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Last night I learned (via Twitter, natch) that Elizabeth McCracken's wonderful short story collection Thunderstruck & Other Stories won The Story Prize for 2015! In my review of Thunderstruck for Shelf Awareness I wrote that McCracken's stories show "that love's great capacity for tenderness must bear the risk of pain." A year later what I remember most is tenderness, wit, and old-soul endurance. McCracken is a wizard at conjuring emotion on the page, confoundingly by writing in a style that is entirely unsentimental. Unlike some collections, this one will keep you reading--no samey-samey narrators, and no pad-it-out duds. I am so glad Thunderstruck won the prize, because that means more people will find it.
Speaking of emotion, McCracken's memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, is a gorgeous, sad, angry, and fully sustaining account of how to survive the loss of a baby and find the courage to get pregnant again. Fair warning: it will make you cry, but it will not destroy you. Read it.
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My story "Motu Tapu" appears in issue #29 of Arts & Letters
Bewitched by the Voices of Black Tickets
I became a fan of Jayne Anne Phillips's writing when I read her short story collection Black Tickets in college (for fun, not for a class). Phillips wrote "brave" stories before brave writing by young women was A Thing. The stories in Black Tickets depict poignant and gritty situations with high-proof lyricism; their effect is both literary and voyeuristic. Some of the stories are only a page or two long but I still had to pace myself. At the time I was unaware of the concept of "voice" in fiction, but no lit crit filter is required to appreciate Phillips's ventriloquism: even her most outwardly subjugated and youthful characters tell their stories in voices substantiated by the authority of particularized experience.
Deep Novels of Love and War
Often writers who début with a story collection make their first tilt (if any) at the novel with a tiny cast and a restricted timeframe, but Phillips's Machine Dreams confidently inhabits the lives and voices of four members of a West Virginia family straight through a big hunk of the 20th century, starting with the Depression and ending with Vietnam. The stories in Black Tickets displayed Phillips's breadth and daring but the novel Machine Dreams goes deep and long. It tackles the influence of war on the American psyche without being stompingly political. Phillips's more recent novel Lark & Termite, in which a father's experience of the Korean War is juxtaposed with the lives of his family back home, touched me personally because Phillips creates a convincing interior language for Termite, a non-verbal handicapped child, and bolsters his connection to the world through Lark, his older sister and champion. (Lark & Termite was a 2009 National Book Award finalist--listen to Phillips read an excerpt here.)
(To learn more visit http://jayneannephillips.com and be sure to look at the fascinating sub-page "Behind the Words" where Phillips pairs images and documents with quotes from her work.)
Best Part of the Prize: Kind Words from the Judge
Now that I've explained part of why I admire Jayne Anne Phillips's work so much you can understand my nervousness when Allen Gee, the fiction editor of Arts & Letters, emailed me to let me know that my story "Motu Tapu" had been chosen as a finalist for the 2014 Arts & Letters Fiction Prize and would be read by contest judge Jayne Anne Phillips. Fortunately for me I did not have to wait in torment for long--a week later Professor Gee let me know that my story had won the contest. I was ecstatic (it's been a good while since I've had a story published). There was also a nice check in the offing, but the biggest prize, for me, was receiving the very kind comments Jayne Anne Phillips wrote about my story:
"Motu Tapu" is a wry, mature story on the complexities of relationships, memory, and our own ambivalent remembrance of ourselves. The author gives us believable characters, not only in the witty, astutely observant protagonist but in the minor characters who fill her world. Though time passes and situations evolve, a controlling narcissist seldom responds to environmental cues. The protagonist regards her life anew against her remembered escape from exotic Motu Tapu and the attractive ex who showed her its Tahitian delights. Against a backdrop of mundane family chores and expertly rendered weekend pancakes, the story takes a surprising turn and shares a secret with the reader. "Motu Tapu" is not a story about domesticity, but about paths not taken and the pain of making difficult decisions. The fact that life, twenty-five years later, may reveal such a decision as inspired, is "Motu Tapu's" charming coup de grace.
"--Jayne Anne Phillips, judge of the Arts & Letters Fiction Prize for 2014
Ordering and Submitting Information
If that summary tempts you to read "Motu Tapu" for yourself, you can order the handsome print journal of Arts & Letters #29 pictured above for $12 here, or get immediate gratification via downloadable PDF for only $8 by ordering the digital version of Arts & Letters #29 here. (Both the print and digital options include the entire contents of the journal.)
The experience of being published by Arts & Letters has been a joy and I highly encourage other writers to submit their work to either the regular journal or the annual contest (Kyle Minor will judge the 2015 fiction contest). Visit the home page of Arts & Letters for the most up-to-date information.
Litagogo know, I'm a literary podcast proselytizer. Thanks to the Nobel Prize Committee, one of my favorite audio interviews of all time, a conversation between CBC's Eleanor Wachtel and Alice Munro, has been re-released on Wachtel's "Writers and Company" podcast to celebrate Munro's 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature.
In the podcast the two women meet in Munro's favorite Goderich lunch spot and they dish about the arc of Munro's life and career, her opinions on adultery and hardship in fiction, her childhood in rural Ontario and how a scholarship launched her into the wider world, her frustration with the heroines of Tolstoy, her intimation of the sex in Austen, the unconscious theme of the stories in Runaway, the differing nature of her relationships with her mother and father, and her exploratory composition method.
It's 53 minutes of Munro fangirl bliss. I recommend downloading the audio now because individual podcasts eventually expire off the CBC's "Writers and Company" iTunes feed.
Grab it now: downloading and listening links are included in my Litagogo post about the "Best Alice Munro Interview."
The breakthrough was to use the Shifty Jelly app as a podcast radio and the native Apple iPhone app as a podcast library/archive.
Links and more details over at Litagogo: Best Podcast Apps for Radio-Style and Library-Style Listening.
Here are two good books to give for Mother's Day:
If I Loved You I Would Tell You This by Robin Black
I read this collection of short stories several years ago and it has held up well in my memory. These stories are literary, substantial, insightful, and largely about mothers. My original review of If I Loved You I Would Tell You This vanished with the website that published it, but I also wrote about the collection over at Litagogo.
You can get a sense of Robin Black's style by reading "A Country Where You Once Lived," a story from the collection that's available to read for free on the website for literary magazine "Hunger Mountain."
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
If your mom is fairly open-minded and outdoorsy, she will probably like Cheryl Strayed's memoir of walking the Pacific Crest Trail while coming to terms with the loss of her mother. Wild does get a little wild here and there, but it's never gratuitous. Strayed's honesty and self-examination are exceptional, as is the love she has for her mother. You can read an excerpt, The Ten Thousand Things, for free on Strayed's website (scroll down), or listen to Strayed in conversation with Diane Rehm on this podcast.
Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers!
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I was saddened to hear of Roger Ebert's passing because the man loved life so much.
A consolation is that he made the most of his decent number of decades, something I learned when I listed to the audiobook of Life Itself.
Here's my review of the audiobook version of Ebert's memoir in Shelf Awareness for Readers last January. The audiobook is a good listen, if a little over-detailed, and it will reassure you that the Chicago cinephile savored life on all fronts.
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If you're curious about how literary luminaries such as Ann Patchett and Michael Lewis built their careers, or whether they use a laptop or a pencil for their first drafts, you can find some very candid first-person accounts in Meredith Maran's Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do. As I noted in my review of Why We Write, etc. at Shelf Awareness, the authors profiled are all of a certain age--not a single wunderkind in the bunch--but then the message of this book is that success is conjured by a mixture of talent, perseverance and happenstance. This is not surprising, but the openness is. For example, Ann Patchett reveals the dollar amounts of her early advances and cites the supreme importance of her publicist; Mary Karr credits prayer as part of her writing process.
Free excerpt online: The main substance of Jennifer Egan's writing process and career story is available to read for free at Salon.com. To find out her birthday you'll have to buy the book, which was published as an affordable paperback original and also for a good cause: some of the proceeds will benefit the literacy work at 826 National.
FYI, here's a complete list of the 20 authors who participated in Why We Write, etc.:
*FTC Disclosure: I bought some of these books with my own bucks, but most were review copies I received through my assignments from Shelf Awareness (see an index of my Shelf Awareness book reviews here), but my opinions are not for sale, at least not for the price of a free book or a paltry book review fee. If you click on a "Shop Indie Bookstores" link above and end up ordering the book I might make a few cents, but the reason I link to Indie Bookstores on my site is that I adore them (my local: the fantabulous Brookline Booksmith) and I want them to survive.
Of special biographical interest in this little group is the 1st edition (I think) of Amy Lowell's posthumously published Ballads for Sale. When I was paging through it two old photographs fell out, neither one labeled. They show a young person posing moodily in the woods, wearing jodphurs and boots. One photo with jacket, one without. I have no idea who he was, or what he's holding in the jacketless picture, or whose black garment is hanging on the piece of lumber behind him, but it seems to me there was some kind of story happening on that early spring afternoon.
review of the audiobook of The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (read by Holter Graham) is now up at Shelf Awareness. Mostly I'm happy with the review, and I cherish my lede ("A war novel lives or dies by its narrator") with unseemly affection, but in the cold light of Internet pixels I see that once again I've overwritten a sentence or two. Sentences I'm too chagrined about to quote here. (And I know that previous sentence is a fragment.)
I just added A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie "Peanut" Johnson by Michelle Y. Green to my (evolving) list of favorite kids' sports books. While researching my review I came across a collection of video interviews by The National Visionary Leadership Project (NVLP) with the now-retired Johnson that I have to share. I've selected two that were particularly inspiring for this post:
Mamie "Peanut" Johnson talks about her major league dreams and her sandlot baseball training--her grandma forced the boys to let her play! Local birds needed to watch out for her pitching arm, though:
The day 18-year-old Mamie "Peanut" Johnson was scouted for the Negro Leagues (by a mortician!):
This New York Times article summarizes Johnson's career. It includes some gentle fact-checking of her unverifiable pitching record that doesn't diminish Johnson's rightful place in baseball history. Great quotes & photos, too.
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