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Dogs Welcome

January 26, 2017

It should be obvious from the picture at the top that dogs are already welcome on this blog—in fact, they run our operation, compensated with the occasional biscuit—but the heading of this post refers to a story of mine, “Dogs Welcome,” that has just been published at Change Seven.

Here’s a link directly to the story. I’m billing the piece as a useful escape, totally irrelevant to contemporary political concerns. It never once mentions President Twitterman. On the other hand, it features a character who shows a bit of compassion for others, so perhaps that’s not untimely.

Thanks to editor Sheryl Monks and other members of the Change Seven staff, and also to members of the Working Writers Group, who helped me see what was wrong (a lot!) in an earlier draft of the story.

The magazine invites contributors to do a guest blog post on the subject of change, and mine will be up soon. In the meantime, check out Katrina Denza’s post called “This Is What Democracy Looks Like”—a reflection on the Women’s March in DC.

 

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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 Genuine Article

September 7, 2016

A new story of mine, “The Genuine Article,” has appeared in Hawai‘i Review as the winner of the 2016 Ian MacMillan Award for Fiction.

I haven’t yet read the work in its published form. During this political season I’m preserving deniability. So if something’s wrong with the piece, please blame that guy with the flowing orange hair.

I want to thank quite a few people:

  • Paul Lyons, the contest judge, for selecting the story
  • Ian MacMillan himself, for creating the literary legacy that inspired the magazine to honor him in this way
  • Rebecca Pyle, whose artwork—much handsomer than the story—appears as an illustration (of which you can see just a slice in the image here)
  • All the members of the Working Writers Group in Philadelphia, whose comments helped mightily to improve the piece
  • Chris Carter, the semi-legendary compiler of home runs and strikeouts who has nothing to do with the story but nevertheless is mentioned in passing

Sorry, Donald and Hillary, I’m not thanking you, but if America still exists after November, I will indeed be grateful to those who helped preserve our contentious union.

To read the story online, click on the image above or right here.

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.

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.

 

There’s a forthcoming novel I’m genuinely excited about.

(Stark revelation: People in the literary trades often pretend to be excited when they’re not. Imagine that! But in the above sentence I genuinely mean the word genuinely.)

I happened on the first chapter of this book almost two years ago, on the author’s website. I gave it the first-sentence test:

Once there was a girl who did everything wrong.

Hmm: Good premise, and the tone seems right. Serious, humorous and ironic at the same time. On, then, to the first few paragraphs:

Once there was a girl who did everything wrong. Take the time in 1963 when she took part in a wade-in to desegregate a public pool in Chester, Pennsylvania. She almost drowned. She had been the only white girl in the demonstration. When the crowd took the pool by storm, she flailed and sank, and she was pulled out by a lifeguard who forcibly detained her as her Negro comrades were loaded into vans. The police refused to arrest her. They said she should go home and learn to swim.

“Did she?” Tamara asked. She was sitting in the bathtub, with her knees drawn under her chin. The tub was ancient, and the faucet leaked enough to draw a dull brown line across the porcelain.

“Eventually,” Beth said. “Your daddy taught her.”

So it’s historical, including major political events and social conflicts. But it’s mainly personal, about human beings who “flail” and look ridiculous at times and have to interpret their misadventures for their children. Okay, I was hooked.

Waveland TitleNow that novel, Waveland by Simone Zelitch, has found its publisher, The Head and the Hand Press, and I’ve read the whole thing in galleys. It’s about a young white woman’s experiences during the Freedom Summer of 1964, and about her life afterward—working with the Movement, raising a biracial child conceived during that time, enduring the tragedies, breakups and breakdowns. It’s a complicated journey with many ups and downs and sideways slides.

As soon as Beth Fine arrives in Mississippi, she finds out how dull Freedom work can be: she’s assigned to shelve books and clean the floors. Eventually, though, she gets more involved in the field work, finds love and conflict in equal measure, and has her brushes with violence. When a gun under the bed is mentioned early in the book, you can be sure it will be fired at some point.

The novel jumps around in time, and scattered chapters give us three other points of view, widening our perspective on Freedom Summer, the Democratic convention of that year and the tensions pervading the Movement. Yet the book remains primarily Beth’s story. As it turns out, that phrase she uses to characterize herself, “the girl who did everything wrong,” is more than a joke about her social clumsiness and problems in judgment. She’s a person who can’t be dissuaded from doing what she feels must be done. She has a private sense—of justice, duty, love, whatever you want to call it—that impels her, and at key moments she can’t resist its demands even when her brain knows she’s courting disaster. At one point she quotes from Pascal: “The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know.” She’s stubborn, headstrong and often infuriating to the other characters. If we as readers fully engage with her, she should sometimes infuriate us too. Damn it, Beth, we want to yell, make the sensible choice! No such luck; she’s not going to listen, and that’s her virtue and her fault.

Simone Zelitch, as I discovered by reading her previous works, has a habit of writing provocative historical novels: The Confession of Jack Straw, about the English peasants’ revolt of 1381; Louisa, about two women who roughly reenact the biblical story of Ruth in post-Holocaust Europe and Israel; Moses in Sinai, about—well, the title explains it. Except for Louisa, released by Berkley, these were small-press books, as is the new one. They deserve a big-press readership.

In her next book after Waveland, an already completed novel called Judenstaat, Zelitch tackles an imaginary past—what might have happened after World War II if the Jewish state had been carved out of Germany rather than Palestine. This novel won her an NEA fellowship, and it has recently been signed by Tor/Forge, the Macmillan imprint known mostly for sci-fi and fantasy. It’ll be back to the big presses for this persistent, thought-stirring, hard-to-classify writer.

In the meantime, check out the girl who can’t do anything right. She’ll agitate and charm you in equal measure. If you want to order a copy before the official release date in May, The Head and the Hand Press is offering a prepublication deal.

IMG_0211On this snowy day in March, when my hometown Philadelphia is pretending to be Boston and Boston is pretending to be Baffin Island, I’m taking a break from shoveling two sidewalks (office and home) and inventing ways to torture the groundhog who predicted this weather.

Now would be a perfect time for reading a novel. Lately, though, I’ve been pondering the frequent reactions I get when I recommend a recent novel to friends or acquaintances.

Sometimes it’s a pained, put-upon look, as if I’d suggested they shovel the snow from my 100-foot driveway. (Strictly a metaphor; my driveway is only 6 feet.)

Sometimes it’s an unbelieving, disdainful grimace as if I’d offered tickets to a Justin Bieber concert.

Sometimes it’s even worse: a repulsed glare as if I’d dragged my friend to an expensive restaurant for a feast of earthworms, sycamore bark and raw mutton. (Metaphor again: Philly doesn’t boast such a restaurant—yet.)

The people I’m talking about are urbane, well-educated folk who must, at one time or other, have read a novel. Why does the idea repel them so much now? I’ve come up with several possible explanations.

  • Middlebrows like me, they need all their spare time for watching British costume dramas. Maybe, like me, they’re still trying to figure out why any eligible bachelors tolerate Mary Crawley.
  • Implying that a friend would read a book for fun is an insult, really. It’s like saying your haircut is so perfectly 1974.
  • Given the dire condition of the world, they may agree with Elena Ferrante’s character Franco Mari, a political activist who declares to his ex-girlfriend, “[T]his, objectively, is not the moment for writing novels” (from Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay).
  • They may see contemporary novels as gimmicky and trivial. Partly true.
  • They may see contemporary novels as wordy, opaque, unfocused and boring. Also partly true.
  • It’s a pain to read a lot of text on a phone, and what other way is there to read?
  • If the friend is male, he probably views novel-reading as beneath his serious manly dignity, like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice: “Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and, when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies. Mr. Collins readily assented, and a book was produced; but, on beholding it (for everything announced it to be from a circulating library), he started back, and begging pardon, protested that he never read novels.”

Hmmm. …

You know, after all that, I’ve convinced myself it’s foolish to waste time on fiction. I think my companion has a better idea for a wintry afternoon.

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