Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Resolution #1: Help the American Shakespeare Center

I moved to the Staunton area in 2001. One reason I chose to move here instead of several other cities I was considering was the new theater that was then under construction--the Blackfriars Playhouse. It was to be the home of what was then called Shenandoah Shakespeare, now known as the American Shakespeare Center. The idea of year round rotating repertory just seemed too wonderful, and so I settled here and began to be a regular at the theater. The experience has only improved since then. The ASC and Blackfriars help make Staunton a special place.

However, the economic downturn is especially painful for an arts organization already operating on a tight budget. Schools have less to spend on field trips, governments have less to spend on arts grants, corporations have less to spend on sponsorships, and individuals have less to spend on entertainment. As a result, ASC is hurting and has issued a plea for donations. See An Important Message About the Future of the ASC. They need to raise $250,000 by the end of January. I've made a donation and I'll do what else I can to help them reach that goal. I hope you will join me in making a contribution during January to ensure that the ASC, which is an underappreciated treasure right here in Staunton, will continue to thrive.

Buying tickets will help, too. The theater has FIVE great plays that will be opening over the next few weeks. Buy your tickets now and plan to see each of the shows at least once.

Staunton needs the ASC. Virginia needs the ASC. Please help.

New Issue: 34th Parallel

Check out the new issue of 34th Parallel, which uses ISSUU technology. It's cool.

Arts Stimulus Plan

I'm sure you've noticed, or realized, that funding for the arts is endangered in the current economic crisis. Clearly, this is short-sighted, and many in the artistic community are arguing for an Arts Stimulus Plan. Read about it and sign the petition.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

BAA: Book Addicts Anonymous

Care to join? I've whined about this problem before, but I'm going to do it again: I'm drowning here. I keep buying books. I hardly ever part with books. The shelves are full. Help! This might not be so traumatic if actually read the books I bought; I might then be able to find some that I could give away or sell. But many of the books just land in piles (alphabetized piles, mind you, but piles nonetheless) and don't get read because tomorrow the mailcarrier will bring something else.

Today, for example. I received three books today: Wandering Star by J.M.G. Le Clezio, who won the Nobel Prize for literature this year. It looks terrific. I've only read a short story by him until now, and I'm looking forward to reading this book. Someday. I also got The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery. I met Ellis at VCCA this month and she read an exerpt of this book to the fellows. It seemed intriguing, and so . . . And I also got Ron Carlson Writes a Story by Ron Carlson. I hadn't bought any new craft books for a while, and someone--I know longer remember who--recommended this one.

I confess that I bought these from, but in the past couple of weeks I've also bought books from the two local indpendent bookstores. So while I feel guilty for buying books that it's likely to take me years to read, I don't feel guilty about where I bought them.

I'm stimulating the economy, maybe. Yeah, that's it. That's my story.

New Yorker Story of the Year: One Day Left to Vote

Vote for the New Yorker Story of the Year for 2008. Only one day left! See sidebar at right.

Support the American Shakespeare Center

The American Shakespeare Center is an amazing resource, not just for my area but for the entire region, and anywhere the ASC touring troupe can reach. If you've never seen what they do, you really should make a trek to Staunton, Virginia, to take in a play or two or three, or check out the touring troupe when they're in your area.

In the meantime, the ASC has launched a fundraising campaign in order to ensure its survival. Please consider supporting this gem: Survive and Thrive.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

American Shakespeare Center: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead

The Stark Raving Sane Tour has been "at home" in Staunton this month doing the American Shakespeare Center's production of A Christmas Carol (which is in its final performance as I write this post). With that run ending, it's time for them to hit the road again. But before they go, they gave "sneak peek" performances of the three shows they're doing on tour, and that they're bringing back to Staunton for a two-month run April-May. We also got a preview back in September. Then I was able to see only Hamlet, which I thought was very good. I missed Hamlet this weekend, and I won't make it to A Commedy of Errors tonight, but I did not want to miss Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, a play that I read back in high school, when it was still new, and Stoppard was barely known in the U.S. (Or maybe he was. I was in high school in Peoria, Illinois, so I hadn't heard of anyone.)

I was blown away by the play back then, and it has remained one of my favorites (contributing to my choice of Stoppard's Jumpers as the subject for a major paper in graduate school). Now, I can't say that the performance I saw last night was the most polished piece of theater I've ever seen. A little rust, perhaps? No matter, though, it was still completely enjoyable, very funny, and painfully thought provoking. I'll definitely see it again when it comes back in April, and I suspect it will be sharper then.

The story, of course, centers on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, minor characters in Shakespeare's Hamlet. I love the idea of the company doing both Hamlet and this play, using the same actors to play the same parts in the two plays, and in April I intend to see the shows together, on the same day if possible (I'm sure that's possible--opening weekend is scheduled that way.) And so, much depends on the actors playing those two roles. Both Rick Blunt, as Rosencrantz, and Ginna Hoben, as Guildenstern, do fine jobs. No offense to Blunt, but he makes a very believable dolt, and his comic timing is superb. Hoben, too, can be very funny, and she does well with the more thoughtful side of Guildenstern, who frequently waxes philosophical. And although we know that Guildenstern is a man, it is easy to overlook that Hoben is obviously a woman--a fact that no attempt is made to disguise, as is often done when women play men in the Shakespeare plays the company does--because it just isn't important to the words. In any case, the words here are the stars of the show, and these two actors do a great job of delivering them. I love the words--it's why Stoppard is a joy to read as well as to watch.

So the play is good fun, and everyone should go see it when it returns in April!

3 Days Left to Vote!

Vote in the 2008 New Yorker Story of the Year poll, in the sidebar at right. Just 3 days left!

Bear Parade

I'm not sure how to describe what Bear Parade is. It's NOT a journal. It's NOT a book. An electronic anthology, maybe. An eAntho. Okay, I like that. It's an eAntho, which is an online assemblage of works of poetry and short fiction. It's interesting. Check it out.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Kevin Wilson in Tin House

Read No Joke, This is Going to be Painful, by the amazing Kevin Wilson, from the current issue of Tin House.

And speaking of Kevin, don't you dare laugh when you read about his Word Space at < HTMLGIANT >.

10 Books to Read Before . . .

. . . you know. I just saw a list (here, but I don't know how long the link will work) that purportedly is 10 Books to Read Before You Die. It includes The Bible, Gone With the Wind, Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter Series, The Stand (Stephen King), both The DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atlas Shrugged and The Catcher in the Rye. It turns out, though, that the list is from a poll that asked people to name their favorite books. That's something else, no?

So, forget this ridiculous list. I'm working on my own, and I welcome comments naming your favorite books.

Here are fifteen of my favorites (although, in truth, the titles in many cases are representative of the whole body of work--Greene, Hesse, Mishima, etc.):

Affliction, Russell Banks

The Quiet American, Graham Greene

Catch 22, Joseph Heller

The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse

Lost in the City, Edward P. Jones

Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey

All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy

Moby Dick, Herman Melville

Temple of Dawn, Yukio Mishima

A Mercy, Toni Morrison

Going After Cacciato, Tim O'Brien

Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Grace Paley

Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie

The Spectator Bird, Wallace Stegner

4 Days Left to Vote

There are just 4 days left to vote for the 2008 New Yorker Story of the Year. See Perpetual Folly: Vote for New Yorker 2008 Story of the Year for links to the top stories. Then vote in the poll in the right sidebar.

Also, be sure to check out the Donald Antrim and Colson Whitehead stories in the Winter Fiction Issue. Anyone want to conduct a write-in campaign? They're terrific stories. the Alice Munro story is, too.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The New Yorker: “The Gangsters” by Colson Whitehead

It seems as though the magazine saved the best for last. Not only is this a gripping story of two young brothers—who are close and then drift apart and then come back together—the language of the story is astoundingly beautiful. I think probably the story is the best thing I’ve read in the New Yorker since I began this commentary two years ago. Unlike most TNY stories, I've put this one aside to read again later.

Benji and Reggie are upper middleclass black kids whose parents have a beach house in Sag Harbor. It’s the summer of 1985 and they are 15 and 14, old enough to be left alone while the parents go back to the city for work during the week. The boys hang out with some other boys who are in similar situations, and they’re all struggling to deal with the perceived conflicts in their class and their race, and they’re experimenting with both. The boys manage to get guns, but against the expectations of the reader these are BB guns, not Saturday-night specials or whatever, and BB guns are a pretty common hazard for kids everywhere, kids of all races. (Shoot, even I had a pellet gun at that age.) Benji is the good kid, although none of these boys is bad (at this point, anyway; the retrospective voice hints at troubles to come), and he resists the idea of a BB gun war. But the war becomes inevitable, as stupid an idea as it is, because the boys are incredibly bored. There is nothing else to do—nothing—and so this begins to sound like a good idea. The injury that results also seems inevitable, although it has twists that still make it surprising, and the resolution is also not quite what the reader expects. And so, it’s a thoroughly satisfying story for me.

But what makes it a great story, in my view, is the language. There’s a fresh gem in every paragraph. Benji and Reggie are described as more than Siamese twins as young boys, although they are 10 months apart in age. “Where is the surgeon gifted enough to undertake separating these hapless conjoined? Paging Doc Puberty, arms scrubbed, smocked to the hilt, smacking the nurses on the ass and well versed in the latest techniques. More suction! Javelin and shot-put—that’s about right.” And the parents come back to Sag Harbor every weekend. “The week was a vast continent for us to explore and conquer. Then suddenly we ran out of land.” One of the friends acquires a car. “Its fenders were dented and dimpled, rust mottled the frame in leprous clumps, and the inside smelled like hippie anarchists on the lam had made it their commune.” They use an old radio as target practice with the BB guns. “The radio made a sad ting, tottered in cheap suspense, and fell into the dirt.” I could go on and on. This is a truly wonderful story.

By the way, the magazine notes that Whitehead has a novel, "Sag Harbor," due out in April. I have no idea if this story is an excerpt from that novel--the title suggests that it might well be--but in any case this piece clearly stands on its own.

December 22 & 29, 2008: “The Gangsters” by Colson Whitehead.
[As with the Munro story in this issue, to read the whole thing you will need to register, but registration is free.]

The New Yorker: “Meeting with Enrique Lihn” by Roberto Bolaño

This is the one story in this double issue that I didn’t love. And the main reason for not liking it is that the bulk of the story is a dream, and fictional dreams are, to me, undermining the fiction. It’s ironic, since the whole thing is made up anyway, but when a dream is layered on top of the fiction, the fiction itself becomes unbelievable to me, and I don’t see the point of unbelievable fiction. (Even science fiction, fantasy, and magical realism have to establish their own realities within which the story can occur; dreams even in those worlds bend the rules unacceptably.) So it was a disappointment to me when this story began with a dream in which the narrator, who has the same name as the author, is taken to a meeting with Enrique Lihn, who the narrator knows to be dead. The story of that meeting is clever and interesting, but since the whole thing is a dream it is hard to care. Except for this, which very nearly redeems the story for me: near the end of the meeting, Lihn says, “You’re not going to believe this, Bolaño, but in this neighborhood only the dead go out for a walk.” Suggesting that it wasn’t a dream at all, but that the narrator is dead and has indeed come to meet with Lihn. I don’t know when this story was written, but the author died in 2003, which makes the story more appealing. So, I don’t love this story, but I can imagine that some might. I hope fans of the story will comment and explain their views.

December 22 & 29, 2008: “Meeting with Enrique Lihn” by Roberto Bolaño.

The New Yorker: "Some Women" by Alice Munro

This is a retrospective story that does a great job of contrasting the present with the memory. The narrator at one point compares a character’s flesh to plastic, but then interjects that of course back then we said “celluloid” not “plastic.” She is an old woman now but is recalling when she was a girl and had a job helping to take care of a man who had leukemia. She would go to the house a couple of days a week where the man’s stepmother presided and the man’s wife was tolerated. In addition there was Roxanne, the character who stirs up the trouble in the story, a temporary ally of the stepmother. In the end, the dying man enlists the girl’s help, from which she learns. It’s a delightful story, and gripping.

December 22 & 29, 2008: “Some Women” by Alice Munro
[Note: the link is to the New Yorker archive, which requires free registration to view.]

The New Yorker: "Another Manhattan" by Donald Antrim

With one exception—and I suspect some may quarrel with me about that—the stories in the Winter Fiction Issue (December 22 & 29) are among the best of the year. But the issue was too late for me to include them in the Best New Yorker Story of 2008 poll, and so they aren’t in the running. [Note to self: Next year, why not wait until January to do the silly poll?] Consequently, I’m tempted to put an asterisk next to the winning story this year, because I’m not sure it will truly be the best of the year.

In any case, first up is this Donald Antrim story, which is funny and disturbing, both in an extreme way. Jim and Kate are planning to have dinner with Elliot and Susan. So far so good. Except that Jim, who is married to Kate (part love, part sham, since the marriage allowed him access to her health benefits, which is good because he seems to need frequent hospitalization as a result of nervous breakdowns), has recently ended an affair with Susan, who is married to Elliot, who is trying to start (or rekindle) an affair with Kate. Jim stops at a florist to get a bouquet for Kate who, unbeknownst to Jim—the story is told with an omniscient point of view—has been on the phone with Elliot for FIVE HOURS. But Jim obsesses over the bouquet, it grows to mammoth proportions while he argues with himself not only about flirting with the florist but also spending what is Kate’s money. Eventually, the other three area all drunk at the restaurant and Jim steals the huge bouquet, runs through the snow across town with his face buried in the flowers, and enters the restaurant disheveled and bleeding (roses). This is great black comedy and would make an excellent episode of Desperate Housewives, or maybe a pilot for its own show. Love it. And I love the punny title.

December 22 & 29, 2008: “Another Manhattan” by Donald Antrim

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Reminder: Vote for New Yorker 2008 Story of the Year

Just a reminder: the polls are still open for New Yorker 2008 Story of the Year. Vote in the sidebar. The finalists are--

January 14, 2008: “Wakefield” by E.L. Doctorow
May 12, 2008: “A Man Like Him” by Yiyun Li
June 23, 2008: “The Headstrong Historian” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
August 11 & 18, 2008: “The Dinner Party” by Joshua Ferris
November 24, 2008: “Ghosts” by Edwidge Danticat
December 15, 2008: “The Woman of the House” by William Trevor

The poll will close at midnight on December 31.

American Shakespeare Center: Santaland Diaries

Last year was the first year I saw David Sedaris's The Santaland Diaries at the American Shakespeare Center's Blackfriars Playhouse. It was great (Paul Fidalgo played Crumpet the Elf last year) and so I was looking forward to seeing again this year. This irreverent one-man show is a nice complement to the more traditional A Christmas Carol, and I'm not sure I could stand to see one without the other! Since I only got back to town Monday, I saw the Dickens on Tuesday and the Sedaris tonight. (This year two actors played Crumpet--John Harrell took the first half of the run and Chris Seiler took the second; I would like to have seen both because they're very different actors, but I wasn't back in time to see Harrell.)

The show is terrifically funny and raunchy and politically incorrect, all Sedaris specialties. Seiler did an excellent job of keeping the monologue moving and varied in tone. (You have to let the audience breathe from time to time.) The story, for those who don't know, is that Sedaris has recently arrived in New York and hopes to land a job on a soap opera, but in the meantime stoops to working as an elf in Macy's Santaland. From the interview to the costume to the demeaning work, there's humor in everything, until Crumpet (the "elf name" Sedaris assumes) looks like he'll learn the spirit of Christmas. Almost. As with other shows performed by ASC, this one incorporates the audience to certain extent and Seiler is very good at that in the intimate space. If you have a chance to see the show--it's playing Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at 5pm.

I may go back to see it again, not because of Seiler/Sedaris (as good as the performance is), but because of the pre-show music provided by Chris Johnston and Alisa Ledyard. They start about a half hour before the show, so I missed nearly half of their performance, and they're both terrific musicians, which I already knew. (Alisa was an apprentice during the Piercing Eloquence tour last year and I heard her wonderful singing voice then; Chris has been around a bit longer and is very talented musically.) Another thing that was a nice surprise about the performance--that I don't suppose will be repeated--is that the rest of the touring company was seated in the audience in the row in front of me. So most of the actors in A Christmas Carol (and all from Hamlet, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, and Comedy of Errors) were there.

Anyway, check out the two shows in the Winter Season. There's still time!

Huss & Dalton

I wish I played guitar just so I could aspire to own one of these beautiful instruments made by Huss & Dalton right here in Staunton, VA.

On Process

Writer Gay Degani has some helpful observations on the process of writing: Process and Malcolm and Outliers.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

American Shakespeare Center: A Christmas Carol

It's a little late in the run to be doing a review, but I've been out of town. Still, if you're in the Staunton vicinity between now and the final performance on Sunday afternoon, I heartily recommend that you catch the American Shakespeare Center's production of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Even if you've seen it before--everyone's seen it, right?--you should see this one.

I've been going to ASC's "Carol" productions every year since the Blackfriars Playhouse opened in 2001, and I always look forward to seeing how the show will be made new. I've yet to be disappointed. This year was especially musical and, it seemed to me, played more for laughs than previous productions. For one thing, James Keegan (of late, King Lear, so the contrast is stark) makes a funny scrooge. He's hilarious when he's mocking his nephew Fred and the beggar boy, and also when he is injected into the "shadows" that the spirits show him. The spirits of Christmas Past and Present are also very funny. Ginna Hoben plays "Past" as though she's part drill sergeant and part fairy godmother, while Rick Blunt is his usual comic self as "Present". Christmas Future takes a darker turn, of course, and the scene that Scrooge observes with the Tiny Tim-less Cratchit family is truly emotional (very well done by Josh Carpenter as Bob and Kelley McKinnon as Mrs. Cratchit). After Scrooge awakes from his dream, he goes wild with joy, and Keegan is excellent here also. (He's as manically mad as Lear is depressed, I think.)

There was a great moment that probably can't be repeated when Scrooge is laughing all over the place on stage and then suddenly reappears on the musician's balcony. Tonight, all the stools up there were taken by audience members and Keegan startled two young women, which was funny enough, but then he did it two more times and got screams out of the the women both times. The audience lost it. Hilarious. Precious moments that were more likely planned involved using the audience members on the gallant stools as coat racks in Scrooge's office. The kids got a kick out of that.

And, as I said, it's a musical production, too, with the cast working in lots of carols before and during the performance, plus at the interval.

It's a great show and eveyrone should see it. ASC is also doing Santaland Diaries again this year and I'll be seeing that tomorrow. And the touring company is also giving sneak peak previews on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the shows that will be here in early spring: Comedy of Errors, Hamlet, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Lots of theater to take in; opportunities not to be missed.

Vote for New Yorker 2008 Story of the Year

The year is almost over--just a week to go. I haven't posted my comments on all of the fiction in The New Yorker Winter Fiction Issue, but I'll do that in the next few days. It's time, though, to name the Finalists for New Yorker 2008 Story of the Year:

(cue drumroll)

January 14, 2008: “Wakefield” by E.L. Doctorow (my commentary)

May 12, 2008: “A Man Like Him” by Yiyun Li (my commentary)

June 23, 2008: “The Headstrong Historian” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (my commentary)

August 11 & 18, 2008: “The Dinner Party” by Joshua Ferris (my commentary)

November 24, 2008: “Ghosts” by Edwidge Danticat (my commentary)

December 15, 2008: “The Woman of the House” by William Trevor (my commentary)

The poll will close at midnight on December 31.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happy Yule

Today (December 21, 2008) is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. It gets better from now on . . .

Happy Yule (etc.)!

(The picture is from a solstice ceremony at Stonehenge earlier today. See: Winter Solstice.)

List o' Lists

Bookmark Magazine has provided a handy "best" lists from around the web: Top Ten Books of 2008, according to various publications, including Time Magazine's list of the 100 Best Novels of All Time (except that Time, it seems, only began in 1923).

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Winding Down at VCCA

Our numbers are dwindling. A few people have left in the last couple of days, and since VCCA closes for Christmas they are not being replaced by newcomers. That has a negative impact on the environment, in my view. The gray, gray weather doesn't help. All but one of the remaining visual artists will leave tomorrow, and the writers leave Monday. Under the circumstances, I'll be glad to get home. I'm finding it a little hard to work.

Last night was fun, though. After dinner, several of the artists opened their studios, so we got to see work by Kay Staelin, Michael Merry, Isabel Manalo, Camila Chaves Cortes, and Vanessa Woods. We drank wine, ate chocolate, and several of us stayed up late talking in Mike's studio. One of the other visual artists who did a presentation before I arrived at VCCA is Sam Nigro. Sorry I missed that . . .

Friday, December 19, 2008

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Elizabeth Alexander to read at Obama inauguration

Graywolf Press announced today that poet Elizabeth Alexander has been selected to read her work at the inauguration of Barack Obama in January. Personally, I think that's great. (See more about the selection in the Washington Post.) Any chance of having a great American fiction writer join her in the celebration of this historic occasion?

More VCCA rain

It's been another rainy day here at VCCA, so I've been working reasonably steadily all day. But here's a shot of the woods behind the residence that I took a few days ago. When there was sun.

No readings last night or tonight, although the next couple of nights are filled, which means I better plan on getting all my work done during the day!

Happy . . .

National Day of Bhutan. Also Day 2 of Las Posadas (in Mexico). Check the Earth Calendar every day to see what you could be celebrating.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

VCCA Reading

Last night at VCCA we had another fine reading. First up was Judith Tannenbaum, who is working on a dual memoir with a prison inmate she has mentored for many years. First she recited a poem she wrote long about about the experience of teaching in prisons, and then she read the very moving first chapter of the new book, which is subtitled "A Prison Conversation." The book will be published in 2009. Then Natania Rosenfeld (who was also here last year when I was here) read two short pieces. The first was a story that has appeared in Fairy Tale Review, and the second was wonderful essay from her essay collection that she's working on now. We've got a lot of readings and presentations this week, as everyone prepares to clear out before Christmas . . .

Monday, December 15, 2008

Rain Taxi Benefit Auction

Check out all the great stuff at this eBay auction in support of Rain Taxi Review of Books. It's a great magazine, and a wonderful opportunity to pick up some great books and other quality stuff.

New Issue: Carve

There's a new issue of Carve Magazine ready for reading: Winter 2008.

New Issue: Bound Off

It's the 15th of the month, so that means there is a new issue of Bound Off available. This month we hear from Thomas Kearnes and James A.W. Shaw

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sunday at VCCA

It's hard to know what to expect from a Sunday at VCCA. Breakfast is later, so some people get a slow start. Some fellows who are here for a long time actually leave on weekends; others find churches to visit or otherwise change their routine. We'd been talking about making a trip to the Appalachian Trail, as I've done each time I've been in residence here, and because the weather for the next several days looks discouraging for outside activities, today was the day. Eight of us took off at 10:00 (at least I got some work done in the morning) and got to the trail head at about 10:30. Since I've done this walk before, I took the lead, and soon the group split into two. Our group moved pretty steadily up hill and by about noon came to an amazing view of the Shenandoah Valley to the west. We didn't know what our goal was, but after seeing that amazing view we decided we didn't need to go further, and we headed back down.

I worked in the afternoon, although I was tired and not very efficient.

After dinner, we had a wonderful presentation from Anki King, a painter whose work is wonderful. Many of the slides she showed us are up on her website, so be sure to check it out! Of course, it was wonderful to hear her talk about her work, but you can get a good sense of it from the pictures.

Books to look forward to in 2009

Afraid that the mess in the publishing industry means that there won't be anything good to read next year? Think again! I guess I've been too busy to compile my own list, but Dan Wickett has come up with a terrific list of Books I'm Looking Forward to in 2009.

Friday, December 12, 2008

VCCA Readings

A couple of nights ago we had another reading in the VCCA living room. It was brief, which I appreciated, because I've been coming back out to my studio in the evenings. But it was also very enjoyable. Both readers read from published work, rather than things they've been working on here, but that's good too! M.F. Godfrey (Mimi), read a story about the Spanish Flu that was in three voices, with fascinating historical detail. Terrific piece that was in a journal I don't know called River's Edge. we also heard from E.J. Levy, who read a wonderful story that appeared in Orchid.

These readings are great because I'll now be on the lookout for work by these authors. We've got more readings and open studios coming up over the next week . . .

White Readers Meet Black Authors

Since I'm officially endorsing the Authors Guild's recommendation that all writers buy more books, let me also point to a clever related effort: White Readers Meet Black Authors (thanks to VQR Blog), where I learned that December is National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give it to Somebody Not Black Month. The site is a great place to find recommendations that you are otherwise unlikely to see . . .

Buy. More. Books.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The New Yorker: "The Woman of the House" by William Trevor

The New Yorker could do a lot worse than to publish a William Trevor story, so I was happy to see this one, and I believe it is one of the best stories of the year. The woman of the title is a cousin of a crippled man, and they live together on his farm out of convenience. She takes care of him, and also skims a little cash from the household accounts. They live on his pension, which is enough, but still they scrape by. The man hires two young men who he thinks are Polish to paint the outside of the house.

The woman objects, but she is resigned to the bargain he has struck. But the painters are forced away by rain and when they come back, the man is nowhere to be found and the woman is somehow different. They suspect that she has killed him but kept it quiet in order to keep receiving his pension, and indeed the reader suspects the same. The story is told in alternating voices. First the painters and then the woman, Martina, and both sections beautifully render their awkward circumstances. The men are in fact not Polish, but are Gypsies (or, rather, they are stateless survivors of “Carinthia” who are “now regarded as Gypsies). They don’t trust the local tinkers, and seem to be honest, hard workers, although they have taken on this painting job without knowing the first thing about it. And the woman’s situation is clearly difficult, without money of her own, allowing the grocer to take liberties with her so that she can save money on provisions.
“The woman’s history was not theirs to know, even though they now were part of it themselves. Their circumstances made them that, as hers made her what she’d become.”
And that tells the story.

December 15, 2008: “The Woman of the House” by William Trevor

Buy. More. Books.

A message from Roy Blount Jr., President of the Authors Guild:

I've been talking to booksellers lately who report that times are hard. And local booksellers aren't known for vast reserves of capital, so a serious dip in sales can be devastating. Booksellers don't lose enough money, however, to receive congressional attention. A government bailout isn't in the cards.

We don't want bookstores to die. Authors need them, and so do neighborhoods. So let's mount a book-buying splurge. Get your friends together, go to your local bookstore and have a book-buying party. Buy the rest of your Christmas presents, but that's just for starters. Clear out the mysteries, wrap up the histories, beam up the science fiction! Round up the westerns, go crazy for self-help, say yes to the university press books! Get a load of those coffee-table books, fatten up on slim volumes of verse, and take a chance on romance!

There will be birthdays in the next twelve months; books keep well; they're easy to wrap: buy those books now. Buy replacements for any books looking raggedy on your shelves. Stockpile children's books as gifts for friends who look like they may eventually give birth. Hold off on the flat-screen TV and the GPS (they'll be cheaper after Christmas) and buy many, many books. Then tell the grateful booksellers, who by this time will be hanging onto your legs begging you to stay and live with their cat in the stockroom: "Got to move on, folks. Got some books to write now. You see...we're the Authors Guild."

Enjoy the holidays.

Roy Blount Jr.
Authors Guild

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Book to Look Forward To

Kevin Wilson, a great guy and a terrific writer, is expecting! A book, that is. Tunneling to the Center of the Earth is due out in Spring 2009, and he talks about it a little here on his blog. I'm really looking forward to reading this book! (Isn't that an awesome cover?)

VCCA in the rain

I'm settled into my studio and routine now and it's great. For anyone who has been to VCCA, I'm in studio W4, which was renovated earlier this year and is beautiful. It's large, with a southern view, a nice bed and reading chair, a great desk. So I'm getting a reasonable amount of work done.

Except . . . coming down with a cold. And last night there was a reading after dinner that I didn't want to miss. Ellis Avery was reading from her novel The Teahouse Fire and a work in progress, and Linda Hartley read a short story based on research she's done on gypsies in England. I enjoyed it very much, despite the growing sinus problem I was having, and then my stay in my studio afterward wasn't as long or as productive as I would have liked.

But today has been better. I feel good and the rain has helped me keep focused, I think. We have another reading tonight so I probably won't get much done this evening, and will be back at it in the morning!

Monday, December 08, 2008


It seems as though the page 56 meme has passed this way before, but here it is again courtesy of Kat Denza.

These things have rules, of course. The first one is that I'm supposed to grab the nearest book and turn to page 56. Then I'm supposed to go to the fifth line and type that one and the next 2 to 5. The book is A Thousand Splendid Suns:

"From her window, she watched him in the yard, securing his lunch in the rear carrier pack of his bicycle, then walking his bicycle across the yard and into the street. She watched him pedal away, saw his broad, thick-shouldered figure disappear around the turn at the end of the street."

And then I'm supposed to tag five more booklovers to do the same thing. But . . . I'm not going to do that. I don't mind being tagged and think it's kind of fun. But I don't like to intrude on others, so here's what I've been doing with other recent memes I've received: self-selective tagging. If you read this and want to participate, I invite you to consider yourself tagged. And maybe you'll leave a comment here to that effect . . .

VCCA Arrival

This is my fourth residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and I've really been looking forward to it as a way to refocus. I hope it works. On previous visits, I arrived in the morning before lunch, allowing me all afternoon to get to work. Because I had to give the "final exam" to my class today, however, I wasn't able to get on the road until almost 3:30, and so I arrived at VCCA shortly before 5:00. (It isn't a long trip, obviously--just over the mountain.)

I moved my stuff in quickly because I have a ground-floor room this year. (I brought too much stuff. Again.) Then I drove out to the barn to move into my studio. When I saw that I was in W4, I thought it was the same one I was in a couple of years ago and I was somewhat disappointed. But I quickly discovered that (a) it's a different studio and it's fantastic; and (b) I needn't have worried because the studios on this side of the barn have, apparently, been recently renovated. In any case, the studio is large, I have a great view, nice furniture, and I'm psyched about working here.

I headed back to the residence and unpacked, then read in the lounge (and met people) until dinner. And after dinner I've been getting settled in the studio, putting up my outline on the bulletin board, etc. Tomorrow will be great.

Best Book Covers of 2008

Not much I can add to the caption. It's fun to browse through the covers: Best Book Covers of 2008

Saturday, December 06, 2008

College Hill Review

I've already mentioned this new magazine, but I guess my announcement of its debut was premature. Now, however, it has officially made its appearance online. Please take a look at College Hill Review, including my humble essay on MFA Programs.

2009 Pushcart Prize Rankings


It is time once again to give my annual ranking of literary magazines. As I have noted in years past, the following list looks only at the Pushcart Prizes awarded and Special Mentions in Fiction since 2000. Awards before that date are less relevant, it seems to me, in determining the relative quality of magazines publishing today. In fact, from next year I may start dropping older years out of the formula, in order to keep the list truly current. Note, also, that I am not considering Non-fiction or Poetry in this analysis. A similar list for those genres would be interesting, but I leave that to someone else. Or I'll tackle it at a later date. But not right now.

I'm also not looking at other fine volumes such as the O. Henry Prizes or the Best American Short Stories. Appearing in either of those collections is a high honor, but the selection process isn't comparable to the Pushcarts, and so I don't believe mixing is appropriate, and, besides, many stories appear in two or more of the annual anthologies and that would skew the index. So: just Pushcarts and Special Mentions in Fiction since 2000.

A word about methodology: it isn't complicated. My formula counts a certain number of points for a prize and a smaller number of points for a special mention. Someone could figure it out if he or she wanted to. It's pretty simple. As I have in the past couple of years, I've listed the total number of points using this formula so readers can see, for example, how far ahead of the pack Ploughshares is.

A couple of things to note about this year's list. Not much changed from last year, for one thing. Paris Review dropped a spot, Ontario (which ceased publication this year and so is marked on the list with ©) dropped a few. New England climbed a couple of spots, reaching the top-ten, which pushed Epoch and TriQuarterly out. There was more movement toward the bottom of the list, where we have ten or so magazines appearing for the first time, thanks to their Special Mentions.

Finally, to borrow a note of caution from last year's post on this subject:
One final word: What good is this list anyway? I'm a fan of the Pushcart Prize Anthology and I happen to think that it is a good indicator of magazine quality. It isn't perfect, and it doesn't mean a whole lot, frankly, but when I'm making my decisions of where I want to submit, I look at this list and aim as high as is realistically possible.

2009 Magazine 2009 Score

1 Ploughshares 118
2 Zoetrope: All Story 75
3 Conjunctions 71
4 Paris Review 67
4 Southern Review 67
6 Threepenny Review 58
7 Tin House 56
8 Georgia Review 52
9 Ontario Review © 49
10 New England Review 46
11 TriQuarterly 45
12 Epoch 44
13 Witness 39
13 Missouri Review 39
15 McSweeney's 35
16 Kenyon Review 33
16 Shenandoah 33
18 Five Points 32
19 Antioch Review 28
20 Boulevard 26
21 StoryQuarterly © 25
22 Gettysburg Review 24
22 Agni 24
22 Virginia Quarterly Review 24
25 Mississippi Review 22
26 Chelsea © 21
27 A Public Space 20
28 Doubletake 19
28 Idaho Review 19
28 Oxford American 19
28 Noon 19
32 Third Coast 16
32 New Letters 16
32 One Story 16
35 Iowa Review 15
36 Glimmer Train 14
38 Willow Spring 13
39 Harvard Review 12
39 Hudson Review 12
41 Manoa 11
41 News from the Republic of Letters 11
41 Salmagundi 11
41 Prairie Schooner 11
41 Crazyhorse 11
46 Alaska Quarterly Review 10
46 Pleiades 10
46 Colorado Review 10
46 Yale Review 10
46 American Scholar 10
51 North American Review 9
52 Michigan Quarterly Review 8
52 Bellevue Literary Review 8
54 Boston Review 7
54 Fence 7
54 Graywolf 7
54 Speakeasy 7
54 Bomb 7
54 Image 7
54 Southwest Review 7
61 Calyx 6
61 New Orleans Review 6
61 Sonora Review 6
61 Story 6
61 Sun 6
61 Caribbean Writer 6
61 Fiction International 6
61 Other Voices 6
69 Another Chicago Magazine 5
69 Black Warrior Review 5
69 Bridge 5
69 Coffee House Press 5
69 Dalkey Archive Press 5
69 Grand Street 5
69 Milkweed 5
69 Parkett 5
69 Univ. of Georgia Press 5
69 Cincinnati Review 5
69 Massachusetts Review 5
80 Daedalus 4
80 Gulf Coast 4
80 Mid American Review 4
80 Nebraska Review 4
80 Northwest Review 4
80 Water-Stone 4
80 Raritan 4
87 Bamboo Ridge 3
87 3
87 Indiana Review 3
87 Literal Latte 3
87 Post Road 3
87 University Press of New England 3
87 Event 3
87 Sewanee Review 3
95 American Fiction 2
95 American Letters & Commentary 2
95 American Literary Review 2
95 American Voice 2
95 Beloit Fiction 2
95 Briar Cliff Review 2
95 Columbia Review 2
95 Green Mountains Review 2
95 Lit 2
95 Meridian 2
95 Natural Bridge 2
95 Ninth Letter 2
95 Open City 2
95 Paper Street 2
95 Pinch 2
95 Turnrow 2
95 West Branch 2
95 Western Humanities Review 2
95 [sic] 2
95 Crab Orchard Review 2
95 Faultline 2
95 Passages North 2
95 Redivider 2
95 Narrative 2
95 Appalachian Heritage 2
120 Amazon Shorts 1
120 Antietam Review 1
120 APA Journal 1
120 Art and Understanding 1
120 Artful Dodge 1
120 Ascent 1
120 At Length 1
120 Ballyhoo Stories 1
120 Baltimore Review 1
120 Bellingham Review 1
120 BkMk Press 1
120 Blackbird 1
120 Brain, Child 1
120 Canio's Editions 1
120 Carnegie Mellon Univ. Press 1
120 Carve 1
120 Chautauqua 1
120 Clackamas Literary Review 1
120 Confrontation 1
120 Contemporary West 1
120 Cutbank 1
120 Denver Quarterly 1
120 Descant 1
120 Dos Passos Review 1
120 Eggemoggin Reach Review 1
120 EWUP 1
120 Flyway 1
120 Fourteen Hills 1
120 Frank 1
120 Fugue 1
120 Hampton Shorts 1
120 Happy 1
120 Healing Muse 1
120 Heart 1
120 Helicon Nine Editions 1
120 High Plains Literary Review 1
120 Hotel Amerika 1
120 Hunger Mountain 1
120 Inkwell 1
120 Iron Horse Literary Review 1
120 Joe 1
120 Kyoto Journal 1
120 Lake Effect 1
120 Larcom Review 1
120 Laurel Review 1
120 Lilth 1
120 Louisville Review 1
120 Lynx Eye 1
120 Margin 1
120 McSweeney's Books 1
120 Mid-List 1
120 Minnesota Review 1
120 1
120 New Renaissance 1
120 Night Train 1
120 North Atlantic Review 1
120 Northern Lights 1
120 Oasis 1
120 Partisan Review 1
120 Pearl 1
120 Per Contra 1
120 Phoebe 1
120 Pindeldyboz 1
120 Press 1
120 Prism 1
120 Puckerbush Press 1
120 Puerto del Sol 1
120 Quarter After Eight 1
120 Quarterly West 1
120 Quick Fiction 1
120 RBS Gazette 1
120 River Styx 1
120 Salamander 1
120 Sarabande 1
120 Seems 1
120 Small Town 1
120 SMU Press 1
120 Soft Skull Press 1
120 South Carolina Review 1
120 Sou'wester 1
120 Spork 1
120 Stolen Time Press 1
120 Subtropics 1
120 Sycamore Review 1
120 Tampa Review 1
120 Tiferet 1
120 Timber Creek Review 1
120 Transformation 1
120 Two Girls Review 1
120 Underground Voices 1
120 University of Pittsburgh Press 1
120 War, Literature and The Arts 1
120 West Wind 1
120 Worcester 1
120 Words of Wisdom 1
120 WordWrights 1
120 Xconnect 1
120 Hopkins Review 1
120 Ecotone 1
120 Nimrod 1
120 Chattahoochee Review 1
120 Cimarron Review 1
120 Relief 1
120 Stone Canoe 1
120 Southampton Review 1
120 Rivendell 1
120 Folio 1
120 American Short Fiction 1
120 Arts & Letters 1
120 Callaloo 1
120 Rosebud 1
120 Fiction 1

Friday, December 05, 2008

The New Yorker: "Waiting" by Amos Oz

This story presents a problem because I think it is one of the year’s best and so should be included in the “long list” announced last week. I will therefore take it into consideration when producing the “short list” in a couple of weeks. I wonder if anyone who reads these commentaries will agree. In any case, this is the kind of story I like very much. Not a lot happens, and yet a life is revealed. The point of view character isn’t someone we like terribly much, and yet in the end we sympathize with him. He’s made mistakes, it’s not entirely clear that he understands this, but by his actions he shows that he has, at least for now, changed.

The protagonist is Benny Avni, the head of the town’s District Council. He’s efficient and officious. We learn that he “possessed a gift for refusing without the refuse realizing that he had just been refused,” and also that he “knew how to overpower, and this he practiced without the overpowered ever noticing that they were being overpowered.” (It’s possible, I suppose, that this repeated observation is just bad, because there is another example. In the story’s second paragraph we learn that “He walked pitched forward with a stubborn gait, as if he were fighting a strong headwind.” Later, when he leaves his house to look for his wife, “He strode forward at a pitched angle, as if fighting a harsh headwind, and went to look for his wife.” The two descriptions are meant to be connected, but the repetition of the reference to the headwind and the pitched angle both seems too much.) Avni is also cold and inconsiderate of his wife and children, about whom he seems to know or care very little. And so it is not just a little bit ironic when his wife, Nava, sends him a note that says, “Don’t worry about me,” because if he ever did worry about her it would be the first time. And so he goes about his business, heads home as usual, casually looks for Nava but is more interested in his lunch—which she has laid out for him—his nap, his shower and his clean underwear. But Nava’s continued absence has an effect on him and he goes looking for her. Much that he sees reminds him of her, but as he searches he is followed by a snarling dog who seems to represent something about his life—perhaps the lonely hell that he deserves after the way he has treated his family. He experiences pain and suffering on this search and the reader—this reader, anyway—wants to believe that this exposure to pain finally allows him to understand his wife and that if she ever does come back to him he will treat her differently.

I’d love to hear other views about this story.

December 8, 2008: “Waiting” by Amos Oz

Interview with Gail Konop Baker

Check out Jennifer Prado's interview with Gail Konop Baker, and then check out Gail's recently published memoir, Cancer is a Bitch.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Shadow Forest Authors

I had never heard of Shadow Forest Authors until today, but it looks like it might be worth looking into. If you are a published author with a book, consider donating a copy to one of the named beneficiaries so that it can be shared.

From the website:
Our mission at SFA, to encourage every author worldwide and from every genre to donate just one copy of their title to fill a void in reading materials and get both paperback books and e-books where they are urgently needed. Authors and supporters standing together to make a difference, our humble shadows speaking volumes.

Check it out and consider participating! I'd love to hear feedback from participants if you'd be willing to return here to share your stories.

Best Books of 2008

From it's list of the 100 Notable Books of 2008, the New York Times has named the Best Books of 2008.

The fiction side of the list is very exciting:

Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser, which I somehow overlooked, although I've liked his earlier work.

A Mercy, by Toni Morrison (which I also loved and discussed in a recent post).

2666, by Roberto Bolano, which is sitting on my shelf asking to be read.

Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill, which I bought on the strength of James Wood's glowing review but haven't yet read.

Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri, which I also have, even though I'm a rare non-fan of her previous books.

The non-fiction half of the list is of less interest to me, but is also worth noting: Julian Barnes's Nothing to be Frightened of, Drew Gilpin Faust's This Republic of Suffering, Jane Mayer's The Dark Side, Dexter Filkins's The Forever War, and Patrick French's The World Is What It Is, the Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul.

I've got lots of reading to do.

Indie & Small Press Book Fair

If I lived anywhere close to NYC, I'd be planning to spend time this weekend at the 21st Annual Indie & Small Press Book Fair. It's at the New York Center for Independent Publishing at 20 West 44th (between 5th and 6th).