The Second Half: The Millions’ Preview and Harper Perennial’s Big Deal

The Millions dropped its Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2012 Book Preview this week. In what’s becoming a biannual tradition, the list boasts a number of big-name authors, such as Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz, Michael Chabon, George Saunders, and David Foster Wallace. Not too shabby. Head over to The Millions for the full scoop, but here are some details on the books that look most interesting to me:

John Brandon‘s A Million Heavens focuses on an oddball cast that gathers around the hospital bed of a comatose piano prodigy.  …  Up-and-comer Charles Yu, who I saw in January at the Key West Literary Seminar, releases what’s been called a Vonnegut-esque short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You.  …  Jonathan Evison offers an interesting take on the road novel with The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, wherein a man takes off across the West with a boy suffering from Muscular Dystrophy who’s been entrusted in his care.  …  Zadie Smith gets back to fiction with NW, a class novel set in London.  …  Junot DíazThis is How You Lose Her arrives in September, a story collection that has apparently already been published piece by piece in the New Yorker.  …  America’s sweetheart, Emma Straub, breaks out with her first novel, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. … Chris Ware collects his Building Stories comic strips in Building Stories.  …  Roberto Bolaño continues his impressive posthumous production with Woes of the True Policeman, which returns to the Northern Mexico city of Santa Teresa, featured in 2666. This is believed to be Bolaño’s final unpublished novel. We shall see.  …  Tenth of December is George Saunders‘ fourth humorous short story collection, many of which, I believe, were also already published in the New Yorker.

A lot to like there.

Meanwhile, Harper Perennial and One Story are partnering to offer the digital editions of some of their short story collections at the low price of $1.99.  Check out the details on Harper Perennial’s Facebook page. It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I’m a huge fan of Harper Perennial. In fact, of the books being offered in this promotion, I’ve reviewed Ben Greenman‘s What He’s Poised to Do, Lydia Peelle‘s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, Rahul Mehta‘s Quarantine, and Justin Taylor‘s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever. You can find the reviews here, here, here, and here. No matter your digital device, check out a few of these titles. You won’t be disappointed. (As far as I know, they also work in print. The discount doesn’t, however.)

My Interview of Justin Taylor Now on PS Blog

Check out my interview of Justin Taylor, newly posted today on the Prairie Schooner blog. We discuss a variety of topics, including literary “patriarchal bullshit”, the writing of place, self-awareness (in writers and characters both), among others. Justin also recommends a host of great books and makes a case for a revival of Saul Bellow’s work.

This was an interesting interview for me to conduct–as I reviewed Justin’s debut short story collection, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever, a couple years ago for The Millions. It was pretty cool to get the chance to ask him some questions about his work too.

Anyway…check out the interview!

February in Review

-I was lucky to see the National Christmas Tree when I was in Washington DC last month—as it fell over in a windstorm a couple weeks after I visited. My walking friend and I commented to each other at the time that the tree looked to be in pretty bad shape. Apparently it was! The tree I saw was installed during the Jimmy Carter presidency. A replacement will be planted this spring.

Another cartoon from the Evening Omaha World-Herald, from 1918, this one on the threat global domination posed to local fishermen.

-The reviews I did last year for Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever and Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil were mentioned in a couple different Best Books of 2010 lists. Here are the links:

http://bygonebureau.com/2010/12/08/best-books-of-2010/

http://robaroundbooks.com/2010/09/afterthoughts-kapitoil-by-teddy-wayne/

-A healthy portion of “Welcome Home” was put up on Google Books, as it appeared in Best New American Voices 2009. It’s not all there, but most of it is.

-“Welcome Home” was also mentioned on the news page of the Arts & Sciences College at Creighton University, where I did my MA. I should note, however, that the story may be selected for the Warrior’s Journey coursework. Nothing is official as of yet. If I hear anything I’ll be sure to post about it, as having my work included in that program would certainly be my biggest accomplishment to date. I’m very proud that they asked to use the story.

-My review of Marcy Dermansky’s Bad Marie was published on The Millions.

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks

McSweeney’s, Epoch, and Shenandoah for “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine”; Missouri Review for “The First Night of My Down-and-Out Sex Life”; and Crab Creek Review for “These Things That Save Us.”

Now Reading

Greetings from Below by David Philip Mullins.

Just Finished

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. “I overtipped him. That made him happy. It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France. It is the simplest country to live in. No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money. I spent a little money and the waiter liked me. He appreciated my valuable qualities. He would be glad to see me back.”

Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon. A fantastic novel. Smart, melancholy and funny. I’ve only read two of his books so far, but Hemon is one of my favorite writers. He’s really great, and I need to make the time to read all of his work.

Up Next

Other People We Married by Emma Straub.

[Note: I’m trying something new with the format for these posts, going to whole months in review rather than what was turning out to be 3-4 weeks in review. It isn’t much of a change, except that I’ll be pulling the longer topical and reflective sections out and making those into their own posts. The month in review posts will be more bullet point stuff. Not much of a change in content, but more and smaller posts. Hopefully that’s a little easier to consume.]

Review News

Some news to share regarding criticism. My review of Justin Taylor’s Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever will be appearing on The Millions early next month! It was just accepted this week.

And my review of Lydia Peelle’s Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing is slated to appear in the Summer 2010 issue of Prairie Schooner. This had been previously accepted, but I learned that it’s scheduled for publication today.

It’s been surprisingly fun to work on literary criticism again after grad school–albeit in a way that isn’t so strictly scholarly. It’s a bit nerve-wracking to critique a young writer’s work in public way also, but I’m not too afraid of doing so, it turns out. When I started thinking about reviewing books, I promised myself that I’d only review books that I really liked. For one, I wouldn’t have to trash another writer. Second, it seemed boring to put that much effort into something that I couldn’t connect with. And finally, it didn’t make sense to help promote work that I didn’t care for when that effort could be applied to promoting work I actually want others to read. Seems like sound logic to me.

Catch Up Time: November 1 – December 13, 2009

Novel Work

Over the last month I’ve been trying to immerse myself a little deeper in books and movies that take place within the same general time period that my novel is set, using 1900-1935 as a wide range of years to pull from, as the events of my novel occur over 1918-1919. The idea here is to, for one, gain a better understanding of the traditions, practices, and standards of the historical narrative form. I believe this falls under the due diligence umbrella. The second reason for this immersion is to acquire something of an ear for the way people spoke at the time. It’s always struck me strange when characters speak so differently than we do in historical pieces—thinking mostly of characters with vocabulary dominated by slang who speak in nasally, affected tones—but how am I to know how people really spoke in, for example, 1920s Kansas City. My main hesitation then, during the drafting process, has been trusting my intuition against what I see is a practice of accentuating slang in historical forms to give it an “old-timey” feel. (It’s also important to note that typically only teenage or early twenties characters from lower economic classes use this thick slang. In It’s a Wonderful Life we only really see Ernie the cab driver speak in this affected way, certainly not Potter, or the grown version of George Bailey. Or in Robert Altman’s Kansas City, mostly it’s Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character with the period accent, and the black gangsters to a degree, but certainly not the kidnapped Senator’s wife.)

One of the ways I’ve been trying to bridge that information/experience gap is by reading local newspapers from the area on the microfilm collections of Omaha libraries, mostly the Evening World-Herald at this point—an idea I picked up from Ron Hansen. Now, this is a somewhat formal medium, so the language used there isn’t exactly street, but I’m not sure that’s something I want anyway. (If I don’t use a lot of slang in my contemporary stories, why would I do so in my historical ones? Plus, my main character is a country boy from a rural immigrant community and probably wouldn’t have been exposed to too much popular culture anyway.) What I’ve really been struck by in doing this kind of research is how little things have changed in the past ninety years. Surprisingly, the most obvious evolution in tone and style has actually developed in the hard news stories, because the Public Pulse letters are eerily consistent in tone, language, style, and even content if you replaced Germans with Muslims and German-Americans with illegal immigrants. I’m not really sure what I expected to see, but the similarities were striking.

So there is a tension in the writing process between authenticity and expectation. From what I can tell, people in 1918 Omaha didn’t really speak too much differently than we do in 2009 Omaha—or they didn’t write much differently, at least. (Again, this is focused mostly on middle-class white communities who were/are engaged in civic, political, and cultural issues.) However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that my book’s audience would accept dialogue that doesn’t sound “old-timey.” More than likely a balance must be struck between what I decipher as authentic and what the tradition tells me an audience will expect. What that balance means exactly will probably have more to do with my own ear (going with what looks and sounds the best) then anything else in the end.

Dispatch from The Open City

“The United States National Banking Company had been the first place Jacob stopped in at, a white sandstone building with large columns in the heart of downtown. The bank lobby was a bustling place, so unlike the sleepy office of the Jackson Building & Loan, where the farm deed was held. There were several stations here that one must wait in line for in order to be served. Each of them had signs indicating their purpose, Drafts, Pass Books, Deposits, but Jacob didn’t know which one to approach. He’d never had to find a job before; he’d been a family farmer up until this point. The lobby was packed with impatient people—suit-and-tie men with derby hats, holding packets of receipts for inspection, gloved women in ankle-length skirts and fine, flowered hats, clutching small purses—and the stuffy enclosure was stifling with the odor their colognes and perfumes. The bank’s one large room was divided by the cashier’s cages, heavy brass frames that held glass plates, a slot at the counter where documents and money were exchanged. There were cages in the back too, these made of heavy iron wire, containing adding machines and quick-fingered clerks whose only job was to note figures from morning til night. Beyond them was the heavy steel door of the vault, tilted open as a matter of reassurance. In the middle of the lobby stood a pot belly stove with a smoke stack the reached to the top of the twenty foot ceiling. Jacob gravitated towards the stove because it was the only place where people weren’t clustered. The metal was cold against his skin, his hands brushing against it.”

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of No Thanks

Alaska Quarterly Review for “The Current State of the Universe”; Mid-American Review for “These Things That Save Us”; Hunger Mountain for “Let Your Hair Hang Low”; The Collagist for “You Know That I Loved You”; Grasslimb for “From Indiana”

Just Finished

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. As important as the first stories seemed, the final few seemed just as trivial. The conceit of having each story involve Olive in some way really wore thin on me. I still enjoyed this book and would recommend it, but give me Winesburg, OH any day.

Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor. Like the teenage and twenty-something characters who people his work, Taylor seems to be aware of what might be the limited shelf-life of these stories, but he risks irrelevance in the future because of the confidence that what he writes about has a broader significance. That despite the pop culture references and out-of-style fashion, there’s something vital simmering under the surface.

The Best American Comics 2009. My favorites include “Justin M. Damiano” by Daniel Clowes, “Indian Spirit Twain & Einstein” by Michael Kupperman, “The Company” by Matt Broersma, “Berlin” by Jason Lutes, “Jordan W. Lint” by Chris Ware, “Freaks” by Laura Park, “Antoinette” Koren Shadmi, “Glenn Ganges in Pulverize” by Kevin Huizenga, and “Papa” by Gilbert Hernandez. My absolute favorite was Art Spiegelman’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@#*!!”

Now Reading

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser.

Up Next

Kapitoil by Teddy Wayne.

Link of the Week

Nathan Bransford Blog.   A cool blog by a literary agent attempting to demystify the largely secret processes of book publishing. A very nice resource.

Weeks of Oct 12 – Oct 31, 2009

Novel Work
I’ve been busy pushing ahead with new drafting the past couple weeks and it’s been going well for the most part. Nothing of much interest to report, really, on that score, other than I think much of what’s been put down will be of service to the book. So that’s good.

Perhaps the most note-worthy development is that it seems clearer, as the historical fiction progresses, that I’m probably working on two different novels. The idea was to have one novel with two interwoven threads—a primary one taking place in 2005, with a complementary one from 1918/19. The historical thread is growing in size and prominence the more I work on it, however, and is plotting out to be its own book. I’ve also been concerned about trying to get a 600-700 page novel published, so maybe this will work out better to have two 300-350 page novels instead. We’ll see how it goes.

Dispatch from The Open City
“A man crossed the street in front of Jacob, bent towards the road as he stumbled along. He was crippled with rheumatism, Jacob could see this, the man’s fingers bent in broken directions, hands unable to close, his limbs joined at odd angles, as if no part of his body could be flexed straight. There were many men like this here, twisting in wooden chairs, unable to find comfort, the hard labor of their lives stamped on their bodies. These men were slaughterhouse workers who could no longer work. Thousands of them had migrated north to fill stockyard positions vacated when locals were drafted into the war effort. Neighborhoods such as these overflowed with these men and their families. Every morning trucks owned by the yards rumbled into the Northtown ghetto to exchange night workers for day workers, then returned in the evening to reverse the exchange. It was decent pay, for those who could do it. But they ended up with their legs broken and tied to a nearly straight tree branch, lying near the planks of the walkway; or knocked permanently stupid by a stampeding bull, jabbering and drooling, faces swarmed with flies. There were both men and women here who were missing fingers or raw chunks of their faces or whole arms from the cutting apparatus. Or those folks whose bodies had simply broken down.”

Personal Rejection Notes, Requests for More, and Other Nice Versions of “No Thanks”
Michigan Quarterly Review for “The Day After This One”; Colorado Review and Puerto del Sol for “The Housekeeper”; Failbetter for “Let Your Hair Hang Low;” and Barnstorm for “Lycaon.”

Just Finished
Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon. It kind of pains me to say this, since Chaon is one of my favorite writers, but I didn’t really care for this novel. Much of the writing is very good, but none of the book’s moving parts seemed to really work for me. Maybe part of it is that Chaon is rewriting the same stories over and over, the same kinds of characters from his earlier work, the same issues. Many writers do this, of course, and it doesn’t seems like it should be a big deal, but I was just kind of bored with what was going on after a while. There wasn’t suspense. Being familiar with his work, I could see what was going to happen. And perhaps more than that, it invites too much of an invitation to compare the novel to Chaon’s story collection Among the Missing—and in my opinion, he’s ten times the short story writer than he is a novelist. AYR has received dozens of exuberant reviews, so people much smarter than me found much to admire here. I also admired a lot the novel’s individual aspects–including the amibition evident in the project. I just didn’t think it really pulled together, however.

Now Reading
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. A little less than half-way through here. It’s something I can’t really put my finger on, but there’s just something about these stories that makes them seem like they’re important to read. Maybe it’s the tone with which they’re told. At any rate, there’s a gravity to the prose that’s very engaging.

Up Next
Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor.

Link of the Week
Koreanish. The outstanding blog of author Alexander Chee. Many excellent posts on the process of writing, art, comics, and other such stuff. Basically, what I wish this blog could be like someday.  

Featured Market
Salt Hill. The literary magazine of the Creative Writing Program of Syracuse University, I’m not really sure why this journal doesn’t have a higher profile. Outstanding contributors, attached to a legendary writing program, really a great aesthetic.