Recently, I’ve been reading as many of the Best American Short Stories anthologies as I can. With 20 stories by 20 different authors in each addition – edited by a different guest editor each year – they’re all excellent. I’m entertained while also learning from the various styles and techniques of these award winning authors.
I’m not reading the collections in any particular order, just reading whatever anthology I find next at my used bookstore or library. That’s how I came across the 1998 edition, guest-edited by Garrison Keiller. It includes incredible stories by Annie Proulx, Carol Anshaw, Akhil Sharma, and others, but it’s the authors’ bio sections that really caught my eye in this edition, because a short story writer named Poe Ballantine wrote the best author bio I’ve ever read.
Since it’s not available online, I’m going to retype his bio for you right here:
“I am forty-two. College dropout. Live in a motel room. I generally move every year, but I am tired of moving and I like this room so I think I will stay another year. I have had lots of odd jobs, mostly cooking. I worked at the radio antenna factory just across the tracks for a while, then sold a couple of stories, so I quit March 5, and if I live on $400 a month and this wisdom tooth coming in doesn’t knock the rest of my teeth sideways, I will be able to write until August.”
I’m writing for The Huffington Post again (after a three year break). Here’s my new piece on censorship:
Patricia Smith wrote a Hurricane Katrina collection that published in 2008. It’s gorgeous, dazzling in its use of sound and metaphor. I wanted to record one of poems but there are too many excellent pieces to choose from. So I went with the opening: “Prologue – And Then She Owns You.”
At an English department book exchange, I received a memoir I’d never heard of, James Thurber’s 1933 memoir My Life And Hard Times. To be honest, it didn’t look good. It was 86 pages long and filled with very mediocre black and white cartoons. Plus, I was judging the book by its cover, and simply because of that godawful cover, I doubted that I’d ever read it.
I got back from snowshoeing last night, got into warm, dry clothes, cracked the book, and read the opening chapter. And not only was that chapter incredibly well-written, but it was funny. Laugh out loud funny. My daughter and I were sitting next to each other on the floor. She was reading her book and I was reading mine, and I kept laughing so hard that she’d make me read passages aloud to her.
But I still thought the book might not be very good. I thought that the first story might be an aberration. There were still those terribly-drawn comics throughout. There was still that really ugly cover. How could a memoir that presents itself so badly be this good?
And it turns out that I was right about the first chapter. That chapter was an aberration. As good as it was, the first chapter was nowhere near as good as most of the chapters in the book. This memoir was a tiny little collection of brilliant and funny essays. The author (Thurber) sneaks up on you. His self-deprecating methods are subtle but successful. It’s almost as if he doesn’t know what he’s doing in his own writing. Yet he does. There’s mastery here. Mastery throughout.
Also, his father is afraid of automobiles.
His senile grandfather lives in the family’s attic and shoots at police officers.
The family escapes a great flood in 1913.
And Thurber’s story about a family dog is so good that I finished it and immediately started re-reading.
J. C. Carleson’s new book, Placebo Junkies, is coming out this week from Knopf, and I wanted to write a few words about it (avoiding spoilers):
First, this book is well-written. The phrasing is great. The voice is consistent and engaging. For an example, here’s half of a sentence from the first chapter:
” …hold in that razor-blade wetness long enough to find a cup, a bucket, anything to catch it, dammit, and you barely manage to stifle your scream of triumph as you find an empty Snapple bottle in the trash can and fill it with your beautiful, cloudy piss with its faint but unmistakable trace of blood.”
Second, this book is gritty (see example above). The characters, events, and relationships are real, honest, and brutal.
Third, this book will make you think about some big, important social and societal issues. How’s that for a vague promo with no spoilers?
Finally – and maybe most important for a young adult book – you will never be bored while reading this. There wasn’t a single moment when I thought, “Yeah, I’ll just read something else for a while and put this book down.” No, Placebo Junkies has enough of the unexpected to keep a reader going all the way until the end.
Here is my explanation of time – the way that I understand time – with images of art interspersed (great art affecting the way that I think).
First, while writing a novel, I don’t worry about time, not in draft stage. I write any scene that’s important, in any order that I think of it. There’s no order to it at all, only madness. And sometimes I trust that madness and never put those scenes back in what people think of as time order.
In my memoir, The End of Boys, time was thematic, meaning that scenes from my life linked to other scenes of any time period based on theme, an overlapping view of my own reality that isn’t based on chronological progression but instead on thematic development of the person. I tried to help the reader by showing time switches in italics, an italic switch being a trick I learned from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Kesey studied Faulkner as well, and also used the italic switch in his brilliant Sometimes A Great Notion.
Time is Circular. The image I see of time is one of overlapping circles, maybe circles pushing forward, or maybe circles dropping back, but then they might loop around and push forward once again.
I had a friend from El Salvador explain that linear time is a modern way of thinking about time. He said that in the Bible, time was thought of as circular or cyclical, that God is eternal and that the earth is a living series of cycles. THAT is how I like to think of time. This modern push to mechanize and count seconds digitally doesn’t interest me. The theory that all of the world could be on the same exact clock to the nanosecond because of satellites and cell phones is an idea that makes me think of Nazis, a “perfect” sterile image of a Northern European or US technological ideal. But ideals are not interesting to me. Imperfection is interesting to me.
In my work in progress, Too Shattered For Mending (Knopf, 2017), I’ve used present tense for the progression of the current story (in time order) and past tense for interlaced scenes that happened in the past. Again, I don’t worry about any of those old scenes being in order because I trust the intelligence of the reader and know that she’s capable of recognizing chronology or of not needing linear time at all.