Thursday, June 30, 2005


OriginalFiction_256 I recently lost a couple days of my life to The Guardian's Original Fiction, but these stories made it worth my while. There's definitely a lot more going on in them than there is in my life.

The only problem was choosing what to read first. So many of my favorite writers had stories there that I had to once again consult first lines. Here's five I started with, partially chosen by who'd written them (more about that later) and partially by the hook. If you haven't seen the Guardian yet, you can make a more unbiased decision. Pretend for a moment that you're an editor and these stories have come in over the transom. Which do you read? Which do you dismiss out of hand?

1. Before I met Tim, who in spite of everything I'm about to tell you woul be my best friend for the next four or five years--my mother warned me on the way over to my grandmother's house that I had to be nice to him.

2. It was a fine summer morning, a day predicted to beat all heat records.

3. He was in the taxi with the French woman he'd met that afternoon.

4. Every morning at 7:30 Edmund Fenton left his apartment in the East 60s and headed for Central Park with his German shepherd, Baldur.

5. Lisa noticed one of the boxes of old records had been moved from one corner of the garage, leaving a square of light colored cement.

Numbers 1 provides the classic draw, the unanswered question. What's wrong with Tim? And why do they become friends anyway? It's even more efficiently accomplished in number 3: Exactly where is the narrator going with this fascinating French woman?

Numbers 4 provides a more subtle and atmospheric mystery. A creature of habit is obviously about to encounter something very much outside his routine. So what the hell is it? And how will the aristocratically named Baldur react?

Number 5 is even more subtle, its question less prepossessing than the others: Who moved the records and why? Am I about to sacrifice an hour or two of my time to find out? But I like the immediate insertion of a character, and the visceral feel of the garage, painted in a few quick strokes--the square of light colored cement, the boxes of outdated items.

As for number 2, it's not much in the way of opening sentences if you ask me. But it's followed by a killer second sentence so if I were an editor, I would definitely stick with it.

This is the order in which I would--and did--read them: 1-4-3-5-2. Though the first lines played their part, my choice was hardly pure. I had read all the authors before--as have most avid readers, and my feelings about their work obviously colored my selection. If you haven't turned to the Guardian yet, your first line choice will be a lot more valid than mine.

Now for Part Two of my little game--to be played only after you've completed Part One. As I've said, all these stories were written by well known authors.

Can you match the following authors to the first lines above?

fordmccabe164 A. Richard Ford
highsmith64 B. Patricia Highsmith
annie1 C. Annie Proulx
tarttap D. Donna Tartt
toibin64 E. Colm Toibin

And finally, Part Three: see if you can match the titles with the first lines.

A. "Hoofboots and Bow Ties"
B. "The Ambush"
C. "Famous Blue Raincoat"
D. "Pretty Boy"
E. "Man's Best Friend"

Now go to The Guardian and see how well you've done. And while you're there--well you're readers. You know what to do.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005



Carrie Kabak
is a former children's book illustrator. Born and raised in the United Kingdom, she lived in Bolton, Lancashire, then in South Wales, the West Midlands, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire, and spent a lot of time in France, Switzerland and Ireland. She now lives in Kansas City, Missouri. Carrie and her husband share five sons, two labradors and a couple of cats. Her first novel, Cover the Butter, has been garnering great reviews, and was a Book Sense Pick for the month of June.

P.F. This novel seems to take on both sides of domesticity--the charm and comfort it provides, and the trap it sometimes sets for the women who create it. Was that your

C.K. The protagonist in Cover the Butter, Kate Cadogan, used her home as a refuge, a domestic haven to escape reality. I believe domesticity can be enormously rewarding and the nurturing involved provide as much job satisfaction as any other career. But—there were too many elements missing in Kate’s life to complete the picture, so in the end, she came to the conclusion that her house was essentially a self-inflicted prison. It took her a long time to realise this, as too many emotional clamps and the dogged control of a narcissistic mother prevented her from escaping.

P.F.: The most powerful relationships Kate Cadogan has seem to be with other women, whether it be the largely negative relationship with her mother, or the support and continuity her friends provide. Do you think that's how it often is for women?

C.K.: Kate Cadogan’s most powerful relationships were certainly with other women, but then again, she had a boorish, sexually peculiar husband, and an ineffectual father, so no wonder! Personally, I think some problems can only be resolved with members of the same sex, and conversations are often far more intimate. However, men can make excellent best friends, too, and I’m sure many negative relationships with the male species can be equally powerful or traumatic.

P.F.: You have a lot of projects going. Is this an especially creative time for you? Can you inspire us with your work habits?

C.K.: I made the decision to concentrate on writing, which meant no more illustrating, as I did have far too many projects going! I wouldn’t advise anyone to work like me. I have a very bad habit of working until 4am, sometimes all night, not wanting to lose the thoughts in my head. It’s not healthy!

Bleary-eyed, I’m now completing my second novel: TARTS AND SINNERS. It features the end of one year and the beginning of another in the lives of Annie Ruddock, age 58, (vicar's wife, in love with a cross-dressing bell ringer;) Jane Frobisher, age 46, (who’s obsessed with chickens, and her husband's having an affair with a woman who looks like Prince Charles’ Camilla;) and Fiona Wiggins, age 23, (who despairs having lost her virginity, and is obsessed with the Fifties.) Mostly set in Tutton Longfield, United Kingdom, is an interwoven tale told from three different points of view.

P.F.: I'm interested in the diary format you chose to use for your novel. Did that help the story flow for you or was it a challenge? Are you a diarist yourself?

The diary format was a challenge, but it helped with the flow and kept the book
organised. No, I’m not a diarist, and dear God, my life is far from organised.

P.F.: You are an accomplished illustrator as well as a writer. Like your novel, your
illustrations are exceptionally detailed. Do you believe that it is through details that the larger picture emerges?


C.K.: Absolutely. I was sure words could be used like a paintbrush, but with writing, I could climb inside the picture too. And live in it. As I write, I enjoy showing a story, creating the atmosphere, but when I’m telling, I imagine the reader is my best friend. I love writing in first person, present tense, so I can really get inside the protagonists head

P.F.: You grew up in the U.K. and now you live in Missouri. How do you think the coming of age story you tell in your novel would be different if you set it in the U.S.?

C.K.: Gosh, I don’t know—I’ve only lived here for six years, and I’m still learning about my adopted country and its people and society. That would be an interesting question for readers of Cover the Butter!

To learn more, visit Carrie's website.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

DEALING WITH J.A.W.S. (Jerks at Work)

Photograph by Richy! via flickr

Can you guess which one of these waitresses is the Jerk at Work? I can't, but one thing I know for sure, at least one of these innocuous looking women makes life hell for her co-workers. Why? Once again, I'm not sure, but there's some kind of scientific principle in effect, as reliable as the laws of gravity, that says there has to be a Jerk at Work.

Category: Day to day survival

Oh my God, I was so excited when I found this article in The Economist (courtesy of Arts and Letters Daily. As a crazed poet and writer by day I've never read an economics rag in my life. And as a waitress by night, I'm too busy to scrapping for pennies to think about the bigger picture. ) But Jerks at Work, now that's a phenomenon I've been studying for years, mostly on an involuntary basis.

As soon as I read the article, I immediately invented an acronym for it: JAWS, and I think it's pretty damn apt, because Jerks at Work take a bite out of your ass on a daily basis. But please, don't hate them for it. They're just doing their job, and besides, they were probably just Born to be a Jerk. Really, there should be support groups. In fact, I think all those pharmaceutical companies who are bleeding us dry should get to work on a medication for this problem.

Just think of the profits involved! People wouldn't just buy the anti-jerk pill for themselves. Unsuspecting bosses would swallow it in morning coffee on a daily basis. Hell, this could be bigger than Tic Tacs. And after Peter Kramer wrote a book about the new wonder drug, there would be no limits to its uses.

The funny thing is that just this very morning, a co-worker and I were discussing the JAWS syndrome. And while we're not Harvard researchers or anything, I think our scientific insights were pretty profound. Call it the Waitress Theory of Relativity:

If we somehow managed to get rid of all the JAWS who are currently making us miserable, then someone whose never done a nasty thing in the past, would be required to turn Jerk. It has something to do with nature abhorring a vaccuum, or something like that. Thus it's better to hang onto our present Jerks, or at least a couple of them, because who knows? If they vanished, one of our most beloved friends--or even we ourselves must be forced into the role of designated Jerk.

But seriously, greater minds than ours are at work on the problem. From the aforementioned article in The Economist:

In a study of over 10,000 work relationships at five very different organisations, Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo, academics at Harvard Business School and the Fuqua School of Business respectively, found that (given the choice) people consistently and overwhelmingly prefer to work with a “lovable fool” than with a competent jerk.

Now that's what I call an interesting study. And I have to say that in most cases, I agree with the majority. I'll go with the lovable fool over the competent jerk any day. Or at least on most days. In fact, it pretty much depends on degrees. Exactly how foolish are we talking here? Jerks, too, definitely come in grades from 1-10. There are also situational Jerks--you know the type. Get them alone, and they're not all that bad. But put them with a couple of their Jerk cohorts, and they flare up like a roman candle. And then again, if EVERYONE in the workplace was a lovable fool, you might have a lot of fun, but nothing would ever get done. At that point, some previously inoffensive individual be required to step up and play the Jerk. See what I mean about the Waitress Theory? Those Harvard researcher dudes definitely need to have a chat with some of my friends...

Sunday, June 26, 2005


Image from PostSecret

Yeah, I've seen them around, but am not quite sure where they originated--or what the word means. (Sorry for flaunting my ignorance and I promise to go directly to as soon as I put up this post.) Anyway, I was so excited when Sinead Gleeson at Sigla passed me the meme baton. If you haven't read this on-line magazine from Ireland, please stop what you're doing and hit it right now. It's fun, it's provocative, and they even published one of my poems! Yay, Sigla!

You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book do you want to be?
I recently had a little contest on my Waitress blog. The idea was to name a book that changed your life, and everybody who entered won. (I was never much into competition.) At any rate, one of the winners selected Little Women, and her reasons reminded me of how wonderful it had been to inhabit that book, that imaginary household. So if I had to memorize a book and live inside it, I'd have to become the fifth sister in the March family. Who knows? Maybe the ever wise Marmee could even straighten my ass out and convince me to make something of myself.

Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?

I named my first child after Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd, so what does that tell you? But seriously, Sinead took all the best one. I was so in love with Heathcliffe that I spent years looking for him. Unfortunately, all the Heathcliffes I found weren't just romantically tortured, they were seriously whacked out. That's when I started to go for the upstanding citizen types like Mr. Darcy. But once again, I came away disappointed. My Mr. Darcys were never quite as nice as Jane Austens.
Though I live for books and frequently find life inside a book cover more rewarding than the trials of the so-called real world, when it comes to men, my husband is way better than any of my literary crushes.

The last book you bought is?

Edges by Leora Skokin-Smith, a little gem of a book. Highly recommended. And in the same order I also got, Meditations from a Movable Chair by Andre Dubus. I haven't read it yet, but anything by Dubus has got to be good.

What are you currently reading?

Baker Towers by Jennifer Haigh. Great storytelling and a lot of insight into the way that small town life enriches and crushes all at once.

Five books you would take to a deserted island

I love this question!
1. If I was stuck on a desert island, I'd need some spiritual perspective, so I'd probably pack Meister Eckhart, from Whom God Hid Nothing.

2. Since I can't fall asleep without reading a novel, I'd take The Brothers Karamazov. It's so long and deep that no matter how many years I was stuck on that island, I'd always have my bedside reading.

3. Mary Oliver's New and Selected Poems.

4. Czeslaw Milosz's Crossing the River. I've read these poems over so many times, I might as well have been on a desert island with them.

The Kabir Book: 44 of the Ecstatic Poems of Kabir, translated by Robert Bly. My copy is so old and battered that the price on the cover is $3.95. You can barely get a cup of coffee for that price now, and I've been feasting on Kabir's ecstasy since I was fifteen. Talk about a bargain. In fact, I love these poems so much, I have to share one right now:

Inside the clay jug there are canyons and pine
mountains, and the maker of canyons and pine
All seven oceans are inside, and hundreds of millions
of stars.
The acid that tests gold is there, and the one who
judges jewels.
And the music from the strings no one touches, and
the source of all water.

If you want the truth, I will tell you the truth:
Friend listen: The god I love is inside.

Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?
I'm going to pass the meme to writers Laura Wellner and Tsipi Keller, two very different writers who both have a lot of interesting and original things to say.
And to my friend, Rona, because over the years, we've pssed everything from boyfriends to clothes to gossip to poetry back and forth. Why not a meme?

Saturday, June 25, 2005


Photograph by Anna Marie Panlilio "Homesliced" via flickr

CATEGORY: Various forms of bliss

Just posted my poem "Tango Junkie" on my other blog, and it made me feel kind of nostalgic for an activity I don't do as much as I used to. When I was about twelve, the first thing I did when I woke up was turn on my tinny sounding stereo, and leap out of bed. My mother says I never simply walked out of my room. I danced out. And she could tell my mood by the energy of the dance.

I danced as I moved around the house thinking about boys. I danced as I pondered the poems I wanted to write, and later, when responsibility crashed down on me (or tried to) I danced as I cleaned the house or held a colicky baby in the middle of the night. (Babies have a natural affinity for dance.)

I'm quite sure that if I live to be 100 as I hope to (there being so many things on this wonderful earth that I've yet to do) I'll be dancing. Dancing with my walker. Dancing in a wheelchair. Moving my baby finger to the music if that's the only thing I've got left to shake.

Tomorrow's Sunday, and whether you worship within the walls of a church, mosque or temple, or whether you just worship in a field or on the beach or in your own little room, whether you dance like a sufi, or kneel on your prayer mat, or sing in a choir,I hope you worship. For one thing, worship reminds us of our place in the world. It informs us of both our incredible importance and our absolute lack of it. And done right, worshipping something greater than ourselves--whatever that may be-- just feels good.

Thursday, June 23, 2005


CATEGORY: Reading and Writing
Photograph by "Codfisch" via flickr
What does much of contemporary poetry have to do with the fish pictured above?

1. It's dead.
2. It doesn't smell all that good.
3. (And most important) the soul left the body long ago.

First of all, let me make one thing clear: I'm not saying I have all the answers--or that my poetry is any better than anything else out there. As a poet living in the year 2005, I'm eating at the same cafeteria as everyone else. What I am saying is that I haven't been feeling all that nourished by a lot of the stuff that's being served up.

All right, maybe I'm exaggerating; maybe I'm out to lunch (always a possibility.) Maybe contemporary poetry is alive and well, thank you very much. The evidence, however, says otherwise. Exhibit A: ain't nobody reading it. Nobody, that is, except card holding members of the Poet's Club.

Now I'm sure that having a little elite club is a lot of fun. Making rules, screening members, telling little insider jokes and stories that no one else gets--it's gotta be a real hoot. But there's one problem: that kind of shit is anathema to poetry. Absolutely kills it, and extracts the soul with surgical efficiency.

And yet I believe the desire, the hunger, the need for poetry is as strong as ever. It's just that the potential audience has been fed so many dead fish, they've stopped showing up for dinner. Give them a poem by Mary Oliver or Czeslaw Milosz, something that lifts them up, spins them around, and drops them on the ground feeling a little more enriched than they were before they entered the poetry cafeteria. My guess is that they'll be lined up with trays in hand, looking for more.

So what's the problem with (a lot of) contemporary poetry?

1. The battlefield is thick with snobs, exclusive members of the Dead Fish Club to which the uninvited need not apply. And basically, you can't put poetry and snobbery in the same room without having a fight break out. Or put more simply:

Poetry expands.
Snobbery contracts.

Make a choice.

2. Now, I've got nothing against making friends; likeminded poets have always done that. But for my money (which as any one who'se seen the balance in my checkbook lately can tell you, ain't much) these folks are way too cliquish. They're s busy slapping the right backs, stroking the right egos, and giving each other prizes they've forgotten what it's all about. In other words:

Cliques exclude.
Poetry's got the door wide open.

Make a choice.

2. A lot of these poet people are way too cool for their own good. Or put into another equation:
Poetry is white hot.
Dead fish are as cool as it gets.

Make a choice.

3. Great poetry arises from great souls. I have no equation for that, but if anyone finds one, please let me know.


You know what? I think there is. And that hope is the web. It's democratic, it's white hot, it's a worldwide explosive convergence of souls.


"The Lesson" by Natalie d'Arbeloff (see sidebar for link) Her description of this work:

It is not a dream
A giant blue bird appears
And follows Augustine everywhere.

The giant bird sits in the bathtub with Augustine.She says:
What is the meaning of this?
The bird answers:
You are forgetting to be amazed.
The figures are reflected in the mirror.

A tiny crystal ball sits on a ledge behind a gold frame. Looking through the frame you can read the message:
Don't forget.

CATEGORY: Religious and Poetic Ecstasy

Because it's summer, and the sky is particularly brilliant today, we need to talk about swimming. And we need to talk about amazement. To that end, I bring you Polish poet, Adam Zagajewski, one of the voices I turn to when I need to soar.


The rivers of this country are sweet
as a troubadour's song,
the heavy sun wander westward
on yellow circus wagons.
Little village churches
hold a fabric of silence so fine
and old that even a breath
could tear it.
I love to swim in the sea, which keeps
talking to itself
in the monotone of a vagabond
who no longer recalls
exactly how long he's been on the road.
Swimming is like prayer:
palms join and part,
join and part,
almost without end.

Adam Zagajewski

Wednesday, June 22, 2005



Photograph by Ted Lukac

We begin life thinking that time is something solid, something we can measure with clocks and calendars, something we can manage, use, save, waste or master, according to our inclinations. But somewhere along the way, we discover that the endless summer of childhood is a whisper we almost missed, a breeze that disappeared as soon as it arrived for adults.

Thus begins the quest to make time behave as it should--or to "use it wisely," as my elementary teachers used to warn. In parent teacher conferences, they always said I didn't, that I was staring out the window when I was supposed to be learning my time tables. What they didn't understand was the visions I was storing up as I stared into the trees at the edge of the playground, the ragged sky beyond them.

I wonder if those old teachers would be impressed to know I have spent my life trying to heed their advice--though not with much luck. Despite my best efforts to use, manage and master my hours, I remain the child who is caught looking out the window when important lessons are being taught.

Still, I am dazzled and inspired by Ben Franklin--especially for the schedule that was the framework for such an amazing life. When I remember to do so, I ask myself his question in the morning: What good shall I do today? Quickly followed by the writers version: What good shall I write today?

It has yet to turn me into Ben, Jr., but each morning when the sun rises, I get another chance to try again.

Benjamin Franklin's "Scheme of Employment for the Twenty-four Hours of a natural Day"

(From B. Franklin's Autobiography)
The Morning Question,
What Good Shall I do This Day?
5 - 7 Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness;Contrive Day's Business and take the
Resolution of the Day ; prosecute the present Study : and breakfast?

8-12 Work

12-1 Read, or overlook my Account, and dine.

1-6 Work

6-9 Put things in their Places, Supper, Music, or Diversion, or Conversation,
Examination of the Day.

Evening Question: What Good have I done to day ?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005


(Image from PostSecret)

After Peter Kramer wrote the groundbreaking and highly readable Listening to Prozac, millions of depressives who'd been suffering to various degrees for years were convinced that SSRIs could not only relieve their melancholy, it could alter their personalities. Hell, it might even make them richer and more sexually attractive in the bargain. (Look what just talking about them did for Peter Kramer!) In many ways, the drugs proved to be the miracle that Kramer touted. But not a panacea. Not a cure. Sometimes they stopped working. Thus, the phrase "Prozac poop out" was born. And sometimes the side effects were worse than the disease.

There were even side effects to writing about them. One that afflicted Kramer was a question that was thrown at him wherever he went" What if Van Gogh had taken anti-depressants?" In fact, he heard the question or a variant of it so often, and was so annoyed by it, that he wrote an entire book in response. About Depression is a fairly interesting read, but it's basically an article expanded to book length. After reading it, I would summarize his answer to the question this way:

Depression is an illness, dammit--not a romantic state of mind. And like diabetes or epilepsy or any other disease, it should be treated.

As someone who is familiar with both depression and creativity, I agree. And yet, no one can deny the connection between the melancholic temperament and the urge to create art. The way I see it, it's as simple and logical as a mathematical equation. It goes something like this:

Look too deeply into the human condition and you're gonna get a little bummed.
Spend too much time in the depths of melancholy, you start looking for a way to claw your way out. That's when you pick up pen, paint brush, saxophone, and start to howl.

And then, there's what I call the "artist's lifestyle equation:"

Spend most of your days alone with your "work," a product that the world does not know it needs, and doesn't hestitate telling you so and you're gonna get pretty damn depressed--even if you weren't before.

That's the life of the artist. It's the proverbial vicious cycle--and somewhere in the middle of the cycle lies the gift, large or small, which the artist gives to the world, or just to herself.

So what if Van Gogh had taken anti-depressants? He probably would have enjoyed life more--though its obvious from his swirling ecstatic visions that in his highs, he experienced the kind of bliss that few know. But if he'd had access to Prozac, he might have been more fun at parties, maybe would have even lived longer. But would he have been less creative? I don't think so. I don't even think it would have prevented him from cutting off his ear. (There are always bad days.) For one thing, as I said before, Prozac has its limitations. It mitigates but doesn't cure. And besides, once you've known the depths, the insight stays with you. The insight and the urge to show and tell what you've seen.

Speaking of depression, apparently Nick Hornby, (one of my personal favorites) has recently penned a novel about the subject. I haven't read A Long Way Down yet so I can't comment on it. All I can say is that if Hornby hadn't previously experienced the affliction he was writing about, yesterday's review by Michiko Kakutani in the NYT
would definitely give him an opportunity to do so. Apparently, the novel is about a group of depressed people who've gathered on a rooftop to commit suicide. The reviewer calls it "a maudlin bit of tripe," and repeats the phrase "sappy and predictable" a couple of times just to make sure we get it. Ouch. Pass the Prozac, or at least a double shot of Jack Daniels.

Like I say, I haven't read the book so I'm in no position to disagree with her criticism. What I can disagree with is the blithe way with which she dismisses suicidal depression. Why don't these people just go get counselling or take anti-depressants? Kakutani wants to know. Well, for one thing, Michiko, people who are that depressed frequently feel so hopeless that they don't have the will to pick up the phone. And secondly, that shit doesn't always work. Just goes to prove that sometimes even highfalutin literary critics can ramble on like Dr. Phil. Err, what was that she said about sappy and predictable?

Sunday, June 19, 2005


Category: Religious and Poetic Ecstasy

From the DIGHA NIKAYA translated by Maurice Walshe:

Put away all hindrances, let your mind full of love pervade one quarter of the world, and so too the second quarter, and so the third and so the fourth. And thus the whole wide world above, below, around and everywhere, altogether continue to pervade with love filled thought, abounding, sublime, beyond measure, free from love and ill will.

Saturday, June 18, 2005


Category: Sanity vs. Madness (See 'This is a blog about...")

Edmund White has a piece entitled "My Women" in this week's New Yorker which I found particulary unsettling. The following paragraphs, in particular, hit a nerve:

From my mother I learned just how violent and unquenchable a woman’s loneliness can be. She had been sheltered excessively by her husband and then, midway through her life, they divorced, and she was forced to earn her own living. It was as if after hobbling around with bound feet she were suddenly unbandaged and told to become a marathon runner. She made her way professionally, and she took pleasure in that success, but she spent her evenings suffering beside a silent phone, drinking highballs and listening to the same sad record. Watching her, I came to think of men as monsters with absolute power, the darlings of the Western world, and of women as their unfortunate victims.

Unhappy women! How many of them I’ve known. Sniffling or drinking with big reproachful eyes, silent or complaining, violent or depressed—a whole tribe of unhappy women have always surrounded me

Why was I, who consider myself a happy woman, so disturbed by White's vision of female misery? Because, if I'm honest, I have to say, I've seen the "unquenchably lonely" creature he describes in the mirror a few times. I've drunk her "highballs;" I've listened to her sad records; I've stared through her reproachful eyes at some poor man who wanted nothing but to escape my needs. Not often or even recently, but I've been her--and she terrifies me as much as she scares the men who are the recipient of those reproaches.

Violent. Depressed. Unquenchably lonely. She is the poet who penned Ariel and then put her head in the oven, and also the one Anne Sexton tried to ward off with her poems, but who won in the end. She is the one who lost the ability to look outward, because the fire within was so consuming.

Unhappy woman. Lonely woman. Woman with her highballs and her sad records and her silent phone and worst of all, those reproachful eyes. I would like to disown you, to say I'm not like you and never will be. But I can't--not entirely.

Meanwhile, in the Reading and Writing department, I've recently posted about The Perfect Job for a Writer on my other blog. Obviously, I'm still searching for it. Any suggestions?

Thursday, June 16, 2005


CATEGORY: Reading and Writing

One of my favorite novels is Felicia's Journey by William Trevor. And for one who reads as avidly--and sometimes as recklessly--as as a food addict at an all you can eat buffet, it's not easy to name favorites. Though Trevor is more acclaimed for his short stories, this novel moved me more than any of his shorter pieces. It is that rare work of fiction that lingers in the mind and heart long after the book has been returned to the shelf. Maybe it's folly to believe that a novel can actually change us, but I don't think so. I believe that a book like Felicia's Journey, which almost sings with compassion for its tragically flawed characters, one of whom is a serial killer, might actually expand our capacity for mercy.

Another such book of mercy is The Bright Forever by Lee Martin, which I finished last night. This novel also deals with
the worst among us--a man who chooses to act out his own pain and rejection by murdering a child. Outside the pages of novels, we frequently refer to such men as "monsters," disowning their darkness by casting them out of the human family. But Martin will have none of our distancing. He makes us look directly into the face of his killer, and what we see is something as ordinary as bread, as familiar as the stranger who smiled at us in the hardware store this morning, or the one who startled us in the bathroom mirror when we caught a glimpse of ourselves in the middle of the night.

Told from multiple viewpoints, The Bright Forever probes the consciousness of both the "good people" and those who do great evil. He finds more disparity between their circumstances than in their hearts' capacity to hold darkness. In his refusal to turn away from or give up on any of his characters, Martin, like Trevor before him, has given us an idea of the kind of book God would write if he were a novelist.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


CATEGORY: Reading and Writing

Okay, let's play school. I'll be the teacher and you'll sit in one of those little desk/chair combo units with your knees folded close to your chin and be the students.
Ready? Well, so am I. I've got my horn rims on and my chalk in hand and I'm about to write your assignment on the virtual blackboard:

Go get a copy of The New Yorker's latest fiction issue (June 13 and June 20th). Inside you'll find three stories by new writers, all looking fairly interesting. Don't read them. At least not yet. See the real crux of this assignment is finding out how readers make their choices.

First look at the titles in the table of contents. We've all heard about the importance of a catchy or apt title. So here they are:

"Haunting Olivia" by Karen Russell

"An Ex-Mas Feast" by Uwem Akpan

"The Laser Age" by Justin Tussing

Which would you turn to first? I placed them in the order that they appealed to me by title alone (which also happens to be the order they appear in the table of contents.)

Then, if you're anything like you're hornrimmed teacher, you next turn to the Contributor's page to find out a little bit about the author before you make your decision. There you'll find:

Karen Russell is working on a novel and a short story collection.

Uwem Akpan is a Jesuit priest from Nigeria.

Justin Tussing is a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop and has a novel that will be published in February.

On that basis, I'm going with Akpan. An African Catholic priest? I'm expecting a unique voice, an opportunity to learn more about an underrepresented continent and maybe even some moral vision.

Then there is the final test. I read the first line of each story, and see which pulls me in first.

From "Haunting Olivia": "My brother, Wallow, has been kicking around Gannon's Boat Graveyard for more than an hour, too embarrassed to admit he doesn't see any ghosts.

From "An Ex-Mas Feast": "Now that my eldest sister was twelve, none of us knew how to relate to her anymore."

From "The Laser Age": "These days high schools look like pastel hued laboratories."

So here's the questions for the take home exam:

1. Which did you choose?

2. Why did you make your choice? Was it the title, the author, or the first line that influenced your decision?

3. Now's the hard part. Or the pleasurable part. Depends on how much you love to read. Read all three stories, and tell me if the one you were initially attracted to
turned out to be, in your estimation, the "best" of the three?

If anyone's willing to play, I'll be happy to turn over the horn rimmed glasses and the pointer, even my chalkboard, and squeeze myself into one of those desks. As always, your insights will be my teachers.

And speaking of reading choices, several readers have come back with their all time favorite books--and more importantly, the reasons why they loved them for MY FIRST LITERARY WAITRESS CONTEST. Anyone looking to rekindle a love affair with an old classic, or hoping to find a new summer read would be advised stop by.

Saturday, June 11, 2005


I'm sure there's no conspiracy involved here, but a woman with a man's name has also taken the Orange prize for short fiction. That's right, a twenty-three year old employed by Penguin named Sam Binnie won the award for her first published short story. I was about to pen a self-righteous diatribe about the stronghold that men still have on the literary world, when I decided it might be best to read the story first. One brief reading of "The Dress" immediately put my escalating paranoia to rest. If a man had written this story, he would have to be so totally attuned to the female psyche that no one could ever claim sexism in the choice.

The second time I read simply for pleasure. And this story about a woman's life told through short vignettes about the dresses she wore provides many pleasures--from the hopeful, but cautionary description of the dress she wore at seven, to the sad and yet ultimately luminous chapter that describes the garment she wears at forty-five. Clearly, both Sam and Lionel deserve to be read by men and women alike.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005


Lionel Shriver has won the Orange Prize for her novel, 'We Have to Talk about Kevin'. I find this interesting for a couple of reasons:

1. 'Kevin' isn't just a book literary people like. It's a novel that actual flesh and blood readers might also want to to give up a few hours of their life for. It has a fascinating premise: what happens when an ordinary couple give birth to a child who turns into a teenage psychopath? It also has a couple of crowd pleasing "Hitchcockian twists".

2. Lionel Shriver was born Margaret Ann, but as a teenager changed her name. Now, I'm not attributing her success to the name change, because as I've said, she's obviously earned it the old fashioned way--by writing a great book. However, with a recent study showing that women read books written by both sexes equally, while men tend to stick to work written by their own, writing under a man's name is a wise career move. If the study is accurate, that means Lionel automatically would have twice as many potential readers as Margaret Ann. In 2005! Hmmm...maybe I should consider a name change. I'd consider Patrick Francis, but that happens to be the name of my ex, and I doubt he wants to loan it out--especially to the likes of me. How about George Sand, Jr.?

Tuesday, June 07, 2005


I remember the first time I read a Tessa Hadley story in The New Yorker. It had sexy and unique characters (including one glamourous woman named Helly who I can still envision), insight, betrayal, and an ending that left me startled and enamored and wanting more. As it turned out, I got my wish. The "story" was actually an excerpt from Hadley's novel, Accidents in the Home, which I read as soon as it was released. And thoroughly enjoyed.

Thus, I was excited when I saw that Hadley's name in the table of contents in the June 6th issue of The New Yorker. The intriguing title, "A Mouthful of Cut Glass," further whetted my appetite. Unfortunately, that was where the excitement ended. This story about a couple from the seventies introducing one another to their parents was overly long and too uneventful for my blood. Neither the mildly interesting main characters, Sheila and Neil, nor their blandly flawed families, nor anything about the situation, sufficiently rewarded me for the time it took to read it. It begged the question: why should I care? And the answer is that I didn't. Or not enough. Sorry, Tessa. I'll read you again, but I won't be looking for the novel, from which I suspect this story is excerpted.

For another take on this story, check out Grendel's review on Earth Goat. In fact, I intend to head on over there right now myself. I wanted to read it as soon as it was posted, but didn't want to let it color my own review.


The best story I read last year was "Runaway" by Alice Munro. In a lot of ways, I wish I could name something else, something less predictable, something I might even introduce to a few new readers. But to quote Woody Allen, "The heart wants what it wants," and in my case, the heart can't deny Munro.

I not only remember the story, I remember where I was sitting in the house when I read it, and exactly how the light slanted across my Mexican tile floor, I remember the light in the story, too--fairly grey throughout, tragically golden at the end. I also recall the curving road between the narrator's house and the home of the story's protagonist, a woman who wants to leave her abusive husband but in the end, cannot bring herself to do so. That road, at once desolate and luminous, is one I have traveled often since I read the story. I remember, too, the chill that passed over me when I reached Munro's stunning ending. Immediately, I had to go and search out the nearest human being, and make him sit down in the very same spot where I had entered Munro country and read it.

"Runaway" is mysterious and multi-layered and beautiful. It is the best thing that a short story can be, a life eclipsed into a few short pages. And yet, I wonder if Munro were an unknown writer, and she forked over ten or fifteen bones to enter one of the many short story contests that offer $1000 prize and publication in some prestigioius journal, whether she would have a chance to win.

The reason for my doubt is this: despite its strength, "Runaway" is also traditional, realistic fiction. There are no particularly quirky characters strutting through the landscape, and the language, while lovely, never shows off or calls attention to itself. It serves the story rather than vice versa. In other words, "Runaway" has little in common with the kind of fiction that usually wins contests.

Not that I'm blaming the judges who have taken on the job of sifting through hundreds of competently written stories in search of one gem. No wonder the one that is most overtly "original" or iconoclastic is frequently the one selected. After reading coming-of-age or adultery stories till the mind freezes over, I, too, would probably seize upon the one that is simply different.

And yet, for this reader, the fact remains: there is nothing more original than a genuinely true voice.

While we're on the subject of stories that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up and salute (not to mention contests), over at I'M REALLY NOT A WAITRESS, I've instituted the first Literary Waitress Contest. Tell me about a book you didn't just admire, but actually loved in 500 words or less. You won't believe the prizes offered.

Meanwhile, "The Hero Speaks," a new excerpt from my novel, RACE POINT, was posted on line at VerbSap yesterday.

Friday, June 03, 2005


Yesterday, I was included in Lit Blogger IV, an e-Panel which was posted on the Emerging Writer's Network. In the interview, Dan Wickett managed to wheedle the truth out of me about my split personality. (Okay, he didn't wheedle a bit, I just spilled it.) But it's true. The wine sipping, poetry loving, full-of-her-own-high-minded-ideas proprietor of this site is also the loud mouth, gum snapping waitress who serves up coffee and conversation over at I'M REALLY NOT A WAITRESS. Though how long I will keep both blogs going, I'm really not sure. As anyone who's ever tried to keep one knows, a blog is like one of those jealous boyfriends who freak if you want a night out with the girls. What? You don't want to see me today? Who is the guy? I'll break him in two...

Well, in my case, there is someone else. My alter ego. My split self. And sometimes she talks a helluva lot louder than the chick who tends the Garden. (In fact, I think her voice has slipped into this post. The Gardener who was going on about Meister Eckhart yesterday would clearly never use the word chick)for instance.

So, read the interview! Not just because it contains hidden insights into my mental health or the lack therof, but it also contains interviews with nine other bloggers, whose excellent sites you may or may not have visited.

Meanwhile, I'm blaming the waitress for coming in here, changing the template to this blog, and somehow erasing all the links I worked so hard to set up in the process!

Thursday, June 02, 2005


One thing I don't think people talk about enough is that art--or specifically literature--if it's worth anything at all, is a thing of the soul. It may be witty, dazzlingly original, it may be a page turner; but if it doesn't in some way unlock the mystery of what it means to be alive on this earth, what's the point? We may enjoy it, we may admire it, but if we don't need it, it's just taking up space on a very crowded book shelf. With something like 400,000 books a year being published, I for one, only have time for the books I need.

What I found most interesting about Spengler's quote which I featured in the post called "the beautiful and the good" was his emphasis on the artist, not the art. In his view, it doesn't matter so much that the characters in a novel are humble or good or courageous, but that their creator is those things. A writer in possession of those rare virtues can enter the darkest regions of the human heart intrepidly. His or her own goodness cannot help but illuminate the night.

The mystic, Meister Eckhart, said this:

"A person who wishes to produce anything good should be like a man who draws a circle. Let him get the center in the right place and keep it so that the circumference will be good. In other words, let a man first learn to fix his heart on God and then whatever he creates will have virtue. But if a man's heart is unsteady, even the great things he does will be of little value."

And he also said this:

I never ask God to give himself to me. I ask him to purify, to empty me. If I am empty, God by his very nature is obliged to fill me.

How to be pure? By steadfast longing for the one good. How to acquire this longing? By self-denial. Self-knowledge is the way, for creatures are all nothing. They come to nothing through lamentations and bitterness.

Was he talking to writers and artists? To those who have ears to listen, the answer is clear.