On the Road with “The Lady of Shalott”

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On long drives, I’ve found various ways to occupy myself. Like choreographing tap dances to “Annabel Lee,” working out how to sing the “Brady Bunch” theme song to the tune of “Ode to Joy,” and attempting to memorize Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott,” my project as I drove from PA to the Midwest last summer.

I already knew most of it, at least the haunting version with Celtic overtones as written and recorded by Canadian musician Loreena McKennitt. Though she made some cuts from the original poem, McKennitt’s song still clocks in at more than eleven minutes, as my 16-year-old daughter likes to point out, inevitably adding, “This is SO depressing” before she drops off to sleep.

I’ve always just skimmed the whole ending section about the Lady floating down the river, her blood “frozen slowly,” her eyes “darkened wholly,” her death so prolonged that I’ve found myself giggling inappropriately.

I was always more interested in the part in which the Lady is confined to her tower, weaving a tapestry of the life she sees reflected in her mirror, prohibited from confronting the world head-on, even through a window. Maybe the Lady’s downfall is that she turns away from her art and lets herself be dazzled by the sight of Lancelot riding by below, or maybe her art is too insulated to begin with. Neither interpretation bodes well for women artists historically, since most had little time to do creative work and limited opportunities to engage with the world outside of their homes.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “Edna in Rain” by Marie-Helene Bertino

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Marie-Helene Bertino, in her short story, “Edna in Rain,” (Gulf Coast Winter/Spring 2015), goes to great lengths to make every aspect of her fictional world ordinary, in order that it might more clearly illuminate the absurdities of our own contemporary world. And making her fictional world ordinary is no small task, as by sentence three we discover that—to quote that 80s pops song—it’s raining men. The main character’s ex-boyfriend from high school falls from the sky and lands on the ground next to her.

“Kevin Groutmeyer, I said. Are you okay?
He was more than okay. Living with his partner and their twin boys in Harrisburg, and I said, Amazing! Harrisburg!”

Something unrealistic and absurd happens, then immediately the author‐through the narrator—normalizes it. To Edna, the surprise isn’t that it is raining exes. It’s that she hasn’t seen this or that one for so many years, and he’s doing so well. She’s reacting how anyone might react to meeting someone from their past on the street.Continue Reading

This Winter’s Must-Reads

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There is no better way to pass the coldest season of the year than by cozying up with a good book, and 2015 has started off with a bang. Here are our picks for this winter’s best literary offerings.

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Disgruntled
Asali Solomon
FSG, February 3
$26
Buy: bookebook

 

Meet Kenya: acute observer, recurrent sleepwalker, a young woman who feels the shame of being alive. Growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1980s as the daughter of a man obsessed with Frank Lloyd Wright’s butler, Kenya straddles her father’s subversive world and the more stable life her mother desires. After the abrupt dissolution of her parents’ relationship, Kenya attends a mostly white girls’ prep school where she’s forced to learn how to navigate a world she doesn’t have the freedom to call her own.

As she grows, Kenya’s mother and father take turns rescuing their daughter and needing to be rescued by her. Her imprisoned father doesn’t send a single letter; instead he entrusts her with the beginning pages of his novel. Her mother becomes increasingly oblivious as Kenya dodges the lecherously cheerful eye of her stepfather.  She falls for a young artist who is only interested in white girls, she takes a chance and befriends an estranged sister, and she learns the weight of a gun in her hand and the shock of pulling the trigger.

A cutting and contemplative coming-of-age story, Disgruntled deftly charts the lonely terrain of self-discovery and the impenetrable bonds that ever beckon us homeward.

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The Millennial-Gen X Rift Part II: the MFA System And A Digital Latina/o Literary Renaissance

are_you_seriousHector Tobar wouldn’t be the first to speculate about a contemporary Latina/o literary renaissance. That hype has been around for a long, long while. It surrounded the work of Gen X Latina/o writers beginning to publish in the mid to late 90’s and early 2000’s of which Junot Diaz is the most notable. The same can be said about the generation that produced Helena Maria Viramontes and Sandra Cisneros.

So many latina/o writers I know have heard that word so often they scoff at it. Renaissance. A close friend, an old prof, said to me in jest once that Latina/o writing goes through a “renaissance” every twenty years or so. People bestow upon our literature that label. But who knows why? There’s probably a lot of wishful thinking in aligning Latina/o letter with the trajectory of something like the Harlem Renaissance, but probably twice as much marketing can be gleaned from that word alone: clean, prestigious, professionalized. It signals the arrival of something, the coming-of-age of something. Who doesn’t want that? More than anything, who doesn’t want to buy into that? Writer or reader. Continue Reading

New Ploughshares Solo: “Bad Books” by Clare Needham

bad booksWe are pleased to announce the publication of the latest in our Ploughshares Solos series: “Bad Books” by Clare Needham! The Ploughshares Solos series allows us to publish longer stories and essays–first in an affordable digital format, and then 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 “Bad Books”

Sofia is in a rut. Her dissertation work is stalled, and her life seems to be one gray day after another. When an elderly scholar, Monsieur Charles Vinson, invites her to his house in Villeneuve-les-Avignon to spend the summer writing and cataloging his dead father’s papers, she jumps at the offer. There, she spends her days flipping through relics of the past century, burrowing deeper into the troubled history of the Vinson family. In the process, she uncovers secrets both innocuous and dangerous–and will, perhaps, find her own work worth doing.

“Bad Books” is available on pshares.org for $2.99.Continue Reading

Round-Down: the Cost of Higher Minimum Wage for Bookstores

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A recent article in the San Francisco Gate announced the imminent closing of yet another bookstore–Borderlands Books, which exclusively sells, according to its website, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and horror titles. It’s sad news, no doubt, but it’s also—pun unintended but liked—downright scary news.

On its current home page, which you can visit here, Borderlands has written at length about its choice to close. We learn in it the various and considerable trials the bookstore has seen through its eighteen-year history. Also provided is the reason for the closing, the bookstore’s final and insurmountable obstacle: “In November, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly passed a measure that will increase the minimum wage within the city to fifteen dollars per hour by 2018.  Although all of us at Borderlands support the concept of a living wage in principal and we believe that it’s possible that the new law will be good for San Francisco–Borderlands Books as it exists is not a financially viable business if subject to that minimum wage.”

We see independent bookstores closing their doors all across the country, and we understand many of the reasons–the common challenges these stores see in the face of a digital world in which the push of a button is not only an easier but sometimes cheaper means of getting the book. Amazon is of course widely cited as a primary cause for drops in sales, as Borderland mentions in its announcement.

Judith Rosen at Publisher’s Weekly writes on the nuance and a possible solution to the problems bookstores are seeing today. ABA president Steve Bercu, owner of BookPeople, had the “epiphany” to reduce collecting sales tax on bookstores. But one thing is for certain: there are no easy solutions. Rosen ends her piece with a sobering quote from Michael Tucker, owner of Books Inc.: “[This trade] is always going to be in crisis.”

It would seem almost insulting for me make a case for the vitality and necessity of bookstores—that’s just so apparent. But what I’m grappling with, in the case of Borderlands and more closings likely to come, is that I can’t see myself arguing against either thing—a higher minimum wage, or anything that would threaten the often already fiscally precarious bookstore. We have a responsibility to be patrons of these bookstores, to be literary citizens. The reality seems grim–but if books have taught me anything, it’s that there’s nothing that can’t be overcome.

Daily Details Made Monumental

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Exterior details lend themselves to the interior landscape of a character or narrator. What one chooses to notice, how one describes an object, says more about the speaker than it does about that thing. A character who spends a whole paragraph noticing someone’s unwashed, unkempt hair tells the reader that hygiene is an obsession. The distant relative who’s quick to point out the stain on a shirt might be hasty to reveal the flaws of others.

Joan Didion utilizes details throughout her nonfiction to stand in for larger ideas. In The White Album, a house half-built when Reagan was Governor of California and was then abandoned is a commentary on misuse of government funds and the American Dream. Rather than explicitly make fun of the deserted construction through exposition, Didion’s criticisms are grounded in physical details:

The walls “resemble” local adobe, but they are not: they are the same concrete blocks, plastered and painted a stale yellow cream, used in so many supermarkets and housing projects and Coca-Cola bottling plants. The door frames and the exposed beams “resemble” native redwood, but they are not: they are construction-grade lumber of indeterminate quality, stained brown.

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(Writing) Exercise: Self-compassion

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I’m talking here of memory’s difficulty. Difficult not in the way I have to wrack my weak brain to remember what happened, but in the way I’m forced to face that time I let my brother, bleeding from the mouth, run the mile home alone. Difficult in the way that looking back prompts me to see myself, as James Agee puts it, “disguised as a child.”

And what an ugly costume it could be. Holding my youth at arm’s length makes clear how royally fallible I really was. I see my foibles for the first time. My limitedness had hid them from me—a kind of Dunning-Kruger effect. And this is difficult.

As in looking back on the stack of birthday cards from my grandmother I tossed out, thinking my desk had no room. Into the wastebasket that lets every memory in and none out. I didn’t know what should be kept and what chucked. I didn’t know I was in the room with my grandmother herself, who had touched the card at its edges, wheezing over the short note with her reading glasses on. And I didn’t know that the thrown-away card would become sad and inimitable when she dies.

My grandmother tried to warn me. She dated the card at the top right corner so that I too would know posterity as always looming. Of course I see this looking back. She dated it to please the grandfather she knew I’d become, on whose lap she sat with a little girl’s wide eyes, nearing the end, nearing the beginning.Continue Reading

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “This Place of Great Peril” by Mel Bosworth

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When we meet the main character of Mel Bosworth’s “This Place of Great Peril” (Hayden’s Ferry Review Fall/Winter 2014), he’s just beginning to suffer from acute oxygen deprivation, or as editor Dana Diehl puts it, the author “drops us on top of the 84th tallest mountain in the world, into a slowly deteriorating mind.” I wrote last week about how the narrative unreliability of the main character in Anne-Marie Kinney’s “The Ritualist” stemmed from the ways the narrator sought to control every aspect of her own life; the narrative unreliability of “This Place of Great Peril” emerges from an opposite position—the loss of control of one’s body and thoughts.

The first hint we get that something is wrong with the narrator comes very early on, via a slew of images drawn in short, quick sentences that are as urgent as they are odd.

“We’re falling apart. We’ve been falling apart. The tip of your nose is black. My hair is ice. My eyes are tight as marbles. The air is a hard blue diamond. The wind is a hard diamond hammer. My exhaustion tears turn into crystal rocks. Two blast toward Hong Kong.”Continue Reading

Do-Overs: Reflecting His Story

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Recently, Carolyn Kellogg wrote her 6 Wishes for Books and Publishing in 2015 in the LA Times. Number three: “No more novels based on literary figures.”

Amen, sister.

Lately there’s been a glut of stodgy novels dedicated to backwards-mapping literary lives. Though the work might benefit from proximate popularity to a fascinating historical figure, too often the story falls flat.

How, then, can authors use historical inspiration well? It is possible to tell old stories—even true ones—in remarkable ways. By looking at a few examples (and widening the scope beyond the lives of authors), we see that any historical account—no matter how close to the life it seeks to convey in a new work—has to stand on its own two feet.Continue Reading