablets have helped to bridge the divide—Ploughshares’ new Pshares Solos project is one attempt at this—as well as a recent wave of houses putting out standalone chapbook-size novellas such as Melville House, Nouvella,  Dzanc, MudLuscious, and Coffee House Press.

A sliver of issue still remains: most publishers don’t want to commit to a novella that’s not at least 10,000 words (even Duotrope uses the term “novelette” for works of such length), but I didn’t want to bring this up for fear it would seem a) pedantic and b) like I was just trolling for markets for my story.

Later, I attended a panel that doubled as a reading, featuring the authors of three debut fiction collections: Eugene Cross, Andrew Scott, and Jared Yates Sexton. There was a fun and energetic Q & A session at the end in which the writers discussed the process of going from writing short stories to making the decision to put a collection together, and resisting the temptation to make narrative decisions that would force a unity to the collection (something all three said they tried to avoid), rather than let the stories stand on their individual merits. I picked up Cross’s book from the Dzanc Books table, as well as Sexton’s from Atticus Books, from where I also purchased Jürgen Fauth’s Kino , J. M. Tohine’s The Great Lenore and Steven Gillis’s The Law of Strings.

Snow and slush made the idea of venturing too far off-site unappealing, so I kept my options limited to events within walking distance of the hotel and convention center. Other people seemed to have the same idea. The much-hyped Not Reading @ AWP bash put on by Barrelhouse, Hobart, and PANK on the top floor of Lir was sardine-packed, and it was much more difficult to start conversations when folks had ditched their ID badges. I drank some very good Balvenie scotch and not enough water, as evidenced by my Friday morning hangover.

A Friday panel on writers who grew up in Massachusetts tried to work in the notion of a “rage”—an unapologetic approach that Massholes demonstrate in their driving habits, and consequently, their writing. I’m not sure the readers on the panel really followed up well on that theme. One panelist had been a student of Anne Sexton the same year the poet committed suicide, and it’s hard to follow up something like that with observations on turnpikes, candlepin bowling, and the list of ways Western Massachusetts differs from Eastern Mass. (as I was tempted to bring up from the audience).

I got bonus whiskey shots from the devils at Hobart and Juked. I ran into Fictionaut friends Meg Tuite and Robert Vaughan at the Tusculum Review/Connotation Press table and tried (unsuccessfully) to help them fix the telescoping handle on their suitcase.

Friday, I attended the AWP Heat reading at Dillon’s Bar, featuring not only the aforementioned Tuite and Vaughan but a diverse group of talents including Ben Tanzer, Alex Pruteanu, and Julia Fierro. Then it was off to the Plough and Stars, over the river in Cambridge, for the Don’t Forget to Eat poetry reading presented by The Baffler and Make: A Chicago Literary Magazine, where we met up with some longtime real-life friends (Eastern AND Western Mass.) to hear our friend Christopher Janke read. Then a fantastic dinner at Russell House Tavern in Harvard Square.

On Saturday we checked out and enjoyed a delicious brunch with our friends A., J., & L. in Medford.

I arrived home safely, and a lot less lighter in the wallet, having secured the following loot (more or less L-R, top-bottom):

  • Noö Journal #14 (pronounced “noo”)
  • The Great Lenore, J. M. Tohline (Atticus Books)
  • Fires of Our Choosing, Eugene Cross (Dzanc Books)
  • Kino, Jürgen Fauth (Atticus Books)
  • Here Is How It Happens, Spencer Dew (Ampersand Books)
  • American Short Fiction #35.3, Spring 2011
  • Missouri Review #14.51, Fall 2012
  • Lake Effect #17
  • Juked #10
  • Hobart #13
  • Evansville Review #22
  • Ampersand Review #2
  • Barrelhouse #8
  • Fast Machine, Elizabeth Ellen (Short Flight/Long Drive Books)
  • Willow Springs #70
  • Pank #8
  • The Law of Strings, Steven Gillis (Atticus Books)
  • An End to All Things, Jared Yates Sexton (Atticus Books)
  • Look! Look! Feathers, Mike Young (Word Riot Press)
  • Bring the Noise: The Best Pop Culture Essays From Barrelhouse (Barrelhouse Books)
  • Parcel, Spring 2012 (somewhere in there)
  • Microtones, Robert Vaughan
  • Participants, Andrew Keating (Thumbnail Press; not shown)

And now I am exhausted. In the best way possible.

What I Read in February

March 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

The short list makes it sound like I didn’t get a lot read this month, but in truth I’m in progress on a few different titles. Plus I’m in the middle of a book purge, which I’ll write about later, and getting ready for AWP. In the meantime:

Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Megan Mayhew Bergman. A lot has been written about this collection already, particularly with regard to the book’s animal themes, which felt to me like not so much a connecting thread as a heavy, taut cord. Bergman is trying to get at something valid: that our animalistic natures enter at odds with, and are sometimes the driving force behind, our moral decisions. And so in Birds we see a lot of ambivalent pregnant women, aging parents losing their faculties, and ailing beloved pets becoming weights around the necks of the people who care for them. What I think gets overshadowed by all this, though, is the quirky honesty of Bergman’s characters, the fact that she lets them run around bruised and fucked up.

I liked “Another Story She Won’t Believe,” about a recovering alcoholic who volunteers at a center for endangered lemurs, and is called in to help with them when the power goes out during an ice storm. She is supposed to look after the lemurs, but instead ignores them in favor of the building containing the aye-aye:

That’s the only place I want to go right now, a familiar place. The pressure is getting to me. I can’t look at the other lemur houses; some of these things are the last of their kind. They break my heart on an ordinary day—but today, when it feels postapocalyptic outside, when I’m here by myself—I know I’ll see them as they really are, alone. Finished. Hepburn in On Golden Pond.

The character’s train of thought references a lot of classic cinema (she wears a trench coat given to her “when I was in what I call my Gene Tierney stage”), suggesting, perhaps, a yearning for a dream world of burnished beauty and safely pre-scripted outcomes.

Bergman’s prose throughout the collection is fluid. This one was a quick read.

Fourteen Hills, Vols 18.2 & 19.1. The cover design of this journal out of San Francisco State University reminds me of the 1986 Topps baseball card, with the title a cutout against a black border stripe at the top. There are solid selections in both issues, but naturally the one that stood out to this league bowler was “A Foursome Bowling”, by Peter Stenson, in Vol. 18.2.

The foursome in “A Foursome Bowling” is a double date between two married couples: serious bowler Jorge and his controlling wife Becca, and alcoholic Sandy and her husband Daniel. Becca and Daniel are both recovering 12-steppers, and in the early throes of an extramarital affair.

Stenson divides the story into three sections, each aligned with a different point in the match: “First Frame,” “Fifth Frame,” and “Tenth Frame.” Each character brings his or her own buried agendas. Jorge wears his own wrist brace and keeps to himself as he concentrates on his game. This bothers Becca, who had embraced the outing as a social occasion, perhaps as a means to cover up any suspicion of misbehavior between her and Daniel. Sandy is an alcoholic who goes through most of a pitcher of beer (though why a pitcher, if two members of the party are in recovery?). As she falls further into the abyss, Sandy forces the rest of the group to scratch and scrape to reestablish their dignity. Daniel tries to elude the humiliation brought on by Sandy’s behavior by convincing himself that he’s in love with Becca. Meanwhile, Jorge is working on a perfect game.

Stenson does a good job of letting underlying resentments find the precise points to reveal themselves. Bowling is a notoriously lonely sport, one that avoids confrontation (even in head-to-head matches, since there is no defensive element), where you stand away from the audience (Sandy acknowledges advice with a bob of her ponytail) and your loudest opponent is your inner demon, and so Stenson lets omniscient narration ratchet up the tension:

Daniel stood and tried to make his last glance meaningful and have it be with Becca and it was, both with her and meaningful, and Daniel felt like the looks they shared—first across the decaying Uptown Alano Club from over the rims of white Styrofoam coffee cups, months later across forkfuls of strawberry and brie salad at the Lexington, her telling him about the miracle of the mundane and letting go and letting God and the joy of living clean and sober, and then just two months ago, the look they shared in Room 107 for the first time, the guilt of breaking vows and taboos and the excitement and the secure knowledge they what they were doing was okay because their partners didn’t understand what it was like to battle a foe more cunning and baffling than cancer—were better than anything, a secret, an understanding.

Bowling with some regular old pros, [Becca] said.

Maybe Jorge here, Daniel said. He slapped Jorge on the shoulder. Becca knew this was a mistake, that Jorge hated being touched. She went to squeeze her husband’s hand but was greeted by his bionic arm. Then it was Sandy draining another glass and peering at Becca, saying things about wrist guards and arrows, and Daniel had been right, her drinking was bad. They’d been there…what, twenty minutes, and she was already openly mocking her husband.

No wonder he cheats.

Francona: The Red Sox Years, by Terry Francona with Dan Shaughnessy. What is strange about this tell-all from the former Red Sox manager is that it’s written in the third person. It’s Shaughnessy’s book, not Francona’s, even though the latter gets top billing. Shaughnessy, a longtime columnist for the Boston Globe, has developed a bit of a reputation among savvier members of Red Sox Nation as a gleeful savager who seeks out narratives of sports personalities who, at their peak, could do no wrong in the eyes of the team and its fickle fanbase, only to be ushered out of town in disgrace once the bloom falls off the rose. He frames this one no differently, but with Francona being the protagonist, the writer makes sure he emerges with his dignity intact.

There are enough moments of candor, involving not just the players and management but lesser-known personalities behind the scenes, to keep the reader compelled, and the insinuations—primarily, that ownership got away from its own successful philosophy in favor of pursuing household-name players to keep casual fans interested—jibe with what fans have seen on the field at Fenway for the last three seasons. If fewer fans indeed turn out at Fenway this year, as we have been warned, they will at least be armed with a keener understanding of how the team got to where it is.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for March, 2013 at Neil Serven.