Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

When death is a foregone conclusion, when one is merely counting the meals, minutes, and breaths before dying, what does it mean to be alive? We know from the start of Bring Up the Bodies that Anne Boleyn is destined to die, and soon. But rather than dulling our interest this knowledge brings a macabre frisson to Mantel's story. Anne flirts, plots, rages, and dines in innocence, and we are left to bite our nails and watch her agonizing decline. King Henry's honor necessitates that she bring a number of gentlemen down with her and these, the bodies of the title, are also dead long before the headsman brings down the axe.

The novel's hero, or anti-hero perhaps, is the often-reviled Thomas Cromwell. Even casual students of Tudor history know that Cromwell himself will, eventually, suffer the King's justice. So he too is a walking corpse, even though his death is still years away. He has begun to fear his enemies but still, he lives and thrives. The reader's foreknowledge is difficult to bear when we find ourselves rooting for Cromwell while knowing his immutable end. But Mantel is reminding us that we are all, ultimately, sentenced to death. Anne's and Thomas's tragedies are our own.

Mantel brings Cromwell into focus with deft skill and heart. He is a bold, ambitious man who dares to bring down queens, but he loves his son and his friends, and offers mercy where he can. As in Wolf Hall, Mantel pulls the narrative focus in tight, getting as close to Cromwell as third person narration can, but in this second book in her trilogy she gives the reader a little more help with comprehending her style. We're grateful, and the book reads like the prize-winner it is. The plot gathers speed and tension as Cromwell uncovers suspicions and then evidence, however specious, of Anne's treason. Meanwhile the reader, just like Henry's bewildered courtiers, becomes caught up in the drama, beauty, and horror of this famous, yet uniquely told, story.

[Full disclosure: I am an unabashed Hilary Mantel fan. But you should be too. :)]

Thursday, December 6, 2012

On Death and Cats (both the house and tiger varieties)

The nice people at Floodwall Magazine have recently published my short story, "A Certain Way of Alone." Check it out, along with the awesome stories I'm honored to be published next to. You'll encounter existentialist cats (are there any other kind?), philandering photographers, a menacing bear, and other curious creatures.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Beautiful cover art!

I'm a bit behind the times here, but I just saw that Weave Magazine has posted the cover art for their next issue. I'm extremely lucky to be included in the contributors for Issue 08 and can't believe how gorgeous the art is! This lovely lady will be available Jan 2013. Mark your calendars!

Times like these I wish I was a poet

This morning the bus driver had an altercation with a young woman. I couldn't hear what they were discussing, but she seemed to be asking for some sort of apology. Their voices rose, he kept the bus idling at the green light, and soon everyone on the bus was looking at them. Then she got off and, as we pulled away, I saw her hands covering her face as she sobbed.

Another woman on the bus gently told the bus driver, "You know, sometimes you just have to say, 'I'm sorry. Have a nice day.'" This sparked a lively debate between that woman and another rider, which lasted a few heated blocks until they all got off. All along, the woman staunchly defended the weeping lady - just because her feelings had been hurt.

I wish I could have told the young woman what had happened once the bus pulled away. She stood on the curb sobbing, brushing the tears from her cheeks with the back of her hand like a lost child. That was the start to her day. She'll never know that half the bus looked on in sympathy as we pulled away, and that a brave woman defended her. All she had was the confusion and hurt.

It's a small thing, that woman's unconsoled pain. I know that. But still, the world seemed just a little out of balance when the consolation, the empathy she seemed to need, drove away without her knowing it. That's what poetry is for, I think. To try to nudge the world back into balance by snatching at those sparks of life that we might otherwise miss and breathing them into flame for us to see. I wish I could give that woman a poem.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Midsummer Night's Dream

A little bit of fairy dust can go a long way. The Shakespeare Theatre's latest rendering of the classic A Midsummer Night's Dream is full of magic, and the audience, like the lost lovers of the play, is better off for being caught in that star-dusted wood. This iteration is staged on, well, an old dusty stage, reminding us that not only is there a play within a play, but that all of life's adventures can be seen as theatre. When we dress, what costumes are we putting on? And when we love, what roles are we playing? The message is not intended to accuse us of artifice, but rather to suggest that life is a role, and we play it as best we can. It was a beautiful production, and if you're in the DC area, I strongly recommend it!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

I can't even attempt to be measured in this review. I LOVED this book. Loved it so much that when I was finished reading I walked around hugging it to my chest, like a toddler with her teddy bear. Loved it so much that I was trembling as I read the final pages. Loved it so much that I will have to buy the hardcover edition so I have a more permanent record.

The novel is the story of Dutchman Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch East Indies clerk at the turn of the 19th century. Jacob travels to the Dutch trading enclave off the coast of Nagasaki, at a time when Japan is still closed to foreigners and deeply protective of its isolation. We know, from the vantage point of the 21st century, that Japan's sealed borders will not last more than another half century, but at the time, the country is struggling to balance the temptation of trade with the fear of change. Jacob is, in a way, a bridge between those two tendencies - an honorable representative of one of the world's most powerful commercial enterprises, and a sympathetic force for transformation, however private and localized those changes may appear to be.

Jacob's story starts off slowly. He has been sent to Japan to clean up the Company's books, or so we are told. But as he finds himself immersed in the politics of both the Company and, gradually, Nagasaki, his story takes on greater menace and import. Ultimately, Jacob finds himself confronted with an evil that is nearly incomprehensible. But his desire to counter that evil is shackled by the limitations of a closed Japan and the multiple competing dangers facing Jacob and his friends.

The story is gripping and, most importantly, tremendously moving and thought-provoking. There are a lot of characters and the story is not for inattentive readers. But those willing to stick around will be amply rewarded. The only other thing I can do from here is to gush, so I'll close by saying that David Mitchell exceeded my expectations and then blew me out of the water with his beautiful writing and humane, complicated characters.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

John Saturnall's Feast, by Lawrence Norfolk

In this abundant age, eating has, perhaps, never been more fraught with meaning. Local or organic? Meat or vegetable? Head-to-tail or choice cuts? On a molecular level, we are what we eat, but there is now more to it than that. Ethical and even spiritual paths are open to us: we can eat how we live.

Lawrence Norfolk's latest novel might appear to be a run-of-the-mill upstairs-downstairs romance girded with the agony of superstition and bigotry. But he elevates John Saturnall's Feast, a seventeenth century tale, with a sprinkling of food mysticism and a generous helping of lyrical writing. The result is a mundane plot with some thoughtful themes, much like a hearty, yet bland, rice pudding studded with the occasional currant.

We meet John as a young boy, vulnerable and hungry. His mother is gone, and somehow his village's narrow-minded superstition is to blame. Through flashbacks, John reveals a painful yet beautiful childhood, gilded with awe at his mother's wisdom and mysteries. She was a healer and midwife but, as we learn, she was also a keeper of the Feast.

Norfolk never makes it clear exactly what he means by the Feast, but this ambiguity saves the book from the plot conventions that otherwise hamper it. His seventeenth century kitchen is alive with detail and rich, period dishes, and his characters' hard-scrabble lives are convincing. Their emotions seem sometimes forced by the necessities of the plot, but their appetites for both food and love are what keep us turning the pages. And in the end we ask ourselves, for whom do I keep the Feast? John Saturnall finds his answer. Now it's our turn.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Details, a Time-Traveling Drain, and the Short Story

We were all seated around a rough-hewn picnic table with our various drafts strewn in front of us when the topic of details came up. My writers group had reviewed one member's fascinating, inventive story, but it was missing a bit of life somehow. Perhaps details could infuse the piece with that spark of animation that it needed?

I had recently read a short story by Tania James, the second of hers that had come into my grubby hands. Both her stories glowed with emotion made vivid by detail. As it happened, another member of the group had a journal that held a third James story and, sure enough, the first paragraph was ripe with interesting minutiae.

How does detail help? Well, I should note that it's a matter of preference and style - some writers have written powerful stories that lack detail but rely instead on muscular verbs or fast-moving narratives. That works too. But for me, nothing gets my heart racing like a closely-observed detail. Something that the story could do without, but it would lose some of its spark. Sort of like how color on a living room wall really makes the room pop.

In her short story "Ethnic Ken," published in the most recent edition of Five Points, James starts off with an intriguing detail. She writes, "My grandfather believed that the guest bathroom drain was a portal for time travel." This grabs our attention with its weirdness but also has a delicate specificity that holds our attention. She continues a few paragraphs later, "My grandfather wore house slippers with pom poms at the toes. He could slice and de-seed an apple in the palm of his hand. He believed that he was trapped somewhere in 1929, with the nine-year old version of his wife, Ammu."

James could easily write her story without the pom poms or the apples. But we might not be sitting there with her gazing into it, mouths agape, with quite such intensity.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Reading! It can be done, even with baby.

Happily, even with an eight-month-old skootching around the house, I am able to get more reading done than just Caps for Sale and Goodnight Moon. I just haven't had time to write about it! Here's a quick run-down of some recent books I've enjoyed (and one I didn't).

What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman
It's been years since I've read a mystery and this was a fun one to use to reacquaint myself with the genre. Lippman is a local author, writing from and often about Baltimore, and it was exciting to see some local scenery in this book. The story isn't a typical murder-mystery whodunnit but rather a circuitous tale of secret identity. Two little girls disappeared decades ago, leaving a tragic, life-destroying wake in their absence. But when a woman appears claiming to be one of the girls, do the inconsistencies in her story line up? I didn't find the end very surprising, but it was a gripping read nonetheless.

Tinkers by Paul Harding
A man is dying and his mind spins back through his own life and then into his father's life. Time itself seems to come undone in this beautiful, essentially plot-less novel.

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
This book really deserves its own entry but in case I don't have time for that, I'll say now that the novel is amazing. A slaveship departs England in the 18th century carrying hope and despair in equal measure. What happens to the ship and its crew as they barrel through lives along the African coast and then beyond is an epic and heartbreaking tale.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
I'm not usually a quitter when it comes to books. I tend to push through no matter what. But I HATED this book and finally gave up on page 300 of 500+. Franzen writes a heartless story about characters that are no more than caricatures. They whine and drug their way through their painful, upper middle-class lives, and are incapable of trusting or seeing love.

I'd love to hear what other people are reading! And I'd especially love to have someone argue with me about why The Corrections is worth reading.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Tutorial: Tracking your short story submissions

The most recently visited website on my browser isn't my email account or the New York Times, even though I check those multiple times a day. The site that occupies top honors on my computer is Duotrope, and I'm here to spread the gospel.

Duotrope is a free site that offers an extensive database of literary markets (primarily journals, magazines and zines) that publish fiction, poetry and (in beta) non-fiction. Duotrope lists information about each market and - here's where my obsession comes in - tracks data from users about submissions. Have you sent a poem to Tin House? You can see how many other users have sent poems in the past twelve months, what Tin House's acceptance rate is, how long responses take (for acceptances and rejections), what percentage of submissions receive form rejections as opposed to personal ones, and how recently users have reported responses. Among other neat data points. But enough telling - let me show you some of the awesome.

Let's say you want to search for a journal that publishes sci fi short stories in paper medium only, and you want to submit your story electronically. Here's what that would look like:

I didn't make this selection, but you can order your search in a few ways, including from most to least accepting, and in terms of response time (in case you're in a rush).

The real (obsessive) fun starts once you've found a journal to submit your story to. Let's say we're going to try to be the first Duotroper to publish a story with One Story. I'll go to Search, Find by Title, and pull up the listing for One Story. (They're currently temporarily closed to submissions, so let's time travel here and pretend it's September 2012). When I log in with my account, I see that Duotrope has received 507 reports from users regarding submissions to One Story over the past year. None have yet been accepted. But that's ok, we'll be the first one! On the right side of the page, we click "Report Submission/Response." The image below shows the submission page, where we note the date we submitted our story, the status ("Pending Response"), the title of the story, and how we submitted. Wait, the title? First, we have to make an entry in Duotrope for our story - that's so you can tell which story (or poem or essay) you've submitted where. So click "I need to add a piece to my list" (second arrow below) and go ahead.

Once you've reported your submission, Duotrope starts its magic. You can tell how many days your story has been out for submission, and you can track how your wait compares to the average response times. You can even check out a publication's entry to see when the last recorded response was, and the most recent date of a submission that's recorded a response. (So, for our One Story submission that we sent on September 12, 2012, in November 2012 we see that the latest response was October 31 and that they have sent responses for stories submitted as recently as September 1. So that might suggest they haven't gotten to our story yet.)

Here's my submission tracker, for example. You can see some of the stories I have submitted and how many days out they are.

There are more features than I can go over in a short post, but I'm happy to answer any questions. It's really an amazing site - very empowering for writers, and hopefully useful for publishers, who can see how their response times stack up against their peers. So, go forth and submit!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Farewell to a stupendous writer

This is a sad note to re-start my blogging with, but I think it's an important one. The tremendously talented Barry Unsworth has passed away, at the august age of 81. The Washington Post has a nice obituary for him here, though I warn you that about half way through the article reveals plot points that don't come up at least fifty percent into his Booker-prize-winning novel, Sacred Hunger.

Coincidentally (obviously, I suppose, since it's not like I knew he was going to die), I'm reading Sacred Hunger right now. It is, thus far, a moving novel that shoves your face in the gross inhumanity of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Given the role of that trade in our history, and the commonalities of spirit between that age and ours, I think it's a necessary lesson. I hope the second half of the book is as gripping as the first.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

One-handed reading

Per my previous post, my life has changed pretty radically recently! I am enthralled by my adorable baby girl, Aria. But even she can't keep me from reading. I've managed to read a few books so far, including the moving Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett and Madame Bovary, which I thought I had read already but apparently hadn't. Now I'm in the midst of 1Q84 (happily loaded on my new e-reader so I don't have to balance its bulk with a 2-month-old baby in the other arm), as well as Momma Zen by Karen Maezen Miller. I'd heard some quotes from Momma Zen and her other book in my yoga class, but now that motherhood has descended full force, I wanted to read the whole thing. I'm enjoying it so far and trying to take to heart the idea of being gentle with myself. There are no mistakes, only life.

I'm curious if anyone else out there has read or is reading 1Q84. It's compelling and interesting, and I'd love to hear what other people think (without spoilers). Even better, are there any other moms, or other folks, balancing a book in one hand and the treasure of their lives in the other? (And do you ever find time to write??)

And here is a baby picture because I can't resist :)

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma