Archive for June, 2009

Straight and Narrow - bk coverDavid McGlynn’s debut collection, The End of the Straight and Narrow, opens with a story about people who desire to overcome and redeem themselves from their troubled pasts.  In this story, “Moonland on Fire,” Gary attempts to reconnect with his estranged son, Nolan, after sins of the flesh and soul tore him away from his family.  Nolan, who sacrificed a summer job to save his sister from joining him on this trip, tries to repair his father’s damaged house while wildfires loom on the horizon.  In the face of disaster—whether these flames are an act of God or nature—Gary puts himself in harms way to be with his son.  Meanwhile, Rhonda—Gary’s girlfriend, and the woman with whom he cheated on his wife—is willing to denounce her faith in light of what she lost before meeting Gary, and because of what she could lose if the fire reaches their home.

This first story sets the tone and introduces major themes and subject matter, which bind together the rest of the collection.  The result is a series of tightly woven stories, exploring people’s motivations and actions, while testing their faith in God, nature, mankind, and even themselves.  McGlynn invites readers into the lives of characters so fully developed, it’s hard to think of them as anything less than real people.

In “Landslide,” a preacher recounts an anecdote he has used to deliver several sermons on TV.  Only this time, he focuses in on the details left out in church—namely, his relationship with an old friend.  “Deep in the Heart” tells the story of a boy with osteosarcoma, whose last wish is to shoot a deer.  The boy’s father engages in destructive behavior, while the mother struggles to cope with the impending loss of her son.  After the drowning of his best friend, the main character in “Seventeen One-Hundredths of a Second” grows closer to the widow and begins mentoring a troubled boy.  The events that follow help him discover his true feelings for his deceased friend.

Each story contains multiple layers of internal and external conflict, structured in a way that avoids overwhelming the reader with too much information of which to keep track.  Surface level conflict is presented early on, which propels the plot forward and keys in the reader as to what’s at stake.  But as you continue to read, additional insight from the characters—their regrets, desires, and hesitations—along with information about their pasts not only adds to the primary conflict, it makes you want to find out what will happen to these people and how they’ll react.

Five linked stories comprise Part II of the collection.  Here a Texas family is confronted with adversity from all sides: a blind mother who has a tendency to wander away and become lost, a caretaker who sacrificed the chance at having her own family to watch over this one, a father who finds sanctuary in the arms of the caretaker, and a son who blames himself for his mother’s blindness.  While this family has difficulty avoiding disaster—blindness, infidelity, a hurricane—each character has his or her own way of trying to figure out what it all means, hoping to find redemption.

Not to leave out the writing itself, the prose is sharp and lyrical.  McGlynn provides thoughtful insight—sometimes hopeful, sometimes tragic—from the minds of his characters, and he packs his scenes with vivid sensory detail:

The guests twirled beneath a cosmos of artificial stars: the oak trees in my grandparents’ backyard wrapped in miniature white lights…The glowing skeletons of the trees reached and grabbed at the dark, and leaves fell between the lights, as though from nowhere, landing on the tables and lawn the checkerboard dance floor. (from “The Eyes to See”)

and

As she crosses the high point of the suspension bridge, the water below brown-green and streaked with sand, Kay feels the wind whistle through the floorboard of her Toyota and drum against the soles of her sandals. (from “Sweet Texas Angel”)

The last short story collection I read that combined compelling plot with characters possessing such depth was Dan Chaon’s, Among the Missing—a finalist for the National Book Award.  This is a book that deserves to be read and reread several times.  If you have yet to add it to your summer reading list, make sure you include it at the top.

DavidMcGlynn--bookphotoDavid McGlynn is the author of the short story collection The End of the Straight and Narrow, a finalist for both the 2009 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award and the 2009 Steven Turner Award for Best Work of First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.  His work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Mid American Review, Shenandoah, Black Warrior Review, among several other publications.  His short story, “Landslide,” was included in Best Christian Short Stories, and his essay, “Rough Water,” will appear in Best American Sports Writing 2009. Holding M.F.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Utah, McGlynn currently teaches at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.

To read a sample of his work, click the following title: “Texas Sweet Angel.”

imsorryyoufeelthatwayREALDiscussing her book, Flux: Women on Sex, Work, Love, Kids, and Life in a Half-Changed World, writer Peggy Orenstein states, “Motherhood silences women.  The kryptonite words for women are fat, slut, bad mother and selfish.  The words make us lose our powers just like Superman loses his in the face of kryptonite.”  After reading Diana Joseph’s memoir in essays, I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing but True Tale of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man and Dog, it’s apparent that these kryptonite words fail to cripple Ms. Joseph.  Instead, she examines the language used by the men in her life, in addition to their actions, to explore themes pertaining to the various roles that define her.

Joseph chronicles her relationships with the men in a series of hilarious character sketches.  And as the subtitle suggests, she profiles her father, brothers, husbands, son, colleagues, friends, ex-boyfriends and, of course, her dog (who can’t quit humping everything in his path).  While the essays focus on males, they uncover more about the writer—her desire to understand these men in an attempt to gain self-understanding.

Raised in a blue-collar Pennsylvania town, Joseph’s father owned a towing and auto body shop.  One of her past boyfriends painted her name in gold on his demolition derby car and proposed to her by hiding the engagement ring in a bean burrito.  She has worked her way up from waitress to college professor, observing differences in class throughout her journey.  As a single mother, Joseph preferred smoking and reading during her son’s Tee Ball games, while the helicopter moms cheered on the team and left her alone.  As an Adjunct Professor, she attended parties where her colleagues discussed nature and talked about their cats.  These people and their conversations didn’t interest her, and she tried to let them know it.

…the phone would ring, and [the boy would] run toward it, crying, It’s Dad! It’s Dad! only he was superexcited so it came out sounding like It’s Sad! It’s Sad!
“That is sad!” a cat-talker said.  She was the trim, fit athletic wife of someone in the math department.  Or maybe geology.  Hers was a happy life.  Her cats were named Cutie, Kiki, and Beaner.  I had interrupted her cat story with my boy story, and now she was empathizing with me, and I didn’t like it one bit.  What was her deal?
“Oh, it’s sad all right,” I said.  “Nine times out of ten, it’s a collection agency calling.  I don’t have any money, so it’s actually tragic.  For them.”

She also contrasts herself with friends and close colleagues.  There’s the Satanist who’s deeply rooted in his family.  Joseph fears for his soul and worries about this young man because her religious upbringing and the people who contributed to it have remained with her since childhood.  And there’s her snarky colleague who wears designer clothing and takes art photos of nude women.  While Joseph tries to conclude whether he’s a pervert or a romantic, she never forgets about her desire to knee him in the balls.

She continues by drawing parallels between situations pertaining to family members.  In separate essays, she writes of the sex talk she received from her dad and the one she gave to her 5-year-old son.  Her dad’s was vague and indirect, while her talk was extensive and included a lesson in mythology.  Joseph also shows how different her two brothers are—one’s a crude police officer, the other’s a quiet doctor—yet, she reveals how they both have similar desires in life: to meet a nice girl, start a family.  Even if she doesn’t know everything about these men, she understands enough about them to show compassion and empathy.

But she still seeks answers, and getting the men in her life to open up isn’t always easy.  Her son often refuses to give her straight answers, while she expresses timidity about asking her father anything too personal.  Her brother, Mitchell, hardly says a word over the phone, while her brother, Bye-Bye, responds obnoxiously, often disclosing the details of his sex life.  Despite the lack of communication that can occur, Joseph provides meaningful insight about her relationships with men.  She questions her effectiveness in each role, while attempting to understand and define the meaning of those roles.  At times, she seeks reassurance that she’s doing a good job, while other times she just wants a break. This memoir shows that Diana Joseph is a person who’s not afraid to poke fun at herself for the purpose of discovery.  Along the way, she invites readers to laugh along with her.

Live Nude Books: I’m wondering if you could talk a little about your writing process.  In the Devil’s Territory is made up of short and long stories—two approach/reach novella length.  Is form something you think about before writing a story?  Do form and the page-length of a story develop naturally through the drafting and revision processes for you?

Kyle Minor: It’s a little different for every story. Sometimes I find that once I find something that works, I exhaust the thing about it that works after one story. The only way I know to talk about it would be to talk about the stories in the book. “The San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl Party” was originally an essay I wrote while my wife was in the hospital and there was a chance the baby she carried wouldn’t make it. I wrote it on Christmas Eve in the two spare hours I had away from the house, at the Caribou Coffee in Upper Arlington, Ohio. The Southern Review published it, and then, since it looked more like a “conventional” short story (by which I mean a single-movement story from one point of view that has a lyrical ending that is somehow epiphanic) than any of the actual short stories I had written, and since it fit the book, thematically, I changed the names of the characters and called it fiction.

“A Day Meant to Do Less” began as a meditation on some green wallpaper. Also, one of my old teachers professed a dislike for stories in which characters are sitting and thinking, while another wrote entire books where characters are sitting and thinking. So I put a senile old woman in a bathtub and had her son stand and think about undressing and bathing her. I wanted to please the teacher who wrote the books where the characters sit and think, but she hated the story. The professor who didn’t like characters who sit and think liked it a lot, and told me to send it to the Gettysburg Review, and they published it, and then it was reprinted in Best American Mystery Stories 2008. I think all that was despite the sitting and the thinking. I think it was because of the two-part structure, in which you get the bathtub scene first from the son’s point of view, and then from the old lady’s point of view, after you realize that she has withheld from her son the great terror of her life, and that, in her impairment, she thinks he is that great terror, that the last movement of her life has revealed to her that “the very face of evil was love.” That structure and that turn of events surprised me when I was writing the first draft. I was sitting in the Donatos Pizza in Upper Arlington, Ohio, and I had to close up shop and leave because it left me unsettled. I didn’t yet know that this is what must happen if the story’s going to be any good. It has to unsettle the writer.

“A Love Story” was an attempt to write a more or less chronologically linear long story from the point of view of a misunderstood person, and with the kind of great empathy Andre Dubus invested in his characters.

“goodbye Hills, hello night,” is a dramatic monologue in the voice of someone I knew in childhood who participated in a murder. To get the voice right I pulled depositions at the Palm Beach County Courthouse. The first version was a third again as long, and I cut it down to size, but with great anguish.

“The Navy Man” was an inversion of Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Lapdog.” I did it through the woman’s point of view, and I made her a woman from the subculture about which I was writing, and married her to a recurring minor character in the other stories, and substituted Islamorada for Yalta, and Washington, D.C., for Moscow. I wrote it because I needed another story, and also because I had edited a book of Chekhov stories meant to show that he could do more than boring old “The Lady with the Lapdog,” but then I reread “The Lady with the Lapdog” after the Chekhov book was published, and turns out it’s a pretty good story.

“In the Devil’s Territory” was the most difficult story to write. It went through twenty-some drafts. The first one was a poem. One was in the point of view of an angel. Most of them were a mess. I wrote an essay about writing it, which you can find in the latest issue of Ball State University’s fabulous journal The Broken Plate, which is edited by Mark Neely.

LNB: The story, “A Day Meant to Do Less,” starts out in Jack’s point-of-view, then switches to Franny’s and stays with her.  Was this structure what you had envisioned from the time you began writing the story?  Do you think about structure when composing?

KM: I do think about structure when composing, but often the story gets its head and wants to be something different for some thematic or characterological reason, and then I have to do something different structurally. That’s what happened with “A Day Meant to Do Less,” which was written, anyway, in a kind of fever dream. Franny’s point of view, by the way, was inspired by a novella partially written through an actual fever dream — “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” which is Katherine Anne Porter’s Spanish influenza story. (Porter didn’t like that word, novella, but I like it plenty.)

LNB: The stories in this collection are wide-ranging, in terms of craft—you vary points-of-view, voice, structure, form, etc.  Yet they gel to form a solid collection through theme and subject matter.  Did you write these stories specifically for the collection, or did you compile existing stories that you found to be thematically linked?

KM: I wrote “A Love Story,” “The Navy Man,” and “In the Devil’s Territory” specifically for the collection, to round out what the other three stories had set into motion. I meant to make a picture of the world I came from, and what it felt like, and what it feels like, and its humanness, and its consequences.

LNB: What was your strategy for ordering the stories in this collection?

KM: Raymond Carver said begin and end with a pisser. I guess most of these are pissers. “A Day Meant to Do Less” is the biggest pisser, but it starts slowly, so I didn’t want to put it first. I put “In the Devil’s Territory” last because it ends with a metaphor that stands in not just for itself, but also for the whole book. I thought that brought a sense of unity to the whole. I wanted that unity, even though it was a book of stories.

I also tried to pace the book, and not put stories together that were too alike, but the anonymous reviewer at one of the trade magazines complained that the second and third stories were too alike, although, really, they’re not very alike.

LNB: In addition to writing fiction, you’ve published essays and edited the book, The Other Chekhov.  What are you working on next?

KM: I’ve been writing genre stories for Plots with Guns, which has been liberating and fun, not least because I get to work with Anthony Neil Smith, who is a true American hero. I’m almost done with a nonfiction book set in Haiti. I’ve been back and forth between there and the States for the last year and a half, researching it. I’ll probably follow that up with a novel, which I’m still drafting.

LNB: What are you currently reading?

KM: Here are some books that knocked the top of my head off the last couple months:

Brother, I’m Dying, by Edwidge Danticat
Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder
The Rainy Season, by Amy Wilentz
The Rabbit Tetralogy, by John Updike
In the Beauty of the Lilies, by John Updike
The Massacre at El Mozote, by Mark Danner
The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich
The Stories of John Cheever
Questions for Ecclesiastes, by Mark Jarman
An Invitation to Poetry, by Jay Parini
Ordinary Genius, by Kim Addonizio
Avengers of the New World, by Laurent Dubois
The Discipline, by David Citino
End of I., by Stephen Dixon
Papa Doc and the Tonton Macoutes, by Diederich & Burt
The Stories of J. F. Powers
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West
Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew B. Crawford
St. John of the Five Boroughs, by Edward Falco

I’m looking forward to reading the new Philip Roth, whatever book the New Yorker story “Ghosts” by Edwidge Danticat will appear in, that new Gabriel Garcia-Marquez biography, and whatever Donald Ray Pollock and Cormac McCarthy write next.

Also, I should plug the website HTMLGiant.com, where a very, very interesting and irreverent conversation about literature has been going on since last winter, among, as far as I can tell, a talented and very smart pool of young writers, among them James Yeh, Blake Butler, and Barry Graham. I read with James and Blake on my book tour this spring, and I lunched with Barry last fall in Ypsilanti, Michigan. That crew is a shot in the arm, and literature needs it, badly. I like a lot of the books coming out from Melville House, Dzanc, New York Review Books, and the Dalkey Archive Press. Also, I should plug some literary journals I like: Ninth Letter, Hobart, Sou’wester, Third Coast, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Georgia Review. These are all a big part of my life.

I think reading is way more important than writing. I wish I could read more.

The Diana Joseph book review may get pushed back a day to Friday, which means the interview with her will follow on Saturday or Sunday.  It’ll all depends on when I post the Kyle Minor interview.

As I learn the ways of Worpress–and continue to be reminded how much Safari blows–I’ve been going back and including author photos and other images to previous posts.  Check ’em out.   One day, I’ll get this all situated, and everything will be right on the first posting.  Until then, we should all read a little about another extremely talented writer.

djosephDiana Joseph is the author of Happy or Otherwise, a collection of short stories, and I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing but True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother, and Friend to Man and Dog, a memoir in essays.  Her fiction and essays have appeared in Puerto del Sol, Threepenny Review, Alaska Quarterly, River Teeth, Indiana Review, Marginalia, and Weber Studies, among many other publications.  She currently teaches at Minnesota State University, Mankato and designs a series of memoir-related tote bags that one day will be recognized as legitimate currency by three of the five arctic nations.  For more information on her work, click here.

To read her short story, “The Fifth Mrs. Hughes,” click the title you just read.

Recently, the NPR show, Here and Now, discussed with Steve Almond a subset of the memoir genre called Bad Parenting.  These books aren’t about the writers being abusive or overly-neglectful parents; rather, they paint a more honest portrait of writers’ feelings and attitudes toward parenting.  To listen to the interview, click here (it’s about halfway down the page).

ayelet-waldmanCNN has gotten in the mix, as well.  They posted a video clip the other day about Ayelet Waldman’s new book, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace.  Waldman discusses how the book came about, how she wrote a 2005 NY Times article that received a lot of criticism from helicopter moms, and how differently the reactions to this subject are now, compared to four years ago.  I’ve tried to embed this clip several times, without success.  I’m not sure whose fault it is:  Word Press’s, CNN’s, or mine.  Anyway, you can watch the clip here.  And to learn more about Waldman’s book and this genre, you can read Time‘s interview with her by clicking here.

I’m posting these links and information as a transition to this week’s featured writer, Diana Joseph.  Her memoir, I’m Sorry You Feel That Way: The Astonishing But True Story of A Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother and Friend to Man & Dog, is grouped into this genre on the NPR show (and Steve Almond reads an excerpt from the book).  I’ll be reviewing the book and discussing this topic with her later in the week.

TSR: What does the word “story” mean to you?

KM: For the purpose of this book, I guess it meant a yarn in which something happens. Technically, I guess many of these stories, maybe three or four, might be properly called novellas, on grounds of their length, and because their ambition is more novel-like than your ordinary single-movement story with a Joycean epiphany at the end or whatever. Ultimately, I guess these labels don’t matter to me that much. I mostly just want to write something that makes the reader feel something he or she hasn’t felt before.

To read the entire interview, click here.