Quote

The Most Beautiful Things

23 Sep

“Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.”

– John Steinbeck

A peacock at Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home, Andalusia in Milledgeville, GA.

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Read “Birnam Wood” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

21 Sep

Vestal, New YorkMy aunt learned to read tarot cards in college as a party trick. Now, every New Years when she comes to visit, she’ll pull out her stack of cards from their purple velvet pouch, shuffle them between her long-nailed fingers, and lay them out in a Celtic Cross spread across the floor in front of us. The penultimate card, the last to be revealed before the outcome, is the card that dictates the inquirer’s Hopes and Fears. Even though the Final Outcome card may allow you to “know” what will occur in the next year, or semester, or month of your life, when it comes down to the actual living, the outcome isn’t the focus. What matters instead are the hopes and fears. Those emotions are the way you will live your day to day life, and those are the emotions that give the outcome meaning.

Sorry to go off on a tarot tangent. And sorry if you think they’re bizarre. They are, it’s true, but I write of tarot cards because they seem to work well with this week’s story, which has reverberations of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s “Birnam Wood,” published in The New Yorker in August (available online here) is the story of a young couple struggling to live in upstate New York in the 70s. The summer has ended, winter is setting on, and meanwhile Keith and Nora are struggling to pay the bills for a cold, leaking shack. Resentment brews (bubble, bubble, toil and trouble) and miraculously, they are offered an out: a chance to house-sit in a beautiful mansion in Birnam Wood, which includes its own pool table and a private lake. To convince the elderly couple that they are responsible young adults, Keith and Nora pretend they are married. So begins the domestic experiment, both of them hoping the resentment they felt over the fall will fade, both imagining what it might be like to really own this home, to really belong to each other.

In the past, Boyle has been deemed a maximalist, a writer with melodramatic tendencies and a flare for the bizarre that he sometimes includes to the detriment of his stories. Personally, I love the Boyle that busts with raw humor and dark absurdity. If you have a New Yorker subscription, you can read the archive: the man has written a story called “Thirteen-Hundred Rats,” (it’s ridiculously morbid and strange) and his use of the fantastic in the story “Los Gigantes” still works within a complicated, thought-provoking piece.

But “Birnam Wood” operates on a subtler plain, and the paring back of the bizarre allows us to really focus on what matters in this story: the splintering cracks in Keith and Nora’s relationship.

After they move in to the mansion, things are good for awhile. The tension dissipates, and they try to experience the last days of summer:

“Whenever we could, we went out in the rowboat, and though we never acknowledged it, I suppose we were both thinking the same thing—that we’d better take advantage of it while we could, because each day of the sun might be the last.”

(A metaphor, of course, for the way Keith and Nora cling to the last days of their own relationship.)

The story blows up emotionally (in a good way) after Steve from the bar arrives at the house, and Nora understands what Steve and Keith have talked about in the bar. It’s a terrific, forceful moment in the story, and what follows after is really just Keith coming to terms with all he has lost.

He wanders out across the frozen lake, where he sees into the bedroom of a house, where a man and woman lie side by side, reading before they go to bed, and the narrator sits there, in the icy dark, and watches them until the light goes out.

The scene mirrors an earlier moment in the story, when Keith falls asleep to Nora reading in her separate bed across the room from him:

“…when I switched off my lamp and turned to the wall the last image fading in my brain was of the steady bright nimbus of Nora’s light and her face shining their above the book.”

In both scenes, Keith is closeted in his personal darkness: there is Nora, and there are the people in their beds, two images of celestial domesticity—the kind of happy, secure life that Keith craves. In the first scene, he turns away from the light—just as he will turn away from Nora, and at the end, he cannot help but stare into the house, into the light that he’s lost now, forever.

Our Hopes and Fears are strange forces. They lead us in all sorts of zigzagging directions, and as we follow behind, tugged and pulled from one place to another—a giant mansion, a frozen lake—it’s hard to say what that 10th card will mean to us, when it arrives.

English: T.C. Boyle at the powerHouse Arena, D...

Author T.Coraghessan Boyle

The New Yorker interviewed the author about “Birnam Wood.” You can find the Q & A is here.

Read Drunk; Analyze Sober

12 Sep

It’s time to declare the new age of the short story.

It’s time to laud the concise.

It’s time to realize that in this day and age of blogs and online journals and YouTube videos, print media—books and newspapers, especially—are falling behind our modern needs. What is it about these online mediums that we find so compelling?

For one, it’s brevity.

We read fewer books these days, and it’s not that we’re less educated, or less intellectual, or stupider than our forebears. We’re busy. Driving on clogged highways from one place to another, working long hours at the office, shopping for groceries or catching up with the daily updates on the presidential campaign. I’m overwhelmed myself, and as an aspiring writer, it’s my job to read everyday. Yet any time I get the chance to relax, I find myself unwilling to begin a novel when I know that I won’t have time to read it.

Take Richard Ford’s new novel, Canada. After I read a New York Times book review purporting it’s genius (and it is terrific, so far), I downloaded it onto my Kindle and began on the first of 400 or so pages. Then school started, with it a flurry of papers and assignments, and I tried to fit it in where I could. On the elliptical. In the car while driving to class. Shampooing in the shower. Yeah, exactly. It doesn’t work. By the time I’ve cracked open the Kindle again, I have to spend the first ten minutes just trying to reorient myself within the pages. Sorry, but that’s not the literary experience I want.

So how do we adjust to our modern time?

I vote the short story. What better form to occupy the tenuous space between long-form literature and fragment-style online writing? What better form to offer us the rejuvenating experience of one writer’s pure, individual (edited) voice, as compared to the frenetic copy-pasting, quoting, and linking of blogs? What better form to supply a complete literary experience within a compact, tightly packed unit, all the more powerful for its quick, sharp punch?

Yes, I vote the short story. There are so many fantastic works, in so many fantastic styles—not just contemporary authors, but our classic literary heroes, too. Just this month The New Yorker published a Fitzgerald story.

Only a few months back, they published a very different kind of story, “Black Box,” by Jennifer Egan, which was originally published in short bites of prose on Twitter. Egan’s project demonstrated how the fragmented form of internet writing can create a new kind of literary experience. (Though she worked through a very new medium, she did plan out the story for months beforehand with the trusty pen and notebook of writers of old.) Still, the story works well with the form, and it is a chilling, wonderful piece. You can read it online at The New Yorker here if you subscribe.

Esquire holds a summer short fiction contest. The Atlantic has its yearly short fiction edition. Every year, The Best American Short Stories collects the best of the best from the nation’s top literary magazines, and both new and familiar names grace the pages.

Not to mention there are thousands more online from zines to short story data bases to the websites of standard literary magazine, and they’re one of the only things you can find online for free. Yes, some stories are “subscriber only” but have you ever read a novel online for free? Ever? Yeah, me neither.

My goal for this blog in the future, then, is to engage the short story, especially those written by our contemporary authors. How are we defining ourselves, these days? What can our authors tell us about the world we live in, our systems of values, our means of perception?

I don’t want to write a book review for a novel you won’t have time to read. I don’t want you to simply take my word for it, my own personal analysis that could exalt or condemn a book.

What I’d like to offer you is an opportunity not only to read, but to engage. A fireside chat of a sorts, but let’s call it a coffee break, or better yet—a bourbon break. The goal is to enter together into a discussion of the works that affect us (and affect us because we have time to read them).

Here’s what I plan to do: read short stories from a variety of publications, post the links, and discuss. No author wants you to simply move your eyes across the page and afterwards post on Goodreads about your accomplishment. When they construct a story, they desire you to think, and to continue thinking.

A story is a silent conversation that passes from the writer to the reader. You may read about a character with a talking pig, but the situation will hopefully imply a far deeper meaning than what appears on the surface.

My goal is to explore, explicitly, this implicit conversation between the writer and the reader.

So with that, I’ll return to this blog’s title. Write drunk and edit sober, an adjustment of the famous Hemingway quote that I’ve adopted to have a new meaning—to write with the heart and to edit with the mind.

For this project, I propose a similar mantra. How about “Read drunk; analyze sober”? Let’s engage with literature. Let’s get drunk off it, drunk on emotion and the reverie of words and phrases. But then let’s analyze. Let’s look at author Q&A’s. Let’s consider what this literature does for us in our modern time.

Why am I right for this job? The same reason you are. We’re interested minds who wish to engage with story—that wonderful place where an author can craft art out of communication and reveal meaning in a series of contiguous events.

Fresh Meat for Turtles

11 Sep

Koi pond

Koi don’t go for worms, and they’re not suckers for bait, either. People don’t fish koi because they’re bottom feeders—fish who spend their time nibbling algae from green-fuzzed rocks—and the koi wouldn’t be tempted by the likes of a flashing hook with a bit of dangling chum. People don’t noodle koi either, because koi aren’t catfish. Koi are ornamental, fat goldfish—sleek orange and yellow darts of flashing scales—and they live peaceful, dull lives, gliding in slow circles around decorative ponds.

My grandfather, always oblivious to such demoralizing information, decided one day to take my brother and me fishing in the Houston city park. There swam the koi, and there stood us, gazing down at their yellow fins batting the water. Grandad smiled, set up his plastic lawn chair, cracked the tab of a fizzy orange soda, and cast his line into the water.

I was eight years old, my brother was twelve, and all that morning we’d dug up earthworms and stuffed their writhing bodies in rusted soup cans. Now we skewered the skinny, wiggling earthworms on our hook, tossed in our lines, and waited. We waited all afternoon, and still the koi did not bite.

“They must be full,” Grandad said. “Or else they’d bite.”

After a long day at the koi pond, we gave up. Those damn fish weren’t interested, and there was nothing we could do to convince them. Earthworms weren’t for them, and that was that.

As much as I hated those stupid koi for not biting, I learned a good lesson that day: don’t waste your worms on the fish that will never bite.

These days I no longer fish. Instead, I write.

I’ve just started my senior year at Vanderbilt University, where I am a candidate for English Honors in the Creative Writing track. This fall, I’ll draft a thesis for a collection of short stories, and next semester, I’ll write it. Better yet, I’m enrolled in a Graduation Fiction Workshop, which will allow me to interact with people who are just as serious about writing as I am.

What an exciting time, right?

What a terrifying time, too—all around us, people are proclaiming the End: if not of the world, then at least of the book.

“The book is dead!” cries the modern-day Nostradamus.

Yet there is the book, like a plague-victim in a Monty Python film, hopping along, crying out in shrill falsetto, “I’m not dead. I’m getting better!”

And here we are, aspiring writers desiring to write. Sometimes, it feels that what waits ahead is the koi pond: me sitting there, at the water’s edge, attempting to bait my line for fish that aren’t even remotely interested.  All the koi in the world have gone off to watch movies and play video games and record episodes of The Bachelor.

Perhaps this analogy is falling through. Let’s try another.

Summertime, and I’m in my grandfather’s backyard. Blackberries are plump and full in the heat, and the garden is sweet with the smell of figs. A mockingbird sings from the branches of an oak tree.

“Let’s buy a chicken,” Grandad says.

My brother and I are perplexed, but not surprised. My grandfather often surprises us, and besides, it’s hot and we’re bored. So we go with him. We walk to the grocery store, and Grandad buys one whole chicken, still wrapped in its thin plastic sheath.

We follow Grandad back from the store. Instead of making our way back to the house, we trot down a steep, weed-lined hill to the Braes Bayou, a concrete-lined tributary that cuts through my grandfather’s neighborhood. The water is murky and smells faintly of sewage. Green algae floats on the surface of the water. My grandfather unwraps the chicken from the plastic, the tremors from World War II still shaking his hands. The bird is plump, it’s flesh pink and dotted with bumps where its feathers have been plucked.

Grandad takes one step back and swings. The bird makes its final flight through the air, then lands with a giant kerplop in the water. It bobs, settles, and floats. Nothing happens. Then—movement. A turtle head rises to the surface, then another. Suddenly, there are twenty of them, with thin red stripes on the sides of their faces.

“Red-eared gliders,” Grandad explains. “They like chicken.”

The turtles circled, then bit. They tore off chunks of pink bird meat with little jerks of their heads.

Wow,” I said, marveling. “There are so many.”

Grandad nodded, grinning. “There sure are.”

There are some people who will never read—just like there are some koi that will never bite. But then again, why fish, when you can feed?

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Paying for Online Book Reviews | Is It Wrong?

28 Aug

The Roadkill Cure to Writer’s Block

11 Aug

“If the artist starts evaluating himself, it’s an enormous block, isn’t it?” – Philip Guston, painter

Before you go on a tangent today, criticizing your writing (as well as your personality, your life, and the dog with scruffy ears you got at the pound), consider taking a walk.

Instead of spending the better part of the afternoon in a whirlpool of self-doubt, you might find this: a flattened raccoon on the edge of a two-lane highway.

ImageThen you might think, what if I were the type of person who took a raccoon home for dinner? Or better yet, what if I were a taxidermist who specialized in roadkill finds? At this point, you might begin to consider what being a roadkill-taxidermist would mean for you, if that were your life calling.  Perhaps you’d take your stuffed roadkill to taxidermy conferences. Maybe you’d explain how you keep some parts of the animal flattened and ragged and bloody because you don’t want to create stuffed, inauthentic “life” from death by 18-wheeler. Maybe you want your viewers to focus on the momento mori of these unfortunate critters. And God knows if you were a roadkill taxidermist you would certainly talk to those dead squirrels, opossums, and armadillos.  Who knows, they might talk back.

And just like that, you’ve forgotten about the worm of self-doubt, and instead you’re sitting down at your computer to write about deranged taxidermists and their disemboweled, talking raccoons. Sure, no one might ever read your story, but what does it matter?

You’ve just made friends with a taxidermist and all of his flattened rodent friends, and sometimes, that’s just enough.

The World Must Be All Fucked Up

24 Jul

“The world must be all fucked up,” he said then, “When men travel first class and literature goes as freight.” – Gabriel García Márquez

Sorry, books, but it was the only way…

And with the packing of the books, you know we’ve come to the end of the Georgia days.