This blog series, Big Picture, Small Picture, provides a contextual collage for a chosen piece of literature. The information here is culled from newspapers, newsreels, periodicals, and other primary sources from the date of the text’s original publication.
“Just a perfect day,
problems all left alone,
weekenders on our own
it’s such fun.”
Easter Sunday, 1953, is a perfect day for a parade. The early April sun shines from the uninterrupted pristine blue of the sky, its rays shielded by the thousands of festive holiday hats bobbing up and down Fifth Avenue; the slight nip to the air provides a handy excuse for the Manhattan fashionable to don the latest fur stoles and scarves. By noon, the crowd swells to 1,250,000. The parade marks a return to dignity, following last year’s processional, which was besmirched by a wet blanket of cold rain and “the antics of self-seeking exhibitionists and publicists.”
Among the revelers, a “small, golden-haired” boy tearfully tugs on the sleeve of a policeman in Times Square. He’s lost his mother, whom he describes as wearing a rose and pink dress. Seconds later, the frantic mother appears and smothers her boy in kisses. The officer notes her attire with a shake of his head: an orchid pinned to a navy blue suit.
The next morning, Monday, April 6th, J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories is published by Crown. The collection, with its wry and spiritually wounded characters, immediately garners Salinger praise and solidifies his reputation (after 1951’s The Catcher in the Rye) as an important voice in American fiction. In her review for the New York Times, the writer Eudora Welty raves: “What this reader loves about Mr. Salinger’s stories is that they honor what is unique and precious in each person on earth. Their author has the courage—it is more like the earned right and privilege—to experiment at the risk of not being understood. Best of all, he has a loving heart.”Continue Reading
When my mother, born in America to Israeli parents, first met my father in Tel Aviv, she said she knew he was right for her because he was an American living in Israel. As a young woman who grew up in transit—constantly being moved around between the two countries—she recognized in him a kindred spirit: someone who spoke, lived, and loved both ways.
They married and had me, and whether they’d planned it or not, I came to embody this combination of the two of them: an American-Israeli and an Israeli-American. I grew up in Israel, spoke a semi-intelligible mixture of both languages, read books in Hebrew and English, watched movies without subtitles, and sported a funny accent.
I also wrote from a young age. Darkly dramatic poetry in Hebrew as a child, then short stories in English as a young adult. But as I grew older, writing became harder to do. Anxiety and self-doubt took the place of simple pleasure, and I had to psyche myself into creating new things. I still read a lot and dreamed of a career as a writer, but some of the magic was missing. The reading was slow going, doing any kind of artistic work was a struggle, and I looked around for different paths.
Then, out of the blue, I found translation. I say “out of the blue” because even though the notion was always inside of me, a seed of meaning that formed and informed my life, it hadn’t occurred to me to make it my livelihood until a coincidental encounter landed me my first small gig. I then sought out part time work at a translation company while completing my bachelor’s degree in literature and art at Tel Aviv University, working from Hebrew into English and from English into Hebrew. When that company closed, it was simple and natural enough to keep going, self-employed. I translated legal and business materials for newspapers and companies, and experimented with translating short fiction for a workshop I participated in at the University of Haifa and just for kicks. The sensation of bringing a bit of beauty from one language to another was exhilarating: English into Hebrew was fun because it let me share writing I loved (such as short stories by J.D. Salinger and Jonathan Safran Foer) with my Hebrew-speaking friends. Hebrew into English was a new, more foreign world: I could deliver some of my favorite things about Israel outside of the country. One day, I decided, I wanted to translate an Israeli novel into English.Continue Reading
Reading is a cognitive experience and written language can elicit in the brain an array of sensory perceptions. A description of an apple pie once made me put the book down so I could bask in its warm smell. But what the brain does most readily is see. It’s the mind’s “eye” that engages when we read.
There is a synergy between the mind and the eye, and writers would do well to examine it. Making the reader see may be the fiction writer’s most powerful tool because we are hardwired to respond emotionally to images and emotional response is arguably the most critical component of great storytelling.
For example, if I were to ask you in conversation, is it better to kill one person in order to save five people, chances are you’d say yes. It makes logical sense. But what if you read or heard this? An old woman stands next to you waiting for a bus. She’s wearing a faded yellow dress, a dress more in keeping with what a child might wear. There are holes in the toes of her faded white tennis shoes. Her pink ankle socks are turned down. Wisps of her thinning hair catch the waning sunlight as she stoops looking at the ground. Would you push this woman in front an oncoming bus and kill her if it meant saving five strangers on the other side of town? The answer may be less clear. With the mind’s eye, we can now see her, and seeing her unlocks our ability to feel for her.Continue Reading
My Salinger Year
J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist
Icons Series, New Harvest
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
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
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.
The 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
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
Meet Holden Caulfield. Holden is not so good at staying in school. He is 0 for 4 as far as schools go.
As a general rule, Holden is annoyed by people.
Except for Jane Gallagher. He still likes her.
Welcome 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!