Archive for June, 2010

Photo by Miriam Berkley

From the author’s website:

Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her MFA at Emerson College. She is the recipient of scholarships from the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, the 2009 Julia Peterkin Award, and the 2009-2010 Emerging Writer Lectureship at Gettysburg College. Formerly an assistant editor at Ploughshares, Laura is currently a fiction editor at West Branch and the assistant editor of Memorious, an online journal of new verse and fiction. She has taught writing at Emerson College, Grub Street, and in PEN/New England’s Freedom to Write Program. Her fiction has or will soon appear inOne Story, Boston Review, Epoch, The Literary Review, American Short Fiction, StoryQuarterly, Best American Nonrequired Reading 2008, Best New American Voices2010, and The Pushcart Prize XXIV: Best of the Small Presses, among other publications. The winner of the Dzanc Prize, Laura’s first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was published by Dzanc Books in October 2009 and was a Holiday Pick for the Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” Program. She is currently at work on new stories and a novel.

Click here to read van den Berg’s devastating and beautifully written story, “Up High in the Air.”

The New Yorker released its list of 20 of the best writers under 40 earlier two weeks ago, which corresponds to the overall theme of this site (though some question the classification of “young fiction writer”).  Among the writers on the list is C.E. Morgan, author of All the Living.  Her story, “Twins,” (subscription required) and a short Q&A can be found in the summer fiction issue of the magazine.  Since I wasn’t able to interview Ms. Morgan when I reviewed her book, and because there are very few interviews with her on the web, I decided to link The New Yorker‘s Q&A to this site.

Here’s an excerpt:

The New Yorker:  How long did it take you to write your first book?

C.E. Morgan:  The first draft was written in fourteen days. The editing was completed in the course of two semesters in graduate school.

Click here to read the entire Q&A.

Scott Blackwood discusses the setting of We Agreed to Meet Just Here, prior to its publication, with the Austinist.

I set it there for several reasons: at the turn of the century and into the 1920’s, Deep Eddy was a wilderness that brushed up against the city. People camped and hunted there (and had for thousands of years—the Tonkawa were mainstays along the river). There was a huge boulder that stuck out of the river, off the shore where the Deep Eddy Pool is now, and people flocked there to dive off and swim in the current. But the current (the deep eddy) was dangerous, too, and drowned a number of people. They later dynamited the boulder but the area kept the name.

Click here to read the entire interview.

The first thing we observe about Scott Blackwood’s novel, We Agreed to Meet Just Here, is its small size—roughly 150 pages, when we take into account blank pages and where the first chapter begins.  Once we crack its spine and get to reading, we see that the chapters act as little vignettes, each spanning only a few pages, and that they alternate between the characters’ points-of-view.  Interspersed, we find italicized chapters told in first-person plural, revealing one of the book’s central themes: community response—emotionally and physically—to tragic accidents.

Blackwood’s debut novel takes place in suburban Austin, where the residents encounter a chain reaction of mysterious incidents.  Dennis Lipsy, a thirty-eight year old lawyer, has become attracted to his teenage neighbor, Natalie, and has gone as far as making advances toward her.  His wife is unable to get a hold of him when their son, Isaac, falls from a tree and breaks his arm.  That’s because Dennis has followed Natalie to the theater downtown, where she’s taking in a movie alone.  His wife, Winnie, doesn’t believe him when he says he was with a client at the time of their son’s accident.  She goes as far as to contact his clients in order to check up on the stories he tells her.  When Natalie goes missing, the tension level causes us to grip this book tighter and turn the pages quicker.

We know where Natalie is, of course; we’re told in the first section.  The night she goes missing, P.G. McWhirter steals the Lipsy’s Chevy Blazer, because that’s what he does: he steals the vehicles for money, then they’re transported over the border where they can blend in.  En route to the drop-off, he’s distracted by a toothache and loses control of the Blazer, causing the tires to slide right into Natalie, who was walking along the shoulder of the road.

Later, he would remember the girl looking back over her shoulder at him, smiling, a funky wide-brimmed hat tilted on her head.  We agreed to meet just here, she seemed to say.  But it would be the photo from the TV news he was actually remembering.

Though we know what happened to Natalie, the book still has the feel of a mystery novel, likely because the other characters are concerned with finding out where Natalie has gone, and eventually, figuring out what happened to her.  But seeing the residents of Deep Eddy solve these mysteries isn’t what keeps us reading; we continue turning the page to find out how Dennis and P.G. react to what has happened.  Dennis’s lies cause strain on his relationship with Isaac and Winnie, and Natalie’s disappearance doesn’t curb his infatuation for her; P.G.’s guilt throbs in his aching tooth, as he worries over the consequences of his accident and what might happen to his wife and baby.  Blackwood masterfully utilizes dramatic irony to heighten tension in these situations.

There’s also the case of Odie Dodd—the retired physician, stricken with cancer, whose wife, Ruth, can’t find him.  He’s wandered off, and the community assumes it’s the result of an argument over whether or not he should continue chemotherapy.  We see Odie throughout the book, though.  He’s hanging out with Jim Jones, leader of the Peoples Temple, a man who had asked Odie to vaccinate children in Jonestown—“the axis around which his life winds,” according to Ruth.

We’re not sure if it’s trauma brought on by cancer or having known Jim Jones that causes Odie to walk and talk with this dead cult leader.  But Odie can’t go home until he achieves peace with himself.  Does he blame himself for not being able to stop the massacre?  Or is he angered that he was almost a part of it—ody, being a suffix for the Heaven’s Gate followers.  “Words fail,” Jones simply explains, and we can’t help but wonder how things may have changed had Odie understood what Jones wanted from him prior to the mass suicide.  And how would the present be different had Dennis not neglected his son, P.G. chose not to steal the Lipsy’s car, or Winnie decided against giving up her first-born?  The collective narrator asks:

What if all our involuntary gestures were photographed and then laid side by side?  Would they tell our alternative histories? Reveal thoughts that did not quite become acts but instead worked away secret and silent inside us?

While we ponder these questions, we’ll examine the family dynamic—what’s known and kept secret—and how it relates to community in this story.  We won’t be able to ignore how a close-knit neighborhood can feel suffocating and even cultish.  But not everything’s bleak in this novel.  We’re entranced by the poetry in Blackwood’s lines, which dances off the tongue when read aloud.  We root for the possibility of redemption and become mesmerized by the supernatural.  Hope sweeps over us at those times when the characters’ narratives come together, showing us how they’re connected, and making us believe that while tragedy happens, we can still show compassion toward those who have made mistakes.

New Issues Press
February 2, 2009
$26.00 Hardcover

From the author’s website:

[Scott Blackwood’s] novel We Agreed to Meet Just Here (New Issues Press, 2009) won the AWP Prize for the Novel, the Texas Institute of Letters Award for best fiction, and was named a best book of 2009 by the San Antonio Express-News.  His award-winning collection of stories In the Shadow of Our House was published by SMU Press in 2001. His fiction has appeared most recently in American Short Fiction, the Gettysburg ReviewBoston Review and Southwest Review, and the title story from his collection is featured on the New York Times Book Review’s “First Chapters” website.

To read Blackwood’s story, “Indians,” published by Boston Review, click here.

New and Recent Releases

Posted: June 13, 2010 in New Releases 2010

Stalin in Aruba by Shelley Puhak (2/1/2010)
Further Adventures in the Restless Universe by Dawn Raffel (3/1/2010)
Losing Camille by Paul Kilgore (4/1/2010)
Immigrant by Marcela Sulak (4/1/2010)
Turning Inside Out by Sandra Kolankiewcz (4/1/2010)
Swerve by Bruce Cohen (4/1/2010)
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel (4/13/2010)
The Sore Throat by Aaron Kunin (4/15/2010)
Dead Ahead by Ben Doller (4/15/2010)
Living Must Bury by Josie Sigler (4/15/2010)
Wait by C.K. Williams (4/27/2010)
Tell-All by Chuck Palahniuk (5/4/2010)
One More Theory About Happiness by Paul Guest (5/4/2010)
Miracle Boy by Pinckney Benedict (5/25/2010)
Blockade Billy by Stephen King (5/25/2010)
The Giving of Pears by Abayomi Animashaun (6/1/2010)
The Taste of Penny by Jeff Parker (6/1/2010)
How Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley (6/15/2010)
Dutch Treatment by D.E. Fredd (9/1/2010)

Of all the recurring food details found in Suzanne Burns’s short stories, one in particular sticks out: metallic nonpareils, those edible bb’s used as cake decorations.  This detail fittingly parallels the ideas her book’s title raises about its characters.  They’re not what the general public might consider normal people.  They’re strange, either physically speaking or because of the way they rationalize situations.  They’re oddballs.

In her first full-length collection, Misfits and Other Heroes, Burns approaches conventional subject matter—unrealistic expectations of love, rifts between social classes, and the search for personal identity—through some unlikely people.  Sure, the book has its share of little people, giants, and characters with extra limbs or missing eyes.  But more often, she deals with the obsessed, the perfectionists, in several roles: bakers, writers, a miniaturist, an actor, as well as husbands and wives.

The misfits in Burns’s collection rarely fit a circus-freak mold; but when they do show attributes of conforming to one, they’re never the point-of-view character.  In these cases, the narrator or focal character is seemingly normal in appearance, yet they take on the role of outsider.  In “Tiny Ron,” a female reporter (of average size) tries to infiltrate the world of her husband, Ron (the world’s second smallest man), in an attempt to better understand him.  This desire stems from the physical abuse he inflicts on her.  She’s willing to forgive him for his actions because, due to his size, he’s unable to cause her physical pain. Ron’s stature corresponds with his emotional size, a rationalization his wife makes in order to connect with him and regain a sense of empowerment.

Merilee, a young white woman and the main character in “Triad,” is fascinated by her boyfriend’s physical abnormality.  Alano—an Hispanic man, two years removed from high school—has three hands and wants nothing more than to have the third removed.  Everyone, aside from Merilee, is on board with his desire to conform: “To be normal.  Accepted.  Finally, and blissfully, ignored.”  Their relationship and conflicting views on whether or not Alano should keep his third hand acts as commentary on differences between class, gender, and race.

Body image is a major component of the stories in this collection; not necessarily in terms of deformity, but more so in the context of what is deemed socially desirable.  The women in “Flambé” and “Bittersweet” rely on their baking talents to attract men or achieve success.  Whether family, society, or an attractive actor has told them they don’t possess physical beauty, they carry the stigma of believing this to be true.  It becomes part of their identity, which raises cynicism and delusion to unhealthy levels.

A misfit is classified as such by society; and in the worlds of these stories, this is no different.  Burns sets many of these stories in small towns in order to show the ways her characters are outsiders.  In “The Interest of Marcia,” “Tourists,” and “The Widow,” the focal characters play the role of Straight Woman.  They see themselves as the sane ones, while everyone else appears to be bat-shit crazy.  And since there are no secrets in small town, the neighbors know all about their odd behaviors: Marcia’s inability to fend off Claire, an over-aggressive neighbor whose past mirrors hers; Olive’s strange attachment to a giant wax sculpture because “the world remembers giants”; or Samantha’s inability to accept her husband’s death.

Burns’s ability to create quirky and odd characters—while they’re compelling and well crafted—isn’t even her greatest strength as a writer.  Where she truly shines is in the way she develops meaning and emotional depth from both the conventional and the peculiar.  The oddballs in her stories aren’t used as a gimmick, and they’re certainly not pedestrian.  And while they might not look, act, or think the way others in their worlds want them to, they’re people with substance, who have earned the reader’s attention and compassion.