March 5, 2015
On 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.”
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.
February 5, 2015
Cleaver Magazine has been ramping up its review section, and today there’s an excellent review of a book I love, We’ll Go to Coney Island, a novel in stories by Barbara Scheiber (Sowilo Press, 2014). The reviewer, Ashlee Paxton-Turner, is given plenty of space (more than 1,500 words) to discuss the work in detail, and she’s quite perceptive.
Early on, Paxton-Turner tells the remarkable story of the Walker Evans photo used on the cover. The book’s linked stories are loosely based on the author’s own family history, especially her mother, her charismatic and philandering father, and her stepmother. While she was writing the stories, she happened to see the Evans Coney Island photo in an article about an upcoming exhibition. Though the man in the picture has his back turned to the camera, Scheiber instantly recognized him: her father! with his mistress (later her stepmother)!
That’s a great background tale. The stories in the book itself are just as good, and the arrangement adds to their power. Chapters set in 1915–1916, when the main character Minna is a young girl, interweave with chapters from much later years, in which Minna becomes a mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. Here is Paxton-Turner’s take on the technique:
Scheiber uses the form to tell two parallel narratives—past and present—that taken separately are rather linear. Once she puts them together, the linearity is distorted. This creates emotional resonance: the past and its formative memories does not yield or relinquish its hold on the present; it continues to resurface, even when Minna, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is left in the barren room of a nursing home.
Right. The past informs the present and vice versa, as much as in any time-travel sci-fi novel.
One other note of interest: The author, a first-time novelist, is in her nineties. I take that to mean that for all of us who have been dull and unimaginative for decades, there is still hope.
The book cover above links to the Amazon page for the book. Here is the link to the Cleaver review.
January 5, 2015
The novel features a brain-damaged alcoholic who calls herself Allison Wonderland, along with her eccentric, half-blind lover Leigh Berry, who speaks in his own semi-invented language. A “normal” friend of theirs, Connie Bowers, tries to guide them through their misadventures, while assorted other colorful and wacky types, including a giant imaginary ape, play supporting roles. (Note the ape peeking out at the bottom of the cover.)
The book is kind of about “disabilities,” in all senses of the word; kind of about spirituality; and kind of just crazy. I hope some readers enjoy it and none accuse me of exploiting innocent apes for commercial gain.
December 31, 2014
On New Year’s Eve, here’s an early summons by the year 2015:
It’s a very brief story of mine called “An Early Call” in Flash Fiction Magazine.
The first comment, before I even saw the story myself, was from Miles White, who I gather from his blog is a journalist, flash-fiction writer, and ethnomusicologist. He wrote, “Interesting. I think I got it but I’m not sure.”
Miles, I totally agree. If you figure out who’s calling, let me know, but I don’t think we should answer.
December 23, 2014
At the risk of breaking my record for number of posts in a season and thereby alienating all those who count on me for blissful silence, I have to plug my latest publication, which appeared (to my belated surprise) a day after I got the acceptance email.
Called “The Upper Mahoney at Dawn,” the story is a sympathetic account of a man who becomes a Peeping Tom, more or less. His name is Devin, so let’s call him, avoiding stereotypes, the Peeping Devin. Does he really deserve sympathy? That’s for readers to say. Use the comment feature on this blog to let me know what you think.
The story can be found here at Turk’s Head Review, a cool publication that bills itself as “Blog meets literary magazine.” Many thanks to the editors for choosing the story.
November 4, 2014
One advantage of publishing in the distinguished Valparaiso Fiction Review, as I did earlier this year, is that Valparaiso University’s system sends you periodic updates about the readership. Here’s the latest message:
Just a minute, though. A “download” isn’t necessarily a reading. I sometimes download stuff myself, glance at it, say “What the hell do I want this for?” and discard it. How many people are trashing my work in that way? How dare they!
And 181 total downloads, that’s not much, is it? Hardly a bestseller.
Possibly this is a sad indication of the limited readership of literary magazines.
However, it’s also possible that other stories in the same issue are being downloaded much more often. That would be heartening. Wait, no it wouldn’t–who’s getting downloaded more than me, and why? Are some authors in the 200s, even 300s? Whatta they got that I don’t?
Maybe the counter isn’t right. Do I trust this technology? No way!
Now I’m all anxious.
Well, look, being listed in Valpo “Scholar,” that’s an honor, right? In there with all them university perfessers. For someone who hasn’t been a scholar in many years, that’s pretty, like, awesome.
OK, I’m at peace now.
But hurry up, number 182–put down the stupid comics and read my story!
November 1, 2014
I’m hastening to do a new post to bump down the appalling “catterel” of my last one. It wouldn’t do for newcomers to this site to peg me as a terrible poet. Okay, that happens to be true, but I commit poetry so seldom that I would hate to think it defines me. (I suppose murderers could say the same thing.)
Luckily, I have something to say today: an excellent review of my friend Mark Lyons’s Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines appears in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The reviewer is Kevin Grauke, himself an accomplished writer of short stories, and he goes into more detail than I did in my post of October 16. As Grauke says, “While the image of the descanso may tie the stories together thematically, what truly unifies the collection is Lyons’ impressive ability to capture the voices of a wide range of characters. He’s so good that readers may find themselves wishing all 12 stories, rather than nine of 12, had been written in first person.”
I do hope this book gets the attention it deserves. Click the image to go to the review; click here to see the page on Amazon; and click here for a video clip of Mark reading from the book and talking about its background.