Summer in Review (2013)

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Nothing better than seeing the Royals shut out the Tigers on a 4000 degree day in mid-July, right, grumpy baby?

Things slowed down as summer officially began. Not a lot of news fit to print. (Besides the KC Royals making an honest to God playoff run, that is. That 4% chance of making the post-season they’ve been nursing the past month or so has brought me a not small amount of joy.) [EDIT: We also won 7th place in Dole’s Taste of Spain sweepstakes, which includes a free Bag o’ Salad. So the winning streak continues.] A lot of this was by design to savor a couple things that will be in short supply next summer–cash and family time.

Inkubate did select the winners of their Literary Blockbuster Challenge. Although part of the long-list of finalists my work was not selected as one of the cash winners. Apparently they are sharing my work with a group of participating agents and editors, so there’s that.

I also finished the rewrite of my novel and am now hard at work in the revision of the rewrites. All in all I’d declare the multiple POV experiment a success. A main thread emerged through the character of Karel, a nine year-old boy when the novel begins. I’ve never done much with child characters in my work before–with a notable exception coming when “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter” was published in The Kenyon Review in 2011–and it’s turned out well.

An excerpt from The Uninitiated will appear as “River Ward, 1917” in Boulevard soon, so keep an eye out for that.

Dispatch from The Uninitiated

16th & farnam
16th & Farnam Street.

“That night Karel turned on his lamp, just briefly, to take off his shoes and tuck them safely under the mattress. He was a bit drunk and didn’t feel like sleeping right away. At the same time he was too anxious of himself to join the boys at the loud end, so he sat for a while to think about his predicament. He wished that the feeling he created on the baseball diamond when he played ball followed with him once he made it home, but this couldn’t be so. There was too much weight in familiar places. The stuff about his mom he didn’t want to believe. What happened with Braun, the demise of SOSA; and not long after Jacob being ran out of town in disgrace, a thug, a thief, good riddance. And Anna. Karel could do nothing to change what had happened to Anna, and what would.

Instead he was in this dorming house, sitting on the quiet end with his lamp on. He annoyed those around him but they could roll over and grumble, for all he cared. They could order him to douse his lamp. He’d tell them to fuck off. Karel was sitting in the lamplight. That’s all. Something he never did. He’d never wanted to put off the others but he didn’t care now. The room looked strange to him, drunk, the way the shadows were victorious against the lamp in the corners, under beds, up in the airy loft above him when the rafters crossed each other. Sometimes the room reminded Karel of the time he’d visited Anna up at the state home. For she too slept in a long dormitory hall like this one. The two rows of beds. All girls there—as this was all boys—strangers to one another, which made them compatriots in a way. It was always lonely to fall asleep in a row of beds, particularly if you were bracketed by silent neighbors. If he couldn’t hear their breathing, Karel wondered if they’d died in the night, and remembered how it was when he’d shared a bed with his sister, how he fell asleep to her dainty snoring most nights, and the terror of waking up to silence in the middle of the night, Anna’s snoring stopped, and him to speculate why. Karel didn’t like to have a bed to himself, despite believing he did. He’d never slept alone before and wasn’t sure how to do it. He’d stay up late and stare into the rafters. He’d listen to the card players. This night he’d leave the light on.”

Just Finished

The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek, translated by Joachim Neugroschel. In preparation for my trip to a German arts organization next summer I’ve been acquainting myself a bit with the German-language canon, so as to not appear so much as a self-centered, hegemonic American jerk. The Piano Teacher was really great. I’m not sure that there’s anything so formally striking about it, but the close, close POV (even when split) was remarkably well done, and wonderfully hard to read at times, and the evocation of Vienna in the 1980s very engaging.

Speculations About Jakob by Uwe Johnson, translated by Ursule Molinaro. I’d never heard of this book before, but I’m grateful I came across it and picked it up. Originally published in German in 1959 (the English translation went public in the US in 1963) Johnson provides a striking panorama of what life was like in East Germany in the 1950s, at the time of the Hungarian Revolt–and, more importantly, what East Germans thought of West Germans and why not all East Germans dreamed of becoming refugees in the West. While the style of the narration–multiple, often overlapping points-of-view–can be challenging, the book is a masterpiece. Very highly recommended.

Amerika by Franz Kafka, translated by Willa Muir. This unfinished novel is kind of known for being factually inaccurate–what? you didn’t know that the Statue of Liberty held a giant stone sword?–as Kafka never traveled to the United States and was kind of writing by the seat of his pants as far as research went. It’s still a pretty good novel, although not always very Kafkaesque, surprisingly. This being one of his earliest works, you can tell he was still feeling out his style by writing what is basically a pretty conventional travel story, at least in the beginning. Things get a lot weirder towards the end.

The Joke by Milan Kundera. It’s kind of interesting to read the so-called “lesser” works of such a well-known author, since it can be hard not to give the novel its own treatment, rather than reading everything through the lens (or in comparison) of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, in this case. So while The Joke is a very good book, I seemed to appreciate it less in the beginning because it wasn’t THE Kundera classic. That being said, The Joke offers its own pleasures. It’s a little deeper experience in some ways, more focused on single events and the ironies of the characters as their plots intertwine.

Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta. A finalist for the National Book Award, Spiotta’s 2006 novel is highly entertaining, and pretty spot on in its portrayal of activist and outsider culture in the United States, both in the 1970s and the early 2000s. I kind of cringed reading the sections set in 2003, remembering how some of my friends and I worked so hard to craft political consciousness through fashion. A lot of times I take issue with novels that try to depict aspects of my generation, particularly if they hit close to home, as everyone does, I’m sure. But Spiotta’s writing is so sharp, her points so precise and intuitive, there really wasn’t much to argue about.

Now Reading

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford by Ron Hansen.

Up Next

The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald.

Winter in Review

Karbach block
The Karbach Block in downtown Omaha, where Tom Dennison’s office was located after the Budweiser Saloon closed down.

I suppose it is spring now, technically. Although Nebraska has been in its meteorological spring for a few weeks already and that hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference in the weather. Things have been pretty slow on this space for some time, and while the weather has nothing to do with that, we’ll have to do better. The main reason for this lag is that in January/February/March we sold our old house, bought a new one and moved. Pretty heady stuff for a couple with two little kids who usually have their heads buried in computers something like twelve hours a day anyway. It wasn’t so bad though. We moved from the Benson neighborhood of midtown Omaha all the way over to the Dundee neighborhood of midtown Omaha. A little over three miles. It’s been nice. The schools are better, no small concern with Maddie off to kindergarten in the fall, the sidewalks more plentiful. We traded in the Pizza Shoppe and Baxters for La Casa and Pitch, Jake’s for the Dell, Krug Park for Pageturners, dog fights for dog walkers, Benson Days for Dundee Days. It’s a whole new world. Also, the new house is quite a bit bigger, so my office is no longer a toyroom/office. That’s pretty big news in itself. Also, there’s a cemetery a block down from us, with an obstructed view of headstones from my desk, and Maddie is convinced that Jesus is buried there. We may be in for a dicey Easter this year.

Meanwhile things have been plugging along on the agent front. Nothing to really report yet, but there’s been pretty steady interest, a couple exclusives to bigger agencies, a few nibbles here and there. I always take things pretty slow, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that this process will have to run its full course.

While that’s been going on I’ve been rewriting the novel from the point of views of some side characters, mostly out of curiosity and to keep occupied. I suppose, if no one is interested in the book as written, the process could take long enough for me to rewrite the whole novel in a way that’s more than an academic exercise. Not a bad contingency plan, I guess.

In other news:

-As announced yesterday, an excerpt from The Uninitiated (“River Ward, 1917”) was selected for publication by Boulevard. Also, I failed to mention that Boulevard nominated my story “On a Train from the Place Called Valentine” for  a Pushcart Prize. The story was first printed in their Spring 2012 issue. This is a great honor and one I’m pleased to have received. Boulevard rules, by the way. Subscribe to them.

-The big news of the season was that my novel The Uninitiated won Tarcher/Penguin’s Top Artist Writing Contest. Read breakdowns here and here.

-My story “The Mercy Killing of Harry Kleinhardt” was published by Midwestern Gothic in their Winter issue. (Kindle editions of the issue are currently on sale for $1, and print for $6.) I was also interviewed by MG as part of their Contributor Spotlight series. Check out the interview here.

-This weekend we’ll celebrate Clara’s first birthday. She’s been such a healthy and happy baby that it’s almost hard to remember spending her first week in the NICU, huddled around watching her O2 levels on the monitor, and how joyful it was when she came home. Happy birthday, baby!

Dispatch from The Uninitiated

Miihlstein started right away when they arrived in Omaha. In fact, there was work waiting for him in the attic, what the dead man had been toiling over when he died. Miihlstein looked taller than he really was. He was lanky, with long arms, and this made him appear tall. He preferred striped neckties held flat by a now rusty tin pin he’d made himself. He was a happy man, if distant. He was in his workshop most of the day, singing to himself or playing the violin he was working on. He had a thin mustache that was often stained by coffee and what he’d had for lunch. He hummed as he measured string and reinforced the wooden necks of the violas he was charged with reviving. He squeezed the wood with his hands to put it under stress, to find the reason it didn’t sound right anymore. Karel watched his father’s performance daily, called over, at times, if his father remembered him, to see it in detail. A red felt carpet rolled out over the worktable. Even if it was a small job, a restringing, Karel’s father pulled out all the tools in his kit. Slowly he examined them, lost in the smell of that toolkit when it was opened. Little cans of lacquer and thinner placed on the felt. Tools pulled from their nooks and leather slots. Waffled metal files, awls and emery cloth, spools of white string, spare pegs, clamps, chisels, a skinny little metal hammer. Soon wood shavings popped from the block plane as he revealed new fingerboard, then sanded it round. Notches were filed and awled for the strings. It was painted an ebullient, shiny black, endless and distinguished. Herr Miihlstein’s wire-framed glasses rode down his nose on a bead of sweat. He bit his upper lip, sucking the prickles of his mustache into his mouth to concentrate.

To Karel, it shouldn’t take so long to restring an instrument. But his father could remain occupied with a single instrument for a day or more, stretching and tuning, and playing, humming along as he plucked and bowed. Until: “Perfection!”

Karel and Anna waited for this moment: they could help with a delivery and get out of the attic. Otherwise they occupied themselves with some docile and melancholy game as Miihlstein worked. Their games often involved the war. One of Karel’s favorites was to play army surgeon with Anna’s ragdoll. She allowed this. There was great commotion in Karel’s mind as the doll was rushed from an open battlefield, the middle of a circular woven rug strewn with sock garters and newspaper crumpled into balls, and under the great bed where all four Miihlstein kids slept. Once under the bed the real fun began, their legs stuck out opposite sides. Anna was adept at enumerating injuries. She described to Karel what resulted in the field, a simple shrapnel wound in the arm that luckily avoided bone. But then. Then the ambulance was hit by mortar fire. It overturned on the road, the poor souls inside tossed over each other, compounding their maladies. Broken bones now too, fractures, splinters of glass in the wounds. A gash on the head. The driver died instantly, tragically, for he was greatly loved by his family. By the time a second ambulance had come, the poor soul that ragdoll had become was in real trouble. Anna had a nicely dark mind for these details she savored. Karel pinned the doll to the floorboards with his hands as she explained what needed to be done, an amputation. The doll’s dress was lifted to reveal the yellow cloth of its skin.

As Anna finished her treasury, Karel began. Quickly he worked, sawing with the edge of his index finger, and tucking, as if Anna wouldn’t notice, the doll’s arm into the dress. The doll’s dress was back in place, the sleeve folded up. If the poor soul was saved, he’d be pulled out from the operating theater under the bed and slid under the blankets atop the bed. “You’re in luck,” the poor soul would be told. Nothing but orange juice and nurses for a year. If the poor soul couldn’t be saved, Karel and Anna might enclose the ragdoll in a white paperboard box, take it out back of the Eigler house and bury it in the dirt. Then, into the kitchen to find some lunch.

Just Finished

East of Eden by John Steinbeck. A little disappointed (and intrigued) that James Dean’s “Say hello to your mother!” line is only in the Elia Kazan film version. A classic for good reason, nonetheless. The long tracts on the creation of the Salinas Valley and its early settlers are pretty fascinating to a guy like me, along with the more familiar sections filled with high drama and teenage angst.

The Face of a Naked Lady by Michael Rips. Part family history, part treasury of modern Omaha folk lore, Rips presents a pretty compelling story about growing up in Omaha amid racial strife, organized crime, and suburban flight while his mysterious father rose to prominence and then lost his mind. Also, it’s also an interesting treatise on the philosophical and psychological development of the American suburb as emotional landscape for those who couldn’t cope with the city. Very interesting.

Now Reading

The Slippage by Ben Greenman. I haven’t been doing many book reviews lately, but I made sure to secure an advanced copy of Greenman’s latest, which comes out late April.

Up Next

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach.