Monday, December 24, 2012

New Yorker Fiction 2012

This year the New Yorker published 50 pieces of fiction. I read 34 of them. 

Here were my eight favorites:

A Brief Encounter with the Enemy (Jan. 16), by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh. 

Sayrafiezadeh is becoming one of my new favorite writers. A previous story of his, "Paranoia," was on my list last year. This one, with its titular echo of Flannery O'Connor, was a disturbing war story that felt utterly true despite its obvious inventedness.

A Prairie Girl (Feb. 27) and The Casserole (Sep. 10), by Thomas McGuane

In the past twelve years, McGuane has been among the ten most frequently published writers of fiction in the New Yorker. Unfortunately, I typically find his work uninteresting. But this year he had two stories in the magazine that I thought were quite good. "A Prairie Girl" was a piquant tale of a determined heroine unbowed by conscience or sentiment; "The Casserole" a very brief story with a great ending.

The Proxy Marriage (May 21), by Maile Meloy 

I'm planning on teaching some stories from Maile Meloy's most recent story collection this coming semester. I'm tempted to bring in this story as well—one of the sweetest I've ever read in the magazine.

An Abduction (July 9), by Tessa Hadley 

Over the past twelve years, only Alice Munro has had more fiction published in the New Yorker than Tessa Hadley. Whereas I love Munro (a frequent flier on my year-end lists of favorites, though not this year), I find Hadley to be spottier. Sometimes I skip her stories; sometimes I like them a lot. This particular story was rather Munrovian, now that I think about it: a story of a young woman put into a situation in which she behaved differently than she would have expected, with an ending that leaps far into her future and reflects back on the episode's significance.

The Third-Born (Sep. 24), by Mohsin Hamid 

Told in the second person, this piece is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel called How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, a book I definitely want to read. The story grippingly puts us into a world of poverty and desperation.

The Semplica-Girl Diaries (Oct. 15), by George Saunders 

Saunders is always on my year-end lists, but this story, I think, is one of his best of all time, a chilling tale of parenting, materialism, and today's economy.

Ox Mountain Death Song (Oct. 29), by Kevin Barry 

This tale of crime and punishment won me over with its narrative voice, tinged with Irish vernacular.

The sixteen stories I skipped were mostly by writers that I've grown tired of. Occasionally I would start a story and find it so uninteresting that I wouldn't finish it. For some reason I didn't read any of the fiction in the Science Fiction issue. I read every story published from August through December, and half of the ones published from January to July.

Did I miss any stories that you thought were great? Let me know. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Year in Reading

This year has not been a very productive one for me as a writer (as witnessed by the relative paucity of posts to this blog), but it has been productive as far as reading goes. And I suppose the two trends go hand-in-hand: the more you read, the less time you have to write, and also, at some level, the less drive you feel to write. There's so much that's already been written—does the world really need one more voice clamoring for attention?  

Last Christmas break, I got embroiled in William Faulkner’s Collected Stories, which I ended up reading about three-quarters of over the course of the year, along with a number of Faulkner novels: The Hamlet, If I Forget Thee Jerusalam (aka The Wild Palms), Light in August (which I re-read with a couple colleagues while one of them taught it to his juniors), and Absalom, Absalom!, which I read and discussed with a group of my colleagues over the summer. My reading of Faulkner inspired a couple blog posts about Faulkner and race, which you can read here and here.

I read Mary Doria Russell’s fantastic pair of science-fiction classics, The Sparrow and Children of God, recommended to me by a colleague and friend. I also read two books by the great cartoonist Alison Bechdel, The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For and Are You My Mother?

I read a couple books about literary heroes of mine—Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan in America and D. T. Max’s biography of David Foster Wallace, Every Ghost Story is a Love Story—along with a number of memoirs by writers and musicians: Dylan’s own Chronicles, Volume One; Gil Scott-Heron’s The Last Holiday; Haki Madhubuti’s YellowBlack (recommended to me by a reader of this blog in response to one of my Faulkner posts); Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s gripping When Skateboards Will Be Free; and Jay-Z’s Decoded, which came in handy when I taught hip-hop in the final week of my senior African American Voices class.

I’ve long been interested in residential segregation and the fate of the American city, and this year I read a number of books that added to my understand of those issues: Kenneth Jackson’s classic Crabgrass Frontier; Stephen Grant Meyer’s As Long as They Don’t Move Next Door; Beryl Satter’s amazingly good Family Properties; two plays, both overrated, in my opinion: Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and its more recent companion piece, Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park; Jeffrey Copeland’s Olivia’s Story, a novel about St. Louis and the Shelley v. Kraemer case; and, lastly, a series of very interesting guidebooks by local historian John A. Wright: Discovering African-American St. Louis; Kinloch; The Ville; St. Louis: Disappearing African American Communities; and African Americans in Downtown St. Louis.

In addition to segregation in housing, I also read about mass incarceration, in Michelle Alexander’s troubling and informative The New Jim Crow. I read Touré’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? I read Nigger and Sellout, both by Randall Kennedy, whose prose's clarity I greatly admire; and a fascinating work of history and political theory, Robert C. Smith’s Conservatism and Racism, and Why in America They are the Same.

As for other African Americana, I read Eddy Harris’s travelogue South of Haunted Dreams  and Arnold Rampersad’s Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry. In search of some material to use in class, I dipped into The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. I also read a gripping account of King’s assassination and its aftermath, Hampton Sides’s Hellhound on His Trail.

I read a number of collections of short stories: Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock’s updating of Sherwood Anderson, brutal but not heartless; Tobias Wolff’s early, Chekhovian collection Back in the World; Alice Munro’s early collection Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You; Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, which I’m planning on teaching from this coming semester in my Reading and Writing Fiction class; James Alan McPherson’s groundbreaking Hue and Cry; along with some of the stories, including the brilliant title piece, in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories.

Most recently, I read Peter Heller’s novel The Dog Stars, a post-apocalyptic tale, and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, a devastating work of journalism by Christopher Hedges and Joe Sacco which at times put me in a rather apocalyptic mood.

Before this Christmas break is over, I’d like to read a couple more books, at least: Danielle Evans’s short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s memoir The Beautiful StruggleAnd in the next couple of days I should be getting to the end of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I’ve been reading to my middle daughter, intending to finish up in time to watch the movie with the whole family over vacation.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Why Care?

The final paragraph of Robert Fitzgerald's postscript to his 1961 translation of The Odyssey:

Why care about an old work in a dead language that no one reads, or at least no one of those who, glancing at their Rolex watches, guide us into the future? Well, I love the future myself and expect everything of it: better artists than Homer, better works of art than The Odyssey. The prospect of looking back at our planet from the moon seems to me to promise a marvelous enlargement of our views. But let us hold fast to what is good, hoping that if we do anything any good those who come after us will pay us the same compliment. If the world was given us to explore and master, here is a tale, a play, a song about that endeavor long ago, by no means neglecting self-mastery, which in a sense is the whole point. Electronic brains may help us to use our heads but will not excuse us from that duty, and as to our hearts—cardiograms cannot diagnose what may be most ill about them, or confirm what may be best. The faithful woman and the versatile brave man, the wakeful intelligence open to inspiration or grace—these are still exemplary for our kind, as they always were and always will be. Nor do I suppose that the pleasure of hearing a story in words has quite gone out. Even movies and TV make use of words. The Odyssey at all events was made for your pleasure, in Homer's words and in mine.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Coates on Jefferson

Ta-Nehisi Coates on Thomas Jefferson:

At some point we are going to have to develop something beyond an infantile desire to know whether Daddy was a "good guy" or a "bad guy." In fact, Daddy was an avowed white supremacist, whose words help inspire the black freedom movement. Daddy was an American slave-holder to the end, who brilliantly elucidated the moral and practical problem of American slavery. Daddy railed against miscegenation, while practicing it.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Four More Years

Andrew Sullivan looks back on last night:

The president's oration was almost a summation of his core belief: that against the odds, human beings can actually better ourselves, morally, ethically, materially, and we can do so more powerfully together than alone, and that nowhere exemplifies that endeavor more than America. It was Lincolnian in its cadences, and in some ways, was the final, impassioned, heart-felt rebuke to all those, including his opponent, who tried to portray him as somehow un-American. How deeply that must have cut. How emphatically did he rebut the charge. 

What he reminded me of was how deeply American he actually is - how this country's experiment truly is in diversity as well as democracy. And his diversity is not some cringe-worthy 1990s variety. It is about being both white and black, both mid-Western and Hawaiian, both proudly American and yet also attuned to the opinion of mankind.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Essays: Our Best Hope

From "Why I Write," by Simon Schama:

In one of his more breathtaking performances (which is saying something), David Foster Wallace, at a state fair, moves from looking hard at the prize pigs: “Swine have fur! I never thought of swine as having fur. I’ve actually never been up very close to swine, for olfactory reasons” to thinking, with Swiftian mercilessness, not just about what happens when the pigs are industrially processed, but how we contrive to deal with that routine slaughter. “I’m struck, amid the pig’s screams and wheezes, by the fact that these agricultural pros do not see their stock as pets or friends. They are just in the agribusiness of weight and meat ... even at the fair their products continue to drool and smell and ingest their own excrement and scream, and the work goes on. I can imagine what they think of us, cooing at the swine: we fairgoers don’t have to deal with the business of breeding and feeding our meat; our meat simply materialises at the corn-dog stand, allowing us to separate our healthy appetites from fur and screams and rolling eyes. We tourists get to indulge our tender animal-rights feelings with our tummies full of bacon.” (“Ticket to the Fair”, 1994).

This passage does everything Montaigne would have wanted from his posterity: self-implication without literary narcissism; a moral illumination built from a physical experience. Like the best non-fiction long-form writing, it essays a piece of the meaning of what it’s like to live – or, in the case of Hitchens’ last magnificent writing, to die – in a human skin. Essay writing and reading is our resistance to the pygmy-fication of the language animal; our shrinkage into the brand, the sound bite, the business platitude; the solipsistic tweet. Essays are the last, heroic stand for the seriousness of prose entertainment; our best hope of liberating text from texting.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Exponential Growth

A scary passage from Jian Leng's Editor's Notes in the current issue of The Figure in the Carpet:

Human population shows a nearly perfect trend of exponential growth. And perhaps that concept is the key to understanding the danger of climate degradation, expanding human population, our growing need for more energy sources, and the demand for ever-increasing food production. It was not until I came across a quote by economist Chris Martenson that I understood the impact of exponential growth in human populations. Martenson notes that exponential growth is a complicated idea best understood by imagining the following scenario. Imagine someone drags you into Yankee Stadium and handcuffs you to the top bleacher row. You must also imagine that Yankee Stadium is watertight. Off in the distance down on the field you see someone with an eyedropper and that person drops one drop of water. Then imagine that amount doubling in the next minute and in every minute that follows. How long before the water gets up to your level and you drown? Only fifty minutes. But that short time period is not the most amazing thing. The most amazing thing is that the stadium is still 93% empty at 45 minutes. It is only in the last 5 minutes that the exponential growth kicks in, where the danger begins to overwhelm you and you are pulling frantically at the handcuffs on your wrists.

So it is with the dangers inherent in the Anthropocene Epoch. Are we in the last five minutes of the exponential growth of carbon dioxide buildup and climate change, the last five minutes of population growth and insufficient food production, the last five minutes of those fossil fuels we know so well and love to hate? I do not know the answers, but the questions are beginning to keep me up at night.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Fiction Gives Us Everything

An intriguing passage from novelist Keith Ridgway that affirms something I believe about why what I do (teach kids to read literature) is useful: because it's practice for living:

[E]verything is fiction. When you tell yourself the story of your life, the story of your day, you edit and rewrite and weave a narrative out of a collection of random experiences and events. Your conversations are fiction. Your friends and loved ones—they are characters you have created. And your arguments with them are like meetings with an editor—please, they beseech you, you beseech them, rewrite me. You have a perception of the way things are, and you impose it on your memory, and in this way you think, in the same way that I think, that you are living something that is describable. When of course, what we actually live, what we actually experience—with our senses and our nerves—is a vast, absurd, beautiful, ridiculous chaos.

So I love hearing from people who have no time for fiction. Who read only biographies and popular science. I love hearing about the death of the novel. I love getting lectures about the triviality of fiction, the triviality of making things up. As if that wasn’t what all of us do, all day long, all life long. Fiction gives us everything. It gives us our memories, our understanding, our insight, our lives. We use it to invent ourselves and others. We use it to feel change and sadness and hope and love and to tell each other about ourselves. And we all, it turns out, know how to do it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Micro-Neighborhood

This afternoon, feeling restless and wanting to take advantage of the cooler temperature, I decided to take a bike ride. I've been curious lately about a particular little wedge of the city, the one bordered by Arsenal, South Broadway, and I-55:

I took Pestalozzi all the way from Tower Grove Park to the brewery (always an interesting stretch) and then rode south. Here were a few highlights from this little niche that is hidden in plain sight:

The most notable institution in the area is St. Agatha, a Polish Catholic Church which is still in operation. Here's the school/parish hall building:

This is the church and what I assume is the rectory:

7th and 9th Streets have some nice row houses:

This house on 7th Street has a beautifully landscaped side entrance and some great decks:

Down near the end of 9th Street is this facility, a gymnasium owned by the South Broadway Athletic Club:

This is a nice little area—there's even a bed and breakfast tucked back in there. Despite being right next door to an interstate highway and a gigantic brewery, it has a kind of quiet, peaceful, private atmosphere. Wandering these streets, you get a feel for St. Louis as a river town, with streets and neighborhoods that went right up to the Mississippi. This little micro-neighborhood is like a fossil from an earlier time.

Into the Cities

For the past week I've been reading Kenneth T. Jackson's classic Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. This morning, I read a chapter called "The Drive-In Culture of Contemporary America," which was about how the automobile eventually changed the landscape of the nation, as highways and services adapted themselves to a suburban landscape geared toward the car. Led by Sears, Jackson notes, "Large-scale retailing, long associated with central business districts, began moving away from the urban cores between the world wars."

This was the beginning of what Greg Brown describes in his song "The Poet Game":

I watched my country turn into a coast-to-coast strip mall
And I cried out in a song.
If we can do all that in thirty years
Then please tell me you all
Why does good change take so long?

"The multiple-store shopping center with free, off-street parking represented the ultimate retail adaptation to the requirements of automobility," writes Jackson, citing St. Louis's own Hampton Village (1941) as one of the earliest such enterprises.

Near the end of his chapter, Jackson nods to the rise of the enclosed shopping mall. His award-winning book was published in 1985. Since then, of course, even some enclosed shopping malls have fallen upon hard times—think of Crestwood Mall, Jamestown Mall, and Northwest Plaza—superseded to some extent by the car-friendly big box stores.

Just now, though, I read an article in the New York Times that seems to suggest we may have turned a corner back toward the urban core, that the population is turning back to the cities and that big retailers are following.

... retailers are now willing to come into cities on the cities’ terms — with all the zoning headaches, high rents and odd architecture — because that is where the growth is. Most large American cities are growing faster than their suburbs for the first time in almost a century, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of census results released last month, largely because young adults are choosing urban apartment life. That population shift, along with Internet competition, have made the car-focused, big-box model less relevant.

Is this happening in St. Louis? The Brookings Institution report notes that St. Louis's decline slowed in 2010-11. In my own small bubble of friends and acquaintances and bloggers, it certainly feels like there's a real movement back toward the city.

The suburbs, to be sure, are not languishing. The big box stores' parking lots are still packed, the malls are still thriving (think of the Galleria, South County Mall, or West County Mall), and new subdivisions are still going up out in the hinterlands.

Still, it is nice, for those of us who love the city, to envision it as a unique, thriving place at the center of the sprawling megalopolis, a place where people can live, work, play, buy what they need, invest in and repair the glorious architecture and infrastructure of the past.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

What Romney's Career Shows

This passage from James Surowiecki's post on Mitt Romney and Bain Capital epitomizes why I can't imagine Romney winning the election in November:

What Romney’s career shows, after all, is that once you’re at the top, you can keep being called C.E.O. even if you’re not even working at the company. You can get paid a hundred grand a year—chump change for Romney, to be sure, but twice the U.S. median income—while doing, by your own account, nothing at all for the company. You can build up an I.R.A. worth tens of millions of dollars when the maximum annual contribution is four thousand dollars... And, above all, if you manage a private-equity firm, you can reap the benefit of the carried-interest tax loophole and pay a much lower tax rate on your income than the vast majority of Americans, and you can continue to reap the benefit of that loophole even after you stop working for the firm. None of these things is illegal, but none of them are things that ordinary Americans can benefit from, and that’s the real scandal of Romney’s career at Bain.

No matter how feckless on the economy Obama may be perceived to be, I just can't imagine that a majority of Americans will see Romney as a likely improvement. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012


One of the most amusing responses to the Supreme Court's decision in the health care case last week was Adam Gopnik's. Part of the questioning in the case, you may recall, involved a hypothetical government mandate that Americans purchase broccoli.

Justice Ginsburg's opinion notes the ridiculousness of such a comparison, and Justice Roberts's also mentions the issue. Underlying all of the discussion, Gopnik notes, is the assumption that broccoli is disgusting. 

Gopnik thus comes to a remarkable conclusion: "nobody on the Supreme Court knows how to cook broccoli."

I've never been a huge fan of broccoli, though I'll choke it down from time to time. I was intrigued by Gopnik's bold assertion:

The truth is that broccoli should always be either roasted or pureed, in the French style, and is so delicious done either way that, if you tasted it, you would not just tolerate but demand government-mandated broccoli.

So I decided to use Gopnik's recipe for roasted broccoli last night: sliced red onion, curry, salt, and olive oil, at 450 degrees for twenty minutes.

The verdict?

I don't think I'd demand a government mandate, but it was still the best broccoli I've ever eaten.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Lady or the Tiger?

I taught "The Lady or the Tiger?" to the seventh graders today in my Storywriting class. I think I first read it in school when I was in seventh grade myself, but I hadn't looked at it since then until I re-read it this morning. 

Today's topic was endings. We talked about what endings should do, what makes a good ending, and what endings of books, movies, and stories they've liked and disliked. We read "The Sniper," another English class chestnut, and they worked on their own stories for a while. But I knew we'd have some time to spare at the end of our two-hour block. Last night I was casting about for another story to do, finding that all of the Ray Bradbury stories I had in mind were too long for convenient use. 

My wife happened to hand me a list of short stories that she can choose from when teaching her 8th grade communication arts class this coming school year. "The Lady or the Tiger?" was the last one on the list—and it jumped out at me right away as a perfect one to use. 

I remembered it as the classic gimmick ending, a somewhat contrived plot that the author declines to finish off, leaving the ending unresolved. It's the type of ending I don't want my students to indulge in—along with endings in which the main character commits suicide or wakes up to find that it's all been a dream.

But revisiting Frank Stockton's story after all these years, I found myself quite tickled by it. It's the type of story that rarely gets written these days: a display of authorial wit and dry humor, a story that emphatically chooses telling over showing. The closest contemporary analogue I can think of is the short fiction of Steven Millhauser, who typically is less concerned with individual human beings and more with exploring conceits and conundra. 

T. Coraghessan Boyle's "Chicxulub" is similar in a way, too. As I did with "The Lady or the Tiger?", I often read "Chicxulub" aloud to my class. Both stories are tours de force, prose confections that create for their readers or listeners experiences that could not be duplicated with any other medium. 

The short fiction of our era, mostly, descends from Chekhov, in its devotion to the details of everyday life, its attention to character and consciousness. This type of fiction is certainly what I use in teaching my high school students to write stories. The Raymond Carver model is approachable for students, duplicable—and it can lead to some genuinely good fiction.

You could never build a class around stories like "Chicxulub" or "The Lady or the Tiger?" I do both stories at the end of my courses for exactly that reason—so that students don't try to imitate them. But they're worth appreciating nonetheless. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Sullivan on Faulkner and Race

A perceptive paragraph from near the end of John Jeremiah Sullivan's piece on Absalom, Absalom!, which I read and loved about a month ago as part of what's turning out to be a year of Faulkner for me:

No surer sign exists of the book’s greatness than how it seems to reconfigure itself and assume a new dimension, once we feel we know it, and these shifting walls of ambiguity were designed by Faulkner himself. They allow the text a curious liquid quality, so that it can seem alive, as if it might be modified by recent history too. I found it fascinating to read the book with a president sitting in the White House who comes from a mixed-race marriage, and with the statistic having just been announced that for the first time in U.S. history, nonwhite births have surpassed white ones. Some of the myths out of which the novel weaves its upsetting dreams appear quite different, like walking by a familiar painting and finding that someone has altered it. This is a strange time to be alive in America, in that regard. Close one eye, and we can seem to be moving toward a one-race society; close the other and we seem as racially conflicted and stratified as ever. Racism is still our madness. The longer that remains the case, the more vital this book grows, for Faulkner is one of the great explorers of that madness.

I agree with Sullivan's argument that Faulkner is a great explorer of the madness of racism, as well as his acknowledgment that Faulkner himself was tainted by this madness—as, indeed, are all of us Americans.