New Year, New Books

So I decided to do one of those Goodreads reading challenges.  I’m not usually keen on giving myself MORE things to feel anxious about, but it would be pretty hard to make reading a tedious experience.  My goal for 2016 is 50 books.

So I thought I’d share the very first book I finished this year, which is just about the best damn poetry book I’ve read in a while.

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limon is a phenomenal collection for poetry-lovers and poetry-phobes alike.  That is no small feat.  The poems are accessible without being simplistic and sincere without being mawkish.  They are beautiful, lovely tendrils creeping into your darkest places.  You will wind up re-reading poems to experience the thrill of her imagery and the killer lines again and again.

Buy here: http://milkweed.org/shop/product/373/

 


A month of thanks

I’ve seen people doing a month of thankfulness before on Facebook (which I guess says how old I am… I haven’t figured out the whole Tumblr thing, and by the time I do, there will be a new thing).  It always looked appealing, but by the time I thought about it, November was halfway over.  I have to remind myself between the non-stop classes and grading and meetings to just look up at the damn changing leaves this time of year.  Anyway, my super flippin’ awesome department hosted a reading for me at the local coffeehouse on November 1st, which reminded me how grateful I am.  So it’s been a week and I’ve been writing about a new thing I’m thankful for each day, some of them big (like the people in my life) and some of them small (like coffee).

The first thing I had to get over was writing about my feelings.  Like, at all.  I much prefer the status update equivalent of a bro fist bump.  And then I wondered how long it would take to run out of things.  But so far, it seems life is pretty good, so I think I’ve got another couple weeks of statuses.  I also thought it would be tedious for people to see on their news feed, like someone taking photos of their dinner Every. Single. Night. but that hasn’t been the case either.  Someone actually stopped me in the hallway at work to tell me how much they enjoyed seeing the updates.  (And, of course, Facebook has implemented the immensely helpful ‘unfollow’ feature for anyone saying ‘Oh My God, Mel Reddish, enough with the thanks’ but who doesn’t want to take the seemingly aggressive step of unfriending me.)

The other day, after watching some TV and stopping by a few stores and then scrolling through Facebook, I realized the cacophony that now surrounds the holidays.  It’s more than just commercialization, thought that’s part of it.  It’s just a wall of noise that builds to a hyper-anxious crescendo leading up to Christmas.  So maybe small things, like a moment of thankfulness on social media, can help winnow down the holiday experience to a more reasonable, palatable one.  The feeling we want to have rather than the feelings that are foisted upon us.

Regardless, it’s been a good experience so far, and, fingers crossed that my short-term memory holds, one I will keep doing.


And in my other life…

I’ve been serving on a hiring committee for my small, rural community college, and I can now identify the biggest mistakes I’ve seen in applications.

1.)  Focus on your teaching, not your publications

Most community colleges don’t operate on a publish or perish model.  We care about your teaching– your passion, your dedication, your innovation.  If you can’t speak cogently about teaching composition, this may not be the position for you.

2.)  If you can talk about community colleges, great, but don’t force it.

Whatever realistic connection you can make to the community college experience in your cover letter will enhance your resume, but we don’t want a bunch of hot air.

3.)  Nobody cares about your dissertation.

It sucks– after so many years and buckets of wine and two new nervous ticks, you want to talk about this mammoth undertaking, but unless it’s directly relevant to your teaching, nobody cares.

4.)  Manage your tone

It is obvious when a person feels the position they’re applying for is beneath them.  Why even bother?

5.)  Don’t have egregious grammatical errors

I feel like this one should be obvious, but here we are.

6.)  Tailor your cover letter to the college you’re applying to

Another point that seems obvious, but I read so many form cover letters that were clearly being sent to every available position.  Say something specific about the institution you’re applying to.  It is more work, but if you get a call back, it’ll be worth it.

7.)  But when you do tailor your cover letter, don’t shoot for the moon

While I appreciate you scanning our catalog for classes you can teach, don’t just identify all the upper-level classes.  Classes are usually taken by seniority, so you will probably have a lot of composition classes to begin.

8.)  If you don’t get a call back, don’t take it personally.  There are dozens and dozens and dozens of applicants for a single position, all with amazing credentials.

It’s tough out there for higher ed faculty, especially in English.  But every little bit helps, right?


Review 3: Ryan Call’s Weather Stations

The Sky is Falling:

A Review of Ryan Call’s The Weather Stations

In Season Six of Doctor Who, one of the most highly anticipated episodes was written by Neil Gaiman, the author known for his Sandman series along with his novels like American Gods and Coraline.  In this episode, the Doctor and his companions Amy and Rory crash land on an asteroid in an alternate universe.  During this episode, we learn that the asteroid is a sentient planet that has trapped the soul of the TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space, or the blue police box that is a time machine) in a woman.

This is a perfect example of what Gaiman does so well: personify an abstract concept, such as Death, Desire, and Dream in Sandman and media and celebrity in American Gods.  Of course, this only works if an author can figure out what makes an abstract concept human.  In the case of the TARDIS, we see her child-like acquisition of language and her relationship with the doctor, one that quickly resembles an old married couple who bicker about which way the TARDIS’s door opens and who stole whom.  We can also see how a time machine has trouble inhabiting a body that experiences time in a linear fashion, as she constantly references things that will happen in the future.  (Her first words are goodbye and her last are hello.)

All of this is a long way of introducing Ryan Call’s superb collection of stories, Weather Stations, in which the weather is not just a convenient backdrop but often a living organism that acts as metaphor and antagonist.  In many of the stories, the weather is a hostile, unpredictable force that characters must constantly struggle against.  Some characters attempt to wield the destructive force as a weapon (“Anvil”), while others patch the crumbling holes in the sky (“The Architect’s Apprentice”), and still others build low-lying structures to avoid infringing on the weather’s space (“Windswept”).

Impressively, Ryan Call uses meteorological terminology without becoming repetitive or requiring the reader to get a degree in meteorology.  In “The Walker Circulation,” people take on the characteristics of weather patterns— a cool, rainy logic or a hot, sandstorm passion.  When the little boy Walker is born, his parents “anxiously shook him into the atmosphere of the living room, let him develop, watched him convect amid the cushions of the couch.”  Call also provides enough specific detail to render these worlds believable, especially with regard to distinct weather patterns.  Later on, Walker’s parents discover “the violent origins of lightning and thunder,” which are the consequences of “his parents’ colliding fronts.”

But like the Doctor Who episode, what makes these stories so successful is how achingly human they are.  The hyperbolic weather patterns allow Ryan Call to investigate essential human relationships in new ways.  In “I Pilot My Bed Deep Into the Night,” the young narrator watches his brother fly off to war and must deal with the fear and uncertainty that comes from watching a family member leave to fight a conflict they may not return from.  In “The Walker Circulation” two parents must come to terms with the imminent and unavoidable death of their child, while in “Age Hung Us Out to Dry,” two children must deal with the disappearance of their father.  In all of these stories, the weather becomes metaphor for all of those unpredictable forces in our lives that render our relationships asunder: time, war, emotional distance, death.  And it is this fact that gives these stories such emotional resonance.  Just like Sarah Rose Etter, another young author recently published by Caketrain, Ryan Call is someone to watch out for, a writer whose staggering emotional maturity and depth can only deepen with time.


Review 2: Ethel Rohan’s Cut Through the Bone

Plumb the Depths:

The Beautiful Precision of Ethel Rohan’s Cut Through the Bone

In Act I of Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is growing increasingly upset at his lack of accomplishment.  At sixty years old, he is working on commission, he can’t manage to pay his bills without borrowing money from his neighbor, and his son Biff is working odd jobs on ranches out West, directionless.  Willy bemoans the current state of life to his wife, Linda.  He has been working his entire life and it has all added up to nothing.  Even when they finally pay off their house, there will be nobody to live in it, to which Linda replies, “Well, dear, life is a casting off.  It’s always that way.”

Few writers understand this truth better than Ethel Rohan in her collection of stories, Cut Through the Bone.  In each story, Rohan explores characters that have spent their lives gathering husbands and lovers and children and limbs and then losing them one by one.  Rohan explores each loss deftly, with a depth that hardly seems possible considering each story’s concision.  In the story “All There, Waiting,” a husband and wife have lost a child, and the husband cannot understand the wife’s desire to get on with their lives.  As she does so well throughout the collection, Rohan transforms an innocuous detail into an emotional revelation for both the character and the reader.  “He is craving cheese.  String cheese.  Something he can peel and peel.  He does not want to eat the cheese.  He wants to smear the cheese on the mural, over the boy, park, fish, and truck.”  Some characters seek solace from the emptiness—a grandmother draws a face on a balloon, a woman orders lifelike baby dolls to care for, another woman wears bright red lipstick and a wig to appease the woman in her chest—while others face the void head-on, like the narrator of “On the Loose,” a pitch-perfect story that evokes a scene of random cruelty and terror.

To my surprise, I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy not so much in the subject matter but in the economy of language and intensity of emotion that never veers into melodrama or preciousness.  The thirty stories in this collection take up merely 112 pages, and though many could be considered flash fiction, averaging between one and a half to two pages, each story contains a clear character arc and an emotional revelation.  The joy of peeling away each emotional layer approaches the divine origin of James Joyce’s epiphany.  In fact, the title of the collection, Cut Through the Bone, is an eloquent exhortation to all writers to slice into the very core of their characters in order to reach that empty space that we try to fill with the meaningless chatter of late-night television and summer blockbusters and endless Twitter updates.  Do not shy away from the emptiness that thrums in all of us.  Plumb the depths and see what soft-bodied animals emerge.


Review 1: Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party

With Emprise Review shutting its electronic doors, I decided to post the reviews I wrote for that publication.  There really isn’t much point to it– all the books have been out for a while and are doing quite well– but some part of me wanted these to exist, madly clutching their 1s and 0s.

So here we go!

Down the Rabbit Hole:

A Review of Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party

When I first received Sarah Rose Etter’s Tongue Party in the mail, I knew nothing about it other than it had won the 2010 Caketrain chapbook competition.  In hindsight, I’m extremely glad I knew nothing about this collection, because watching each beautiful, terrifying, utterly bizarre story unfold is part of what makes reading this cohesive collection so enjoyable.

Reading each story is a delightful trip down the rabbit hole.  Many of the female protagonists live in worlds ruled by the dizzying logic of nightmares, struggling against situations beyond their control.  In the title story, the protagonist must attend the tongue party, because, well, she must.  While later we learn more about the relationship between the narrator and her father (one of several characters who abuses a position of authority and trust), the narrator never stands up and says, “No, I will not attend the tongue party.”  The tongue party is as central to her reality as going to the DMV is in ours, and through it, we are able to experience the rawness of her fear and her desire for love.  In fact, at no point does any character question the reality they find themselves in; like dreams, we don’t realize something is amiss while the dream is happening.  And because Etter builds each world with such detailed, logical precision, we as readers don’t question what is happening either.

But each story is more than just a central conceit taken to its logical conclusion.  All of the stories examine those base, fundamental desires that drive us—lust, hunger, despair, addiction.  In “Koala Tide,” the first story that sets the tone of the entire collection, a young girl is waiting for the koala tide: “I knew once the koalas came, things would be different.”  Etter skillfully evokes the certainty inherent in childhood that things will be better tomorrow only to crush the young narrator (and the reader) with the knowledge that grown-ups are often disappointing assholes and adulthood can be a terrifying reality.  In “Husband Feeder,” a husband’s appetite rages out of control, and he eats everything in the house, until the wife performs the ultimate sacrifice to satiate his hunger.  While some of the endings are not terribly surprising (the previously mentioned story’s ending was apparent by the second page), the joy of reading these stories comes from the total and complete immersion into each world coupled with Etter’s controlled, restrained style.  Most of the sentences are deceptively simple, well-constructed gems that allow the central emotional core of the story to emerge, raw and wet.

By the time I finished the slim, 79 page volume, I wanted more.  My only consolation is the knowledge that this will not be the last collection from the extremely talented Etter.

 

 


A New Year’s resolution for male writers

So, lately I’ve read a few books by male writers that have had prominent female characters.  Take the Luna Brothers, for example, who write female characters specifically because women are underrepresented in the comic book/graphic novel industry.  Having nuanced portrayals of women written by both genders is a good thing.  However, writing the opposite gender is difficult (as I discover again and again when I write male characters), and continual growth is necessary as a writer.  With that in mind, I’ve identified some trends in males writing females that I would like for all male writers to give up as their New Year’s resolution.

1.)  A female character who needs some dick.

This one might initially come off as a little prudish, but bear with me here.  I have no problem with sexually liberated women– women who enjoy sex and cast off the slut/whore social stigma or battle with the slut/whore stigma.  I understand guys watching Sex and the City and thinking women want more of the Samantha character.  I mean, maybe these women could be sexually liberated and NOT feel obligated to wear their sexuality like a scarf.  I get it, though– it’s a personality type.  But you know what I am really tired of?  Women who simply want more dick.  They WANT dick, they NEED dick.  And often this doesn’t mean sex– it means blow jobs.  These women get everything they want out of just chowing down on some dude’s dangling bits.  Nothing in return.  They are completely sexually satisfied with giving head.

All these women want is to GIVE.  You can see how this might be problematic, right?

Or, there was the “this hot minor needs to endlessly grind on your shaft in a completely non-sexual way, of course, and you are paralyzed so oh no, you can’t stop it” plot point in 1Q84.

If you’re going to create a woman obsessed with sex, why not create one that wants to be eaten out all day long?  Because that’s not sexy to you?  Think about it.

2.)  A lesbian experience

Yes, yes, I know, two women together is hot.  And I’m sure you are definitely going to write a tasteful lesbian experience.  Maybe, just this once, don’t.

3.)  Any of the following: women thinking about each others’ breasts, women engaging in sexy pillow fights, women giving each other “breast exams.”

Guys.  Seriously.  Stop.

4.)  A very young manic pixie dream girl variation

You lose extra points if you try to imply her manic pixie-ness is somehow “wise.”

 

Here are some things I’ve seen that I applaud and would like to see more of:

1.)  Racial, bi-racial, or otherwise non-white female protagonists.

2.)  Female dialogue that passes the Bechdel test.

3.)  Women who do not simply want to be saved.

4.)  Women who have flaws and/or are described in terms beyond their physical attributes.

 

On a related note, I am curious if there is a corresponding problem when women write men.  Do they become too feminine?  Too much like bro-guy caricatures?  Food for thought.


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