Sunday, July 26, 2009

"What You've Done For Me" by John S. Walker

This prize winning story is about disillusion and loneliness. An ex-navy man with a history narrates his story and listens with compassion to his sister-in-law suffering in marriage to his brother also discharged from the navy. He reflects on his own inevitable failure in marriage. This story within a story frame moves quickly and with feeling. It is a timeless story told in the stark vein of realism sharing mastery with Raymond Carver and Richard Yates. You can read it here at Carve Magazine.

Friday, July 24, 2009

"The Enemy" by Tessa Hadley

Many readers (younger than me) would probably not recognize in today's hot button topic, socialism, echoes of the same from the late 60's and early 70's. Hadley's story is told from a contemporary perspective showing her characters' connections and misconnections against a backstory of student revolutionaries. One of her memorable statements reads: "Your ethical life was a shallow bowl brimming impossibly; however dedicatedly you carried it about with you there were bound to be spills, or you found out that the dedication wasn't needed, or that you had brought it to the wrong place." For those who have gone through changes not according to plan, this is one story you will want to read, here at The Barcelona Review.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"we" by c. vance

Not often would I find stories written in lower case appealing. But this interior story from a collective 'we' point of view seems just right. The language is full of images that work and a voice that is focused. This line works double duty and well: "we planned mother's wake the morning she didn't." Read the story at Barrelhouse here.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"Watchers," by Scott Cheshire

Where I grew up in New England, I was mesmerized by the ocean rocks and the stonewalls of blue slate that marked the boundaries of "good neighbors." In this story, rocks are elevated to the mystical plain of the desert, the playa. Watchers turn out to register the movement of rocks across Death Valley. Strong dialogue reveals depths in what is not said by the characters. Crisp description bridges the now and ancient, the physical and the mystical. Enjoy the story at Agni Online here.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"Who Was the President Then?" by Derek Alger

Ever wonder how some people are so good at trivia in bars? Here's an amusing tightly written story about how this guy came to appreciate history and learned the chronology of U.S. presidents. Easy going, congenial voice makes this story a pleasure to read. Read it here at pif magazine.

"The Promise of Honey" by Sheryl Glubok

It is so shocking to read about female suicide bombers in the Middle East. Somehow the act and gender are difficult for me to correlate. But after reading Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran, I had a better appreciation of the conflicts facing women in Iran. The credibility of Glubok's story for me rests on the details and how the writer taps into my contemporary Western awareness of the desperation, particularly among women, in turbulent Islamic countries such as Palestine. Read it here at Night Train.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Spike Lee Did the Right Thing

Do the Right Thing, Spike Lee’s iconic movie about racial tension in America, Brooklyn in particular, is enjoying its 20th anniversary this year. Atlanta’s Fox Theatre of Gone With the Wind movie debut fame, held a showing of Lee’s film on July 12 with Spike on the stage afterwards taking questions. The producer as well showed up along with Radio Raheem, and Joie Lee. I’d seen the movie once before. But Lee’s art today is stronger than ever. The complexities of racism, smoldering hatred shared by groups of people, the compassion that survives, and most importantly, the need for brave action in the face of relentless injustice come together in pastiche of moments that build to a breaking point. When Mookie throws the trash can I was with him (but sitting comfortably in my theatre seat) and conflicted at the same time knowing that violence is not the solution. Direct quotes from M.L.King, Jr. and Malcolm X at the end of the movie lend a thoughtful perspective on violence and peace as posited by Lee’s story. It’s a brilliant movie because of the artistic vision (e.g., performances Rose Perez, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Nunn, Danny Aiello; the beautiful camera angles that guide the viewer’s eye; Lee’s character who shows vulnerability and strength). But most of all, I was moved by Lee as director; his vision and art that does not shy from complexities surrounding racism. It is a testament to this movie’s timely message that we have yet to face these issues of racism today even with an African American elected to president. Rent the movie, watch it, watch it again.

Moore and Moore

The Atlanta Botanical Gardens is currently featuring 20 sculptures by Henri Moore. A bit of an uncanny convergence these past two days for me; two Moores, one literary, the other visual artist. Through their art they excel in offering the reader/viewer a new look at people and surroundings. Upon reflection the Moore sculptures to a great extent resemble the stone sculptures of Zimbabwe, in the way they both take larger than life forms from the human body and frequently depict mother and child through such abstractions of inside/outside, protection and covering. As for Lorrie Moore, well the themes are not so different, only she uses words instead of stone or metal.

Lorrie Moore

My first introduction to Moore’s work was her collection Birds in America. I was an instant follower and read Self-Help (the wonderfully hip shorts are so dense you need to pause a week to let them linger before reading the next one) and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital. I couldn’t get enough of her smart voice and perceptions. Then the books seemed to stop coming and I followed her in occasional stories in The New Yorker. Her latest story “Childcare” in The New Yorker issue July 6&13, 2009 does not disappoint. She has a wonderful ear for her young coed’s self-conscious voice, “I liked children—I did!—or, rather, I like them O.K.” What she does so brilliantly with compassion amidst the witty observations is deliver the character’s depth of feelings to the reader. Moore’s next book, a novel, A Gate at the Stairs, will be available this September.

Melody in Writing

Lyn Ahrens in Glimmer Train Bulletin #30 offers a brief description of her writing life in librettos, fiction and essay. What she has to say about melody and the sound of language is valid for writers of musical theatre as well as writers of prose. I’ve often envied the musical folks who seem so easily to capture felt emotion with musical instruments and the voice. When they’re good, and I hear their work years later, the music still recalls words and feelings with the slightest effort on my part. There is magic and hard work in their art and they have much to offer the fiction writer in guidelines for avoiding the tone-deaf text.

Short Stories Add Up to a Novel

Elizabeth Strout’s connected story collection Olive Kitteridge centers around a Maine coastal town of characters, some of them not likeable, as sometimes is Olive. Many are caught in moments that contain the contradictions and complexities of their lives. Her characters find themselves receptive to fleeting compassion uncommonly found in lives of barely perceived connections. The cycle of these small awakenings takes its cue from a life lived over the course of many years. We read her fiction as our own lives often remain on the back burner of perception and emotion. But a Strout story from this collection can offer deft meaning where otherwise we might continue to live in the dark. Reading about Olive might enrich your life. Here's some information about the book

Why Write?

Maybe to deal with loneliness, fear of abandonment. Jodi Picault, in today’s New York Times Magazine of June 21, 2009 writes fiction that often centers around the violence to children and the effect on parents who today feel inevitably over protective. Picault admits to writing as a way to assuage her feel of her family being assaulted by unknown and unpredictable forces. As ridiculous as this logic may be, and she admits to being aware of it, nevertheless, she writes from this place of power in writing staving off fear, harm and devastation. For that is the power of writing, to write with urgency and the need to connect with basic human emotion, as illogical as that may sound. Connect, only connect per E.M. Forster.


I was not a fan of Oprah but I am now. In her recent issue, July 2009, there are interviews of Jim Shepard, Toni Morrison and Michael Cunningham. Recently, in my writers group, we were discussing the role of loneliness in stories. We talked about how in real life we want to run from anything that whispers our imminent death. It’s the tangibles in life that we attend to and we delight in their distractions from the dark side. But Cunningham takes this notion to a greater level of clarity in the interview mentioned above. “We need, as readers, to feel matched at the very least in our knowledge of human life, and we know from experience how hard it can be simply to live, in the flesh, on the earth. Anyone who doesn’t know that probably doesn’t need to read novels at all.” I love his phrase “to feel matched.” Readers are looking for connections with writers who bring vivid life-like stories to our awareness about living, and we find rewards in writers who do not back down from the tough emotional issues of our lives. Toni Morrison addresses happy endings in novels and says they are not enough. What matters is that characters figure out something of significance to them. I’m hooked on this slick as Oprah carries a woman’s magazine into the 21 century.

Openings in Stories

I recently attended a writing workshop led by Tom Jenks, editor and co-founder of Narrative Magazine. He offered some guidelines for writers including the following: “The beginning of a story must posit the initial events from which everything must follow.” Jenks relies heavily on the notions of fiction found in Aristotle’s Poetics. You can go to the website and get Jenks’ advise to writers. In the rewriting of a current story I am working on, I am writing and rewriting that initial event to contain the tactile, the emotions, the metaphorical underpinnings of the story. In a nutshell, it isn’t easy.

Creative Writing: Can it be taught?

Without belaboring a tired topic, I want to note the thorough article by Louis Menand in The New Yorker, June 8&15, 2009 issue. His historical overview of creative writing programs in the U.S. offers insights about their value and relationship to culture and the state of contemporary creative writing. The most insightful article on the topic to date.

A B Connection

Anderson and Bender. Two writers nearly a century apart write from similar sensibilities. Both writers connect with expressionism. Take two stories, "Loneliness," from Sherwood Andersons's Winesburg, Ohio and "Loser" from Aimee Bender's The Girl in the Flammable Skirt. Bender employs more humor but both rely on surprise and the uncanny gesture. In Anderson, the man-boy Enoch is caught in his fear of losing himself, and his inability to let others see/hear him. In Bender, the young male protagonist finds himself with the ability to connect to people through tangile, sensual details, but as a naked man lying in bad, he cannot find the center of his soul. Their writings touch deeply the subconscious feelings and experiences we often submerge.