January 1, 2020 § Leave a comment
For the second straight year, my unasked-for list of books I enjoyed:
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley. Graceful, complex stories about young black men in Brooklyn and the Bronx navigating the codes of masculinity and expectation that come with existing as a young man of color in the 21st century.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. What is disguised as a book about writerly advice shines best in personal essays about making it as a human observer in a world of glittering surfaces, and the spectacle of life experience informing art.
Less by Andrew Sean Greer. An alternately sad and hilarious novel that won the Pulitzer Prize, it uses its humor and swift narration adeptly to reveal truths about aging, love, relationships, and failure.
Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken. Concerning an obscure regional sport beloved by me, it finds new wonder in ascribing its invention to a fiery matriarch with a century’s worth of colorful descendants. The book is about family, and how myths and legends survive.
Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai. Layered, patient stories that demonstrate how art can celebrate humanity across dark eras, finding grace and beauty in the slightest folds.
Dual Citizens by Alix Ohlin. A novel of sisters and artists and the disparate paths they take, it naturally threads together compassion with cruelty, desire with sacrifice, ambition with ambivalence.
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. A young man’s letters to his mother, who cannot read them, composed of sentences gently stirred into small miracles to evoke the shared pain of generations.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. A tight, fierce book about institutional cruelty, written in wise and subtle language, unapologetic and never obvious where it is headed.
All told I finished the year having read thirty-four books, four of which were re-reads. I read more Roxane Gay, Lucia Berlin, and Sam Lipsyte; enjoyed digging more into Baldwin, Didion, and Modiano; tried out Tania James, Danielle Evans, and Jenny Zhang. I found myself juggling more reading toward the end of the year; at the moment I have ten in progress, which has to be a record for me. This is what happens after you buy a bookstore. I discovered that mass-market paperback novels are great to have in your hoodie pocket or to peek at during downtime. There is a concerted effort out there to keep us distracted and depressed, but when you read a book, you at least retain your agency.
Meanwhile I have a story coming out in The Greensboro Review in the spring. An actual print journal with no internet analogue, so you won’t find a link to it here. There is something remarkably fresh and concrete about that. Over the summer I attended a writers’ conference and took a wonderful workshop with Joy Williams, where she punched me in the arm and generously offered feedback on two stories in addition to the one I workshopped. One of those was the story that will be in The Greensboro Review.
I am thinking more about the decision of writing and publishing, of what my writing should say, what deserves to exist out there with my name on it, rather than just publishing for some fleeting sense of achievement. My stories are getting longer, and starting to explore comparable themes–talking to each other–which is why I haven’t been submitting anything else, and I’m comfortable with that, with not having to refresh Submittable or look for some scoreboard of acceptance and approval.
And maybe by the end of the next decade, I’ll stop trying to be perfect and get my novel written.
November 23, 2019 § 2 Comments
Following a confluence of circumstances that allowed it to happen, my wife H. and I purchased Federal Street Books, a used bookshop in our town of Greenfield, Mass. After about six weeks’ worth of reorganizing and clearing our old inventory, we reopened the store on October 12.
I am still writing and still working full-time at the dictionary. This side hustle gives me a way to contribute at the retail end of the literary community as well.
The response from the community has been encouragingly positive. You can visit the store’s site or read about our adventure in the Greenfield Recorder.
June 14, 2019 § Leave a comment
“Pipes. I think it was broken pipes. I should have written it down so I don’t use it again.”
Next week is the annual Juniper Summer Writing Institute, held down the road at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This will be my first year participating, and I will be workshopping fiction in a class with the incomparable Joy Williams. I can’t wait to get started.
The above is from “Flour,” from The Paris Review #224 (Spring 2018).
March 16, 2019 § Leave a comment
Last August, at Bread Loaf, I was privileged to share a workshop with Kelli Jo Ford, a writer of sharp-edged prose about Cherokee women and families. And I got to read a portion of her novel-in-stories, Crooked Hallelujah, about a family of hard-bitten women in Oklahoma and Texas and the men who love them and let them down, balancing the older generations’ connection to things earth-bestowed against the youngers’ comfort with modern America’s blighting institutions. It’s all written in the snappy language demanded of the exhausted and the fighting, where the sentences tumble over one another like a rolling plain and divert at unexpected places like rivers. A story from that collection, “Book of the Generations,” was published last year in The Missouri Review:
Lula held herself something like together with a religion so stifling and frightening that Justine, the youngest and always the most bullheaded, never knew if she was fighting against her mother or God himself, or if there was even a difference. Still, her father was a betrayal of the knife-in-the-heart variety—something far beyond all their fighting—and here he was on a cool spring evening, right between them.
“He’s in Texas. Near Fort Worth,” Justine said. She bit her lip. “He asked me to go to Six Flags with him. Just for the weekend. He has a little boy now, I guess.”
She almost hoped Lula would hit her, but Lula stared into the hills. It wasn’t clear she had heard, so Justine’s mouth kept moving.
“Six Flags is an amusement park. With roller coasters. I know you might think it’s too worldly, but I can wear a long skirt on the rides and all. It’s sort of like a big old playground!” Justine forced a smile. She pushed a strand of hair back into her bun, waited. “I’m sorry, Mama.”
And another story from that collection, “Hybrid Vigor,” was published in The Paris Review earlier this year and was just awarded the Plimpton Prize (a merit that earned the attention of Lyle Lovett). This is going to be a sensational book, raw and honest and riveting, and important.
January 20, 2019 § Leave a comment
A few weeks ago I received a copy of Black Warrior Review in the mail, and in a strange convergence of my life as a writer-reader and my day job, I noticed a nonfiction piece by Krys Malcolm Belc entitled “First Seen in Print in 1987, According to Merriam Webster.”
It’s a 13-page piece in 11 sections, with each page headed by a different word from that year, followed by a short essay obviously prompted by that word. The words tie in to an overall personal narrative, written in the second person by a transgender man to his lover.
Here’s an excerpt from the part under the heading ‘BFF’:
Where we went to school the library was always crowded, even on a Friday night. People watched me visit you at work. You’ve always loved to work the latest shift, making money while others relax. Running out the door in your scrubs while I give the kids their after-dinner baths. Saying goodbye as I say goodnight.
At the BWR website, Belc explains in a craft essay how he was inspired to write the piece, describing his birth certificate from 1987, which of course details the birth of a person he no longer is: “The world happened to me as the person on the paper, not the person I am today, for nearly thirty years.” Belc selected words that Merriam-Webster’s Time Traveler feature identified as showing their dates of first use as his birth year. The other words include beer goggles, messenger bag, degenderize, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor.
Time Traveler has become very popular since we introduced it a couple years ago, and I like to think of it as a sort of fossil record for words. Scrolling through, you see trends: depression words in the 1930s, space-age words in the ’60s, words pertaining to AIDS in the ’80s, etc.
Reading his piece, I was struck by how Belc used the selected words essentially as memory triggers to chart out his own story, as he puts it, “to map myself onto my former self, and to use a form that organically allowed me to do that.”
As someone who defines words for a living and then writes creatively in my off hours, I have always thought of my relationship to words as two-sided: while some days I am trying to shape them, force them to do new things, others I must retreat and observe them candidly. But to look at a word candidly, and to tell its story candidly, requires ignoring the memories you attach to that word. I remember learning the word ‘come’ in nursery school. I remember pointing to it on the blackboard for the teacher. I remember how I learned the word ‘squalor’: not from Salinger and Esmé, but from the news article about a friend who murdered his mother and younger brother.
Belc’s stunning piece reminds us that there are words in our life stories that mark moments, words that lodge in our consciousness in a way that prevents them from ever being neutral, so they can no longer ever be “just words.”
December 15, 2018 § Leave a comment
I got away from writing about the books I read and enjoyed this year, so here is a list in digest form as I shared it on Twitter.
Probably my greatest literary achievement was attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in August, where I met about a half-dozen of the authors mentioned here and either bought and read their books in anticipation of meeting with them or in the months following.
THE IDIOT by Elif Batuman. A look inside the mind of an inquisitive Harvard freshman becomes a thorough meditation about the apartness of worlds and lands, the fractured nature of language, and the perplexity of love.
THE SPORT OF KINGS by C.E. Morgan. A novel about legacy, horse racing, and race relations spanning generations of a Kentucky family, vast in scope yet with scenes sculpted with delicacy and a playfully expansive vocabulary.
CLASS A by Lucas Mann. A chronicle of the 2010 season of the Single-A Clinton, Iowa LumberKings, and the dynamic that exists between athletes with their eyes set on major-league gold and the fans who cling to small-town hopefulness.
MARLENA by Julie Buntin. About navigating the waters of a volatile friendship ending in tragedy and the haunting of one’s psyche into adulthood.
FLÂNEUSE by Lauren Elkin. A a fascinating and whimsical tour through Paris and other literary cities through the eyes of the resilient women (writers and characters) sauntering through them.
FARMER by Jim Harrison, a quiet book about manhood and loneliness and the search for fraudulent ecstasies amid restricted promise.
HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson. A strange story born out of a mysterious place, “chastened …by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.”
THE EMPATHY EXAMS by Leslie Jamison. Wise essays exploring, among other things, pain and how we react to it in ourselves and in others, along with a generous engagement with the strange that reminded me of the best of Didion.
THERE THERE by Tommy Orange. A tense and layered story about the contemporary Native American experience, the struggle to belong, and the violence undercurrent in lives torn between identities.
NIGHT AT THE FIESTAS by Kirstin Valdez Quade. Stories set in the American Southwest that look at the spaces between families and generations and the challenge of faith and traditions among them.
SICK by Porochista Khakpour. An honest memoir of illness and its bafflements both natural and institutional, set against the larger story of one writer’s search for herself through cities, relationships, friend circles, and her own artistic ambitions.
IMAGINE WANTING ONLY THIS by Kristen Radtke. A graphic exploration of places buried, ruined, and abandoned, and uncovering the stories smothered underneath, prompted by the unexpected death of the author’s beloved uncle.
SIGNS AND WONDERS by Alix Ohlin. Richly drawn character-driven stories about the complicated and often damaged relations among intelligent creatures and their families.
STEPHEN FLORIDA by Gabe Habash. A lucidly crafted portrait of a college wrestler in North Dakota, and a darkly rendered critique about the constrictions of competition and obsession.
INSURRECTIONS by Rion Amilcar Scott. Wisely crafted stories in a range of styles that forge links between generations and neighbors in the black community of a Maryland town under the shadow cast by its history.
HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD by Ottessa Moshfegh. Stories featuring humans unafraid to peel their scabs and revel in the bloodiness of their wounds as a means of escaping the confines of the body and their own angst.
ONCE I WAS COOL by Megan Stielstra. Confessional essays at once chatty and thoughtful about testing boundaries, responsibilities, and the warped evolution of the adult self.
THE STORY OF MY TEETH by Valeria Luiselli. An imaginative tale as impressive for its wicked topography and seamless integration of philosophical theory as it is for the raconteurial wanderings of its memorable protagonist.