Thursday, November 12, 2009

Reading Now: So Many Things

Of those many things is David Foster Wallace's short story collection Oblivion. However, the description "short story collection" seems ill-fitting and dismissive, considering Wallace is a master of the English language. Though the opening story, which I admittedly did not make it through and skipped for the greater good of my sanity, is dense and painful to wade through, it's the kind of pain referenced in the phrase, "No pain, no gain." However, Wallace doesn't throw his mastery of the language in your face, rubbing it around, pointing and laughing at your inferiority. He simply demands, with each sentence (and they are epic), that you pay very close attention to what he is showing you.

Why'd I buy this book in the first place? Last Thanksgiving a good friend of mine introduced me to the story "Incarnations of Burned Children," one of the stories in this collection. Honestly, I bought this entire book so I could own that one story. (Yes, I have bought entire albums for one song.) And here's why: Wallace doesn't just tell you the story of a baby having hot water spilled on him and the reactions of his parents immediately after. Instead, he simultaneously puts you into the situation and above it without confusing you once. I can't even describe what he does so flawlessly without being confusing. His sentences have a breathless quality that forces you to continue reading without pause in a way that parallels the father's reaction in the story. The rhythm of the sentences, the details he gives along with the precise moments he decides to give them, all work together to form one of the best stories I've ever read.

Of the other two stories in the collection that I've read, one in particular stuck with me. "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" is a tapestry: at first my interest was piqued because of the subject matter (crazed substitute teacher begins writing "KILL THEM ALL" on the chalkboard in front of a frightened classroom), but my interest was held because of the narrator's sincerity in relating the events. Wallace doesn't choose to tell the story from the usual characters; he doesn't describe the process of derangement in the substitute teacher, or the slow recognition of impending danger from the other children in the classroom. Instead, the story is told from the perspective of a kid whose attention isn't easily paid to the front of the class. He describes in the type of detail reminiscent of hand stitching a hem (which, if you haven't done, requires great concentration with the goal of emulating the accuracy of a machine); not only do you believe that this kid stares out the window and comes up with stories in his head, you are told the thread of the story as it happens with peripheral flashes of the goings on in the classroom. The result is an eerie division of events that eventually collide, not suddenly but gradually, in a way that only when you look back can you see how the events of real life affect the events of the boy's "daydreams."

Word of advice: Don't read this on the train. Unlike the boy in the story, you need to pay close attention.

What I Wish I'd Written: "...and the Daddy kept saying he was here he was here, adrenaline ebbing and an anger at the Mommy for allowing this thing to happen just starting to gather in wisps at his mind's extreme rear and still hours from expression."

"...though hours later what the Daddy most won't forgive is how badly he wanted a cigarette right then as they diapered the child as best they could in gauze and two crossed handtowels and the Daddy lifted him like a newborn with his skull in one palm and ran him out to the hot truck and burned custom rubber all the way to town..."
image from

Thursday, October 22, 2009

One Small Step For Publishing, A Giant Leap For Bad Authors?

We've all seen them: the sketchy ads lining the margins of websites or the grainy back pages of the free dailies that serve as street decor rather than news sources. They tell us: "Get published!" "Become a model!" "Lose 100 Pounds Fast!" If the hyperbolic promises punctuated by exclamation points don't tip you off that they're gimmicks (polite word for "rip offs"), their faux-humble request for money should. If not that, then the bogus testimonials that seem to be describing the Second Coming rather than a realistic product should. If not that, well, then, you're out of luck, my friend.

However, now one of these once-outrageous promises is being backed up and carried out by Smashwords, an e-book publishing company. It was launched in 2007 by Mark and Lesleyann Coker, spouses and co-authors of a novel set in the behind-the-scenes world of daytime soaps, when they couldn't get their novel published. (It is said that the manuscript wasn't picked up because "[it was] questioned whether soap opera fans read books." Wow.) Frustrated by such arbitrary obstacles in a world that seems to have eliminated most hurtles via the digital age, Coker decided to take the decision of what's readable out of publishers' hands and place it back into the hands of the readers. Enter

Boasting "175,430,897 words published," Smashwords' website is well-organized and simple, allowing readers to search by author, genre, or publisher. With so many authors that the general population is probably unfamiliar with, there's also a section for the most downloaded, best sellers, most viewed authors and publishers. It's also simple to publish with them, which can be a blessing or a curse. Now that practically anyone can publish their original material, it'll be harder to filter the bad from the good. But the philosophy behind Smashwords is that the filter be handed over to the reader rather than the publisher. The harm of bad writing getting published online is much smaller than if everyone were allowed to publish physical books. Especially in a setting such as a website, it's easier to scan and skip. Rather than clogging up the bookshelves of a bookstore, you don't have to see or move around books that don't interest you. Also, the prices for the books are cheaper because of the format, some of them even offered for free.

The question at hand, as has been brought up with the release of the Kindle, SonyReader, and the more recent Nook, is the quality of the reading experience when it's done online or in any medium other than the traditional physical book. Of course, the answer to this question is a personal one; my own answer is that nothing, not even the satisfaction of lowering our carbon footprint, will replace the pleasure of holding a book in my hands and flipping through its pages, setting it down (if I can), and picking it back up again. But from the perspective of a writer rather than a reader, assuming you can separate the two, this opens up so many possibilities for creativity and experimentation that the traditional world of publishing doesn't always embrace. Not only can I find books and authors that might have been overlooked because of circumstances completely unrelated to the quality of writing, I am also allowed to reach an audience without having to navigate the exclusive world of book publishing.

However, this also raises the question of self-editing. Do I, or the general public author using this publishing platform, have the ability to put my best writing out there without the help of all the backstage hands in the publishing world? Nothing of what we read has been published without going through many hands and minds to make it what it is. Without all of those influences and filters, can Smashwords really be a force to be reckoned with? Can I?

Saturday, October 3, 2009

It isn't that at all

I've been MIA. Like the band but without the accent. It isn't that I haven't been reading, it's that I haven't been writing. There, I said it. It's out, and like I imagine it is in AA, the first step's been made and I'm on my way to recovery. I feel all out of sorts, like I've been drinking a lot of water but not letting myself pee--like so many words are building up inside of me. I've started letting it out in leaks, random bursts of stolen minutes that I dust my typewriter off. It's like picking up a habit I accidentally let fall by the wayside. We're getting reacquainted. It's terribly romantic and wonderful.

In short, updates to come. Read One Hundred Years of Solitude while in Costa Rica and have begun my obsession with Garcia Marquez and things that don't make sense and do make sense at the same time.

Nabila and I are starting a break-up letter project that consists of us writing break up letters to one another. I'll post a few on here when they're finished.

What I Wish I'd Written: ANYTHING. Anything at all.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

"Under the Bed" by Jincy Willett

I've said this before, and I'll say it again without fearing redundancy: this woman is brilliant. I can do so because each time I say it, I've discovered it anew. In this, the eighth story of the collection, Willett tackles a subject both touchy and dangerously close to trite, with delicacy and shattering uniqueness. Now, before I explain this abrasive description (trite) of the story's topic of choice, rape, I highly suggest you read the story. If you do nothing else in this life, read this story. With statistics like "1 in 6 women - & 1 in 33 men - will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime," this story is relevant to the majority of people in the world. However, it does not presume to describe the experience for all women, in fact it recoils from the idea that this particular trauma (or any human experience, for that matter) is similar for every person who experiences it. The only real reaction we get from the narrator, in fact, is her strong and violent resistance to this idea and everyone who unwittingly expresses it.

The story begins by stating the facts, "On November 6 of last year, at around 8:15 P.M., I was beaten and raped by a man named Raymond C. Moreau, Jr., who had entered our first-floor apartment through a living room window while I was taking a shower." It is not the weight of this incident that makes this story powerful, however. The next sentence describes perfectly how Willett proceeds to tell this story: "This is neither the most significant event in my life nor the most interesting, nevertheless it is a fact, around which cluster many other facts, and the truth is always worth telling."

It took me days to read this story, having to pause after each section. I couldn't continue. The first section ends with her discussing how she told her husband what happened:

Well, then there was reconciliation, and explanation, and generally the sort of behavior you would expect from lovers to whom such a thing has happened. These events were not extraordinary, except to us, and I shall not record them, here or anywhere else. These are private matters. We are very private people.

In these last two sentences of the first section, Willett manages to say volumes more than if she had actually lain out the situation for us on the page. It is in these moments, these sentences that caught my breath, that I felt I was listening to a real woman talking.

One of the things Moreau says to the narrator, whose name we never receive, is, "You're all alike. All alike. All alike." It's disgusting to read, the repetition defining a certain cadence that implies what he is doing as he says it. Though I was repulsed as I read the details she gives about the "thing," as she and her husband refer to it, the moments of pure horror happen after the fact, transgressions inflicted by colleagues, close friends, a whiff of dust. During her friend Regina's outburst concerning the narrator's lack of reaction or grieving about the situation, she exclaims, "You were violated! Violence was done to you!...And not just to you. To me. To all women." The narrator's response that Regina is no different than Raymond Moreau, however uncouth, makes sense in the stupefying ending to this section: "I had meant only, she thought we were all alike, all alike. All alike."

Believe it or not, this is me refraining from recounting every bit of the story that I loved. These are just the parts that make it, hands down, my favorite story in the collection. I tried to describe it to a guest at the bar the other night, telling him the way that she says so many things by saying so little (articulate, I know). Close to tears, I had to stop. This story, this woman, has mastered subtlety. I can't say it any other way.

Okay, so I can't talk about this story without talking about the way that it ends. I don't want to ruin it, but I can't leave out this bit of perfection. Earlier in the story, the narrator talks about how she'd always been afraid, before her rape. She says that Moreau took that from her; she is no longer afraid. Before that, however, she would wake up in the middle of the night and stare at her husband, making sure he was still alive. Sometimes if she couldn't tell that he was breathing, she would move in a way to elicit a response from him, reassuring her that he was still alive. After "The Night of the Thing" (as she and her husband refer to it, "with some humor"), he has taken on this old habit of hers:

But lately, and too often, as we lie in the dark, I curled away from him, peaceful and fearless, he rises, stealthy, gentle, and leans over me, watching my face; I can feel his breath on my cheek; and I must give him a sign, a sigh, a dreamy moan to ease his mind. Just like a robot he must rise, prompted by my old, foolish impulse, unworthy of him, as though by watching he could keep me safe; as though the universe concerned itself with us.

There's the violation. There's the damage. There's the tragedy.

With this, I was left completely deflated. She murdered me with her precision. Throughout these twelve pages, you get to know these people. Their relationships are real; the heartbeat is loud, and when the story ends, you're just glad it's still beating.

What I Wish I'd Written: All of it. More specifically, this--
"He never looked me in the eye. But he did not, I think, purposely avoid my eyes. He was not nervous, or ashamed, or fearful. It just never occurred to him to look there."

Thursday, July 16, 2009

So, it's official.

I'm going to Costa Rica in September, right after uprooting from my two-year home at 20 Lopez. It's going to be a crazy couple of weeks. I will be on my first vacation as a real, live adult, and as such will need to read as many books as I possibly can.

Suggestions? I love short fiction, but I am open to anything. Shoot.

Finishing up Jenny and the Jaws of Life, so more updates on Jincy Willett's mini-masterpieces are coming.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Nine" by Aryn Kyle

Browsing the internet for internships at literary magazines, I stumbled upon this fantastic story by Aryn Kyle, as published in The Atlantic. From a distance, it follows Tess, an almost-nine-year-old girl dealing with the pressures of pre-adolescence. Though I had moments of thinking, "Wait, this is an eight-year-old thinking this?" Kyle definitely struck many nails on the head as far as capturing the irrational fears of childhood. She also does a wonderful job explaining why those fears are not so irrational to the child herself.

The first sentence, an unassuming fact, "Tess lies sometimes," knocked me over for reasons I still don't understand. I knew, after those three words, that I would like the way Kyle writes. The way that she presents the opinions of her myriad of characters is unique without being gimmicky. When I read anything that I like, I often react aloud, whether it be laughter, gasps, or the simple statement, "This is so good," and this time was no different. Though there are characters, like Dirk and Deborah, who strike me as dangerously close to being stock-like, they serve a purpose and serve it well. The details that make us human beings and therefore different from one another seem to be missing from these two, the school therapists who try to figure Tess out, but in the perspective of the story, it makes sense. The details that Tess focuses on are the ones that pertain to her and her narrow, eight-year-old world. The fact that they talk with puppets and ask her questions she's not sure how to answer and that she's embarrassed to acknowledge that she knows them at all: these are the compelling bits we can see and interpret with comprehension not yet available to Tess. And she does it all with a sense of humor.

In writing workshops I was always instructed to write for the details, to create moments and characters who have moments that will latch themselves onto the readers' minds. Kyle manages to do this in so many ways. In this excerpt about the hamsters in Tess' class at school, she presents a possibly jarring and traumatic experience in a way that leaves its effects on the kids as nondescript as it is to the children at the time. We can only assume and speculate on the exact repercussions of the incident, but Kyle makes no direct comment:

In Tess’s classroom, they have hamsters: a girl hamster named Marigold, and a boy hamster named Bon Jovi. Once, they had baby hamsters, pink and hairless like a pile of squirming thumbs. Miss Morris said that when the hamsters got bigger, she would give them to the students who knew their state capitals best, that those students would each be able to take a baby hamster home to keep. Every day after school, Tess sat at her little table and wrote the capitals over and over again, until the words became part of herself, as real and familiar as her own name. She would have gotten a perfect score except that she mixed up the Virginias. But in the end, Bon Jovi ate all the baby hamsters, and nobody got to have one.

She breaks our heart without letting on that that was her intention. Sneak. I love free fiction online. Take advantage.

What I Wish I'd Written:
"'You’re ugly,' he whispers, and sticks her arm with the point of his pencil. 'You have big, ugly ears.'

"Tess’s ears prickle. They are pink and naked at the sides of her head like two cupped hands sticking out through her hair. She stares straight ahead at the Billy puppet, at his flat, lipless mouth and blank circle eyes. It is the same puppet that played Andy last week in a show about how to know if your friends are selling drugs.

"When the song is finished, Deborah asks if anyone has a question. Beth, whose mouth is always wet and spitty in the corners, raises her hand. 'Does Billy’s mom ever hit him with a rolled-up newspaper?' she asks.

"Dirk frowns. 'Mmm, maybe,' he says. 'But mostly she does really bad things, like hold his hand on a hot stove.'"

Thursday, July 9, 2009

"The Haunting of the Linguards"

One thing about me, whether annoying or endearing, is I am constantly being reminded of one thing by another. I enjoy linking books and stories I've read to one another, often confusing their meanings, exact phrasing or initial (and current) effect on me.

In this story, the second in the collection, I was reminded of the movie Revolutionary Road. If you haven't seen it, no matter--Willett does a more-than-sufficient job alluding to the complete breakdown of something unrealizedly precarious and delicate. Like a child architect, she builds up the relationship of the Linguards, Kenneth and Anita, only to tear it down with their own hands. But this story doesn't end in a colorful pile of Legos, rather with a heartbreakingly pessimistic promise that the buildup and breakdown is merely number one on a list of many. The art is in her ability to present situations that end up carrying all the weight in the world, conversations between people that decide outcomes of battles and wars they refuse to acknowledge that they are waging and fighting. This is where the ultimate sadness lies--not in the actual breakdown of something beautiful, but in the characters' willingness to push it--and with such force as to disallow any doubt of their intentions--over the edge. You watch them being shown the limits of their love and then watch, astounded (though without disbelief), while they push right on past those limits. It is this lack of disbelief that hurts the most. It is the essence of Willett's writing: revealing frustrating depth in absurdly superficial moments. You see these people and the exclamation in the forefront of your mind is not, "What are they thinking?" but "We all do it."

What I Wish I'd Written: "But she didn't stop laughing when everyone else did; she would stop, and glance at Kenneth, and then start afresh. She kept saying,'I'm sorry,' but she couldn't have been, because clearly all she had to do to stop was quit recharging herself, which she finally did. She stared down at her lap, biting her lower lip like a choirgirl with the giggles."

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Start of a Beautiful Friendship: Jincy Willett

"Julie in the Funhouse" from Jenny and the Jaws of Life

I received this collection of short stories along with the strong recommendation and endorsement of a good friend whilst still reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. One problem I run into as I flit from one book to another is an issue of loyalty. If I read a book or collection that I am particularly enamored of, the next book is often doomed to mediocrity. This happened with Albert Camus' The Stranger recently (I know, right? Who do I think I am?). The result of this is replacing the less-than-enjoyed book back on my list for a later date. This is disappointing because chances are I'll only live into my eighties or so, meaning the odds of my reading every book I ever want to are already pretty slim. Rereading seems like a self-inflicted glitch, however necessary. I say all this only so I can say that this did not happen with Jincy Willett's collection. She follows Milan Kundera well. And so, before I delve into my excited and overly-qualified evaluation of one of her stories, I want to quote what David Sedaris says of her in his foreword. This is what I hope someone says (or thinks) of my writing someday:

Like all the best storywriters, Jincy Willett excels in the moment, that split second when everything changes, and there's a discomfort to this. We like to think we'll recognize such moments in our own lives, but when the time comes we almost always get it wrong. Our eyes peeled for the Big Event, we point out the usual suspects--the death of a parent, the car spinning out of control--not realizing that the damage was done weeks or maybe years earlier, over dinner or while washing our hair, the moment cunning in its very resemblance to everyday life.

GUH. Okay, here we go:

As the opener of the collection, "Julie in the Funhouse" feels like it's told in one breath. As I finished reading, I felt as though I was taking my first breath since I'd begun. She manages, flawlessly and seemingly with ease, to tell a story about a brother and a sister that happens to have a brutal incident in it (rather than the cheap vice versa). And it is not just any sibling relationship--she flirts the line of love that siblings experience without belittling or romanticizing it. She follows well (and, thus, so do we) the change that takes place when people are alive and the sudden realization of that change when one of them dies and the other does not. Her writing is the kind that makes me want to copy down each word in hopes that her style and brilliance will infiltrate and transform (and improve) my own. Alas, post-it notes must do.

What I wish I'd written: "I laugh out loud and apologize at the same time, but Mr. Peterson is eighty-two years old now, and he smiles at me, acknowledging horror and despair with a sweet smile, the way some old people do, and some not so old people who have suffered early." (p. 11)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Oh, hey there

Here's the thing. I just graduated. (And by "just," I mean many months ago in December.) I studied Writing, Literature and Publishing at Emerson College. I loved it. In the months before finishing my final semester there, I often compared leaving Emerson to a relative dying. "It's like knowing someone is going to be dead in mid-December," I'd say to less-than-responsive faces, "so it's bittersweet being here. I'm enjoying my final days, but still it's my final days." I would wake up early on days when I didn't have class until noon or six pm, and I'd go to the library to read and work on papers. Low on sleep and high on caffeine, I teared up on more than one occasion as I walked through the quiet third floor of the Walker Building. Even now, my emotions run high thinking about it.

And now, here I am, graduated and to my delight, still alive. Graduating was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do without really having to do anything. But I've come to find that I can still do all of the things that I loved about being at Emerson without the slightly-higher-than-my-bank-account-balance bill: read and write fiction. The only drawback is not having a group of people that have to listen to my thoughts and reactions and new (barely edited) stories! And it is a major drawback. I looked at Grub Street for a while, partly because of its proximity to Emerson (it's unhealthy, I realize this), but also because it's a community of working and passionate writers and publishers. Alas, due to the aforementioned bill from Emerson, I can't quite fit into my budget the price of seminars and workshops that Grub Street offers. So instead, I am going to put my musings on new stories and novels and whatever else I can get my hands on here. My goal is to inspire those less-than-avid readers to read more or to expand the bookshelves of those who prefer only nonfiction. I also just need a place for all the exclamation points that run through my head when I read something that I love. So there's that.