Literary Blueprints: The Monster


Despite the simple title, the Monster is perhaps one of the most complicated, shifting characters in literature, past and present. Much of defining the Monster means defining ourselves and our views of the world. No other character relies so much on perspective to explain who (or what) the evil really is.

Origin Story: When has mankind existed without monsters? Some creature who lurks in the shadows and waits to destroy the unfortunate? In literature, the Monster propagates the earliest myths, be they Greek, Sumerian, Chinese, Aztec, or whatever—we are a people rooted in fear of the “other.” Monsters like the Cyclops in The Odyssey are not just antagonists to the Hero, they are malformed roadblocks who require physical as well as mental agility to overcome. Often the Monsters are unnatural crosses between threatening creatures, such as the Sphinx who riddles Oedipus. Some Monsters, for example the Sirens who lure Odysseus, require closer inspection to recognize their deformities. Whatever the form, Monsters represent human fear of the unknown, unnatural, and unexplained.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Love” by Clarice Lispector


There have been many craft essays written over the last few decades arguing the merits of the classic Joyce-ian epiphany. In “Love,” (The Offing), Clarice Lispector (translated by Katrina Dodson) explores the nature of epiphanies, and perhaps more importantly, what we do with them once they happen.

We meet the protagonist Ana as she’s returning from the grocer. We find she is well settled into domestic life, where her familial responsibilities have insulated her from the broader world. Notice how Lispector illustrates this through Ana’s inability to conceive of her former self, before being a homemaker.

“What had happened to Ana before she had a home was forever out of reach: a restless exaltation so often mistaken for unbearable happiness. In exchange she had created something at last comprehensible, an adult life. That was what she had wanted and chosen.”

Ana wants a comprehensible life; she doesn’t want mystery, she wants understanding. She doesn’t want surprises, she wants control. Or at least a part of her does. Lispector reveals that at moments during each day, that domestic tranquility is threatened.Continue Reading

Review: Out of My League by George Plimpton


Out of My League: The Classic Hilarious Account of an Amateur’s Ordeal in Professional Baseball

George Plimpton

Lyons Press, 1961

150 pages

Buy: book

There is, surrounding George Plimpton, the same world-traveled air that surrounds the fictional beer-selling sliver of a character The Most Interesting Man in the World (TMIMITW). TMIMITW gains his fictional interesting-ness via the sheer imposing number of his travels, an original far-flung montage of adventure and sport to accompany each new commercial in an apparently eternal series. Plimpton’s interesting-ness is a bit more interesting because, well, he actually did all of the journeys that would be recounted with a laugh over a beer. The trade-off for adventuring fictitiously versus actually: while TMIMITW commands each day with magnetic suaveness, Plimpton’s most interesting moments were a carnival of mishaps, his own shoes endlessly tripped over. Which probably makes for more interesting reading anyway.

Plimpton’s personal journey into “participatory journalism” began with him sitting in Yankee Stadium, watching a ballgame and basically wondering what it would take to get on the field with real-live Major Leaguers. It feels like an impossible ask here in 2015: inevitably a small army P.R. staff would materialize from thin air to prevent today’s journalist from playing the game in front of actual paying spectators. In the late fifties, though, one could, as Plimpton did, talk to a man named Toots Shor in a New York City bar, and Toots would be able to convince a magazine editor that it would be a good idea to have Plimpton pitch before a November exhibition of All-Stars. Continue Reading

What Happened to Tagore?

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 11.02.51 AMYou could visit India and never hear the name Rabindranath Tagore. In fact, if you don’t live in India, you may well have never known Rabindranath Tagore existed. But this was not always the case: recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, Rabindranath Tagore became one of the major influences in the formation of the India we know today. All the while, he wasn’t identified as a politician, social leader, or revolutionary: he was a poet. Or, as his contemporary Gandhi noted, The Poet.

And Tagore didn’t write poetry only either: he wrote the national anthems for both India and Bengal, he composed plays, gave speeches, and, in his later life, took up painting. He frequently traveled to Europe and other parts of Asia to lecture; he met with Einstein. So why does his name no longer resonant, especially among younger Indian poets and artists?

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Reading as Intoxicant, Part I: Neurochemical Qualities of the Modern Manic Page Peeler

De Amerikaanse dichter Allen Ginsberg in 1979 in de Gentse Poëziewinkel.

De Amerikaanse dichter Allen Ginsberg in 1979 in de Gentse Poëziewinkel.

Richard Wright once wrote that reading is like a drug. Countless other authors have written some variation of that same assertion. If you’ve ever found yourself crushed in a corner weeping like a crazy person because the end of your latest literary fixation was fast coming to a close, or buying more books than you could ever read in a lifetime, or huffing the exquisite scent of a freshly bound book like that accidental splash of gasoline upon your sneaker, then maybe you’ll agree. And so would science.


Like some illicit depressants, a book can be a most calming boon. The act of reading for just six minutes is enough to reduce stress levels by up to 68% or aid your nocturnal rituals. Like the most haughty of hallucinogens, vivid reading can also stimulate all kinds of interesting brain function, eliciting hypervisceral and tactile responses:

In a 2006 study published in the journal NeuroImage, researchers in Spain asked participants to read words with strong odor associations, along with neutral words, while their brains were being scanned by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine. When subjects looked at the Spanish words for “perfume” and “coffee,” their primary olfactory cortex lit up; when they saw the words that mean “chair” and “key,” this region remained dark. The way the brain handles metaphors has also received extensive study; some scientists have contended that figures of speech like “a rough day” are so familiar that they are treated simply as words and no more. Last month, however, a team of researchers from Emory University reported in Brain & Language that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not. (Source)

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Round-Down: Poetry? There’s an App for That

teacherAs students and teachers alike head back to school this month, the Academy of American Poets is offering an email service designed to better integrate poetry into the classroom. Based on the popular Poem-A-Day series, where a previously unpublished poem is shared via email to subscribers, Teach This Poem launches September 2 and will include interactive pedagogical tools designed for K-12 classrooms.

Even if you’re not heading back to the classroom yourself, fall is still a time for reflecting on how you learn. Since you’re here, you likely understand the importance of poetry—or perhaps like many students you yourself are wary of poetry. I recently took a course called “Teaching, Reading, and Enjoying Poetry.” Most of the students, enrolled in a graduate program, were K-12 teachers from all over the country. Most of them admitted to feeling queasy when faced with having to integrate poetry into their teaching units. I wonder how many of us encountered English teachers in our lives who felt ill-equipped to teach poetry. I wonder how many of us avoid poetry because it was a subject that used to make us feel left out or stupid, without a point of access. I wonder too how apps and email subscriptions like Teach This Poem might help infuse poetics with patience and play, rather than with a sense of duty and dread.Continue Reading

Rehabbing the Southern Way of Life: On “The World’s Largest Man”

imageworld's largest man

At a cultural moment when it seems the Southern Way of Life needs some image rehab, the timing of Harrison Scott Key’s memoir of his Mississippi childhood is impeccable. The World’s Largest Man takes on the Southern masculine ideal, violence, race and more, all under the guise of amiable family anecdote.

Comprised of humorous, highly polished essays with a loose through-line (mainly Key’s rural upbringing and his relationship with his taciturn and boulder-like father), the book can be described as at least part hunting memoir. During his childhood, young Key was regularly roused by his father in the pre-dawn hours to commence a “campaign of slaughter through the animal kingdom,” which included at one point, accidentally shooting the face off a fawn. The episode is one of many that shape the author’s ambivalent relationship with guns. “It was embarrassing that my children did not know what an actual gun looked like,” he writes late in the book, “Or was this a good thing?”Continue Reading

Deep Valley Homecoming and Laurapalooza: Keeping Classic Children’s Literature Alive

In a ballroom in Mankato, MN one June evening, a murder mystery unfolds called “Betsy and Tacy Go Downton.” Each table is supposed to cast our votes for whodunit: a character from Maud Hart Lovelace’s charming Betsy-Tacy books, which take place at the turn of the twentieth century? Or one of the “visiting cousins” from Downton Abbey? I’m sure it’s going to be someone from Downton Abbey. Betsy and her family and friends are just too nice.

I hasten to add that these favorite characters from my childhood are not, however, bland. If you haven’t heard of them, it’s your loss, though not unusual: the Betsy-Tacy Society’s slogan is “I thought I was the only one” because so many fans grew up thinking these books were our own personal discovery. And now, miraculously, a whole slew of avid fans have turned out for this dinner and play—at least 50 of us— that kick off Deep Valley Homecoming, a celebration of Lovelace’s work.

I’m spending my summer at smaller-scale children’s-literature-related versions of Comic-Con and Star Trek Conventions—DVH, and, a few weeks later, Laurapalooza, focusing on the work of Laura Ingalls Wilder. I hang out with women in Merry Widow hats, so wide they used to get caught in train doors, and in sunbonnets like the ones that Laura hated. These conferences strip away academic jargon and ironic distance in favor of an immersive experience that imitates the all-consuming absorption in books of many of our childhoods.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Fanfare” by Bruno Nelson


Wake up one morning and go to the nearest busy street and sit down on a bench and watch how people walk. Their gait, their posture, their stride, their tempo—these could all tell us a little something about their lives and how they interact with the world. I see voice in fiction operating in the same way; not only what’s being said, but how it’s being said can potentially reveal the whole world of a character. The narrative voice in “Fanfare” (Agni) by Bruno Nelson does just that.

Here’s how the story opens.

“He was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was not an octuplet. He was not conjoined.

He was not a virtuoso and he did not write symphonies. He wondered why his mother always came to his aid when there were seven people living in the house. Later he would play bass clarinet in the high school band.

He did not, at the age of six, derive a formula for summing the integers from one to one hundred. He worried the acorn he planted by the side of the house would grow to take off the roof. He confessed the next day.”

A few things jump out. The first is that it’s presented in a very close third, and a peculiar one at that. After a few lines it begins to read as though the character is speaking about himself in the third person. Second is that narrator is going out of his way to downplay his importance, making it clear that he’s unremarkable in terms of birth, nor is he a child prodigy. But neither is he a flat character—there’s such sweetness and complexity in the acorn image.

Nelson moves quickly through the short summaries of the protagonist’s life, which makes sense, considering the narrative voice’s insistence that its subject isn’t worth much of our time. As the protagonist grows older, the list of what the character didn’t accomplish grows more outlandish, while the list of what he did achieve becomes more mundane. But it’s really funny, both due to the contrast as well as to the understatement of the delivery—and as a result it never feels self-pitying.

“He didn’t discover the source of the Nile. He correctly figured the rainwater in the master bedroom was coming from the sliding glass door on the loft level, not the flat roof deck. For days he mocked the roofer’s speech on water migration.

He did not run through the streets yelling I have found it. Whenever a nude stranger started a conversation in the locker room, he would get irritated.

He was never held for ransom by pirates whom he subsequently captured and executed. He got seven months of free cable when they neglected to terminate his service after he cancelled.”

The narrator is wonderfully jocular; he doesn’t take the heroic narratives he’s ingested his entire life too seriously, nor does he put much stock in his own personal victories. They are the stuff of life, and if there’s an importance to them, it’s that he faced them, no matter how small. Though humorous, this isn’t a passive narrator, nor a passive voice. So then, what does this narrator take seriously? Watch what happens in the last two lines.

“They didn’t find 1800 poems in his desk after he died. He kept a journal for a while in his twenties and ultimately created a body of work on Amazon reviews.

He is not buried at Père Lachaise. His grave marker: name, year of birth, year of death. Too much information, his granddaughter might say.”

What’s his legacy? It’s certainly not personal achievement, at least in terms of occupation, nor did anything he do change the course of civilization. But in the last line we get a different kind of legacy: that of family. But it’s even more than that. Not only does he have a granddaughter, there’s evidence she’s inherited his posture towards the world, and the most remarkable thing about this story—his voice.


Review: WHAT COMES NEXT AND HOW TO LIKE IT by Abigail Thomas

what-comes-next-and-how-to-like-it-9781476785059_hrWhat Comes Next and How to Like It
Abigail Thomas
Scribner, March 2015
240 pages

Buy: book | ebook

I was first introduced to Abigail Thomas’s work in grad school when I read Safekeeping: Some True Stories From a Life. Initially, I was startled by its economy of words, wondering how all those little pieces were going to fit together to form something larger. To my surprise (which says a lot about me, I’m sure), they did fit, perfectly, and after I closed the book I found myself thinking about it for days.

Such is the subtle way Abigail Thomas enters the lives of her readers. Now in her 70s, she recently published her seventh book, What Comes Next and How to Like It. Like Safekeeping, it’s filled with white space, some chapters holding no more than a single paragraph, others filling a few pages; all of them seeking to answer the question of what comes next—in her life, and perhaps in ours.Continue Reading