Category: reading

Dave Eggers’s The Circle: A Mirror and a Crystal Ball

the-circleHave you ever read a book that left you feeling a little hollow, a little less safe, and yet it was a story that you felt completely in control of most of the time? That was my experience reading The Circle by Dave Eggers. The Circle is a story of a twenty-something woman named Mae (short for Maebelline, a sure nod to the makeup brand, leaving readers to wonder if Mae’s parents had actually named her after a beauty product in this dystopian society) who has just landed a job at a futuristic version of a Google/Facebook/Twitter-like company called The Circle, making her a “newbie” Circler.

In her first week or two there, she learns just how much this job will become an overbearing part of her life. She’s required to “smile” at all sorts of meaningless chatter online (The Circle’s equivalent to “Likes” on Facebook.) and every few days it seems that a new screen is being added to her desk, requiring her to pay attention to multiple social and business arenas at once.

At first, I was as enamored by The Circle as Mae was. What’s there not to like? The campus is beautifully manicured, all amenities are free to employees — even a stock of merchandise brought into the campus’s overnight apartments for employees who don’t want to drive home after a long day at work — and creativity seems to be bursting out of every room.

This, coupled by the fact that Mae is able to include her parents (her father suffers from MS) on her super amazing health insurance, makes The Circle seem like a dream job, which is the point.

Eggers sets us up to fall in love with the place, but all the time, we’re watching Mae being bombarded with more and more media, technology, and social obligation, and it all starts to feel like a burden not worth carrying. Mae is even chastised for not attending enough after-work festivities when she first arrives on campus. Like a good employee who wants to please her superiors, she acquiesces and starts to fill up her time with extra-curricular activities that keep her on The Circle campus overnight more often than not.

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All the Songs Are Triumphant and Resolve to a Minor Key

praying-drunk-coverPraying Drunk
Kyle Minor
Sarabande Books
193 pages, $15.95

This morning I trashed e-mail from an organization called Kentucky for Kentucky. I have bought a couple shirts from the organization: “Lincoln is my Co-Pilot” and “Kickass Commonwealth since 1792.” This morning they were advertising a new poster, the Bluegrass alphabet:

A – Ali, B – Bluegrass, C – (Kentucky) Colonels, D – Derby, E – Ernest, F – Fried Chicken, G – Goldenrod, H – High Five, I – Isaac Murphy, J – John Jacob Niles, K – Keeneland, L – Lincoln, M – Mammoth Cave, N – Natural Bridge, O – Opossum, P – PawPaw, Q – Quilt, R – Rosie the Riveter, S – Shaker Village, T – Turtle Man, U – United We Stand, Divided We Fall, V – Vault (Fort Knox), W – Wigwam Village, X – Moonshine, Y – Y’all, Z – Zombie.

I am not usually so taken with statehood camaraderie, except perhaps after growing homesick watching Winter’s Bone or later today, when I finally finished Kyle Minor’s new collection of stories, Praying Drunk.

I’d read the first story in the book, “The Question of Where We Begin,” in a collection of flash nonfiction essays. The second line reads, “My uncle takes a pistol and blows his brains out,” and the following paragraphs wrestle with why, maybe this, maybe that, cause and effect, driving backward from the personal story, the family story, the national-historical story, to the mythic, big, beginning story. Here is an excerpt:

We begin with the trouble, but where does the trouble begin? My uncle takes a pistol and blows his brains out.

Now we may proceed to the aftermath. The removal of the body from his bedroom. The cleanup. The reading of the will. The funeral in West Palm Beach, Florida. The woman he wanted to marry, taking the ring he gave her and putting it on her finger after the death.

But this beginning is not satisfactory.  The mourners are now parsing their theories of why. Did you know that he was brain-damaged when that city dump truck hit him twenty years ago? Look at his children grieving in the front pew of the funeral room. Why wouldn’t they visit him except when they wanted his settlement money? Had his settlement money run out? And where is his ex-wife? Why couldn’t she love him enough to stay with him (for better or for worse, right?) Do you think it’s true he was physically violent with her like she told the judge?

I read “The Question of Where We Begin” months ago and said, simply, “Wow.” I had not read anything that good in a long time. Not only was the structure interesting—as it echoes the questions that we ask ourselves sitting in a pew, whittling down the suicide to the most basic and complex set of questions we can ask about character, choice, and death—but I recognized the people, the poverty, the darkness lingering at the edge of the forest. Read more »

The Sound of Your Voice, and Other Forms of Torture

I'm not really sure what's going on here. But I like it.

I’m not really sure what’s going on here. But I like it.

An online literary journal recently asked me if I was willing to record myself reading my forthcoming poem, and I said yes of course because that’s what you say when a literary journal asks you to do anything. And then I immediately regretted my decision.

There are people who exist who love the sound of their own voice, but I am not one of them. I have mixed feelings about reading out loud – I’m anxious for days leading up to it, I realize it’s not that bad and kind of enjoy the rush for the five minutes I’m onstage, and then I’m relieved it’s over and I want waffles. But I fully believe it’s necessary to read your work out loud and I’m always glad that I did it.

What I like most about giving a poetry reading is watching your words connect with someone in the audience. A stranger. A friend. They laugh, they smile, they roll their eyes, they cover their man parts because they think you’re a little frightening – it doesn’t matter what the reaction is, the fact that someone in front of you is reacting to something you wrote is amazing. On a good night, in a good venue, you can feel the energy in the crowd adjust to each poem and I eat that shit up.

But none of that exists in a voice recording.

It’s like trying to record your voicemail message. For like two minutes. I would get a few words out, be appalled by the sound of my own voice, press the stop button and start over. Read more »

A Name We Have Known

For ancient Japanese poets, rulebooks aided in the codification of topics—haze always designated spring; moon always meant the fat harvest moon of autumn unless modified by a different season. Place names, too, signified relationships with images or emotions through their codified use, even though the place may differ from an actual sight experienced: on a sunny day at Sayo no Nakayama, the place would still be associated with night and stormy weather.

That’s why poem 382 stands out to me:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The speaker is specifically addressing the disconnect between the symbolic meaning of the place (Returning Mountain, presumably where you would greet friends upon their return home) and the conflicting emotions felt. Rather than feeling ecstatic at greeting someone long-gone, the speaker is already lamenting their next goodbyes. The departure is tied into the arrival, as Joseph Campbell would say: every creation myth contains an apocalypse, because there can be no beginning without an end. Read more »

Used, but Infinitely More Interesting

On their way to make s'mores.

On their way to make s’mores.

In the romantic comedy Serendipity, Kate Beckinsale’s character writes her phone number in a used book and tells John Cusack’s character that if faith wants them to meet again, the novel will find its way back to him. The movie isn’t very interesting after that, but that scene outside the bookstore made me think about the treasures I’ve found in used books.

In a copy of Drowning Ruth, by Christina Schwarz, a picture of two young women had been used as a bookmark by a previous owner. I bought the book because it was an Oprah’s Book Club pick, but never finished it. Maybe because the unknown people in the picture were more intriguing than the plot. They’re wearing summer dresses, smiling, and posing in front of a pine tree. I like to think they’re at a gathering of good friends in a back yard somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. After the picture was taken, they lit the outdoor fire pit we can’t see, and sat down to drink wine and make s’mores.

A friend of mine lent me her copy of The Magic Circle by Katherine Neville. My memory of the plot is hazy, I confuse it with The Eight by the same author, but I do remember how much I enjoyed the process of reading the book. My friend comments and underlines while she reads. I’d find “Who’s this guy again?” or “How much more must she endure?” in the margins. Plot twists were underlined and “Whaaaat?!” written above. Reading her book was like having our own private book discussion, or maybe more like a private peep-hole into my friend’s mind. Read more »

Topic Unknown

In a thirty-one syllable poem, there isn’t much room for a narrative context. So, collections, like the Kokinshū, present the poem with the poet’s name (or “Anonymous”) and the topic, which reads “Topic Unknown,” if not presented as a condition preceding the writing of the poem (“Snow on the trees”) or an event (“Composed on hearing the cries of the wild geese” or “From the poetry contest held at the residence of Prince Koresada”) or a headnote. The headnote might describe the poem as a part of a greater narrative context, or show it as linked in a dialogue with another poem in the collection.

For example, the headnote of Poem 857 in the Kokinshū reads:

Soon after the Prince who was the Head of the Household Ministry married the fifth daughter of Kan’in, his wife died. The Prince discovered this poem, written when she was well, attached to the cord of one of the posts of her bedchamber.

if you recall me
fondly if you remember
me when I am gone
then gaze upon the mountain
haze in gentle reverie

The poem takes on an eerie quality following that narrative introduction. Enough information has been left out of the headnote to have it provide context while still acting suggestively—did the wife know that she would be sick or did she forecast her own death while still in good health? Spooky. Some of the annotations dismiss the factuality of such coincides, saying that they are not just doubtful but wholly fictive. Unlike, say, A Million Little Pieces, a fictional autobiography in this style would have been fine, expected even. No ancient Oprah would snap the author like a brittle winter twig for the fabrication of the number of root canals or the veracity in finding a poem begging for remembrance during a time of grief. While Poem 857 does not have such an annotation, a critical Westerner may assume that the narrative is fiction. In tanka, fact and fiction do not conflict, but collide and enrich the experience.

One of the goals of a good poem is to produce a little, peaceful “aha!” moment called a satori, often through jo-ha-kyū: “serene introduction,” then “extended and detailed narrative information, and finally, “an ending which is surprisingly sudden.”

Or, literally, “beginning, break, rapid,” instead of the Aristotelean beginning, middle, end.
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The Uniqueness of a Character’s Voice

bad-day-for-pretty-240hVery early in my writing life, I shared a story with some local writers during an event at the library where I lived in California. My prose told of an adventure involving pirates, pick-pocketing urchins, and buxom wenches. The writers read my tale and after a long moment of silence, one of them politely stated that she had problems distinguishing between my characters.

I had worked hard to create a unique quirk for each of them. My hero often cursed and my heroine had a certain way of flipping her hair. When I asked for clarification, the writer said, in a crisp English accent, “They all have a bit of a potty mouth, you see, at times a little too much.” She pointed to a page where she’d circled each swear word. Two males and one female were speaking. None of them uttered a sentence that didn’t contain the word “fuck.” If I hadn’t included a dialogue tag here and there, it would have read as one long manic rant. It still kind of did.

I revised and proudly showed up for a second evening of sharing at the library. Now, only the hero’s sidekick dropped the f-bomb. The hero instead used “shit,” while the heroine preferred milder profanities such as “crap.” The writer’s facial twitches made me snatch the pages out of her hand. Before leaving, I checked out a few books on the craft of writing.

As writers, we know that it’s not only what our characters say that is important, but also how they say it. The challenge is to make sure that each character has a unique way of speaking, moving, and thinking—and then stay consistent through the story

I new favorite author I recently started reading is Sophie Littlefield. I love her books because she is a master of close third person point of view. My favorite books of hers are a series of crime novels rich with humor and quirky characters. Told entirely from the main character’s POV, her sarcastic witty voice colors the story in ways that make it impossible not to laugh out loud. Read more »

Spoiler Alert!

I don’t understand people who read spoilers. I don’t understand, really, why spoilers exist. Is it just because we all have this innate need to know something before other people do or is it because we’re too lazy or busy to actually experience something?

I think people are lazy (hey, I’m not judging – I can be lazy as hell sometimes, especially when laundry is involved). But we also all have a million things to do, which doesn’t help. We’re lazy and busy at the same time. We don’t have time to do math in our heads anymore. We don’t want to try to access our memory banks for the name of that 90s song that we recognize and used to love. We want to hold up our phones and have it tell us the answer, and then we want to say out loud, “Oh yeah, I knew that.” Because we did know that. We just didn’t want to work to retrieve the information.

Instant gratification, I guess, is what I’m getting at. But it’s more complicated than that. I can still remember the people who found it so satisfying to shout in the halls or to post on facebook, “SNAPE KILLS DUMBLEDORE!” There are 652 pages in that book, and I’m fairly certain that most of the people who engaged in this spoiler attack hadn’t read a damn one of them. Information is power, and there’s the type of spoiler who wields information (that they didn’t earn) in order to feel powerful. And that type of spoiler sucks. Read more »

Turning Life into Art: Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter

I’ve set out to understand how to craft a memoir and all the answers that go along with that understanding: What makes a memoir interesting? How far outside yourself can you stray and still be in the realm of writing your own memoir? What structures keep energy in the story? What details have to die? How do you end a story that’s still being lived? And on and on…

Change Me into Zeus's Daughter

If the story’s about the devil, does there have to be an angel?

Over the next few months, I’m going share with you the little insights into craft that I gather as I read a series of memoirs, starting with Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter by Barbara Robinette Moss. The main title of these posts will be “Turning Life into Art.” I suspect these posts will be part review part reflection part explication, and if I’m feeling really courageous, part personal essay where I start to play with my own ideas right in this blog.

First,  a couple notes about how I think about writing. For me, it’s either divine inspiration or intellectual puzzle. (Both of these can produce crap, by the way. Don’t be fooled by the word “divine.” It just tends to feel more divine than puzzling things out.) Either the words just start floating around in my brain, almost like a song or swelling of emotion that I can’t escape, or they are put together slowly, methodically, with intention and the end in mind.

It’s all about before or after with me. Will I try to make sense of what I’m writing before the words come to me or after? Sometimes the answer is both. Sometimes I think I’ve made sense of it, that I have a master plan for what I’m creating, but then I see later that something else entirely came out, and it’s equally valid, just a surprise. With this project, I’m sure both inspiration and puzzling will work together to help me learn how to write a memoir, but I also plan to think about something I teach my students.

Essentially, I try to help my students see that no matter what they’re writing, they are creating rules for themselves and their readers as they go, and part of creating a piece that feels complete and cohesive to readers (as opposed to unintentionally confusing and disjointed) is being aware of the rules they’re setting up for themselves. Maybe a novel makes a rule that it will open each chapter from a different character’s perspective to build the tension between each one and to keep the reader from being omniscient too soon, or maybe a poem decides that it’s going to use enjambment to create a greater sense of energy and movement in the images. Whatever the rules, the writer should know them and their intended effects. Even though I can never predict how my readers will interpret what I write, I should at least start from a place of consciousness. I should really see what I’m making and recognize it as my child.

So, with that in mind, I’m going to investigate the implied rules set forth in the memoirs I’m reading, starting with Change Me into Zeus’s Daughter and the rule Moss made for herself about how she portrayed her mother.

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Books v Baby, or How My Nipples Got Tougher Than I Am

As you can tell from those fat cheeks, he no longer has any trouble eating.

As you can tell from those fat cheeks, he no longer has any trouble eating.

In the beginning, motherhood made me an avid reader. During nighttime feedings I’d be filled with adrenaline, so by the inadequate LED tap light by my bed, I read literary journals. Short stories, essays, and poems all seemed nicely portioned for such occasions, and I blew through several journals and collections in my first few weeks as a mom. I felt pretty proud of myself; I should blog about this, I thought. But as time went on, it became clear that whatever post I might write would not just be about the amazing literary opportunity afforded by feeding. It would have to focus heavily on my breasts. From there, it could get a little weird and introspective. Read more »

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