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one star

one star
Oh, where to even start? I wanted so badly to like this book. The New York Times called it “a trenchant masterpiece,” and it has blurbs from three Nobel Prize winners. So I had sky-high expectations. I anticipated a book that would change my world, that would help me lose twelve pounds and make clear the meaning of life and cure my husband’s erectile dysfunction. This book, while excellent, did none of those things. Threw it across the room on page 20. Ugh. Will not be reading this author again.

one star
The paper was rough to the touch, and after just three weeks the back cover ripped. Also, the book was “like new,” not “new.” Regret ordering from vendor BookXPress314. Do not recommend!!

one star
The author, a known Liberal, has a clear agenda here in including an African-American neighbor and a “lesbian” boss. I read to be entertained, not to have someone’s politics shoved down my throat. I was going to pass this on to my sister, but instead I recycled the book.Continue Reading

The Strings Attached

Gift

In the town where I grew up, Newtown, Connecticut, the town hall, the library, and a school all stood as monuments to the generosity of one benefactress, Mary Elizabeth Hawley. They were named after various members of her family and built in that 1920s/30s style meant to evoke stony permanence. Mary had an unusual life for a woman of the late 19th and early 20th centuries—a rapidly dissolved marriage, several reclusive decades, a late-in-life turn to largesse—and her gifts, too, had unusual dimensions. Her dining-room and bedroom furniture were on permanent display in the library, and the town hall also housed a theater and a bowling alley; I don’t know the full legal details, but local lore had it that these had been Mary’s own stipulations. Gather here. Look.

If Mary’s story were a novel, the lighting would turn sinister even before she began to lay out terms. Literature seems to caution us about gifts, which, on the page, nearly always trail strings. When the gift-giver is a woman, her gift is often a test for the intended recipient (usually male) to pass or fail. Eve gives Adam the fruit. The drink Circe gives Odysseus is bewitched (though he resists it, thanks to the gods’ intercession); later, Calypso offers him eternal life if he’ll only stay and love her and forget about returning to Penelope. Lady Macbeth fortifies her husband with the strength and murderousness he needs to undo them both. Miss Havisham thrusts Estella, her carefully crafted heartbreaker, at Pip as part of her general scheme for revenge on mankind: “I developed her into what she is, that she might be loved. Love her!” she tells him. These women’s gifts are really an effort to gain purchase.Continue Reading

Touchstones

1118px-Natalie_and_MissalI always knew that if I made it to Paris, one of the first places I’d go would be Rue Jacob, the former residence of Natalie Barney, a place that when I first read about it, inspired me as almost no other place had done.

In fact, I can trace the roots of my last book, Almost Famous Women, to an afternoon ten years ago. I was taking a writing class at Oxford University, picked up a biography of Barney in a used bookshop, and read it over a beer at the low-ceilinged White Horse Pub. That day I learned about the independently wealthy Barney who, when faced with the fact that the French Academy only recognized male writers, put forth her own L’Académie des Femmes, and promoted the work of female artists such as Romaine Brooks, Colette, and Djuna Barnes. Central to this endeavor was Barney’s Temple of Friendship, or Temple d’Amitie, an actual Doric temple in her courtyard.

As a new writer, I was just learning the feel of inspiration: your jaw clenches, your blood warms, and your brain is flooded with fascination. There’s a locking on of sorts, a barbed wire that sinks its metal teeth into the material. It is often, for me, the beginning of an obsession, a passion I can then translate into a gift for the reader. While a non-writer might amass a passing knowledge of a subject, a writer in the throes of inspiration-mode will strangle it, circle it a thousand times so that it can be known in some way, and what is not known will begin to come forth in the form of imaginary play in the subconscious and on the page.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Author Solutions Faces Author Problems

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Back in 2013, three writers sued Author Solutions, a self-publishing service, citing a list of grievances against the company. Andrew Albanese’s article at Publisher’s Weekly notes that the authors claim Author Solutions “misrepresents itself, luring authors in with claims that its books can compete with ‘traditional publishers,’ offering ‘greater speed, higher royalties, and more control for its authors,’ [and] profits from ‘fraudulent’ practices. . . including ‘delaying publication, publishing manuscripts with errors to generate fees, and selling worthless services, or services that fail to accomplish what they promise.’” The purported misrepresentation of Author Solutions as an independent publisher is called into question. The full complaint can be read here.

Now, the case against Author Solutions is growing and seeks class-action status. In Albanese’s update of the case, he mentions that attorneys for the self-publishing service claim these authors “have invented out of whole cloth a purported ‘deceptive scheme’ in an attempt to indict [Author Solutions’] entire marketing operation and its senior management.” It can be difficult to ferret out the extent and veracity of these complaints only from reading—why is the case proceeding? But it is important to acknowledge that Author Solutions, when it comes to its marketing, has a history of complaints and cautious warnings from targeted authors who have purchased services and chose to publish with Author Solutions or one of its imprints.Continue Reading

Hilarious Discomfort: On Paul Beatty’s “The Sellout”

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beatty sellout

The Sellout – Paul Beatty
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
March 2015
304 pages

Buy now

I sat down to read Paul Beatty’s new satirical novel The Sellout knowing I was going to write about it. In fact, I had committed to writing about it. I had pitched it; it was my idea. This knowledge, in conjunction with the book’s subject matter caused me anxiety throughout (though never impinged on my enjoyment of the book—is there a German word for extreme intellectual discomfort while also having a pretty good time?).

The book is about race in America. An outrageous satire, it shreds black culture, white culture, the intersection of the two, and a whole lot more. And my problem (though as problems go, this barely qualifies) is that I’m white. A white woman writing for the online arm of a literary outlet that was founded by a couple of white dudes in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1970s, and whose very name references our nation’s complicated and blood-spattered agrarian past. As I read, I kept thinking that Beatty would skewer that succinctly and hilariously. And he’d be right.Continue Reading

“A Ripple Effect that Turned into a Tidal Wave”: The Journey of a Discarded Book

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One day eighteen years ago, a senior colleague at the small South Carolina college where I taught found more than $300,000 worth of stripped Penguin paperbacks at a local thrift shop.

Other than the piece of each cover that had been sliced off, the books were in excellent condition, but the prison to which they had been donated couldn’t accept them and the store where they’d ended up couldn’t legally sell them.

They were being hauled to dumpsters, not to be pulped and recycled, but to be burned.

That is, until English professor Ann Moorefield stumbled upon them. She was horrified at the prospect of the destruction of perfectly good books. Within a few hours, she had administrators, maintenance staff, faculty members, and students filling their cars and delivering boxes of books to an old house used for hosting social events on campus.

There was a buzz of excited energy in the air as we rallied to save those books, unloading them haphazardly onto tables, mantels, windowsills, and countertops.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Cafe con Leche” by Joanna Lynne Ponce

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There are as many names for the sun as there are languages; it might be tempting to believe that each of those names, then, means the same thing. Joanna Lynne Ponce’s story “Café con Leche” (Clackamas Literary Review XIX) exposes how critical language can be in giving definition to an object, or a person.

The protagonist Emma, we learn, grew up in a household where language was controversial subject. Her grandmother didn’t want any of her relatives “speaking the language of the gabachos in her house” (English) while her mother refused to speak Spanish to Emma and her siblings all growing up.

As a result, Emma never became fluent in Spanish, but the names of objects in Spanish took on a more powerful meaning. When having breakfast at her grandmother’s house, they had café con leche, which was “really just a little coffee in a deep mug of hot foamy milk.” Just is the key word: for Emma, the descriptions of the drink in English can’t capture the reality the Spanish name evokes. Notice how Ponce reveals this in a description of Emma’s Spanish teacher.

“La Maestra came from Colombia, and the way she said Co-lom-bi-a, said it with those Spanish Os so round and perfect, well, you could get swallowed up in one of those gigantic Os, get swallowed up and be lost for good.”

Ponce has set it up so that when Emma, now a bank teller, is approached by her boss to learn Spanish in order to better serve the bank’s Spanish speaking clientele, we know that there’s much more at stake for her than just learning a language. Her boss is unwittingly asking Emma to reenter an entire world she’d left behind years ago, and for good reason. After taking the first Spanish class, that night she dreams about being Emma Castillo at age twelve.

“Only I was never Emma when I was twelve. I was Edward, named for a father who didn’t stay around long enough to know me…I was a target for all the Pachucos and Bloods up and down East Fourteenth Street. So, I learned how to run when I should have been learning to speak Spanish so that twenty years later I’d be able to hold onto my bank teller position.”

For Emma, the Spanish language—the words, the sound of it, feel of it— evokes not just a perspective, but a name and an identity she fled years ago. So the big question Ponce has built towards, as the story nears its close, is whether Emma will be able to reconcile her adult self with the childhood self she left behind. In the end, Ponce gives us a peek at what the future holds—through language. Emma calls her mother, something she hasn’t done in years, and her mother doesn’t refer to her as Edward, but Emma. Then watch how Ponce reveals the shift in Emma’s mother:

“What I hear is the very thin accent in her voice. Something she has let slip back in after all these years, now that she is older, maybe even too tired to care who might hear, an accent now over the phone as Mejicana as my dead Abuelita.”

Through “Café con Leche,” Ponce explores how immensely powerful language is. It doesn’t just describe a reality, it evokes it, reveals it, and transforms it, from which language we use, to which words, all the way down to the smallest hint of accents. Language is the way in which we understand the world. It’s the way in which we understand ourselves.

 

This Spring’s Must-Reads

Spring Reviews

Spring is in the air, and good books are in our hearts! Read on for our picks for this spring’s best literary offerings.

 

QuadeNight At The Fiestas
Kirstin Valdez Quade
Norton, March 23
$26
Buy: bookebook

Kirstin Valdez Quade is one of the National Book Foundation’s 5-Under-35 honorees, and her debut story collection proves that she’s a writer of remarkable depth and precision. With stop-offs in Utah and California, much of the collection is set in Quade’s homeland of New Mexico. Beneath her pen, an almost impenetrable landscape reveals a violent history that still beats with a tender heart.

Each of the ten stories offers a lyrical aria of its own, but together they create the music of generations, of families, and of a people. In “Nemecia,” a young girl hopes to step out from behind her cousin’s shadow by leading the Corpus Christi parade. “Mojave Rats” demonstrates how a day spent in a frigid trailer between mother and daughter can turn into a prescient portrait of their shared inheritance. A man’s ambition to carry the cross and bear the pain of Jesus during Passion week in “The Five Wounds” becomes complicated when his pregnant daughter appears at his doorstep. There are boa constrictors, faux family reunions, blueberry fields, and enough hard-earned resilience to withstand a tough winter, the long absence of a loved one, and the struggle of caring for a new life while growing old.

This is a collection to be celebrated not just for its fine storytelling and subtle sentiment, but for its cultural exploration of those who inhabit the hardened and tortuous lands of the mythic Southwest.

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Goliath: Reading Kyle Dargan’s “Honest Engine” During the Baltimore Riots

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I read Kyle Dargan’s poem “Goliath” the night of the Baltimore riots. I was in Mexico City where the images of the riots made it to the Mexican presses before the story did—Freddie Gray, the police beatings, his snapped spinal cord. The details simply hadn’t been translated yet. But the beautiful thing about a riot, anywhere in the world, is that the literal image always translates. Every single time.

Even my barber who cares about nothing—not even his own kids, not even my hair—knew the real story was about dignity. We talked about that for a long while. And then we finally came to the semi-conclusion that the stakes of any riot is human dignity. Neither of us could articulate that thought further. So, I sat in silence.

I remember, thinking of something to fill the silence, that “Goliath” came to mind. But you quickly learn not to be that guy in the barber shop. You can talk about news or sports or sexy ladies but you can never talk about poetry. Nevermind that “Goliath,” like so much of Dargan’s newest collection, Honest Engine (University of Georgia Press), articulates the seemingly impossible, the incredibly nuanced.

Reading Honest Engine, you can’t help but feel haunted by Dargan’s poems. Haunted in your everyday life, in your personal moments—but also in the collective ones too—watching the news, shooting the breeze with your barber.

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New Ploughshares Solo: “Heading for a Total Eclipse” by John Philip Drury

Drury-Final-LoResWe are excited to announce the publication of our most recent Ploughshares Solo, “Heading for a Total Eclipse” by John Philip Drury! In our Ploughshares Solos series, we publish longer stories and essays first in an affordable, digital format, and then in our annual Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Series. For more information and some great reading material, check out our previously published Solos, or the Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2.

About “Heading for a Total Eclipse”
In this touching and humorous essay, John Philip Drury recounts coming of age during the Vietnam Era. With a low draft number and an exit from college looming, Drury faces the imminent possibility of fighting in a war that he opposes. In the meantime, he tries and abandons a dream to become a songwriter, labors mightily to lose his virginity, and looks to the adult world around him for models of what he most wants to be—an artist. “Heading for a Total Eclipse” takes a look at a young man’s attempt to maintain his integrity during a turbulent era, and in the face of impossible choices.

“Heading for a Total Eclipse” is available on Pshares.org for $1.99.

Here’s an excerpt from the Solo:

As the program began, a congressman who served on the Armed Services Committee reached down into a glass barrel and pulled up a blue capsule bearing the name of a month and a day. He was followed by young people, both male and female, who extracted the rest of the birthdays, plunging their arms into the big fishbowl. It didn’t take long for the suspense to end, since my birthday, June 4, emerged as number 20.

I was stunned at my misfortune. I wasn’t looking forward to returning to the one-bedroom apartment I shared with another sophomore, Glenn Twilley, whose lottery number turned out to be 366, the very last birthday selected by Selective Service, the extra day of leap-year. I felt annoyed, even bitter about the irony, since he was a Republican who supported the war—not that he wanted to go to Vietnam and do any fighting himself.

It struck me as ironic that earlier that year I had written, in a letter to a friend, “If I’m drafted I won’t go; if I go, I’ll enlist.” Now I was number 20, assured of being drafted if I ever lost my student deferment. On campus, male classmates greeted each other not with their names but with their numbers, laughing if they got above 200, groaning if they didn’t break into triple digits. Life, after all, was a numbers racket.Continue Reading