The Summer of Salinger, A Review

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My Salinger Year
Joanna Rakoff
272 pages
Knopf
$25.95

buy: here

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist
Thomas Beller
192 Pages
Icons Series, New Harvest
$20

buy: here

 

As a boy in Manhattan, Thomas Beller frequented the Museum of Natural History, struggled with his Jewish identity and didn’t apply himself in school. Now he’s our, “ideal guide to J.D. Salinger’s world.” As a young woman from Brooklyn, poet Johanna Rakoff stumbles into this world, testifying, “We all have to start somewhere.”  Last summer both authors released books with Salinger’s name in the title, but that’s about all they have in common.

With J.D. Salinger:The Escape Artist (New Harvest, June 2014), Beller embarks on a “quest biography…as much about the biographer as the subject.” It’s a questionable premise. Does Beller think he’s that interesting? There’s no denying Salinger—from Manhattan, to Normandy, and New Hampshire—lived an intensely singular life. How can Beller expect to measure up?

We never get answers to those questions (or any others), because The Escape Artist is more literary walkabout than author analysis. Our guide wanders off near Riverside Drive.

Beller acknowledges an, “aura of trespass,” yet he slogs on, describing Salinger as he’s been described to oblivion: “consummate outsider,” “genius recluse,” and—of particular significance to Beller—“half-Jewish.”Continue Reading

Diverse Writers Break the Internet: Ask HBO How Many

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If you were on Twitter at all on March 4th, you were probably mildly (if not completely) aware of the public nightmare that was the HBO Access Writing Fellowship application. Full disclosure: I didn’t apply although I know many writers who did. And for those not familiar with the fellowship, it is designed to give up to eight diverse writers the opportunity to take part in a series of master classes held at HBO’s campus in Santa Monica in preparation for each participant’s writing and producing of an original pilot. The eight finalists will then have the opportunity to be mentored by HBO and Cinemax executives during the calendar year they complete their pilots. To apply, the rules were simple: in order to participate you had to be a diverse writer (which HBO defined as both women and people of color alike) and to complete your application you had to be one of the first one thousand applicants to submit. No exceptions. And this is mostly what broke the internet that fateful Wednesday. And when I say broke, I mean literally that.

The third party site, Without A Box, which HBO used to accept its Access Writing Fellowships applications literally crashed minutes after the call opened. Technology experts observing the crash likened it to a DDOS attack, not unlike the attacks the hacker group, Anonymous, used to completely shut down Amazon, Paypal, Mastercard, and Visa in 2010 in protest of those companies freezing donations and assets to WikiLeaks.Continue Reading

New Ploughshares Solo: “The Brooks Brothers Guru” by Alix Ohlin

Ohlin-FinalWe are excited to announce the publication of our most recent Ploughshares Solo, “The Brooks Brothers Guru” by Alix Ohlin! In our Ploughshares Solos series we publish longer stories and essays first in an affordable, digital format, and then collect them 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 “The Brooks Brothers Guru”

Amanda is living alone in the house where her mother, now dead of cancer, once grew up, when a Facebook friend request puts her back in touch with a cousin, John. After months of seeing his life flicker across her screen, she learns he has moved to a community led by a mysterious Jason Wilson. John refers to him as “one of the greatest thinkers of our time,” but his friends are worried that Wilson may in fact be a cult leader. Pressed by John’s ex-girlfriend, Amanda visits the community. Immersing herself in their life of culture and service, and attracting the notice of the community leader, Amanda will have to confront her unresolved grief, and decide whether or not she belongs.

The “Brooks Brothers Guru” is available on Pshares.org for $1.99.Continue Reading

Round-Down: What the [Redacted]? Clean Reader App Cleans Up Literature

 

see no evilMany parents want to expose their children to great literature but find themselves facing a dilemma—often these books, for their more mature content, contain profanity. It can be a difficult thing to broker, the desire to introduce strong work at a young age with the desire to avoid swears and age-inappropriate content. And now, a new app for Android and iOS devices called Clean Reader claims to have found a solution.

Clean Reader’s function is simple. As written on the app’s website, “Clean Reader prevents swear words in books from being displayed on your screen. You decide how clean your books should appear and Clean Reader does the rest.” Also available on the site is a trial demo, in which you’re able to see the app at work–in this instance, the app covers up the word “damn” in the sentence “If only he had his damn knife, he would stand a chance of walking away.” Here, the altered sentence does, it seems, no significant damage to meaning, and we can understand how the app is ideally meant to operate. But this is the only example given in the demo, and so the app’s function raises other questions.

At The Huffington Post, Claire Fallon notes that “Clean Reader isn’t censorship; anyone who’s read a book of Shakespeare’s stories for children or an abridged classic for younger readers has experienced a similar curation.” Claire makes a point to note that the revision to these texts isn’t actually illegal. “Instead of republishing the texts with edits,” she writes, “the app would be purveying the same book, but providing the option to cover up all of the obscenities.” It’s critical to understand that this isn’t censorship, but rather that these are amendments not permanently made to an already-published text. But the question is raised: What damage could be done to a writer’s intended vision in the name of this cleanliness?

The problem with this sweeping cover-up of profanity, to my mind, is that there’s no actual consciousness behind it, and as Fallon smartly notes, the changes can end up rendering sentences actually meaningless, scrubbed clean to the point of downright aseptic confusion.

I haven’t yet worked out exactly how I feel about the app. I understand the utility behind it. The app seems to even have the potential to do good, to act as the solution it claims to be. Still I’m a sure skeptic: How can this tool, with no consciousness behind it, both effectively and reliably provide an actually cleaner reading experience—because there is obviously a reason writers use profanity. I struggle to think many or even most texts wouldn’t be compromising something, and possibly something significant, for this ostensibly valuable sterility.

The app offers levels of cleanliness for its users: “Clean,” “Cleaner,” and “Squeaky Clean,” each providing more in the way of profanity cover-up than the last. Check it out for yourself here.

Language Could Kill You: Adichie, Code-Switching & the Biafran War

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Language plays a crucial role throughout Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels, but nowhere is it more decisive than in the author’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun. Written against the backdrop of the Biafran War, two wealthy sisters return from England to a nation on the cusp of revolution and choose two different paths: Kainene moves to Port Harcourt to take over their father’s business, while Olanna moves to Nsukku, a university town, to teach and live with her “revolutionary lover,” Odenigbo. Southeastern Nigeria secedes in 1967, in response to ethnic, cultural, economic and religious tensions, and a largely Igbo nationality forms the new nation of Biafra—officially the Republic of Biafra. Characters are thrown into the crossfire of war, where speaking the wrong language can get you killed.

Throughout the novel, Adichie is careful to note when someone speaks in English, Igbo, Yoruba, or Hausa. Why take the time to write what languages are spoken and when?

As a former British colony, English is the official language of Nigeria. However, over five hundred different languages have been spoken within the country. Adichie’s characters often participate in code-switching, a linguistic concept of alternating between two languages within the context of a single conversation. Code-switching in literature can reveal relationships and hierarchies, the background, social status, and motivations of individuals, and shed light on issues of race and oppression.

Odenigbo and Olanna are both professors who alternate between English and Igbo, which demonstrates their awareness of and emphasis on the importance of utilizing their native language, one that has ties to the land and culture. In contrast, Major Madu Madu—a member of the military—repeatedly ignores an Englishman’s initiations to strike up a conversation in Igbo. While Odenigbo and Olanna fluidly and intentionally navigate English and Igbo in one conversation, the Major sticks to English, the language of the colonizers, of oppression and socioeconomic mobility, and political power.

Language and code-switching throughout the beginning of the book slowly reveals characters, and escalates until the right language saves a character’s life. Olanna is spared twice, by two different people and two different languages: first by her cousin Arize, and then by her former boyfriend, Mohammed.

Olanna is at the market with Arize when the inklings of war become real: a crowd gathers, and someone yells, “’We are counting the Igbo people.’” “Arize muttered under her breath, ‘I kwuna okwu,’ as if Olanna was thinking of saying anything, and then shook her head and started to speak fluent, loud Yoruba, all the while casually turning so they could go back the way they had come.” Shortly thereafter, Mohammed speaks in “rapid, coaxing Hausa” to a mob of men wielding machetes and axes as he helps Olanna evacuate the city.

While Olanna is focused on intellectual pursuits and the revolution, her cousin is wholly concerned with getting married and having children—and yet it is Arize who saves them from harassment on the street, code-switching from Igbo to Yoruba to make onlookers believe they belong to a different group. Early on in the novel, Adichie demonstrates that Arize lives amongst Yoruba and Hausa nationalities, relying on those languages for day-to-day life. This exchange portrays the nuances of the Biafran War: that people were killing one another without being able to easily discern who belonged to what nationality; that relationships prior to the war crossed lines of religion, ethnicity, and language; and that communities forged deep and/or transactional relationships that encouraged them to learn multiple languages to fully express and communicate.

Naming as Paying Attention

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Names can be hard for the tongue to wrap its head around. I say this with the conviction of my full being as a male, a poet, a twin, and a slight stutterer. (Of course I stutter. My brother and I lived our early lives assuming that the world, too, would understand our twin-speak. And why shouldn’t I—whose name that world was always mistaking for his, thus for whom the right name was sacrosanct – be a poet?)

*

There was the DJ at my little cousin’s bar mitzvah, a lively man who went around introducing himself to everyone during hors-d’oeuvre hour and who, on the dance floor an hour later, forbid us from taking our seats until he’d spoken our names, prompting us to exchange raised, incredulous eyebrows, and he proceeded to point to every person, first the one hundred thirteen-year-olds clustered together, one by one he said each name into the microphone, and when the dance floor was empty he pointed to each slack-jawed uncle and aunt at the surrounding tables, faces he’d never seen until an hour before, and could even tell my brother and me apart from thirty feet away. When I asked him later in the night with awe how he did it, what the hell his secret was, he said, almost lovingly, “I pay attention.”

Did his background in music sensitize him to the individual song of a person’s name? Or was his brain, so unlike a sieve, just bigger? Did he invent stories to remember that room of bodies? Did he recite each name three times under his breath? Does he go around whispering all words three times over? “Saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry”?

*

When I asked Roger Reeves, who was generous enough to visit my class last year, why the pages of his first book King Me were flecked with the word “tongue,” he said that it is the origin of creation. A thing named now exists. For the DJ to listen, the tongue first has to speak.

*

The person who’s ever been teased knows that a mean name can be a fist, a quiet stoning with bone-breaking effects no X-Ray can spot. A pet name can be a touch to the cheek. How big we feel when a person we’ve met once before, months ago, in a dim room, remembers our name on the street. And how small we feel when we’ve forgotten theirs.

A few years ago—far from the DJ’s luminous mind—a student in one of my writing classes called me Andrew. This was two months into the semester. My name had been on the syllabus in large font, possibly emboldened. There was awkward murmuring among the other students, who knew me as Alex, and I let it ensue until she looked around and blushed, perhaps not realizing what she had done, and I let her blush for a moment longer before rescuing her. She had no excuse. The room, brightly lit, must have been blinding to this poor freshman, outmatched by her first semester, whose name for the life of me I can no longer remember.

*

Ask anyone wearing an inmate number whether names matter. In a life often where so much has been decided for them, naming is the privilege to sculpt a piece of their identity. “Street names” may be favored over their “government names.” In the classes I teach through the Cornell Prison Education Program, I try to remember the NuLeadership Policy Group’s exhortation to “stop using these negative terms (inmates, convicts, prisoners, felons) and to simply refer to us as people. People currently or formerly incarcerated, people on parole, people recently released from prison, people in prison, people with criminal convictions, but people.” Being aware of such a basic reality means paying deep, ceaseless attention.

*

Do names matter? Ask Leah, fellow clarinetist and my first ever date, who wondered aloud after the movie was over why I used her name so much in conversation. I didn’t have the language—as Richard Rodriguez did in his essay “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood” to describe his family’s “private” use of Spanish at home while English thudded beyond their doors—to call it “intimacy.”

But had this word occurred to me, “intimacy,” I would never have uttered it, not even alone in my room. A self-conscious adolescent male is always in the presence of others. “Lovely” was also off-limits. So was “beautiful,” unless what was beautiful was a female body. I think my high school baseball teammates teased me precisely because they figured that as a poet I went around declaring the trees’ green leaves lovely, everything intimately felt, and dammit they were right. My teammates thought me soft, though, not perceptive or brave, as I preferred to frame it. But how brave was I, who’d never speak those words aloud except on paper, out of the baseball diamond’s earshot.

Naming things beautiful, even privately, was a kind of freedom from the silly linguistic strictures of being male. I suppose it stood for my never-to-be-shared belief that, to redact Susan Sontag’s final sentence of “Against Interpretation,” “we need an erotics of maleness.”

Naming—attentional naming—has always been for me a freedom to be accurate, which means a freedom to correct. I’m sure I need more time than most. Such naming is patience. But how beautiful to get it right.

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Interiors” by Andrea Maturana

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Boredom could be defined as a lack of interest in the surrounding world, and as such, not a particularly fun state of mind to be in, nor a compelling trait for a protagonist of a short story. But Andrea Maturana’s short story “Interiors,” (A Public Space 22, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary) shows how fascinating boredom can be, and that there are much worse afflictions.

We meet Dr. Villagrán, a gynecologist, in the beginning of his morning rounds, and quickly discover how cynical he has become about his job. “The first patients of the morning had the privilege of an identity,” but after that they retreated to nothing more than their crass physicality: “Mrs. Cunt Six, Seven, Eight.”

He’s also jaded about his marriage to his wife, Regina, and has been for years. Out of boredom, he recently had an affair with Blanca, his secretary. Though now even that has lost its luster. “His inability to maintain interest in things or people had become a trait nothing could change, not even Blanca’s lips.”Continue Reading

Do-Overs: A Little Leary

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Fox’s Empire really wants you to know it’s so King Lear. In the pilot, Lucious Lyon—music mogul, owner of Empire Entertainment and father to three sons—gathers his kids in the board room to talk about how he won’t be able to run things forever. “What is this? We ‘King Lear’ now?” his son Jamal asks, obtusely. Empire equals Lear, or so we are told. But how Lear is it?

Lear works well as a framework for a contemporary story. It’s territory that’s been covered successfully before, notably in Jane Smiley’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Thousand Acres. Smiley sets her novel on an Iowa farm, opening with a powerful father divvying up his land between three daughters. As with Empire, the tenets of Lear are obvious immediately: the overbearing patriarch, the refusal of one of the king’s heirs to play a game of sycophancy, the misinterpretation of actions and whispering about intentions, and the spiraling downfall of the family. The richness of Smiley’s novel is in how she plays against readers’ expectations about plot and perspective. Smiley uses Shakespeare’s five-act structure as a platform, not a hard-and-fast rule.

It isn’t totally clear yet if (or how) Empire will follow suit. What is clear is that it’s a compelling soap-opera of magnanimous, megalomaniac characters. Everyone is plotting, everyone has something to lose. The magnetism that we saw between Taraji P. Henderson and Terrence Howard in Hustle & Flow is alive and well. Is Empire kind of Lear? Learish? Sure. Its classification as such lent Empire some gravitas before the premier. And the soapy-ness of it all isn’t out of line: Shakespeare wasn’t above the draw of baser scenes and jokes to fill seats—or more accurately, to fill the standing area for groundlings whose excitement would rouse the elites staring down from the balconies. Each time Empire pushes sex, innuendo, violence or scandal, it’s right in line with the Bard.Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: Leapfrog Press

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Leapfrog Press began in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, in 1993 as the brainchild of writers Marge Piercy and Ira Wood, whose initial goal was providing an outlet for literary fiction overlooked by the big New York houses. While Piercy has served as judge for Leapfrog’s annual fiction contest, the press currently is in the hands of Managing Editor Lisa Graziano and Acquisitions Editor Rebecca Schwab. Now based out of Fredonia, New York—in storied Chautauqua County on the shores of Lake Erie—Leapfrog’s list has moved on as well. In addition to literary fiction by both new and established writers, Leapfrog publishes a smattering of nonfiction and poetry and a diverse list of middle grade and YA fiction.

What makes Leapfrog stand out as an independent press is their refreshing lack of fear when it comes to compartmentalization. Despite publishing a small number of titles per year, they’ve put out everything from mysteries to memoir, science fiction to how-to, hardboiled exposé to tender and poignant story collections. When Leapfrog says they simply want “writing that expands our webs of connection with other humans and the natural world; books that illuminate our complexities,” they really mean it.

For Ploughshares, Lisa Graziano helps readers understand the why and how of their editorial decisions, provides details on Leapfrog’s annual fiction contest (deadline is May 1!) and gives the inside scoop on Leapfrog’s future.

KF: From Mary Malloy’s historical fiction/mysteries, starring adventurous academic Lizzie Manning, whose expertise and mettle could put even Indiana Jones to shame, to Michael Mirolla’s fascinating and frightening sci-fi tale The Facility, where the future is filled with Mussolini clones, to Li Miao Lovett’s powerful novel In the Lap of the Gods, set in China during the controversial construction of the Three Gorges Dam project, Leapfrog’s list is wonderfully quirky. What qualities do your divergent titles share? What marketing challenges does this wide range of titles bring you?

LG: Good storytelling first, and we do like quirky, as you put it. But our books share a few themes to which we are partial. Many have a grounding in science, sometimes subtle, sometimes not. Some are based in important cultural and/or historical questions, whether or not they are “historical.” We don’t perceive these themes as separate. They tend to run together in many our books. Continue Reading

Social Media and Literature

live_the_life_you_have_imagined_henry_david_thoreau_quote_posterI seem a little less in love with literature because of social media. My apologies to the Ploughshares staff who have to Tweet about this post, but it’s true.

For a few months I was an intern for an online literary magazine, helping with their social media. I’d done some marketing via Twitter and Facebook before, but nothing on this scale or with the guidance of people who really know what they’re doing. It was an exciting opportunity. But as I got more involved and learned the tricks of the trade, I became disillusioned.

You learn quickly that all most people want on Twitter and Facebook is an image. It doesn’t matter who or what you’re trying to promote: all the retweets and shares go to whoever has the most striking picture to share. It helps even more if it’s a picture of an already famous author, preferably one who’s dead. James Joyce playing the guitar is social media gold. (Note-to-self: ask Ploughshares editors if I can use that James Joyce pic.) The form is far more important than the content. They don’t even really have to match. If you’re talking about an author people are a little less familiar with, you’ll want some black-and-white landscape photography or a 19th century painting, something that screams “CULTURE!” and that you don’t have to think too hard about to enjoy.

Whatever it takes to share the literature, right?

Maybe, except that the literature doesn’t really seem to get shared. The magazine I worked for publishes literature and criticism of what I consider the highest quality, but the data reveals that very few people will follow links to read even the most retweeted articles. Even fewer will stay on an article long enough to read beyond the first couple sentences. You’re now roughly 300 words into this blog post. If you’re reading this sentence, you’re one of a proud few.Continue Reading