Fiction Review: “If it is your life” by James Kelman

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RECOMMENDED ifitisyourlife

A few years back, The Guardian attempted to interview the Scottish Booker Prize winner James Kelman about his then-new novel “Kieron Smith, Boy.” The result was essentially an interrogative monologue by the interviewer, interspersed with Kelman’s “monosyllabic replies” and silences that were “long and Pinteresque.” Unfortunate for the interviewer, yes, but also no real surprise given Kelman’s writing, which dwells on the gaps between spoken words and the tangles of thought beneath them. As a character in his brilliant (if bleak) new collection “If it is your life” puts it, “Human beings are near the surface. Just scratch and that is us.”

Kelman’s work is all about this scratching, laying bare the inner lives of men and women in the margins as they have a pint or die alone or watch children build a raft to sail across a lake of detritus in the backcourt of a Glasgow tenement. His stories drop readers into the murky minds of working-class, often nameless, largely Glaswegian narrators who are plagued by intractable troubles that they cannot effectively convey to themselves or others. Read the rest of this entry »

A Writer of Place: Chicago Icon Stuart Dybek Returns With Not One, But Two Books at Once

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sdybekBy Brendan Buck

Stuart Dybek is a Chicago writer, through and through. He grew up on Chicago’s South side in the Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods in the fifties and sixties, and holds graduate degrees from both the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Loyola University. He is the author of two collections of poetry, “Brass Knuckles,” published in 1979, and “Streets in their Own Ink,” from 2004. Dybek is best known for his contributions to the short story form. His collections include the “The Coast of Chicago” from 1990 and “I Sailed With Magellan,” from 2003. These collections and the stories within laid out new rules for the short story. Call it flash fiction, call it micro fiction, call it brevity. Dybek is a master.

When I called Dybek, he was in the middle of rewriting a piece for  Lucky Peach, the themed food and writing quarterly magazine. During our chat we discussed flash fiction, the importance of place in his work, and the two collections he has out this June, “Paper Lantern: Love Stories” and “Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Stories,” both published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Can’t and Won’t” by Lydia Davis

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RECOMMENDED CantWont

Before starting “Can’t and Won’t,” I knew Lydia Davis as the translator of Proust’s “Swann’s Way,” the first of seven volumes of notoriously dense French modernism. My associating her with such long-windedness is of note because it points out one of the many oddities of Davis as a writer and thinker: she is, to many, best known for her “flash fiction,” stories that are sometimes as brief as a single sentence. Her output is diverse, ranging from startlingly short pieces to epic translations. Her new collection is a bold, brilliant showcase of her sundry talents, its contents a mesmerizing array of largely disconnected stories, letters and translations.

Cumulatively, these heterogeneous storytelling techniques create an atmosphere of disorientation and absurdity, while the shortest pieces, like commas in a long, nonsensical sentence, provide an essential rhythm and structure. They are reminiscent of Tweets or Facebook updates in their brevity and mundanity—qualities for which such writing is often denigrated. By creating tiny stories that stick with you, demand rereading, and appear amid more conventional pieces, however, Davis challenges widely-held beliefs regarding the content, length and purpose of “highbrow” fiction. Read the rest of this entry »

Rewriting the Adolescent Narrative: Megan Milks on “Kill Marguerite”

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photo: Megan Milks

Photo: Megan Milks

By Anne Yoder

I first encountered Megan Milks’ work when we were both fledgling critics for PopMatters. Her writing stood out as intelligent, daring and quite promiscuous in its range of ideas. She went on to found the zine “Mildred Pierce” and contribute to the avant-lit blog Montevidayo. And I’m still reading her today.

Milks’ stories in her debut collection “Kill Marguerite” draw influence from cultures both high and low, from Homer and Joyce to video games and teen magazine columns. They never sit quietly, but rather unsettle convention and defy expectation. In fact, the moment you think you know what’s happening, the story opens into an unexpected black hole, thrusting you into a passage that devours and reconfigures expectations. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Bark” by Lorrie Moore

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RECOMMENDED BARK

Lorrie Moore is widely regarded as one of our greatest living American writers, and for good reason. Her short stories are exquisite examples of the form, and her long-awaited collection “Bark” is no exception. The worst thing about it is, at 192 pages, it’s a bit on the short side. All of Moore’s stories move brilliantly between the individual and the universal. One way she does this is by referencing current events, like the day Michael Jackson died, or the night before the Abu Ghraib prison photos broke. LikeA Gate at the Stairs,” which is very much a post-9/11 novel, the characters in “Bark” continue to be worried by the war, both its effects and its non-effects on us. “Debarking” takes place in the GW Bush era. ‘“You’re supposed to give things up for Lent. Last year we gave up our faith and reason; this year we are giving up our democratic voice, our hope,’” says one character. In “Debarking,” Ira, a newly divorced dad, begins dating a woman and also, essentially, her son. Moore skewers indulgent modern parenting (“Oh, we couldn’t leave Bruno here alone. He’s only sixteen.”) and childhood education (Ira’s daughter studies the stock market while finger-knitting). Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “A Schoolboy’s Diary And Other Stories” by Robert Walser

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RECOMMENDED schoolboysdiary

Robert Walser might be hailed the forgotten modernist. Beyond academic circles and lovers of German literature, the reverberations of the Swiss writer are scantly felt in the English-speaking world. They are more easily perceived through the writers he influenced: Kafka, Hesse and Musil. Here is an artist who, rather than demand the special attention of the reader to appreciate a fierce, innovative style, writes from an absolutely basic level of prose. His devices are by no means a destruction, or of themselves a statement. His only tragedy, if he can be accused of having one, was being born with too big of a heart.

“A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories” is a collection of short pieces translated by Damion Searls, many appearing for the first time in English. Searls’ selection spans twenty-six years, from Walser’s first work in print “Greifen Lake” (1898) to “A Model Student,” (1925) a piece from his last book “The Rose.” The work is divided into three sections—first is “The Essays of Fritz Kocher,” the essays of a recently deceased schoolboy, followed by an expansive collection of short stories, topics ranging from adultery to military service to the life of an artist and finally, his sensual odyssey through nature, “Hans.” Read the rest of this entry »

Free As A Bird: Debut Author Janice Deal on “The Decline of Pigeons”

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By Sarah Cubalchini janicedeal

Janice Deal’s debut, “The Decline of Pigeons,” is a short-story collection about broken people amidst the turmoil of loss, from a woman trying to rebuild herself after losing her arm to a man haunted by the memory of letting his daughter be bitten by a vicious dog.

Even though Deal was always interested in writing, it took enrolling in Fred Shafer’s Adult Continuing Education writing class at Northwestern University to start pursuing her fiction. When Deal received an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship for Prose, she took a sabbatical from her day job and went to Paris to focus on her writing. Ever since, she’s been publishing short stories in literary journals like The Sun, CutBank, StoryQuarterly, and The Carolina Quarterly. “The Decline of Pigeons” was selected as a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Read the rest of this entry »

“I Have Chicago to Thank”: Lindsay Hunter on Finding Her Voice and “Don’t Kiss Me”

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By Erin Nederbo HunterLindsaycZachDodson

Gritty and oftentimes unsettling, Lindsay Hunter’s new short-story collection, “Don’t Kiss Me,” features a cast of fierce and lonely characters: there’s Peggy Paula, who admires the popular girls from afar while she works the night shift at Perkins;  a defeated woman who obsesses over a candle-store clerk and the son she never knew; a teenage girl who finds meaning on the bench seat of a boy’s pick-up truck and on the mouth of a shop teacher; the grown adult who believes a nine-year old is her boyfriend. Through these faces, Lindsay captures a unique, overarching sense of place in the mundane Circle Ks, Dairy Queens and school dance halls of America. Even the nameless characters in  “Don’t Kiss Me” are as tangible and unforgettable as their grim realities.

Hunter, who is currently working on a novel for FSG Originals, is also the author of “Daddy’s” and the co-founder and co-host of Quickies, a Chicago based flash-fiction reading series.

I had the opportunity to chat on the phone a few weeks before “Don’t Kiss Me” was published. We discussed how Chicago has influenced her work, her writing process, and what it’s like working with a “big press.” Read the rest of this entry »

Save Us From Triviality: Catching Up with George Saunders after “Tenth of December”

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By Brendan Buck CT george_saunders02.jpg

George Saunders is a number of things. He’s a writer, a professor at Syracuse University and a MacArthur Fellow (aka “genius”). His newest collection, “Tenth of December,” has made him into a New York Times best-selling author. But “Tenth” is only one of several notable collections, which include “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,” “In Persuasion Nation” and “Pastoralia.” But despite having one hell of a pedigree, George Saunders remains humble and approachable, and was willing to shoot emails back and forth with me over a weekend on voice, process and genre.

You tend to wear your influences on your sleeve. Your teacher Tobias Wolff is an obvious one, but you’ve also written at length about how Vonnegut changed your idea about what literature was. In the writing, what ways do you feel your influences have expressed themselves?
I’m actually not sure. There are a lot of questions that the writer himself probably doesn’t think much about, or the answer to which he can’t really articulate. I think influence works like this: you are madly casting about for something to love, so you know better how to direct your energy. Something suitable arrives. You wallow in it. It gets into your DNA. Then you tire of it and move on. Over and over. And then, at the end, all of the things that are “you” have been filtered through these various influences. And you are changed, both as a writer and a person—but in thousands of ways that are too subtle to describe, except in very broad terms. That is, I don’t think the sum change could necessarily be described. And, from a creative standpoint, there’s probably not all that much value in describing it, if you see what I mean. My guess is, we are attracted to writers who are doing something that it is in our nature to do—so we imitate them for awhile so that we can eventually distinguish what in us is different from them—and move on accordingly. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War” edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton

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FireForgetRECOMMENDED

To those who have lived in the era that began with 9/11, it could be described as a constant state of war against an enemy, nebulous at best, called “Terror.” The longest sustained conflict the United States has been involved in, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been wars largely invisible to the American people. There are televised reports, written articles, blogs and photo essays, but unless you’re a soldier or an immediate acquaintance of one, it exists solely in bits of information from 6,000 miles away. Documentaries and Hollywood dramatizations, too, have sought to capture the grit and soul of the wars, but can’t offer us the most important glimpse—confessional storytelling, rather than a cluster of absurd images from the front lines. Nothing brings the reality of war home like hearing it from the hearts and minds of those who experienced it.

“Fire and Forget” arrives at just the right time, when the last vestiges of conflict fall away. It’s a time when we confront, as a nation, what has been accomplished and at what cost. What this selection of stories shows isn’t contained to combat itself but to home life and life before deployment. There are soldiers, Marines, an army spouse, a Baghdad school teacher—editors Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher have not only compiled an excellent diversity of experiences and vantage points into the war, but also a list of accomplished and gifted writers. Read the rest of this entry »