I purchased this both as a resource for my own writing and to use in my writing workshops.
When I'm not fully engaged in writing a novel or writing frI purchased this both as a resource for my own writing and to use in my writing workshops.
When I'm not fully engaged in writing a novel or writing fresh material, a part of my soul starts to wither. I've learned I need to write fresh, new, even if it's just short pieces, while in the midst of revisions and edits, to keep my sense of intellectual and emotional equilibrium. I appreciate the specificity of these writing prompts, the unique themes and unusual scenarios and will use them as a way to enter into a story, a poem, an essay. For my works-in-progress workshops, I can mine some of these ideas to help students see their work in a new light, to explore their characters and themes in new or deeper ways. ...more
The Doctor who fixed Maria's madness was nearly impossible to look at. Not because she was ugly, but because she was so severely handsome. Her face a
The Doctor who fixed Maria's madness was nearly impossible to look at. Not because she was ugly, but because she was so severely handsome. Her face and body were arranged in sharp angles that sliced the air as she moved through space. When the Doctor sat in her armchair, Maria wondered if the cushions cried out when the daggers of her elbows sunk into them. "Graduation"
Story after story crafted in this exquisite, piercing prose. Kristy Webster invites us into a world that shifts in the shadows just beyond our own. This collection of short stories and flashing moments reveals an inner life that in our rush to achieve, earn, interject, assert, we pass by. Stop and listen to the scariest things, the most painful things, the most beautiful and haunting. Kristy has. She stopped and listened to hear the stories behind the noise and then gave us the gift of her own particular magic.
At age fifty, after three decades of rejection, Eldon marries an onion. "The Harvest"
Allegory is a delicate thing and in Kristy's hands it becomes a web made of shimmering strands, woven with an imagination fixed on the terrible beauty of the world.
These are stories of the lost and forgotten, the vulnerable and compromised. Stories of falling for the wrong person or perhaps the right one at the wrong time, of mothers who love like lionesses, of lovers who love until the sky cracks open, of the wounded who keep secrets and learn to survive.
A woman was in the habit of taking on lovers and not repeating herself. At night, upon their arrival she would open the door to her home without a word, turn and walk away, letting her silky cape fall to the floor, leaving a trail for the man in the doorway. In the dark, her body was collection of moons. In the morning she would offer coffee, and leave all conversation to her paramour, while keeping herself in little books, secretly stacked inside her ribs. "Birth"
In "Coco", the novella which closes the book, a little girl with a third arm leads us into an embrace of compassion. It is a story full of love and joy, that speaks of all the ways celebrating our weirdness liberates us from the burden of self-doubt. It shows the high cost of envy and the rewards of community, the perfection of children, the grace of hope.
Magical realism is storytelling's gift, for it takes us out of our present world and shows us the possibilities alive in our imaginations. It touches the most vulnerable parts, brings them to life, and allows them to dance. Kristy's gift is giving voice to the inexplicable, putting words to the things we feel but cannot account for.
Although this novel was published only ten years ago, it feels like something from much earlier decade. And it's not that it's set in 1979-1980, openiAlthough this novel was published only ten years ago, it feels like something from much earlier decade. And it's not that it's set in 1979-1980, opening the day fifty-two Americans were taken hostage at the American Embassy in Teheran, Iran. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I don't read many stories like this, written quite this way, anymore. Perhaps Robin Black's 2014 Life Drawing or Ian McEwan's most recent The Children Act—are similar. Each a deep but brief character study, an exposition of marriage, an examination of how that which doesn't kill us wounds and weakens us as we age. What The English Teacher reminded me of was Judith Guest's Ordinary People. A tragedy creating distance between a mother—who copes with bourbon—and a son—who retreats from the world; a kind and bewildered father trying to be the bridge between the two. The same golden New England setting. A somber tone to the narrative; everyone living internal, remote lives. It reminded me a bit, too, of J.D. Salinger, with precocious teenagers and a stream of tragedy trickling underneath.
Although there is considerable tension as we anticipate the unraveling of Vida Avery, single mother to Peter and a highly respected English teacher at an insular New England prep school, there is little mystery to the storm brewing inside her. Vida is teaching Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Ubervilles and how she responds to Tess's encounter in the forest with Alec D'Uberville is enough to warn us of the rattling skeletons pressing against her closet door.
Why Vida, after remaining single her entire adult life, chooses to marry a widower she hardly knows and join her family of two with his three children is the true mystery and one that is never entirely resolved. But the sense of doom darkens the marriage as early as the wedding reception and we witness Vida's quiet horror with claustrophobic frustration. Perhaps this is the author's point--we don't always know why we do the things we do, but we are left with the consequences.
This is a story that moves quietly through the minds of Vida and her son Peter as they circle around each other, growing apart, building a wall of resentment and misunderstanding. Perhaps that's why this novel moves with the rhythm of a classic. It is quiet and reflective, free from clever meta-devices. I struggled to connect with the soft, tweedy patience of her new husband, Tom, and with Vida's curdled rage that makes her insufferable for most of the book, but Lily King's beautifully structured story and fine, fine writing made this impossible to set aside.
Three and a half stars edging toward four. ...more
Fresh off reading Anthony Marra's brilliant The Tsar of Love and Techno, I jumped into another collection of interrelated short stories, connected byFresh off reading Anthony Marra's brilliant The Tsar of Love and Techno, I jumped into another collection of interrelated short stories, connected by place and characters. Coincidence? Or is this a thing now? Reckon it doesn't much matter if the thing is done well.
The Wonder Garden invites inevitable comparisons to Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge because of the New England setting, and of course the interwoven short stories, but the similarities end there. Strout's connective tissue was Olive, and an irrepressible humanity. Acampora does not tie us to any one character, unless it's David, the advertising exec-turned-mystical healer, and her community of Old Cranberry, CT is far more sinister than Strout's hard-scrabble Maine fishing village. It's not tragic, like Marra's Siberia and Chechnya, trapped in an endless cycle of war and surreal political machinations. No, Acampora writes of a place of enormous privilege and opportunity, the 1%, as it were. Hard to muster much empathy for these folks, in their colonial mansions, set back on wide green lawns, with their "help" and country club memberships and Ebel wristwatches.
But I don't think Acampora is really after our empathy. She writes, like Margaret Atwood, with delicious, irresistible irony, flirting with the surreal just enough to make us wonder, yet rooting us in a garden we recognize. We nod and snort and generally feel superior to those whose wealth and privilege have always made us slightly ashamed.
What strikes me is how little resolution and redemption is found in each story. The endings come abruptly, the characters caught in a moment, and we must leave them there, suspended in time. We are left to wonder, Did they learn anything? Have they changed? And then, suddenly, many pages later, that character reappears in someone else's story, as a minor figure, and we catch a glimpse of what their life is like now, or at least how they are viewed from the outside. It's brilliant really, for the author does not interfere. She doesn't explain or editorialize, she just offers moments of lives and lets us sort it on our own.
I thought to highlight individual stories, but that's not why anyone should read this book--it's not that kind of story collection. The Wonder Garden is very nearly a novel, at least this reader read it as such, with the ending of each story feeling more like the ending of a chapter. I couldn't wait to unwrap the next, looking for clues, like a scavenger hunt, wondering how the story would circle back, who I would encounter again.
I think it's trite to say that The Wonder Garden shows those whose lives look perfect from the outside face the same quiet desperation the rest of humanity. What I think it shows, in a darkly funny, bitter, and tragic way is how they simply do not. If there is any desperation, it's how to hang on to facade of perfection, while keeping the real world at bay. In a culture where the gap between the have and the have-nots has become a deep canyon, America's Old Cranberry neighborhoods seem more like colonies designed to keep the lepers out and the flawless safe. Lauren Acampora shows us how it's done from the inside out....more
An elegant and finely-wrought portrait of a marriage in the Atomic Age. Andria Williams' impressive debut begins with an accident at a nuclear reactorAn elegant and finely-wrought portrait of a marriage in the Atomic Age. Andria Williams' impressive debut begins with an accident at a nuclear reactor outside Idaho Falls in January 1961, then circles back eighteen months to bring us the gradual meltdown of a young couple reacting to the stresses of military life.
Army specialist Paul Collier is sent from reactor school in Ft. Belvoir, VA to Idaho, his pretty wife and two little girls in tow. Paul, bearing the scars of a difficult childhood, finds shelter in the vivacity and adoration of his wife and daughters, but remains a man apart—reserved with his coworkers, distant with his wife. Nat Collier, alone in a new town with only her girls for company, must learn to adapt to the constant upheaval of military life, the fast but shallow friendships that form between military wives, and the gossip-laden dramas that unfold in their tight, smothering community. Nat's free spirit tendencies clash with the unwritten protocols of the domestic military culture and her loneliness and naïveté are refracted in the tight circles that bind her to her home, family, and army life.
Williams presents concurrent streams of tension—the potential failure of a nuclear facility and of a marriage—with a deft and confident hand. She goes deep into her characters, allowing multiple perspectives to shape a singular era with an astonishing command of detail. The reader is immersed in the early 1960s: the vivid descriptions of clothing, furniture, cars, hairstyles, food, language are perfectly integrated, becoming a part of the emotional landscape.
The Longest Night is a quietly powerful novel, its tremors rising from deep under the surface, yet it moves forward with urgency. With intelligence, originality, empathy and beautiful language, Andria Williams has crafted what will surely be one of 2016 most highly-regarded debuts.
My thanks to the publisher, Random House, for providing an Advance Reader Copy for review. ...more
In Claire Vaye Watkins's searing debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, fear is vast. It i
I fear the vast dimensions of eternity.
Ciaran Carson, "Fear" 1948
In Claire Vaye Watkins's searing debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, fear is vast. It is blistering hot, white, shifting, a thing massive and predatory, greedy and indiscriminate. It is the desert, one we have created by draining the West of its water, by changing the climate, forcing Nature to turn her back, jealously guarding her Rain. Fear has a name. It is the Amargosa Dune Sea.
Set in a future close enough to see if we shade our eyes and squint, Gold Fame Citrus presents a California annihilated by drought. A massive, moving sand dune is eating up mountain ranges, obliterating cities, and creating refugees known as Mojavs, a dystopian society that recalls the Okies of the Depression-era Dust Bowl. Watkins lists Tim Egan's phenomenal The Worst Hard Time in her acknowledgments and parallels the desperation and isolation of that time with one of her own keen and savage imagination.
Luz Dunn was a child star, born into drought just as science began to give up on cure or prevention and a desiccated society turned toward the mystic and the weird. Luz was to be the hope disaster couldn't defeat. The government made her a poster child for the new future, until the posters faded and shriveled in the relentless sun. Now Luz squats in the abandoned home of a movie star in a "laurelless" canyon, drinking ration cola while her boyfriend Ray writes lists in his diary that read like poetry and tries to keep them alive. They can't seem to muster the energy to flee to the cool, green, moist Pacific Northwest, or join the multitudes heading over the Dune, toward cities in the East. It's not that easy: even if you survive the desert crossing, Mojavs aren't welcome anywhere, states are building barriers to wall themselves in. And then there is Ray's past—a barbed-wire fence too tall and entangled to surmount.
They aren't alone in the desert: there are others, outcasts who've come together in survivalist colonies, living blackmarket lives. Luz and Ray rescue a little girl, a “strange, coin-eyed, translucent-skinned child”, from one such group, in a scene of an overnight rave party that is grotesque and haunting, like a Cormac McCarthy nightmare of the Old West.
The theft of this child, Ig, and fear that they will be pursued, propels Luz and Ray out of their sun-scorched inertia and sets them on the road, seeking a way out of the desert. But of course, the Desert will not let them go that easily. Luz and Ig end up alone, dying of thirst and heatstroke. Watkins's vision of mercy is also a prison, with convicted survivors sharpening blades of power on a whetstones of control.
This is a novel of passion and fierce love; it is cruel and brilliant, shocking and tender, created with an imagination as boundless as the desert. In contrast to the parched environment, Watkins's prose is lush and vivid, leading you, bewitched, through a shimmering mirage of hope.
I recall standing in Seattle's Queen Anne Bookstore on a rainy late autumn afternoon in 2009, reading the jacket of this book and ultimately, passing.I recall standing in Seattle's Queen Anne Bookstore on a rainy late autumn afternoon in 2009, reading the jacket of this book and ultimately, passing. I wasn't familiar with Jess Walter, although this book seemed to be making quite the splash. I was, however, all too familiar with the effects of the global recession and I just wasn't ready to find it funny. Nope. Not yet. In fact, that very bookstore became one of its casualties a few years later.
Fast-forward into a new decade. Jess Walter has become one of my favorite contemporary American writers. And although the effects of the recession are no less unfunny, time and perspective have only strengthened the relevancy of this book, if for the sheer amazement that America seems to have learned few lessons from its time teetering on the precipice of collapse. The cost of housing in Seattle is once again approaching the stratosphere; more than ever, it has become a City of Have More Than Anyone Else.
But The Financial Lives of the Poets isn't set in that shining city on the Sound. It's set in perennially grim Spokane, Walter's home, the conservative capital of the Northwest's Inland Empire. Spokane's a bit stalwart, a bit stale, but solid, uncompromising, built on farming fortunes. A good place to raise a family. As long as you don't hang out at the 7/11.
As long as you don't bet your family's financial security on a website that offers financial advice in poetic form. I mean really, what could go wrong?
Matt Prior has been out of work for a while. When things were flush—only a few days ago, it seems—he and his wife Lisa bought their dream house (more than they could afford of course, but remember when home loan companies were just THROWING money at us?) and Matt poured money into the stock market, congratulating himself for investments that seemed sure bets. She had a good job, he bid a snarky adieu to the crumbling newspaper biz to launch poetfolio.com, and for a heartbeat, the future was theirs. Then the economy collapsed. You can guess what happens next. Personal Finance Shitstorm.
As the story opens, forty-six-year-old Matt has less than a week to make a $31,000 balloon payment on his mortgage. He and his wife, Lisa, have no health insurance. Their savings, including once-flush 401(k)s, are tapped out, Lisa's working a crap job in an optometrist's office, Matt's dementia-inflicted dad has moved in, Catholic school tuition for their two elementary-aged sons is killing them (the Priors aren't even Catholic, but their neighborhood has stopped gentrifying and the local school is like Rikers Island for the Wii set), and Matt is fairly certain Lisa is having an affair with her high school sweetheart, Chuck.
Could you blame him, then, for hanging out at the 7/11 with a bunch of satin tracksuit-clad white gangbangers, smoking weed and eating pork rinds? Could you blame him for seeing the financial opportunity in selling pot to his middle-aged friends, just until he can get his family out of their financial hole? Tapping the keg of American zeitgeist, Walter—à la Weeds and Breaking Bad—sends us down the rabbit hole of Very Bad Decisions made with Generally Good Intentions.
Matt's insomnia imbues the narrative with a slightly surreal, hallucinatory glow, heightened by his pot-laced paranoia and Grandpa's dementia. There is tender relief offered by his two sons, reminding us that this is a book about the aspirations and failings of fathers, the vulnerability of sons, and how boys become men, or at least try to.
The brilliance of Jess Walter is the LAUGH OUT LOUD caper crazies of his characters, who kill you with their cluelessness yet manage to retain such believable humanity, such depth of sincerity, that you cheer them on from one fuck-up to the next. Because there is always a sense of "There but for the grace of God, go I". We know and love and are embarrassed and infuriated by these people because they are us.
The Financial Lives of the Poets is social satire with a warm, beating heart and fleshed-out, wounded characters who earn our compassion even as we are choking on our laughter.
Oh, and that bookstore on Queen Anne that bit the recession dust? Some local residents and former employees banded together and resurrected it in 2013 as Queen Anne Book Company. It's going strong.