Before I picked up a copy of Offshore last month, it had been years since I read Penelope Fitzgerald, a British author who didn’t start writing until she was in her sixties. But the characters in this Booker Prize-winning novel caught my attention and I soon became completely emerged in Fitzgerald’s cleverly constructed world. Set on the Thames River, multiple houseboat dwellers share their stories of connection, loss, love, and confusion, all with a wry dose of Brit humor. This text might be nearing forty years old but the characters are dimensional and compelling. Reading through it, I discovered why they felt so contemporary: they were as present, conscious, and complex as real people are.
By the second page, a character named Richard reluctantly heads up a group of neighboring houseboat dwellers to discuss a communal problem. As the meeting is in full swing, Richard thinks, “Duty is what no-one will do at the moment.” The omniscient narrator’s voice in a following statement gives the reader details on why Richard might draw this conclusion:
Fortunately he did not have to define duty. War service in the RNVR, and his whole temperament before and since, had done that for him.
Later, when Richard has an encounter with a pushy associate who works in real estate, the narrator guides us once more:
Richard wondered why living on largish boat would automatically make him interested in small ones.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I realized what I’d been searching for all along. An avid reader, I absorbed a variety of books during my childhood and adolescence. These were carefully screened by my well-meaning but stifling folks, who paled at the thought me reading about sex and infidelities, teenage love, rock music, and rebellion. When I struck out on my own, I was eager to leave those parameters behind, along with jaded, one-sided narratives so censored they became different stories all together.
But wandering my way through the literary world I didn’t find the heroines I had expected. I read Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Camus and Kafka because that’s what smart people read. I concluded it was men who changed the course of the literary world, while looking in vain for female voices who wrote strong female characters, role models in a sense, to look up to. Jilted love, motherhood, affairs, suicide, and self-sacrifice seemed to be the choices allowed female characters in many of the texts I read by American authors, male and female.
But I wanted more from fiction. I wanted realities that didn’t leave women with two options: physical death, or self-denial.Continue Reading
When my husband and I moved in together, one of the biggest challenges we faced was how to merge our TV-watching styles. For my husband, if the TV is on, you’re actively watching something. For me, if the TV is on, it means you’re home. (I need some kind of ambient noise, and why not have noise that includes narrative?) He’s more likely to suggest watching intense dramas like The Wire or Breaking Bad. I could easily throw on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer I’ve already seen nine times.
Over the last few years, we’ve found a TV-watching schedule that works for us, including binge-watching a variety of shows with varied emotional content and stakes. One show we’ve been watching is Parks and Recreation with its cast of wacky characters trying to make a difference in Pawnee, Indiana.
Recently, I came across a quote by former Daily Show head writer Tim Carvell, who referred to Parks and Recreation as “criminally underrated and one of the best ensembles on TV. They figured out how to make comedy out of people who like things…Turns out passion can heighten things in the same way that conflict does.”Continue Reading
Emotions, feelings, desires—whatever you choose to call them—are central to writing. e.e. cummings wrote “since feeling is first / who pays any attention / to the syntax of things / will never wholly kiss you.” But how do we pay attention to syntax while retaining feeling?
There are countless elements of craft to aid the expression of emotion: sensory details, and the diction one uses to describe the world, can speak volumes about the inner landscape of a narrator or character, as can establishing background and setting the stakes.
Take, for instance, Paul Harding’s Enon. The novel follows Charlie Crosby for a year as he reels from the untimely death of his only daughter—an event revealed in the opening paragraph of the book. Immediately, Harding establishes this event, this background, and the reader waits to see how—or if—Charlie can recover. Knowing that his only daughter has died validates anything emotional the character expresses, ranging from numbness to excruciating physical pain. Grounded in what happened, none of his internal monologues wax melodramatic.
The landscape of the book also lends itself to Charlie Crosby’s grief. Enon is set in the fictional town of Enon, Massachusetts, where Charlie was born and raised. The rich bank of memories he has in this place confront him wherever he goes, re-experiencing and renewing the loss. His wanderings afford him reflections that lead to expression or repression of emotions. There is a depth and dimension to his grief because it’s inescapable.Continue Reading
I write New Year’s resolutions every year, though I really ought to know better. Run every day, floss regularly, stop eating donuts: it’s the stuff of fantasy. In 2014 I spared myself the usual set-ups for failure in favor of a more exotic set-up for failure: I resolved to read one hundred books. It was just excessive and foolish enough to be tempting. I suppose I just wanted to know if I could do it. By the time this article is posted I’ll have read my hundred books, and I’d like to share some unexpected lessons I’ve learned while completing this reading challenge.
1. Become a regular at your local library.
Browsing through the library is the best way to find your next good read. The classics and dustiest castaways rub spines with the potboilers and popular hits. If you keep an open mind, you never know what you’ll find in the library.
One of my best finds of the year was Mikhail Shishkin’s The Light and the Dark. The publisher’s blurb was enigmatic: a Russian epistolary novel which may or may not involve time travel? I couldn’t tell if it would be fantastic or completely ridiculous. It turns out it was great–as powerful and heartbreaking a novel as I’m ever likely to encounter. In this same way, just poking around, I discovered two other favorites: Noelle Kocot’s The Bigger World and Nicholson Baker’s Paul Chowder Chronicles. It’s surprises like these that keep me going back to the library.Continue Reading
My parents worried about me when I was young. They clipped out articles with titles like “What To Do When Your Child Doesn’t Speak” and strongly encouraged me to interact with the other kids in my nursery school and kindergarten classes. When my kindergarten teacher suggested to my parents that I be held back a year, it wasn’t because I wasn’t smart. I was. It was just that I wasn’t social.
Back then, there weren’t listicles on how to care for and feed your favorite introvert. There weren’t books like Laurie Helgoe’s Introvert Power and Susan Cain’s Quiet to reassure people that introversion wasn’t a liability . . . It was just a different way of being.
So I was looked at as someone who needed to be fixed. And in a way, I internalized this.Continue Reading
It’s winter here in Iowa, which makes my Floridian self wish for seasonal time travel.
Unfortunately, the closest I’ve come to realizing this dream is watching Back to the Future and reading H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine.
One of the best parts of being a book editor is that it gives you a magic power. You take a Microsoft Word file, wave your hand over it and say, “Now it’s a book.” And it’s a book. Up until that moment, it’s just words and ideas, and they could be changed, tweaked, or buried, never to see the light of day. After that, everyone, including the production department and the printer, believes it’s a book.
The creation of self-publishing has done little to erode that magical power. If you tell someone you’ve written a book, you can watch their eyes narrow as they wait to see what you might mean. Did you write something the length of a book? Or has a professional editor waved her magic hands over it and transmuted that into a book?
A book, the futurist Umair Haque once said, is already a perfected technology. An ebook has some advantages, but not enough to eliminate print books. It turns out the invention of ebooks is less analogous to the invention of the automobile and something more like the invention of shorts. Shorts are great, but they didn’t make everyone throw away their pants.
I thought of this late last week when I read about the closing of Atavist Books. Investors had put big money (by book publishing standards) into this startup, which was supposed to disrupt the book industry. The company only lasted for a little over two years before pulling the plug. For this to have happened, a lot of very smart people had to have completely misunderstood why readers read, and it’s worth figuring out what their mistakes were.Continue Reading
Can you find the symbols for American political power in this picture?
The Devil’s Snake Curve: A Fan’s Notes From Left Field
Coffee House Press, 2014
Buy: book | ebook
Of course every history is subjective, but Josh Ostergaard starts his from an intriguing place by broadcasting his subjectivity. Devil’s Snake Curve is Ostergaard’s American history of the twentieth- and twenty-first—centuries, as interpreted through baseball. The book is a collage of page-length anecdotes, equally likely to be culled from Ostergaard’s own underwhelming Little League youth or a century-old newspaper clipping, that cluster into themes like “Animals” or “Nationalism.” Continue Reading
It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like an adequate representation of “feminist.”
When I married my husband a little over seven years ago, I barely waited a month before giving notice at my full-time job so I could give full-time freelancing a try. Since then, I’ve slowly become ever more comfortable (sometimes too comfortable, I feel) with being almost completely supported by my husband. He pays all the big bills. He always treats when we go out to eat. I’m on his health insurance plan and his car insurance plan. Heck, I’m surprised they even bothered putting my name on the deed for our house.
I dance around the kitchen to songs with terribly misogynistic lyrics. I balk at squishing bugs, leaving this loathsome task to the man of the house. I get excited about things like color-coordinated scented candles and pinch bowls. Most recently, when I gave birth to my now three-month-old daughter, I became a corny cliche by admitting to my loved ones that, suddenly, it seemed as if nothing else mattered. Not my yoga teaching. Not my writing and editing work. Not even my dream to someday publish a book.Continue Reading