The Summer of Salinger, A Review

Thomas_Beller_JD_SALINGER JoannaSmithRakoff.jacket

My Salinger Year
Joanna Rakoff
272 pages

buy: here

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

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

The Best Short Story I Read in a Lit Mag This Week: “All Lateral” by Matt Sumell


When we speak of a story as “voice-driven,” that typically means it’s written in first person and that the narrator has attitude. Instead of quietly striving towards general objectivity, the narrator—à la Holden Caulfield—gives us a unique angle on the world that keeps our eyes fixed to the page. Matt Sumell, in his story “All Lateral” from One Story, shows us some compelling ways in which that’s done.

From the opening sentence, Sumell’s language is oddly constructed and unpolished, creating a sense of a character who is brash and informal: “Consider the look on Whatsherface’s face when I bought her a well drink and told her I lived on a sailboat.” The narrator isn’t interested in political correctness, nor impressing us with lyricism. He simply doesn’t care—or at least it appears that way.

Nor is he interested in being polite. Sumell’s narrator is the antithesis of a Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People disciple, and wonderfully so. Notice the line of argument he takes with Whatsherface at the San Pedro bar when they begin arguing the relative merits of cats:

“‘Look,’ I said. ‘I didn’t tell you about the drowned cat to make the argument that cats as a species are bad swimmers, but they are bad swimmers. What they’re good at is murderous rampages. Not only do their turds cause birth defects and mental problems, but cats spend all night looking for small animals to kill. For fun. They don’t even eat most of them.’”Continue Reading

A Knack for Names


I once read (though the source is now lost to me) that the names of the characters in a novel do the work of telling the reader what world he’s in. Musicality, characterization, hints at a character’s gender, ethnicity, and social status—all of these are important in a name. But at the most basic level, a name’s realism, surrealism, or undisguised silliness helps ground us in the universe we’ve entered. In this way, names are something of an expedient, a key to reading a book as comic or tragic, both or neither.

Firmly situated in this tradition is the comic name, which goes back as far as literature itself. Don’t forget that along with his Lear and Lady Macbeth, Shakespeare had a character named Bottom. An even earlier example: the name of the title character in Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata means, roughly, army-disbander, a joke for the Ancient Greek audience watching a play about a woman scheming to end a war.

Such monikers are called “cratylic,” from Plato’s dialogues with Cratylus about the truthfulness of names. Cratylic names, per the Guardian, “advertise a property that is fixed, whether terrible or ludicrous. A character thus named must act out a characteristic, which is his inescapable identity.”

Nowhere is this principle more apparent than in Dickens’ broad morality tales. There is tattered spinster Miss Havisham, miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, vengeful Madame Defarge, and obsequious snake Uriah Heep. We can glean from these names not only that we’re reading satire, but the general trajectory of each character.
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Harper Lee and the Politics of Genius in Today’s Age

Nelle_Harper_LeeThe intensity of the reaction to news of beloved author Harper Lee publishing a sequel to her masterpiece, To Kill A Mockingbird, is ironic, given the very reasons we thought we’d never see this day come: Lee often proclaimed that her first book had said all she wanted to say, and that she was exhausted by the fame that came with it. She is reputedly just as reclusive as Boo Radley.

It’s curious how the mythology of the hermit writer both backfires against the author and ignites fervor in readers (and, therefore, puts money in publisher’s pockets). After this announcement, journalists flocked to Alabama, trying to weasel information out of Lee’s neighbors and her caretakers at the nursing home. Meanwhile, her books rocketed to the #1 and #2 slots on Amazon’s Best Sellers list–months before Go Set a Watchmen’s scheduled release.

In a popular TED talk, given after the intense commercial success of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert calls for readers to stop idolizing writers as geniuses and therefore turning on them when they don’t live up to past performances. Why not, she says, instead consider that we all have geniuses that visit us, not unlike the mythological muse? She cites the pressure of following up successful literary publications as potential reasons for why many writers succumb to the stereotype of the suffering, alcoholic, depressed, suicidal artist—and for her own writer’s block (which she has since conquered with Committed and The Signature of All Things).Continue Reading

Say Anything: A Case for Dialogue

Recently I was reading the prose section of an online literary magazine’s fall issue when I could not overcome a nagging sense that something was lacking. The stories themselves were well-written; the style was cohesive with the magazine’s tone; the narratives were engaging. Yet it somehow felt incomplete. As I scrolled through the stories again, it finally hit me–dialogue. None of the stories contained a stitch of dialogue. Certainly there were references to it and summaries of conversations. Actual dialogue, however, was nowhere to be seen.Continue Reading

Fantasy Blog Draft – Team Introductions

Fantasy Blog Header - resizedWelcome to the first ever Ploughshares Fantasy Blog Draft! If you missed our manifesto post, be sure to read it so you understand the rules of the “game.” Today we’ll be introducing our teams, the draft order, and the bracket for the competition. So without further ado, here are our competitors!

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