From Books

What’s Next for Experimental Fiction?

psychedelic-1160626EXPERIMENTAL FICTION HAS BEEN IN CRISIS EVER SINCE THE FIRST PORTMANTEAU OF FINNEGAN’S WAKE THREW ITS MUTANT HAT INTO THE RING. For those who thrill at the bold experiments of modernism, it can often feel like the heyday of experimentation is in the past. The idea of language itself breaking down, of form and function breaking their strained marriage, reached its dizzying peak with works like Finnegan’s Wake and other Joyce
books. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and others continue to exhilarate readers because eighty years later, they’re still dazzlingly transgressive, defying all convention, even the conventions they seem to have established.

But almost immediately following such heady experiments in fiction, experimental fiction itself seemed endangered. Where could writers possibly go from here? What new frontiers were left to explore? The work of defying convention seemed exhausted. The duty of pushing literature forward was left to post-modernists, whose writing still seems disturbingly clinical and sterile to me, divorced from emotion. Consider Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, with its dark conspiracies, its twisted phantasmagoric cityscapes, and its utterly flat, two-dimensional characters. Pynchon’s world seems utterly worn out to me, without the joyous unraveling of language that experimental modernists offered.

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My Favorite Reads of 2015

The Blairzone - 16

It’s that time of year, readers — when I sift back through the books I read and figure out what my top ten absolute favorite reads were. This year’s books were taut and suspenseful; sensitive, dreamy, and philosophical; freewheeling and experimental; and always riveting. They vary widely in their subject matter, their setting, and their central conflicts, but they all have tremendous writing and wildly fascinating characters at their heart. They weren’t all published in this year, but many are surprisingly contemporary. So if you’re looking for what to read next, don’t miss my complete list. In no particular order, here they are:

In rural 1970’s Montana, a beleaguered social worker discovers a nearly feral boy living in the woods with his father. They’re right-wing political extremists living on the edge of civilization; the father, fearful and paranoid, obsessed with the gold standard, could be very dangerous. But his devotion to his son is absolute.

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The Bookocalypse is Coming, and You’re Invited

Have you heard that the end of books is nigh? People have been having a big old freakout about this idea for years. The thinking goes that in the age of the internet, combined with cheap ebook availability, books will cease to exist. For a long time, people have been Very Concerned that today’s teens and young readers just aren’t interested in reading anymore, with a world of tweets and Facebook messages to catch up on.

But as it turns out, the reports of the book’s death have been exaggerated. Recent data coming in shows that book sales are actually thriving, and ebook sales, while healthy, have even declined a fraction. That means that when it comes down to it, people still greatly value the beauty of a book. And people may even be reading more than ever before. But no one really knows why. Read more

New Story Available at Day One Lit Mag

Readers, I’m excited to announce that a short story of mine, “Grimalkins”, is now available for download in Amazon’s online literary magazine, Day One. The story can be read on any Kindle or any Kindle app for iPhone or Android.

I worked hard on this story, which is loosely inspired by my stay at an artists’ colony and the very interesting characters one meets there. Somehow the story ended up being about motherhood and the gulf that exists between young and older artists as well.

Please support this writer by buying an issue or subscribing — there are some really excellent poems and stories to be read in the issues. Here’s the link:

Amazon: Day One

What Will Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” Be Like?

The controversy just won’t die away; after decades of sweltering in a drawer, the prequel to Harper Lee’s masterpiece To Kill a Mockingbird (and the only other full-length novel she seems to have written) is at last scheduled for publication. From what we can tell, it will star Scout as an adult, living far from her hometown of Maycomb, reflecting back, perhaps, on her childhood. In an old interview, Harper Lee recollected that when she first submitted the manuscript to a publisher, she was told that the best portions were flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, so she extracted those and worked them into To Kill a Mockingbird.

So where does that leave Go Set a Watchman? Will it just be the rejects from To Kill a Mockingbird?
Like half the universe, I loved Mockingbird as a child. It was one of the first “grown-up” books I read in an English class, learning to analyze its themes and tease out its hidden meanings. As an adult, I can see some of the more problematic aspects of its depiction of black characters, but even if it is simplistic, it remains a powerful and timeless portrait of race in small town American life.

But I feel myself to be honestly torn about whether I want to read Go Set a Watchman. I’m torn for the exact reasons that Harper Lee probably hesitated to have it released. She achieved such overnight, saint-like status in the writing world that she couldn’t possibly top herself with a second book. Her first effort was so beloved, so instantly classic, that she had nowhere to go. Won’t any other literary effort, particularly a manuscript that was long ago rejected, only tarnish her sterling record?

In a way, this is the fear every writer has after writing something good. We all know when we can be proud of ourselves; but almost as soon as the flush of triumph fades, we’re thrown into a panic, afraid we’ll never be able to capture that magic again. Surely it was a fluke; we aren’t really writers, we are merely lucky, right?

At some point, we all have to take a big gulp and try again to capture the magic; we have to stumble and maybe produce something disappointing. We have to keep pushing forward; we have to keep writing if we want to call ourselves writers.

So I think I will pick up Lee’s latest effort. If anything, it will provide an interesting footnote to her masterwork, and it could provide enlightening details into her process. I hope your feelings about Mockingbird won’t be easily changed by how this new book goes down.

Did you love or hate Mockingbird, and will you read Go Set a Watchman?

What Books Do You Love to Hateread?

We all know those TV shows that we love to hate. We know the storylines are cliched, the characters are over-the-top, and the drama is cheesy, and yet when we flip by them when channel surfing…aren’t they so hard to resist? For some reason we keep watching, laughing at every ridiculous turn of the plot or dumb character moment. Why are these shows so fun to hatewatch? And do you have books that you love to hate-read?

I think there are books out there that fascinate us even as we know they’re not of the highest literary merit. Plenty of people read just this sort of book all day, in fact. Sometimes we read just for a little light entertainment. And we choose to overlook flaws in the prose or the character development or the realism, just so we can get through a rip-roaring yarn. There’s a reason these sorts of books seem to have a lot of emotional drama, and a lot of violence too; it’s because it’s immediately exciting, and not too difficult to think about.

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Is E-Reading Finally Mainstream?

How much of your reading in the last week was done online?
Probably a lot. But how much of your fiction reading was done online?
Probably more and more every week! E-reading has officially moved out of the fringe and has become mainstream in the past couple of years. There is a variety of devices you can choose from, from Amazon’s Kindle to Barnes and Noble’s Nook to Apple’s iPads. Even more people seem to be doing their reading on smartphones. So have paper books gone the way of the dinosaur? This has been a heated subject of debate for the past few years, but I think it’s only really become relevant to devoted readers recently. Now the cheaper prices of ebooks, combined with some pretty slick, convenient devices, make it hard to say no to e-readers, even for the most die-hard book devotees.

So where do you fall in the so-called war on paper books? Do you still love the smell, the feel, and the experience of opening a book? Would you rather save your money and buy more ebooks? Or do you prefer the electronic reading experience, with its built in lights and ability to check email or define words as you go?

I’m personally a half-and-halfer. I love having paper books, and I get inspiration from seeing my collection on the wall. But I appreciate the ease and convenience of ebooks. They’re great for traveling or when you’re far from home for a long time. They’re great for buying books that you don’t want to spend the hardcover price on. And if it leads to more people buying more books, that seems like a good thing for authors and readers alike. As long as sufficient protections for writers are built into the ebook business, as publishers and agents are hopefully starting to do, it seems like a good thing. But I’ll mourn the day when people don’t have books on their shelves.

So how do you feel about the ebook revolution? Do you use tablets for school, or read your homework on a device? Do you take a device traveling? Do you love cozying up with a paper book? Do you hardly even remember what paper feels like? Where do you fall on the spectrum, and what do you think is the future of the paper book?

What Children’s Books Do You Hold Close To Your Heart? And Some New Ones to Add to the List

Children’s books have a funny way of sticking around in our minds and in our hearts. They catch us in our earliest days of reading, and they’re often beautifully poignant, sweet, or sad in ways that adult books struggle and fail to capture. Some children’s books stay with us forever. I’m thinking about books like THE GIVING TREE or CHARLOTTE’S WEB; these books teach us about death, about hardship, and also about generosity, friendship, and love.

So what books from your childhood still have a special place on your shelf or in your heart? Which books would you want to read to future kids in your life, whether it’s as a teacher, parent, or cool aunt/uncle? Here are some faves of mine, as well as some new recommendations for children’s books that might reach that special place in your life.

CHARLOTTE’S WEB: Yes, this is the big granddaddy of sweet, sad, moving books. We grow to love Wilbur, Charlotte, Templeton the Rat, and all the rest; and we learn about compassion and the cycle of life.

A CRICKET IN TIMES SQUARE: I loved this one, involving a country Connecticut cricket who finds himself in the subway station of Times Square, befriending cats, rats, and bodega owners. It’s beautiful and funny too.

Z FOR ZACHARIAH: This one falls more in the category of young adult, but it stayed with me long after I read it (for the third or fourth time). In a post-nuclear world, one little valley seems to have avoided the fallout that has spread across the rest of the globe. There’s just one girl there, until a man arrives with a suit that can withstand radiation. But there’s only one suit — and he’s very protective of it.

Check out this article to see some new children’s books that are sure to move you:

And how about adding YOUR favorite books to the list? What children’s books should be handed down from generation to generation?

Life on the Writing Trail

I’ve been terrible, readers. This spring’s schedule of teaching and keeping up with multiple writing jobs has overwhelmed me and I haven’t been able to keep up with regular posts. But I haven’t abandoned Writerly Life! This blog will still be a vital source of tips and techniques and larger thoughts about what it means to be a writer; but I’ll have to hold myself accountable and devise a posting schedule that is truly manageable. So for the future, let tell you to expect a weekly post, but one with greater length and substance than your average posts. I’ll be working hard on those posts to make sure they’re up to a high standard, and that they get you thinking about writing, memory, life, creativity, and much more. Don’t give up on me yet!

At the same time, of course, I’ll be wearing my other hat of acting as co-editor of my new literary magazine, Two Cities Review. You’ll see me over there, writing about the intersection of writing and city life, and you can expect any relevant post about writing to wander over here as well.

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Are You a Binge Reader?

I saw an interesting post on the New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog the other day about a new trend in entertainment consumption that book publishers are trying to capitalize on. We’ve all heard of “binge watching” as the new it term for sitting down and bombing through an entire season of “Battlestar Galactica” or “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix; there’s something absolutely addictive not only in the way the episodes are framed these days, but even in the way they’re queued on our computers, inviting us to watch more and more. Now publishers are trying to make “binge reading” a thing. The Christian Science Monitor has more: read the article here.

Do you think binge reading will catch on the way binge watching has? I think there are two problems with the way the article is being framed; first, likening binge reading to binge viewing is misunderstanding the fundamental difference in thought that occurs when reading and when watching tv; and second, binge reading has already existed long before the advent of television. This may sound a little contradictory, but bear with me.
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