Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Links to the Past

You might have come across a mind-boggling trivium that began getting renewed attention around the web late last week: President John Tyler- a man who was born 222 years ago (we’re talking the 1700s), the man who became only the 10th president of the United States, and who died over 150 years ago- still has two living grandchildren!

This kind of thing absolutely floors me. Kottke.org posted some other similar examples here: An eyewitness to Lincoln’s assassination who appeared on a 1956 gameshow, and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who had the honor of shaking hands with both John Quincy Adams and John F. Kennedy in his lifetime. These present-day threads to the long-forgotten past absolutely blow my mind.

But I’ve noticed that this same thing, played out in fiction, can be equally compelling: a mysterious or long-forgotten backstory whose ties to the present are assumed to have been lost or severed ages ago, is suddenly discovered to have some tangible thread, some real, yet unexpected connection to the story that we are reading. It could just be the history major in me, but I think it makes for a fascinating, edge-of-your-seat reading experience. I don’t even know what to call this literary device- it’s not in any list I’ve seen. A backstory epiphany? A hidden thread? A long-lost MacGuffin? I have no clue what to call it, but I know it when I see it.

In H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines Alan Quartermain runs into a man named Evans who tells him about a distant mountain range and a tale he’d heard from an old witch doctoress about a magnificent, ancient diamond mine that is said to exist there. Evans is gored by an animal shortly thereafter and Quartermain soon puts the whole exchange out of mind and continues his rough and tumble life as an elephant hunter for the next twenty years.

At some point his work takes him to a piece of country where one can see the mountains in question across 130 miles of ruthless desert, though the forgotten legend is the furthest thing from his mind. He falls ill and happens to meet an old “Portugee” with whom he trades a few innocent words. As the old man takes his leave he nonchalantly says “Good-bye, senor, if we ever meet again I shall be the richest man in the world,” and he strikes out across the desert. Quartermain doesn’t put two and two together until a week later, when that same old man comes crawling back across the desert, feverish, starved, and close to death. Before he kicks the bucket, he leaves Quartermain with a crude, old map, drawn with blood on ancient linen, which had been passed down from an ancestor who had himself died trying to reach the mine three hundred years prior.

These are not really spoilers, by the way.  All of this happens within the first few pages of the book. But let’s look at what Haggard has done here: He planted the seed of mystery, he teases us with the possibility that there might be some truth lurking behind the legend, and when that tangible link to the past ends up in Quartermain’s hands, the legend of King Solomon’s Mines and the promise of untold riches become living, breathing entities in the story. What can you do but read on, right?

Another example is Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Having traveled to search for gold that is rumored to be hidden near the old family farm, the main character “Milkman” stops at the decaying mansion that was home to the family who killed his ancestors and took control of their land. By chance, he meets an impossibly old ex-slave who reveals some surprising family history and points him to a town called Shalimar. It’s there that an ancient family legend interweaves with the book’s theme of magical flight. I won’t spoil this one for you, but the result is intense and beautiful and unexpected. The African folklore of Milkman’s ancestors is brought to life right before your eyes. Absolutely love that book.

But the threads don’t have to stretch over hundreds of years to pack a punch. Just look at Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. In running away from her abusive father, Lily Owens seizes on a mysterious picture of a black Virgin Mary that she finds among her deceased mother’s things. Scratched on the back is the name of a remote South Carolina town. Once she makes her way there, she and her African American nanny move in with three beekeeping sisters who sell their honey under the Black Madonna brand. She realizes her mother’s picture was just one of their honey labels, and thinks she’s solved the mystery of the Black Madonna and what it means. But her own family history and her relationship with her dead mother is tied up that place in ways she doesn’t yet understand. More backstory epiphanies, and threads to the past bring the story to a very satisfying close.

David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, my favorite non-fiction read from last year, plays on the same themes. I could go on and on. It’s the same thing that makes movies like Indiana Jones or the DaVinci Code compelling...

I’d like to read more books like this. Are there any others I should check out that bring the long-lost past to life? Let me know in the comments.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Keeping up with the Joneses

Did you know that the phrase "Keeping up with the Joneses" has its origins in the unrestrained mansion-building project of an extremely wealthy New York family?

Yeah, me neither.

A daughter of this storied family, Edith Newbold Jones, is pictured above. But you might know her better by her married name: Edith Wharton.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

From the Pen of Joseph Conrad

One more post on Conrad before we let him have a nap. Yesterday we served up a meaty review. Today we dish out a dessert of light, fluffy prose. Enjoy.
"The Patna was a local steamer as old as the hills, lean like a greyhound, and eaten up with rust worse than a condemned water-tank."

"They streamed aboard over three gangways. They streamed in, urged by faith and the hope of paradise, they streamed in with a continuous tramp and shuffle of bare feet, without a word, a murmer or a look back; and when clear of confining rails, spread on all sides over the deck, flowed forward and aft, overflowed down the yawning hatchways, filled the inner recesses of the ship- like water filling a cistern, like water flowing into crevices and crannies, like water rising silently even with the rim."

"His skipper had come up noiselessly, in pyjamas and with his sleeping-jacket flung wide open. Red of face, only half awake, the left eye partly closed, the right staring stupid and glassy, he hung his big head over the chart and scratched his ribs sleepily. There was something obscene in the sight of his naked flesh. His bared breast glistened soft and greasy, as though he had sweated out his fat in his sleep. He pronounced a professional remark in a voice harsh and dead, resembling the rasping sound of a wood-file on the edge of a plank; the fold of his double chin hung like a bag triced up close under the hinge of his jaw."

"There was, as I walked along, the clear sunshine, a brilliance too passionate to be consoling, the streets full of jumbled bits of color like a damaged kaleidoscope: yellow, green, blue, dazzling white, the brown nudity of an undraped shoulder, a bullock-cart with a red canopy, a company of native infantry in a drab body with dark heads marching in dusty laced boots...

-Joseph Conrad, in Lord Jim

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Review: Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

We’ve wondered before whether Conrad really deserved to place four novels on any Top 100 novels list. He’s one of the greats, to be sure. But four out of a hundred? If you scratched your head along with us, you might be asking yourself ‘why read Lord Jim?’ Well, I answer that question with a few of my own: When was the last time you read the word “inexpugnable” in a novel? When was the last time you saw someone use “abject” seven times in one paragraph (none of which described a failure)? When was the last time someone lobbed an alliterative locution like this line: “daylight came like a glow in a ground glass globe?”

Never, that’s when. Only Conrad, bless his heart.

Lord Jim is a fascinating tale with its roots in actual events- but then, that deserves a blog post of its own some day. Very briefly, Jim is the first mate of a ship called the Patna, which is filled to the brim with pilgrims bound for Mecca. The ship's hull is ripped open by some floating debris, and the only thing keeping it from sinking like an anvil is a precarious, rusty  bulkhead which is barely holding steady in the lower levels. Only the ship's crew knows the situation, and when a squall threatens them in the open sea, they are overcome with fear of drowning.

In a lot of ways, this is a book about things that don't happen. Despite his sense of duty Jim does not stay with the Patna; the Patna does not, in fact, sink in the storm, but is later rescued to the crew's great shame; And unlike the rest of the officers, Jim does not clear out and escape the wrath of the courts, but rather takes all the blame on himself.

I won’t rehash the rest of the plot, which takes place in the remote Indonesian jungle, but I will  talk a little bit about the story's structure, because it gives the book an interesting effect. We never see Jim’s story play out first-hand, but we get it in bits and pieces, after the fact, and from numerous different people. Rather than concentrate on the linear series of events, the reader is forced to analyze as he goes, and to put the story, and Jim’s mental state, together on the fly.

Conrad uses a frame story, told by his alter-ego Captain Marlowe, the narrator of several of Conrad’s other books. Within that surface story we see Jim’s testimony in court, his conversations and confessions to Marlow, reports of conversations or interactions that others had with Jim, later relayed to Marlow, and even some letters that help fill in the missing pieces. This seemingly scattershot approach turns Lord Jim from a straight-up adventure story into a complex psychological examination. You get other characters’ value judgments along the way, and you’re forced to ask yourself, “Sheesh. What would I do in Jim’s situation?”

I think that’s why the book has secured itself a position of such lasting literary importance. Besides doling out heaping scoops of adventure and the mystique of exotic ports and life on the high seas, it's a book that really makes you think. Don’t deprive yourself of the pleasure of reading it.

Friday, January 27, 2012

First Line Friday!

This week's first line is not great, per se, but it is unique. Very unique. And to be fair, I have not read the novel, but I have seen this first line cited for years and years. Here it is:

"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel 'If On A Winter's Night a Traveler.'"

This first line is from "If On A Winter's Night a Traveler," by Italo Calvino. Obvious, right? So, it's definitely unique, but to me it also smacks of how a 9th grader would commence his / her own novel. It's too easy, too convenient, it seems to me. In fact, one could argue that it shows a blatant disregard for literature. A novel in the second person? Give me a break!
Or is it genius?

I can't tell.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

From the Pen of Thomas Mann

A couple days ago I tried to root out some of the psychological underpinnings of Thomas Mann’s stories and explain why they had such a tendency to “stick.” I fear the result may have been a little gloomy. So today I’ll try to flesh him out a little better than I did last time around.

So what is it you’re going to see if you pick up something by Mr. Mann? For starters, lots of blue veins under pale complexions. Apparently nothing was quite so sexy to Mann as the pallor of translucent skin. But if you can get by your urge to throw his characters in the nearest tanning bed, you’ll love some of his descriptions. Here’s one that tickled my funny bone:

“A young man whose appearance smacked of ill-pay and vegetarianism.”
His language is relatively formal, but it’s delivered in a conversational manner- lots of authorial asides like “the following incident actually happened,” and “what happened next was so disgusting that I don’t dare explain it in detail.” It’s a style that puts you at east, despite the flowery expression.

You’ll see him use music as a stand-in for love and sensuality, and he delivers some of the best writing on artistic creation and writing that I’ve ever come across. Any aspiring writer ought to pick him up for that reason alone.

Last of all, here are a few great lines to give you a taste of his style.
“They disagreed superbly, their eyes narrowing into flashing slits. They pounced on a word, a single word he had used. They tore it to shreds, rejected it and dug up a different word, a dead certain one, which whizzed, struck, and quivered in the bullseye.”

“The winter sun was only a meager glow, milky and matte behind layers of clouds… and sometimes a kind of soft hail fell; not ice, not snow.”

With a moronic gape, a cigarette in his trembling fingers, he stood there lurching laboriously, keeping his balance, pulled forward and backward by his intoxication.”

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Democracy comes to the Haiku-ption Contest

I'm itchin' for a new Haiku-ption Contest, but we never closed the loop on Contests 2 and 3. So I look to you, esteemed readers. Why don't you all pick the last winners for us?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Mark of a Mann

It’s been a couple months since I tackled Death in Venice & Other Tales  by German author Thomas Mann. The collection was my very first introduction to Mann, and definitely won’t be my last.

Now, two months is enough time to make an honest-to-goodness review of the book a daunting task for my memory- but it’s also enough time to realize that this is a book that keeps coming back to me whether I mention it here or not. I’m tempted to use that well-worn reviewer’s cliché and call his stories ‘haunting.’

See, Mann has a real gift for creating pathetic, pitiable characters who are called upon by their author to respond to all sorts of inhumane cruelty and unrequited love. Whether sickly, deformed, corpulent or whatever, they all share the distinction of being irredeemable outcasts.

There’s “Little Herr Friedemann” who drowns himself in an ironic nod to Narcissus, by dunking his grotesque form in a reflecting pool. There’s the obese cuckold in “Little Lizzy” whose terrible shame only becomes obvious to him as he is forced to literally played it out on stage in a red silk baby dress. There’s the deeply wounded “Tobias Mindernickel” who takes out his worldly frustrations on his pet dog, eventually stabbing him to death. I could go on and on.

I’m not smart enough to namedrop philosophers, but Wikipedia tells me Mann is heavily influenced by Nietsche’s views on decay and the fundamental connection between sickness and torment and creativity. (Many of Mann’s characters are also artists or writers).  Following this thematic thread from one story to the next, the reader gets the impression that, by the time we’ve come to the end, it is Mann that we have come to know- and not any of his pitiful characters.

Here’s an excerpt from his story “The Harsh Hour,” (which is essentially a story about writer’s block,) that gives us some insight into Thomas Mann’s own creative struggles:
“Talent itself, was it not pain? And when that thing there, that wretched work made him suffer, was that not as it should be? And almost a good sign? It had never gushed, and if it did so, that would truly arouse his disgust. It gushed only for dabblers and bunglers, for the quaint and the easily satisfied that did not live under the discipline of talent. For talent, ladies and gentlemen down there far away in the orchestra, talent is not facile, not frivolous. It’s not mere ability. At its root, it is a need, a critical knowing about the ideal, a dissatisfaction that cannot create or increase its powers without torment. And for the greatest, the most dissatisfied, their talent is their sharpest scourge.”
Another line from “Death in Venice” reveals the importance he places on solitude and isolation as an artist:

“Solitude ripens originality in us, bold and disconcerting beauty, poetry. But solitude also ripens the perverse, the assymetrical, the absurd, the forbidden.”
Of course, this last line also betrays the author’s closet homosexuality and foreshadows the forbidden lust that will keep his main character in a decaying city, at the mercy of a secret epidemic that will eventually take his life.

So maybe Nietsche was right. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to see that the pain and humiliation and anguish of Mann’s characters are a reflection of his own secret torment. But maybe that’s why it works so well. Give the Mann a whirl.


Monday, January 23, 2012

Literary Death Match: Brave New World vs. Nineteen Eighty-Four

Welcome to Literary Death Match where two books engage in a fight to the death for the title of Best Book in a category arbitrarily decided by us. Up for grabs today is the title of “Best Book set in a Dystopian Future London.” And our contestants are Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Google will tell you this isn’t the first time these two have squared off together, but it’s certainly bound to be the bloodiest. Without further ado, let’s send it over to Mike Thackery and Tom Galbraith, who will be calling the match from Shelf Actualization Stadium.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Small, thin, unathletic man with very bad eyes.

In case you have trouble making out the audio:
…James Joyce. They did a certain amount of drinking together. The author of Ulysses was a small, thin, unathletic man with very bad eyes. When, in the course of their drinking, he ran into any sort of belligerence, he would jump behind his powerful friend and shout, “Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!”

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mini-Review: The View From Castle Rock

I kicked off  my New Year’s Reading Resolutions by picking up a book I would probably never have read otherwise: The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro. My only prior experience with Munro is her short story “Axis,” which didn’t exactly bowl me over, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

This collection is divided into two parts. In the first are a handful of stories that trace the lives of her Scottish ancestors as they emigrate from the old world to southern Ontario in Canada. In the second part are another group of stories that explore life as it existed for her and her family in that same area many years later. An epilogue at the end does a nice job of tying the two sections together.

My verdict? I actually really liked the book. Maybe even loved it. Now, be forewarned: there are none of the terrible calamities or exultant climaxes that you might find in a more plot-heavy book. But her stories and descriptions and insights do make for some pretty fascinating reading.

Poring through this book is like visiting with the author as she pulls a box of old photos from the closet shelf and rattles off her haphazard memories. These are the types of people who lived here, she tells you. This was the flavor of their lives. This is how I imagine such-and-such happening. -I admit that it took a while to reel me in, but once I was there I was positively spellbound.

And if all of this sounds too much like chick-lit, let me toss out a just a few of her vivid descriptions. First, a patient in the hospital:

He wears a short hospital gown and sits in the wheelchair with his legs apart, revealing a nest of dry, brown nuts.
Ew, right? But the awesomeness continues with this conversation about a constipated dog, held over ham sandwiches and coffee:

“He started grunting and pissing and worrying at the mat. He was just crazy with the misery and wasn’t nothing I could do. Then about quarter past seven I heard the change. I can tell by the sound he makes that he’s got it worked down into a better position where he can make the effort. There’s some pie left, we never finished it. Would you rather have the pie?”
“No, thanks. This is fine.” I pick up a ham sandwich.
“So, I open the door and try to persuade him to get outside where he can pass it.”
The kettle is whistling. She pours water on my instant coffee. “-Wait a minute. I’ll get you some real cream. But too late! Right on the mat there, he passed it. A hunk, like that!” She shows me her fists bunched together. “And hard! Oh, boy, you should have seen it, like rock. And I was right”, she says, “it was chock-full of turkey quills.”
I stir the muddy coffee.
“And after that? Whooosh! Out with the soft stuff. Bust the dam, you did.” She says this to Buster who has raised his head. “You went and stunk the place up something fierce, you did. But the most of it went on the mat, so I took it outside and put the hose on it.” she said, turning back to me. “Then I took the soap and the scrub brush and then I drenched it with the hose all over again, then scrubbed up the floor, too, and sprayed with Lysol and left the door open. You can’t smell it in hear now, can you?”
“I was sure good and happy to see him get relief, poor old fellow. He’d be the age of 94 if he was human.”
And here’s another where she discovers her childhood home is now the site of a car wrecker yard:

The front yard and  the side yard and the vegetable garden and the flower borders, the hay field, the mock-orange bush, the lilac trees, the chestnut stump, the pasture and the ground,  once covered by the fox pens, are all swept under a tide of car parts. Gutted car bodies, smashed headlights, grills and fenders, overturned car seats with rotten, bloated stuffing. Heaps of painted, rusted, blackened, glittering, whole or twisted, defiant and surviving metal.
It’s pretty good stuff. There’s a reason she’s won Canada’s Governor General’s Award three times. I heartily recommend the book.

Friday, January 20, 2012

First Line Friday!

“At five o’clock that morning reveille was sounded, as usual, by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters.”
This is, in my opinion, a great first line. Let’s dissect this bad boy.

We’ve got staff quarters and reveille being sounded. Right off the bat we know this tale will unfold in the confines of some well-ordered, regimented existence.

It’s sounded at five o’clock, so we know we’re not at summer camp. And it’s not being trumpeted from a bugle, so we know we’re not in the army. Where then?

Well, it’s happening as usual- just like it always does- and it’s being banged out by a hammer on a length of rail. Sounds cruel.  Sounds heartless. And efficient and brutal and any number of other things. Sounds like a Soviet gulag.

This is how Alexander Solzhenitsyn welcomes us to the Siberian prison camp where his novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich  is set. As you can gather from the title, the book only covers the events of a single day, but the reader feels the monotony and tedium of an entire prison sentence in the space of a very few pages. He pulls it off with that great opening, and by closing with the same image he led with:
“There were three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days like that in his stretch. From the first clang of the rail to the last clang of the rail.
“Three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days.
“The three extra days were for leap years.”


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Short Story Club: "Walter John Harmon" by E.L. Doctorow

Welcome to Short Story Club. Come on in, have a seat, and let’s get down to business. Tucker and Orlando are in the kitchen preparing watercress sandwiches. As we announced before, the focus of this month’s discussion is the rather lengthy short story “Walter John Harmon” by E.L Doctorow. It’s a fascinating yarn about life in a religious cult- as told by a believer, who also happens to be the group’s in-house counsel attorney.

In what we hope becomes a tradition, we’ve asked for guest posters to kick off our discussion. And who better to inaugurate the John R. Lyman Memorial Short Story Club, than Mr. John R. Lyman himself. (And no, that’s not him pictured above. That would be Doctorow.) What did you think, Lyman?:

I hadn't thought much about cults lately, which isn't all that easy to do when you share a home state with the Lafferty brothers and Warren Jeffs.  Half the time you're trying to just read an article about last week's football game in the local paper you get smacked in the face with horror stories about child brides and tales of end times. At a certain point you tune them out. After reading "Walter John Harmon" I had a better sense of why: most cult stories are invariably told somewhat uninterestingly by outsiders, because in the most interesting cults members don't do much talking to rest of the world. That type of reporting often leads to a list of weird acts and crimes, but never seems to get to the crux of the cult itself. It's a bit like reading a Woodward and Bernstein article on Watergate without any input from Deepthroat.  

In my mind Doctorow's story, although of course fictional, offers as plausible an account as any "true" story of life in a cult. The feeling of complete inadequacy ("I knew the failing within me when Betty was this night summoned for Purification") mixed with the supreme arrogance of knowing you're right about something while the rest of the world is completely wrong ("In the end, no one could withstand the warmth and friendliness of our Embrace."). And, of course, the utter fear of cognitive dissonance, which drives so much of what anyone does but seems to especially affect those in a cult. "Hmm, the prophet ran off with my money and wife -- either I've been a total tool for the last five years of my life or this is all part of the master plan. Let me go talk to a few of the other elders who might have been fooled, too. . . yep, it was all part of the master plan!"

At times the story shows its age. For whatever reason cults were a bigger deal in the late 90s and early 2000s than they are now. Perhaps there was less going on then, or maybe the American public has just come to accept religious wackos now and isn't as interested as reading about them. The passages on the Internet are borderline funny. I had forgotten there was a time -- 2003, apparently -- when people actually used the term "Web log" instead of blog. And if Doctorow wrote the story today he'd either cut the entire descriptive paragraph after "Betty and I learned about Walter John Harmon from the Internet" (really, where else would you learn about a cult?) or replace it with, "Initially we friended Walter on Facebook, which is where all his followers must first declare their loyalty. Then we watched some really funny YouTube videos of him playing with his cats." But the essence is timeless. Life is pretty damn scary for some people and it's nice to have a place to fit in, even at the expense of your wife, livelihood, and rationality.
Thanks, John. What about the rest of you? Do you agree? Disagree? Like the story? Dislike the story? What did you think about the world Doctorow created here? Have at it in the comments!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

From the Pen of Wallace Stegner

I’ve talked about what makes a line of prose jump off the page at me here. I don’t necessarily make highlights as I read, but I’ll dog-ear a page for future reference if something catches my eye. Below is a smattering of such lines from Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. All emphasis is mine:

"Noiseless as a flower opening, a rocket burst above the hills. She sat up, watching the white stars curve and fall. Then BOOM! All the night air between her and the town, two and a half miles of it, trembled with the delayed report...
"Another rocket seared across the sky at an angle and bloomed with hanging green balls. Another went up through the green shower and burst into an umbrella of red. Then three together, all white. Then one that winked hotly but did not flower. BOOM! went the cushioning air. BOOM!  BOOM BOOM BOOM!BOOM!"

"She watched me with something like horror. I could feel her eyes on my back, and hear her breathing, and whenever I wheeled around in my chair and caught her eyes, they skittered away in desperate search for something they might have been looking at."

"A wandering dog of a night wind came in off the sagebrush mesa carrying a bar of band music, and laid it on her doorstep like a bone."

"Standing by the gateway he moved the sweating servants with an eyebrow, directed them with half-inch movements of his head."

"He hung from her breast like a ripe fruit ready to fall. His eyes were closed, then open, then closed again... She hated the thought that he must become a separate, uncomfortable metabolism cursed with effort and choice."
What about you? What’s the best line you’ve come across in your recent reading?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Literature podcasts

I’m sure you’re all as giddy as we are for Thursday’s Short Story Club kick-off. As we continue to build momentum for the short form, we thought we’d share some more great short story resources to help you mark the time.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m currently cursed with an hour-long commute. That’s one hour each way. This means I’m always looking for good commute-listening fodder. The last refuge of the sane commuter is variety, so in addition to radio, my own music and any number of audio books, I have a few trusty podcasts standing by to get me through the tedium. Here they are in order of preference:

The gold standard: The New Yorker Fiction Podcast.

Fiction Editor Deborah Triesman invites recent or regular contributors to the New Yorker to pull their favorite stories from the magazine’s archives and read them aloud for the podcast. The readings are sandwhiched between excellent and interesting commentary, and I have very rarely come away from an episode disappointed (though it has happened on occasion.) New podcasts once a month. Run-time is typically right around 40 minutes or so. Check it out.

Host Isaiah Sheffer introduces a wide variety of short stories which are performed in front of a live audience by actors of the stage and screen. The episodes usually feature two different stories, generally given a loose theme that binds them together. They have recently added some commentary to spice things up a bit and I think it’s done the trick. The ratio of stories I don’t like is slightly higher than those I listen to in the New Yorker podcast, but what it lacks in quality, it more than makes up for in quantity. New podcasts every week. Run-time is right at 1 hour per show.

There are also a few “amateur hour” honorable mentions:

The Writing Show. Host Paula B. reads incoming submissions of short stories or first chapters (usually 4 per hour-long show) and gives her impressions freely. There’s a lot of genre stuff to wade through, but there are also some real gems to be found. Our own Tucker McCann has been featured, but since the submissions are anonymous, I won’t tell you which episode.

The Lit Show. In addition to interviews and roundtables, students and alumni of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop regularly share their work on this podcast. It’s interesting to see what kind of work comes out of a top-flight MFA program.

The Moth. From iTunes: “The Moth features people telling true, engaging, funny, touching and eye-opening stories from their lives.” Because they are performed live, and without notes, the stories don’t often have the structure of written stories. But they can be entertaining.

Any other podcast aficionados out there? Keeping in mind that I try to stay in the lit-fic vein, what are some other short fiction podcasts I shouldn’t live without?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Poet's Corner

Poetry for the rest of us:

-Image by James Henkel


I pour a coating of salt on the table
and make a circle in it with my finger.
This is the cycle of life
I say to no one.
This is the wheel of fortune,
the Arctic Circle.
This is the ring of Kerry
and the white rose of Tralee
I say to the ghosts of my family,
the dead fathers,
the aunt who drowned,
my unborn brothers and sisters,
my unborn children.
This is the sun with its glittering spokes
and the bitter moon.
This is the absolute circle of geometry
I say to the crack in the wall,
to the birds who cross the window.
This is the wheel I just invented
to roll through the rest of my life
I say
touching my finger to my tongue.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What's In A Name?

MacEvoy has been rolling around in the elk miscarriage of literature titles as of late . . . which has caused me to do a lot of thinking. Of my favorite 25 (or so) novels, I have strong feelings when it comes to the titles. I hate them (i.e. "The Catcher in The Rye"). Or I love them (i.e. "The Angle of Repose") and wish that I had a book with just such a title.

It often befuddles me that a writer can produce a novel of such sustained prominence and genius, while completely striking out on a workable title (i.e. "All The Pretty Horses"). The tile should be the easy part, in theory, I mean it's ten words or less. But yet these "misses" do occur, as I will point out below. Keep in mind, every book on these lists is, in my mind, important and ground breaking and wonderful, in spite of its great or terrible title.

Best Books I've Ever Read with GREAT (I'm jealous) Titles:
  • The Sun Also Rises (Hemingway)
  • The Angle of Repose (Stegner)
  • The Great Gatsby (Joyce)
  • For Whom The Bell Tolls (Hemingway)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
  • East of Eden (Steinbeck)
  • Dharma Bums (Kerouac)
  • The Autumn of the Patriarch (Garcia Marquez)
  • My Name is Asher Lev (Potok)
  • Ask the Dust (Fante)
  • Chronicle of a Death Foretold (Garcia Marquez)
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Kundera)
  • Blood Meridian (McCarthy)
Best Books I've Ever Read with TERRIBLE (how could such a good novel have such a shitty title) Titles:
  • Dancing At The Rascal Fair (Doig) (sounds like grocery store romance lit)
  • All The Pretty Horses (McCarthy) (sounds like lesbian cowgirl lit)
  • Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man (Joyce) (Note: I actually don't like the novel either)
  • Travels With Charlie (Steinbeck) (John thought this one up in 10 seconds, surely)
  • The House of Spirits (Allende) (sounds like a "universe" book you'd see featured on Oprah)
  • Love In The Time of Cholera (Garcia Marquez) (Can't have "love" in a title, sorry Gab).
  • Cry, The Beloved Country (Patton) (sorry MacEvoy, but this one misses the mark for me)
  • A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O'Connor) (sounds like my Jewish mother-in-law)
  • The Stranger (Camus) (too bland)
  • Out Stealing Horses (Petterson) (sounds like a 12 year old wrote the title)
  • The Savage Detectives (Bolano) (After reading it, I am still unsure what the title means, so I hate it)
  • A Moveable Feast (Hemingway) (Makes me think of Thanksgiving?!)
  • Freedom (Franzen) (sounds like a George Bush speech title)
Now, keep in mind that aside from Joyce, I've LOVED each of these novels and count them as important to my development as a person and thinker. And these titles represent opposite ends of the spectrum with plenty of titles that fall in between the Great v. Terrible debate ("Don Quixote de la Mancha" and "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "The Old Man & The Sea").

What I've gleaned from my self-made lists are that most writers find themselves on both ends of the spectrum depending on the novel. They write a stellar title for one novel, and a pitiful title for the next.

Can anyone disagree with my list(s)?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Learn a life skill: Read a novel

Sometimes a passage will do nothing for the plot, zip for the growth of the characters, and zilch for conveying a lasting message of any kind- but you still love it because it provides a killer description of something you'll probably never experience first-hand. In that spirit, let's let Tom Joad show us how to skin a rabbit:
Tom took up the rabbit in his hand. "One of you go get some bale wire outa the barn. We'll make a fire with some of this broken plank from the house." He looked at the dead rabbit. "There ain't nothing so easy to get ready as a rabbit," he said. He lifted the skin of the back, slit it, put his fingers in the hole, and tore the skin off. It slipped off like a stocking, slipped off the body to the neck, and off the legs to the paws. Joad picked up the knife again and cut off the head and the feet. He laid the skin down, slit the rabbit along the ribs, shook out the intestines onto the skin, and then threw the mess off into the cotton field. And the clean-muscled little body was ready.
-John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

Friday, January 13, 2012

First Line Friday

Today's first line is one that I've loved since the first day I read it, years ago, on my balcony in Los Angeles below the tapestry of a mild winter afternoon.

"I've been cordially invited to join the visceral realists."

This novel then goes on to tell the story of a 17 year old aspiring poet named Juan Garcia Madero in Mexico City and his interactions with a group of rogue poets known as, of course, the "visceral realists." This first line is very abrupt, not flowery, not overly burdensome, but concise, and then the real kicker: The Visceral Realists. The reader is 7 words into the novel and already wondering who the hell the visceral realists are. To my eyes, it's a very effective first line.

So who wrote this first line? And in what novel? Without further ado, it is Roberto Bolano's critically acclaimed "The Savage Detectives." This novel really frustrated me at times, while completely melting my face with its turns and prose at other times. I guess I'd suggest that you read it, but be advised that it's work. But it's work that's well worth it.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"Not that there's anything wrong with that."

Like most men my age, I’ve probably seen every episode of Seinfeld at least twenty-three times. But the fourteen-year-old MacEvoy certainly wouldn’t have known who John Cheever was when the episode entitled “The Cheever Letters” aired in 1992. Twenty years later I can say his short stories rank among my very favorites.

Anyway, here is a clip from that episode that riffs off of the then-fairly recent publication of the author’s very private, very forthright letters and journals. “The letters” make their appearance at about the one-minute mark...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Two months down!

Hard to believe we've been at this for two months already. We've got truckloads of great content stored neatly away in the archives and you can see the authors we've touched upon in just the past 30 days above. Below, you'll find the five most popular posts from the same time period.

Thanks for reading, and as always, leave us a comment and tell us how we can improve, what you'd like to see more of, what you wish we'd stop, etc.!

  1. The Art of the Pseudonym
  2. On Plot Twists
  3. My Shelf Life: 2011
  4. Poet's Corner
  5. Hello, my name is Rose of Sharon

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Yesterday’s post on short stories was part love song, part lamentation. Today we tell you what we’re going to do about the lamentation part of things.

But first, appropriately, a very short story:

The other day I was included on an email chain between the participants of a once-great book club. As often happens in life, this half dozen men in their early thirties had been spread far and wide by the grad-school/professional diaspora, and now meets only once a year during the holidays. From what I could tell, a few half-hearted emails are occasionally traded to spur or check on progress, and at least one daunting title had been jettisoned midway through the year to stave off a mutiny of the disinterested.

But then something interesting happened. One of them circulated a short story he thought just might intrigue the group. What followed was a flurry of emails and informal reviews that ranged from high praise to “not-that-great,” and from profound and eloquent to downright hilarious. In fact, I’d never seen a group of non-writer thirty-somethings mobilize themselves to a literary discussion quite so quickly before. It spawned an epiphany of sorts:

Short stories are short. People will actually read them. The point of the story can usually be smoked out of its hiding place in very little time, and you can say about it what you want to in the space of a short email or blog comment. They are infinitely better suited to comprehensive club-type discussions than the long works of fiction that three-quarters of the group never likes, and half the group never reads.

And that is why we’re establishing the John R. Lyman Memorial Short Story Club. Every month we’ll post the link to a fantastic short story for you to read, and on the appointed day you’ll return to hear some of our thoughts, and to share some more of your own. It will be spectacular.

Now, are we the first short story club in existence? Certainly not. Are we the best short story club in existence? It’s likely. But we know we’re the only one that enjoys the ongoing patronage of Mr. John R. Lyman. So who is this great man, you ask? That’s a great question, and we look forward to all your great questions, comments, complaints and criticisms as we launch the short story club that bears his name.

First up for the JRLMSSC in January? We might as well start with a doozy: “Walter John Harmon” by E.L. Doctorow, published in the New Yorker in 2003, and collected in his 2004 book Sweet Land Stories. Here's the opening:
When Betty told me she would go that night to Walter John Harmon I didn’t think I reacted. But she looked into my eyes and must have seen something—some slight loss of vitality, a moment’s dullness of expression. And she understood that for all my study and hard work the Seventh Attainment was still not mine. [Read More]
It is Fascinating. You won't want to miss it. Click the link, read it, mull it over, and come back here to hash it out on Thursday January 19th.

And don't forget, the first rule of Short Story Club is: you do not talk about Short Story Cl– wait a minute, no… that’s another club. The first rule of Short Story Club is tell everyone about short story club. It’s gonna be off the chain!

Monday, January 9, 2012

An Ode to the Short Form

I’m a short story nut. And I sometimes fail to understand why other people aren’t.

I mean, people used to read them. There used to be a huge market for short fiction back in the day. As a point of reference, consider the following:

F. Scott Fitzgerald sold 11 stories in 1919. For these he received $3,975. That’s $361 a pop. You might not think that’s all that impressive, but in today’s dollars it works out to be about $4,500 per story.

Between November 1923 and April 1924 he produced 11 more short stories, this time earning $17,000- or $215,000 in today’s money. That’s almost twenty grand per story! But sit tight, there’s more.

When he sold “Babylon Revisited” to the Saturday Evening Post in 1931 he pulled in an astounding $4,000, or the equivalent of almost $57,000 in our day. Again, for a single story. How did he do it? Readers galore. But sell a short story to a literary magazine nowadays and you’re lucky if you get two free copies of the publication as a reward.

So, what happened to the market? Why aren’t people reading short stories anymore? Is it the decline of mass market magazines? The advent of TV? The publishing industry’s focus on easy-to-market novels and series? Probably a little bit of all-of-the-above. But there’s got to be something else at play. After all, people still read. Not only that, our attention spans grow shorter and shorter every year. You would think short stories would thrive in an age where people consume content on smart phones while in line at the grocery store. So what else is going on here?

I think short stories have a branding problem. Stories. Aren’t those the things we tell our kids? And short. Doesn’t that mean it’s light? Easy? Mere fluff? Why would bright, serious adults spend their time with such things?

“Books,” “novels,” and “series” on the other hand, all possess a kind of weight and cachet that imbues their readers with erudition,  and culture and saavy.

Pretend for a moment that you’re sitting in a waiting room somewhere. A complete stranger walks in and asks you what you’re reading. Would you rather tell them you were reading a novel? Or that you were engrossed in “a short story?” …Exactly. You see my point.

But I don’t see why it has to be that way. When it comes right down to it, what’s not to love about short stories? You want great first lines? I give you Poe’s “The Cask of Amantillado:”

“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.”

You want smack-you-in-the-face last lines? How about Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

"It isn't fair, it isn't right," Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.
You want fantastic dialogue? Foreshadowing? A mysterious backstory to unravel? And wide shifts in tone? You don’t need a novel! You can find all of that and more in a great little yarn like Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Banafish.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not disparaging novels. I’ve read some great ones. Some I’d even call life-changing. But when I find myself contemplating something I’ve recently read, more often than not, it’s something I’ve read in a short story. Maybe it’s because short stories give you quick glimpses and relatable scenes. Maybe they engage you better by leaving more to the imagination. Maybe it’s easier to hold their bite-sized messages in our brains. Or, maybe it’s just easier for a writer to hold our focus for 15 pages than it is to do so for 300. I’m still trying to put my finger on the exact appeal.

But I think we can agree that both long and short forms serve their purpose. If a novel is a cross-country road trip, a short story is a weekend jaunt- or an overnight stay, or a night out on the town. It’s anything you want it to be, except a long slog. But that’s the other key advantage it holds. You can easily plow through just about any short story, good or bad. If it’s no good, you move on and forget it. No harm, no foul. If it’s great, it sticks with you just like a novel. But because of its length (or lack thereof) you’re never committing yourself to a literary Death March that will leave you hating a bad novel when you finish it, and feeling guilty or unfulfilled when you don’t.

To make a long story short (HA!!), the short form appears to have lost its grasp on us, despite its obvious charms. It’s a shame and a vexation. Come back tomorrow, and we’ll tell you what we’re going to do about it.

In the meantime, what are your favorite short stories?