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Shocked!

February 19, 2017

Change Seven magazine has posted a guest blog entry of mine about surviving a (Trumpian) shock to the system. Here’s the link.

The general theme, in keeping with the magazine’s name, was “change,” and I started to ponder how our former ideas about change seem both still-relevant and terribly quaint. The old term “future shock” popped into my mind—which was kind of like reading a letter you wrote as a teenager and realizing that, back then, you understood far more than you do now.

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The ambitious editors of Superstition Review have been assembling a massive collection of audio and video clips by their authors, and they invited me to add to it. Hence I’ve recorded a brief audio segment discussing my story “Ranger Ringo” that the magazine published in 2008. Originally I titled the clip “The Role of Memory in Autobiographical Fiction,” and it’s basically a guide to writing about your childhood when you can’t remember your childhood. Here are a couple of links that take you to the clip:

http://blog.superstitionreview.asu.edu/2016/12/13/authors-talk-sam-gridley/ (This includes the editor’s intro., a link to the original story, and a picture of my late dog Simon—who is obviously the best part of the enterprise.)

https://clyp.it/dutuwwzm (the audio clip only)

Please don’t tell Fergus (the guy grinning out at you from the top of this blog) about his predecessor. He thinks he’s an only child.

The Ordinary and the Weird

August 22, 2016

AbundanceCoverLate in this summer of dismal news, I welcome a chance to leave off my political screeds (four of the last five posts, I’m ashamed to say) to discuss a new book of stories by a friend of mine, Larry Loebell’s The Abundance League.

First, let me say what the book is not. Loebell is old enough to have lived through decades when American fiction has aimed to dazzle readers with stylistic flourishes, inveigle them into literary puzzles, or transport them to fantastic or dystopian worlds that have never existed. There’s none of that here. The book is stubbornly grounded on the earth that we know.

Second, it’s important to state that these stories pull no punches. Don’t let the plain black wrapper fool you. This book is sometimes shocking. That may seem an odd thing to say about contemporary fiction—what could possibly shock today’s reader? Well, how about a disabled woman, a quadriplegic with no feeling below her chest, describing in detail how she pleasures her lover—and insisting that, despite her lack of sensation, it’s fully consensual, not a horrid form of sexual exploitation? If you’re a resolutely PC person, prepare to be scandalized on occasion, not because the author is illiberal but because he’s willing to explore beyond the boundaries where our culture tells us to stop looking and stop talking.

Many of the characters, like the author himself, are close observers, giving lots of attention to small details, the “stuff” of our lives. One, an aspiring choreographer, even creates a dance piece from the movements and sounds of people in airports: “she noticed people parting around a slow moving janitor in a kind of parabola, their speed of movement a contrast of determination to languor, of progress to indolence, travelers heading toward their destinations and a laborer stuck in the routines of boring work.” Similarly, an advertising executive who calls himself “a visual guy” sees a resort’s beach bar as resembling “a Noel Coward play, a tableau of spot-lit gestures, glasses, and cigarettes.” With all the details, these tend to be talky pieces, the opposite of compressed vignettes. Yet the accumulation of particulars fleshes out the author’s rich and unsentimental vision of the way we live in the world.

A number of the protagonists are casual about their relationships, unwilling to be tied down. As the choreographer puts it, “It’s a hook-up world out there. That’s the world I run in.” Another woman, once married and now involved with a married man, “refused to desire or consider more, and she did not miss what she did not have.” Correspondingly, those who experience genuine and lasting affection find themselves obstructed or marginalized by others. They get dumped, discouraged, ignored, and in fact their love often follows paths one might consider weird: profound attachment to a dog, to an ancient carousel in the park, to an ex-partner unseen for decades.

The romantic outlook isn’t 100 percent dismal, though. The title story gives us two characters who do succeed in both physical and emotional commitment: a supermarket butcher and a produce worker. These are ordinary schlubs with no career ambitions, no grand expectations. They agree to a marriage of convenience that over time becomes a union of love. Likewise, the final story describes a slow-moving but ultimately hopeful relationship between two characters in small-town Alaska who have escaped collapsed lives in the lower 48. This story, with the impossible and wonderful title “How We Failed to Stop the War and Other Consequences of the Adolphus, Alaska, Peace March, February 2003,” offers a vision of community and mutual support in sharp contrast to the acquisitive striving of earlier pieces.

Engrossed with our material world and critical of it, focused both on the ordinary and on the weird that lies just below the surface of the ordinary, these are fascinating and unique stories, unlike those I’ve seen from any other contemporary writer.

Revealing All

April 2, 2016

InterviewHeader

In a new interview with JD Fox at Mud Season Review, I reveal the connections among Jane Austen, Bernie Sanders, grandmothers and groupies.

Thanks to JD for some excellent questions that allowed me to rant so broadly. Potential readers should be forewarned: this is a somewhat alarming peek into the inner workings of a peculiar mind.

In the Season of Mud

March 21, 2016

A story of mine, “How I Found God in the Laundromat,” has just been posted at Mud Season Review:

http://mudseasonreview.com/2016/03/fiction-issue-18/

Many thanks to the editors there. And if you follow the link to look at my story, check out this month’s featured poetry, nonfiction, and art as well. The vagueness of the setting in my piece (an anonymous suburb) can be countered by the vivid Colorado landscape in Gretchen Comcowich’s nonfiction, “Garbage Heap Wonderland.”

I guess my story and its venue are both appropriate for the season, for these reasons:

  • The tale’s about a Bar Mitzvah boy bucking and moaning through his ritual ascension to “manhood.” It’s appropriate for Passover, coming up next month, when Jews tend to muse on what their religious identification means to themselves and to others.
  • We’re right in the middle of mud season, as my wife reminds me with curt emails about the clods my shoes have left on the rugs. And the boy in the story can be seen as trying to climb out of the mud he has created for himself.
  • Mud Season Review, an outgrowth of the Burlington Writers Workshop, lies in the heart of Bernieland, so I’ll dedicate this story to the Grumpy Grandpa who has energized the Democratic primaries this year.

 

IMG_20150916_190048019Here’s a photo from another standing-room-only book launch. I like that tall guy’s shirt, but I’ve got to start arriving early enough to grab a seat! Or I should remember to claim a chair before I linger at the wine table.

The book being celebrated, last night at Main Point Books in Bryn Mawr, PA, was A House Alive with Words by Patricia Zita Krisch (the person way up front in the red dress). Subtitled Stories from the ABC Program, a path to college for inner-city youth, it focuses on eight boys from the ABC House in Lower Merion Township, a well-to-do suburb of Philadelphia. Part of a national program called “A Better Chance,” ABC House takes academically talented, economically disadvantaged boys of color and houses
them together while they attend Lower Merion High School. Along with a home, the program provides academic and personal counseling and guidance. The goal is to get the boys into college and on the path to success.

A House Alive with WordsYou’ve heard of programs like this. Do they really work? Trained as a sociologist, Krisch understands the social and educational problems the kids face—such as being singled out, in a class of white students, to give the “African American view” on an issue—but she goes beyond those to portray each of the boys as an individual with his own experiences, insights, struggles, and delights. One of her significant observations is that the boys’ greatest resource turns out to be their group itself, the camaraderie they develop and the support they give each other.

Nationally, ABC graduates include well-known people like Tracy Chapman and Deval Patrick. But the program is not about making governors or Grammy winners, it’s about giving ordinary smart kids a chance at a successful life. Krisch’s “stories” from the program, including the tale of one boy who was kicked out, help us comprehend the scale of changes that will be needed for everyone to have a better chance.

The publisher’s site is here, and the book’s Amazon page here.

I’ve discovered that part of the art of promoting books is to post pictures of the large, rapt audience at the book launch. Last night I attended the launch celebration of a fine historical book, Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938–1939, published by the American Philosophical Society. The audience was indeed enthusiastic and numerous—standing room only in a spacious hall! Here’s a photo from my point of view:

Hoeber Book Launch #1

As you can tell, I converted the standing room only into sitting-on-the-floor room only. The author, Francis W. Hoeber, was giving a spirited presentation from somewhere behind those heads.

The heart of the book is a collection of letters between Hoeber’s father, who escaped Nazi Germany in 1938, and his mother, who was trapped in Germany for another year with her young daughter. These letters, which Hoeber discovered accidentally in his mother’s file cabinet many decades later, form a moving and detailed view of daily life under the Nazis and the complicated maneuvers that people performed to escape persecution. It’s one Holocaust story with a happy ending, in that all the main characters survive. Hoeber adds his own lucid commentary, rich with historical and personal information. Most of all, the book is enlivened by the personalities that emerge from the letters, including his mother’s acerbic wit. If wit were only as lethal as guns, that lady could have defeated the Nazis by herself.

Since the author is a friend of a friend, I did summon the energy to stand up after a while to see him:

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That’s Frank Hoeber at the lectern with an image of his father on the screen. The volume has a number of interesting photos and facsimiles, and it’s nicely designed and printed.

For anyone who’s interested, here are some links: