Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan

By John Coyne

If you play golf—which I don’t—you might like The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan. For my taste, too much time is spent on describing a round, the terrain of each hole, the cup placement, the club choice, etc. (To paraphrase the famous quotation attributed to Mark Twain, which is referred to in the book, all the details result in a “good book spoiled.”) For all that, and admitting that some of the description of the game contributes to character development, the story is engaging, in a predictable, melodramatic sort of way.

This is really the story of Matt Richardson, a young golf pro at a country club in a Chicago suburb that is hosting the Chicago Open of 1946, and his relationship with young Sarah Dupree, daughter of the Club president. It is to Coyne’s credit that the reader knows early on that the young couple is doomed, although the final tragedy seemed to me to be a little too contrived. And while class issues play a superficial role in the book, I felt that it missed an opportunity to really dramatize the conflict—the ogre of the piece, Mr. Dupree, Sarah’s father, was one-dimensional and cartoonish. Sarah also was something of a clichéd rich girl. On the other hand, the portrayal of Ben Hogan, who befriends the narrator (a young caddie at the Club at the time of the action), is wonderful, filled with deft touches. I found myself regretting that both the caddie and Hogan were really peripheral figures in the story (except to the extent that the plot was itself peripheral, and what the book was “about” is what the caddie learned from Hogan and Richardson).

Apart from the Hogan-caddie relationship, the book is interesting on technical grounds. It purports to be a speech delivered by the caddie many years after the fact—he’s much older now—to the current members of the same Country Club. And while the author allows for some breaks, it surely is the longest speech ever given. The book is 270 pages; at a relatively fast clip of 1.5 minutes per page to read aloud, that’s just shy of 7 hours. I can’t say I found that terribly believable. I also had a hard time believing that he would tell this particular story to this group, a group that wanted to hear about Hogan and cared little or nothing about Richardson. But often when reading a first person narrative I wonder first who is speaking, which is usually but not always clear, and to whom the narrator is speaking, which usually is NOT clear. In this case it is and I think that must have helped the author establish the speaker’s voice—which throughout was consistent, distinct and believable.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Glad Day Books

Do you know about Glad Day Books? It's a small press begun by Grace Paley and her husband Robert Nichols. I don't know how active the press is--when I workshopped with them in January 2005 I thought they said they weren't taking new books, but maybe I'm wrong because Glad Day published a book in August 2005--but it has some very intriguing titles in its catalogue.

As the website says:
The aim of our writers' collaborative is to bridge the gap between imaginative literature and political articles and criticism - categories marketed under the labels fiction and non-fiction. This split isolates effective political criticism and trivializes the telling of stories.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Now is the Winter of our discontent . . .

Although it was too beautiful a day to spend indoors, that's what I did. I met other members of the Harvard Club of Charlottesville, first for lunch at one of Staunton's nicer restaurants, L'Italia, and then to see a performance of Richard III at the American Shakespeare Center. Several of the other members live in Staunton so it was very nice to meet them--I'm sure we'll get together again.

ASC has done Richard III before, but this time the play was presented by the touring company. They did a fine job, I thought, and Richard was suitably nutty (that's him in the little picture above) while the Earl of Richmond/King Henry VII was noble and heroic. It's not my favorite of the Histories, but all of the plays are fun to see performed when done well, as the ASC invariably does. Because of the smallish company, the doubling of parts (tripling, quadrupling, quintupling) was noticeable and occasionally disturbing. The same actor (Greg Phelps, whom I remember from when the touring company visited "home base" last year), was King Edward IV, Brakenbury, the Mayor of London, the Duke of York and also Earl of Richmond, not to mention various messengers and other extras. They do their best to signal the different roles with costumes and behavior, and Phelps was quite good in all his parts, but it's still a little distracting. For a Sunday afternoon the theater was reasonably full, and the ovation said the audience was pleased.

I've recently done an article on the impact that the ASC has had on Staunton; it's due out soon in the Southern Arts Journal.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Beijing Arts Scene

Have you always wondered what was going on art-wise in Beijing. No? Um, check these sites out anyway, just for kicks: Maya Kovskaya and Han Bing.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Come to Me

by Amy Bloom

If I didn't already know, I'd have guessed from reading this slim collection of stories that the author was a psychotherapist. Several characters are undergoing thereapy; there are several who should be. But more importantly, and revealingly, the author seems clearly to understand motivation the way a keen observer of human behavior and thought can. It's almost an unfair advantage!

This collection was nominated for a National Book Award in 1993 (the winner that year was The Shipping News by Annie Proulx). Beginning the book, I was surprised that it was that highly regarded. The first story, the widely-known "Love is Not a Pie," I found disjointed, with more characters than a reader could easily keep track of--and more than seemed necessary. Several stories had multiple or omniscient points of view, which seemed odd in short stories. An otherwise terrific story, "When the Year Grows Old," had a jump from the daughter's point of view to the father's, for reasons that I still don't understand--to me it reads like a mistake. But there are two clusters of stories in the collection, "Three Stories" (containing "Hyacinths," "The Sight of You," and "Silver Water"), and "Henry and Marie" (containing "Faultlines" and "Only You") that are brilliant, linked stories that look at the same relationships from different perspectives, as if the good Dr. Bloom might have been treating the whole family and so had this uniquely mult-dimensional opportunity. These clusters sold me on the collection.

I'll quote from the last story ("Psychoanalysis Changed My Life"), one that has an uplifting ending. Marianne is seeing a 80-year-old therapist and visits her at home where she meets the therapist's husband (this older couple reminds me of Grace Paley and her husband--slightly frail, yet spry for their age, kind, caring, brillian people) and learns about the family, including a son's ex-wife:
"'Naria left them almost two years ago. She has a narcissistic personality disorder. She simply could not mother. People cannot do what they are not equipped to do. So, she's gone, back to Lebanon. Also, very self-destructive, to return to a place like Lebanon, divorced, a mother, clearly not a virgin. She will care for her father, in his home, for the rest of her life. Who can say? Perhaps that was her wish.'
Dr. Zurmer said 'narcissitic personality disorder' the way you'd say 'terminal cancer,' and Marianne nodded, understanding that Naria was gone from this earth."
So, as I mentioned some days ago, I'll be in Amy Bloom's workshop at the Indiana University Writers' Conference. I'm already second-guessing the motivation behind the characters in the story of mine we'll be reading.

Here's a terrific interview with Amy Bloom in Identity Theory.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Third Policeman

Still haven't read it, but I plan to! I picked it up last fall on the recommendation of . . . someone, can't remember who . . . before I heard about the book's "cameo" on "Lost" (a TV show I still haven't seen because . . . it's a long story). Anyway, you may have heard about the book and its author Flann O'Brien on NPR today in a piece by Jim Ruland. Jim says he's got a much longer article on O'Brien coming soon in LA Weekly.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Stacks . . .

. . . and stacks of books. Mostly I've been pretty good these last few months about not buying books, that is to say, about actually reading the books I do buy. But somehow the unread stacks have grown anyway, like little stalagmites around the periphery of my studio: there are irresistible new releases, books by friends, review copies from publishers, remainders, the usual flow of the dozen or so lit journals I subscribe to, and even the occasional used book (I found a beautiful signed first edition of T.C. Boyle's East is East in an antique store recently).

What to read next? In arm's reach right now: the new Gulf Coast; Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler; The Dead Fish Museum by Charles D'Ambrosio; The Caddie Who Knew Ben Hogan, by John Coyne; Testimony and Demeanor by John Casey; Century's Son by Robert Boswell; The March, by E.L. Doctorow; Black Swan Green by David Mitchell; Family and Other Accidents by Shari Goldhagen; and dozens more. I'm seriously considering taking the next couple of months to just read. Let the novel write itself . . .

Monday, May 22, 2006

Ted Genoways

One of Charlottesville's free weekly newspapers, The Hook, has a profile this week of Ted Genoways, boy-wonder-rising-star-editor of Virginia Quarterly Review. Because VQR's excellence is obvious, Genoways has been attracting attention in literary circles for some time. Now that the magazine has won a couple of National Magazine Awards, his fame is spreading. I've met Genoways a few times--at Sewanee and Bread Loaf and at literary events around this area--and have always had the impression (not that we've had particularly in-depth discussions about anything) that he was a nice guy. The Hook's profile seems to confirm that. I'm sure he'll keep VQR flying high for as long as they're able to keep him.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Best American Fiction of the Last 25 Years

Today’s New York Times offers a list of the best American works of fiction of the last quarter century. Check out the list here, and A.O. Scott’s accompanying essay here.

The top five, in order, are Beloved (Toni Morrison), Underworld (Don DeLillo), Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy), Rabbit Angstrom (John Updike), and American Pastoral (Philip Roth).

Also making the list were 5 other books by Roth (The Counterlife, Operation Shylock, Sabbath’s Theater, The Human Stain, and The Plot Against America), 2 others by DeLillo (White Noise and Libra), 1 other by McCarthy (The Border Trilogy), and 1 each by 9 other writers: John Kennedy Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces), Marilynne Robinson (Housekeeping), Mark Helprin (Winter’s Tale), Raymond Carver (Where I’m Calling From), Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), Norman Rush (Mating), Denis Johnson (Jesus’ Son), Richard Ford (Independence Day), and Edward P. Jones (The Known World).

I think I own all of these books, except maybe one of the Roths, and I’ve even read most of them. I think it is hard to argue with Beloved as the top choice, but there are one or two others that I don’t think belong on the list at all, such as Jesus’ Son.

It's not a bad list, but what's missing? (I'm having a hard time coming up with an answer . . .)

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Indiana University Writers' Conference

I learned yesterday that I have been awarded a scholarship to the Indiana University Writers' Conference, which takes place in Bloomington on the IU campus in June. This Conference, as I understand it, is among the oldest in the country and offers both classes and workshops. The classes will be interesting I think. And one can always learn something in workshops, not only from the comments made about one's own submission, but by analyzing the submissions of the other participants, watching their reactions, and observing the workshop leader. I will be in the workshop led by Amy Bloom, whose work I haven't read until now. I just picked up her short story collection Come to Me, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

I was surprised to discover that scholarships for the IUWC are funded by donations from individuals and local businesses. My scholarship is "The Runcible Spoon Scholarship," funded by Runcible Spoon, a cafe that was still new back when I was a graduate student at Indiana. I'm looking forward to my return to Bloomington, and a visit to the Spoon.

Friday, May 19, 2006

The Brief History of the Dead

by Kevin Brockmeier

Imagine a world in which everyone but you has read a particular book. Each reader has crossed over into an alternate universe that continues to exist as long as there is still that one person—you—who hasn’t finished reading. When you do, when you turn that last page and close the book’s cover, what happens to the alternate universe? I feel a little like that with Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead which, it seems, everyone had read but me. But now that I’ve read it, does existence as we know it end? (Apparently not, but that might just mean that there’s at least one other person out there who hasn’t read the book.)

Before I forget, let me say that I enjoyed this book very much. Its ending is anticipatable, but that is not flaw. In fact, it makes the book a tragedy. We hope the ending might be different but, alas, it cannot be different. And the fact is that the ending is written so beautifully, that the tragedy is almost euphoric.

Here’s the conceit: there is a place, a kind of limbo, into which souls pass when they die and remain as long as they continue exist in the memory of a living person. As long as people go on living, this place is populated with the remembered souls. But imagine the coming of a horrific virus that kills unprecedented numbers. At first, the population of this place skyrockets and then as the living population declines so too does the remembered population. This is an imaginative conceit on a par with Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and while not as complex is as convincingly rendered. The story is told in alternating chapters, through the eyes of the living and the dead as the virus continues to take its toll.

But the conceit isn’t the only thing that’s wonderful. Brockmeier’s language is stunning. Here’s an example:
“It was a mistake for her to think of him as innocent, uncomplicated. She knew that. But there was something about his fussiness, his obedience to certain long-established routines, along with the carelessness with which he presented himself to the world, that made it easy for her to imagine him as a child. She had imagined, for instance, that he was the one who had never seen their marriage clearly—or seen himself clearly, for that matter. That he was the one who was half-broken by every little sickness that came his way, and by nostalgia for the way he used to be, and by worry over what had happened to Laura. But she was beginning to suspect that it had been her all along. She was the innocent one. She was the child.”
Check out this interview with Brockmeier in WebdelSol.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

French, Spanish, What's the Diff?

A friend of mine, Don, teaches high school Spanish. I see him at the gym from time to time and today he told me this story. He assigned his class a short essay in Spanish--only about a page, but they moaned and groaned anyway. For help with vocabulary, he allowed the use of those hand-held translators so many students use these days. (I would have said that was his first mistake--cursory use of even a dictionary can result in dangerous translations, but I think he didn't realistically have a choice.) A girl turned in her essay and it was unintelligible--nearly every word was wrong. In conference, he discovered what she had done: her translator was set to English-French, not English-Spanish, and she hadn't noticed a problem. I can only hope that this girl has learned a valuable lesson--but I doubt it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

How A Book Saved Me

Roy Kesey Week continues over at The Elegant Variation. Be sure and check out the Nothing in the World Contest.

Here's my entry:

You’re on an assignment in Kazakhstan, which you accepted because you’re an Asia specialist and this is supposed to be Asia. (Hah!) It’s mid-winter and Almaty’s Soviet-era central heating doesn’t work because Kazakhstan can’t pay Uzbekistan for fuel. TV programs are in Russian and your college Russky is rusty. (Da!) The internet hasn’t been invented. You don’t drink vodka. Yet.

Fortunately, you brought a book. You brought several, but it is 1066-page Raintree County that keeps you sane. “Yes, sir, here’s the Glorious Fourth again.” The author is a brilliant Indianan (like yourself!), tragic, his Joycean masterpiece made into a sappy movie that doesn’t do justice to the book’s encyclopedic scope, or fundamental American themes.

You’re inside, but your breath hangs frozen in the air. You’re wearing your parka, your feet propped on the space heater you carry from room to room. You read. “Mr. John Wickliff Shawnessy I presume?” You are momentarily distracted by the curtainless couple across Ulitsa Tulabaeva, but you keep reading. “He would pursue awhile his ancient pastime . . .”

Next day at the office, your meeting with the Justice Ministry is cancelled, the class you teach falls flat, you slip on ice and bruise your ass, the greasy lunch mutton threatens to repeat itself. All afternoon.

You skip dinner with colleagues because they’ve found the bar scene. You go home, fire up the heater and read: “And so Johnny Shawnessy passed through the years of his childhood steeping himself in legends old and new.”


Ron Smith: Red Guitar No. 2, "Larkin's Eggs"

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A diversion: George*

*be sure to use your mouse to drag and drop

Thanks for the link, Kathy!

Monday, May 15, 2006

Lalami Shortlisted for Caine Prize

Laila Lalami (she of has been shortlisted for the 2006 Caine Prize for her story "The Fanatic," a chapter in her novel/collection Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Well done, Laila! Congratulations!

Roy Kesey Week at TEV

It's Roy Kesey week over at the excellent litblog, The Elegant Variation. Roy is wandering around the U.S. this week promoting his book (which I've ordered and expect to receive any day now). My contribution to the Kesey-mania? No juicy stories to tell, unfortunately. The last couple of times I've been in Beijing I've met up with Roy for drinks or a meal, and we've shared stories about the writing life. And now I wish that book would hurry up and arrive! In the meantime, check out Roy's Nothing in the World.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Getting Traction

My first reaction to Sven Birkerts’s introduction to Agni 63 was—what a pompous piece of . . . How dare he reject anyone’s story after just one sentence, as he claims in the essay that he does. If that’s all he’s going to look at, how about giving everyone a break and starting a system of email queries. It'll save us all a lot of time and money, not to mention trees. We send SB an email with nothing but the first sentence of our story (maybe the first two if the first one is really short). He can look at it, apply his mystical litmus test, and if he wants to see more he can ask for it. Otherwise, we move on to a more human editor.

Um, but . . . then I thought about what he was saying. And I think he’s right. And I think he’s saying more than “the story has to grab me from the get-go,” which is obvious. And I think I’m going to try to take SB’s advice, and rexamine all of my unpublished stories in light of it. And let’s see what happens on my next submission to Agni. (My last offering was rejected but with a kind invitation to send more, so I guess my first sentence passed the test; I’ll include it below and we can judge for ourselves.)

SB says, “The most salient—and to me, most interesting—[insight] has to do with what I think of as traction. ‘Traction’ is my code for the way a paragraph or a page of prose lands, how it does or does not anticipate and then address the resistance of the open attention.” By which I think he means that these days—the era of post-postmodernism—a story has to both grounded and fresh. It can’t make assumptions about the world in which it exists, but it has to create the world of the story in an instant and take off from there, all in the first sentence. If there’s any slip-sliding to begin with, it’s unlikely that the story is going to gain the momentum it needs.

SB says, “Basically . . . a work of prose (or poetry) can no longer assume continuity, not as it could in former times. It cannot begin, or unfold, in a way that assumes a basic condition of business as usual. . . This writing must, in effect, create its own world and terms from the threshold, coming at us from a full creative effort of imagination and not by using the old world as a prop.” I get that.

Now let’s look at some of the stories in this issue of the magazine to see how they work.
o “Monsieur le Genius” by Paul Eggers: “The joke was that Bujumbura’s only supermarket, the Supermarche de Liberte, ran on the Potemkin Village model: the shelves were full, but only because the rest of the city got the bare bones.” Okay, not bad.
o “The Fall of the House of Pirnat” by Maja Novak: “It all began innocently enough. What happened was nothing worse than this: Robbie Pirnat leaned a little too far over the railing of the sixth-floor balcony and fell.” Maybe. The first sentence was short so I went with two. Note to self: use a colon in the first one or two sentences—it seems to be a trend.
o “The Clawed Claims of Bear Love” by Alexandra Chasin: “Once, maybe Baltimore, we had a Chevrolet. Do you remember that car, what a beauty.” Again, I went with two sentences because the first one was short. There is a new world here, one of fragments and run-ons, like glass on the highway. Is that the same as traction?
o “Memory Sickness” by Phong Nguyen: “I’m sitting in a classroom of boys, our forearms laid out on the L-shaped desks, pale sides up.” That feels a little slippery to me; I’m not sure I would have read further.
o “Confession for Raymond Good Bird” by Melanie Rae Thon: “Raymond, I remember everything about the day: the heat, the rain, the cold wind after.” Note the colon. And if it’s fair to remember the title when you’re reading the first line, that name “Raymond Good Bird” grips the road fine, even if the rest of the sentence seems to depend on the old world a little more than SB might like.

I plan to come back to these stories in a day or two when I review the issue, but for now I’ll leave you with the opening sentence of the story that Agni rejected (I won’t presume that it even made as far as Sven) albeit with a request for more: “Elton Hoffman gazed out the hotel window at the jumble of signs and billboards, searching for anything familiar among those indecipherable Chinese characters.” Traction? Or no traction?

Steve Almond takes a stand

Please read Steve Almond's open letter in The Boston Globe in which he resigns his teaching position at Boston College in protest over the decision to invite Condoleeza Rice as commencement speaker.

Steve also comments briefly on his website, expressing thanks for the support he has received but urging folks to contact their elected officials.

Friday, May 12, 2006


To complain, to grumble; a cause for complaint.

But, also, a chicken-like bird of the pheasant family. And I have to ask, why was there a ruffed grouse in my yard this morning? I was on my porch--stalling, not writing--and saw a big bird halfway down the hill, posing in the shadow of a dogwood. Too big for a robin; too small for a wild turkey (and, anyway, what would a turkey be doing in the yard?). I went outside and approached cautiously. I noticed its crown, its tawny coloring. As I neared it began to "display," its tail with the black band fanning, its breast swelling to make the bird look larger (but not intimidating, although that must be nature's intent, no?). It began to move away and I, not wishing to frighten it any further, retreated to look it up in my Sibley's. I'd never in my life seen a ruffed grouse before. What a treat!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

LitMag Wave: Crazyhorse

Although I’ve submitted my stories to Crazyhorse in the past, Issue 69 (Spring 2006) is, I believe, the first I’ve held in my hands. It’s terrific, with a comfortable square shape and a provocative, colorful cover, and I renewed my as-yet-unexpired subscription today (which I earned initially by entering a contest I didn’t win).

I love it when I open a journal and find something, a poem or a story or an essay, by someone I know. That happens more and more often. In this case, there is a poem by James Grinwis, “Bug Land”. Here’s an excerpt:
“Here, the grasshopper lives
like a nervous man. He sits there
with the tiny capsule of his heart,
keeping me contained. I seem
trapped inside of a beat. Mosquitoes
tingle the mouths underneath
leaves. Town shimmers
like a toxin, voracious and green,
more forest than the creature,
more creature than the green.”

The fiction in the issue is fascinating. It’s all quite good, and in ways linked. In Molly McNett’s “The Book of Signs,” Ruthie is a troubled young woman who feeds her nervousness: “unbuttered popcorn if it was a good day, or frosting right from the can on a bad one.” (There’s much more to the story than this—Ruthie has a chance to break free from her suffocating mother by interacting with a young wheelchair-bound girl in her care, and whether she will rise to the challenge provides the story’s tension.). In Steven Schwartz’s “The Theory of Everything,” it is Rex who has the eating problem: “He’s always struggled with his weigh. Comfort food he takes to a whole new level.” But there are kids in need in this story, too, who come to live with their grandparents because their mother, a heroin addict, abandons them and Rex, their father, is, at best, bipolar. He, in fact, reminds me of the loser in John Tait’s story, “Reasons for Concern Regarding My Girlfriend of Five Days, Monica Garza,” and the kids remind of five-year-old Roxanne in Lorraine M. Lopez’s “The Landscape,” who is in the care of her aunt and uncle because Roxanne’s mother is just out of a halfway house. These are all engaging stories filled with not only dysfunctional families but dysfunctional people.

The highlight of the issue, though, is a conversation with Robert Creeley, from a short time before he died last year. The interviewer asks him to repeat the definition of truth that he talked about in their workshop. Creeley replies:
“If you look at the etymology of the word, it derives from, in fact, from Druid. The tree is the consistent. That’s where you end up, with the trees, specifically. Not symbolically but literally. And it’s like, knock on wood, that’s probably why you do knock on wood. Because wood is the locating faith. What is felt to be, communally, not just the convention but that to which all agree. So that something like Christ’s, ‘the thruth shall make, set, men free,’ has a curiously, not a duplicitous meaning, if we all agree to this, if we all say the world is this way, that will free us within that imagination. If we don’t, we obviously have religious wars, etcetera, etcetera. So it’s got a double bind there, because the truth is not fixed in stone. The truth is a belief, really.”

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Why not a Proser Laureate?

I forget what I was looking for when I stumbled across the website of the Illinois Poet Laureate. It seems like a wonderful site, and in keeping with the mission of a Poet Laureate; it's filled with poetry links and other great information. (The biography of the Illinois PL, Kevin Stein, is interesting; I discovered that he teaches at Bradley, in Peoria, where I grew up, and lives in Dunlap, the small town where one of my sisters attended high school.) But in perusing the site I got to wondering: Why a Poet Laureate? Why not a Proser Laureate? (A “proser,” as you probably have guessed, would be one who writes prose, as a “poet” is one who writes poetry. Or is there a better word?) Or at least a Writer Laureate?

It turns out, to my surprise, that two states, Alaska and Idaho, do in fact have Writer Laureates—a position filled sometimes by a Poet and sometimes by a Proser. If you can’t afford to have both in these troubled times, this seems like an eminently sensible compromise.

And who are these laureates? Looking further, I found this wonderful offering from the New Hampshire Writers Project: A Laureate List. And here's a nother list, maintained by the Library of Congress.

Do you know your state's Laureate?

National Magazine Awards

Check out all the Finalists and Winners of the National Magazine Awards, announced yesterday. Big congratulations to Virginia Quarterly Review, which won two awards, one for General Excellence for Magazines with circulation under 100,000 (in VQR's case, way under), and one for Fiction, for three stories in the Fall issue, including "In a Grove" by R.T. Smith, Editor of Shenandoah.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The O. Henry Prize Stories--2006

The publication of the annual O. Henry Prize anthology is a significant event. The 2006 edition comes out this week and for a short story writer there isn’t a higher honor than to be included. I can’t say that I’m familiar with all of the authors honored this year, but I have read many of them; at least I know all the magazines. Check out this very useful index of magazines that submit to the O. Henry prize editor.

It would be worthwhile to undertake a study of the O. Henry similar to my work with the Pushcart Prizes, and I may do that soon, although most of the information I’d glean is already on the website, including an index of all previous winners, and this fascinating list of authors who have won at least three O. Henry Prizes. In the meantime, it’s interesting to note that both Epoch and The New Yorker are included 4 times this year. The Georgia Review, Harper’s and One Story each have 2 winners. Tin House, Granta, Prairie Schooner, Zoetrope, Indiana Review and Ploughshares each have 1. (The inclusion of the big press magazines on this list demonstrates the difference between the O. Henry and Pushcart Prizes.)

Now, as for the stories themselves, I plan to savor them and will review some of them in the coming days.

2006 O. Henry Prizewinners

Karen Brown—“Unction”/The Georgia Review
George Makana Clark—“The Center of the World”/The Georgia Review
Deborah Eisenberg—“Window”/Tin House
Louise Erdrich—“The Plague of Doves”/The New Yorker
Paula Fox—“The Broad Estates of Death”/Harper’s Magazine
Edward P. Jones—“Old Boys, Old Girls”/The New Yorker
Jackie Kay—“You Go When You Can No Longer Stay”/Granta
David Means—“Sault Ste. Marie”/Harper’s Magazine
David Lawrence Morse—“Conceived”/One Story
Alice Munro—“Passion”/The New Yorker
Lydia Peele—“Mule Killers”/Epoch
Stephanie Reents—“Disquisition on Tears”/Epoch
Susan Fromberg Schaeffer—“Wolves”/Prairie Schooner
Terese Svoboda—“’80s Lilies”/Indiana Review
Melanie Rae Thon—“Letters in the Snow”/One Story
Douglas Trevor—“Girls I know”/Epoch
William Trevor—“The Dressmaker’s Child”/The New Yorker
Lara Vapnyar—“Puffed Rice and Meatballs”/Zoetrope
Neela Vaswani—“The Pelvis Series”/Epoch
Xu Xi—“Famine”/Ploughshares

Know a young writer? Anchor Books has begun the O. Henry Short Story Competition for Young Writers. Spread the word!

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Abide With Me

by Elizabeth Strout

Probably this novel won’t appeal to everyone. It is not a book that depends in any grand way on its plot. It is about grief, courage, humility and healing, and depends entirely on the evolving portrait Strout paints of Tyler Caskey, the complicated, troubled minister who stands at the book’s center. (I’m pleased to say that Liz Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle, was one of my terrific teachers in the MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte.)

Caskey’s wife, with whom he was perhaps ill-matched, has died. Caskey is grieving, but more visibly so is Katherine, the older of their two daughters. The minister is not without flaws, and he comes through the course of the book to understand those flaws so well that they threaten to derail him. And, though flawed, he has enormous reservoirs of patience for the gossipy members of his congregation, whom Strout has made somewhat laughable. How Caskey restrains himself is beyond me, but then he’s a minister and I’m not.

Caskey on several occasion considers the difference between “cheap grace”—unearned forgiveness—and “costly grace”—forgiveness earned through real sacrifice. I think, ultimately, that’s what the book is about. For what he feels he has done, Caskey won’t forgive himself until he has truly suffered. He has to reach rock bottom first, as do the others of his congregants who desire forgiveness.

Here’s a brief excerpt:
“Outside in the chilly air, he tried to find an equilibrium within the enormousness of his disappointment over his visit with George. He sat in his car a few moments, looking at the campus, the massive gray trunks of the elms before him. Abide with me; fast falls the eventide . . . Odd to think that had been his favorite hymn for years, because what had he really known until this year about the sadness and pleading tone of that hymn? The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide. Tyler started the car, drove down the hill, past the church where he’d been married. When other helpers fail and comforts flee . . . O Lord, abide with me.
There is a great deal going on here just below the surface of the story: it is the ’50s and the arms race has begun, the threat of nuclear war is on everyone’s minds and tongues, and bombshelters have sprouted in backyards. Women play a secondary role. It's a different time, and yet . . .

Here's an excellent interview with Elizabeth Strout: The Atlantic Monthly.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

I Got Somebody in Staunton . . .

. . . comes to Staunton. Last year, when William Henry Lewis published his second short story collection, I Got Somebody in Staunton, I received an email from suggesting I might be interested in the book. Now, I don't know if that was because Edward P. Jones had blurbed the book and my records showed I had ordered a Jones book or two from Amazon, or if it was because made the connection between the Staunton of the title and my mailing address (with which they are way too familiar). [Note to self: include "New York City" in the title of next book to ensure that Amazon promotes it as widely as possible.] At about that time, the Washington Post reviewed the book and my sister emailed me: Have you seen this book?

I read the book and loved it. It bears some similarities to Edward P. Jones, I thought, but is its own book, too, fresh and vibrant. Here's a snippet of that Post review:
"From the South to the North. From the country to the city. From fields of kudzu drenched in Southern racism to Northern cityscapes freighted with urban violence. Similar to Jean Toomer's classic novel Cane , the stories and vignettes in William Henry Lewis's I Got Somebody in Staunton trace the route of the great migration. But as Lewis's characters change landscapes, the same issues bedevil their working-class black identities -- whatever the milieu and whether one is headed from the South to the North, or the reverse, or even to the Bahamas and beyond."

I wasn't alone in my appreciation, because this year the book was a finalist for the Pen/Faulkner award. Here's what they have to say:
"I Got Somebody in Staunton is a collection of ten dazzling stories set variously in Bedford-Stuyvesant; Denver; and Staunton, Virginia, all deeply concerned with the pride and pain of African-American heritage. In William Henry Lewis's title story, a black college professor, haunted by his dying uncle Izell's memories of lynchings and the ways of the old South, flirts with danger by giving a ride to a flirtatious young white woman. A winner of The 2006 Black Caucus of the American Library Association (BCALA) Literary Awards for this collection, Lewis is also the author of In The Arms of Our Elders, an earlier collection."

Now, here's the best part. After I read the collection, I found an email address for Lewis and wrote to him, suggesting that if he were ever in the area I'd like to arrange a reading at our local independent bookstore, The Bookstack. We corresponded, and because he is indeed in the area this weekend for the Pen/Faulker Award Dinner in Washington, he appeared this evening at the bookstore. Instead of a reading, the charming and approachable Lewis carried on a conversation with the 20 or so folks in the audience, answered questions, and then signed a huge stack of books. (The Bookstack--get it?) It was a great pleasure to meet Hank Lewis and his wife, Sarah, and I look forward to seeing more of his work in the future and, with any kind of luck, staying in touch.

Hank: Thanks for coming!


Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Pramoedya Ananta Toer

I learned this morning at that Indonesian novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer has died at the age of 81. Best known for The Buru Quartet, of which I've only read the first volume, he's also the author of the brilliant memoir The Mute's Soliloquy. His novel The Fugitive was written while he was imprisoned by the Dutch for his role in the Indonesian uprising after WW II:
"In the moonlight the bamboo fence made of tightly woven staves was a glimmering yellow. Beneath the fence and along its edge, weeds and grass, deep green in color, flourished, and in the moonlight the deep green of the grass appeared even darker. The fence wound along the edge of a rice field, bordering a dike that doubled as a footpath. The gate in the fence, also made of staves, was held closed by a twist fashioned from a tassel of bamboo. Behind the fence was a small field of corn, and with the passing of the night wind the stalks rustled and waved. As the wind died, the plants shuddered and fell still, as if asleep, like young men shaken and silenced by dream's desires."

Promoedya is a giant in world literature.

Monday, May 01, 2006

New Blackbird

The Spring 2006 issue of Blackbird is up.

More Pushcart Poll Analysis

Since the previous Quiz was answered correctly very fast, here's another one, in 2 parts. Same prize for the first to post a comment here with the correct answer: a book, one for each part. Previous winners ineligible (this means you, Dan).

During the period 2001-2006, 9 authors have won 2 Pushcart Prizes for fiction (other than Joyce Carol Oates, who won 3). Name either the 5 men or the 4 women in this exclusive club.

Pushcart Poll--Analysis

People seem to have found the list I posted on Saturday pretty interesting, so let's work with it awhile.

Quiz: In the 6 years covered by my survey (2001-2006) several authors won 2 Pushcart Prizes in fiction. One author won 3. The first person to post a comment with that author's name wins . . . something. A book, maybe. Yeah, that's it. A book.