Tag Archives: New Yorker

The Reluctant Read

28 Nov

Have you ever read a book you were certain you would despise?

Someone forced it on you, for one reason or another—the teacher of a college class or a kindly but pushy relative—and every ounce of you resisted. You took the loathsome lump of a novel in your hands and a frown unfolded from every crook in your body. Your mouth turned down at the sides, your shoulders slumped, your stomach boiled with an unpleasant acid, and you turned to page one.

Stupid, you thought. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Trite. Dull. Idiotic.

But, if you were lucky, something else started to happen. That relative of yours, who’s actually very intelligent aside from his prescriptions for your life and your reading habits, maybe have given you something good. You squinted your eyes at the page. The acid in your stomach slowly subsided, then transformed. Your dull aching dread became something light—a nervous, floating excitement—and suddenly, beautifully, you were hooked.

Watch out. A book like that can be dangerous. Afterward, you might find yourself irrevocably altered. You might return to that book, year after year, and find it like a lover you can’t quite bleach from your heart.

This week, I finally sat down to read Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, grimacing even as I flipped past praise from The New York Times and one of my favorite and most respected authors, Richard Ford.

Cover of "Both Ways Is the Only Way I Wan...

The truth is, my reluctance to this particular work was born from my own embarrassment. Last year Ms. Meloy came to read at Vanderbilt, and though I enjoyed the reading, I was having a fit of awkward. It comes on sometimes, despite my best intentions at nonchalance, and there I was, fidgeting and unable to speak, when after she sat in the hallway outside the reading room, selling and signing copies of her book behind her plastic foldout chair. The book was around $15—a price I didn’t feel like paying at the time—and there I was in front of her, feeling the money drawn from my hands, and gasping out stupidly that I loved Montana, too! She signed it “For Liz, a fellow Big Sky fan,” and I left feeling outraged at my own jellyfish spine, convinced I would never read her book, more out of principle than anything else.

Over the next few months, I glowered at the book on my shelf. I felt upset when The New Yorker published her story “The Proxy Marriage” in May, and even more upset when I actually enjoyed it. When another story of hers, “Demeter,” was published in The New Yorker two weeks ago, I decided to bring Both Ways home for Thanksgiving break—not to read it, but to pass it off to someone else, so I wouldn’t have to look at it anymore. The book was abandoned to a countertop, and then my cousin—also a writer and reader—picked it up.

“I don’t know about that one,” I said, eyeing it narrowly as she flipped through the first pages. “Don’t blame me if it’s bad.”

But soon she had finished the first story, and over the course of the day, juggling her 6-month-old on her arm, my cousin continued with Meloy’s book. At 11 p.m., she was still reading. All I can say is that I was confused. When I went to bed around midnight, my cousin stayed up with the book.

The next morning I asked her how it went. Guess what? She’d loved it.

So I began to reconsider. After all, it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. After all, my revulsion at the read was petty, idiotic, and nonsensical.

“You’ve got to read it,” my cousin said. “Really.”

“Okay, okay,” I said.

I packed it in my bag, drank a glass of wine as I waited in the airport, and flipped through the pages to the first story. Then I read the second story, the third, and the rest of the book over the next week.

Oh my Lord, was it good.

As George R.R. Martin once said, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”

For me, good fiction occurs when you are shocked into the consciousness of a fully realized character, in a fully realized situation. Good fiction opens us up to new identities. What’s so wonderful about Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It is that it allows the reader not just to have new experiences, but also to return to something recognizable—to encounter a long lost feeling—really a kind of subconscious tone of experience that’s been buried deep or glossed over by its banal surface. Her stories strike deep emotional notes subtly, gracefully, and with almost no visible artifice. It’s astounding.

As Curtis Sittenfeld put it in his review of Meloy’s collection, “They are people who act irrationally, against their own best interests — by betraying those they care about, making embarrassing romantic overtures and knowingly setting in motion situations they’d rather avoid — and Meloy’s prose is so clear, calm and intelligent that their behavior becomes eminently understandable.”

He goes on to say that her characters act with “a kind of banal, daily desperation”—perhaps that’s the feeling I recognized in myself, when reading her prose.

Every page I turned I heard myself apologizing to Meloy in my head—I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry—how could I have dismissed her, this?

At the same time, though, I’m happy with how things turned out. If you’ve hardened your heart to a book, and the prose stills find a way to maneuver through that tough casing, you know you’ve come across something great, something beautiful, that will be a part of you for a long time. Maybe forever.

190347521720777295_2VqSKbmb_c

Twitter Fiction: “Shrapnel”

24 Oct

This week I’m posting my first ever fiction story to appear on this blog. It also happens to be the first short story that I have ever written to fit the  140-character Twitter format.

My inspiration for this form comes from Jennifer Egan’s short story “Black Box,” originally published on Twitter and then in The New Yorker.

Voila. Hope you enjoy.

Glo-Buddha

Shrapnel

The day before my grandfather’s entire platoon was wiped out—all except for him—they spent the afternoon digging trenches in a Korean graveyard.

A man from a nearby village had begged them to stop. It was bad luck, he told them. No good would come of it. They would be cursed.

But the Chinese were on the other side of the hill. It was war. They did what they had to do, and my grandfather was the Lieutenant.

He told them to keep digging.

In all likelihood, they unearthed bodies as they dug. Yellowed bones, human hair. But my grandfather didn’t talk to us about those things.

He was a storyteller. He told us instead of another discovery: a jade Buddha, sea green and the size of his hand.

When the Korean man from the village saw it, he started crying.

Who knows how long the Buddha lived there, under the earth—centuries? My grandfather was the Lieutenant. He put it in his knapsack.

A souvenir.

That night the men used the grave stones for washboards. They ate from their mess kits, joked about home—how they’d never eat rice again.

A private in my grandfather’s unit, Eddie from Kentucky, stayed up one night to finish a book. Get some sleep, the guys told him.

It was a damn good book, though, and he’d wanted to finish it. Eddie read the last chapters by the beam of his military-issue flashlight.

The next morning, the Americans were overrun. Bullets strafed the air. Smoke rose in plumes, then clung to the ground in low, dark clouds.

A bullet slid through Eddie’s chest and pierced his lung. He died choking for breath, unable to speak.

But he finished it, my grandfather said. What was the book? I asked. The Call of the Wild, my grandfather said.

The rest of my grandfather’s unit died around him.

My grandfather was lucky. He heard the grenade as it dropped over the wall of the trench, as it danced down the concrete steps.

One, two—and he lunged sideways—three.

When I was young I ran my finger across the scars, over the jagged shrapnel that racked his body and crawled like spiders under his skin.

By the time he died—62 of cancer—he’d had 12 operations. At 58, the metal still wriggled inside his leg, searching out an artery.

After the war, my grandfather came home and went back to college. He met my grandmother, they married, and life happened.

They had three girls. One, two—and a gap of six years—three.

My grandmother still tells the stories my grandfather told her about the war, about his childhood.

I try to pay attention to how they warp and bend over time. How her memory matches up against mine, against my aunts’, against my mother’s.

Who’s to say who’s right?

Memory works like shrapnel. Long after a callus has grown over a wound, memory still cuts inside you. Drawing up new pain or lying dormant—for a time.

Often, my mind goes back to that jade Buddha. My grandmother says it was stolen from my grandfather on his way home from war.

And yet I can’t believe this.

Did I not see it as a child? That soft, green belly, that laughing mouth? Winking at me from some high shelf, or the back of a dark cabinet?

The last few days he was in the hospital, he hallucinated that he was back in Korea.

I was only six at the time, but still. Hadn’t I seen the Buddha, clenched in the grip of his sweating hand?

Begging for one last miracle, all the while still crouched in the trenches, the ping of the grenade hitting against the concrete steps.

One, two—yes, hadn’t I seen it then?—three.

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.

Quote

All Writers Need Windows

18 Jun

“I can’t play bridge. I don’t play tennis. All those things that people learn, and I admire, there hasn’t seemed time for. But what there is time for is looking out the window.” – Alice Munro

Alice Munro, a Canadian author, is one of the greatest writers of our time. She also wrote one of my favorite short stories, “Gravel,” published in The New Yorker last June.

The house behind my house, where ivy clings to the fading paint, and you can look out the window, but not in.

Thanks for Making Me a Writer, Dad

17 Jun

Dad and I, making model airplanes together.

Thanks for making me a writer, Dad.

There are a lot of reasons why I want to write fiction, and you’re one of them.

You taught me everything in those books on the wall. You let me wear a pink princess dress while we painted model airplanes. You told me about monsters with long-reaching tentacles who lived under my bed. You made me read books I didn’t want to read: The Great War and Modern Memory, Dune, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenancethose books have changed my life.

You read me Ray Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls,” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Those stories scared the shit out of  me, and that’s a good thing.

You took me on trips to far-away places.

You taught me how to draw.

You told me the histories of queens, not princesses. You gave me paper dolls of women writers and women revolutionaries. You told me about Boudicca, the Celtic Warrior Queen.

You let me type up mermaid stories on your computer.

Later, when I wrote a story about a world without stars, you gave me Arthur C. Clarke. Then you made me watch Stanley Kubrick films, Blade Runner, The Twilight Zone, and Aliens.

You gave me The Writer’s Market for years—ever since I was 12—and opened up a whole world to me. I flipped through the pages, marveling over the possibilities.

You bought me a subscription to The New Yorker, just so I could read the stories.

You’ve also been the only one who’s wanted me to be a writer all along, ever since I was that little awkward nerdy kid, bringing a book to the restaurant and reading under the table.

Thanks Dad, for everything. Happy Father’s Day.

Image

Ray Bradbury

16 Jun

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” – Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is another wonderful writer who got drunk off his work. Not only did he imagine life as it had never been lived, he also played a major role in making science fiction a respectable literary genre.

He’s always been one of my favorite authors, ever since I was a kid, and I’m sad that he died this week.

The New Yorker compiled a Science Fiction issue which happened to be published the week of Bradbury’s death. Bradbury, one of the literary greats of science fiction, wrote a personal memoir for the issue: “Take Me Home.” It is a great piece of nonfiction and a poignant narration of one of the author’s childhood memories, which later inspired his story “The Fire Balloons.”

Photo of Ray Bradbury.