June in Review (2011)

June turned out to be all about new short stories for me. I completely reworked one short story, wrote a new one, and put the final touches on yet another. I’d planned on drafting new material for the novel this month, but was really swept up in the short form for a few weeks and had to put off any new writing for the novel. It had been so long since I had much passion for writing short fiction, I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. It felt pretty good to pump out a few stories in a small period of time, after working on one project for nearly two years now. To hear some new voices, to deal with different types of problems—those faced by married people, by people alive in this century, by those from the middle class—was kind of nice. It will also be nice to have some new stories to send out to journals this fall, which hasn’t been the case for a while.

In other news this past month:

The frontyard flower garden is in full bloom. Bumble bees rejoice.

-Mixer Publishing released my short story “The Housekeeper” on Amazon, available for download on Kindle or PDF. The story was originally published on Flatmancrooked earlier this year, but they have apparently taken down their entire site. That sucks.

-And if you’re already on Amazon, you might as well download the spring issue of The Kenyon Review, which features my short story “How to Die Young in a Nebraska Winter.”

-A story that just so happened to be reviewed on the blog Perpetual Folly as part of its Short Story Month 2011.

-Also, The Kenyon Review released their summer reading recommendations, including two of my picks.

-My review of Richard Burgin’s novel Rivers Last Longer appeared in the Pleiades Book Review.

-In other review news, The Millions will be running my review of Suzanne Rivecca’s debut short story collection Death is Not an Option sometime this month.

We traveled to State Center, IA, for a wedding of one of Nicole's cousins, and were greeted by a donkey.

Dispatch from “Impertinent, Triumphant”

“We talked about marriage for a long time. About the good stuff, then the bad, then the qualifications and excuses of what we’d said before. Something happened to Anna, she was emotional, she calmed down, something else happened a few weeks after that, and it wasn’t until later that she remembered the first thing, the original outrage, and by then it was too late for her to do something about it. My stories were the same, structurally. Eventually we turned listless and bleak, hearing about each others’ marriage wounds. They lacked finality. We wanted firm endings, closure, but that wasn’t possible.”

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

Florida Review for “Attend the Way.”

Just Finished

The Names by Don DeLillo. I’ve read nearly all of DeLillo’s work now, and this is by far the most underappreciated novel of his I’ve come across. It’s really pretty good. One from his espionage meme, with a domestic twist, about a spy for the CIA who doesn’t know he’s working as a spy for the CIA. The only thing I can think of to explain its lack of recognition is that The Names, for one, comes from DeLillo’s first period of work, before he was famous, and, secondly, that it covers a lot of similar ground as some of his later intelligence novels, like Mao II, Underworld(my favorite!) and, to some extent, Libra.

Now Reading

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

Up Next

The Call by Yannick Murphy.

Weeks of Aug 31-Sept 13, 2009

Novel Work
It’s been kind of a slow couple weeks. For reasons that will become obvious by the end of this entry, I haven’t had a lot of time for writing lately. I was able to finish up work on the first chapter of Part II, which was nice. There are a few spots that need some work before I even start revising, but I’ll probably just push forward into the second chapter before I worry about that. Was able to get some nice stuff down about the prostitution camps of Hell’s Half-Acre, the lowest of the red light districts in the early days of Omaha. It was kind of strange, but I recalled quite a bit of stuff from a history course on the Progressive Era I took in 2004 as an undergraduate. It always amazes me how much of that stuff sticks. No matter how much research I do, the writing usually seems to find its way back to some obscure anecdote I heard years ago—something that has been fermenting for a long time in the mustier parts of my subconsciousness, I suppose. I always did do well on the comprehension and retention sections of the CAT tests in elementary school, however, and it’s paying off now.

Nicole and I spent Labor Day weekend in Portland, which was palpably refreshing. About a half-dozen or so of our friends have moved out there in the past couple years, so we had ample company to enjoy the Oregon drizzle with. Old friend and rising visual artist Alexander Felton (who is apparently “ungooglable,” but you should try anyway) graciously showed us around his studio. We really enjoyed seeing some of his artwork and discussing it in terms of Baudrillard and in other PoMo ways. After two hours and a few Hamm’s, I only knocked over one of his plaster pieces, which isn’t too bad for a lumberjack like me. Felton was recently visited by some representatives of the Whitney who may be hanging his work next year, so send some kind thoughts his way.

One more quick thought on Portland. I’m not sure if any other authors do this, but I really enjoy seeing my published work in famous bookstores, so we absolutely had to stop by Powell’s in order for me to physically hold a copy of BNAV 2009. This is where it gets weird. As I stroll up to the shelf of fiction anthologies, I notice that another customer is browsing through the different volumes of BNAV and she just so happens to be holding a copy of 2009! I’m very excited, of course, and, as she turns to the Nam Le story, it occurs to me that maybe I should give her a little sales pitch. Maybe talk the book up a little. Maybe even offer to sign my contribution if she’s interested. But I didn’t say anything to her—I felt like enough of a stalker glimpsing my name over her shoulder—and she put the book back on the shelf. Should I have gone for the hard sell? Should I have risked embarrassment and just pulled out my pen and started signing? In hindsight, I should have gone for it. Just claim to be Mehdi Okasi and sign the book.

Dispatch from The Open City
“The heat intensified as they made their way in among the beduin camp. Timber piles had been driven into the mud and live copper wires strung between the poles held small illuminated bulbs. There were long rows of canvass tents, one after another, each with a woman reclining on her cot behind the door flaps. Some of the tents had crudely printed flyers pinned to their front, advertising some exotic fantasy or another. There were a multitude of variations—Mother Russia, the Queen of Siam, the Schoolteacher, Marie Antoinette, the Farmer’s Daughter, the Nun—but inside their tents the women all looked the same to Jacob. This wasn’t a high-class brothel where men who could afford a woman of different skin color or accent, or a famous traveling “lady barber” like the real Calamity Jane. These were desperate women, more than likely local, shipped in from the provinces to occupy a fetid stall in Hell’s Half-Acre before being shuffled off to a similar fate in Kansas City or Minneapolis. The camp had been constructed to be temporary—a premium placed on mobility—but Jacob had the sense that it had been established here for a long time. The only thing that changed was the women.”

Personal Rejection Notes and Near Misses
Low Rent for “You Know That I Loved You,” Queen’s Quarterly for “Let Your Hair Hang Low,” and Fiction Circus for “Lycaon.” A lot of near-love this week.

Now Reading
White Noise by Don DeLillo. Just about finished. I don’t want to say too much right now, as this post is getting pretty long, but this truly is an amazing book. Maybe not my favorite DeLillo work, even—I think Underworld is a more significant work and just as well written—but one of my top five overall. Word for word, DeLillo pens the best sentences going. It’s such a joy.

Up Next
Exiles by Ron Hansen.

Link of the Week
(downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. The theme this year is “The Sordid Arts of the Cheap Paperback.” Events are held from September 17-19 and include panels on “The Comforts of Crime in Scary Times,” “The Writer’s Life in the New Economy,” and “Vampires Love Zombies: the Art and Language of Horror,” among others. There will be poetry written then read about trashy paperback art at the Joslyn, a Ted Kooser book launch, and a literary happy hour to cap the events. Definitely worth checking out if you’re in the area this weekend.

Featured Market
Electric Literature. These guys have gotten a ton of press after their debut issue and much of it is deserved. They offer three ways to enjoy their product (varieties of digital and paper) and are doing some exciting things in terms of digital media and promotion. They also pay contributors $1000 a story, which is nice. It will be interesting to see if they can make this model work, but I say take your shot now, this one is a fast mover.

Ron Raikes: In Memoriam
On the way back from Portland we learned that Ron Raikes had been killed in a farming accident. Raikes was mostly known for his work restructuring the Nebraska education system as a State Senator and by consolidating small rural schools and in creating the Douglas-Sarpy Learning Community he has affected most people in the state. As a politician unafraid of controversy, the name Raikes ignites strong emotions in many people. (I believe Stephen Colbert even referred to him as “the Rosa Parks of resegregation” at one point, although the new funding model he and Ernie Chambers created lumped together funding sources from both inner city and suburban school districts in the Omaha metro—something that still seems impossible.)

All of this aside, Raikes also happened to be the father of one of my closest friends. It’s been a tough week coming to terms with the loss and doing all that we were able to for the family. The Raikes family has represented something special to me in the decade or so that I’ve known them, because they are such a phenomenal collection of hard workers. Each of them intelligent, talented, and driven to succeed, yet these attributes were rarely tainted by false ambition or pretension. There’s a certain intensity in the way they go about their business that was striking to me. It seemed exceptional in a place like Nebraska where almost everyone strives to land somewhere in the middle—an honest and systemic lack of ambition that often leads to the glorification of mediocrity. It was important to be around people like my friend Justin Raikes and his family. These people who have helped me strive for bigger things. Their example has opened my mind to so many new possibilities and ideas—and for this I’m thankful.

 

You will be missed, Ron Raikes.

 

Conor Oberst was wrong about you. You did good.