life as an enthusiastic reader
(Reposting from the Conundrum Press tumblr.)
For the past few weeks we’ve been working with Colorado author Robert Garner McBrearty on his new collection of short stories, Let the Birds Drink in Peace. The stories feature a variety of characters, from reluctant private investigators to worried brothers to kidnapped kids, and the stories’ styles range from contemplative to comedic. At the heart of them all, though, are characters willing to explore deep below the surfaces of their lives. We loved the collection when we read it and knew that it would be the perfect inaugural book.
Local organization Stories on Stage will read one of Robert’s stories on October 23 at Su Teatro at the Denver Civic theater at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The whole slate of performances feature Colorado authors: In addition to Robert, there will be stories by Laura Pritchett, Nick Arvin, and Joanne Greenberg.
If you can make it, please join us. Supporting independent local arts builds a community we want to be a part of. —Sonya Unrein, editorial director
(Cross-posted on Google+)
Things I wish I’d said on the State of Publishing panel at Writing the Rockies in Gunnison this weekend, which addressed budding writers:
It can be overwhelming when you are confronted with all the publishing possibilities, whether or not to get an agent and try for New York publishing, whether to pursue smaller presses, or the ever-alluring self-publishing route (which is NOT to be confused with ebooks; ebook publishing is a format, not a methodology, any more than POD or offset is a methodology.)
1. Is your book commercial? Does it “read” like other books on the market? If so, you can try the agent/big house route and see where it takes you first. If you meet resistance and rejection and you eventually have had enough, you can start over again with a new method. In this period of flux, there are no permanent records. You can reinvent your participation in the business of writing at any time. There’s no harm in trying.
2. Are there small presses you admire? Do you even pay attention to who is publishing the stuff you like? If not, it’s time to open your eyes and learn about the market. You don’t need to read a hundred blogs every day, but it would help you to find out what’s happening in the industry you say you want to be a part of. If you don’t have time for this part of the research, then you are going to encounter a lot of stumbling blocks. Knowledge is power.
3. If you’re thinking of self-publishing, what do you envision as the outcome? Do you think you’ll sell a million ebooks? You might want to lower your expectations to a level more reasonable. For every one Amanda Hocking, there are a million more who don’t sell many or any copies of their work. If you want to SP because you have written something you want to share, i.e., you want to be part of a bigger literary tradition and step up your participation in a community of writers, this path to a book (print or e or both) might be satisfying to you. Perhaps “modest” success is the watchword.
Some Ethical Considerations
1. Many poets and fiction writers try to get their work published in literary journals. If you do that, or wish it, are you also willing to support those venues financially, either by donation or by purchase? Publications have staffs and costs, even if they’re not-for-profit. The Karma of publication asks you to examine your support, so if you can afford it, it’s your responsibility.
2. If you do sign the rights to publish your work to a publishing company, don’t begrudge them their need to make money from your work. You are entering into a partnership, and while of course you should understand what promises are being made on either side when you sign, you are admitting that the organization has a lot at stake in representing your work in its catalog. You sign the agreement because you want your book on its web site, you ostensibly admire its stated mission and want your work displayed side by side with the press’s other authors. If there are complaints, you lodge them respectfully, remembering that these are real people who are working with you. There are no perfect circumstances, and understanding that ANY form of publication is a gamble will keep everyone’s expectations reasonable. As a tangent, don’t begrudge bookstores their cut, either.
3. Blanket condemnations of social media if you have never tried to participate show ignorance. Not every personality has the magnetism to become an internet standout. But a show of genuine interest in other people as you promote your own writing has the potential to build a readership. Do not run around saying you don’t “get” twitter unless you’ve spent some time there following other people you wish to model. You don’t even have to say much, if anything, in the beginning. But DO spend time reading and thinking. Do learn how to follow individual conversations. Do investigate facebook pages of writers you like. See what they’re doing. Be as observant in this endeavor as you are when you’re gathering faces and conversations and descriptions for your own writing.
“Homage to Hemingway” by Julian Barnes, New Yorker, July 4, 2011
I’ve never read anything by Julian Barnes before. He’s among the many writers I know by name alone. I loved this story, maybe because I have writing on the brain and this story is about a notable novelist whose writing fortunes are slipping as the conventional wisdom condemns “the aging white male author.” It’s heartbreaking, really, that the work of an individual, even a white male author, can be so cruelly dismissed.
The story is in three parts, which mirrors the Hemingway story “Homage to Switzerland,” which the protagonist uses as a writing sample in his workshops. He’s surprised to see that Hemingway is out of vogue and judged on his reputation, not on the text itself, and the protagonist is slowly stripped of his authorial power as the students question his (and Hemingway’s) motives. The story also notes how his novels are dismissed by publishers and fall out of fashion, even as he tries to capture his own experiences in them.
For writers, this story is a goldmine of meta-fiction in terms of the blurring of lines between author and the text.
Sample prose (thematic):
Sample prose (funny):
There is a critical moment when he loses the class completely after being challenged by a female student who doesn’t think Hemingway has anything to say to her (or the other students or by extension, anyone who currently lives or reads today.) He reprimands her and says, “Then try listening more carefully.” I was buoyed by this, because I hate the lazy analysis and its subsequent meme that writes off an author so blithely. If I were a teacher, I’d say read the book with care, and ignore your own likes and dislikes. Evaluate whether or not the craft was strong enough to determine its success or failure. Every close reading generates a better reader on the other end if not obscured by the tiresome politics reading stirs up in writing groups and classrooms.
The latest episode of Bookrageous, in which we dish about the books we love that went underappreciated.
Bookrageous Episode 21; Underdog Books
Intro Music; Still Life - The Horrors
What We’re Reading
[1:15] A First Rate Madness,Nassir Ghaemi
[3:39] Nothing Daunted, Dorothy Wickenden
[6:10] Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent
[8:45] Those Guys Have All the Fun, James Andrew Miller, Tom Shales
[10:02] The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
[11:27] The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt
[14:33] Supergods, Grant Morrison
[17:24] State of Wonder, Ann Patchett
Intermission; Forty Days - Streetlight Manifesto
[24:30] Extra Lives, Tom Bissell
[26:49] Waiting for Columbus, Thomas Trofimuk
[31:20] Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi
[31:55] The Distant Land of My Father, Bo Caldwell
[33:24] The House of Tomorrow, Peter Bognanni
[35:05] Zoli, Colum McCann
[35:19] The Ridiculous Race, Steve Hely, Vali Chandrasekaran
[35:30] How I Became a Famous Novelist, Steve Hely
[37:43] Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffeneger
[39:30] The Unnamed, Joshua Ferris
[40:55] The Shotgun Rule, Charlie Huston
[43:30] A Fraction of the Whole, Steve Toltz
[45:54] American Music, Jane Mendelsohn
[48:29] Day for Night, Frederick Reiken
[50:30] This Life is in Your Hands, Melissa Coleman
[51:40] Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader, Neil Gaiman
[53:45] The Gargoyle, Andrew Davidson
[57:26] The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell
[59:05] Doc, Mary Doria Russell
[1:00:04] Fuzzy Nation, John Scalzi
[1:03:16] Old Man’s War, John Scalzi
Outro; Still Life - The Horrors
Note: Our show book links now direct to WORD, an independent bookstore in Brooklyn. If you click through and buy the book, we will get a small affiliate payment. We won’t be making any money off any book sales - any payments go into hosting fees for the Bookrageous podcast, or Bookrageous projects like our calendar. We promise.
“Gravel” by Alice Munro, in the 6/27/2011 New Yorker
General impression: Another daughter/stepfather story that doesn’t seem to have the same intricacy of some of Munro’s other stories. That’s not to say this isn’t worth reading. The trick to this story is that the narrator, the younger sister to Caro, the story’s tragic figure, is thinking back and being rather cagey about what happened, or, at least cagey about what she knew and what she didn’t know, what she remembers to be all the other motivations of the other characters. Major themes are the pull of memory even as it is unreliable, and the power that can be wielded by an elder sibling. In the case of the narrator in this story, she is captivated by her sister.
Synopsis: The narrator (looking back a number of years to her girlhood) recounts her parents’ separation and seems to take place in the 1970s (a decade where women my age were children, facing a lot of societal upheaval and honestly bearing a lot of its brunt as young parents were figuring out that they didn’t have to stay married). The mother in the story has left her husband, the girls’ father, for a flaky actor named Neal. The narrator recalls her mother as being extremely “happy” during this period, and she, the mother becomes pregnant, ostensibly by Neal. Caro, the older sister, takes to manufacturing drama to gain attention, and her last such act proves fatal. The narrator is haunted for years afterward about why her sister died by her own mistakes.
“He Knew” by Donald Antrim. Published in the 5/9/2011 New Yorker.
Synopsis: A married couple, wherein he is older than she, under the influence of various medications treating (or self-treating) a panopoly of mental instabilities, takes a Halloween stroll up Fifth Avenue, feeling insomuch as they are able a desire for family.
Opening phrase of the opening sentence: “When he felt good, or even vaguely a little bit good, and sometimes even when he was not, by psychiatric standards, well at all, but nonetheless had a notion that he might soon be coming out of the Dread, as he called it, he insisted on taking Alice to Bergdorf Goodman…”
To what does the title refer? What did he know? Perhaps it can be answered by these sentences: He had a young wife. She didn’t yet know what life had in store for her. Or did she?
The story is filled with equivocations, telling or untelling us what he perceives or isn’t quite clear about.
The best sentence in this description of a man the couple encounters on their uptown jaunt: The man was about thirty-five or maybe thirty-eight or -nine years old, forty or so, and his wife was coming up behind. If I could write a sentence like this, it would really be something.
But in “He Knew,” there is a sad clinging to hope of a better, maybe more lucid, connection between the main character and his youngish wife, for the clarity of mind to be able to expand their inelegant pairing. The last paragraph yearns for a tomorrow where he would “speak to her openly and forthrightly about getting his acting career back on track; and before long they would kiss, and when they made love he would drive hard into her and come, hoping, hoping for her pregnancy, for their child, their son, perhaps—a boy like him!—and believing as best he could that their family was drawing close, was near at last.” He knew, as we know, that such a child in this circumstance would be doomed.
“Clever Girl” by Tessa Hadley, in the 6/6/2011 New Yorker
Synopsis: Written from the perspective of a woman thinking back on her teenaged years, the narrator Stella recounts her mother’s remarriage (after widowhood) and the time they moved from a two-room dwelling to a new suburban development with her stepfather. The story’s events are minor (i.e., there is no molestation, violence or any other kind of explicit victimization); instead, the purpose of this story is to mark Stella’s internal processes and resulting intellectual awareness. Her parents force her to take a test to get into a more challenging high school on scholarship, she doesn’t much like it and is struggling, and then she has an epiphany about her own capacity to think, to be “clever.” The story ends quickly, leaving the reader with the sense that this realization has been a major force in her subsequent years.
There are often odd turns of phrasing in this story that require the reader to slow down and think about what’s really being said. For instance:
One of the story’s main themes is spiritual belief as a way to make sense of confusing circumstance. Stella and her neighbor, Madeline, create a “cult of the trees,” another instance of relying on imagination to stimulate strong internal emotions and self-awareness.