Round-Up: Indepedent Bookstore Day, Apple’s iBooks shuts down in China, and Warsan Shire

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From the celebration of Independent Bookstore Day to a closer look at the poet behind Beyonce’s Lemonade, here’s the latest literary news:

  • Saturday was 2016’s Independent Bookstore Day. Indie bookstores all across America participated in this year’s festivities. Last year’s Indie Bookstore Day was a huge success, resulting in a 70 percent increase in book sales at small bookstores. This year is the holiday’s second year; the people running the event hope to expand to more independent bookstores in years to come. Independent Bookstore Day program director Samantha Schoech told Publisher’s Weekly, “We are figuring out ways for smaller, slightly more geographically isolated stores to participate.”
  • The release of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade has shone a great spotlight on poet Warsan Shire, whose poetry is featured as spoken-word interludes throughout the film. Beyoncé reads from several of Shire’s poems, including “Dear Moon,” “Warsan Versus Melancholy,” “How to Wear Your Mother’s Lipstick,” “The Unbearable Weight of Staying,” “For Women Who Are Difficult to Love,” and “Nail Technician as Palm Reader.” The twenty-seven-year-old poet was named the 2014 Young Poet Laureate; the New York Times reports that “she is already known to many as a compelling voice on black womanhood and the African diaspora.”

Laura Ingalls Wilder and Samuel Worthen Ingalls: Discovering the Roots of Favorite Childhood Books in Cuba, NY

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When my daughter was little, we went on a tour of Laura Ingalls Wilder sites in Wisconsin, Kansas, Minnesota, South Dakota, and Missouri. It was an endless round of log houses, sod houses, dugouts, old churches, schoolhouses, post offices, banks, jails, and depots, hand-dug wells and pump organs, replica violins and China shepherdesses and Charlotte dolls. Because Wilder’s Little House series had been important to my childhood, this trip was a simultaneous walk through history and down memory lane, and I wrote a book about it, From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood.

But for fifteen years we’d lived thirty minutes from another Wilder site-of-sorts, Cuba, New York, but never gone there. Cuba was the birthplace of Wilder’s father, Charles Ingalls, and a location that appears in a couple of the stories Pa tells in Little House in the Big Woods.

I’m no longer quite the diehard fan I was when I was ten, but I admire Wilder’s lyricism and remain grateful about the ways that her work inspired me. Here was this seemingly ordinary pioneer girl with no training at all, I believed as a child, who had still managed to become a writer. In adulthood, I learned that much of this was a myth, particularly the common idea that Wilder was an “untutored” farm wife whose writing sprang to life fully-formed when she was in her 60s. She’d actually undergone an extensive apprenticeship, writing for the Missouri Ruralist and other farming publications.

I had long put off going to Cuba, NY because I didn’t really expect to find much there. Cuba used to commemorate the Wilder connection with an annual “Pa Ingalls Day” celebration, featuring Civil War battle reenactments, country-western dances, historic house tours, displays of antique farm equipment, and demonstrations of quiltmaking, spinning, candlemaking, woodworking, and basketweaving. But the festival met with little enthusiasm from the town’s residents, and Cuba had moved on, never sparking the tourist industry of the Midwestern sites. Still, when you’ve written a book about visiting places related to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work, driving down the road to Pa’s birthplace just starts to seem obligatory.Continue Reading

On the Art of Perspective: Christopher Castellani & Maggie Nelson

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“I want to tell you what happened on the way to dinner.” Christopher Castellani‘s The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story begins with that simple phrase, the driving force of storytelling: the author has something they want to convey. Which quickly leads us to the issue of how to convey it. Castellani, a Ploughshares Solo author, doesn’t know how to convey the story of what happened on the way to dinner, “because I haven’t decided who’s telling it.”

There is no more important decision the writer makes than who tells the story, because, whoever that narrator is, he will compel us to tell it his way, with his frames of reference, his agenda and lexicon and baggage, within his particular wedge of time.”

“Perspective” is defined as a particular attitude or point of view, or an understanding of the relative importance of things—a sense of proportion. Perspective in literature is often boiled down to first, second, or third-person point of view. Castellani widens the lens, broadening the subject to the point of needing to note where the book touches the edges of its scope: “The question of how far outside her own experience an author is ‘allowed’ to write has more to do with politics than with craft; as such, it is outside the scope of this book.”Continue Reading

Interview with Grace Shuyi Liew, author of Prop

 

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Grace Shuyi Liew is the author of the chapbook Prop (Ahsahta Press, 2016) and Book of Interludes (Anomalous Press, 2016). Her work has appeared in cream city review, PANK, Bone Bouquet, West Branch, and other journals. She is a contributing editor for Waxwing and an alum of Aspen Summer Words, Squaw Valley Writers Workshop, and the Watering Hole.

Grace is from Malaysia and now resides in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she works as a teaching artist while completing her MFA at Louisiana State University. I interviewed her on the release of Prop, which was selected by Kerri Webster as winner of the 2015 Ahsahta Chapbook Award.

How did the sequence and its pauses and divisions come about?

I was thinking about western canons and the lineages they pass down without question. Then the set of poems slowly sprawled into a kind of alternative origin story—a bit expansive, a bit mythical, a bit hysterical about banishment. So connectivity quickly became important. The two sisters that share a tail move from undersea to dry caves to suburbia to nationlessness. Continuity and discontinuity became important. And: movement versus stasis, resignation versus vengeance, longing versus rejecting.

At the time I was also a bit obsessed with sentences. I was paying all my attention to sentences-as-lines, and how they can be unyielding and demanding but also sometimes, paradoxically, they open up a habitable place. Then at one point I started to mistrust them and forced myself to resist this habitable place. So a lot of the pauses and divisions were me trying to write against this sentence-ness. Some poems are choppier, enjambed, ruptured, contingent on immediate focus rather than cumulative attention. Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Dreamer” by Stephen Dixon

BSS-Pshares-Header1Sometimes in workshops, dreams are spoken of with suspicion, as often through them writers try to awkwardly smuggle in some sort of psychological truth, repressed desire, or foreshadowing of danger. In Stephen Dixon’s, “The Dreamer” (The Southern Review), dreams are the main action and the medium through which the reader must try to understand the protagonist’s waking life.

Dixon opens with the protagonist marveling at having a series of “linked dreams in a row.” These dreams all involve a high school student production of a Greek tragedy. In the first dream, the narrator is attending with his wife—about whom we find some tragic and revealing information.

She seemed healthy in the dream and maybe twenty years young than when she died.

The age of the narrator is never stated, only alluded to, but nonetheless is key for a number of reasons. One is that in our society, those dubbed dreamers are often put into the John Lennon/Imagine camp: youthful, idealistic, and progressive. It can be easy to forget the role that dreaming plays in those whom popular culture pays less attention to: those middle aged and older, like the protagonist of the story.Continue Reading

Notes on the State of Virginia: Journey to the Center of an American Document, Queries IV and V

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This is the third installment of a year-long journey through Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. You can read previous installments here and here.

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Query IV: A notice of its mountains
Query V: Its cascades and caverns

I walked into Queries IV and V thinking Jefferson would use these sections to acknowledge the changeability of Virginia’s natural landscape, the dramatic variations of terrain that make it both beautiful and dangerous to traverse. I thought I’d compare Jefferson’s celebration of Virginia’s wild places to the notion of surprise in poetry, or maybe to resistance—that sense that the poem is getting lost somewhere in the middle, and you, the poet, have to invent a light (or a hatchet) to make your way through the draft.

I should have known better.Continue Reading

Review: A DOUBTER’S ALMANAC by Ethan Canin

a-doubters-almanac_0A Doubter’s Almanac
Ethan Canin
Random House, Feb 2016
576 pp; $28

Buy: hardcover | eBook

Mathematicians toil in obscurity, often for years, at work that will probably come to nothing. It doesn’t take a Fields Medalist to understand why a novelist, that most uncertain toiler of all, would be drawn to such a plight.

Milo Andret, the genius at the center of Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac, sacrifices domestic tranquility and ignores social norms in the pursuit of solving “mankind’s great puzzles.” His Princeton colleagues hate him, and for good reason. Milo is an alcoholic, a liar, a womanizer, and an egomaniac. Tragically, his single-mindedness is no guarantee of success. Milo loses a cushy job, alienates his wife and daughter, and suffers through a grotesque late life illness, all while chasing that one elusive accomplishment he needs to secure his legacy.Continue Reading

The Best Essay I Read This Month: “The Habits of Highly Cynical People” by Rebecca Solnit

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There are many benefits of cynicism. But there’s also a certain kind of knee-jerk, armchair cynicism that lets those who subscribe to it reduce complex political and social events to doomed exercises in futility, and to pretend to know the totality of their worth. That kind of thinking is the subject of Rebecca Solnit’s “Easy Chair” column, “The Habits of Highly Cynical People,” in this month’s Harper’s Magazine.

Solnit muses that the full effect of the Arab Spring might not have yet come to pass—we can’t ever be certain. Some people, though, seem to be very certain about this or that, immediately after it happens.

Non-pundits, too, use bad data and worse analysis to pronounce with great certainty on future inevitabilities, present impossibilities, and past failures. The mind-set behind these statements is what I call naïve cynicism. It bleeds the sense of possibility and maybe the sense of responsibility out of people.

Cynicism is first of all a style of presenting oneself, and it takes pride more than anything in not being fooled and not being foolish. But in the forms in which I encounter it, cynicism is frequently both these things. That the attitude that prides itself on world-weary experience is often so naïve says much about the triumph of style over substance, attitude over analysis.

Naïve cynicism, Solnit goes on to say, is so hasty to brand everything in the world as black or white—so eager to give the impression that it cannot be taken in—that the full depth and nuance of any situation viewed through this lens is immediately lost. Naïve cynicism, then, discourages people from caring, from trying; it is that voice that says there’s no point in getting your hopes up, you’ll just be disappointed, no matter the context. Naïve cynicism would stifle the passion and emotion that led to the Arab Spring, as it dismisses the unknown impact the uprising may yet still have.Continue Reading

Writ in Water: Son of Salinas

 

steinbeck h2oLast month, I mentioned John Steinbeck’s famous declaration about the forgetfulness of his beloved Salinas Valley in matters of water and drought. He is fortunate that the valley has not forgotten him.

The National Steinbeck Center commands one end of Main Street in downtown Salinas, and a walk through its sprawling exhibits leaves little doubt that the city, the valley, and the whole of California’s central coast has reclaimed all iterations of its native son. There were times, framed newspaper spreads are quick to note, when Steinbeck’s portrayals of the valley were read harshly for his immigrants and migrants, workers and woebegones, producing varying degrees of local disavowal. Yet now, with Steinbeck enshrined a Great Man of Letters, his many legacies seemingly assured, the Center raises the question, for me at least, as to how a museum—visual, interactive, available to all and assuming broad levels of visitor familiarity with the work—can remember, celebrate, and perhaps, reimagine.

Does the Steinbeck Center, one might ask, need a human-sized model of an iPhone to make a comment about modern communication? Does lifting an old phone receiver to hear different accounts of a fruit pickers’ strike allow me to better understand In Dubious Battle, or for that matter, East of Eden or The Grapes of Wrath? Does harnessing a plastic horse let me “help Jody do his chores” and read The Red Pony anew with experiential insight? Do I need to believe, even for a second, that the display of a chirping canvas bag actually holds frogs for Doc in order to appreciate the wayward generosities of Cannery Row? Do I affirm the richnesses of Lenny and George by lifting brims affixed to a wall, finding names beneath, and quizzing myself as to which Of Mice and Men head filled which hat? Did the Nobel Prize committee finish the massive wall of a Steinbeck crossword puzzle before awarding him the prize in literature in 1962? For all of it, I’m not so sure, but I admire the effort at accessibility, and there is something undeniably engaging in the mixing of media. (Do I feel transported to old Mexico and into Viva Zapata! by the stucco village and piñatas and faux fruit carts leaping out behind a bend—no—but I am usefully unsettled by the film photos of Marlon Brando’s mustache and, ah, skin color. Did the hilarious Yelp reviews of the nearby Spirit of Monterey Wax Museum convince me to skip the zombied bodies displayed in the basement of a strip mall in favor of a longer visit at the Center? Yes, but no more than the sign at that register, defensively pre-declaring no refunds.)Continue Reading

Fifty Shades of Heathcliff: Why WUTHERING HEIGHTS Isn’t a Love Story

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Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë is often considered one of the great Victorian romances, mentioned in the same breath as classics like Pride and Prejudice and her sister Charlotte’s most famous work, Jane Eyre. But where Jane is a love story through and through, from the early meet-cute to the closing “Reader, I married him,” Wuthering Heights is a “love story” only in the most literal sense. The narrative turns on the love between two people, but ultimately, it is the story of a dysfunctional relationship between highly destructive people, whom we’re not meant to “root for” any more than we are the central couples of Tender Is the Night or Revolutionary Road.

The character Heathcliff, in particular, has been remembered as the quintessential Gothic romantic hero. And there are trappings within the novel that encourage this interpretation; Heathcliff suffers a truly tragic childhood, he is a social outcast through no fault of his own, and while he demonstrates a capacity for cruelty early and often, he always refrains from victimizing Catherine. So as a result of conditioning from the tropes of countless romantic novels, the reader is primed to spend the entire novel waiting for Heathcliff’s inevitable redemption.

But the novel is brilliant precisely because it never indulges such romantic fantasies. Brontë shrewdly plays on the reader’s vicarious desire to “save” Heathcliff’s sensitive, tortured soul by opening with a stereotypically romantic premise, and then continually disabusing the reader of any notion that Heathcliff is somehow redeemable. His abusive relationship with the naïve Isabella, especially, is a indictment of his innately sadistic, even sociopathic character. She is an innocent, but he exacts psychological torment on her for sport, even going so far as to throw a knife at her at one point. In this episode, he himself admits that he is incapable of mercy or remorse: “The more the worms writhe, the more I yearn to crush out their entrails! It is a moral teething; and I grind with greater energy, in proportion to the increase of pain.”

Continue Reading