Since Feeling is First: Elements of Craft to Express Emotion

Plate_depicting_emotions_of_grief_from_Charles_Darwin's_book_The_Expression_of_the_Emotions

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

A Year Spent Reading 100 Books

1152px-Pierpont_Morgan_Library_LOC_gsc.5a29820I 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

How Books Brought Me Back into the World

reading aloneMy 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

The Ploughshares Round-Down: The Ebook is Dead. Long Live the Ebook.

First computerOne 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

How to Read Derek Jeter: On The Devil’s Snake Curve by Josh Ostergaard

Can you find the symbols for American political power in this picture?

Can you find the symbols for American political power in this picture?

The Devil’s Snake Curve: A Fan’s Notes From Left Field
Josh Ostergaard
Coffee House Press, 2014
253 pages
$15.95

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-firstcenturies, 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

Why I’m One Bad—But Well-Read—Feminist

Book Review-Bad FeministIt’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

From the Ploughshares Shelves: July Debuts

Are you in the market for some top-notch summer reading, ideally from an exciting new author? Does your optimized, fast-lane lifestyle leave you no time to read full-length book reviews? If so, dear reader, rejoice: you are the target audience of the following bite-sized reviews, all of debut novels released this past month.

California by Edan Lepucki

jpegAs a recipient of the widely-coveted Colbert Bump (as well as the lesser known but no less meaningful Sherman Alexie Bump), there’s a good chance that Edan Lepucki’s debut novel has already crossed your radar. The book has become a rallying point in the very public and very portentous war between Amazon and Hachette: Colbert and Alexie asked their audience to purchase the novel from a non-Amazon retailer (Powell’s), in protest of Amazon’s hardline approach to e-book pricing, and the books’ sales have shot through the roof as a result.

All celebrity endorsements and corporate power plays aside, Lepucki has penned a novel more than capable of standing on its own merits.  California follows married couple Cal and Frida, as they attempt to navigate the book’s brilliantly realized (and all too plausible) post-apocalyptic world. Tension and darkness build throughout—and this creeping intensity, when combined with Lepucki’s crisp, unembellished prose, makes the novel a genuine page-turner. Regardless of your opinions on the Amazon/Hachette conflict, California is worthy of your attention.

Buy: book | ebook

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Huizache: The Biggest Little Secret in Texas

huizache3D_1As far as literary journal subscriptions go, I only maintain three. I’m one of those writers, and for my sins I mostly miss the great early pieces of writers I come to love years later. This is especially true of new Latina/o writers, who I think most people miss for various reasons, not least of which is the serious lack of hard-hitting journals that focus on new Latina/o work.

That’s not to say there are none though. Huizache, which is probably one of my favorite journals right now, has quietly carved out a space for Latina/o letters both old and new. Over the past three years, they’ve published work by Sandra Cisneros, Domingo Martinez, Héctor Tobar, and Lorna Dee Cervantes, almost without a blip on the literary radar.

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Book Recommendations That Indulge Your Addiction to That Feeling of Creeping Horror

nightfilmI was going through a major book slump this past month, and it was driving me crazy. I scanned my way through a how-to that felt flimsy. I rushed through one memoir that felt a bit all over the place, and abandoned another one after reading a single chapter. I made it more than halfway through a novel that had gotten a lot of hype but, despite being enchanted by the descriptions of place, I was indifferent toward the plot and the characters. It was starting to feel like one, long slog, and that’s when I picked up Night Film.

Immediately, within the first few pages, I knew this was going to be fun. Ah, I thought to myself. This is exactly what I needed. Suspense. The supernatural. Horror.

Twisted, dark souls doing twisted, dark deeds.

Marisha Pessl’s Night Film—about an investigative journalist looking into the death of a horror director’s daughter—pressed all the right buttons for me. It took me back to my first love—horror—and the quick, frenzied fling we had together felt damn good.

I’ve been this way since childhood; my parents worried I was too morbid for my own good. If you’re the same way, this list is for you. Just a warning, however, that my love of horror goes beyond ghosts and monsters and big, bad creepy crawlies. What I love is the stuff that sneaks up on you—supernatural or not—and worms its way slowly, insidiously into your brain, eventually suffocating you with that feeling of crippling unease.

So if you’ve already read and loved my number 1, Night Film:Continue Reading