Richard Ford
Ecco, May 2012
432 pages

I found myself humming Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” while reading Richard Ford’s Canada—only instead of “Joe Diamaggio,” I sang “Frank Bascombe,” the hero of the Ford Trilogy that began with the Sportswriter, peaked with Independence Day, and closed with The Lay of the Land. I will admit it here and now: I fell for Frank Bascombe, and hard. Is there a more likeable fuck-up in American literature? I think not. Ford delivered on Bascombe’s beautiful, conflicted promise again and again, mucking Frank up with America and spinning out some of the most memorable scenes in modern literature.

This love that readers feel for recurring characters is the reason Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock. It’s the reason that Billy Joel hates the song “Piano Man.” Here I am, seven sentences into my review of Ford’s latest novel sans Bascombe, and I haven’t said a thing about it. Readers like to bask in their favorite works, while writers are ready to move on to new narrative challenges. Luckily I’ll follow Ford wherever he wants to take me.

Canada is a return to Ford’s pre-Bascombe romance with the West.  His protagonist, Dell Parsons, is the fifteen-year-old son of a shotgun marriage whose father, in an ill-advised attempt to break out of his post-war rut, decides to rob a bank.  His mother assists, thinking she can save him, and they both wind up in jail, leaving Dell and his twin sister, Berner, to fend for themselves.

Berner, the braver twin, runs away to California, while Dell obeys his mother’s wishes and goes to live with a friend in Canada.  Not Toronto or Montreal Canada, but vast, desolate Saskatchewan Canada, where he is thrown in with the enigmatic hotelier Arthur Remlinger and his Metis handyman Charlie. Here on the windswept prairie, Dell reconciles his parents’ robbery and its effect on his life and tries to understand human nature. Can you know an outlaw just by looking at him? Were his parents bank robbers even before they drove up to the front door of the North Dakota Agricultural National Bank? Or were they defined by the doing?

And here is where the ghost of Bascombe returns, for Ford is always contemplating this same question: when are we invented? Is it something done for us, or something we can do for ourselves? The answer is different in Canada than it was in New Jersey, but the question is still worth asking.

THAT LIT, LIT LIFE (with global characteristics) 2 (of 14)

32 years. That’s how long it’s been since I last set foot on Australia’s east coast. Byron Bay was a soft landing after the long absence, because here was a surfer’s paradise, a gourmet’s paradise, a wine aficionado’s paradise . . . okay, okay so waxing overly lyrical etc., but honestly, you’ll wish you were there too.

Sunset at Byron Bay

Byron Bay’s writers’ festival is indeed a tented sight to behold. VIP’ed my way into the 14th annual one, and they do treat you well. At the Brisbane airport, a man in red bearing my name on a sign drove me south down the highway – you’ll be able to have a sleep, he said – on a smooth, two-hour ride. It was morning when I arrived from Singapore, and customs security was a polite request to step into this line so that the hound patrol could sniff my bags. The indignities of airport security vanish around this adorably cute mutt, and less than two minutes later, you’re on your way.

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Literary Boroughs #14: Montpelier, Vermont

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the fourteenth post on Montpelier, Vermont by Kris Underwood. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Situated in the valley of the Green Mountains, Montpelier has been called quaint, idyllic, and weird. The locals have taken to calling it “Montpeculiar.” Full of writers, poets, musicians as well as lawyers and statesmen/women, the city is home to the Vermont Statehouse, Hubbard Park and a branch of the Winooski River, which runs through the downtown area. The winters here are something to be reckoned with-it has not been unheard of to get three or more feet of snow from a single storm and below freezing temperatures in January (one year: -20 degrees Fahrenheit).  Summertime and fall are the best time to visit-there are more things to do and see. Fall is usually tourist season with picture-perfect New England vistas.

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A Machine that Twitters: Why I decided to let Paul Klee title my essays

Paul Klee’s “The Twittering Machine”

For about four years, I lived within walking distance of the Menil Museum in Houston. It’s a free museum lodged in the Montrose neighborhood and it ate hours of my life.

One season the museum had a giant mounting of Paul Klee’s work, the majority borrowed from other collections. If you don’t know who Paul Klee is, he was an artist who taught at the Bauhaus school until the National Socialist party exiled him.

The great thing about Klee is that his paintings have got the greatest titles. I would go into the museum and just write down his titles because there was enough humor and play and love of language in his titles to animate the interplay between the titles and what they supposedly titled (of course, they’re all translated from the German, but their music is stunning even in English.)

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The Borderlands of Language: Using Italics for “Foreign” Words (Part I)

Junot Díaz once told me that he writes for his six best friends and the rest of the world.  This was a few summers ago in a VONA fiction workshop in San Francisco. We had been discussing the meaty issue of how much to explain in our short stories and novels. For example, would the reader understand the meaning of chiltepe without having to look it up? How much did I gain from including details that may feel welcoming to some, alienating to others? I wondered if I should italicize certain words, and by that I meant words in Spanish.

Junot answered my questions with a question: “Who is your audience?”

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Not Unlike…

Readings in World Literature
Srikanth Reddy
Omnidawn, 2012
42 pages

Editor’s note: P. Scott Stanfield holds a Ph.D. in English and teaches literature at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Recently, I challenged him to see how many references to other works and artists he could make in a single 500-word review. He gets one point for each, or two for any he hasn’t used in a previous column. Last month’s score: 31; this month’s score: 20.
– Andrew Ladd

Readings in World Literature, Srikanth Reddy’s new chapbook, is hard to describe. The back cover calls it a “prose sequence,” but the acknowledgements page calls it a “poem.” Likewise, it straddles the fiction/non-fiction divide. Reddy really does teach “Readings in World Literature” at the University of Chicago, but not “Introduction to the Underworld,” as he does in the text. He and Suzanne Buffam really do have a daughter named Mira, and he may really have developed a melanoma; since he teaches at the University of Chicago, he quite possibly really had a student who described himself as a “Zen Naxalite crypto-Objectivist.”Continue Reading

THAT LIT, LIT LIFE (with global characteristics) 1 (of 14)

Xu Xi’s latest novel, Habit of a Foreign Sky

When you’re around the world’s literati, you’re usually a little lit. A bit inebriated. Slightly slurred. Deliciously drunk. Oh, on words of course (Mais oui! What else?). Or if you’re running an international, low-residency MFA with Asian characteristics, you’re intoxicated in multiple Englishes and other languages.

Let’s talk about that lit life (and being lit). It’s such a precarious one (I’ve had full-time jobs, free lance assignments, part-time jobs, no jobs and scrambled for cash . . . married, divorced, re-married, divorced again, moved here, there, back to here, on to over there, and there and there . . . juggled friends and lovers in order not to lose the ones I cared about. Haven’t you?). I don’t know a writer who doesn’t balance work, family, friends with their writing, never mind all those obsessions that made you a writer in the first place. Yet when you’re out there on the circuit – at festivals, giving readings, launching a book, being celebrated (in those grander, luckier moments) – it can sometimes feel like being the writer is all you can be, as if the rest of life no longer exists.

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Literary Boroughs #13: Los Angeles, California

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the eleventh post on Los Angeles, California by Chris Daley. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

When silent films gave way to talkies, the flood of writers who came to Los Angeles for easy Hollywood money jumpstarted the city’s literary life. Suddenly home to literary darlings like Faulkner and Fitzgerald, LA started to develop and disseminate its identity as a land of dreams at the end of the world. Since then, the writers who made their home in LA often found themselves hidden in New York’s very long shadow. Yet over the past few decades, as more and more diverse and sophisticated literature has been produced in and about Los Angeles, the city has come into its own.

The literary life of Los Angeles is like a newly discovered shortcut or a charming local bistro. You sort of don’t want anyone to know about it for fear it might get ruined, but you don’t want to be greedy. The most common response from people who heard I was writing a dissertation on Los Angeles literature was “There’s literature in Los Angeles?” Their ignorance is our bliss. The writers and readers of Los Angeles know we are blessed to have a thriving independent bookstore industry, some of the most active and accomplished writers and publications in the U.S., and dozens of literary events every night of the week. The literary community is the perfect size—big enough to afford the opportunity to constantly meet new writers and small enough to feel the kind of network support you’d find in a much smaller city.

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How I’m Spending my Summer

My wife told me to lead with the woman peeing. So I will. It was 5:30 last Sunday morning and I watched a woman pee herself. She announced she was doing it. Mumbling something about fascists, she said she hated that the bathrooms were locked and then she pissed herself, through her underwear, and her mini-skirt, her heels dangling from her left hand. I know all of this not because I was watching (I was doing my level best not to watch) but because she announced everything as it was happening. “I’m peeing,” she bellowed, her spangled tank top throwing reflections everywhere. “I’m peeing right through my underwear!”

This is becoming a normal occurrence at my new job.

I got a job this summer. It’s one of those low-pay low-expectations kind of things. You show up on time, people are amazed at your reliability. Showing up on time is harder than you might think. The job starts at 4:45 am on Saturdays and 5:00 on Sundays.

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Bridging the Divide: Why I Brought My Mom to Bread Loaf

Jennifer De Leon and her mother

I didn’t grow up in what I would call a literary family. We delivered newspapers; we didn’t read them. We told stories constantly, but we never wrote them down.

My mom is a housekeeper. All her life she has never taken a sick day. No work meant no paycheck. Simple. Once, when visiting me at college, she sneezed, and my then-boyfriend asked her if she had a cold. “No,” she said. “I don’t believe in that.”

In college, I majored in International Relations, admittedly so I could travel the world, something she always wanted to do. For me, that meant studying abroad in Hanoi for a semester, Paris the next, and interning at the U.N. in Lagos one summer. On the eve of each trip, I would sit at the round wooden table in my parents’ kitchen in Massachusetts and write letters to relatives and friends. When I was done, I always wrote a letter for my mother. This was the hardest one to write. What could I say to a woman who clipped coupons and stuffed napkins from Dunkin’ Donuts into her purse so that I could have the chances she never did? Dear Mom, thanks for everything.

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