The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Stamp Fever” by Colette Inez

BSS-Pshares-Header1What constitutes the difference between delusion and imagination? Where does one end and the other begin, or are they related at all? Colette Inez explores these intersections in her story “Stamp Fever” (The Georgia Review), from the perspective of a young boy struggling to overcome family difficulties.

Our introduction to the young protagonist comes when he has received a gift from his father, a huge box of “of more than a thousand stamps from around the world.” Inez makes clear the fourteen-year-old boy’s delight through her brisk, busy descriptions:

“Plain everyday offerings of flags, past U.S. presidents, and state capitals were his plentiful, but his favorites were African, and included sumptuous flora and faun, Gold sculptures of Benin, and had the heroic faces of national leaders…”

But amidst the boy’s joy at the gift, Inez introduces the conflict.

“[The stamps’] intensely bright touches of colors contrasted with the off-white walls and heavy brown furniture, the tan-fringed matching lamps and the gray worn carpet of the one-bedroom apartment he shared with his mother. She immediately complained about the gift: ‘It’ll make a mess, all those little pieces of paper.’ … The boy feared his mother’s disapproval, the sullen moods, her fits of silence after he failed to hang up his clothes or polish his shoes. ‘You’re becoming like your father’ was the ultimate affront.”

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Review: SWEET CARESS by William Boyd

sweet caress_william boyd

Sweet Caress
William Boyd
Bloomsbury, September 15, 2015
449 pp, $28
Buy here

Sweet Caress is the newest novel from the acclaimed William Boyd, author of notable works such as Any Human Heart and A Good Man in Africa.

The novel centers on Amory Clay, one of the first women to be a war photographer in the 1900s. We follow her from childhood to the beginnings of her career as a society photographer, through to her first assignment on the ground in World War II, and finally to her late-in-life journey to Vietnam.

The scope of the book is enormous, spanning nearly the entire twentieth century. Interestingly, it reads in many places like a memoir or an autobiography. The writing is tight, the use of language perfectly suited to the time period, and the structure carries the reader through seamlessly. While the majority takes place in chronological order from the beginning of Amory’s life to the end, there are sections within each chapter titled “The Barrandale Journal 1977,” which are in Amory’s present day.Continue Reading

Literary Teachers and Their Lessons

10.1 literary teachers

I have a new teaching job this fall, and so I’ve been thinking even more than usual about classrooms, and teachers, and the hold they have on our imaginations. It’s strange to realize, right before I walk into a classroom to teach, how clearly I can remember most of my own teachers’ faces, even many years later, how indelible certain moments of being called on or reprimanded or encouraged still are for me.

I seem to return again and again in my own writing to the world of the school, and many of the books that have left marks on me over the years are also set in that world. On the page, the teachers who’ve most stuck with me don’t seem to be the simple ones. They’re problematic, sometimes outright sinister. They leave their students changed, but not always (or only) for the better. As teachers, I’m not sure all of them are worth celebrating; as characters, they certainly are.

And so here, for your back-to-school pleasure, is a brief survey of some of the teacher-literature on my bookshelf:Continue Reading

I Have a Favor to Ask


Is there anything more head-smackingly awkward than asking favors of other writers? You might never have experienced writer’s block in your life, but sit down to compose a 200-word email to the friend you need something from, and find yourself twelve hours later with nothing but a vacuumed carpet.

And yet it’s totally necessary. And anyone you’re writing to has definitely been there, wondering how they could possibly ask something so huge from such a busy person, and wishing they’d been to that one magical conference that would have hooked them up with all the contacts and favors ever. You know, the one everyone else went to.

Lucky for you, I’m here to help. Simply use the following form, and you’ll never be pen-tied again.Continue Reading

Round-Down: McDonald’s Happy Readers Initiative Fated for Great Success



Roald Dahl’s estate, the National Literacy Trust, and McDonald’s have teamed up in a smart, new installment of the fast food franchise’s recent UK literacy initiative, Happy Readers. Fourteen-million Roald Dahl books have been created specifically for the project, featuring excerpts from some of the author’s classics, and will be distributed with Happy Meals in the United Kingdom.

In an interview for The Guardian, Director of the National Literacy Trust Abigail Moss said, “Many parents will have enjoyed the wonderful world of Roald Dahl when they were young and now they’ll be able to share these iconic stories with their children. The scale of the campaign will reach millions of children, including many who haven’t owned a book before, inspiring them to enjoy reading and improving their life chances.” This isn’t an empty public relations promise, either: around fifteen percent of children do not own a book, and McDonald’s’ considerable reach will help not only to change that disappointing fact, but to encourage many young people to grow into lifelong readers.

The facts compel: young readers, and those read to when young, are better set up for success. If there is any criticism of the Happy Readers initiative, it is that it has only taken off in the UK and has not yet been launched in other countries.

Unlike Chipotle’s Cultivating Thoughts series, McDonald’s Happy Readers seems to risk little in distribution. I approached Chipotle’s venture with a degree of hesitation for its implicit suggestion that literature is disposable. Happy Readers, however, is circulating the work via specially printed booklets. In addition, the initiative isbeing produced by a company that, according to Gus Lubin and Mamta Badkar at Business Insider, has “daily customer traffic (62 million) greater than the population of Great Britain.” It’s a project that is especially exciting for its growth potential–the prospect of this project moving its franchises globally.

This is a truly thoughtful and smart move on the part of a company that has come under relentless fire for its public face as a fast-food industry giant uninterested in the well-being of its customers.

“Cow Country” And The Problem With Pseudonyms


A recent post on the Harper’s blog has gotten me thinking about pseudonyms. In it, Art Winslow posits that a new novel, Cow Country, from an obscure vanity press was actually authored by Thomas Pynchon under the pseudonym Adrian Jones Pearson.

As evidence, Winslow points to certain aesthetic similarities between the author and Pynchon, including its meta quality and the use of outlandish names like “Dimwiddle.”

Cow Country is at heart a playful novel, side-splittingly funny in a goofy, almost junior-high way, overworking its material far past expected bounds, taking Emily Dickinson’s idea of telling it “slant” and running with it in wild abandon, sometimes to the extent of losing its very breath. There will be recurrent talk of lost civilizations, forgotten cultures, and tongues. The novel seems to revel in its own delight of cultural esoterica, and it displays both a fondness for and a corresponding suspicion of countercultural motifs of the 1960s–70s as well.

Sure, sounds like Pynchon. Also Pynchonesque is the premise of the imagined scheme: to expose the advantage granted to “names” over unknown authors while a book’s content goes ignored.Continue Reading

Upton Sinclair, the spirit of Sophocles, and me: a Visit to Lily Dale

Photo by Marietta Frank

Photo by Marietta Frank


In 1922, writer and spiritualism convert Upton Sinclair wrote,

“You may go to Lily Dale … and in row after row of tents, you may hear and even see, every kind of spirit you ever dreamed of, ringing bells and shaking tambourines and dancing jigs. And you may see poor farmer’s wives, with tears streaming down their cheeks, listening to the endearments of their dead children, and to wisdom from the lips of Oliver Wendell Holmes, speaking with a Bowery accent.”

Driving to Lily Dale on a summer day nearly 100 years later, my friend Marietta and I find no bells, tambourines, jigs, tears, or Bowery accents. This Western New York hamlet, which remains the spiritualist movement’s Vatican City, is quiet and unassuming, lovely shaded grounds with ramshackle Victorian houses bordered by Cassadaga Lake and an old growth forest, Leolyn Woods.

Begun as a summer camp in 1879 by wealthy spiritualists on land once considered sacred by Native American tribes, Lily Dale draws 22,000 visitors a year who consult mediums, attend clairvoyant demonstrations, and take classes on New Age topics. Famous visitors have included William James; Susan B. Anthony; Thomas Edison, who considered his brain a receiver of sorts for spirit communication; Harry Houdini, who became an outspoken opponent of spiritualism; and Sinclair Lewis, who referred to mediums here as “cold-hearted charlatans.”Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Golden Land” by Sunisa Nardone


The ways in which we humans find our sense of community and identity—nationality, race, religion, class, family etc.—are often also what make connecting with people that don’t share our backgrounds more difficult. Sunisa Nardone’s “Golden Land” (Atlas and Alice) explores the many obstacles facing strangers struggling to connect while awaiting departure from a Bangkok airport.

In the first few sentences of the story, Nardone presents the narrator’s internal conflict, brought on by the appearance of a woman she meets at the airport.

“She couldn’t know anything about the Southern Hemisphere, dressed as she is. The feeling struggles in me, that flutter of judgment and shame, seeing my countrywoman dressed so—.

A foreigner would no doubt mistake her for young and foolish but as a Thai woman myself I can tell that this long-limbed girl is actually in her late 30s, just about my age. Up-cut shorts showing a crescent of ass flesh befits no respectable lady. And here we are at the gate for Thai Airways to fly us to Melbourne in June, hot season in Bangkok but the beginning of real winter Down Under.”

The narrator is concerned for the woman’s well-being—she’s not dressed for the cold—yet she’s also irritated that she’s not dressed more respectfully. The rest of the passengers take exception as well; we find later that they “…won’t socialize with her…”Continue Reading

So Long, Dear Writer


ck williams

The poet C.K. Williams died this Sunday, September 20, 2015. For the last few months I’ve been enjoying a review copy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s beautiful new collection of Williams’ poems, the Selected Later Poems, but I’m finding that now, in light of Williams’ death, I can’t read the book in quite the same way I did a week ago. Am I being illogical? Does a poet’s death change their poetry in any fundamental way?

How should I approach a poem like “Dear Reader,” originally published just this year in The New York Review of Books? “Dear reader,” Williams begins, “dearest inscrutable listener inscrutably harking or regrettably more likely not harking.” In fourteen anxious, ungrammatical, sprawling lines, Williams lays out the developing series of relationships between reader and writer over the course of a literary career. There’s the ideal reader the poet creates for himself as he labors in obscurity, a real reader whom the poet—glad to finally have an audience!—is eager to please, a more demanding reader who expects confession and autobiography, and finally the reader the poet shuts out of his imagination because the pressure to please all parties is simply too much to handle.

In tracing this arc it seems Williams is closing the book on his career; now it seems he really was saying farewell to poetry. Or it would seem so if not for these final lines in which he transcends or rather embraces the pressures of being answerable to a readership:

… I swore when they barbed me
I’d keep to myself forever though I know now there’s never forever and know too dear reader

here with me in one way or another that there aren’t any mysteries I’d still care to conceal
so as long as you’re out there nose in a book at your end of the page I’ll keep scribbling at mine

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“It’s A Bit Mysterious, and I Like That”: An Interview with Frank X. Gaspar

2381600190_347912351c_zFrank X. Gaspar writes poems that are lyrical, powered by swift associations, and full of surprising images and leaps in thought that in retrospect make perfect sense. He is the author of five collections of poems, including Late Rapturous and The Holyoke, as well as two novels, most recently Stealing Fatima. Frank was born and raised in the old Portuguese West End of Provincetown, Massachusetts. He teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Pacific University, Oregon. We recently caught up via email to talk about Late Rapturous, the strange ways in which a poem can start, and the differences between writing poetry and fiction. 

Matthew Thorburn: Late Rapturous is composed of prose poems as well as poems in long lines that sometimes seem on the verge of becoming prose poems. Would you talk about how it feels to you writing prose poems versus lineated poems? Do the two offer different possibilities or challenges?

Frank X. Gaspar: Interesting that you ask that. I don’t feel any difference in the process; it seems more a matter of how my mind is working at the time. I pay as much attention to sound in the long-lined poems as I do with poems having more traditional line breaks—a lot of attention, actually—but without the line breaks to perhaps reinforce the sound with the eye, the prose poems might not announce their accentual nature.Continue Reading