Interview with Joshua Robbins

robbinsJoshua Robbins is the author of Praise Nothing (University of Arkansas Press, 2013). His recognitions include the James Wright Poetry Award, the New South Prize, selection for the Best New Poets anthology, and a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship in poetry from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at University of the Incarnate Word. He lives in San Antonio. 


How did you get started writing? And did you always want to be a writer?

I suppose I started writing poems in high school, mostly imitations of Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds, David Bowie lyrics, as well as some fiction/prose modeled after William S. Burroughs and Jean-Paul Sartre. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing in terms of craft, nor did I plan on “becoming a writer.” But I do think those first steps were toward a path of apprenticeship in poetry that began in earnest in college and in my MFA program. I had no sense of writing as career choice until my poetry teacher in college, Laurie Lamon, pulled me aside and told me I could “make a career of poetry.” At the time, I was excited by the notion, but had no idea what that would mean for the future and the trajectory of my life in poetry.

 How long did you have to submit before you were published in a journal? 

I started submitting work in earnest around 2001 when I discovered that my MFA peers were doing so and finding success. I placed my first poem in The Canary River Review (which became The Canary and, later, Canarium Books) in 2002.

What advice do you have for young authors trying to get published?

Wait. Be patient. Don’t submit your work until it’s ready. (You’ll know when that is.) Focus on learning the craft. Read, read, read. Read widely and deeply. I realize none of my answer so far is about actually trying to get published, but I’m reticent to give nuts and bolts advice to young authors because I’ve found that, over the last 5-10 years, undergraduates are incredibly anxious about publishing, which is astonishing to me. It’s a considerable problem with the po-biz and the focus on being a career writer. Believe me: there’ll be plenty of opportunities for worrying and publishing later. Now’s the time for reading and studying, searching your own poetics and voice, figuring it out. But, if you do need me to answer directly, I’d say look to get involved with literary publishers and literary arts organizations in your area. It’s important, I think, to get a sense of how publishing works and how other writers do it. Get involved in your school’s literary arts journal. Put together a reading series with some friends. Share your work in public. Give your poems an opportunity to interact with the community of actual people around you, then you can look to submit for print publication.

 Do you think there are any special challenges associated with getting a poetry book, such as Praise Nothing, published, compared to a novel?

I’ll be honest and tell you that the process for publishing a novel is one I cannot relate to in any way. Sure, it’s all “writing,” but the business end of fiction is wholly different from poetry, for the most part. My fiction-writer friends talk about getting agents and landing contracts, “advances,” which don’t exist in poetry. (Especially the advances.) For me, publishing Praise Nothing was the result of submitting the manuscript to contests over a two-year period. Sometimes I think people don’t realize that, for poets, getting a book published within the contest system can cost a significant sum of money, which also, I think, results in slamming doors in the faces of many writers who can’t afford to participate in the game. It’s really unfortunate.

 Do you have any writing rituals?

I used to get up at 4am every morning, make coffee, and get down to business writing. If I had any “rituals” in the past, I suppose they were more object oriented, more like talismans: a particular coffee mug, earplugs, hooded sweatshirt, a specific pen and notebook. Now that I have children (three boys: 4, 2, and 3 months), time doesn’t afford rituals. Or talismans. I jot notes on whatever’s around: receipts, envelopes, my arm. I’ve recently started making notes in Evernote on my phone and have found that, when I do have an extended period of time to just write, I can get into drafting much more quickly because I already have the raw materials at hand.

Could you explain your writing process to us?

I usually begin drafting longhand in a large notebook or on a legal pad and listening for the emerging language’s cadence and the line’s natural measure. After that, it’s long process of making pass after pass over the poem: counting syllables and scrapping the excess. In the past, I would usually work toward a three- or four- or five-beat line. Now, that’s not so much the case. For me, though, the process of revising is how I come to figure out the poem’s content, movement, figuration, etc., and what questions I want the poem to ask, what arguments I want to make.

 Who or what influences your writing? Do you have literary heroes?

I think influences change over time. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, and Charles Wright, were very important to me when I first started writing. I’d put all of them on my “literary heroes” list. Most recently, I think what influences my poetry most are my readings in theology, particularly in the area of theodicy and theopoetics.

 I noticed that in a few of your poems, religion, specifically heaven, comes up. I noticed this first in “Heaven As Nothing but Distance.” Would you be willing to elaborate on how/why this topic seems to influence some of your writing?

 

I am, quite simply, obsessed with matters of faith and doubt, with what I believe is a broken connection to the transcendent. Always have been. Poetry is my means for considering and examining this struggle. And it’s really the only mode of artistic expression I’ve got. The act of writing, the process, is the means by which I can begin to approach and, maybe, understand the disorder of my day-to-day life and, perhaps, become a means to locate some order, to locate meaning in the confusion and chaos of being.

 


About the author of this post: Nicholas Drazenovic is currently a senior at North Central College and is a co-editor of 30 North. He is studying English with a concentration in Writing, as well as Computer Science. After graduation, he hopes to pursue a career in either technical writing or software development.

Interview with Pedro Ponce

pedro-2_0 Pedro Ponce is the author of Stories After Goya (Tree Light Books ), Alien Autopsy (Cow Heavy Books), and Superstitions of Apartment Life  (Burnside Review Press). His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares , Alaska Quarterly Review, Gigantic, PANK , Copper Nickel and other journals; his work has also been featured in the anthologies The Beacon Best of 2001  (edited by Junot Diaz) and Sudden Fiction Latino. His book reviews appear regularly in the Review of Contemporary Fiction and The Los Angeles Review. A 2012 National Endowment for the Arts fellow in creative writing, Pedro teaches courses at St. Lawrence University in fiction writing, literary research, and conspiracy theory.


How did you get started writing?

I can’t remember a specific moment when I started or decided to start. I can, however, point to a couple of signposts. When I was eleven or so, I saw a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth on TV, and I remember loving the way the characters talked to the audience from the stage. I also remember a high school English class where a teacher explained symbolism in a short story by Irwin Shaw called “The Eighty-Yard Run.” My teacher just kept pulling back layers of the story and revealing all this stuff going on under the surface. These are both moments when I was struck by what language can do, though I’m sure there are others I can’t specifically remember. Such experiences convinced me that I wanted to do something with writing.

What advice do you have for writers just starting out?

I don’t want to sound like an English professor (which I am, actually), but read. Read a lot. Read widely. Don’t just read what your teachers tell you to read, or what your friends are reading. If I had only read what my teachers told me to read, I would never have discovered as many possibilities for how to write and what to write about. Don’t get me wrong—the syllabus is a good starting point. But if you’re serious about becoming a writer, it’s only a starting point.

Could you explain your writing process for us?

I keep a notebook where I record ideas. “Ideas” is actually a generous way of describing what I jot down. What I really work from are images and bits of language. I’ll just record something and let it sit for a while—months or even years. After some time, those bits will gather other bits to them—an image will suggest a place, for instance, or a sentence fragment will hint at a narrator’s voice. That’s when I start imagining my way into a story, sentence by sentence. Sentences turn into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes, scenes (eventually) into a story.

How has your work evolved over time?

After years as a short-story writer, I’m finishing my first novel. (There have been others, but this one is the first that feels complete to me.) The transition has been rough. My short stories feel easier to control; the big picture can be seen all at once. If you change something on p. 103 of a novel, it potentially affects the narrative in any number of ways, from 1-102, and from 103 onwards. I had to let go of my sentence-by-sentence process and just hammer out a draft in order to figure out the bigger structure. That first draft was a mess! But there was also another kind of pleasure that (gradually) emerged once I started hacking away—the clarity that emerged when discovering connections between different characters, settings, and ideas. Those connections wouldn’t have been revealed without thinking on a novel’s scale. I look at some of my published stories now and wonder if I cut off possibilities in them by seeing them as shorter narratives.

Your work often takes the common and makes it uncommon. Apart from Francisco Goya, the namesake of your chapbook Stories After Goya, where does this influence come from?

My favorite stories are often those that play with perception. For instance, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books don’t start off in Narnia. They start off pretty realistically, on the ordinary side of the wardrobe. I feel the same way about Ray Bradbury  (and George Saunders, and Kelly Link, and Mary Caponegro, and Angélica Gorodischer, and…). In each of these authors, there are compelling characters and plots, but more importantly, you see your own world differently, even after you put the book down. I like to think that I’m part of this tradition.

How has your skill of making strange developed over time?

Very slowly. The uncanny is often obscured by the clever, which gets a few laughs but rarely sticks with you. I’m not sure I can articulate the difference beyond rough analogies. When I read something clever (or write something clever), I can always feel the author reading over my shoulder, nudging me as I turn pages in order to ask (rhetorically), “Wasn’t that funny?” I may laugh at something uncanny, but I know I’m alone and I’m afraid to take my eyes off the page because if I do, I could find myself inside the very story I’m reading.

Your novel Dreamland is a dystopia. What was the rationale behind this?

Dystopia is hot! At least, I thought it was hot when I started Dreamland in 2012. By the time I had a handle on the story (see above), it was clear that my dystopia was not going to be hot. It was going to be cold. Very cold. Without much of a hero or a moral message. Unfortunately, this lack of hotness is what interested me most and motivated me to finish.

Now that it’s mostly said and done, I recognize important similarities between Dreamland, and my previous (unpublished) novel. That last project was supposed to be a novel in short episodes, based on Goya’s etchings. (A sequence of remnants came out as Stories After Goya.) Both of these projects have dystopian elements, and I think it’s because the line between present and disastrous imagined future seems to be thinning every day. Dystopia is reality if you follow the news. So I guess you could call Dreamland my first significant foray into documentary realism.

What is one question about your writing no one ever asks you? Could you answer it?

It’s not so much a question I never get asked, but it’s how the question is asked. My work is often considered in terms of what’s lacking rather than what it’s doing (or trying to do). The language is dense; the characters can be hard to sympathize with because they are placed at a distance from the reader; the plots aren’t exactly page-turners. So it would be nice if I were asked why I do what I do, instead of why I don’t do what I could/should do.

Funny you should ask…The worst thing a reader can say, in my opinion, is “I’ve been there before.” Don’t even get me started on being “relatable.” If something is relatable, it’s easier to set aside and forget. But maybe some stories can live on, even if only as shadows, those feelings and experiences we only think aren’t there because we haven’t been paying attention.


 

About the author of this post: Hope Kennedy is a sophomore at North Central College, where she’s studying English and Management. Likes include writing, cats, and sleeping in on rainy days. Dislikes include inaccurate movies based on good books, the sound people make when they chew ice, and that awkward smile you exchange with a stranger when you make eye contact.

Interview with Brittany Cavallaro

cavallaroBrittany Cavallaro is a poet, fiction writer, and old school Sherlockian. She is the author of the Charlotte Holmes novels from HarperCollins/Katherine Tegen Books, including A STUDY IN CHARLOTTE and THE LAST OF AUGUST (forthcoming in February 2017). She’s also the author of the poetry collection GIRL-KING (University of Akron) and is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She earned her BA in literature from Middlebury College and her MFA in poetry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she’s a PhD candidate in English literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She lives in Wisconsin with her husband, cat, and collection of deerstalker caps.


How did you get started writing? Did you always want to be a writer?

I’ve always wanted to be a writer—I was pretty serious about it from a young age. I attended an arts boarding school and then went on to study writing through undergrad and grad school. I used to be a little concerned that I was missing out by not really exploring other paths, but I’ve come to realize that writing is less of a job and more of a practice, a way you collect and organize your thoughts and obsessions.

What advice do you have for young authors trying to get published?

Focus for as long as you can on perfecting your craft. Read everything. Everything. Try to push yourself in new directions—write formally, write in genres you’re less comfortable in, take in different kinds of art. Try to wait until at least your last semester of undergrad before you’re really pushing to get published, so that you can focus until then on honing your work in a supportive environment.

Who or what influences your writing? Do you have literary heroes?

I think I have a lot of answers to this that aren’t necessarily the ‘right’ answer. I have writers whose work I love and admire—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, obviously, and Daphne du Maurier, John Berryman, A.S. Byatt. But I also read quite a bit of mass market fantasy (Mercedes Lackey, Jacqueline Carey), play a lot of immersive video games whose stories and characters get under my skin (Mass Effect, Bioshock), pull ideas from art history and YouTube and conversations with my husband. I think it’s really important to be honest about what inspires you, to try to be as porous as you can. There’s no reason to restrict yourself to loving things that other people have vetted as ‘important.’

Who are you currently reading that you find exciting?

I’m reading quite a bit of YA right now, which is always fun. I think that Parker Peevyhouse’s Where Futures End is an incredible, George Saunders/David Mitchell-inflected novel, and I really enjoyed Emily Henry’s The Love that Split the World.

Do you have any writing rituals? What does your process look like?

There are definitely things that I like to do or have around me when I’m setting up to write, though I try to be careful not to insist on them. Ultimately, I need to be able to work in a variety of places and situations! But I enjoy writing in my room, on my bed, with a candle burning. I try to light different candles for each project, which helps trigger some kind of sense memory. I also tend to play Dustin O’Halloran’s albums when I’m working—they’re familiar enough now that they serve as a kind of white noise, but they’re also atmospheric. I also do a lot of work in coffee shops, though, in the end, I find that’s better for more administrative tasks (email, email, email).

You’ve recently published your first young adult novel – congratulations! A Study in Charlotte (March 2016, Harpercollins) reimagines the classic tale of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson through the eyes of their young descendants Charlotte and Jamie. Were you a big Doyle fan growing up, or did you discover the fandom later in life?

Definitely a big Doyle fan when I was a kid, though my current obsession with Sherlockiana happened during grad school. I discovered the Granada television adaptation of the stories, and that led me back to the stories themselves. There was so much there. I felt like I could unpack them forever.

What inspired you to retell the story of Sherlock Holmes in a modern context?

Sherlock Holmes, as a character, has been reimagined in so many different ways—adaptations of the Doyle stories are really in vogue right now (though they’ve obviously never not been popular). But even though the story has been recast so many times, I was having a hard time finding an adaptation that was willing to imagine the genius as a woman. Which is crazy to me. When I have trouble finding a particular story, I try my hand at writing it. In the Charlotte Holmes books, I wanted to recast the detective as a troubled, morally ambiguous genius who happened to be a teenage girl, and then imagine how her life would be different because of it.

What do you want young readers to take away from A Study in Charlotte?

More than anything, I want to tell a good story that’s both an homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and a feminist reworking of his stories. If A Study in Charlotte sends readers looking for the original Sherlock Holmes tales, I feel like I’ve done my job!


About the author of this post: Crystal Ice is a junior at North Central College where she studies English Writing, and is currently considering a program in Writing, Editing, & Publishing. A budding author, she enjoys writing in her spare time, and maintains two blogs while working on one of her many novels and poems.

Review of “A Guide to Being Born” by Ramona Ausubel

In this new collection of short stories, A Guide To Being Born, Ramona Ausubel tells eye-opening tales of life with strangely fictitious compelling twists. The eleven stories are divided into four periods: Birth, Gestation, Conception, and Love.

These stories face some of the most difficult aspects of life that most people choose to shy away from, from teenage pregnancy, to death, to growing old, and the concept of what happens next. Ausubel’s short stories capture your attention and leave you questioning: how you move on after each life changing experience? How do you continue to live after everything you are forced to bear that is unbearable? Each story has a unique flair that brings light to each of the real life topics in a whirlwind of tales spun with fascinating imagery. Each story brings in a variety of terrible truths that the reader can’t help but want to read on to find out what happens next.

In “Safe Passage,” from the Birth, section the reader follows the story of a grandmother named Alice who finds herself on a freighter with other grandmothers heading towards an unknown island. In this story, the reader is forced to face the concept of life after death and what happens not only to yourself, but also to the people you leave behind. Ausubel writes “The day she will not attend is laid out before her, the newspaper she will not read lands at her doorstep. The phone, the refrigerator, the cat. She holds her own hands” (18). Here Ausubel compels the reader to really question the notion of the people and life left behind when someone dies. Instead of looking at it from the point of view of family and friends who were left behind when someone they love dies, she takes us on a ride with the grandmother who has passed on effectively making the reader question what they will think back on as they move on. Reading this story, I found myself mournful at the idea that the world will continue to move on once I myself am gone and the pain of leaving behind the ones I love who will have to learn to live without me.

In “Atria,” from the Gestation section, the reader is tugged along on a young teen’s journey as she thinks of what her mother means when she says to grow up. Hazel finds herself pregnant after having sex with a random boy behind a 7-11 and then being raped behind a church of all places and refuses to see her baby as anything but a real life animal. Because Hazel has had something terrible happen to her, she sees the baby as nothing but a monster, an animal born of terrible circumstances and irreversible mistakes. Ausubel writes, “ ‘If it has four legs, I guess we can just get another pair,’ she said quietly. ‘It’s not twins – would have seen it in the pictures.’ ‘I never said it was twins’ ” (66). Here we can see how she portrays Hazel as fully believing her baby will be anything but human. This is a terrible twist that truly shows the horror of rape and mistakes made and what it can do to a person, opening the reader’s eyes to one of the many horrors of life. The reader and feels helpless as each scene plays out, knowing that there is nothing they can do to help her.

In “Catch and Release,” in the Conception section, we get the story of Buck and how she meets a war general ghost from the past who helps her to learn a little more about herself. Ausubel uses this short story to really look at the history of a name, telling us that it does and doesn’t define who we are. Our story is ours alone to write and make of it what we will, writing, “ ‘The story of Buck is just getting going’ he whispered” (121). This line really stood out to me because this is something more people need to point out. That we are the authors of our own story and no matter what has happened to us that there is always a future a new beginning just waiting for us to grab hold of it.

Finally in “Tributaries,” from the Love section, the reader is pulled into a world where if you truly love someone you will grow another arm, a love-arm. This is common in the society Ausubel creates and is used by her to allow readers to question just what she is trying to symbolize. One of my favorite lines from this story is, “ ‘My love is bigger than any limb,’ he tells her. ‘What is mine then?’ ” (190). This opens the reader’s eyes to the idea of what would happen if true love was proved by a love-arm growing. This sentence refers to a man whose love-arm is not real, but his wife’s is. This shows just how one person may love someone who thinks they love them back, but may never really know. While I did enjoy this short story it was also a little confusing. Ausubel creates this concept but never really makes sense of how it works. For example, one of the teachers has many loves so she has grown hands all over her body, but never grows a full love-arm. This poses questions of why no one else has grown hands that show their love of their family as well as a love-arm for their “soul mate” so to speak. This story makes the reader truly question just what Ausubel is trying to get at with this over all story of love-arms. By doing this she allows the reader to find a multitude of meanings behind each short story she wrote.

Ausubel continues to create moving and reality shattering themes throughout the rest of her short stories. In a truly new and compelling way she pulls the reader into a world of reality and fantasy that will have you wondering just what happens next. Where will she go from here and how will each story end. If you truly enjoy a bit of reality mixed with fantasy on some of the darker topics of life, I would recommend sitting down and reading this book for the day. You might just find you have a new outlook on life when you finish the final page.


ramona-ausubelAbout the Author: Ramona Ausubel grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of a new novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, forthcoming in June, 2016 from Riverhead Books as well as the novel No One is Here Except All of Us (2012), and a collection of short stories A Guide to Being Born (2013). Winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, she has also been a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Story Award and the International Impac Dublin Literary Award. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine where she won the Glenn Schaeffer Award in Fiction and served as editor of Faultline Journal of Art & Literature.

Review of “Slade House” by David Mitchell

Slade House by David Mitchell, was a unique book unlike any other I have ever read, to say the very least. The mystery of this house is what drives this story, and makes you not want to put the book down. It starts off eerie, and with each story, your hunger grows to find out what truly happens in this house and why. There are five stories/disappearances that happen in the Slade House, and with each story the reader starts to understand a little bit more and more about the contraption of the house and what happens inside. The first starts off with a boy reluctantly with his mother on their way to a house that they were invited to. It is told from Nathan, the boy’s point of view, and at the house he meets the son of Lady Grayer, the woman who owns the house. Nathan and Jonah run around and play games at the house. During the visit Nathan think’s he is hallucinating and he ends up waking up thinking it was all just a dream. However, he is not actually dreaming that was reality and when he thinks he is awake it was really just a dream. He then is ‘woken’ up and his soul is eaten by Jonah, the boy he was playing with. This point in the story is when the reader starts to realize the book may not be consistent with reality. In the next part, we are then thrown into the life of a detective, Gordon Edmonds. He is investigating the disappearance of Nathan and his mother and stumbles into the Slade House. After some investigating, his soul is then consumed by a woman named Chloe who was actually Lady Grayer, the house master in disguise. After this second story, the readers start to recognize a pattern that is steady throughout the rest of the book. The process of entering and investigating the house continues for three more stories and with each additional story, a new piece to the puzzle is added to solve the mystery of the house. The readers found out the history of the house owners and why they consume souls. The final story is the wildest and more important, that pieces the whole story together.

In the final story of Slade House, Lady Grayer is back to luring people into the house by herself. In the fourth story, the character got away before the soul was consumed, and the ‘house’ feeds off of the energy of these souls, and thus it is growing weak. In her tactics to try to get people to come to the house, she invites a psychologist to the house who knew Fred Pink. Again, the psychologist is drawn to the attic however, she is not who she says to be either but she is immortal and cannot be consumed. They try to attack her soul but they are too weak, and she destroys them and the house collapses, and just as this is happening Lady Grayer puts her soul in a child that is still in the womb, somewhere far away.

After writing this summary of the book, I realized how crazy everything actually sounds. It was a little hard to follow at times , but the one thing that held this story together were the connections between each story. Whether it was a friend of a friend in the next story, each past story was connected with the story being told. The other connection that ran through the story was the nine year difference between each story, and by the time the story ended 36 years had passed. Lastly, I think the small connection of the pub at the beginning of each story symbolized the start of the dreamy like state people get when they enter the Slade House.

One of the main strengths of the author was the cleverness and consistency of each story. Each story gave the same eerie feel, with whole new characters and backgrounds. Yet at the same time, all of the stories started off and ended the same way. Everyone passes the “Fox and Hound Pub” in the beginning on their way to the house, and then they all run into the Slade House by accident and then all somehow ‘stumble’ into the attic to have their souls eaten. This ability to flow from five stories so smoothly was incredible. After the second transition of stories, I started to realize what was going on. This is the main weakness of the author. A lot of things had to be implied, for example after reading the first story of Nathan I had no idea his soul had been consumed and he was dead. I only then realized this after the second story and as it transitioned into the third. However, this does add the element of mystery to it, so I can understand why it was a little unclear.

Overall, this book is well written, the plot about the house was original and the development of characters in such little stories was excellent. There were many characters throughout the book but each story revealed a lot about the characters and their motives in such a little space. For example, in such a short period of time the readers were able to learn about Nathan and his parent’s divorce and how he may be addicted to pain medications. The revealing of small important snippets about the different characters makes it believable that these people are actually humans inside of a dark paranormal world. With that note, it is a silly story, as none of these things can actually happen and you are taken deep into the world of “Anchorites,” souls being consumed, and the very fine line between dreaming and reality. But if you can suspend disbelief, it does make a great ghost story. I would recommend this book to people who love mystery and ghost stories because this is a perfect combination of both.


david_mitchellAbout the Author: David Mitchell is the award-winning and bestselling author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream, Ghostwritten and The Bone Clocks. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mitchell was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2007. With KA Yoshida, Mitchell co-translated from the Japanese the international bestselling memoir, The Reason I Jump. He lives in Ireland with his wife and two children.

 

Review of “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is, at first glance, a portrait of one African American’s revelations about race, identity and the world as viewed in the form of a letter to his teenage son, Samori. Coates attempts to address the nature of being black in today’s America, where unarmed African American men and their children are being killed at the hands of police officers.

The book first offers us a glimpse of Coates’ youth, growing up in Baltimore with a pervasive sense of fear ingrained into him by authority. His mother, who insisted that, while holding his hand and crossing a street, “…if I ever let go and were killed by an onrushing car, she would beat me back to life” (Coates 16). His father, too, tried to instill in him fear, fear not of his father, but of authority, of police. Once, Coates recollects, he wandered away from his grandparents at a park, who then “spent anxious minutes looking for him” (16). Upon learning of this, his father beat him, telling his mother, “‘Either I can beat him, or the police’” (16).

The police, Coates tells his son, “have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body” (9). But the police are not the only thing Coates learned to fear. He also feared the streets, where “death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog” (20). He feared the crews who walked them, who “would break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies” (22).

Coates juxtaposes his reality of the streets with the clichéd world of the suburbs, of “pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens” (20). Coates associates this world with what he calls “the Dream,” what he sees to be an exclusionary dream only for whites, the origin of which lies on the suppression and oppression of blacks.

Throughout this engaging narrative, there is, in some passages, a tendency to generalize. Despite the personal nature of his experiences, his take on the notion of racism and white supremacy, is impersonal – he sees these things as unyielding and faceless forces.

At one point in the novel, Coates and his young son are exiting a cinema, when a white woman impatiently pushes him. Coates writes:

There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body … I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history. She shrunk back, shocked. A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defence (94).

To Coates, this woman is force of nature, ‘a comet’ he calls her. At this moment, Coates sees this woman as a white person attempting to lay claim on the body of his son. He tells the reader that, as he confronted the woman, “my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history” (94). While I do not claim to know the motives or underlying factors that sparked the incident, there is a chance that the woman did this act, not because of Samori’s race, but some other factor which the reader is not aware of. By making her into a ‘comet,’ she ceases to be a person, a person with free will and a responsibility for her own actions- whether they be good or bad.

It is this tendency to generalize, however that also provides the reader with the narrative, almost debate-like quality of the novel, which remains one of its strengths. Between the World and Me is, overall, a fascinating portal into one African American’s struggle with race, identity, and the world and one I would highly recommend.


ta-nehisi-coatesAbout the Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Between the World and Me, a finalist for the National Book Award. A MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow, Coates has received the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations.” He lives in New York with his wife and son.

 

Review of “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell

With Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Karen Russell delivers a diverse set of short stories that reach deep into the realm of bizarreness. A vampire couple struggles to quench the unquenchable thirst while trying to fully realize their identities in a foreign world. A group of girls are held captive in a malicious, cutting-edge new factory that specializes in turning girls into human-silkworm hybrids and producing silk in the midst of a silkworm famine. Seagulls communicate the secrets of the universe to a troubled teenager. A family’s quest for land in a dystopian American Old West leads to unfortunate (and inexplicable) consequences.

These are just a few of the oddities to look forward to in Russell’s follow-up to her 2011 Pulitzer Prize nominated Swamplandia! which earned praise from nearly everyone across the board. Vampires is nothing short of a good collection, but it’s a mixed bag.

Russell likes (and is very good at) building worlds with her stories. These worlds are reflective of our world and most of the time Russell does a great job of emphasizing the part of society she’s commenting on by making that the bizarre part of this new world. For example, humanity’s capacity for greed and exploitation is represented through the silkworm famine in a version of Japan that still seems to cling to classical values in “Reeling for the Empire”. The ridiculous (and sometimes destructive) lengths people will go to over sports is shown through the nonsensical “foodchain games” in one of my favorites of the bunch “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating”. Sometimes the meaning behind the allegory takes a couple of reads to uncover, but more times than not Russell makes it clear why the world she’s depicting is the way it is.

The characters are, however, hit and miss. Miles Zenger and Beverly in “Proving Up” and “The New Veterans” respectively are solid characters whose motives and progression are clear and strong throughout the story. Each has a unique voice that comes through in the narration and each has aspects the audience can relate to. Miles’ naivety and ambition and Beverly’s desire for attachment and fulfillment really speak to the reader. Others, like Rutherford B. Hayes in “The Barn at the End of Our Term” and Nal in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” respectively are relatively flat and don’t do much to make the readers connect with them. I’m still not sure I can recognize Hayes’ inner conflict and Nal seems like the dejected teenager that Salinger pioneered and everyone else copied.

Russell is at her best when using the bizarre elements to augment her commentary, but  when she lets the weirdness take the wheel, the stories tend not to be as strong. “Reeling for the Empire” is a great example for the weirdness overshadowing the bones of the story. The story itself follows a fairly basic template (don’t worry, no spoilers) but the layering of strange upon strange ends up distracting the reader and takes away from the impact of the climax. And because it is so weird, a story that could’ve been extremely harrowing ends up being a bit corny. Similarly, “The Barn at the End of Our Term” is another story that was hindered by its bizarreness rather than helped. Having a slew of dead presidents reincarnated as horses is a very interesting concept, but Russell doesn’t deliver on the political and situational commentary that she sets up. Instead (again, trying to avoid spoilers) the story serves as more of a love song. Which leaves me feeling that she’s being bizarre for bizarre’s sake.

Other times, Russell’s subtle use of odd elements charge the story and force you to think twice about our society. The bone trees in “Proving Up” make the audience reassess their predispositions about the romanticized American West. As I mentioned earlier, the foodchain games in “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” supplement the focus of the dangerously stupid behavior of rabid sports fans in the modern age.

All the stories are well-written and are littered with strong description and varied dialogue. At times, Russell tends to drag things out a bit, but the stories are always entertaining enough to get through. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a fun, well-written and thought-provoking set of short stories with its own set of flaws. Even if every story doesn’t excite you, I have no doubt that at least one will.


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About the author: Karen Russell, a native of Miami, won the 2012 National Magazine Award for fiction, and her first novel, Swamplandia! (2011), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow, and a 2012 Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. She lives in Philadelphia.


About the author of this post: Kevin Dieber is a sophomore at North Central College.

Review of “Memoranda” by Michael Martone

Michael Martone’s little—quite literally—chapbook, Memoranda, does a good amount of work considering how much empty space is found on every page. With each ‘chapter’ focusing on another soul in the workforce, readers are left with a detailed, sometimes grimy view of society, as the readers take a glimpse into various aspects of the daily lives of different professions.

Structurally, this book is full of very, very small chapters, each averaging out to about forty to fifty words. These chapters are short in the extreme. The content of each follows a central theme of working life. That is to say, each chapter is a small peek into a different world of work. While one chapter may look at a Forest Service Forester, another follows a stenographer.

One of the things to be loved about Memoranda was its pace, which lets the reader read more in one sitting, compared to longer chapter books. Contrastingly, at least for me, this also meant having to go back and reread parts as I would begin to pick up pace and stop actually reading the content. And that’s where the stories actually take place: the content. Of course, the short style does have its place in the text: the shortness of the chapters can be seen as representative of the fact that there are so many different jobs that could have filled the pages. There isn’t possibly room for everyone, so Martone uses short chapters to quickly delve into one, then come back up for air almost immediately, before going back for another. It’s what Martone puts in each of those chapters that brings the book to life. Little splices such as “black box isn’t black but orange not orange more blood red not a box so much but not not missed” offer a look into the horrifying job of trying to transcribe contents of a cockpit recorder after being recovered from a wreckage site (13). The emotion Martone  fits into the few lines that each chapter contains is a deep can of sardines, packed in so tight that at first glance the reader can miss part of it. This was another part of the book that I loved: the little things really do matter in Memoranda.

Indeed, these little chapters pack quite a punch most of the time. Of course, every positive has its negative. While short chapter lengths are a great way for the reader to get quick, clean snippets of someone’s life, they also lend themselves naturally to being read too quickly. The chapter on the surveyor, which discusses “this fungus, 2,000 acres, like the antennae we’re installing” is a quick line that doesn’t hold much at first glance (6). As with the stenographer’s story, there is more to it that that. The size of the fungus is crazy! The surveyor’s account of an “Unexpected Environment Impact” has a massive amount of imagery associated with it (6). The only problem with that imagery is that Martone only gives the chapter two sentences to force the imagery into the reader’s mind. When a reader starts to pick up momentum, the little details can be easy to miss, and with chapters this short, everything is a little detail. Some readers enjoy this, but I prefer being able to at least get the gist of the surface meaning on the first round, then go back for the between-the-lines metaphors and imagery. Unfortunately, I just don’t get that with Memoranda. Indeed, this book seems to be asking its readers to read at what may be a different pace than they normally would in order to fully enjoy it.

Even still, Martone shows how a few good words can have more meaning than a hundred weaker words. When actually noticed, the imagery and emotion in stories, such as the when the climate analyst says, “Knowing more, we know less […] that blue cloudbank, disguised as smoke, it turns out, is smoke,” which offers insight into the realization that the climate is changing in a negative way,  is beautiful and insightful, but can also be easy to miss depending on your reading style (9). My main complaint was that this book forced me to read in a way that I normally don’t, but I think the content and skillful writing done by Martone more than makes up for the personal quarrels I may have with Memoranda. Because of this, I highly recommend reading it at least twice (to ensure nothing goes unnoticed).


10410600_10203829371801978_8128860793081392665_n_0 Michael Martone has written several chapbooks as well as works of nonfiction and fiction (including a fictitious autobiography). Martone was born and grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He attended Butler University and graduated from Indiana University. He holds the MA from The Writing Seminars of The Johns Hopkins University. Martone has won two Fellowships from the NEA and a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation. His stories and essays have appeared and been cited in the Pushcart Prize, The Best American Stories and The Best American Essays anthologies. He is currently a Professor at the University of Alabama where he has been teaching since 1996.


About the author of this post:  Nicholas Drazenovic is currently a senior at North Central College and is a co-editor of 30 North. He is studying English with a concentration in Writing, as well as Computer Science. After graduation, he hopes to pursue a career in either technical writing or software development.

 

Review of “Bright Dead Things” by Ada Limón

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón is a compilation of work that describes what it is to be at home, how to identify the self in physical settings; how to “be” in the “where you are”. The quality of the poems themselves is like miniature stories, each with their own tiny crescendos and fades that follow recognizable story arcs, making a number of the poems prose poetry. The poem “Mowing” serves as a perfect example of Limón’s ability to capture depth in small moments. She writes “The man across the street is mowing 40 acres on a small lawn mower. It’s so small, it must take him days, so I imagine that he likes it” (7).  It is this quizzical nature that is an aspect of Limón’s voice that I appreciate as a reader the most: she observes ordinary instances and can expand upon the details.

In Ada Limón’s book, the sense of questioning surrounding spaces is easy to connect with. Her writing is fixated on two concepts: space and identity. These two themes intermingle in her poems throughout the book, but appear prominently in the poems “The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road”, “Prickly Pear and Fisticuffs”, and “Before”. Her ability to marry these ideas, one tangible and one only conceptual, in a way that is relatable into a wide spectrum of readers is where her skills are truly exemplary.

Limón does not need to depend on metaphors that are unrealistic, or evoke a kind of mystical, transcendent story-telling to be a compelling poet. Her writing is based in a realism that is both relatable and unique to the author’s world. It brings realness to Limón as a person as well; she becomes more than just an author; she becomes a character herself in the poetry. Her insight on her own world and ability to transfer these feelings into poetry is another element that makes Bright Dead Things so bright.

If you are looking for poetry that reminds you of your home, your childhood, and of all the small pieces of life that exist, then Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things, will be the ultimate book of poetry to read.


ada-limon

Ada Limón is the author of four books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her other books include Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer splitting her time between Lexington, Kentucky and Sonoma, California.


About the author of this post:  Ryann Overstreet is a junior at North Central College where she studies Writing and Philosophy. She has two orange cats that she is obsessed with and eats a box of pasta a day.

 

Review of “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, is a post-apocalyptic vision of the future with a twist. It’s a narrative written from the multiple perspectives of characters who exist before and after an epidemic ends modern civilization and who are all connected in some way. As the story weaves its way back and forth through the decades, it follows an actor burdened by the pressure of fame and his own poor life choices who dies on the eve of the plague; a member of a wandering band of armed actors who has lived most of her life roving in the wilderness; the actor’s second of three ex-wives who is obsessed with drawing and works on the same graphic novel for years; and the actor’s English friend who serves as the everyman thrust into a calamitous world drowning in sickness and fear. Throughout the novel, paths cross, stories are shared, and the old notions of love, fame, and desire are thrown into chaos and replaced by a single notion of survival. Yet, at the heart of the apocalypse lies togetherness and bonds that no betrayals, pains, or end-of-the-world scenarios can destroy.

Station Eleven paints a picture of a world that would be recognizable to readers, even if it is distorted by the crash of modern civilization. The events of the novel could, in all likelihood, happen today, in our society, in our world. Mandel cleverly crafts a world that the reader can identify with. Her settings are real places, her characters have real struggles, and her situations are based on real conflicts with emotion and survival. Placing the novel about twenty years into the future, she strikes the world with an unknown but realistic infection that reflects our modern society’s fear of outbreak. She topples our culture and plays with memory; in her America, our everyday comforts and joys are practically non-existent and are only remembered as distant pleasures of a better time. Our electronic devices, for example, are only artifacts that end up on the shelves of a makeshift museum in an airport, curiously examined by children with no memory of these things. Mandel’s world runs two ways: For those alive at the time of the epidemic, this is not a world anyone is prepared to face when the calamity strikes, and they have fond memories of the previous world and do what they can to keep parts of it alive. For those born in the post-apocalyptic America, this is only world they know, and all they can do is imagine what the old world was like. This is not an America anyone would choose to live in, and the pain of watching her characters struggle to survive is real because they have no choice.

Not only does Mandel reflect our society and culture well, she also weaves in her own brand of pop culture. The novel’s title refers to a series of graphic novels written by one of her protagonists, the actor’s ex-wife Miranda. These stories are read by other characters, such as the actor, Arthur, and the wandering girl, Kirsten. Throughout the course of the book, the Station Eleven stories pop up to connect characters across stretches of time. These connections, perhaps, serve as Mandel’s greatest strength in her writing: Mandel is capable of using objects, themes, and characters to plot out a chronology over the decades that gets revealed, piece by piece, as the story moves ever closer to its culmination. What makes Mandel’s story unique is that her connections are subtle. She doesn’t hit readers over the head with references to objects, themes, and characters that exist in both the old world and the new world. She lets these connections wander, alongside her Traveling Symphony, allowing the reader to pick them up at his or her own leisure, letting them have moments of epiphany as puzzle pieces slide together. Even the use of a Traveling Symphony, wandering actors who perform Shakespeare to whomever will watch, is interesting because Mandel utilizes them to connect the cultures of the old and new worlds. The line “Because survival is insufficient” is the Symphony’s motto, and Mandel uses this line to present a group of people who want to do more than just survive. They have these old plays by Shakespeare, and they’re doing what they can to keep this part of their past culture alive, for both themselves and for others. Because survival is insufficient. Because simply languishing in the wasteland America has become is to admit defeat, and defeat is not what the human spirit needs to fix itself.

Unfortunately, though Mandel masterfully connects past to present and character to character, there are moments where elements become jumbled. A variety of characters—typically those with the Traveling Symphony Kirsten is associated with—are not given names, referred to instead by whatever instrument they play, such as “the first flute” and “the third violin.” This causes many of these characters to not be as fleshed out as well as they could be and makes them roam in obscurity for the majority of the novel. Also, while the connections between the time periods are interesting and help bring the novel together, jumping between four or five different stories has the drawback of not allowing enough pages for each story to be fully experienced. Thus, at times the pacing can feel rather rushed and plotlines can be forgotten if they are not returned to quickly. Each story is told poetically, but there’s the sense that some characters don’t accomplish as much as others and that certain characters aren’t as important to like or to follow. However, the important characters are allowed room to grow, even if that growth sometimes feels forced.

Overall, Mandel has created an America that is thrown into a cesspool of destruction and misery, a world that could be our own. In our pop culture, as obsessed as we are with doomsday scenarios at the hands of aliens and zombies, Mandel offers a novel that could be real, where the events could happen at any moment. There’s some action, a lot of drama, and a ton of struggle. Though it sometimes feels like the puzzle takes a while to be put together, all the pieces are still there and get placed, one at a time. Reading Station Eleven requires thought and concentration to it, and those who give it the proper amount are rewarded with an inquisitive, if not haunting, tale that many readers can undeniably relate to on certain levels and hope they will never have to on others.


emily-st-john-mandel-e1430948909500

Emily St. John Mandel is the author of four novels, most recently Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award. A previous novel, The Singer’s Gun, was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. Her short fiction and essays have been anthologized in numerous collections, including Best American Mystery Stories 2013. She is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

 


About the author of this post:  Nathan Kiehn is a junior at North Central College and has wanted to be a novelist since the fourth grade. Though he is currently the New York Times Bestselling Author of nothing, he continues to plug away at fantasy and superhero novels, hoping someone important will finally see one of his $2.99 ebooks on Amazon and pay him enough money to get through college. When he isn’t writing or working, he can be found saving the world in video games and with LEGOs.