November 13, 2018 § Leave a comment
I am delighted to discover that I am listed for an Honorable Mention for my submission to The Cincinnati Review’s 2018 Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Prose.
Congratulations to Tori Malcangio, who won the award for her story “See What I Mean” (chosen by Michael Griffith), as well as to Maggie Millner, who won for her poem “Cherry Valley” (chosen by Rebecca Lindenberg).
October 6, 2018 § Leave a comment
If House on Mango Street cut me open, the poetry of Cisneros shattered me. I was expecting more of Esperanza, the narrator of Mango Street. Instead I got Sandra Cisneros herself — wild, raw, and vulnerable on the page in ways that left me buzzing. She wrote of her family, of violence, of travel, of sex, of lovers, of chaos, of loneliness, depression, and obsessive love. She wrote of all things a “good brown girl” from the barrio should not experience, much less put down on the page. When I read her poem “Christ You Delight Me” from Loose Woman and came to the last stanza — Suckle vines, I have to hunker//My cunt close to the earth,//This little pendulum of mine//Ringing, ringing, ringing — I couldn’t believe it. A Mexican-American woman, talking like that?
At Bustle, Lizz Huerta, my wonderful friend from the Misfit Crew at Bread Loaf, writes about Sandra Cisneros and how a writer is born when she finds herself on the page.
September 23, 2018 § Leave a comment
At the Ploughshares blog, I wrote about the comic-strip character Andy Capp, created by Reg Smythe. Despite a history of domestic violence, misogyny, and hostility to the role of the domestic citizen, the character continues to maintain a minor following and be used as a spokesman to sell popular line of snack foods.
Andy’s abuse of Flo was such an indelible part of his brand that it informed the marketing copy employed by Fawcett in paperback collections of the strip published in the 1960s and ‘70s. That he survives serves, to me, as an example of how our ugliest and most tired characters are granted new pathways for reinvention in spite of their inability to speak to modern sensibilities.
August 7, 2018 § Leave a comment
Issue 10 of Ghost Town, the online lit magazine of California State University-San Bernardino, has been released this week and I’m happy to have a new story in it called “Curbside.”
Anyone can see your shit. They see your cheats, your workarounds, your porn fetishes, your tricks for remembering your passwords—and you have passwords for things you shouldn’t need passwords for, like catching up on whole seasons of The A-Team on Netflix because that’s what you’re good for now.
We used to do things, Duke. We used to have dreams.
That’s what Linnie told him. Or what he remembers her telling him. It was one of her speeches where she pivots subjects midway through. He was holding the remote like a thumbs-up, and before he knew it she was thunking her roller bag down the stairs.
It’s an issue with an impressive cast of poets and prose writers to celebrate the magazine’s 10th anniversary. Many thanks to editor Chad Sweeney and fiction editor Devin Almond.
June 26, 2018 § Leave a comment
Damien’s paintings had razor wit and were executed flawlessly, but Julianne sensed some hesitation in the timing. She felt compelled to ask if he had ever thought about working on a larger scale, cautiously tossing out the suggestion that while celebrity wreckage (Natalie Wood, Frances Farmer, Amy Winehouse) might seem like a hot subject now it wouldn’t age well, and there might be room for more of him, and he didn’t take it like an uptight asshole when she said this. In fact, he told her he appreciated the critique. That kind of candor is hard to come by in a crowd like this, he said, circling his finger.
It’s probably not a good idea for a writer to have a favorite piece that they’ve produced, but “The Sock Gnome”—published this week at Juked, might be mine. I had a lot of fun writing this story, and I hope it shows. Thanks to Ryan Ridge for giving it a nice home.
May 22, 2018 § Leave a comment
Last week I received the thrilling news that I’ve been accepted as a General Contributor in Fiction to the 2018 Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Middlebury, Vermont.
It’ll be my first time at the conference (this was the first year I applied) and I’m excited and can’t wait for August.
April 14, 2018 § Leave a comment
For a few days at the end of last year, people talked about a short story the way they talked about Stranger Things or American Vandal, by which I mean as part of the seamless cloud of conversation; you became identified, momentarily, by whether or not you had read Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” in The New Yorker. You wondered if you got it, if other people took away the same reactions as you. You imagined the point of view of Robert, or a whole universe-sequel breaking out surrounding Tamara, the roommate. You tried to think of the last time you ate, or even saw a box of, Red Vines.
I had only seen a few links—as in three, maybe five, from writers on Twitter whose taste and judgment I respected—before I sat down to read “Cat Person,” and by then I had already been signaled for aspects to look out for. What jumped out to me was the natural ambivalence on the part of Margot, about fourteen years younger than Robert but in many respects more mature. The story’s momentum is kept up not just by Robert’s persistence but Margot’s embrace of the attention and her willingness to keep the joke afloat. There’s the psychological up-and-down of her feeling like she’s winning or losing:
When Margot returned to campus, she was eager to see Robert again, but he turned out to be surprisingly hard to pin down. “Sorry, busy week at work,” he replied. “I promise I will c u soon.” Margot didn’t like this; it felt as if the dynamic had shifted out of her favor, and when eventually he did ask her to go to a movie she agreed right away.
And then there’s all the energy one has to spend in thinking up texts, choosing emojis—anything that makes sure the line doesn’t go dead. When characters in fiction send emojis and the writer describes the emoji in words (“Robert sent her back a smiley-face emoji whose eyes were hearts”), then I am not sure what we are doing as writers, but I sure don’t have any better solution. Relationships have always required an ability to read faces and translate code, but now the faces aren’t in front of us and the codes are made up of actual code.
The line that crackled the most, in my humble opinion, came after the bad sex:
Then, out of nowhere, he started talking about his feelings for her.
Out of nowhere, as though we were enjoying the quiet, as though the contract were settled.
“Cat Person” got people reading short stories again, for a while. Poor Zadie Smith, New Yorker stalwart, had to follow Roupenian’s act like Mitzi McCall and Charlie Brill going on Ed Sullivan’s stage right after the Beatles, attaining nowhere near the same level of virality. Sadly, the buzz that “Cat Person” generated seemed to last only as long as the one story, bumped from Internet ubiquity by that plums-in-the-icebox meme, but it did help land its author a seven-figure book deal.
I happened to be in the middle of reading The Best American Short Stories 2017, edited by Meg Wollitzer, toward the end of last year when “Cat Person” showed up. There are two hookup stories in BASS ’17, each told from the perspective of an ambivalent female. It was hard not to read them without thinking of “Cat Person,” given that part of the explanation for the effusively laudatory response to “Cat Person” was that it gave acute insights into modern male-female relationships with a refreshing sensitivity to the burdens that women carry in handling and reacting to delicate male personalities.
In Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Gender Studies,” the male personality is a shuttle driver who chats up the protagonist, a professor in the title subject, after she lands in Kansas City for a conference. He indicates himself as a Trump supporter (“You would never catch me voting for Shrillary”) and comes to the hotel of Nell, whose boyfriend recently dumped her to elope with his young graduate student, after she can’t find her driver’s license.
I recognized in “Gender Studies” the same focus that “Cat Person” devoted to the microcalcuations of conversation. The driver asks Nell if she has a husband, then a boyfriend, and when she tells him no she “immediately regrets it—he gave her two chances, and she failed to take either.”
The driver, names Luke, is a predator. He wangles his way into having a drink with Nell, arriving after his shift in street clothes, including a sleeveless hooded shirt that “makes her cringe.” He orders a Jack and Coke and, to convey that a deal is taking place, tells her, “You ask me, you’re getting a bargain.” He chats her up, and she talks herself into being interested: “Beyond her wish to get her license back, she feels no fondness for the person sitting across the table, but the structure of his life, the path that brought him from birth to this moment, is interesting in the way that anyone’s is.”
There hovers over the story a shadow of threat and submission. Luke refuses to hand over the license until they go up to her room, and in the elevator he nuzzles her neck and “it feels really good; when they are configured like this, it’s difficult to remember she’s not attracted to him.” The reader senses that Luke is up to no good, has too little to lose, and that some internal compromise needs to resolve itself within Nell, but she plays along for a good chunk, right until they’re engaging in oral sex in her hotel room.
The other dating story in BASS ’17 is “Gabe Dove,” by Sonya Larson. “Gabe Dove” is told in the first person from the point of view of Chuntao, who meets the title character “when [she] was sad and attracting men who liked [her] sad.” The sad dates leading up to Gabe Dove are characterized as “some opening acts. Some vaudeville.” A friend sets her up with Gabe Dove, from her church: “And I guess—because Angela and because church—I was expecting a white guy.”
In fact, Gabe Dove is Burmese, and one of his first questions asks Chuntao, “So, what kind of Asian are you?” He is a doctor who still lives cheaply and a little slovenly, but seems excited to have Chuntao around as a person to eat gourmet donuts (from a bakery down the street) with. He takes her to his tiny apartment and they drink Campari:
But I tell you: it was nice. The refrigerator humming at my back, the jittery ceiling fan, and me thinking, I don’t even have to speak, I can just keep lowering this syrupy red medicine in my mouth. Things will happen.
There’s a sharp contrast here to “Cat Person” and “Gender Studies,” not just in reception but mood: Gabe Dove turns out to be a mostly nice guy with some quirks, but perhaps too intense for what Chuntao wants. The same burden placed on Margot from “Cat Person” and Nell from “Gender Studies” is not placed on her (“I didn’t even have to speak”). After sex, Gabe awkwardly apologizes for being hasty:
But I wasn’t sorry: I had wanted him to hurry up. I wasn’t sure what to make of him holding my waist like this, easing the glass from my hand and lowering it to the nightstand. He thanked me. “Thank you,” he said, bending to kiss my shoulder. “Thank you for being here.” For being here? I didn’t know what to say.
The relationship that was never supposed to be a relationship heads south when Chuntao’s self-destructive tendencies get the better of her. That breakdown is what the story is ultimately about, which means that it doesn’t put as much thought into the careful wagers of self-worth that “Cat Person” and “Gender Studies” do.
Part of the wager of “Cat Person” is Margot’s resolve not to let Robert spread outside of the mental compartment he occupies. Even the flirtation is laid out in work-hours:
…over the next several weeks they build up an elaborate scaffolding of jokes via text, riffs that unfolded and shifted so quickly that she sometimes had a hard time keeping up.
And then, after a few dates and some mediocre sex and then out-of-nowhere talk about feelings, Margot asks Robert how old he is.
She could sense him in the dark beside her vibrating with fear.
“No,” she said. “It’s fine.”
“Good,” he said. “It was something I wanted to bring up with you, but I didn’t know how you’d take it.” He rolled over and kissed her forehead, and she felt like a slug he’d poured salt on, disintegrating under that kiss.
She looked at the clock; it was nearly three in the morning. “I should go home, probably,” she said.
“Really?” he said. “But I thought you’d stay over. I make great scrambled eggs!”
The horror of the story comes with the simple fact that Robert can’t take a hint. He keeps texting, needily snarking, as though he and Margot have a thing, and with that assumption, Margot somehow bears some kind of responsibility for his feelings. I think the story went viral precisely because this depiction of a fragile male ego is accurate and familiar and went absent in fiction for so long. Neither Luke nor Gabe Dove are given the same chances by their respective creators to embarrass themselves, because Nell and Chuntao do the work of discrediting themselves first. For all their uselessness and insufficiency, Luke and Gabe at least get the message that their time is up.
Some readers characterized “Cat Person” as a horror story, and on reflection it has all the rhythms of good horror, including the manipulation of psyches and the impossibility of true escape. There’s a filmic presence in these stories: Margot meets Robert at a movie-house concession stand, and Gabe Dove and Chuntao take in a cheesy horror movie. Roupenian, in addition to the lucrative book deal, has also recently sold a script for a horror film to A24 (the production company behind Lady Bird and Moonlight), a work that, according to The Hollywood Reporter, “script shows heightened sensitivity to character development and social dynamics in a subversive way.”
February 10, 2018 § Leave a comment
The Plague, Albert Camus.
Do people read Camus—at least, anything apart from The Stranger—as much as they obsess over the image of Camus? It felt right, in our current climate, to read The Plague, and appropriately, I was sick with a nasty cold when I finished it.
Rats start turning up dead in the street in the town of Oran in 1940s Algeria. It’s passed off early as prank or coincidence, and by the time it’s taken seriously, an epidemic has spread. Through the eyes of Rieux, a doctor, we see families savaged, morgues piled up with corpses, and calculations of sacrifice having to be made in the name of a public health crisis. And the remaining able-bodied placed into responsibilities they assume with varying reluctance. A character named Rambert protests to Rieux:
“You’ll soon be talking about the interests of the general public. But public welfare is merely the sum total of the private welfares of each of us.”
Isn’t this where much of our nation’s current philosophical divide lies? That social responsibility is or is not adequately checked by each of us tending to our personal responsibilities? Between the war on the poor, the emboldening of rape culture and white supremacy, and the decimation of social programs, it is the justification for every ugliness we tromp through.
There are other familiar odors. There are the skeptics who don’t want to take Rieux’s assessments at face value, even though he’s the only character with any expertise on the subject (apparently the only able-bodied physician left standing in Oran) in the book. And even the media gets a jab:
The local press, so lavish of news about the rats, now had nothing to say. For rats died in the street; men in their homes. And newspapers are only concerned with the street.
Traveling Sprinkler, Nicholson Baker.
Traveling Sprinkler is a sequel of sorts to The Anthologist, about the poet Paul Chowder, who was struggling with writer’s block while trying to write the introduction to an anthology of rhyming verse. The first book stands out in Baker’s oeuvre, in my opinion, because the character is more than a reciter or explainer, or even a meditator, as are the protagonists in The Mezzanine or Room Temperature or A Box of Matches. In the sequel, Paul is swollen to enough of a personality to get in his own way.
Paul has split up with Roz, his girlfriend whose patience was tested in The Anthologist, and has turned from writing verse to dabbling in music. It’s a subject about which he knows much less than he does poetry, so while his curiosity propels his movements, his digressions lack the authority that his digressions on verse had. They also lack the same snap. Baker was a student at the Eastman School, and it’s hard not to read the musings as his own, rather than Paul’s.
Paul has also taken up a perplexing cigar habit, to Roz’s dismay. He seems to be regressing as an adult, carving out paths to nowhere that are more frustrating to read that we usually experience when reading a Baker novel, where the characters, as unfleshed-out as they usually are, at least seem to have their shit together. Paul’s attitude toward Roz, with whom he keeps a loving but cautious friendship, is alternately engaging and erratically oblivious, and Baker puts the poet to a rare test of character when Roz must undergo a hysterectomy. Their relationship, oddly enough, called to mind for me that between Paul Lisicky and Denise Gess in Lisicky’s wonderful memoir The Narrow Door, which I also happened to buy at the same trip, during a walk to Sheafe Street Books in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson. As I read this book I tried to pin down when it was set. There are signpost clues like Monopoly and allusions to a war, but it doesn’t say which war, and the story’s remoteness from any identifiers of community—it takes place in a rural town called Fingerbone (“never an impressive town … chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere”), on the edge of a lake apparently somewhere in northern Idaho–seems to propel rather than alienate it.
Sisters Ruth and Lucille are orphaned; their grandfather perished when a train derailed and plunged into the lake, and their mother, after abandoning them, drove their neighbor’s car off a cliff into that same water. In consequence they grow up under the care of a succession of increasingly eccentric relatives, beginning with a grandmother, Sylvia, whose elderly friends are “fond of white cake of pinochle” and whose “attention [was] heightened and at the same time baffled by an awareness that the present had passed already.” From there the girls fall under the care of a pair of aunts, Noni and Lily, who complain of arthritis and “enjoyed nothing except habit and familiarity, the precise replication of one day in the next.” Ultimately, care falls to their aunt Sylvie, who had been distant from the girls’ mother and whose oddities and devotion to simplicity, along with her unexplained past, give her the most immense presence in the book.
Sylvie is initially viewed by the girls as an object of curiosity. She has strayed from a marriage that hasn’t officially ended and had apparently been living the life of a drifter in Montana before being summoned to Fingerbone. An inexperienced homemaker, she accepts her duties as the girls’ caretaker gracefully but doesn’t grow into the role. There’s a tender scene where she has tea and warm quilts ready for the girls after they’ve spent a cold night in the woods. But while Ruth finds her habits—from sitting alone in the dark to helping herself to a rowboat for daily rows into the lake—endearing, Lucille becomes increasingly disenchanted by Sylvie’s unwillingness to bring the trio any polish, exemplified when Sylvie takes a nap on a bench in town like a homeless person. (“In the middle of town? In the middle of the afternoon?”) Gradually, as school is skipped and basic needs left unattended, the community and law enforcement take notice.
Through Ruth’s eyes, the narrative is packed with subtleties, from the torrential storms beating the house and flooding with “an intricate system of small currents which rolled against the floorboards” to the observation of buttercups in the woods as “the materialization of humid yellow light one finds in such places.” It swells when she understands her position to alter the trajectory set by her family’s dark past:
As I walked toward it, and the street became more and more familiar, till the dogs that slept on the porches only lifted their heads as I passed (since Sylvie was not with me), each particular tree, and its season, and its shadow, were utterly known to me, likewise the small desolations of forgotten lilies and irises, likewise the silence of the railroad tracks in the sunlight. I had seen two of the apple trees in my grandmother’s orchard die where they stood. One spring there were no leaves, but they stood there as in expectantly, their limbs almost to the ground, miming their perished fruitfulness. Every winter the orchard is flooded with snow, and every spring the waters are parted, death is undone, and every Lazarus rises, except these two. They have lost their bark and blanched white, and a wind will snap their bones, but if ever a leaf does appear, it should be no great wonder. It would be a small change, as it would be, say, for the moon to begin turning on its axis. It seemed to me that what perished need not also be lost. At Sylvie’s house, my grandmother’s house, so much of what I remembered I could hold in my hand—like a china cup, or a windfall apple, sour and cold from its affinity with deep earth, with only a trace of the perfume of its blossoming. Sylvie, I knew, felt the life of perished things.
January 5, 2018 § Leave a comment
I have written about my love of bowling before, but my essay “Halfway Back to Worcester,” published today at The Smart Set, is my most comprehensive piece on the subject yet. It is about the vanishing of the independently owned bowling alley from the American landscape and the problems that the bowling industry faces not just from competing activities but from disrupting influences in the marketplace that treat the game as something other than a serious sport.
I’m thrilled to share this piece and thankful to editor Melinda Lewis for giving it a home alongside some snazzy illustrations by Emily Anderson.
December 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood
Everyone’s reading Margaret Atwood these days, but this book was recommended to me by H. after we got to talking about how bullies—from Nelson Muntz to Scut Farkus to Biff Tannen–are treated in popular culture. There’s a bully in Cat’s Eye, named Cordelia, whose personality is large and divisive and who casts a long shadow over the adolescence of the narrator and protagonist, Elaine Risley. But Cat’s Eye is more broadly a book about the natural undercutting that occurs in female friendships and how they carry over into adulthood and shape identity.
Elaine is an artist who grew up in Toronto and now makes her home in Vancouver. She is returning to Toronto for a gallery opening that is a retrospective of her career as a painter. The return prompts her to revisit her past, as she anticipates possibly running into Cordelia.
I really liked how Cat’s Eye was paced, and how its revelations were timed; this is not something I tend to pay enough attention to in novels. The retroactive narration is relayed with wry distance by the adult Elaine. It is not accidental that one of her frequent painting subjects is Mrs. Smeath, the evangelical mother of Elaine’s childhood friend Grace, who encourages Elaine to join the family at church and whose judgments are a heavy influence on Elaine’s image of herself. As a woman of middle age with a successful career and a lifetime of having her worked talked about by critics and explained wrongly back to her, she exhibits a caution as she selects and dredges memories from childhood and young adulthood and walks along the string:
Grace is waiting there and Carol, and especially Cordelia. Once I’m outside the house there is no getting away from them. They are on the school bus, where Cordelia stands close beside me and whispers in my ear: “Stand up straight! People are looking!” Carol is in my classroom, and it’s her job to report to Cordelia what I do and say all day. They’re there at recess, and in the cellar at lunchtime. They comment on the kind of lunch I have, how I hold my sandwich, how I chew. On the way home from school I have to walk in front of them, or behind. In front is worse because they talk about how I’m walking, how I look from behind. “Don’t hunch over,” says Cordelia. “Don’t move your arms like that.”
They don’t say any of the things they say to me in front of others, even other children: whatever is going on is going on in secret, among the four of us only. Secrecy is important, I know that: to violate it would be the greatest, the irreparable sin. If I tell I will be cast out forever.
But Cordelia doesn’t do these things or have this power over me because she’s my enemy. Far from it. I know about enemies. There are enemies in the schoolyard, they yell things at one another and if they’re boys they fight. In the war there are enemies. Our boys and the boys from Our Lady of Perpetual Help are enemies. You throw snowballs at enemies and rejoice if they get hit. With enemies you can feel hatred, and anger. But Cordelia is my friend. She likes me, she wants to help me, they all do. They are my friends, my girl friends, my best friends. I have never had any before and I’m terrified of losing them. I want to please.
Hatred would have been easier. With hatred, I would have known what to do. Hatred is clear, metallic, one-handed, unwavering; unlike love.
Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole
I hadn’t known that Cole was as prolific as he apparently is; I read Open City when it came out and since then he’s published another novel, Every Day Is for the Thief, and this collection of essays, many of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. He’s an accomplished photographer as well, and a frequent traveler of the world, and the subjects here effectively manage to cross-pollinate themes of beauty, history, identity, and the fleetingness of memory in art.
Cole’s literary interests intersect with mine: there’s a lot here on Sontag and Sebald, both writers who allowed the impression of the visual image to shape their work. I particularly like how he has reassessed the value of the image in the age of hyper-shareability. “More people than ever take photographs,” he writes, “and more photos than ever are being made.” The “curatorial uncertainty” has been unloosed in an age when robot cars take pictures of street corners and artists seize new ways to release the artistic potential in them. What even is a photograph when everything is being constantly photographed, no moment left unreplicated and unshared, even in places humans will otherwise never visit? What is it when the subjects or objects in the photograph no longer live or exist? Cole finds numerous angles with which to ponder these questions.
The Comforters, Muriel Spark
I bought this book used, and my copy came with some light but pointed underlining and annotations; I wondered, going through them, if the reader before me was having the same perplexed reaction to the book that I was. The Comforters was Spark’s first novel, published in 1957, five years before The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and stood out for its distance from the realist trend of British fiction of the time. Its most significant twist is a metanarrative in which the young woman Caroline, a recently converted Roman Catholic, begins to hear the sounds of the typewriter and what is meant to be the voice of her own story being narrated back to her.
I read Miss Jean Brodie four years ago and my takeaway then was how its mock-theatricality seemed to contrast itself artfully in a story about loyalty and betrayal. There’s betrayal in The Comforters as well, and a subplot about a diamond smuggling ring run by an elderly woman who gives nothing away that she’s even capable of such underhandedness. This is the gag behind Spark’s fiction, it seems, that the potential for evil still lurks amid those who present themselves at their most polite and fussy. (Caroline’s initial reaction to the typing voice isn’t so much to be confused or frightened as offended at the notion that her path is already laid for her.) There feels an uncomfortable distance between intention and consequence that the manners hide, and complicated by the jibing at mental illness. “Is the world a lunatic asylum then?” Caroline asks. “Are we all courteous maniacs making allowances for everyone else’s derangement?”
Last Night, James Salter
I have enjoyed Salter’s work, particularly the novel Light Years, though I can understand a reader’s frustrations with him—adultery can only be trod so many times as a plot before the grass no longer grows back. The male gaze frames everything in these stories. That’s not exactly a groundbreaking observation about Salter, but here it seems shallower; Viri in Light Years and Philip in A Sport and a Pastime come more fully equipped with graces that at least distract from the intent.
Old lovers drop back into lives; people show up unwanted and desperate. A guest arrives late and drunk to a dinner party and tells the host, “you’re my friend , but … you’ll become my enemy.” He stumbles into the kitchen and “they could hear him among the bottles. He returned with a dangerous glassful and looked around boldly.”
The trajectory of each story locks predictably onto hurtful decisions. There’s the energy of managing relationships once thought safely shut:
He felt nervous. The aimless way it was going. He didn’t want to disappoint her. On the other hand, he was not sure what she wanted. Him? Now?
We forgive Salter for these basic arrangements, because he has a knack for writing a simple, graceful line that suggests a fullness of atmosphere. Characters stand idly while he manages to make you aware of darkness creeping in beyond a kitchen window. Pasts catch up.
Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Dennis-Benn
A year after I read Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, here is another novel set in Jamaica, only a much different sector. Instead of the cocaine trade, this time it’s the hotel industry, where the façade of Jamaican paradise is presented for the wealthy tourist and business clientele.
Margot lives in a struggling town called River Bank and works at a Montego Bay resort, ostensibly as a front desk manager, but makes her real money as an escort for wealthy patrons, including the hotel’s owner. Leverage is measured by what can be weaponized, and Margot was taught at a young age that her weapon could be her body when her mother, who sells roadside souvenirs, offered her at the age of 14 for $600.
Now Margot’s objectives are two: leveraging herself a position managing a soon-to-be-built competing hotel, and the protection of her younger sister Thandi, who has the intelligence to pursue something beyond what Jamaica offers but risks falling into the same traps and temptations that lured and trapped Margot. Thandi secretly tries to lighten her skin, fearing that blackness is precisely what prevents any kind of opportunity in this tourists’ paradise of expectation and assignment. In conservative River Bank, Margot’s relationship with another woman, Verdene, has to be kept under wraps, but she is not afraid to use rumor and innuendo as a weapon herself.
There is a hard, unapologetic tone to this book. The arguments go on for pages: Margot’s resentment toward her mother; Thandi’s bitterness at being wagered on to break the family spell, when she would much rather pursue her talents as an artist; the ambivalence felt by Thandi toward her boyfriend Charles; and moreover, the constant on-their-feet calculations that must be performed in the name of survival.
Almost Crimson, Dasha Kelly
The relationship in Almost Crimson is between the title character, nicknamed CeCe, and her mother, who lives with mental illness. Successful in her work, with a supportive network of friends, CeCe has had to devote significant resources and mental energy to her mother’s care and as a consequence has had to make numerous sacrifices. Her mother, Carla, suffers from a crippling depression—lying immobile in her bedroom for days at a time–and with no father around, she has no real adult supervision until the understanding family of a childhood friend takes her in.
The choice that CeCe faces is made apparent when a loyal friend, dying of cancer, bequeaths CeCe her house, a significant distance from where her mother resides. In flashbacks, we get the story of how CeCe managed to pull herself up throughout her childhood, until the father who abandoned her suddenly pops back into the picture, essentially to whisper in CeCe’s ear about Carla and her affliction. There are emotions tugging from all directions: anger and resentment at her compromised youth; a daughter’s guilt at what seems like abandonment; and a rueful looking ahead at the possibility of ultimate independence and happiness.
There also might be one too many clearheaded and well-meaning friends, including a love interest, surrounding CeCe for her struggle to project any real stake. The hazard surrounding Carla is stated but never well exemplified; I would have expected at least one scene of a daughter’s overprotective panic that accompanies such caretaking relationships. For this reason, the scenes from CeCe’s childhood and grade school—with personalities that have to be manipulated–feel riskier and more alive.
One More Cup of Coffee, Tom Pappalardo
This book is from a local author who is known as a designer and creative-of-all-trades. You hear Tom Pappalardo’s voice in the radio ad for a local record shop and he draws cartoons in the alt-weekly. He’s had a hand in designing a number of signs for local businesses.
This is a lovely book that is an observational travelogue of the hangouts around Western Mass where coffee drinkers are likely to sit, chat, read, write, and be. But it provides a distinct level of comfort while achieving that. It allows us into the headspace that is familiar to anyone who has taken their notebook out in public, who has needed to get out and people-watch. Pappalardo writes with a subtle humanity and is relatable in terms of where he lets his mind wander–when he gets irrationally angry, or when he gets nostalgic for old neighborhoods.
The book is wholly designed by Pappalardo, text and graphics, and the illustrations in particular are bold-lined and of a distinctive style. You can find more of his designs here. He is remarkably able to render brand logos precisely and human shapes roughly and still have the two exist with unity on the page. The book is a sweet love letter to the 413.
My tally for 2017: 34 books read, including six re-reads. A handful were written by people I consider friends and people who are very much dear friends, including Kory Stamper’s Word by Word, discussed here. I thought Tom McAllister’s The Young Widower’s Handbook was gentle and patient, while managing to be funny, in telling how grief comes with no convenient process. I read Paul Lisicky’s The Narrow Door around the same time and appreciated its ability to portray the tug of two strong personalities settling into a friendship with moments of turbulence. I liked how Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts could fuse theory and narrative seamlessly while telling a story about a family. Roxane Gay’s Hunger deserved all the accolades it received as it unsparingly critiques our society’s values concerning body and image.
In my own writing, I also published essays for the first time: one about my father and the posthumous discovery of his having once reeled in a 452-pound tuna; and another about the era when highbrow writers and artists appeared in TV Guide magazine. I sort of started writing a novel, and have three pieces due to be published next year. I published stories in JMWW and Bodega, the latter of which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. It was a year in which Americans were tasked with choices of what to value—common decency or vulgarity, blind aggression toward the vulnerable against an understanding of mercy. Against that backdrop, it felt like making and engaging with art came with a heightened responsibility. Art is its own rebellion. Its rejects the metrics that others set for us and tells the world that only we get to decide how we value ourselves.