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

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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

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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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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

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

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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.

 

The Economic Crisis and Survival of Greek Letters Part 2: Growing Up

PSM_V40_D095_Selvage_and_mesh_rope_knotsLike most good things in my life, I stumbled upon Yiorgos Chouliaras’ poem, “Grow Up,” by accident. It came to me like one of the great gifts from the literary Gods—in an e-mail no less. I read it, I loved it, I printed it out and taped it to my office wall, if only for my students to read and freak out about while I’m grading their papers. It is a beautifully dark, impossibly unhinged poem. It’s about Greece, it’s about the crisis, but more than that it’s about the layers of that word, crisis. It goes like this:

 GROW UP

(First summary of a life’s work)

A person sits on a chair. A piece of rope, with a noose around his neck, is tied to the branch of a tree, which does not exceed the height of the person sitting, who is watering it in order to grow so that, if he stands on the chair and kicks it away, he will hang.Continue Reading

Writing the Body: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maggie Nelson, & Lidia Yuknavitch

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The age of media and internet is one of fractal, ephemeral bodies—well-curated images of the self from certain angles and frozen in time, dust-coated corpses at the aftermath of a quake that provide little context, statistics and numbers that break down how many and what ages and when, yet provide little to no feeling. The body in writing is a vessel to feeling—to empathy. Reading Lidia Yuknavitch, Maggie Nelson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, among others, is to feel.

At a recent lecture, Maggie Nelson said that a “ringing sense of mortality […] underscores everything we write.” The body, unlike the internet, is finite. It is deeply personal and universal—we all have one, but we only ever experience our own. Lidia Yuknavitch says, “we live by and through the body, and the body, is a walking contradiction.” Meaning, a body can be both beautiful and violent, and often fosters both simultaneously—new life and eventual death. Lidia Yuknavitch’s anti-memoir The Chronology of Water opens with a stillborn, rooting the reader in the author’s body at a certain place in time.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Oil Dog” by Kelly Dulaney

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It can be difficult to write short stories about large global issues—take, for instance, our worldwide dependency on fossil fuels—and not have it come off as preachy, in need of novel-length expansion, or as a coy thematic stand-in for our characters’ interior lives. Kelly Dulaney’s short story “Oil Dog” (The Collagist) suffers none of those faults; it personifies the dark side of oil dependency in the form of a demon dog, tracking its presence throughout history, making the reader face its terror head on.

We first meet the oil dog in the year 1942. He visits the physicist Richard Gordon, who’s currently employed in the military, on a training mission with fellow soldiers in an unnamed desert.

“When he opens his eyes again, an oil dog is dancing beside the idling engine. It laughs. Richard Gordon! Richard Gordon! it says. The oil drips from its fur, staining the sand. It snaps its teeth suddenly. It lowers its voice until its words sound like snares. You’ll never shake me off, Richard Gordon, it says. I’ll always eat at your heels.”

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Do-Overs: A Little Serial to Tide You Over

16058919015_bd9d67df34_kLast year’s wildly popular podcast, Serial, will be back this fall with a new case. Looking for something to fill the time while you wait? Why not check out some of the original serials—novels that were doled out in dribs and drabs.

Serial follows in a long tradition of segmented storytelling, one that relies on suspense and the measured release of information. Scheherazade knew that the way to stay alive was to manage anticipation. In 1836, writers and newspapermen came together to bring the world its first commercial serial novels, and form began to affect content. Many of the best novels of the Victorian era were released this way (which accounts for their length and structure); pretty soon the rest of the world followed suit.

How to approach the serial novel? Mousehold Words is a website that publishes them (all are titles in the public domain) in their original short installments. Another way to go about this (great if you’re missing the listening experience) would be to download one of these as an audio book, and listen to the book a little at a time.Continue Reading