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


beatty sellout

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

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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


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
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


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

Round-Down: eBooks on the Go


Two new partnerships with digital media distribution platforms are allowing publishers to make it even easier to get electronic books in the hands of travelers this month.

On May 6, Kobo, a Rakuten company, and Global Eagle Entertainment, Inc. launched a reading platform that will allow Southwest Airlines passengers to access, through their personal WiFi-enabled devices, a complimentary entertainment portal while onboard. This portal will be replete with full books and extended previews of top titles and new releases from major publishers such as Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and more.

Similarly, on May 15, Simon & Schuster announced a partnership with Foli, another digital-content mobile-distribution company that has specialized in providing hotels and airports with access to digital copies of leisure magazines. Together, the two companies will use geo-location technology to deliver a specific book, or collection of books, to a specific location. To kick off, Simon & Schuster is making available David McCullough’s highly anticipated biography The Wright Brothers available at the National Air and Space Museum, several airports, and the Wrightsville Memorial in North Carolina. It will make several bestsellers available at partnering hotels and airport lounges across the U.S.

Both digital delivery platforms will make the books available to customers only while they are at specific locations (while aboard the Southwest airlines flights, or for a total of three days at the locations Simon & Schuster has selected for their titles), and allow users the option to purchase the books if they are not finished with them by the time their flights or stays end.Continue Reading

The Candles and the Soap: On Vonnegut, Death, and Repetition

Dresden, zerstörtes Stadtzentrum

Placed after a mention of death or dying, Kurt Vonnegut’s “So it goes” refrain throughout Slaughterhouse Five utilizes repetition to explore the inevitability of death. Early on in the book, Billy Pilgrim writes a letter to a newspaper about his experiences with extra terrestrials, and explains the origin of the phrase:

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.’

The phrase simultaneously dismisses and accepts the inevitability of death. “So it goes” seems so detached as to be irreverent and inappropriate. An incredibly simple three word sentence—so informal it catches the reader off guard in its plainness—is striking in juxtaposition to death. The phrase is so casual, it smacks of false familiarity and dismissiveness. It feels unceremonious, yet becomes ceremonious through its repetition, like the refrain of a song. It is so much more complex than just those three simple words; it admits the inevitability of death and offers a pause for the reader to truly consider the weight of what is written.

Only the candles and the soap were of German origin. They had a ghostly, opalescent similarity. The British had no way of knowing it, but the candles and the soap were made from the fat of rendered Jews and Gypsies and fairies and communists, and other enemies of the State.

Removing the repetition of “so it goes” from the text alters the book—note how the omission of it from the above paragraph makes the sentence so dark and depressing it’s almost impossible to read. Stripping the informal refrain of “so it goes” makes the book too formal, too gloomy; it robs the deaths their due attention, their pause, and removes the carefree yet careful acceptance of the uncompromising inevitability of death. Nothing can be done about death, and Vonnegut’s cool acquiescence of it serves as deeper advice than at first glance—a mantra of sorts.Continue Reading

Writing my way in, or, Writing my way out

cemeterySomewhere deep in the “remotest mansions of the blood,” where Lorca said the duende lives, I think I still have the capacity for a good cry. At some point in my life I lost this. Or it was wrested from me. Either way it’s now as foreign a tongue to me as Lorca’s Spanish.

I feel the urge sometimes, but only as a phantom limb. The world’s done its work on me. An army rises up to squash any lump in my throat.

Sir Philip Sidney’s Muse tells him, “Fool, look in thy heart and write,” where the true real-estate is. I like to imagine that this—the heart, the mansions of the blood, the trenches within us—is where I can recover that prelapsarian part of myself, before the world knotted my tie too tight.

A good cry doesn’t sound half bad. On the contrary, it sounds as good as any good thing, as good as a good piece of cake, or a good massage, or a good microfleece blanket. I remember obscurely when tears held no shame, watching my blurry wreckage in the mirror as a child, my cheeks flushed with crying, and the sensation afterwards of feeling lighter and breathless and cleansed from the inside out. But those days are long gone. Like a lot of men I know, a good cry sounds antithetical. It takes a Mack truck of hurt or warmth now to move me to tears in public. I feel an almost bodily resistance to it; it is as unthinkable as taking a step on a broken knee. It’s one of the few things many men pride themselves on not toughing out.

Recently I wrote about that silly superstition of holding my breath in the car as I pass a cemetery. You do this, too, admit it, because like me, you take every precaution possible to stave off dying, even if it’s uncomfortable and poses the risk of asphyxiation. The impulse was so arcane that I wrote the poem, to waylay that mystery. I finished, then waited.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Day Trip” by Noelle Catharine Allen


There’s a wonderful history of short stories where a character’s physical ills work as a metaphor representing larger problems, both personal and societal. For instance, in Julio Cortázar’s “Letter to a Lady in Paris,” the protagonist regularly vomits live rabbits, a reality we come to realize not only provides the reasons why an apartment has been destroyed, but an explanation for why the protagonist’s life has spiraled. In Noelle Catharine Allen’s “Day Trip” (Hunger Mountain 19), we meet a character who also regularly vomits live rabbits, but for reasons very different from the story to which it owes its literary conceit.

We begin when the protagonist Noelle and her son, Matthew, get stuck in a massive traffic jam outside of D.C. She takes stock of her belongings, among them a syringe. “I sent up a thank you prayer—to whatever deities I didn’t believe in—for the syringe…I always take a backup syringe in case something goes wrong with the injection.” It’s clear she’s ailing, but unlike Cortázar—who reveals the situation quickly—Allen chooses to keep the nature of her protagonist’s illness secret from the reader.

Allen does drop subtle hints over the next few pages, as the traffic jam stretches out over multiple days. “I hadn’t missed an injection in almost a year, so it was possible I might be OK…but if the rabbits came, I’d rather they did during the night.” Rabbits? we wonder. Is that some kind of metaphor? Readers familiar with Cortázar might hazard guess at her illness, especially after the protagonist makes a brief reference another of Cortázar’s stories, “How to Wind a Watch.” But the setting of the stories couldn’t be more different—traffic jam vs. apartment—and the causes of the protagonist’s illness diverge as well.Continue Reading