Saturday, December 1, 2012

Review: The Gypsy's Curse

Harry Crews is known for unusual characters, graphic violence and poor depictions of women, all of which appear in spades in The Gypsy's Curse. Also like the rest of Crews' work, the novel has heart. The characters are so grotesque as to be near caricature, but Crews avoids this by making them equally sympathetic, even when they're being mean.
The protagonist, Marvin Molar, has severely deformed legs and is a deaf/mute. Abandoned at a gym by his family when he is a toddler, he spends his life devoted to body building and gymnastics, earning his living performing balancing acts for events. Despite what could be viewed as major deficiencies, Marvin takes care of himself, second in command to the owner of the gym, Al Molarski. Two former boxers round out the ragtag team, both having suffered some brain damage in the ring. Marvin also has a girlfriend, Hester, who knows sign language owing to her deaf parents.
With a cast of characters like that it would be hard to write a book that wasn't interesting, but instead of simply rubbernecking and trying to shock, the core of the story is Marvin's feelings of abandonment and inadequacy. Written as a first person narrative, we are privy to Marvin's thoughts. He often refers to himself as "amazing" and "beautiful," but his insecurity in his relationship with Hester and his frequent thoughts about his parents belie those assertions. Marvin knows his strength, and concentrates on his body and skills rather than looking inside and confronting his fears. His life has been fine lived in this way until Hester decides she wants more.
When Hester ingratiates herself into the gym and becomes friendly with the rest of Marvin's team, Marvin is forced to confront the humanity in the people he has been sharing with since boyhood, and to consider the lives of people other than himself. He also begins to see Hester's parents in a different light, which gives him a chilling understanding of Hester. As most women in Harry Crews' novels are portrayed, Hester is manipulative and ruthless. Most of Marvin's insecurity in the relationship stems from Hester's great beauty and physique. Her ex-boyfriend appears in the book as well as an ordinary jackass, but Hester uses him to ratchet up the tension in the gym and in Marvin's mind.
In typical Crews fashion, violence features heavily in the narrative. Both in instances in the past (Al Molar used to perform acts of strength, which ended when a car accidentally ran over his head), and in the present. Crews uses violence to illustrate the difficult lives of the hopeless, the helpless, the freak. In The Gypsy's Curse, characters use or are subjected to violence largely because they have so much rage inside, they don't know how else to express themselves. At other times, as in the case of the boxers, one only knows how to follow orders and the other, after years of head trauma, repeats an endless loop of coaching. The two put into the ring together create one of the most dramatic scenes in the novel.
As situations continue to build to a head, the ending reaches a pitch where anything but an extreme act would be unexpected. It does seem at times that Crews is unable to write an ending that doesn't include graphic violence, but to be fair, the worlds he creates are not in any way the world in which most readers live. People exist in the world who see no other option besides murder and mayhem, and these are the people Crews has decided to illuminate. He gives reasons for the actions, which is more than we usually get in real life. Having finished this novel, the sadness of Crews' passing returns. A champion of the misfit, there is no one else quite like him.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Review: American Psycho

Since its release in 1991, Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho has been a point of contention among readers and writers. The protagonist, Patrick Bateman, lives in the high powered world of Wall Street in the late-eighties (although there is no mention of the crash of 1987). He is also descending into madness, losing whatever tenuous grip he's been able to maintain on reality. While the book is well-known for its graphic depictions of violence, particularly violence against women, it needs to be noted that the book is not only very well-written but also funny! It's a commentary on the world of the wealthy, where the individual matters less than the illusion of self.
The book opens with Bateman on his way to dinner at his girlfriend Evelyn's house. Ellis gives the reader an immediate introduction to the minute attention to detail inherent in Bateman, while also showing how he ignores other details to avoid having human connection to people and events. For instance, he details the clothes worn by Evelyn and her friend Courtney down to the designer, but fails to comprehend the clear signs that Evelyn is sleeping with his friend Tim Price. In Bateman's world, no person is worthy of consideration as a human. They can be envied (like Paul Owen with the mysteriously important Fisher account), desired (as in hardbodies, but not for themselves of course), or derided (most notably the homeless, but also anyone unfashionable), but rarely does Bateman consider anyone else as a wholly formed human.
To be fair, it doesn't seem that many of the other characters consider Bateman as a fellow human either. No one hears what anyone else says, or seems to have authentic human interactions. The exception is Bateman's secretary, Jean, who Bateman only considers as a passably attractive woman who is "obsessed" with him, but who genuinely cares about Bateman (or at least, the Bateman he shows to the world). Jean complicates Bateman's life. He finds himself wanting to confess to her, most likely due to the fact that she is the only person in his life who seems equipped to listen. His girlfriend Evelyn, despite conducting a glaringly apparent affair with his friend Price, decides during the course of the book that they should get married. Her reasoning is that everyone else is getting married. For Evelyn, for Patrick, the individual doesn't matter.
Identity is a major theme of the book. Characters are constantly mistaken for other characters. A person who both Patrick and the reader know can not be in London is seen there, having dinner. Bateman makes dinner dates with people as Marcus Halberstram without any question. Everything is centered on appearance. And this is where the humor shines. There are many moments that would be uncomfortable-- being mistaken for someone else, using the wrong name-- that instead are simple ignored. Bateman's conversations with his friends, while at times incredibly banal and sadly realistic, are also darkly hilarious. The way they don't listen, the way they view the world.
Unfortunately the extreme violence detracts from the humor and social commentary. In 1991, this sort of depiction of violence was revolutionary and revolting. Sadly, it's now an industry. At least one movie comes out every year that is essentially violence pornography. Given the current social climate, it's actually surprising that the movie version of the book didn't feature the same extreme violence. While the violent scenes are technically well-written (the reader remains grounded in time and space from beginning until bitter, bloody end), they do overshadow the broader themes. American Psycho wouldn't have gained the same notoriety without them, but it also most probably wouldn't be derided as misogynist porn. American Psycho is worth reading as a classic piece of literature, but feel free to skip the extreme violence. Make sure to read the extremely opinionated and detailed reviews of Whitney, Genesis and Huey Lewis + the News though.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Review: Water for Elephants

In these hot, humid, dog days of summer, reading shouldn't be too taxing. That's not to say that it shouldn't have substance. Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants straddles the line beautifully. It's a compelling story full of memorable characters that doesn't lose momentum or pander to the reader.
Water for Elephants opens at the end of the story, introducing us to the protagonist (Jacob) when he is a young man who joins the circus when circumstances rip his planned path from him. The present of the story is the protagonist as an old man ("Ninety or ninety-three"), slowly losing his mind and living in an assisted living facility. The sections of the book that focus on Jacob in his later years are heartbreaking. Gruen clearly did her homework and portrays Jacob's loss of independence and memory with a tender touch. She may at times veer into the sentimental, but only for a moment. This book should be required reading for anyone who works with the elderly, to remind them that the residents they so desultorily care for are actual human beings with feelings and rich histories. Luckily, Jacob has Rosemary, an aide who allows him to make decisions and retain some independence, while gently leading him toward better choices.
The real pull of the story comes when Jacob falls into memory. The story opens as a circus sets up across the street from the home. Seeing the tent reminds Jacob of the summer during the depression when he found himself working on a small-time circus as the vet. Again, Gruen has done her homework. The scenery of the time is vivid. The hungry men hoping for work, the desperate measures that must be taken to keep the show going. Sadly, the treatment of animals in the circus doesn't seem to have improved, but Jacob cares deeply for the animals. Seeing their treatment from his perspective allows Gruen to hold nothing back.
Love of animals brings Jacob close with a performer on the show, Marlena. Marlena fights for her horses and does whatever she views as right. Gruen avoids creating a one-dimensional "feisty" character by giving Marlena hard choices. Make no mistake, this is a love story, but one fraught with peril and danger. Since the reader also sees Jacob as an old man, the reader also knows that Marlena is no longer with him. Adding some mystery and suspense to the story.
This book embodies summer reading. Never boring, well written, and with loads of history (feel like you're learning something!), Water for Elephants will have you wishing you could hop a train and ride the rails, hanging around with chimps and horses. As long as you were a performer, of course. They get all the breaks!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Pro Tips: Submission

When I started submitting work in ernest, shortly after starting my MFA program, I presumed that everyone else was doing it. Man, I must sound like such a follower, saying that after admitting I went to a male strip show because "everyone else was doing it," but I swear I'm not. In the case of school, I'm competitive. I knew my work was at least as good as the work of my classmates, and if they were brave enough to send out stories, I should be too. Turns out though, I was talking to a precious few who regularly send out work. Since I started submitting, I've met more classmates who have yet to send out anything than those who have been published. So, in the interest of budding writers everywhere, tips for submitting. Notice I did not say, "Tips for Getting Published." I've only had one story accepted so far. But I've submitted plenty. It's not scary. It's actually exhilarating, in a way.

1. Sign up for Duotrope. Not only can you track all of your submissions using this site, but you can also find markets, see how long it takes for them to respond, and see how your brethren are doing (that rejection from the New Yorker stings a little less when you see that they only accept 0.00% of submissions (of course, Duotrope is careful to point out that no magazine has 0% acceptance, but I suspect the New Yorker is able to simply ask anyone they like for work).

2. Make your own spreadsheet too. Duotrope is awesome. I'm not denying that. But so is my own spreadsheet. I have fields for when I submitted, to where, which story, estimated response time, notes (invited to resubmit, contest), acceptance/rejection, and date I heard back. I like seeing at a glance who asked me to send more work and who sent me a blank piece of paper as a rejection (true story). You can make whatever fields you like in your own spreadsheet. Duotrope is especially useful for seeing if it's okay to pester a magazine about your submission, but it doesn't include a field for whether something was a contest, or what your username and password is for the magazine's site.

3. Make your list. That's right, your list. Decide which magazines you most want to see your work in, and submit there first. Not the place where you think your work could fit, not the places you think would take it, but your personal end of the rainbow. The places where, as you send, you think, "Yeah, right." It only takes one reader to believe in you. Take that chance. Submit to the New Yorker or the Paris Review, or the Atlantic Monthly. And when if they all reject your work...

4. Go to your 2nd tier. Set up tiers of submission. I use groups of five. "Yeah right." "As if." "Maybe." "Definitely possible." "Probably." "For sure." "Revise." I heard about one author who, after receiving seven rejections, decides a revision is necessary. What I learned from this is that you can use rejections as a workshop-like tool. Before you submit your way down to Shovel Enthusiast Quarterly, consider that maybe the story needs a little extra something.

5. Grow a Thick Skin. And I mean rhino thick. Elephant thick. T-Rex Thick. You are going to get rejected hundreds of times. Literally. Hundreds. You have to believe in your heart that is okay. Someone, someday, is going to read your work and love it. They're going to believe in it. They're going to ask you for more. It's going to happen. It only takes one person. Keep going. Keep trying. Don't stop.

Friday, July 27, 2012

English Lessons

So there I was on the train. I was fortunate enough to get a seat, and settled in to play some "Zen Dice" (aka, Yahtzee) all the way to my stop. I broke out of my reverie when I saw a lady across the way lean toward her seatmate, a wee fashionable girl wearing black high waisted shorts (with suspenders), an ivory lace top, black patent leather oxfords and bright red lipstick, and start talking to her. I could tell they were strangers. Fashion girl gave the expectant look of someone waiting for an easy question. "How many stops until Kenmore," say, or "is this the outbound train?" But the conversation was continuing. Fashion girl was laughing uncomfortably, sliding her eyes toward the side. Suddenly, the conversation was in my court. The lady across from me, the one who started it all, was reading a Chinese newspaper, and leaned over and asked the guy next to me, "How do you say..." and she pantomimed turning a sheet of her newspaper.
He said, "Changing the page?"
"So you say, 'Can you hold this awhile?'" She said, lifting her coffee cup, "I need to change the page."
He said, "Well, I'd say, 'Can you hold this a second?"
She nodded and smiled. Read her newspaper. A couple of stops later, "So you say, 'a second.'" Like, first, then second?"
He said, "No, like, just a short amount of time."
"So while, this is wrong?" And she looked confused. After all, "awhile" is an indeterminate measure of time.
"Yeah, awhile would be, like, this whole train ride. A second is better, Or, like, a minute."
"So, 'Can you hold this a second so I can change the page of my newspaper?'"
Personally, I would have instructed her to say "turn" the page, but hey. That's just me.
Which made me think of all of the slang associated with English. This woman on the train had excellent command of English, but something we take for granted-- the difference between second, minute and awhile-- were mysterious to her. Aside from that, I wondered about the day she actually asked a stranger to hold her coffee. I wondered how many people would ignore her, give a weird look, tell her something rude. I was just so glad that in that one moment, she had a sweet fashionable girl, a kind hippie boy, and a casual observer around her instead of someone who would be cruel.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Nostalgia: Mazzy Star

The truth? I hated this song when it came out. Hated it. I had a hard time with anything slow and sappy. Only in the last couple of years have I appreciated anything without a relentless, driving beat. Something I could float away with. And doesn't this song just scream (or maybe whisper) floating?
I reminds me of a boy I went out with in 1997 (or maybe 1998) who, the first time we hung out, confessed he thought about playing this song, but thought I'd think it was lame so he played Everclear instead (which, at the time, I was embarrassed about liking... also, holy shit, I should listen to Everclear!).
See how this happens? You hear a song and bam! Back in a moment. Because of course I started listening to Everclear, and naturally I went back to the song that reminds me of that same boy:
And here's the real story. Because there's the guy, who I'm reminded of not only because he played the album, but because he was a handsome man with athletic thighs. Also, I remember my white Jetta that I loved, and cried when it finally shit the bed. And I remember my friend Eileen, who moved to PDX for college, explaining what Everclear was and what the West Hills were. More so than Mazzy Star, Everclear remind me of the nineties, and being young and silly and crazy. Is this what teenagers from the 70's feel like while listening to Led Zeppelin?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Empire State of Mind

I went to a bachelorette party last weekend in New York City. This was my third trip to the Big Apple in eighteen months, after having never been in my entire life. Every time I go all I want is to live there, soak it up, experience everything it has to offer. I imagine I'm in a chick flick, a rom-com, a crappy sitcom where I complain about my life while everything goes right and exactly as I planned. This last time, I felt almost at home while I walked around. Not that I had any idea whatsoever where I was geographically at any time, but I knew I could find my way. And if not, there were plenty of cabbies willing to take me on the (very) scenic route to my destination.

Anyway, that whole opening was actually just a lead-up to what I really wanted to talk about: male strip clubs. I mean, it was a bachelorette. It's what one does, right? I honestly don't know. I've only been to one bachelorette party in my life, for my very best friend, and we went to dinner and went dancing and there was penis shaped candy and a huge inflatable penis but other than that, a pretty normal night out.

IMG_0357
See? I'm wearing a Care Bear shirt for christ's sake.

This party though, it was well thought out. Beautiful hotel, plans for a show (finally saw Rent! Hollerrrrrr!), classy dinner, we went sightseeing. And then, Mantasia happened.

So with Magic Mike coming out, I feel it's only right to let ladies know what they're actually in for at these joints. Obviously, the movie's not yet out so I haven't seen it, but I've seen previews (and movies) so I can guess how this goes. There are elaborate shows with actual dancing! Human connection! Brutally hot guys! Well, with my highly scientific sample of one male strip club, I can tell you that all you're going to find is #3. True, in abundance, but if you want to touch one of them in their underwear, that's extra.

I went because everyone else was going, which sounds really pre-teen and peer-pressure-y, but it wasn't. Your bosom pal only gets married once (don't you piss on my parade here, THEY ARE MEANT TO BE), and if she wants to go to a strip club, you go. I had a wonderful time watching everyone and buying unsuspecting friends lap dances, but I myself did not touch a single washboard ab. Though I did have a nice conversation with a fellow who was dry humping the girl behind me (the place was seriously like the basement at an eighth grade party... or-- how I think one of those parties would have been, if I'd ever been invited). There were tons of married ladies and bachelorettes there and I figured out why, just yesterday. Single girls can get insincerely flattered at any club, any night. For someone in a committed relationship, a male strip club is paradise. You get to flirt and touch and be coy without any feelings of guilt whatsoever (until you realize you've put the grocery money down that dude's pants). Single girls though, we get that shit all the time.

For example, I am NOT in any way a "hot girl." I go days with no guys but homeless ones talking to me. No one stops me on the train to ask me spontaneously for coffee or even for my name. I'm lucky if I get an "excuse me" as they trod across my feet. Yet, put me in a club on the weekend, say, a Friday night in NYC, and guys can't stop telling me how beautiful I am, how good of a dancer I am, and ask me to come home. Sometimes, I even get a drink out of the deal. If I want to be insincerely flattered, I don't need to pay twenty bucks for a lap dance, I can just go to any place that has dancing within a couple of hours of last call!

Now for sure, many of the women there (my friends included) just wanted to ogle the models and laugh about it later, but so many women there were clearly just dying for someone to tell them they were beautiful. Honestly, why else would these guys lead with that?

I was talking to my friend Holli yesterday and was so taken by the disparity between male and female fantasy. In strip clubs for men, no touching is allowed, there's no emotional connection, it's just raw nakedness. In this strip club for women, it was all about emotional connection. "You're so cool," "You're so pretty," over and over. Not only touching, but simulated sex acts on stage. These guys are working hard for their money (not that lady strippers don't!). It's just interesting, isn't it? For men, just flash some bewbs and grind on their lap without expectation. For women, make us believe you like us. While we know deep down that this is a job, the expectation is that we'll still feel targeted.

I wish I could come up with some brilliant sociological or anthropologic explanation for it, all I can really say is that it shows how much deeper women are than men. We appreciate a beautiful form, but man. We still want to believe we're special. Even if we're one of two hundred screaming in a room, adding to the belt of dollar bills in your drawers.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Review: Jack

In Jack,, A.M. Homes has accomplished the difficult task of writing a novel from the point of view of a child, and making the ensuing story interesting for adults. The difficulty here is in voice and content. Replicating the cadence and language of children challenges writers wanting to appeal to adults who quickly tire of the repetition indicative of teenage speech. As for content, while teenagers find their own lives endlessly fascinating, (most) adults have little patience for tepid romance or gossip. What separates a literary work written in a child's perspective from a young adult novel is the author's ability to create a child character who is appealing, interesting, and maybe a bit precocious. A.M. Homes has done that here.

Jack is a typical high school boy, looking forward to his sixteenth birthday and getting his driver's license. He's not popular, but he's not unpopular; the other kids in his class seem to largely ignore him. Scintillating, right? Add to all of that Jack's parents' contentious divorce and his father's subsequent coming out and admission that he and his friend Bob are lovers. While Jack struggles with this new information, his best friend Max (so incredibly obnoxious it's hard to imagine he and Jack staying friends past high school) has a family that's exploding as well. Jack has his first girlfriend, a huge failure, and rebounds with another girl who understands him. He develops a crush on a much older woman. And he needs to wear a cast following a basketball injury. Jack has a lot going on.

What elevates this book from YA to literary fiction is the way Jack sorts through his emotions and makes decisions. Homes shows his struggle at times to do the right thing, and other times when he easily knows the right path and chooses it not because he wants to, but because he's a good kid. He's also acutely observant. When he and Max wind up out on the town with a popular girl from their class, along with his dad and her dad (also gay), he senses trouble on the horizon and tries to head it off. This being an adult novel though, devoid of lessons for budding teens to learn, things go exactly the way one would expect them to in real life. When Jack's secret is revealed, the interest lies not in the way other people react to it, but the way Jack reacts to a world where he no longer has the secret.

Homes gives Jack a mature mindset in many areas, belied by the occasional childish lapse. For instance, his kindness to Max's little brother and innate understanding of what the boy needs contrasted with his stubborn insistence that he doesn't need a doctor after sustaining an injury during a game. The moments of immaturity make Jack a believable kid, while the moments of clarity make him interesting. Jack's moment of epiphany at the end is a simple one, but weighs heavily, reminding the reader of their own moment of understanding. The events that occur around Jack are interesting, in typical Homes style the reader should expect the unexpected, but it's Jack himself who carries the book. Other authors have successfully written books from a child's perspective (Sapphire's Precious in Push and C.D. Payne's Nick Twisp in Youth in Revolt come to mind), but most of those children face extraordinary circumstances. Jack's life is unusual, but it's not ground-breaking. It's what happens in Jack's mind that's most interesting.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Pro Tips: Riding the T

'Tis the season when Red Sox fans flock to our fair city like moths to a flame, adding congestion to the already groaning green line. While many of the tips below could also apply to Bostonians, asshat behavior is sort of expected around these parts year 'round. Bostonians are sort of jerks, it's part of their charm. You haven't lived until you've had an octogenarian tell you to go fuck yourself after you swiped the last strawberry Chobani off the shelf.

Simple common sense should be enough for all of these tips, but for some reason common sense seems to get left behind somewhere around Zakim Bridge. Perhaps making a run for it at the opening strains of "Sweet Caroline." Whatever the reason, recent events have made it clear that someone needs to speak out. I feel I am more than qualified as a daily rider of the green line.

1. Let people out of the train. I know, I know! You people who drive everywhere are thinking to yourself, "Uh, duh. People have to get off to make room for people getting on." But for some reason people simply can't grasp this concept. They seem to see a full train as a challenge, a call to action. "WE MUST ALL FIT ON THIS TRAIN OR THE DOORS WILL CLOSE AND WE'LL BE TRAPPED HERE ON THIS PLATFORM FOREVER!" You can see the fear in their eyes. Meanwhile, people who live here attempt to hold back and let people off before recognizing the futility. Either jump in front of the stream of people blocking the door or wind up crushed against the door, resigned to getting off and on at every stop. (And heaven help us all if someone from out of town ends up in that position. They will instead cling to the doorway, thereby making it impossible for anyone to enter or leave the train.) Related: If you are part of the mob responsible for blocking the egress of a little old lady trying to make her way out of the train you are, in fact, irredeemably an asshole.

2. Be mindful of people around you. This covers a wide variety of topics. Have you put on deodorant today? Does the music from your headphones make the entire car feel like "da club?" Do you understand the concept of "personal space?" Ah, let's do that one. The seats on the train, while more spacious than an airplane seat, leave little room from your neighbor. Sometimes a little touching can't be helped, but please do avoid sitting with your legs spread wide apart, arms akimbo. The person next to you isn't interested in touching you either, and all you've done is create less personal space for both of you. If you feel the need to nap and/or pass out, try to lean toward the window. Your seatmate will appreciate your consideration. Perhaps even enough to wake you at the final stop. Standing? Those trains can get pretty crowded, with people standing closer to you than your date to the junior high dance. Invading space is unavoidable so try to make it as pleasant as possible. Don't try to jockey for space on the pole. If someone beat you to the spot you want, suck it up. Do not start a contest to see how many times you can touch them until they move their hand. Additionally, try not to stand face to face with someone. Even turning just a fraction rescues you from an uncomfortable situation. Related: Men, if a lady is on the steps in front of you, it's only polite to turn so your package isn't nestled on her face.

3. Negotiating travel with a large group. Chances are, if you finally scored tickets to a Sox game you want to bring some friends. That's awesome. Please don't get bent out of shape if you are out of arm's length from one another for the length of four stops. I promise you, your friend Gina will be just fine over there. No, those guys aren't looking at her, they're trying to find a couple inches of space. Yes, she will have plenty of time to get off the train with you at Kenmore. She will be clued in to the fact that it's your stop when she notices every person the train getting off at once. It is NOT necessary to crowd around the door, refusing to move while people get on and off. Also, this is not a high school dance or (despite the house music blaring from that dude's headphones) the club; no need to stand in a circle. That's valuable space in the middle of you, ladies. Give it up! Related: If you are separated for the duration of the train ride, please refrain from shouting across the train at one another. It is not whimsical, cute, or sweet. There will be plenty of time for shouting at the game.

4. Puking in transit. Okay, we can't talk about Red Sox games without talking about drunks. Pre-game train rides are pretty sucky, what with the pain of standing on the platform, four bags of groceries hanging from your arms as train after packed train goes by, but post-game rides are the worst. There's the guy sitting by the door, eyes at half mast, his friends laughing and saying, "Oh man, he's so going to puke!" They're joking, but it happens. And it's disgusting. Adults who drink need to 1. know their limits, and 2. know that if they ignore their limits they will regret it. One of the worst places to be while hammered is the train, especially the green line. It sways, it stops hard, it's slow. Do yourself a favor: when you know you've had too much and you've got that swirly tummy feeling, take a walk. Eat something. Hail a cab. You do not want to hurl on the train, and your fellow passengers wish you wouldn't either. Worst case scenario: you realize once you're on the train that you're going to toss your cookies. Get off at the next stop, use one of the handy trash barrels (sorry, cleaning crew) on the platform, and board the next train. No one wants to deal with your biohazard.

5. People live here. Again with the common sense, but the green line does not exist solely to get people between North Station and Kenmore Square. Look out the windows. See all of those people wearing business casual and flip-flops, carrying huge totes and backpacks, weary and worn out? They've just been at work all day. Remember how you feel after a day at work? Now imagine leaving work and having an already long commute become longer. You'd really be doing someone a solid by letting them get on instead of trying to muscle past them. I'm not saying they have more of a right to ride the train than you do (everyone pays to ride, after all), but just show a little common courtesy. And speaking of courtesy, when a little old lady or old man, or disabled person gets on the train, you get up and offer them your seat. I don't know how they do things out in East Bumfuck, New Hampshire, but here a person with white hair and/or a cane gets a seat. And don't you dare wait for one of the people in business casual to do it. Related: No one is fooled by your sudden interest in the ad next to your seat. We all see you avoiding eye contact so you don't have to give up your seat to the blind guy. Congratulations on your Asshole of the Year award.

Following these simple steps will make you blend right into the Boston crowd, despite your Red Sox jersey and hat. Maybe even because of. Little known fact: every new resident of Boston is issued a hat and jersey upon arrival. Not free tickets though, those bastards. And I don't want to sound superstitious, but I'm pretty sure that if you follow these steps to the letter, the Red Sox will win. Go Sox!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Review: You Are Free

Danzy Senna's short story collection, You Are Free, is all about taking chances. Not only for the characters, but also for the author. Each story finds Senna taking a chance, breaking a rule. The collection is invigorating for the creative writing student and a welcome change of pace for the reader.

One of the stories, The Land of Beulah, features a wholly unlikeable character. She takes in a stray dog and takes refuge in beating the animal as her life falls apart around her. Yet, despite feeling twinges of anger and disappointment each time a beating occurs, the reader understands what drives Jackie. Even as the reader feels superior, certain she would never make the same choice, Jackie is someone who seems familiar. A woman told she could have everything who suddenly has it all ripped away from her.

As in Senna's novel Caucasia, race plays a starring role in these stories. The protagonists are all women of mixed heritage, figuring out what that means for them, mostly in relation to men and relationships. Jackie, from Beaulah, is spurned by her lover for being "too white," while the protagonist in What's the Matter with Helga and Dave? is accepted only after being perceived as white by a neighbor. (Incidentally, another risk, having an unnamed narrator). The women in these stories all struggle with race.

Perhaps the story where Senna explores this most is Triptych, where the same situation occurs three times. A young girl is at a dinner the day before the funeral of her mother, contemplates her mother, and the last conversation she had with her mother. Each mother craves a different food, all sadly out of season, and each father is flawed. Each family is so similar, despite the fact that each one is mixed differently. One is a white family, one a black family with one member more fair than the other, and one a family with a black father and white mother. The point Senna draws here is they are all the same. Regardless of the racial makeup of a family, there is the same pain, confusion, death. Senna seeks to humanize race, using the specific instance of black and white interracial unions and children to do so. And she succeeds.

In the first story, Admission, Senna shows a black couple who has applied their child to a prestigious pre-school (and please, pause for a moment over the phrase "prestigious pre-school." Senna would like it that way), and the fallout that occurs when the child is given a second interview and then accepted. How desperately the wife wants it, at first, and how the husband does not even entertain the notion. The whiteness of it all is implied.

And this is perhaps the greatest problem with Senna's stories. That affluence and privilege, while being something afforded to her characters, is considered "white." While struggle and resilience are considered "black." It's wonderful that Senna explores racial relations in her writing, but it seems that "white" is often characterized as greedy, self-involved, affluent. Not to suggest that "white" should be characterized as saintly, but perhaps a bit more even-handedly. These characters seem to relate less to the white half of themselves than the black halves. Race is always a tricky issue, but it seems that a child borne of two races would feel kinship with both.

Senna's prose is deceptively simple. She's just telling a story, it seems. But dig just a bit deeper and you find a daring writer. One willing to take chances, push boundaries, and see what mere words can create.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Seclusion

IMG_6650

This past weekend, a friend and I escaped to the Green Mountains for a writing weekend. We're both feeling stressed about our theses (I'm so freaked out now, eight months in advance, I can only imagine the basketcase I'll be in January), and one day when we were at a writing conference in South Carolina, she said, "You know what I'd love to do? Rent a secluded cabin somewhere and just write." Well isn't that funny? I had been trolling vacation rental sites with the same idea.

The picture above was the view from our deck. There was no TV, we watched a movie each night via laptop and had to trek up to the main house to access the Internet, a trip we made only once a day, when we were done working. I don't know the last time I was so disciplined, or when I got so much done! It's the cruelty that comes with the ease of writing on a laptop: constant access to the world's greatest procrastination tool. I revised three stories over the weekend. Three! Who knew I even had that in me?

I vowed that when I came home I wouldn't lose my momentum but I admit, it's been a challenge. I keep thinking of that little cabin with its sweet porch, the horses across the way, the quiet and comfort. Sigh.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Hollywood Today

With the advent of the horrible looking What to Expect When You're Expecting... the movie!, a film no one asked for that is based on a reference book about parenting, Hollywood has officially hit rock bottom. I know, I know. It seemed like they'd gotten there with the also recently released Battleship, a movie based on a board game (item #437 on the list of things I thought I'd never write), or maybe when someone had the audacity to remake Total Recall. Maybe we could blame George Lucas who, instead of making anything new has just been endlessly revising the Star Wars franchise. But no, I place the blame squarely upon the shoulders of Expecting, and here's why.

This movie uses the tired trope of the gigantic ensemble cast. There was a time when this idea was innovative and fresh, now it's just an excuse to cram as many stars as possible into a film while not having to actually do any work whatsoever with the script. Movies in this format never allow the audience to connect with the characters. Instead of watching a character grow and develop to a satisfying resolution, the payoff is finding out how all of the characters are related which, as a side effect of the prevalence of these types of movies, is exceedingly simple to sort out after everyone has been introduced.

The fact that this movie was made spells doom for the future of film. Excuse me, not of film, but of movies. Let's go through this. First, someone had to think to themselves, "You know what would make a really cool movie...?" I imagine they did this while blowing lines off a pregnant woman's stomach, as I imagine most Hollywood movie ideas germinate. Then this person found someone else who thought this was a good idea. Shockingly, this happened. Someone had to take the time to write the script. (This person I like to imagine saying, "You want to do what now? Seriously? And you'll pay me how much? Sucker.") And then all of these stars read this script and agreed to do it. Yes, money is tempting, but for god's sake have some integrity.

The last piece of this tapestry of shame belongs to the audience who will no doubt fill the theaters, thereby perpetuating the cycle of awful movies as Hollywood realizes no matter what kind of shit-smeared diaper they splash across the screen, if J. Lo is in it, the people will come. (And come on, J. Lo! You've done good movies! You know better.) People refuse to admit they're watching the same movies over and over. Sometimes literally as in the endless parade of remakes released every year, and other times more surreptitiously, with the exact same plot trotted out over and again. Fast food restaurants have long understood the value of serving the same product at all of their franchises, it's what rocketed McDonald's to fame, but movies aren't supposed to simply nourish you (and I realize using McDonald's and "nourish" in the same sentence is questionable). Film, books, art, dance, drama... they're meant to feed your soul, lift you up and inspire you. Movies should evoke emotion, and not in a pat way (child with cancer = sad), but in a way that makes you think a little differently and really feel something.

Yes, there's a place for lighthearted entertainment. But there are examples of that which still have value beyond a tired old plot. Bridget Jones' Diary looks like a standard chick flick, but with snappy dialogue and a great cast, it inspires. Blade Runner is a terrific example of sci-fi that goes beyond slick FX and questions what is human. The original (from the 70's, NOT the 80's) Texas Chainsaw Massacre terrifies without resorting to gore. Notice a trend? These are all older movies. When it seemed that Hollywood took the time to come up with new ideas and trusted the audience to want to think a little. Because honestly, what is Hollywood telling us when they make drivel like Expecting? That we're not smart enough to know better. For the love of god, moviegoers. Prove that you know better.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Review: The Beggar Maid

In honor of Emerging Writers Network's Short Story Month, I'm going to focus my review energy on my favorite short story collections.

Alice Munro needs a glowing review as much as she needs writing advice, but The Beggar Maid, being one of her earlier books, doesn't receive as much attention as her later collections. While her later works are huge, sprawling, lush stories spanning decades, many with her trademark double ending bending time, the stories in Maid are much more focused. Perhaps this is because the stories are linked, so as a whole they follow Rose from her days as a young girl into middle age.

Still evident in this collection is Munro's unique way of viewing the world, the details she includes, the way she phrases things. The bits of paper left behind after Rose's father's death (not a spoiler, this happens on the second page of the collection) detailing "things he had been moved to write down," followed by a list that perfect encapsulates this man in six entries. Or in "Wild Swans," when Rose tries to determine whether the affable old man next to her is surreptitiously molesting her beneath her coat.

The stories all closely follow Rose, though Flo is a predominate character, acting as Rose's foil. For as quiet and shy Rose is, Flo is just as boisterous and unguarded. Seen through Rose's perspective, Flo is almost too much to handle, a constant embarrassment. Munro is better than that though. She's rounded out both characters so much that, even though the stories never come from Flo's point of view, the reader feels as though they know Flo as well as they know Rose.

The Beggar Maid was the first Alice Munro collection I read, assigned in 1996 by an ernest grad student in an intro course. Before reading it, I hadn't realized the potential of the short story, I didn't know the possibilities. This collection changed my writing life. Munro writes about working class people living ordinary lives. These are people I identify with, who I think a lot of people identify with, but who aren't often written about. I read these stories and felt like someone out there got me.

Fans of Alice Munro will appreciate that the entire collection is roughly the same length as four of her short stories now, it can be devoured in one sitting or parceled out one nibble at a time. Newcomers will appreciate the ease with which Munro leads the reader into a story. Writing in a deceptively simple manner.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Pro Tips: Online Dating

I've been online dating for... awhile now, and over that time, I've seen probably hundreds of profiles. Some are great, most range from alarming to horrifying, with a solid core of the simply misguided. I have officially thrown in the towel in the online dating arena. Too many disappointments after hopeful daydreams. Don't take that to be pitying, what I mean is, well, let's let tip #1 speak for itself.

1. Post a picture that actually, you know, resembles you. This means, no matter how cool you think that picture of you standing in front of [insert famous international landmark here] is, if it's older than two years old (less if there've been significant changes to your appearance) save it. No, looks aren't everything, but when you're standing around in front of a bar at 9pm, it's nice to know who you're looking for. Also, smile! Four pictures of you scowling and one of your abs impresses no one. Related: Make sure your face is visible. It's cool that you ski/surf/like to look out pensively at the ocean, but include a standard, full-face picture too.
2. Be mindful of what's happening in your picture. Specifically, check your background. We've all seen the pictures with dogs humping in the background or someone photobombing. If there are other people in your picture, identify them. When I see a picture of a guy with a girl on a dating site, my first thought is that she is an ex-girlfriend or former date. Seeing another girl on your arm doesn't make me feel competitive or make you more desirable, it makes me click by. If that's your goto photo, you're probably not over her. Related: Posing with strippers doesn't make you seem classy or worldly. It screams, "LOOK AT MY WILD WEEKEND JUST LIKE THE GUYS FROM THE HANGOVER." Or, it screams that you wish your life was like that, which makes me think in reality your typical nights are spent shoveling fist fulls of Funyuns down your gullet while you watch ESPN in your underwear.
3. Look at who you're sending a message to. I don't mean the picture, though that's clearly what most guys do. Look at the girl's profile before you send a message. Do you share any of the same interests? Is she looking for the same things you are? Theoretically, dating websites are awesome because you can see general information right upfront, avoiding the classically awkward Star Wars/Star Trek debate first date. People who are seriously looking to date someone tend to have well thought-out, detailed profiles. Use these to your advantage.
4. Think about your first message. I can't even tell you how many (I'm just gonna say it) idiotic messages I've received on these sites. They all start to blend together in their awful banality. Words to avoid: cutie, hot, sex, and wife. I've gotten several messages from guys insisting their wives are cool with them dating, insinuating that there's something wrong with me if I'm not down for it. First of all, grow up. I am a self-respecting grown woman, I don't need your approval so your threat of disapproval doesn't faze me in the least. Secondly, any douchebag at the bar at last call can call a girl a hottie. Unless the girl has spectacularly low self-esteem, this won't impress her. I mentioned the profiles before, seriously use them. What do you find interesting about her? What do you have in common? The only messages I ever respond to are ones that ask me something about my profile. Also, keep track of who you write to. I once got a long message from a guy I had nothing in common with, so I didn't respond. Two weeks later, I got the exact same message, word for word. He'd copied and pasted it to me twice. Me and who knows how many other women. Related: Unless the girl's got something in her profile that specifically says she's down for it, don't message for hookups.
5. Don't bring up sex. Really, just don't. The most humorous message I got was from a guy whose profile was all about how he was so tired of women using him for sex, and just because he was so amazing at it didn't mean women should just use him like that. I know I was being judgy, but this guy was wearing a security guard uniform, posing with a horse, wearing a Tom Sellack moustache (Tom himself can barely get away with that and he's a sexy bitch). So I immediately doubted how many ladies he had been able to pick up. On top of that, ew. We're all grownups here. We know that if we meet up and click, eventually it'll happen. Trust me. You don't have to talk about sex to get it on a lady's mind. We're already thinking about it too.
6. Finally, think about your username. Dating sites tell you to choose this carefully. It should say something about you. Some iteration of your name, a pop culture reference that means something to you, a personality trait. Even just a random combination of words can be a jumping off point to a conversation. But please, for the love of god, don't use words like "unhappy" in your username. It tells the world that you're looking for someone to save you. It says you're desperate, that you'll settle for anyone. Women, even the ones on dating sites, want to feel important and special. I don't want to think that a guy is hanging out with me because I'm the first girl who responded.

I could probably write an entire blog on all of the bad dates I've been on, just through online dating, but as I said I'm done with it. And all of my disillusion is due to the tips listed above. I haven't actually deleted my profiles (on Plenty of Fish and OKCupid) because the emails I get are too amusing, but I'm so jaded that even when I get a good message now I question it. I've heard stories about people finding true love on the Internet, but I think they're a lot like the fabled tales of finding a Chanel suit at Goodwill. You have to be willing to riffle through a whole lot of shit first.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Another thing you should know about me is that I am a huge, gigantic, ridiculous Buffy fan. I have the seven season boxed set and if I had to guess, I'd say I've watched it twenty times in the last six years. It's my goto show, along with the Simpsons, that I can put in at any time and be entertained.

After a recent Buffy-centric conversation lately where someone told me their favorite season was season 2, I started thinking about what my top ten favorite episodes would be. Scanning through a list of every episode, I came up with fourteen I really love, I narrowed it down to ten. Looking at the list, it appears as though seasons three and, surprisingly, six are my favorite seasons. If asked, I always say season four is my favorite.

Top Ten Buffy the Vampire Slayer Episodes
in descending order
10. Witch (season 1, episode 3): Here, we're introduced to Amy, who is so important later, and also to the dangers of magic.
9. Normal Again (season 6, episode 17): Holy shit. What if the entire show thus far is just a figment of a crazy girl's imagination? What if someone extremely strong suddenly discovers existentialism?
8. Passion (season 2, episode 17): When Giles discovers Jenny. Kills me every time. Goddam you, Joss Whedon.
7. Halloween (season 2, episode 6): Not going to go all high-falutin' here. I love what the characters choose to be and I love what they become.
6. Band Candy (season 3, episode 6): This is another episode that I love for the fun. I mean, the adults become kids? Giles as a teenager?! It's almost too awesome.
5. Once More, with Feeling (season 6, episode 7): I'm pretty sure it's sacrilege to have a Buffy favorites list and not include this episode, but with good reason! How many other musical television show episodes can you recall? And despite the novelty, the episode contributed to what followed in that season, and the entire show.
4. Selfless (season 7, episode 5): I love Anya. That's all. End of story.
3. The Wish (season 3, episode 9): Again with my love for Anya, but also, what would Sunnydale be like without Buffy?
2. Hush (season 4, episode 10): This is another episode that's obligated to be on every list, but with reason! A good chunk of the episode is done without any spoken dialogue. Characters use pantomime, draw pictures, and write out what they want to say on dry erase boards. Beautiful melding of fairy tale and supernatural. And did I mention? NO DIALOGUE!
1. The Body (season 5, episode 16): If you can watch this episode without crying, you have no soul. That is all.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review: Burning Bright

In honor of Emerging Writers Network's Short Story Month, I'm going to focus my review energy on my favorite short story collections.

The fashion in literature lately seems to be focused on the art of performing acrobatics with language at the expense of the plot. Not that there is anything wrong with that, any time language isn't outright brutalized by pointless abbreviations and boring neologisms is great. Sometimes, though, it's nice to just read a story that evokes emotions and tells a story, plainly, compellingly. Ron Rash's collection Burning Bright is full of just those kinds of stories. Each one succinct and deceptively simple. Rash is one of those writers everyone thinks they can write like, until they try.

Rash's stories span decades, from the Civil War to the present day. Each story is vivid and believable, a difficult feat when writing about a time one has never experienced. Rash himself said at a book signing recently that although he sometimes writes historical fiction, he hopes his stories resonate with people today. He succeeds at this by imbuing his characters with traits easily recognized i people today. A man living during the Depression feels sadness at his estranged children and hopelessness with the state of the world. A woman waiting for her husband to return from fighting during the Civil War uses her wiles to protect her family. A pawn shop owner knows that majority of items he buys are stolen and sold to him for drug money but still makes the sales, even to his own nephew. These people struggle with themselves, with their families, with the world.

Two standout stories are the opening story, "Hard Times," and "The Ascent." Both deal with children, but avoid sentimentality. The reader is allowed to feel for the children, but the prose doesn't dwell on all of the reason to pity them. In "Hard Times," a Depression-era farmer wonders how much worse life could really be outside of his small farming community. He personally knows a family up the road from him starving, the father's pride preventing them from taking any help. The descriptions in the story are visceral, neck hairs stand at attention, despite Rash's spare language. The little boy in "The Ascent" lives in his imagination, envisioning himself as a hero. His parents are meth addicts (the drug features in a couple of Rash's stories), and although they do try in their way to care for him, they fail miserably. The story is made for treacle, but Rash avoids it. The little boy doesn't pity himself and neither does the narrator.

Every collection has a weak story or two, but here, the weakest story only seems so because it's included with so much strength. The collection is short and over much too soon, but the stories resonate long afterwards.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Review: Salvage the Bones

Jesmyn Ward's latest book, Salvage the Bones, didn't get a lot of attention before rising out of the dust with the National Book Award in 2011. Thank god it won the award, it's the best book I've read this year.

The story follows a family living near the coast in Mississippi during the ten days proceeding hurricane Katrina, and the day of the storm. The main character, Esch, lives with her father and brothers in a ramshackle house. Esch is fifteen years old, precocious, smart, kind, and pregnant. In her world, there are no choices.

Ward gives depth to every character in this novel, elevating them out their dire poverty so the reader sees the soul within. Even Esch's alcoholic father has moments of kindness and care, although he is largely absent or at the periphery while the kids make their own way. Esch's brother, Skeet, has a pitbull named China who is like his soulmate. Her brother Randall has hung all of his hopes on basketball camp and discovery by a college scout. Her youngest brother Junior is a typical bratty child, a necessary character in this book. He grounds the family in reality.

The characters are treated with care. They never veer into mere stereotype. Even Randall's friends who come around are not mere thugs or cretins, they are kids. Esch lets them take advantage of her, but her love for one of them above all others shines through. Ward shows Esch's turmoil and pain, her most heartfelt desires.

Perhaps these characteristics sound like something out of an ordinary romance novel. Ward's use of language and metaphor set this book apart. One criticism has been that it's hard to believe a fifteen year old girl in the sticks of Mississippi could have the observations Esch has in the novel. This criticism speaks more of the reader than the writer. Ward is careful to show Esch's intelligence and thoughtfulness, her awareness of the world around her. Popular opinion holds that poor people can not be smart people, they can't be as educated so they can't be as poetic. Tell that to James Baldwin.

The hurricane adds tension to the story for the reader but not for the characters. As readers, we know what is to come as soon as Esch's father says the storm has a name and that name is Katrina. As typical in hurricane-prone regions, the families in this novel intend to ride it out. The children scoff at their father's insistence that they must prepare. Despite being prepared for what's coming, as the reader, when the storm hits it takes your breath away. The slow build, the high tension, the choices and decisions, not choices or decisions at all, truly.

Salvage the Bones not only gives a realistic portrayal of life immediately following hurricane Katrina, but it also gives insight into the lives of people affected. Beyond that, into the mindset of poor people in America, and the unfairness of it all, of life.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Message in a Bottle

Not the Nicholas Sparks one. A facebook post saying people should continue to throw glass into the ocean so we can continue to have seaglass reminded me of a childhood memory.

I swear, this whole blog is not going to be "the story of my childhood."

When I was a kid, there was a man who was attempting to sail around the world. He had gone missing, and eventually people found a mayonnaise jar with a message inside, from him. I don't remember what that message said even, I just remember being so taken by this idea that a message could travel so far. In those days, everything was glass. I put notes in every Pepsi bottle, jam jar, big Hawaiian Punch bottles. We lived on the river, and I snuck down and threw them in. Some of the messages were simple, "Hi, I'm a girl from Maine. Please let me know you found this." Others were desperate, slowly fading, "Help M--" messages, not thinking ahead to wonder how someone who couldn't even finish the note could possibly roll it up and get it into a bottle. I also didn't think about the fact that the river, unlike the ocean, doesn't have that same pull at the shore. My bottles kept washing up, no matter how far I threw them.

Writing a blog is sort of the same thing, yeah? You send out messages, hoping for some acknowledgement. Same goes for forums and comment threads. With the advent of the Internet, we have a whole new way to seek attention, to get proof that we are here and matter. I know it's trite, but I sometimes struggle with the question, "why am I here?" I think most of us do, but maybe we phrase it differently. "I want to make a difference." "I need to have children." "I just feel like there's something bigger meant for me out there." It's some kind of cruelty, isn't it? That we have these magnificent brains to make us so aware, but can only use a small portion of them so we never understand.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Family

The great thing about family is they back up the batshit insane memories you have. You have instant confirmation that the thing you're not sure if it was a nightmare or real life actually happened, and then you can trot it out to your therapist and tell her about it.

If you had one.

Which I don't.

By which I mean that when I was hanging out with my Dad he expressed a desire to go back into the White Mountains and go camping. We reminisced about camping trips where he brought the TV and the VCR, a microwave... you know, the necessities. Before we camped out of tents and a pickup though, we had an old Winnie. Most of my memories of the Winnie are of us playing on and in it as children. It sat, idle, in the yard by the garden, next to the old Firebird full of wasps, and we kids would play house, climb the ladder to the top and play pirates, pretend to be long distance truckers. That thing was WAY better than a tree fort.

Anyway, I do have a couple of memories of the Winnie when it was in use. 1: I remember going to a drive-in movie and seeing a man come out from behind a curtain. I was so little, I was sound asleep before the movies started, so I can only guess I saw a preview. 2: I remember playing hide and seek with my parents in the camper while we drove through the mountains. Funny thing is, the best place I could think of to hide was the storage space underneath the seats at the fold-in dining table. It was a tiny space, and I'm guessing I was under five, because that Winnie sat in our yard for a long, long time. I crept into the space and laughed hysterically as my mum searched for me. She'd never find me here! But then it started to seem so dark, so close. I wanted to get out. But I couldn't. All I remember is not being able to open that door, the feeling of terror (I still can't be in close, dark spaces).

But my Dad? He remembers feeling some panic, imagining he'd have to break through the outer shell of the camper to rescue me. Mostly he remembers patiently guiding me as I cried, telling me what I needed to do to save myself. He remembers the relief he felt when I finally worked the latch to that door and freed myself.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Review: A Feast of Snakes

In days where shootings in the workplace and casual violence in shopping malls are commonplace, the seventies look like the good old days. “A Feast of Snakes” by Harry Crews challenges that notion with a novel brimming with angst, loathing, and yes, violence. Crews takes on the myth of the all-powerful white man by showing white men who, due to poverty and geography, are denied access to that power and have few outlets to vent their frustration.


The story takes place in a small town in Georgia called Mystic over the course of a weekend featuring an annual snake hunt, the Rattlesnake Roundup. Joe Lon Mackey organizes the hunt each year, as his father (also named Joe Lon) did before him. In high school, Joe Lon played football, winning titles and leading his team. He was destined for greatness, but thwarted by poor grades from going on to play college football. He remains trapped in his small town, taking over his father’s bootleg liquor store and trapping rattle snakes. At times his dissatisfaction with his life leads him to drive to a secluded area and howl until he is hoarse.


Anger and frustration consume Joe Lon and the other men in this novel. They believe the world owes them and they intend to collect. Every scene in this book displays a need for power. Joe Lon’s father trains pitbulls for fighting and keeps his son on a tight leash. The town sheriff lost his leg in Vietnam and regains his feeling of masculinity by forcing himself upon the disenfranchised African-American women in town. Joe Lon engages in humiliating acts with his former high school girlfriend within shouting distance of his current abused wife, Elfie.


The women in “A Feast of Snakes” serve as plot devices and little else. Joe Lon’s ex-girlfriend, Berenice, illustrates life outside of Mystic. She returns from college for the Roundup with a new boyfriend. A preppy boy who, as Joe Lon says, “plays debate.” Joe Lon married Elfie when Berenice went to college, quickly impregnating her twice. Elfie pales in comparison to Berenice, and Joe Lon views her as another failure. Two other women in the book find solace in madness. The rest are mere trollops. The caricatures can be forgiven, however, as this book unapologetically concerns itself with men. The point of view rarely comes from a female character, and when it does, the woman is insane. Women viewed through the lens of these men can only be one-note.


Other authors have written about men who feel at odds with the world. Crews’ characters stand out by being poor and Southern, with very little agency outside of their small town. They feel powerless despite hearing all their lives that the world belongs t them. This attitude exists today as well. While marketing and media cater to the white male, the poor, uneducated white man feels ignored. Unable to articulate how they feel and unsure how to expend their fury, they turn to violence.


Unlike many modern uses of violence in literature, the underlying rage in the characters of “A Feast of Snakes” is palpable. We see this particularly in Joe Lon. Crews allows access to Joe Lon’s thoughts as he makes decisions. We see his angst over the way he treats his wife and his attempts to curb his abusive behavior. Crews pulls off the difficult feat of making an abusive man a sympathetic character. Joe Lon’s character has been crafted so the reader understands the emotion behind his extreme act of violence at the crescendo.


We also see how violence begets violence. Joe Lon’s dad abused his wife, and now Joe Lon abuses his. The sheriff rapes a woman, threatening her with a rattlesnake, and reaches a grim demise. The men in this book feel entitled because they have always been allowed to do whatever they like, without consequence, until they leave the confines of their provincial Southern town.


When Harry Crews passed away on March 28th, many of his books were out of print and difficult to find. With his passing, his books have re-entered the public consciousness. Crews gave voice to the people he grew up with and knew the best. He allowed people to understand the particular mindset of men who have been told the world belongs to them, only to be rebuffed each time they try to collect. In Crews’ oeuvre, “A Feast of Snakes” stands out as a glimpse into the inner workings of the “ignorant redneck.” As long as the myth of the all powerful white man continues, “A Feast of Snakes” will resonate.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Nostalgia: Lovesongs for Underdogs

I was going to call this a review but let's be honest, this album came out in 1997 which is much further away than it feels like it is. Every time I listen to this album, it feels like the first time. The lyrics always feel fresh and new, and the music! So catchy and danceable. Even the slower songs pull you along with the melody to the crescendo. Oh man, it doesn't get better than "Mysteries of the Unexplained," which I would have linked to, but all of the YouTube videos were terrible. I suppose I'm feeling so nostalgic because I just came back from a weekend home, after being away for more than three months. This never happens, but this semester has been one project after another, not leaving much time for relaxing weekends shooting the shit with Dad. There's been some stuff going on back home though, and I thought it was time for me to make a visit. The very first thing I did was go to the local drive-in for a grilled cheese with tomato, fries, and banana shake. And I was transported to being a child again. There I was in Dad's house, him cooking for me, me cleaning up. We drove through town and I pointed things out, "When'd they clear out all those woods?" "What's goin' in there?" By this morning, my Maine accent was out in full force, not a g to be found. Driving through town, I daydreamed about living there again, having my own little apartment in town, having my bunny with me again, seeing my family almost daily. I said I missed town, and I'd like to live there again. I didn't say that there aren't a lot of opportunities there for me and I probably wouldn't be back. Why spoil it?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Things You Should Know About Me

1. I'm a creative writing student.
2. I am also a knitter
3. Including stuff for school, I read a lot.
4. A lot.
5. I have an addiction to Buffy, 90210, the BBC Office, and the Simpsons. I'm probably going to talk about them.
6. My brain is all over the place. Maybe sometimes I'll feel funny. Maybe sometimes I'll be pensive. Probably I'll be mad. I suspect this blog will be all over the place too.