Archives For reading like a writer

Here’s a review I recently posted of Darrin Doyle‘s novel, The Girl Who Ate Kalamazoo:

About midway through this smart, engaging, and utterly unique book, Audrey Mapes is accused of eating The Caboose, a restaurant in Kalamazoo. The judge of the case turns to Audrey and says, “‘If you won’t divulge how you did it, will you please tell the court why you did it?” This question — WHY Audrey ate Kalamazoo — is what this book is about, and the answer is heartbreaking, especially as it’s told by her ambivalent conspirator and sister, McKenna.

Audrey ate Kalamazoo because her father (who tells her, “‘I don’t hate you. I hate the idea of you'”) would rather spend time making Dr. Pepper shoes for his footless daughter than actually spending time with her. Audrey ate Kalamazoo because her “depressed mother…is warm to the skin but cold to the soul–a distant, distracted, touched-in-the-head mother.” Audrey ate Kalamazoo because her brother calls her a freak but obsesses on his own expanding body, and because her sister chews, regurgitates, and rechews her own food while feeding Audrey crayons and Playdoh and other nonfood. And because of Grandma Pencil. The author’s humor and the grandmother’s character are perfectly captured in this line by McKenna: “I’ve probably given you the impression that Grandma Pencil was some kind of ogre. If not, I’ve failed.”

This book dissects the contemporary American family and examines the connective tissue and (dys)function of each organ, with a focus on the broken heart. It’s hilarious, scary, uncomfortable, and all too accurate. Highly recommended.

When I was interviewed for my university job, the Vice Chancellor asked me a question I hadn’t answered since I filled out my last college application: If you could have dinner with any three people in history, who would you choose? I said the first three people that came to mind:

Virginia Woolf

1. Virginia Woolf
2. Jane Austen
3. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lived 2 miles and 150 years away from me in Cincinnati

“You know,” the Vice Chancellor said, surprised, “you’re the first person I’ve met who picked all women.” (I was probably also the first person to pick all writers, but he didn’t mention that.)

This anecdote is a reminder that men remain our (women’s and men’s) default mode. For everything.

Which is, in part, what the writer Leah Stewart addresses in her excellent guest post on literary sexism for Caroline Leavitt’s blog. Stewart argues that there remains the false perception that women write only about relationships and men write about Other Important Things. A reason for this, she says, is that “it’s easier for the culture at large to believe that things matter if they happened to men, or are related by men.” Stewart says that the fact is, plenty of stories by and about men are ultimately about relationships, “but because they’re told via a masculine archetype—the heroic journey from boy to man—they’re not automatically dismissed.”

I got my Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati, and I finished the year Leah Stewart was hired, so I’ve never met her, which is a huge bummer because she’s dealing with the same things I dealt with and deal with and am sure to deal with times 1000 when my book of stories about suburban women comes out next year.

One of the ways I dealt with this issue as I worked on my dissertation was to write an article about Kathryn Davis’s amazing novel Hell, in which I argue that Davis reworks the Gothic women’s literary tradition to high literary and political ends. Davis’s narrator reads obsessively and reflects on her reading, especially of Wuthering Heights (“Nothing saves you from the grave, Cathy Earnshaw”). In my article, which is available online here at MP Journal, I explore the scholarship of women as readers, of women writers as readers, and of the female version of the “anxiety of influence”, and I move to an examination of how Davis positions the 1950s American suburb as a site of Gothic terror.

Along the way, I take on one of my esteemed professors who wrote a scathing review of the book in the Washington Post and who also happened to be on my dissertation committee (until he ended up out of the country during my defense). He criticized the book for being too self-consciously postmodern and for not taking on more important subject matter, like refugees. He admitted he might be “sensitive-adolescent challenged.”


I feel like I’m just getting warmed up, but the beauty of a blog (I’m starting to appreciate this strange form…) is that you can come back topics, elaborate, clarify, backtrack, and maybe get something right. So I’ll leave this post with a quote from Hell, which sums up Leah Stewart’s post perfectly:

Two adolescent girls on a hot summer night—hardly the material of great literature, which tends to endow all male experience . . . with universal radiance. Faithless sons, wars and typhoons, fields of blood, greed and knives: our literature’s full of such stories. And yet suppose for an instant that it wasn’t the complacent father but his bored daughter who was the Prime Mover . . . . Mightn’t we then permit a single summer in the lives of two bored girls to represent an essential stage in the history of the universe?

After two weeks in Prague, it was time to head to Berlin, which meant I needed some new reading material! I visited in Prague’s Big Ben Bookshop, where I bought a copy of Herta Müller’s The Appointment. I’d never read Müller, who is originally from Romania but has been living in Berlin for over 20 years, but ever since she became only the twelfth woman since 1901 to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, I’ve wanted to learn more. I’m so glad I finally got around to it. Although I agree with Francine Prose from her Harper’s article years ago that the “scent of a woman’s ink” is a notion that is preposterous and misogynist, I must confess that after reading three books by (and about) Czech men, it felt, to read this book by (and about) a woman, like home.

The Appointment is lovely, dark and deep. Like Mrs. Dalloway — one day, swirling memories — but set within a socialist regime. And instead of buying flowers for a party, the main character is headed on a tram towards a “summons.” I adored especially the language: the lyrical, repeating and morphing images of colors and dreams and objects (the leaning apartment building, the woman with the braid, the motorcycle, the red poppies) and the ever-present dead (best friend, father, playmate, shoemaker).

Throughout, the book, the narrator asks big questions about how to live in a world that tries to make you mad:

I was wondering about the games that life plays, and on my way back from the shoemaker I went through all the possible ways of getting fed up with the world. The first and the best: don’t get summoned and don’t go mad, like most people. The second possibility: don’t get summoned, but do lose your mind, like the shoemaker’s wife and Frau Micu who lives downstairs by the main entrance. The third: do get summoned and do go mad, like the two women in the mental home. Or else the fourth: get summoned but don’t go mad like Paul and myself. Not particularly good, but in our case the best option. A squashed plum was lying on the pavement, the wasps were eating their fill, the newly hatched ones as well as the older wasps. What must it be like when a whole family can fit on a single plum. The sun was being pulled out of the city into the fields. At first glance its makeup looked a little too garish, especially for the hour; at second glance it appeared to have been shot—red as a bed of poppies, Lilli’s officer had said. Yes, that’s the fifth possibility: to be very young, and unbelievably beautiful, and not insane, but dead. You don’t have to be named Lilli to be dead.

What a beautiful passage. I love how it moves through the four options and seems to settle more or less comfortably on the fourth. Then there’s the image of the plum on which an entire wasp family feeds. Then there’s the sun, being “pulled out of the city into the fields.” The sun looks, “at first glance…too garish” for so early in the day. At second glance, though, it “appeared to have been shot–red as a bed of poppies,” and now the narrator is thinking of the death of her best friend Lilli, and she comes to a haunting fifth possibility. Such delicate, poetic transitions from ideas to images and back.

Interestingly, although the narrator asks big and small questions (and big questions disguised as small ones) throughout the book, there are no question marks. What must it be like when a whole family can fit on a single plum. This style (which reminded me of Gertrude Stein) conveys the futility of asking questions in a world where you can lose your job or your life for expressing disagreement or discontent with the authorities, where you can be framed by coworkers who hold petty grudges. You can ask the question so long as you accept that there is no answer, or that the answer is not available to you and couldn’t help you if it were. What must it be like when a whole family can fit on a single plum.

Check out this link at Red Pepper for more on her life and work.

And this link to her Nobel acceptance speech.

Why should only poetry get its own cruelest month? The Emerging Writers Network, which declared May ‘Short Story Month,’ has declared June ‘Novella Month.’ This makes me very happy because for me, June is ‘Submit My Novella Month.’

Novellas are getting great blog coverage (see links below) in terms of quotes, definitions, recommendations of novellas past and present, proclamations of affection, and discussions of current activity in the publishing world. Because I’m submitting my novella for publication, I’ve had to find the presses that publish novellas, which is not the easiest of tasks. Where I’ve found the most success? Poetry presses. I think this is because poetry presses are not afraid of publishing full-length books that are only 80 pages long. They’re also not afraid of white space, which may help me in my quest to publish my novella of short, flash sections.

One thing that I’ve learned in Novella Month is that my novella falters on the issue of “revolv[ing] around one or a few characters” (John Madera – he’s not prescriptive about this; in fact he says “usually” not “always”). I’ve got five main characters with two other POVs that pop in briefly. I think my novella is actually five short stories that happen to share the same time (July 4 weekend) and place (Fallingwater – image below). And those stories are presented as alternating flash fictions.

My novella is called Liliane’s Balcony after the middle balcony that extends out beyond the others. Before it belonged to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, it belonged to one of my characters (Liliane Kaufmann). Her adjacent bedroom is where she overdosed on pain pills. Her balcony is where the tourists in my novella have their respective crises.

Anyway, my contribution to Novella Month is the following, in-progress list of presses that publish novellas.

Non-exhaustive, non-alphabetical list of presses that publish stand-alone novellas:
(Feel free to drop me a line to make the list more exhaustive. I’ll keep updating this. N.B. – these are book publishers, not literary journals, some of which do publish novellas, but that’s another list.)

Four Way Books
Black Lawrence Press
Melville House (link removed; see 6/9/10 post regarding % of women published)
Mudluscious Press

Hotel St. George
Milkweed Editions
Persea Books
Spire Press
Autumn House Books
Miami University Press Novella Contest
Main Street Rag

And then there are presses that publish novellas as part of story collections:

University of Pittsburgh Press – Drue Heinz prize
Univ. of North Texas – Katherine Anne Porter Prize
Prairie Schooner Book Prize
Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction

Bloggers blogging novellas:
(Dear bloggers listed below, I tried to alert a couple of you that I linked to you, but blogger wouldn’t verify me. If you want to be removed from the list, let me know. Better yet, if you know of links to add, let me know those too.)

Emerging Writers Network
David Abrams/The Quivering Pen
John Maderas
Joseph Bates/The Nighttime Novelist
The Fiction Desk

I just read Joanna Kavenna‘s second novel (third book), The Birth of Love. I was skeptical about the description of three or so different narrative threads–past, present, and future–about birth and its requisite processes. (Ew.)* But I was and am so madly deeply in love with Kavenna’s first book, Inglorious, that I didn’t hesitate to pick this one up.

The book confirms my love, but admittedly, it feels like the relationship has settled. We’re no longer–er, I’m no longer–in the throes of infatuation (though the flame is easily rekindled when I return to Inglorious). Rosa Lane of Inglorious has a mind burdened by literature and philosophy and all the ways they do not, cannot bear out in daily life.

What connects the two books is a thread of madness and the theme (explored and described by Michael Stone, the writer-character) of the “difference between the lone figure…and the many”:

Perhaps the many are so confident–dogmatic–only because they are among the many. Not because they have really thought–truly thought–about what they say. The solitary man must either say nothing…or shout to be heard.

In Inglorious, Rosa Lane, whose narrative begins when she quits her job by sending her boss an email, is surrounded by people who seem perfectly able to do what is expected on a daily basis. But she can’t cope with her mother’s death, make sense of billboards, maintain her relationships with men or women, pay Sharkbreath at the bank, or, generally, buck up. She constantly rewrites the same list of things to do (which serves as a lovely refrain with subtle variants), from Hoovering the living room to reading the comedies of Shakespeare, and “Plato, Aristotle, Confucius…and the rest.”

Both the madness and the lone figure motifs are heightened in The Birth of Love, though they don’t quite feel as heightened because they are also diluted, dispersed. I’m so very invested in Rosa Lane in Inglorious–in her accelerating madness and her lonely aloneness–and a tad less so with the historical Semmelweis and his present-day recreator Michael Stone and the prisoners in the year 2153, though I suppose I could have been if the book had been entirely about, for example, Semmelweis and Stone. Plus the more interesting madness and solitary-figure-vs.-masses themes compete with (and lose to) the birth/love themes. Ah well.

I’m also fond of her nonfiction book The Ice Museum, described as “an account of a poetic tour through northern lands,” which I had on hand when I traveled to Norway for the first time.

*Been there, done that.

Four Lectures by Gertrude Stein

University of Chicago Press (1935/1969)

I just bought this beautiful book in its sassy sturdy slipcover on eBay. I was going to actually read it before I wrote about it here, but two pages in and I can’t help but start quoting…

on literature

…most literature is narrative that is in one way or in another way the telling of how anybody how everybody does anything and everything. (2)

on america

When they asked me when I came back to America do you find America changed I said no neither America nor Americans after all when you say changed how could they change what after all could they change to, and when you ask that of course there is no answer. (3)

on the english language in america vs. england

It is going to be very interesting and it is very interesting and it has been very interesting to see how two nations having the same words all the same grammatical constructions have come to be telling things that have nothing whatever in common.

…Always before the language of each nation who had a narrative to make a story to tell a life to express a thing to say did it with a language that had gradually become a language that was made gradually by them to say what they had to say.

…the story must be told will be told can be told but they will tell this story they tell this story using the exactly same words that were made to tell an entirely different story and the way it is being done the pressure being put upon the same words to make them move in an entirely different way is most exciting, it excites us who use them. (7)

Oh that slip-slidy language! Those brilliant theoretical ideas put in everyday words! She’s talking about deconstruction and differance when Derrida himself is a four-year-old.

There will be much more to say about this…