Thursday, May 31, 2012

Blog Migration

You may have noticed that I haven't been posting much lately. That's partly because I've been swamped and partly because I've been developing a new integrated website and blog. Beginning today, Perpetual Folly can be found at a new location:

That site, which is integrated with my website,, is still under construction, but is now functional. I need to do some organization in the new place, but I hope you will visit me there.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Year of the LitMag: New England Review, Vol. 32, No. 3

[This is the 6th installment in my Year of the LitMag Feature. If you are interested in writing about an issue of a literary magazine, please leave a comment or send me an email.]

There’s a lot to absorb in the latest issue of New England Review, Vol. 32, No. 3, including seven stories, several essays, and lots of poems. NER is one of my favorite literary magazines, and it shows up near the top of the rankings: #12 in Fiction, # 45 in Nonfiction, and #7 in Poetry.

Since I keep sending them short stories (no luck yet), I’m always curious about the stories they publish. There’s quite a range in this issue, but there might be some characteristics that tie them together.

Let me start with James Magruder’s “Matthew Aiken’s Vie Bohème” since Jim is a friend (we were Fellows at Sewanee together and recently had overlapping residencies at VCCA). This story, from his novel in stories, Let Me See It, due out in May, is set in 1981, when Matthew Aiken, a young gay man, is studying in Paris. He doesn’t get along with his host family, the amusing and emotional Sirjean family, or with his roommate, Bruce. But he does manage to meet a man at the Beaubourg, with unhappy (but amusing for the reader) results. Let me just say that I learned a new French word: la chtouille. Funny and sad, a terrific read.

I also really enjoyed Scott Southwick’s “Time Keeps on Slipping, etc.” in which time does, indeed, slip into the future, relentlessly. Nicky is in grade school and his babysitter tells him he has the most beautiful eyes. In high school he becomes a reporter for the student paper and his teacher remarks on his eyes. His father out of the picture, Nicky is on his own when his mother dies suddenly, and the future is now. Fast forward . . . “Brad Pitt played him in the movie version.” Nicky’s life has its ups and downs and we get them all in this quirky story.

“Confession, with Wolves” by Carol Keeley is a monologue, a wife speaking to her husband about their marriage. As with most monologues, this one is about the voice, in this case an unreliable narrator confessing to her husband about her . . . transgressions. And, in the process, the present circumstances are revealed. It’s an interesting technique, the monologue, and this is a good one.
“Manga Dolls on Skype” by Sandra Leong was fun, but I was rooting for it to turn out differently. Michael Coffey’s “I Thought You Were Dale” was funny, although it felt like there was an inside joke I was missing. (Also it’s an odd structure—all sections and no paragraphs.) While most of the stories are funny, “Keeping an Eye on Jakobson” by Anne Raeff is not. It’s a straightforward dramatic story about, among other things, the sorrows of war.

And there’s more, including poems by both the Director and the Assistant Director of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Michael Collier and Jennifer Grotz, which, like the New England Review, is also connected to Middlebury College. There’s a poem by Chelsea Rathburn, a friend from Sewanee. And there are several notable essays, including one by Michael Milburn about his brother Frank: “My Brother, the Writer.” I especially enjoyed this because we published an essay by Milburn in Prime Number Magazine recently: “My Memoir.”

It's an excellent issue from a wonderful magazine.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The New Yorker: "Los Gigantes" by T. Coraghessan Boyle

February 6, 2012: “Los Gigantes” by T. Coraghessan Boyle

Q&A with T.C. Boyle (As of 9:20 pm on 1/30, the Q&A isn't available, so if it says anything useful about the story, I don't know what it is. I'll check back and edit this post if necessary.)

Allegory? Here’s the story: In some unnamed Latin American country, at some point in time (the President’s limo is a Duesenberg, the police van is a Black Mariah, there are radios and electric fans, but no TV and no Airconditioning), the President’s people have rounded up a lot of very large men (the narrator is a giant—nearly 7 ft. tall, weighs 420 pounds) to breed them with very large women, hoping to develop a race of giants for the military. (The narrator is told they’re also breeding little people) But despite the fine food he receives from his keepers, the narrator rebels, making two half-hearted escape attempts before finally, tumultuously freeing himself from the chains that hold him.

The only way this story does anything for me is if I give it a political spin. The narrator and his fellow breeders represent the enslaved lower class in America, and the President’s men stand for the ruling corporate class who need them to breed and obey in order to sustain those in power. But our narrator rebels, and his ambition is simply to love his small wife and to have normal-sized children—the middle class that doesn’t do the powerful any good.

Okay, that’s a stretch, I realize. But if not that, what’s the point of this odd story?

Authors Unite (on Facebook)

Authors Unite is NOT a soccer team made up of writers (although that's not a bad idea). It is, instead, an index of Author Pages on Facebook, the brainchild of T.J. Forrester, author of Miracles, Inc.

More and more authors are creating "Author Pages" (what used to be called Fan Pages) on Facebook--a place to attract readers and to share news about books and other publications. It's one more thing we do to get the word out about our work and promote the sales of our books. (Mine is here: Clifford Garstang -- Author.)

If you are a writer with an Author Page, go to Authors Unite and add your page to the index. If you "Like" the page and begin to "Like" the pages of others in the index, gradually the number of "Likes" on your page will increase. (Most likely. Heh.)

And, if you are a reader, check out Authors Unite -- you may find information about some writers you weren't aware of before!

Friday, January 27, 2012

Tips for Writers: Learn Anglo-Saxon

You may have heard—or maybe you haven’t—that given a choice, a writer should choose an Anglo-Saxon word over one with Latin roots. Or at least that’s what more than one teacher has told me. English words of Anglo-Saxon origin tend to be “closer to the soil”—concrete and precise, shorter, sharper—whereas words of Norman French origin (which infiltrated the language following the Norman Conquest) are more elevated—softer, vaguer, and longer.

Using a Latinate word isn’t wrong, obviously, but as this article suggests, word choice definitely plays a role in establishing the voice of your writing: Word Origin Influences Your Writing Voice. For example, for both rhythm and sound reasons, I like to end a paragraph with a strong word, something with punch. But if an educated person is speaking, he or she may tend to use Latinates.

Last week I mentioned Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. One of that book’s pronouncements is “Avoid fancy words.” This is good advice. To that end: “Avoid the elaborate, the pretentious, the coy, and the cute. Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able. Anglo-Saxon is a livelier tongue than Latin, so use Anglo-Saxon words. In this, as in so many matters pertaining to style, one’s ear must be one’s guide: gut is a lustier noun than intestine, but the two words are not interchangeable, because gut is often inappropriate, being too coarse for the context.”

Here is a list of some common words and comparative derivations. And, of course, a good dictionary will be a help. Look for words that are from Old English rather than Old French.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Forthcoming Books: Stay Awake by Dan Chaon

I didn’t know Dan Chaon had a new book coming out until I read Benjamin Percy’s short preview in the February Esquire. It’s a collection of stories called Stay Awake, following Chaon’s well-reviewed  novels Among the Missing and Await Your Reply

Percy says this: “If Chaon’s 2001 novel, Among the Missing, which was nominated for a National Book Award, contained some of the best fiction written in the past 20 years, Stay Awake is its darker, more unsettling cousin. These stories are defined by disturbing unreliability, with just enough room between the characters’ memories, like the space between trees in a dark forest, to slip through, get lost.” [Note to self: include lines like this in future book reviews so that other people will quote them.]

Publication date is February 7, 2012, from Ballantine.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Year of the LitMag: Prairie Schooner, Winter 2011: Ireland

Year of the LitMag: Prairie Schooner, Winter 2011
Vol. 85, No. 4

The Winter 2011 issue of Prairie Schooner probably won’t help me figure out what kind of work the editors like. For one thing, it’s the last issue before the new editor took over (it was actually put together by an interim editor). And for another, it’s a special issue focused on Ireland. But, for that, it’s quite an interesting issue, and by the end of it you're probably speaking in an Irish brogue.

In fact, one of the distinguishing features of the fiction here is the voice that comes through loud and clear. In “My First Time” by Andrew Fox, for example, two teenagers spend a lot of time talking about sex, and the dialect is thick—not so thick that it isn’t understandable, but there’s no mistaking where they are. 

There’s also a lot of drinking in these stories, and several of them are set in pubs. “Peach” by Nuala Ní Chonchúir opens in a bar, where a pregnant woman is getting drunk. Thomas Lynch’s one-act play, “Lacrimae Rerum,” also opens in a pub. As does “A Drop to Warm My Blood” by Aiden O’Reilly. “My First Time” doesn’t start in a bar, but it gets there soon enough. Apart from the voice and the drinking, the stories also have in common what the stories in James Joyce’s Dubliners do—these are working (or sometimes out-of-work) men and women who don’t get very far from their roots. The final story in the issue, “Sitting Ducks” by Kathleen Murray, is about two former prisoners who work as orderlies in a hospital and can’t seem to stay out of trouble, but they count themselves lucky that they’ve got work. (I love the character of Viv in this story, an elderly, demented woman who seems to think she’s already dead.)

The issue also has work from a couple dozen poets. What I read of the poetry I enjoyed, but can’t comment on.

When the new editor’s first issue is out I’ll revisit the magazine.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The New Yorker: "Someone" by Alice McDermott

January 30, 2012: “Someone” by Alice McDermott

In the Q&A with Alice McDermott, we learn that this “story” is taken from her novel in progress, which, presumably, is the one the contributor notes tell us is coming out later this year.  Even so, it seems to work very well as a standalone story. It centers on Marie, a young woman in Brooklyn in the 1930s, who begins dating Walter, a man who walks with a limp. They begin to date—Marie’s clueless and Walter imposes himself on her—but things don’t work out.

Early in the story we know Marie doesn’t end up with Walter because she jumps ahead to the point in time where she tells her daughters stories about Walter, to the point that they’re sick of hearing about him. Presumably, in the novel, that’s an important element. In this excerpt we also see Marie’s older brother who has recently resigned the priesthood and moved home. He tries to comfort her after Walter breaks up with her, but he doesn’t do a very good job of it.

The writing is beautiful, as we might expect from McDermott. And for a “short story,” there’s enough plot. I sure hope more is going to happen in the novel, though, because feels like it might be a bit slow. Even McDermott, in the interview, worries about it being a “novel about an unremarkable woman,” and I think she’s right to worry. But she’s been there before and won the National Book Award, so maybe we’re both wrong.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Tips for Writers: Invest in Style

Tips for Writers: Invest in Style

And I’m not talking fashion here (although take a look at the article in The Atlantic about Joan Didion and her early years at Vogue having an impact on her writing, particularly on the details about clothes and accessories). No, I’m talking about style as in: Usage, Grammar, Punctuation.

I have come to expect errors in Freshman Composition classes—kids don’t seem to get the kind of education in grammar that they used to—but in published writing, or even writing submitted with the hope of publication, I don’t want to see mistakes. In published work, editors should catch these problems. In submitted work, writers should realize that editors have better things to do than fix their punctuation. As an editor, I’m likely to reject a piece that has errors. I’m busy. I’ll just move on to the next story to find one that won’t be so much work to get ready for publication.

But of course we’re not all born with innate knowledge of grammar, and I confess that my understanding of punctuation changed dramatically when I began teaching Freshman Composition. In order to teach the students, I had to master the subject myself, and I discovered a number of things I’d been doing wrong. So now, if I’m in doubt about a question of usage, grammar, or punctuation, I look it up. And I can look it up because I have acquired reference books where I can almost always find the answer. I’ve got three to recommend.

The first is Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. Get it. Read it. Keep it handy. (I have the Fourth Edition, which I think is the latest.) It has several parts: Elementary Rules of Usage; Elementary Principles of Composition; A Few Matters of Form; Misused Words and Expressions; and An Approach to Style. This is more than just a guide to grammar; it’s also about writing more clearly. And it’s written in a way that even Freshmen can understand. For example, under “Misused Words and Expressions” is the entry for Lay: “A transitive verb. Except in slang (‘Let it lay’), do not misuse it for the intransitive verb lie. The hen, or the play, lays an egg; the llama lies down. The playwright went home and lay down. Lie, lay, lain, lying. Lay, laid, laid, laying.” Under “An Approach to Style” is guidance on the use of figures of speech: “The simile is a common device and a useful one, but similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. Readers need time to catch their breath; they can’t be expected to compare everything with something else, and no relief in sight. When you use metaphor, do not mix it up. That is, don’t start by calling something a swordfish and end by calling it an hourglass.”

The second is the Chicago Manual of Style. I suppose there are some who read CMOS like a novel (as my mother used to claim she read cookbooks), but I keep it within reach for reference. It’s so thorough that it has a massive and somewhat confusing index, but it’s worth digging until you find exactly the right entry. (I have the 15th Edition, which is not the latest, but it’s an expensive book and so I’m not inclined to replace the one I’ve got. If you don't have an older one, spend the money to get the latest.) Here is the entry on the lie/lay distinction: “Lay is a transitive verb—it demands a direct object. It is inflected lay-laid-laid. Lie is an intransitive verb—it never takes a direct object. It is inflected lie-lay-lain.” (Examples are also provided.) That’s the same information as in Strunk & White, although in plainer terms. As for figures of speech, it appears that CMOS doesn’t care about scrambled metaphors or floods of similes.

The third reference book I keep handy is Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage. Garner is actually one of the CMOS authors, so this guide is generally consistent with CMOS, but it’s organization is a little more user friendly and it’s text less sterile. Plus, it goes into more detail on matters of usage such as the lie/lay distinction, which takes up an entire page. It not only discusses the distinction, it also examines the main ways in which writers incorrectly substitute one for the other. The entry begins: “Very simply, lie (= to recline, be situated) is intransitive—it can’t take a direct object. But lay (= to put down, arrange) is always transitive—it needs a direct object . . . To use lay without a direct object, in the sense of lie, is nonstandard. But this error is very common in speech—from the illiterate to the highly educated. In fact, some commentators believe that people make this mistake more often than any other in the English language. Others claim that it’s no longer a mistake—or even that it never was. But make no mistake: using these verbs correctly is a mark of refinement.” [The real mark of refinement, in my opinion, is editing. I can’t edit what I’ve said, and so I may make this error in speaking, but if I also make this mistake in writing, then I’ve made an error in editing.] I’ve got the Second Edition; a new one came out last year.

I also have a few other reference books, including an MLA style guide and a compact grammar guide, both of which occasionally come in handy, but I generally check Garner first and then CMOS if I have a question.

A writer should definitely make the investment in style. It's important.

Year of the Dragon!

Happy New Year! Actually, the new year begins January 23, but since President Obama has already released his Lunar New Year Message, I guess I can, too.
Welcome, Year of the Dragon:
Year of the Dragon - 1916, 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024, 2036, 2048
The dragon enjoys a very high reputation in Chinese culture. It is the token of authority, dignity, honor, success, luck, and capacity. In ancient China, a dragon was thought to speed across the sky with divine power. Emperors entitled themselves exclusively as 'dragon'; their thrones were called 'dragon thrones', their clothes 'dragon gowns'.
People under the sign of the dragon are lively, energetic and fortunate. They often can be leaders and try to go for perfection. When they meet with difficulties, they are not discouraged. But they are a little arrogant, and impatient, and women are over- confident. If they overcome these defects, they can have a brighter future.
Best match: rat, monkey, rooster; avoid: dog, ox, dragon, rabbit
(Check out all the Chinese Horoscope Signs.)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

New Issue of Prime Number Magazine: No. 17

Issue No. 17 of Prime Number Magazine went live today! (That's the 7th issue, if anyone's counting: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17)

We happen to think it's another terrific issue, with stories by Brandon Patterson, Gleah Powers, Daniel B. Meltzer, and John Carr Walker; poetry by Kat Henry, Brian Simoneau, and Katherine E. Young; creative nonfiction by Kathryn Rhett, Ellen Kirschner, Jessica Erica Hahn-Taylor, and Mary Alice Hostetter; a craft essay by Buzz Mauro; reviews of books by Benjamin Buchholz, Xu Xi, Donna Miscolta, and Bruce Guernsey; and a terrific cover photo by Peg Duthie.

Please spread the word, signup at the site for the mailing list or "LIKE" us on Facebook (or both), and submit work.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Forthcoming Books: The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey will be published later this month. Margot is a terrific writer, and I suspect this will be a very popular book. Described as a modern take on Jane Eyre, it's set in the 1960s, in Scotland.

I really liked her previous book, The House on Fortune Street, which I reviewed here. I noted then that Jane Eyre was referred to often in the novel, and I wondered if there were parallels that I was missing. I guess it's time for me to read that one . . . (That's right. I confess. I've never read Jane Eyre.)

Anyway. Look for the new Margot Livesey. Coming soon to a bookstore near you.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The New Yorker: "Labyrinth" by Roberto Bolaño

January 23, 2012: “Labyrinth” by Roberto Bolaño

The Q&A with Barbara Eppler, Bolaño’s first American Publisher, is interesting, but of no help with this story, which I think I love. I say I think I love it because I don’t know that I have the energy to unpack it to see what’s there. If there’s nothing underneath the dazzling language and the manipulation of time, then I might like it less.

The story is based on a picture, and that picture appears to be the one in the magazine illustrating the story—take a look at it as you read the description of the people he names. I’ve reproduced it here, although when I read the story on my Kindle I hadn’t yet seen it. He’s describing this table and these people in great detail, whose actual names he uses, and then, I suppose—although I have no way of knowing—he is fabricating the rest: what they do with each other outside of the picture, what is happening beyond the picture’s frame, etc.

What appeals to me here isn’t so much what happens, but the intersection of the real and the imagined, which includes a person who isn’t in the picture at all, and also the way in which the characters, as time passes, have lives outside of the picture but are also always frozen in the photograph.

After the detailed description of the people in the photograph, about a third of the way into the story the author begins to imagine: “Let’s imagine J.-J. Goux, for example . . .” He has Goux leave the picture and walk down the street. Then he imagines that some of the people are looking at someone out of the frame, and imagines this might be “a young journalist from South America, no, from Central America.” He goes on to suggest that there may be something sinister about this journalist, that he’s bitter and will do some harm. It’s wonderfully imaginative, even if in the end it doesn’t produce any real action.

What do other people think? Or do you know something about the people the author has named here?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Guest Editor for Smokelong Quarterly

Starting today, for one week only, I am the Guest Editor at Smokelong Quarterly, one of the very best magazines around that focuses on flash fiction. It's also a beautiful magazine, with great/bold cover art. I was honored to be  invited.

My job as a Guest Editor is to read this week's submissions. They've already started to come in . . .

Thanks for the invitation, Smokelong staff. And to the contributors, I look forward to reading your work!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Year of the LitMag: One Story #156

[Note: this is the 4th installment in my Year of the LitMag series. If you would like to contribute to the series, leave a comment below or shoot me an email.]

One Story #156 “The Quiet” by C. Joseph Jordan

By now, everyone knows about One Story, right? It’s a little magazine that comes out every few weeks and contains just one story. It’s a cool concept and it’s also available on Kindle. (As soon as my print subscription expires, I’ll switch to the Kindle version, I think.) Lunch Hour Stories tried the same thing a few years ago, but it didn’t last as long, and is now gone.

This story by C. Joseph Jordan is a nice read about a Vietnam vet who comes home to Oregon after two tours. It’s been a tumultuous few years for him—his father died while he was in Vietnam; he fell in love while on R&R in Sydney, Australia; he killed a Vietnamese kid with a knife. And now he’s finally home. But as we know from every war story we’ve ever heard or read, it’s not that easy, and Sergeant Adlai Malick has some demons and secrets he has to deal with. So, upon arrival at his mother’s house, where there is a big, noisy welcome home party waiting for him, he goes into the basement in search of quiet. (Be sure to check out the editor’s interview with the author.)

Although the story is thoroughly readable, and my sympathies are with Sergeant Malick throughout, even when I fear he’s going to explode, even when he behaves badly, it had a feeling of familiarity to it. Because haven’t we read this story before? Beginning with “A Soldier’s Home” by Ernest Hemingway and followed by countless others, we’ve seen the difficulty a soldier has in coming home from war. Malick is damaged by the war and he is going to have to find a way to cope, or not, but I don’t feel that the story takes us anywhere new. Am I asking too much? Isn’t it enough that I haven’t seen this particular veteran and his particular circumstances before? Maybe. Maybe we’re ready for a new take on this subject. I just wish it had been a little more surprising.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Tips for Writers: Don't Give Up!

Last week I wrote that it is important to read—books and literary magazines. We not only learn from reading good work in our chosen genre, but we also learn which publishers are buying the kind of work we’re writing.

While that’s true, excellent work is likely to be welcome anywhere, except for the very specialized genre markets. And you’ll see all kinds of stories in the top magazines. At most, they vary in edginess, but that’s about it. (Read an issue of Ploughshares and then read an issue of Tin House and you’ll get a sense of what I mean.)

But there’s something that a writer won’t be able to learn just from reading a magazine, and that’s taste. A story that one editor rejects may be loved by the next editor who sees it. It might even have been loved if the first editor had seen it a day earlier and was in a better mood.

For example, I just had a story appear in Blackbird. (See “The Replacement Wife.”) This is a terrific magazine—one of the best, if not the best online magazines—and I’ve been sending them work for years. And I’ve been sending this story around for a couple of years, too, collecting some rejections. Not as many rejections as I’ve had for some other stories, but some other good magazines had a chance to take this story and they didn’t. I have no idea why, other than to say that it’s a matter of the editors’ taste.

I’ve got another story coming out in the next issue of Bellevue Literary Review, “A Hole in the Wall.” This story is a favorite of mine and was the second one I wrote in the novel in stories that’s coming out this September from Press 53, What the Zhang Boys Know. It has collected quite a few rejections, and some of those rejections came from some pretty obscure magazines. For whatever reason, though, something about the story appealed to the BLR editors, and something about it did NOT appeal to the editors of those other magazines.

You can spend all the time you want analyzing magazines (and I do, asking myself whether they have a particular slant), but in the end doesn’t it all boil down to taste? Editors publish what they like, and we’re not all going to like the same things. The lesson here is: Don’t give up. If it seems like a story has been rejected too many times, it may just be that it hasn’t yet found the right editor.