Tag Archives: Emily Dickinson

Story Anthologies That Don’t Suck | O. Henry Prize Stories 2014

I have to confess that I don’t subscribe to any literary magazines.

I’m a hypocritical book mongrel.

I rally for the short story form, even flash fiction if it’s done right, but then I don’t actually support the magazines that provide and establish authors that try to keep that form alive.  My only way of giving back is to read as many anthologies as I possibly can, particularly contemporary fiction anthologies.  I also try not to stick to the ones that Barnes and Noble carries because they never actually choose any weird ones.

Usually, when you read an anthology it’s because you either A. like the genre, B. you are starting your own small marathon of writing flash fiction to the early morning, or C. you want to know what the “best of” contains for that particular year, or in this case, century.  (Yes, be alarmed, someone actually believed they could put together a fair and righteous anthology of fiction for the CENTURY).  I would turn that book over in bookstores, hoping no one would buy it.

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014

Anyway, also per usual when reading an anthology, not all of the stories are good.  There are few that really spark and then only because one particular line changed how you viewed the world.  Then you read everything by that author hoping to get that sick feeling again (like a woman in a bad relationship) and it’s all for naught. Those feelings come quickly, and spaz out before we can even realize what’s happened.

Westinghouse Time Capsule @ Wikipedia Commons

This is NOT the case for The O’Henry Prize Stories of 2014.  There were only two stories that I didn’t feel were up to par and the rest were brilliant.  I found myself unable to physically write down (due to hand cramping) all of the quotes that I highlighted.  And the stories are new and fresh.  They don’t center around one genre, or one betrayal from the world. They are like a little capsule that we can fling into space and hope that some extraterrestrial with a sense of compassion finds to explain this world of love gusts and expectations that don’t meet fantasies.

Or we can bury it, for the future. I’d be willing for this book to be my message to the next world along with a long composition of why they should try to recreate the dinosaur, read Emily Dickinson, and take up Twitter.

  • The collection begins with mounting tension when two boys play with a gun.  One without a mother, and one who holds secrets tighter than he can hold a fist.  I’m not sure now which is which because they both blend together as children, and only when they become adults do they realize their differences (as most of us do with our childhood friends).  My favorite thing about it is that it repeats itself multiple times, through multiple ages of childhood and adulthood.  There is a “cathedral of silence” during every year of this man-boy’s life.  He faces this silence like an open wound and it leaves him questioning who he was, and who he is now.

“Later when he tells the story to people they won’t understand.  Why didn’t he run away? His friend had  a loaded gun.  He will be repeatedly amazed at how poorly everyone remembers their childhoods, how they project their adult selves back into those bleached-out photographs, those sandals, those tiny chairs.  As if choosing, as if deciding, as if saying no were skills like tying your shoelaces or riding a bike.  Things happen to you.  If you were lucky, you got an education and weren’t abused by the man who ran the fife-a-side.  If you were very lucky you finally ended up in a place where you could say, I’m going to study accountancy … I’d like to live in a countryside … I want o spend the rest of my life with you” (“The Gun,” Mark Haddon, Granta)

  • The next story, “Talk” by Stephon Dixon (The American Reader) plays with the idea of point-of-view in a story, the inner voice that we all communicate with after we stop trying to talk to our cats for most of a lonely day. It also plays with growing old when that inner voice might be the only person that we talk to in a day’s time.  Even when you think of talking to someone, that inner voice can hold you back, be it the voice a friend or a foe.
  • Art by Sejnow @ Deviant Art (Creative Commons)

    “Valentine” by Tessa Hadley (The New Yorker) just made me never want to have a daughter.  I’m not too far away to remember what I put up with from boys in high school, but I am too far away to meet that girl and shake hands like an acquaintance.  The girl in this story doesn’t “do bad all by herself,” but “does bad” for the boy with all the wrong angles.  He’s a writer, but he’s a wanderer.  He’s a bit grunge, but he’s haughty in philosophy.  It really just tells the story of the girl before the boy, during the boy, and then plays with the idea that you can go back to the girl who was the “before” version of yourself. (Hint: You can’t).

“There was a rare blend in him of earnestness and recklessness.  And he seemed to know instinctively what to read, where to go, what music to listen to.  He was easily bored, and indifferent to anything he didn’t like” (Tessa Hadley).

  • “Petur” by Olivia Clare (Ecotone) broke my heart more than a little.  It’s a mother and son story, the son is an adult on a vacation with his mother when a volcano goes off in Poland and they are forced to live in ash.  The ash becomes symbolic for their relationship and his mother’s scattered mind as she walks through the (not wreckage) but fall, and he watches her own odd unfurling.

Sparks Royalty Free Sparks Images (Creative Commons)

“Nights after her afternoon walks, she’d sit with a field guide.  I have a bird heart, she’d say, your mother, the bird.  Precise knowledge of a fjall’s origins, or of the call each bird made, was the closest she felt she had, she said, to wisdom, because lang, because details, were important.  They were solid and finite and felt infinite” (Olivia Clare).

  • Abuse. Roadtrips. Racism. Lingering unresolved, but unpracticed feelings. Old towns. Father’s who still protected their daughters from men who drank too much and leaned too crooked over stoves thinking. Trees with names. Tradition.

“You remember your mother saying you had to learn to use the Lexicon because words were both tools and weapons and the difference between the right one and the almost-right one was like lightning and a lightning bug, and when you said the lectern was higher than you could reach she showed you the step stool hidden underneath” (“You Remember the Pin Mill,” David Bradley, Narrative).

  • “Nemecia” by Kirsten Valdez Quade will stay with me the same way the movie, “Black Swan” stays with me.  They both have similar disturbing skin scenes.  Nemecia is an almost older sister to Maria, but in the end, they become neither sister nor friend.  It’s really the story of how grief creates competition in us.

Black Swan by It’s Too Dark @ Deviant Art (Creative Commons)

“Nemecia had an air of tragedy about her, which she cultivated. She blackened her eyes with a kohl pencil” (Narrative).

  • Most disturbing story in the collection is easily “Trust” by Dylan Landis (Tin House).  I was so uncomfortable with this story.  It felt a little bit like someone giving you a creative writing prompt like “If your house burned down, what would you take.” And immediately you start to live through your house burning down, and how the flames flicker, but they don’t flicker and you realize you’ve never experienced a fire and they probably gust like a parachute.  It’s just like that except it’s a teenage robbery and I just wanted it to end (in a good way…in a good writing way).  It’s also like every Law & Order episode that you live in fear of, except this is MID-DAY and you start to realize that this could happen at anytime of day, not just when you’re sleeping (which is terrifying).
  • “Old Houses” by Allison Alsup (New Orleans Review) tells the old neighborhood folktale from the perspective of a barbecue.  It’s just creepy enough to not really affect you personally, but add an edge to your day that wasn’t there before.  It wasn’t as strong as the others in the collection, but it did stand tall.
  • My favorite story in the entire collection is “Fatherland” by Halina Duraj (Harvard Review). I think that’s because I thought it was just going to be another World War II story, but it was beyond me giving you any account of why it’s so good.

“I tried to stop my father’s words at my ears but they would not stick.  I knew they weren’t meant for me, but I was half my mother, my father had said so himself.  Like any good soldier, my father shot bullets through the air toward a target, but did not understand collateral damage” (Halina Duraj).

  • Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show @ Wikipedia Commons

    “West of the Known” by Chanelle Benz (The American Reader) was the story that has stuck with me beyond reading the last story in this collection days ago.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s the quick moves between innocence and horror.  It’s (strangely) a Wild West story, but it doesn’t have any of that gun-slinging bullshit.  Well, it does, but it’s believable.  It ain’t no John Wayne rodeo if you know what I’m sayin’. At the end of the story, something bloody terrible happens and it’s truly believable.  I can feel the rope burns still.

“For in the high violence of joy, is there not often a desire to swear devotion? But what then? When is it ever brung off to the letter? When they come for our blood, we will not end, but ton on in an unworldly fever” (Chanelle Benz).

On second thought, maybe I like this story so much because it uses the word “brung” which I obsessively, and unconsciously used for the majority of seventh grade, while my father corrected me every single time.

  • Finding who you are in the grace of picked flowers, that’s “The Women” by William Trevow (The New Yorker).
  • Snake Handling @ Wikipedia Commons

    “Good Faith” is about snake handlers during a revival and how sometimes one person can’t change the ideals instilled in us since birth.  It’s a fantastic story, truly.  It might be one of my favorites from the collection because the ending is beyond powerful.  It’s the longest story in the collection and I wouldn’t mind if it was transformed into a novel. I would read these characters again and again.

  • Guy dates Asian girl.  They disembody one another. Life goes on.  A short summary of “The Right Imaginary Person” by Robert Anthony Siegal (Tin House).

“Parents and teachers agree to forget that children are in fact lunatics, and that what we call growing up is just learning to hide it better so nobody will lock us away” (Robert Anthony Siegal).

  • “Nero” by Louise Erdrich (The New Yorker) was just depressing.  I didn’t really fall for this story, but the dog got to me.
  • Golden Light @ Pixa Bay – Free Illustration (Creative Commons)

    The way light is fractured through a window is retold in the story “A Golden Light” by Rebecca Hirsch Garcia (The Threepenny Review).  It’s one of the rarely hopeful, but then hope-squashed stories in the collection.

  • “Fairness” by Chinelo Okparanta is a disturbing story that immediately made me worry about my students and the “salt and ice challenge.”  It should be read after reading a “Cosmopolitan” magazine or obsessing over people you don’t know on social media.  Or, just listen to some Beyonce and then read this story.  A girl is obsessed with lightening her skin based on the standards set by overseas societies. BLEH.
  • I hated “The Inheritors” by Kristen Iskandrian (Tin House).  I’d almost even skip it if reading this book again.

“I like being sad, which mystified her; I like it until I reach the nadir where sadness changes, as if chemically, to repulsion and self-loathing, making me wish that I was “capable” of “handling” things instead of turning away from them in disgust until my disgust disgusts me, and my anger at my inadequacy as a human being angers me, and all of that pure, easy, delectable sorrow gets squandered” (Kristen Iskandrian).

  • “Deep Eddy” by Michael Parker (Southwest Review) is the only flash piece in the collection.  It’s about virginity and dating and how both of these things make us question everything.

“She’d lost her flower with the first of a string of boys and she liked me only in the way girls like those boys who make them forget, temporarily, some pain I hoped was only temporary” (Michael Parker).

  • The next story was kind of sad because the girl character was the worst version of myself. It’s set in Venice (I think, but I’m questioning myself now), called  “Oh, Shenandoah” by Maura Stanton (New England Review). I often say to my boyfriend, “I just want to hug you so hard it hurts” when he does something incredibly annoying.  This chick is like me in that situation, but to the extreme. And the boy, just daydreamy and unable to understand any of her cues.
  • “Opa-locka” by Laura van den Berg (The Southern Review) is about a team of sisters who fulfill their childhood hopes by becoming personal investigators. At the time, they don’t understand their need for this odd job, eating gas station snack foods on roofs in a stake-out, but as the story progresses, the reader is clued into their past and why they might need these rooftop rendezvous, for each other and just for themselves.

This O.Henry Prize Collection is one of the best I’ve read in a long time.  Not only were most of the short stories meaningful and worth the read, but I can mostly remember each one even though I read some of them as long as a month ago.  This is a collection of stories that linger and each story gets redefined as you think of it again.  I HIGHLY recommend this book. HIGHLY, HIGHLY, HIGHLY, Mountaintop.

 

 

 


Poems: The Coming Together of Words Without All The Useless Bullshit

It’s NATIONAL POETRY MONTH.

This is cause for celebration.

Poetry Foundation National Poetry Month Posters

Poetry Foundation National Poetry Month Posters

In my exuberance about National Poetry Month let me just explain to you why this is a cause for a giant party, that probably involves a lot of whiskey if we’re going to invite those fiction writers that DON’T stick their heads in ovens, coat themselves in blood from tuberculosis, jump from fifth floor buildings or straight off steamships after being beaten for making homosexual advances at a male crew member (because the world is not always tolerant or accepting), or lock themselves in the car in a two-door garage and die from carbon monoxide poisoning.  Ah, poetry.  What a beautiful blooming thing.

It caused Anais Nin to allow women the opportunity to have flaws, jobs, and multiple partners.  Sylvia Plath successfully compared a man to a Nazi and put real measure behind the phrase, “Off with her head.”  Not only that, but she wrote a poem that remains forefront in my mind when I hear the name “Ariel” instead of that awful Disney movie.  Beware. Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ and eat men like air.  (Sylvia Plath). Billy Collins got named America’s most well known poet, for the seven hundredth time.  Joseph Bathanti convinced locked up criminals to fashion knuckle ink.  The proper study of mankind if man. (Alexander Pope).  Poetry took Dr. Seuss from WWII cartoon artist to Mulberry Street, the Zoo, and Hopping on Pop.  The sidewalk never ended for Shel Silverstein although I didn’t want to play hopscotch anymore after I listened to his adult poetry. Tupac wrote a collection of roses growing from concrete that cause the thorns in my students to wither away. O Romeo, O Romeo, Wherefore Art Thou Romeo (Shakespeare) To this day, everyone is still confused about Shakespeare, and Hamlet doesn’t know whether to be, or not to be.  That really is the question though, isn’t it?

Without poetry, Emily Dickinson would have never gotten out of the attic.  The time has come/ the Walrus said,/ to talk of many things (Lewis Carroll). Zelda Fitzgerald might have actually saved herself from F. Scott.  Robert Frost might have taken the wrong road, and Gertrude Stein would not have any tender buttons, just cloth covered homemade buttons.  Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold (Yeats). Milton wouldn’t have journeyed to hell, so we wouldn’t have either.  What you say, a frozen hell?  Not with a bang but a whimper (Eliot). Doesn’t that just open our minds.  Anis Mojgani wouldn’t have told us to shake the dust, stopping millions of teenagers from slicing their wrists open only to watch them drip.  There would be no petals on a wet black bough. None. Just people on a subway looking forlornly at the lights that alert them to the next coming train.  I would be searching for love in all the wrong places if I didn’t know that men would turn down immortality to be with mortal women, especially ones named Penelope.  That blind seer could tell a good story.

Poor Pablo, no odes.  Those lemons, those old, mismatched socks.  No women like cherry trees. Those odes hanging on my giant peach wall in my classroom made by students, one about their cat, gone.  Middle school love letters would be empty with just those simple boxes asking for simple check marks – no mystery, no guile, no Cummings. I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart). Dinner parties full of white people in smart dresses would have no American dreams if it weren’t for Langston Hughes.  We might not even have jazz, and holy shit, that’s a blessing. I wouldn’t be able to ask Oscar Wilde to my dinner of dead people.  Longfellow would not look cheeky down on me from his above the bookcase post, Cisneros would not teach my students how to write about their homes, themselves, their language that is different from the world because it is their own. Smith wouldn’t have snapped her fingers and TOLD BUSH about his Katrina stain. Sir Walter Raleigh might not have become interested in one of the queen’s ladies in waiting and survived to run his now ranked city instead of losing his head over a woman.  He is a poet though, after all. And Sappho. What history museum would be complete without your sculpted head.

Poetry has given so much to the world.  It is not prose, it is a whole other animal.  Poetry gives voice to the concise, the words you can fit in your pocket that can kill just as easily as the final fight scene in Moby Dick, or that time that George kills Lennie in Of Mice and Men.  People have been trying to make the claim (for years) that poetry is dead, or dying.

See these traitors here:

*Washington Post Blasphemies

*The Daily (wrinkled) Beast

*Salon fought back, thus why they have Megan Mayhew Bergman as a feature writer.

*Flavorwire bringing the spice with a list, as per usual.  They’re the magazine at the grocery store that has to call their editor to figure out which kind of turkey to buy.

It’s very much alive.  Today, I gave my students 15 words from Jamaica Kincaid’s poem, “Girl.”  They claim it’s prose, but let’s be honest here, it’s written in one very complete sentence, only a poet could do that.  The day before yesterday, I gave them 15 words from “Exile,” by Julia Alvarez.  This lead to poems about deception, the country lifestyle of clotheslines and calloused hands, NYC, and the Domincan Republic.  Through poetry, I can show my students the world at large.  How it feels to be lost and how it feels to be found again.  Because somewhere in a stanza, the paragraph of the poem, as I teach it, there is a little white picket fence that speaks only to the things that they want to plant there.  Without metaphors (from epic poems told as stories in arenas) our brains would not work.  Our whole function as people comes from making comparisons.  An apple is an apple because it isn’t an orange.  A friend is a friend because they don’t act like __________.  My heart beats, small pebbles thrown at a window.

When children are learning to read, science has proven that rhyming works the best, especially for learning disabled children.  It is the gateway to vocabulary, to phonemes, and phonics.  Unlike novels, you can collect poems, you can memorize their ticks, where it’s best to pronounce words with deliberation, and where it’s best to shout.  You can own them.  You can take them in your month and bite down.  Poems, those little monsters inside of our head, the words we write on foggy windows, the napkin stories in small diners, the inside jokes, the graffiti artist’s last words, the small print inside our tennis shoes, the beginning of rap music, the way Vietnam passes on storytelling, the coming together of words without all the useless bullshit.

Welcome to National Poetry Month at Books & Bowel Movements, it’s going to be a

a. happy union

b. complete ruin

c. production from a curly-headed human

d. something to make you loosen (your pants)

e. a magic illusion

f. a tiny nuisance

(See, what I did there).

It will be: Poetry everyday. 


Newsday Tuesday

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Favorite Tweets:

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Favorite Search Terms:

  • tooth fairy coloring book: I can only imagine a child finding this under their pillow and being upset it isn’t a quarter.   I still think you’re a good parent.
  • hobbit coloring sheets: We’ve got some crayons on the blog recently.  This was too exciting not to post.  How would you even begin to color those hairy feet?
  • open windows and books: This is a lovely sentiment.
  • what dr seuss books really mean: Little did you know he was a political cartoonist during WWII.

Book News:


Newsday Tuesday

Favorite Tweets:

Favorite Search Terms:

  • find out what you love and let it kill you bukowski: He was such an Eeyore.
  • eliot five foot shelf of books: Eliot must have shopped at Ikea (DING DING!)
  • Dr. Suess dirty poems: Who the heck googles this?  A few fish and ham rhymes aren’t good enough for you.
  • lego movie theater decals: My nephew would GEEK OUT over this search term.

Book News:


Newsday Tuesday

Favorite Tweets:

Read bottom to top:

Read normally:

Favorite Search Terms:

  • bowel movements in history: if someone hasn’t written this book, they should.  I will review it with honor.
  • ihop receipt: I just thought that this was interesting.  I must know the story of this googling.  If you are out there anonymous googler, please email.  Yes, this has become a want-ad.
  • disney princess epiphanies: I have this all the time, then I sing, “Ah-ah-ah, ah-ah-ah” like golden rays are coming out of my hair and I’ve become little mermaid, minus the fin.
  • feminist background: Is anyone really born a feminist or do they become one after many years of silent rage?
  • a re-imagined Florida in which the citizens of the state are born with magic talents: Listen, I lived in Boca until I was five and the only magic talent Florida needs is better driving schools.  My faj flew over a grassy median once and said, “it’s okay, we’re in Florida, they all do that.”
  • spark notes Claire Keegan Foster: Shame on you.  I’m guffawing.

Book News:


Of Cats and Men

What’s not to love right?

My Cat and I, Jasper Dean

The two things that are, and one day will be, most important to me feature heavily in this book of short stories by Nina de Gramont.  I picked this book up, 1. because I wanted to attend Wilmington for my MFA and 2. because with a title like that I knew there would have to be a short story written squarely about me, and my cat, Jasper.  While what I found dealt mainly with the Cape Cod area and all of the women were befuddled and in transition (much like me actually) only a few of the stories really struck a cord the way a good story should.

Now, I’m not saying I didn’t like this book, I did.  I only loved a few of the stories though.  I think my favorite story was “Human Contact” because it most depicted me.  I’m going to be honest, I can be quite the narcissistic a-hole and so a story that closely resembles my life will always be my favorite.  In “Human Contact” the heroine is in love with a man, who ends up moving and changing lifestyles from guitar-playing-swooner to ranch-hand.  She can’t cope with his new-found, flannel, man-hood and she moves cross country, first with a dog who she saves from the ranch and then, with a cat.  Throughout the story, the dog plays a pivotal role, but it is the cat who finishes the story strong.  It is the cat that saves her from her rut of a man she may love right now, but not forever.  Is is always the cat who saves, is it not?

Obviously, the reigning King.

The rest of the stories range in topics.  I think most people will pick up this book and think it’s a niche book, or a “gimic” because it centers around men and cats.  But, how many books have you read that centered around men?  Isn’t their a whole genre titled: romance, or chick lit, that centers around the man-hunt.  Or, in the case of the romance, a death and kiss you back to health?  But, most of this book can be felt very deeply.  It does center around almost only, actually maybe only female main characters who are coping in some way; some with the birth of their children, others with the loss of their loved one, one woman even the murder of her husband right before her eyes.  They all range in emotional intensity, and story-telling.  A few, I was very wrapped up in and sat at the coffee shop way past my whip cream and coffee was slurped from its plastic cup.  (One included a woman who wore her husband’s shoes to his funeral – what a great story piece, it gives me full imagination to dive right into both of these characters; the husband and the widow).  Then, there were other stories I had to concentrate all my might on just to finish.  Sometimes it’s just not enough being a woman, reading another woman character – sometimes a deeper level of understanding is needed and I didn’t always get that in every short story.  It is a quick read though, especially for a cat lady.

Jasper Muffin

If you are the following kind of person, I urge you to re-evaluate your life and think of yourself from now on as a cat lady, and also read this book.

  1. You prefer porches. (If you’re asking yourself, “to…” then you don’t understand what I’m saying).
  2. You do not like to be in bed alone and/or you have a fear of ghosts (even though your dad sleeps across the hall from you in his creaky bed, with the creepy picture of your grandmother on the bed side table…nobody? Just me? Oh, okay…)
  3. You are always donning a warm blanket when laying on the couch.
  4. You read. (This can by Stephen King, to Peanuts, to Charles Darwin, to Nora Roberts.  Nora Roberts is obviously a dead-ringer though).
  5. Your friends have started realizing you may not marry.  Or you have Emily Dickinson syndrome which means you stay mainly in your room (or an attic) at a desk writing poetry…
  6. You have big hair. It explains itself really.

And then, while googling around with the search, “of cat and men” I found a few gems.  I think my favorite discovery was this one. It claims that the bond between cat lady and cat is real.  If my life could be explained in a short website article – it would be this one.  Let me help you all out: I’m a Capricorn – who’s archetype is the “grandmother,”  I refuse to spend the night at most people’s houses if my cat can’t tag along, and I let him cuddle my head while I sleep.  He eats only the best food, is perfectly manicured, and looks like a mixture of a slinking tiger and a wild mole rat.  (I wish I could claim he looked like a naked mole rat, but I haven’t shaved his luxurious stripes).  Literally, he will run through our kitchen window one day when he speeds down the stairs, disrupts all my mother’s rug laying, and synchronized flowered carpets and runs smack dab into his window perch (can be found at most pet stores), barely missing the glass of the window, and the birds he’s most hoping to chomp on.

Jasper in his favorite place: atop the fridge in the water box.

So, obviously, the thing I liked most about Gramont’s book was her use of cats in every story.  I’m not sure men played such a strong role in every story, but cats never took the background.  From one cat lady to another, I can definitely appreciate a book about the Egyptians Gods.

Did you know:

    • Egyptians who killed cats, accidental or not were always punished by death.
    • In Egyptian mourning rituals, when a cat died in the home, all the people living there would shave their eyebrows.

I found all of this information from this lovely website. You can decide if you personally want to believe in the significance of Cat-God’s in ancient Egypt on your own.

My favorite show that had a cat: Binka (BBC).  Followed closely behind by Catdog because it had a catchy tune and put an end to the argument of which is better, a cat or dog, forever.  It did this by allowing cat to come first in the name, with dog a close second.  (I like dogs, but nothing can replace my spoiled, aloof, mysterious, violent cat).

Here’s my favorite cat video.  (This video was brought to me by CK, who has a sick obsession with Inception, even though he would never admit his secret love of Leo).

WARNING: If you click the videos to the side, under “suggestions,” you will spend two hours with cats, and your own snarky giggles.


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