Round-Down: Stephen King Releases Exclusive Short Story Audio

maine fireworksIn what Alexandra Alter at The New York Times calls an “unusual experiment,” Stephen King has released a short story, “Drunken Fireworks,” which is forthcoming in his collection The Bazaar of Bad Dreams. The collection is slated for a November 2015 release, making this a months-advance sneak peek at the eagerly anticipated work. In the publisher’s press release, the original audio story is described as a “one-of-a-kind audio publishing event.”

King has long valued hearing work narrated; in fact, he paid his children to read novels aloud and record them. Alter writes that “in his basement in Bangor, Me., there are boxes full of cassettes narrated by his three children, including recordings of novels by James Ellroy, Wilbur Smith, and Frank Herbert.”

It is, of course, hard to say whether this decision to “pre-publish” a story in audio will mark the start of a larger trend toward this sort of promotion. But, it seems King’s collection might be uniquely poised to accomplish this. The ingredients seem to be there–a vast and committed readership, a shorter work, and content that seems enhanced by the audio component (the story takes place in Maine, and King wanted the narrating voice, Tim Sample, to capture the story’s sense of culture and place). Alter notes that, with the digital release, “Mr. King and his publisher are testing whether audio can serve as an effective teaser for a future print book.”Continue Reading

Depressing Graphs for Writers

Remember this series of graphs from last month that depressed the hell out of everyone? The one that reminded us that no book from a woman’s point of view has won the Pulitzer in the last 16 years?

We could cry about it, or we could look at some more depressing statistics and then cry about those. Let’s!

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Guns and Poems: Why is it (almost) impossible to write a great poem about guns?

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Poetry has a history of violence.

It was true a few hundred years ago, when bards wrote of knights and of great battles, and it is true today, when poets pick up their pens to write about the trauma of war, abuse, or repression. Whether they abhor it or glorify it, there is something about human violence that has always called poets into action. In fact, the link between history and violence is so intimate, you might even say that poetry is a history of violence.

Lately, as the public debate about guns continues in the U.S., I’ve thought about that history of violence. I know I’m not alone in thinking that the debate has grown depressing. Each side takes its familiar positions. Not only does nothing happen, you start to feel that no one is even listening anymore. I’ve found myself wishing the debate had a little more creativity, some space for openness, for change. And so, even though it might seem strange, I’ve begun to wonder what poetry could bring to the conversation.

So I started to look for poems about guns. And what I found was very surprising—there was so few of them. Searching anthologies and online databases I found countless poems about the effects of war, hate, and violence. But I found almost nothing about guns specifically. And I began to wonder why.

Maybe, I thought, the reason is obvious. Guns just aren’t poetic. They are blunt. They are obvious. There’s nothing subtle about them. I’m reminded of an episode of The Office where Michael Scott goes to his improv class and proceeds to ruin every single scene by entering with a gun. Guns are heavy-handed, and that’s one thing no artist wants to be.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Crash Sheep Plant” by Emily Abrons

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Last week’s column discussed the nature of perception, and the way in which Dan Reiter’s “Shifts” revealed how one mind might battle over the interpretation of the same event. In this week’s story, “Crash Sheep Plant” (Alice Blue Review 26), Emily Abrons juxtaposes a car crash with grazing sheep and plant life, and in doing so explores how context shapes the nature of a tragedy.

The title itself serves as a microcosm of how the rest of the story will work: through juxtaposition. Crash and sheep and plant are all common words that bring hundreds—maybe thousands—of possible associations into a reader’s mind. But a reader has probably never seen those words set next to each other before. The image they create is strange, perhaps a disparate collage, evoking confusion, maybe even anxiety. It’s the first sign that this story is going to defy some conventions in order to exploit others.

The title also reveals the organizational structure of the story. In the first section, dealing with the crash, Abrons gives us a detailed, matter-of-fact description of its aftermath.

“A small tour bus has collided head-on with a compact automobile…Seven of the original twelve passengers in the bus were dead within thirty eight seconds of the impact…the cause of the crash is unknown.”

While the victims remain anonymous—their names, their plights—Abrons provides lush descriptions of the wreckage itself, giving it life.Continue Reading

THE NEUTRAL CORNER: Nicholas Fox Weber’s “The Bauhaus Group”

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The neutral corner is one of the two corners of the ring not used by boxers between rounds. It is also the corner a boxer must retreat to after he has floored his opponent. The Neutral Corner was also a bar in Saratoga Springs, New York, that I frequented when at Yaddo in the late seventies. Framed photographs of famous fighters, signed to the owner with effusive greetings, covered the walls. They would have been impressive except that the handwriting on each was identical.

This blog series, the Neutral Corner of Ploughshares, will bring attention to new books, mostly poetry, and to older books that have recently given me pleasure.

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The outer part of Cape Cod, where I live, contains numerous examples of modern architecture, almost all of which appear in Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani (Metropolis Books, 2014). This beautiful book contains exquisite color plates of houses designed and built by Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, Olav Hammarstrom and engineer Paul Weidlinger. A vibrant community gathered here which included Walter Gropius and many of his Bauhaus faculty.

weber_BAUHAUS GROUPA few years ago, I attended a panel discussion at the Wellfleet Public Library led by McMahon on that group of architects and artists. It featured painter Peter Watts and Walter Gropius’s daughter, Ati, who was approximately 82 at that time. She was asked how her father managed to keep the Bauhaus faculty in harmony, considering its many distinct personalities, including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Johannes Itten, who was a member of a fire cult. She said whenever there was a strong disagreement about policy or practice, her father canceled all classes and declared a three-day party. At the festivity’s end, she said, everyone forgot what they had been fighting about. She added that Gropius provided the same solution to academic strife when she was a student at Black Mountain College and he was on the Advisory Council there. She said that he gave a costume party where everyone had to dress as a favorite tree. “It worked,” she said. “It was impossible to stay angry at someone who was covered in branches and leaves.”

The talk led me to Nicholas Fox Weber’s book, The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism (Knopf, 2009). He discusses Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, Anni Albers and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In clear and lively prose, Fox Weber defines and characterizes each person and his aesthetic.Continue Reading

“If I could I would cut off my lovers’ heads” : Eunice De Souza’s Nine Indian Women Poets

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“Anthologists invariably make enemies,” Eunice De Souza notes in her introduction to Nine Indian Women Poets. This anthology is unlike most anthologies, as De Souza takes up her editorial role to rally against universality, mapmaking, and flattery. De Souza isn’t seeking to make enemies, but she realizes that all choices for anthologies suggest other choices: those poets who are left behind.

For Nine Indian Women Poets is itself a corrective volume: here are Indian women writing poetry in English who have not only gone unrecognized by white canonical anthologists or critics (save the rare reader like Bruce King), but who have all written for upwards of twenty years without such recognition.

What makes these poets’ work strike sharply together? They all write in English; all own or disown this language, exploring its twists, barriers, and perpetuations. Kamala Das, the oldest poet in the anthology, draws English as: “The language I speak / Becom[ing] mine, its distortions, its queernesses / All mine, mine alone” (10). For Das, queernesses enable a crucial ownership of the language. The language allows one to name herself and others, so that Das, by the end of the same poem, proclaims: “I too call myself I” (11).

Mamta Kalia, the poet placed immediately after Das, writes: “I am no longer Mamta Kalia” (26). By contrast, Kalia’s poems revolve around a radical empathy that practices negation: “How close we felt / discussing our dislikes / sharing a few hatreds” (22). The venom of an evil actually engages us: it brings together those who feel invariably shunned by an unjust and misogynistic world.Continue Reading

Review: IN MY SKIN by Brittney Griner

brittney griner_IN MY SKINIn My Skin
Brittney Griner with Sue Hovey
itbooks, 2014
216 pages

Buy: book | ebook

No matter how un-invested an athlete is in the production of their own book—no matter how transparently the ghostwriter has sat down with their subject for as few hours as possible, then hurriedly stretched the transcribed interviews into something like a narrative in as few weeks as possible—a book is always long enough that something meaningful-feeling about the athlete’s true self feels shared, even if—especially if—done so unwittingly. The resulting portrait can be wickedly unflattering. Sacrifices endured and relationships suspended in pursuit of victories can fade, chapter by chapter, from the dedicated to the maniacal. The athlete’s account of perceived slights and hardships can betray a tectonic-sized ego, a self-started requirement to be eternally pampered.

Fortunately, there’s a healthy proportion of athletes—in this way sports is just like any other business, or any other slice of the world—who can’t not be cool people, who induce your sympathies just by presenting themselves. Brittney Griner, 6’8” wunderkind of women’s basketball, shows herself to be one of the latter types of athletes in her 2014 memoir, In My Skin—even though her career has endured enough scandalous downs you’d think, just to follow the headlines, that she’d be one of the former.Continue Reading

Round-Down: Are BOGO Books A Good Thing?

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Many businesses have sought creative ways to keep customers incentivized to return because there are so many options for shopping around. Publishers are no different. Harlequin, the famed romance novel imprint of Harper, is turning to a new reader rewards program as a way to keep readers loyal in the ever-growing book marketplace.

Unlike a lot of rewards programs out there (I’m looking at you, American Express), consumers will not have to wait a long period of time before their points are redeemable. Rather, readers will earn two-thousand points simply for creating an account during this trial period, presumably while Harlequin collects data and perfects the model. Participants will also have the option to grow their accounts by participating in surveys wherein readers get to share their preferences and ideas related to romance novels. Right now, the rewards range from free books (print or electronic), gift baskets, and, the real high-ticket item—a Skype interview with a favorite author.

At first blush, it sounds like a wonderful idea. Who doesn’t want to be rewarded for reading (even if–especially if– it is for steamy romance novels with a preponderance of “quivering” and “ocean pool eyes” metaphors)? Who wouldn’t want to be more involved with authors and publishers than a fan?Continue Reading

Interactivity and the Game-ification of Books

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As an undergrad studying creative writing one of the first things I remember learning was the sin of gimmickry. Readers, I was taught, would see through your cleverness—it would be vile to them and they would hate you. But as a kid and teenager my favorite books employed some pretty neat sins and I don’t remember ever hating those authors. I relished a novel approach to novels and welcomed those books that didn’t just swim in standard conventions. Some of the most memorable artifacts of my youth, in fact, were more bound riddles than books, and each riddle taught me how to open myself up to uncertainty, ambiguity, and irresolution (all concepts more true to life than your traditional cut and dry, happily-ever-after tale).

More specifically, the books I tended to gravitate toward were texts in which the role of the reader could more aptly be described as that of a player, or collaborator. (Though one could argue all books are collaborative in nature, the ones I tended to flock to were especially open-ended, demanding a higher degree of interactivity.) I would remain captivated by these books infused with a sense of play/collaboration and it would eventually become an important element in my own work.

I first devoured picture books like the Where’s Waldo series, for instance, less interested in the eponymous red and white striped protagonist than in the sheer overstimulation of colorful characters and anachronistic situations swirling in the background. They might have been my first writing prompts, actually. I remember writing little stories about the wizard and how he came to be lost in the scene, or what events must’ve transpired to rip a Viking out of time and space to plop him smackdab in the center of a bustling mall.Continue Reading

Telling the Stories of the Dead: Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery

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My own ancestors are interred in austere Midwestern cemeteries with small flat stones or rounded markers decorated with the occasional “Beloved Mother” or laser-etched photo. But Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, I discover on a field trip with Spalding MFA students to write about art and place, makes much more elaborate use of art, narrative, and poetry in attempts to summarize and pay tribute to the lives of the dead.

I’m fascinated by cemeteries and often disappointed to see lives reduced to names and dates. So Cave Hill, at once a burial ground, arboretum, and sculpture garden, is a treasure trove of stories told in glass, granite, concrete, limestone, and bronze. Here, George Keats, brother of the poet John Keats, is buried, along with the two collaborators who wrote the “Happy Birthday” song, “Colonel” Sanders, and the composer of a confederate song called “Think of Your Head in the Morning.”

Less notable people are also immortalized by elaborate tributes, like a woman named Saundra Twist. An elegant statue of her presides over a stone tablet telling the story of her career as a fashion model followed by the realization of “all of this world’s bountiful wonders,” a husband and three daughters, before she died in a car accident. The grave of a magician buried nearby features a sculpture of him, with a long cape and hollow eyes that catch the sunlight and glitter creepily.Continue Reading