Other People’s Paperbacks

gassani holdin holdings_ppb

I have outlined here before the likelihood of writers finding value in old objects, as to me, there is something storied in a weathered possession. I make no exceptions for other people’s paperbacks. Give me your tattered Jane Eyre or marked-up Cather. Your well loved or out of print. Or better yet—don’t. I may be operating at capacity.

Recently, I was stopped in standstill traffic near Truro Beach on the Cape, when I saw a hand-scrawled sign: Estate Sale. So I steered my car down the shoulder of the road and took one of those unlikely side streets, the ones that snake across the tall dunes and meander toward the fog-covered ocean.

There, I found a historic white house, paint chipped, and a shingled barn with its doors flung open. Mismatched china balanced precariously on card tables, surrounded by boxes of coffee-stained lace and linens.

Show me the books, I thought, and then I spied them: four crates of paperbacks and art books. In roughly five minutes, I had an armful so high that I could hardly see over the stack. That is usually how I know it’s time to pay, and I make my way to the person with the cash box, spilling my finds as I go, recollecting them.Continue Reading

Round-Down: New York Public Library Expands Under Bryant Park


The New York Public Library is undertaking a $23 million underground expansion at its Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan to house its vast research collection, much of which which was formerly slated to be relocated to New Jersey. The additional space will help to house approximately four million research items and, according to the NYPL, will “allow the library to accommodate approximately ninety-five percent of all search requests on-site.”

The press release for this underground expansion corroborates this venture’s significance with hard numbers–this effort “will transform 55,700 square feet of raw space underneath Bryant Park into state-of-the-art storage that can hold about 2.5 million research materials.”

Tom Mashberg at the New York Times detailed the undertaking, mentioning that “by the end of spring (2016) library officials expect to be using a new retrieval system to ferry the volumes and other materials from their eight-four miles of subterranean shelving, loaded into little motorized carts—a bit like miniaturized minecars carrying nuggets of research gold.”

The decision to renovate and expand storage in this way was not one the NYPL came to immediately. Initially, the idea was to have the research collection moved to Princeton–but the public outcry against this proposition was strong.

As a result, the NYPL instead decided to expand its storage space under Bryant Park. In order to fit all these books in the space, the library has opted to forego the long-held Dewey Decimal System and to instead sort by size. This is a somewhat surprising and substantial revision to its sorting practices that might also provide a model other libraries could emulate with their own collections. It is interesting to consider how a library of this size and prominence might, in making this necessary and difficult expansion, affect change in new ways–possibly in how we sort books altogether.

Ultimately, NYPL officials hope that the books will be able to make the journey from stacks to reader in under forty minutes after the request is made.

NYPL President Tony Marx notes that “with this expanded storage capacity, we can provide on-site access to the researchers and writers who rely on our research collections while preserving these treasured materials for future generations.”

A considerable undertaking with an eye toward maintaining the library’s scholarly archive on-site, the Milstein Research Stacks should be open by late spring of 2016.

Laughs Online

the onion

In 2003, when I first moved to New York at eighteen, I remember reading The Onion at various coffee shops, clutching it in a mittened hand in Washington Square Park. The Onion was also online then, of course. It’s been online since 1996, which is crazy considering what the Internet looked like back then. (When I try to remember it, all I can see is a blue screen and some primitive, boxy text.) Even by 2003, the Internet was still mostly for researching school projects or messaging your friends late into the night from your dorm room. It was not where you went for humor writing.

For that we had print edition of The Onion, available in those wire baskets at the front of bookstores and on downtown street corners. We had Shouts & Murmurs and David Sedaris in the pages of our parents’ New Yorker subscriptions. We had Woody Allen paperbacks, crispy with age, picked up at used bookstores. By the grace of God, we had Pastoralia and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline with its original, hideous cover.

And that was pretty much it.

Recently, Christopher Monks, the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency was interviewed for Medium (part one is here), and it’s made me consider how the Internet has ushered in a golden age of humor writing. Monks reads all submissions himself, a round-the-clock endeavor requiring both impressive stamina and clarity of vision.Continue Reading

Lost in Translation: A Journey on the Li River


My China-born daughter is thirteen the summer day we take a cruise down the Lijiang River from Guilin to Yangshao. This stretch is said to be the inspiration for much Chinese poetry and art:

“Guilin’s unique topography. and beautiful scenery of the Karst Mountains and the unsurpassed beauty of the Li River has attracted public figures including poets and artists since centuries.”

Our brochure compares the river to a “jade ribbon winding among thousands of grotesque peaks.” Or, as the Tang Dynasty poet Han Yu put it,

The river winds like a blue silk ribbon
While the hills erect like green jade hairpins.

Although I find many references in tourist brochures to this location as a popular setting and inspiration for Chinese literature, I have difficulty finding many such works that have been translated into English. Mostly what I find are fragments, many, like the ones about the “grotesque” peaks and “erect” hills, in which it feels like something has been lost in translation.

However, American writers have also been inspired by this river: according to blogger Wai Chee, writers Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Leslie Marmon Silko took a boat up the Li in 1985. The influence of that trip lingers in some of their work such as Kingston’s 2012 memoir I Love a Broad Margin in My Life which is “laid out like a Chinese scroll, with no beginning, middle, or end” and which, according to a customer review, “meanders like a river.” Silko was fascinated by the connections between Chinese pottery and examples from her own Laguna ancestral background; her 2011 memoir The Turquoise Ledge focuses on family history, Tucson, and desert landscapes.

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The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Los Angeles” by Ling Ma


In Marie-Helene Bertino’s “Edna in Rain” (reviewed in February), the narrator’s ex-lovers are literally raining from the sky, leaving her to deal with the surprising consequences. In Ling Ma’s “Los Angeles” (Granta), the narrator has similar problems with past lovers, leading to a wild exploration of memory’s hold on the present.

In the first paragraph, Ma’s narrator describes what’s up.

“The house in which we live has three wings. The west wing is where the Husband and I live. The east wing is where the children and their attending au pairs live. And lastly, the largest but ugliest wing, extending behind the house like a gnarled, broken arm, is where my 100 ex-boyfriends live.”

Ma represents physically the reality of that oft-used Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Continue Reading

The Best Books for the End of 2015

Year End Reviews Pic


Every year-end ought to be paired with a great book as the weather gets colder. Here’s a list of late fall’s best titles, so grab a copy for yourself and one for a friend, too.

SUICIDE OF CLAIRE BISHOP_carmiel banaskyThe Suicide of Claire Bishop
Carmiel Banasky
Dzanc Books
September 15

This thriller of a debut novel by Carmiel Banasky throws any tired stereotype about women’s fiction right out the window. An exquisite mix of Let the Great World Spin, The Goldfinch, and the indie flick Safety Not Guaranteed, The Suicide of Claire Bishop begins in Greenwich Village in 1959 when a wealthy, emotionally cautious Claire sits for a portrait only to find the artist has painted her suicide instead. When schizophrenic West encounters the painting decades later in 2004, he becomes convinced it was painted by the ex-girlfriend who still haunts him. His obsession sets himself and Claire on a collision course with the eerie, mercurial painting ever beckoning them onward.

Banasky has created a trademark theology all her own in West’s unreliable, yet oddly brilliant musings on time travel that pair unsettlingly well with the notion that Alzheimer’s, which has a hold on Claire’s family, is a kind of time travel all its own. Though the story itself is boldly labyrinthine and miasmic, the best part of the novel is the romantic mania that inhabits the prose. Intellectually provocative and elegantly rhapsodic, The Suicide of Claire Bishop celebrates the arrival of an uncommonly ambitious and inventive writer.

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The Paris Attacks And The Shared Humanity Of Central American Poetry


I always get my hair cut when I’m in Mexico City. I have weird hair and a barber who knows how to cut it. He’s the kind of barber that slick-slacks his scissors between snips, between syllables too so that when he talks—about sports, cars, the news, anything—his speech falls from his mouth like a heavily enjambed poem. He can make anything sound profound:

“Did you know (slick-slack) the Chevy Volt explodes (slick-slack) sometimes? Don’t believe me? Watch it (slack) on YouTube.”

His speech is littered with heavy pauses and deep breaths. He doesn’t sleep at night. He seems to age a little more every time I see him. He’s afraid of travel, of his commute from Neza, of the cartel violence that’s now penetrated Mexico City. I walked into his shop after news of the Paris attacks broke. Even he was visibly shaken.Continue Reading

New Ploughshares Solo: “Confession” by Bill Roorbach

Roorbach-LoResWe’re excited to announce the release of our most recent Ploughshares Solo, “Confession” by Bill Roorbach! Ploughshares Solos are stories and essays too long for our traditional print journal that we publish in an affordable, digital format nine times a year. For more information and some great reading material, check out our previously published Solos, or the just-released Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 3.

About “Confession”

When asked out by a pastor, the sarcastic narrator of “Confession” lets intrigue get the best of her and agrees to a date. The two meet at a bar and instantly develop feelings for each other. Between drinks, the couple gets into a lively discussion of truth, sin, and, much to the narrator’s surprise, sex. Will the confessions revealed over the night bring them closer together, or stop their growing attraction in its tracks?

“Confession” is available on pshares.org for $1.99.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Writing Assistance Apps–Trendy? Or Here to Stay?

Pathe_phonograph_1898With National Novel Writing Month already halfway over, many writers may be struggling to find new ways to motivate themselves to finish their marathon projects. Whereas old school methods such as the satisfying, yet solitary, thrill of accomplishment may have been enough back in the day, now, technology-hungry, modern-day writers have many more reward options at their fingertips.

The smartphone app Write or Die 2 provides writers with rewards when they reach personal writing milestones. You can set the app to create positive sounds and display kitten images for every word-count or words-per-minute goal you attain. Similarly, you can set the app to make horrible noises and display things such as spiders every time you get off track. It will record your stats and allow you to compete either against other writers, in addition to yourself. Like the app QualityTime, Write or Die 2 attempts to make users aware of how they waste their time while also mitigating the attention-cannibalizing effect technology often has.

If you think you might outsmart a machine, the app has “kamikaze mode,” which will start erasing all your previously typed words until you start typing again. When I was in school, the way to achieve this same effect was to have my writing teacher stand over me during a free write. Every time my pen stopped, she would whisper, “Don’t stop,” until I would, aggravated, write, “I don’t know what to write!!” over and over again until the sheer momentum of not stopping would catapult me over my block (and over my momentary dislike of my teacher).Continue Reading

Begin Again: On Endings in Nonfiction


Talking, or writing, about endings is hard—whether it’s the end of a marriage, the end of a life, or the end of a book (lest one spoil the conclusion). Life rarely offers sudden and definitive endings or epiphanic conclusions. Rather, events leading up to the end seem to be a slow unfolding, occasionally bleeding into a new beginning. For writers of nonfiction, dealing with actual occurrences often means there is no definitive end, and even if there were (such as a death), there comes the aftermath—the grief, the coping, the rebuilding.

How does a writer of nonfiction decide where to place the punctuation mark when lives—grief, love, loss, and even joy—are ongoing?

Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s latest publication, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey, deals with the aftermath of more than one tragic event. The author was still processing the loss of her father, three years earlier, when her Japanese grandfather passed away in January of 2011. Only a few months later, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami and resulting in unfathomable devastation.

Mutsuki Mockett’s relatives owned a temple only twenty-five miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where the radiation levels were so high, the family could not bury the grandfather’s bones.

The author journeys back to Japan to re-connect with family—exploring the ways in which communities are coping, witnessing both devastation and reconstruction, while examining her own grief. The book’s publication marked four years since her grandfather’s death and the earthquake. The catastrophic event is still fresh in people’s minds, the rebuilding efforts continue, and the grief surrounding it could be eternal. Forget the mechanics of writing an ending—how does one reconcile writing “the end,” when life is still unfolding?Continue Reading