The Past, Living


For a person who loves writing and reading stories that take place in the past, I don’t seem to like the term historical fiction much. It tastes of dust to me. No doubt unfairly, I think of a certain kind of novel when I hear it. You know the kind:

Mehitable Benevolence Lynton paused in the course of her endless washing to heave a sigh. My, she mused, but life for a woman of this period, in these Colonies, is trying! She inspected her face, reflected in the water in the basin—glass mirrors being luxury items at the time—and adjusted her close-fitting white cap with fortitude. Just then, Ezekiel strode into the room. 

“Husband!” Mehitable exclaimed. “What have you heard of this trouble over in Salem Village?”

Then many many more pages devoted to quaint hardships and kinds of cloth.

I sympathize, I do. Nobody likes to do research without getting to use it, but actually I think that’s probably not the real explanation for some writers’ tendency to smother their stories under copious details, strained references to significant contemporaneous events. My bet is that this tendency is instead a side effect of enthusiasm: most people drawn to writing about the past really love the past. The quirks, idiosyncrasies, and small, exotic normalcies of everyday life in that unreachable world seem just too good not to shoehorn into their stories somehow.Continue Reading

Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “The Rogers Ladder” by Holly Wendt


In the summer of 1895, Linnie Rogers became the first woman to ascend Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, by climbing up a precarious, 350-foot wooden ladder made of stakes driven into a crack running up the rock formation’s side. In Holly Wendt’s “The Rogers Ladder,” (Gulf Stream) the national monument and this minor historical event take on vast dimensions in the mind of a grieving narrator, Rachel.

Early on, Wendt begins weaving together Rogers climb, the recent death of the Rachel’s daughter Maddie, and her current visit to the national monument with her husband.

“One hundred years after Linnie Rogers’s climb, Rachel’s five-year-old daughter, wearing blue polka-dot shorts and yellow jelly shoes, was killed in a car accident. Rachel’s husband, David, had been driving…David stands now beside the maps, planning their hike, talking with one of the park rangers…The accident was not his fault.”

But this conclusion doesn’t help with her grief, which is overwhelming and complex. She loves David, but also hates him—at times even more than the actual driver at fault. Wendt reveals how this mess of contradictory emotions has made a stranger of Rachel’s own body.

“Her therapist says anger like this is normal. Rachel doesn’t think it’s normal at all. It doesn’t feel normal, on her skin, in her bones. It’s been more than a year. They haven’t had sex in that long. It’s not because she doesn’t want it. Her body wants it. Her body wants sex and another child, and some days, her skin feels so electric she can’t stand it. It’s that getting that close to him, putting her hands on his body, makes her fingers want to turn to claws, makes her want to gouge and bite.”

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Other People’s Paperbacks

gassani holdin holdings_ppb

I have outlined here before the likelihood of writers finding value in old objects, as to me, there is something storied in a weathered possession. I make no exceptions for other people’s paperbacks. Give me your tattered Jane Eyre or marked-up Cather. Your well loved or out of print. Or better yet—don’t. I may be operating at capacity.

Recently, I was stopped in standstill traffic near Truro Beach on the Cape, when I saw a hand-scrawled sign: Estate Sale. So I steered my car down the shoulder of the road and took one of those unlikely side streets, the ones that snake across the tall dunes and meander toward the fog-covered ocean.

There, I found a historic white house, paint chipped, and a shingled barn with its doors flung open. Mismatched china balanced precariously on card tables, surrounded by boxes of coffee-stained lace and linens.

Show me the books, I thought, and then I spied them: four crates of paperbacks and art books. In roughly five minutes, I had an armful so high that I could hardly see over the stack. That is usually how I know it’s time to pay, and I make my way to the person with the cash box, spilling my finds as I go, recollecting them.Continue Reading

Round-Down: New York Public Library Expands Under Bryant Park


The New York Public Library is undertaking a $23 million underground expansion at its Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in Manhattan to house its vast research collection, much of which which was formerly slated to be relocated to New Jersey. The additional space will help to house approximately four million research items and, according to the NYPL, will “allow the library to accommodate approximately ninety-five percent of all search requests on-site.”

The press release for this underground expansion corroborates this venture’s significance with hard numbers–this effort “will transform 55,700 square feet of raw space underneath Bryant Park into state-of-the-art storage that can hold about 2.5 million research materials.”

Tom Mashberg at the New York Times detailed the undertaking, mentioning that “by the end of spring (2016) library officials expect to be using a new retrieval system to ferry the volumes and other materials from their eight-four miles of subterranean shelving, loaded into little motorized carts—a bit like miniaturized minecars carrying nuggets of research gold.”

The decision to renovate and expand storage in this way was not one the NYPL came to immediately. Initially, the idea was to have the research collection moved to Princeton–but the public outcry against this proposition was strong.

As a result, the NYPL instead decided to expand its storage space under Bryant Park. In order to fit all these books in the space, the library has opted to forego the long-held Dewey Decimal System and to instead sort by size. This is a somewhat surprising and substantial revision to its sorting practices that might also provide a model other libraries could emulate with their own collections. It is interesting to consider how a library of this size and prominence might, in making this necessary and difficult expansion, affect change in new ways–possibly in how we sort books altogether.

Ultimately, NYPL officials hope that the books will be able to make the journey from stacks to reader in under forty minutes after the request is made.

NYPL President Tony Marx notes that “with this expanded storage capacity, we can provide on-site access to the researchers and writers who rely on our research collections while preserving these treasured materials for future generations.”

A considerable undertaking with an eye toward maintaining the library’s scholarly archive on-site, the Milstein Research Stacks should be open by late spring of 2016.

Lost in Translation: A Journey on the Li River


My China-born daughter is thirteen the summer day we take a cruise down the Lijiang River from Guilin to Yangshao. This stretch is said to be the inspiration for much Chinese poetry and art:

“Guilin’s unique topography. and beautiful scenery of the Karst Mountains and the unsurpassed beauty of the Li River has attracted public figures including poets and artists since centuries.”

Our brochure compares the river to a “jade ribbon winding among thousands of grotesque peaks.” Or, as the Tang Dynasty poet Han Yu put it,

The river winds like a blue silk ribbon
While the hills erect like green jade hairpins.

Although I find many references in tourist brochures to this location as a popular setting and inspiration for Chinese literature, I have difficulty finding many such works that have been translated into English. Mostly what I find are fragments, many, like the ones about the “grotesque” peaks and “erect” hills, in which it feels like something has been lost in translation.

However, American writers have also been inspired by this river: according to blogger Wai Chee, writers Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Leslie Marmon Silko took a boat up the Li in 1985. The influence of that trip lingers in some of their work such as Kingston’s 2012 memoir I Love a Broad Margin in My Life which is “laid out like a Chinese scroll, with no beginning, middle, or end” and which, according to a customer review, “meanders like a river.” Silko was fascinated by the connections between Chinese pottery and examples from her own Laguna ancestral background; her 2011 memoir The Turquoise Ledge focuses on family history, Tucson, and desert landscapes.

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The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Los Angeles” by Ling Ma


In Marie-Helene Bertino’s “Edna in Rain” (reviewed in February), the narrator’s ex-lovers are literally raining from the sky, leaving her to deal with the surprising consequences. In Ling Ma’s “Los Angeles” (Granta), the narrator has similar problems with past lovers, leading to a wild exploration of memory’s hold on the present.

In the first paragraph, Ma’s narrator describes what’s up.

“The house in which we live has three wings. The west wing is where the Husband and I live. The east wing is where the children and their attending au pairs live. And lastly, the largest but ugliest wing, extending behind the house like a gnarled, broken arm, is where my 100 ex-boyfriends live.”

Ma represents physically the reality of that oft-used Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Continue Reading

The Paris Attacks And The Shared Humanity Of Central American Poetry


I always get my hair cut when I’m in Mexico City. I have weird hair and a barber who knows how to cut it. He’s the kind of barber that slick-slacks his scissors between snips, between syllables too so that when he talks—about sports, cars, the news, anything—his speech falls from his mouth like a heavily enjambed poem. He can make anything sound profound:

“Did you know (slick-slack) the Chevy Volt explodes (slick-slack) sometimes? Don’t believe me? Watch it (slack) on YouTube.”

His speech is littered with heavy pauses and deep breaths. He doesn’t sleep at night. He seems to age a little more every time I see him. He’s afraid of travel, of his commute from Neza, of the cartel violence that’s now penetrated Mexico City. I walked into his shop after news of the Paris attacks broke. Even he was visibly shaken.Continue Reading

Begin Again: On Endings in Nonfiction


Talking, or writing, about endings is hard—whether it’s the end of a marriage, the end of a life, or the end of a book (lest one spoil the conclusion). Life rarely offers sudden and definitive endings or epiphanic conclusions. Rather, events leading up to the end seem to be a slow unfolding, occasionally bleeding into a new beginning. For writers of nonfiction, dealing with actual occurrences often means there is no definitive end, and even if there were (such as a death), there comes the aftermath—the grief, the coping, the rebuilding.

How does a writer of nonfiction decide where to place the punctuation mark when lives—grief, love, loss, and even joy—are ongoing?

Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s latest publication, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye: A Journey, deals with the aftermath of more than one tragic event. The author was still processing the loss of her father, three years earlier, when her Japanese grandfather passed away in January of 2011. Only a few months later, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Japan, triggering a tsunami and resulting in unfathomable devastation.

Mutsuki Mockett’s relatives owned a temple only twenty-five miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where the radiation levels were so high, the family could not bury the grandfather’s bones.

The author journeys back to Japan to re-connect with family—exploring the ways in which communities are coping, witnessing both devastation and reconstruction, while examining her own grief. The book’s publication marked four years since her grandfather’s death and the earthquake. The catastrophic event is still fresh in people’s minds, the rebuilding efforts continue, and the grief surrounding it could be eternal. Forget the mechanics of writing an ending—how does one reconcile writing “the end,” when life is still unfolding?Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Once You Learn, You Never Forget” by Anthony Varallo


Few images are more boilerplate in capturing the parental role of ushering a child towards independence than that of parent teaching a child how to ride a bike—the pushing, the holding, the letting go, the tears. In “Once You Learn, You Never Forget” (Cimarron Review), Anthony Varallo resurrects this image from cliché into a complicated discussion of dysfunctional parent-child relationships.

In the opening paragraph, it’s clear right away that this particular cycling lesson would never appear on a life insurance commercial.

At long last, after my son has graduated from college, married, divorced, and moved back home, I teach him how to ride a bike…I am explaining the gears when Owen cuts me off and says, “Jesus, Dad, I’m not a child.”
“I know,” I say. “I’m just trying to help.”
“Do you want to know what would help?” Owen says, and rocks from one foot to the other, experimentally. “You not trying to help.”
Owen and I are not close.

Oh, but they are. Much closer than they realize—painfully close, in fact—and that is the reason why Varallo’s use of the first person narrator to establish unreliability works so well. Varallo moves forward, outlining other ways in which the narrator equates conflict with distance, while at the same time failing recognize that conflict is both proof of their intimacy and the effect of it.

Neither of the characters enjoy what is happening, but neither is compelled to stop. There are clues why in exchanges like this:

“Do you know what this reminds me of?” Owen says, and before I can ask what, says, “Me chasing the basketball down the driveway whenever you missed a shot. Remember? You used to pay me a nickel for the ones that got stuck beneath parked cars.” Owen snorts. “A nickel.”

I tell him I do not remember that because I do not remember that. What I remember is Owen sending me bills for overdue allowance, the late fees set at exorbitant rates, seven dollars for making his bed, nine for brushing his teeth.

Character unreliability is fed by selective memory, which has a funny way of fabricating over time. But it’s also fed by how each character understands and uses those memories, not matter how true. It becomes clear that the argument they’re having—who was right all those years ago—doesn’t matter, because each character has only mined history to lay claim to proof for why they are justified and have no need of changing. Neither recognizes their own contribution to the situation.

Both wish the other to change, and have for a long time. Varallo makes this clear through the memories, denial, as well as the title. We’ve arrived at this scene after years of practice. The image of parent teaching a child to ride a bike has now become a symbol of this father and son’s inability to move past early-childhood roles into adulthood.

Varallo’s ending is simple and sad.

‘“I let go of the bike. Owen pedals. Owen rides. His helmet shimmers in the sun. I stand in my driveway, a father watching his son ride a bike for the first time, and wish someone could take a picture of the two of us together, but Owen leaves the driveway, and we’re apart again.”’

The narrator’s feelings are recognizable and true: his companionship with his son is real and, though dysfunctional, fulfilling—I imagine it wouldn’t have continued all of these years if it hadn’t been. But the narrator need not worry. Varallo leaves us little doubt that Owen will soon be back. It’s not as if Owen road away on his own accord. He accepted his father’s help—which, of course, is part of the problem. But not all.

Do-Overs: Star-Crossed


Romeo, take me somewhere we can be alone.
I’ll be waiting; all that’s left to do is run.
You’ll be the prince and I’ll be the princess,
It’s a love story, baby, just say, “Yes.”

Taylor Swift left out the part about Romeo and Juliet dying, though. Why does the Romeo and Juliet story continue to pull the heartstrings of dreamy-eyed teenagers? Since Shakespeare coined the phrase “star-crossed,” in The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, it’s been used to describe other pairs of lovers in other stories about teenagers who can’t be together. But Romeo and Juliet is the story of one teenager rebounding hard, and another willing to throw her life away for a dude she just met. It’s a cautionary tale, not a romance. Shakespeare reminds us constantly that the kids are making bad choices (“Young men’s love lies not truly in their hearts,” Friar Lawrence cautions, “but in their eyes.”)

So what gives? What’s the appeal?Continue Reading