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3 Experimental Novels That Inspired Me!

Today I’d like to highlight three novels I read that challenged the accepted definitions of what exactly a novel is. During my life I’ve gone through several reading phases. I had my Star Wars phase, my Science Fiction & Fantasy phase, my Bohemian phase, my Gothic phase and my American phase, but during my early college years I became interested in Experimental Fiction. I was drawn to Modernism and the Avant-Garde, because these books focused not so much on the story itself than on the way it was told. I was also excited by the challenge of reading novels that were considered difficult to read.

Each of the three novels I’m going to list today helped both my reading and my writing. I think every writer can benefit from reading experimental fiction- even if it is not their chosen genre- because what experimental fiction does is it examines the craft of storytelling- the techniques of how a story is told. It takes a step back and investigates the basic workings of narrative exposition, and finds new ways to tell a story. I picked the novels listed below because each one innovates in a way that relates to the theme its narrative explores. Enjoy!

 

La Jalousie

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Author: Alain Robbe-Grillet

First Published: 1957, Les Éditions de Minuit

Opening Line: “Now the shadow of the column- the column which supports the south-west corner of the roof- divides the corresponding corner of the veranda into two equal parts.”

Synopsis: On a tropical banana plantation, a jealous husband spies on his wife through Venetian blinds, convinced that she is having an affair.

How It Innovates: According to Vladimir Nabokov, Jealousy is “the finest novel about love since Proust,” and far be it my place to criticize one of 20th century’s most iconic literary figures, but I’m not sure it’s got anything to do with “love” as such. I can’t get his comment out of my head, because I want to see what he saw when he was reading it. I remember there being a lot of jealousy- and plenty of connotations of lust and sexual tension- but not too much love. More so than anything else, the dominant theme of this short novel is the nature of reality- which is Robbe-Grillet’s favorite theme to work with (see Les Gommes and Le Voyeur). I remember being confused while reading this novel- because it seemed like I was reading the same events over and over again. I then learned that what was happening was that the narrator was constantly replaying the same moments over and over again in his mind to the point that it becomes impossible to distinguish between his observations and his suspicions. It’s this aspect of the novel that reminds me of A Sport and a Pastime; both feature jealous narrators and it’s never revealed whether the events of the book actually happened or if they are the creations of those jealous narrators. The difference Jealousy has with A Sport and a Pastime however, is that unlike the latter it is not a conventional novel, and cannot be approached as such. Robbe-Grillet wrote Jealousy as a novel with what he referred to as an “absent third-person narrator”. The husband is never once referred to in the book, never speaks, never acts, never named. The idea of the jealous husband is one that is inferred by the reader, once they realize that the events of the book are framed as though being observed by someone. There are subtle clues as to the narrator’s existence- such as the number of deck chairs on the veranda or the number of places at the table. This is a book that will make you a creative reader, because a creative reader is what the book requires. On the surface it is merely a sequence of repeated scenes, each of them written with a meticulous and exact sense of geometry. There’s something very mathematical about the book. The smallest angles and dimensions create a sense of perspective, and provide evidence that there is indeed a narrator. And the green landscape of banana trees that enclose the house represent the jealousy of this view, since green is the color of jealousy.

 

The Sound and the Fury

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Author: William Faulkner

First Published: 1929, Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith

Opening Line: “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”

Synopsis: The fall from grace of a Southern aristocratic family is chronicled over 30 years through the memories of three brothers obsessed with their sister.

How It Innovates: The novel is divided into four parts. The first three sections detail the memories and thoughts of the three brothers Benjy, Quentin, and Jason- each of whom has a different relationship with their sister Caddy that consumes them in various ways. The fourth section of the novel is written from a third-person omniscient point of view, and Caddy- the heroine, the central figure of the book- has no narrative voice at all. And yet this only makes her presence seem all the more powerful, as our image of her is filtered through the views of her brothers. And ultimately that is what the book is about; not Caddy herself so much as what she means to her brothers. It is the first two sections of the novel that are the most interesting to scholars because they are unlike anything else in fiction. Benjy, the voice of the first section, is cognitively disabled and non-verbal. His passage is so interesting because he is trapped in the past, going over various events in his life linked by visceral sensations. It makes for challenging reading, because the time shifts abruptly every couple paragraphs or so, and we are presented with this splintered, kaleidoscopic mélange of scenes. I got the hang of it when I realized that the temporal shifts are indicated by italicized lines (Faulkner originally wanted to have different colors of font to mark the alternating time periods) but it still makes for very challenging reading. It’s not the sort of book you wanna rush, or take to the beach and unwind with in the sun. It’s the sort of thing you have to methodically work through and re-read again and again. The second section though, is even more difficult. It’s narrated by Quentin as he slowly loses his mind. He is tortured by his father’s nihilistic world view and his sister’s sexual promiscuity. Benjy’s section, when you get used to the temporal shifts, is more or less a series of physical sensations and images. He’s non-verbal, so there is no voice to speak of. Whereas with Quentin, we are given a rush of pained emotions and neuroticisms. I honestly marvel at Faulkner’s genius here, because the psychology of the narrators are as interesting as you will find- it is as though he wants to get to the very heart of the human soul and its agonies. As Quentin’s mental state rapidly deteriorates, all sense of grammatical structure and punctuation is thrown out the window. And that’s what I meant in my opening paragraph about experimental fiction reinventing narrative techniques to reflect the themes of a story. Faulkner does not subvert convention for its own sake, but because it serves the book’s themes. Quentin is one of the most fascinating characters in American literature- in some way representing the chivalric, “white knight” psyche of all Southern men- and Faulkner’s abandonment of form makes for an unforgettable account of the man’s depressive state. I’m not sure if I have a favorite novel, but The Sound and the Fury is definitely a contender for the title. Although it’s ball-bustingly difficult, it’s actually a very entertaining story with plenty of cinematic scenes in its more straightforward final two sections.

 

Rayuela (Hopscotch)

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Author: Julio Cortázar

First Published: 1963, Editorial Sudamericana Sociedad Anonima

Opening Line: “Would I find La Maga?” or “Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire, the colorless fire that at nightfall runs along the Rue de la Huchette, emerging from the crumbling doorways, from the little entranceways, of the imageless fire that licks the stones and lies in wait in doorways, how shall we cleanse ourselves of the sweet burning that comes after, that nests in us forever allied with time and memory, with sticky things that hold us here on this side, and which will burn sweetly in us until we have been left in ashes.” (depending on where you start the novel)

Synopsis: An Argentine writer living in Paris searches for his mistress La Maga, before going home to his native Buenos Aires and seeing her everywhere he looks.

How It Innovates: Hopscotch is described by its author as a “counter-novel”. As you may have noticed above, I put two opening lines for the book. How can a book have two opening lines, you ask? Well that’s because it was written as being “many books”, although it is two above all. If you want you can read it from the first page in a straightforward manner like you would any other novel, and the book ends at chapter 56. There are 155 chapters in total, but the last 99 are considered “expendable”. Thinking that I would not read this again for many years, if at all, I decided to read it the second way, where you “hopscotch” from chapter to chapter using a code indicated at the front of the book. This way, you read all of the chapters, starting with chapter 73, and using the code to figure out which chapter comes next. It was super-interesting and completely unlike anything else I’ve ever read. The expendable chapters provide deeper insights into the characters as well as random musings that serve to fill in the gaps of the main narrative that runs through chapters 1-56. It’s been a few years since I read the novel, but it’s an interesting read and the protagonist makes for an intriguing, isolated tumbleweed that goes from place to place without really finding a sense of belonging.

 

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3 Short Stories I Can’t Get Out Of My Head

Today I’m doing a little short story roundup. I’ve recently submitted a few short stories to magazines and competitions, and I thought it might be interesting to share with you three of my favorite stories that I’ve been reading of late. In no particular order, here are three different short stories by three different authors, all of which have inspired my recent writing.


#1 “Hoeing the Beet” – Endre Ady

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Publication Date: 1907

Collected in: Neighbors of the Night (1994, Corvina Books, Ltd)

Summary: On an estate in rural Hungary, a group of women work for 30 krajcárs a day (a paltry amount of money) hoeing beet. Two of the girls are gypsies (magyar cigányok) and all of them are desperately impoverished, living off of “bread and a slice of stale bacon”. Despite their economic equality, the Magyar women cling to a strong sense of racial superiority and refuse to drink from the same jug of water as the Roma women. The owner of the estate tries to resolve the issue by giving the Roma their own jug. However, the Roma women refuse to drink it, believing that they are entitled to the same water as the Magyar. This results in them nearly dying of thirst and the other women laughing at them. One night, however, as all the women sleep in the field, the two Roma women get up and search for the jug of water the Magyar women have hidden in a nearby grove. They find it and drink all of it in long, hearty gulps. In the morning, all the women get back to work and the Roma women are happy for once. Ady ends the story with the ironic line “This, then, is the way beet is hoed in our glorious Hungary”.

Why I LOVE this story: Endre Ady is one of the most respected figures in Hungarian literature, and considered the country’s most important and most-imitated poet of the 20th century. I’m going to resolve to read some of his poetry- for which he is primarily known- since I loved this short story of his. I like to think of Ady as being to poetry what Thomas Wolfe was to fiction, Kurt Cobain was to music, and Pistol Pete was to basketball; a brilliant comet of pure genius and raw talent, an indomitable soul whose legacy we can’t separate from his tragic end. When we look back on their creative fire we almost assume it was fated to happen. Ady passed away on January 27th 1919 after complications from Syphilis. I think his story “Hoeing the Beet” is a real testament to his character as a sensitive, fearless progressive. In many ways, the owner of the estate in the story, who is sympathetic to the Roma girls, represents the government of Hungary over the years and how it has approached what was once known as “The Gypsy Problem”. He is well-meaning but ineffectual. In the story we see a Hungary in which a certain amount of integration has been reached between the Magyar and the Romani, in that they are both equally exploited in an economic sense- and yet the lingering racism of centuries past still lives in the hearts of the women our protagonists work with. The sad conclusion from the story is that the racial hatred does persist- but that’s kind of why it strikes a chord with me. I don’t want stories that cheer me up and make me comfortable. As Debra Wilson, the actress of Wolfenstein 2’s Grace Walker, recently said “We don’t learn by being comfortable”.


#2 “The Half-Skinned Steer” – Annie Proulx

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Publication Date: November 1997 (Atlantic Monthly)

Collected in: Close Range: Wyoming Stories (May 10th 1999, Scribner)

Summary: In Massachusetts, an 83-year old Mero gets a call from a woman saying that his brother Rollo has died. Mero, who left his family’s Wyoming ranch at the age of 23, and who has attempted in a variety of ways to bury the past, finally decides to head home and attend Rollo’s funeral. The story sees his physical and psychological deterioration as he drives across the country to Wyoming, in which many repressed memories from his childhood and why he left the ranch come back to him. Chief among them is a story his father’s girlfriend once told about a rancher named Tin Head, who has a galvanized metal plate sewn in his cranium that severely affects his brain functions. Supposedly, Tin Head was butchering a steer outside when he decided to take a break, eating lunch and taking a nap. When he comes back outside, he finds the steer gone. It then comes back, half-skinned and mutilated, fixing him with a hateful stare that he believes is the steer setting a curse on him. This story gives Mero a nightmare and he leaves home. After a problematic journey across country, Mero finds the Wyoming landscape much the way he remembers it- despite all his years trying to forget it. It’s night and snowing hard, and thinking he knows the way to the ranch, Mero ends up crashing the car and wrecking the engine. He attempts to find another ranch on foot he believes is nearby, before ultimately perishing in the cold. As he dies, he thinks he sees the half-skinned steer from the story glaring at him with a red eye.

Why I LOVE this story: Reading this short story gave me a classic case of “I wish I had written this”. I was just so completely in awe of it that I even felt a little jealous and disheartened. How could I possibly write anything ever again? I can’t believe Proulx’s genius has eluded me for so long as a reader. For those of you who don’t know her, the film Brokeback Mountain is an adaptation of a story from the same collection as “The Half-Skinned Steer”. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Shipping News, which I also believe was made into a film. I’m not sure “The Half-Skinned Steer” has the same cinematic potential as “Brokeback Mountain”, as it is less of a straightforward narrative and more a haze of flashbacks and stories-within-stories. I think it would probably have to be a loose adaptation, with an expanded narrative. The characters and their conflicts are great film material however, and it’s probably the reason I love this story so much. It’s a dark, psychological narrative that explores themes of memory, death and sex.


#3 “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” – Denis Johnson

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Publication Date: Spring 1989 (Issue 110, The Paris Review)

Collected in: Jesus’ Son (1992, Picador)

Summary: The story is narrated in the first person by a hitchhiker who claims to be prescient. Reporting the events of a single night as if outside of time, the hitchhiker recalls traveling with a Cherokee, a salesman, and a college student. Each of them share large quantities of drugs and alcohol with him, until eventually he falls asleep in a puddle on the side of the road. He is then picked up by a family and falls asleep in their car. The car later crashes headlong into a vehicle driven by a man who is apparently asleep at the wheel. The hitchhiker grabs the baby and tries to seek help from a reluctant truck driver. The police arrive and insist that he come with them to the hospital. There, the hitchhiker watches as it is revealed that the man in the family is dead. His wife screams, and the hitchhiker narrates “What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere”. The narrative then jumps forward a few years where the hitchhiker is now being admitted to a clinic for substance abuse. As the nurse injects him with vitamins, he hallucinates being in an idyllic, pastoral setting and claims that he cannot be of any help to anyone.

Why I LOVE this story: I was assigned Jesus’ Son in 2012 during my student exchange to the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. During a Creative Writing workshop class, we analyzed this story and Johnson’s distinctive writing style. What is so striking about this story in particular is how the fleeting, minimalist narrative is made large by the voice that underpins it. Johnson captures the altered mental state of a drug addict in such an unforgettable and fascinating way. The opening paragraph in particular made a huge impression on me, and influenced the way I wrote stories for years afterwards. I loved the crazy sentences that didn’t make logical sense, yet whose interesting word choices seemed to resonate somehow. Famed author Jeffrey Eugenides sums up the narrator (whose name is Fuckhead, by the way) thus “Fuckhead isn’t Jesus. He’s Jesus’s son, which is a different thing entirely. He’s a person graced with an intuition of heaven who still lives in hell on earth”.


Thank you so much for reading! These are the short stories that have particularly influenced me of late. What are your favorite short stories? Let me know in the comments!

How to Create a Schedule and Get Out of a Slump

A great way to get yourself out of a slump is to create a schedule- whether you’re a writer or not. But it’s not as straightforward as I once thought. The trick is to turn that schedule into a lifestyle; doing it so many times that the components become as unconscious and effortless as the day-to-day rituals of showering or brushing your teeth. I’m going to use my progress this year as an example, because the only way to learn how to improve is by looking back.

I wrote a few weeks ago how the most important quality to defeating lethargy and procrastination is your Bouncebackability. You’re gonna fail and fail until you get it right. But the key to getting it right is to examine those failures, because each one holds the secret to success. Your failures are the best resources you have.

I’ve tried so many times over the years to set a schedule for myself but they just never seemed to stick. My thinking was that inevitably each one would crumble because I’m an inherently lazy person, and that the best strategy was to just keep initiating the same schedule. Sure, there were a few tweaks here and there, but each one was hopelessly set up to fail- like a house made of garlic bread.

The first and most important rule to creating a schedule is not to set yourself up for failure. I know that might sound obvious, but what I mean is don’t be over-ambitious at the start of your journey. If the schedule is too punishing, you’ll slip back into laziness. And that brings us to the second rule- implement a schedule that feels like a lifestyle and not a list of chores. Traditionally all my schedules were based off of the Pomodoro method. I broke up the day into regimented slots of about 30 minutes each. The problem came when I wasn’t hitting my targets as effectively as I wanted. But how did I realize this?

During the three-day lifespans of these schedules, I would be happy and satisfied because my thinking was “I might not be smashing every task, but at least I’m getting something done”. My thought process was that some writing is better than none at all. When 2017 started I wasn’t optimistic. I was in a rut. I stayed up all hours of the night, and generally I felt disgusted with my life. Change was an impossible dream. So when I got around to implementing schedules, they did help me to get out of that depressive state, because by comparison they made me feel like I was doing something worthwhile.

But the schedules never lasted. I had made some progress, but now I was stagnating. And here we return to the wise words of Jabari Parker. In the Sports Illustrated video I mentioned earlier this week, he stresses the importance of giving everything 110%. When we use that phrase we tend not to think about it too much. It’s often dismissed as some kind of idiomatic, uplifting cliché. But what the concept of giving 110% refers to is what athletes call “Overload”. Jabari tells the school children that the 10% extra is absolutely crucial to making your ambitions come true. It’s about pushing yourself and not getting comfortable.

And that essentially is how I changed my schedule. I realized I wasn’t giving the 10% extra. I was living a more productive life, spiced up by three-day spurts of regimented and scheduled work- but I was resting on my laurels. Progress had slowed and I realized that if I wanted to get to where I wanted to be, I had to increase my output. I had to work harder and faster. Simply being productive was not enough anymore. Now it was about urgency, about living as if I only had a year to live at all. That was the moment I started looking back on my schedules with a view to changing them entirely.

To reach your goals and achieve real change in your life, you need to have an evolving schedule. This is where we get specific. One thing that wasn’t working for me with my Pomodoro-esque day planners were the time slots I devoted to coming up with story ideas. Sometimes ideas come tumbling out and sometimes they don’t. And setting aside time to come up with killer ideas for novels, poems, songs (or whatever it is you are working on) is inherently problematic. You can sit there and think really hard but you can’t force the lightning to strike. Deciding that it’s time to come up with ideas is a surefire way for a writer to give him or herself an overwhelming sense of anxiety, stress and self-doubt. If the 30-minute time slot ended and I hadn’t come up with anything, I’d panic because I had to continue the day-planner and the dedicated time for story ideas was lost. The whole schedule would seem tainted because one of the listed targets was not hit.

Looking back on my diaries this week I saw so many entries from 2010 that read “Sat for ages trying to come up with story ideas, and after realizing that the precious hours of the day were dwindling, I gave up and played Age of Empires 2. Day wasted”. So I looked back on these problems and thought about how to fix them. First I asked myself where ideas come from. Well they either strike at random moments, or they happen when I’m reading. The more I read fiction, the more ideas for fictional stories I get. The same holds true for movie ideas, songs, et cetera I imagine. It makes sense after all. So what I’ve been doing recently is reading with a notebook on hand. I read until I get an idea, and when I run out of ideas I resume reading instead of sitting there stressing out. So far the results have been amazing.

Another trick to living a productive lifestyle is to know the best conditions for your success and to replicate them. I do best when I get up early. If I get out of bed with the whole day ahead of me, I’m happy. I write best in the mornings. I know a lot of writers- such as Anne Tyler for instance- do their writing from about 8am-2pm. I need to be happy to write and I need to write to be happy. Simple right? Well my problem for a while has been simply getting out of bed. When the year started I was a night owl, and when I woke up I was severely depressed and lacking in motivation because half my day was gone. I was tired and groggy all the time, despite the medication I’ve been taking for over a year that’s supposed to help. So I looked back on that and thought how best to turn things around.

During my summer in Texas my roommates and I would all get up early and make coffee. I wanted to be a caffeine drinker but I knew I didn’t really like the taste. Luckily, my friends sorted me out.

“My fiancée makes a mean coffee,” Aaron said, and on the first morning of the summer Anne-Marie brought me a coffee lovingly made with almond creamer, caramel syrup and a bit of sugar. A work of art. I tried it and it was the first time coffee ever tasted good. And what ended up happening with coffee was what I always hoped would happen with alcohol- that the more I drank it, the more I’d like it. I started off trying to replicate Anne-Marie’s sweet coffees, and week by week started making them stronger. By the end of the summer I was able to drink black coffee and I didn’t even need it to be warm either.

Every morning that summer was spent waking up early, making a coffee, and eating a large apple whilst reading novels and snuggling with our pup. I’ve managed to replicate those conditions now (except for the dog, sadly) and it works. Without coffee, having a productive day was a lottery. If I woke up groggy I would find it hard to do much. So I got myself a coffee maker and now I’ve established a routine aimed at recreating the environment that saw the happiest period of my life. I wake up early every morning, make coffee, go on a brisk walk, and come back to drink it, eat my apple, and begin my strategy of reading and jotting down ideas. The great thing about coffee is that it gets rid of my grogginess, and so incorporating it into my life permanently has seen some excellent results. I’m chasing what Theodore Roosevelt called The Strenuous Life. I want to pull the moon down from the sky. I don’t want to play the game- I want to win it. I encourage you to be aggressive with your writing (or whatever it is you are pursuing). Learn from the past, and approach each day like Jabari Parker flying down the lane to crush a tomahawk dunk.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

My 2017 reading schedule has seen me go back and forth not only between genres of fiction, but between old books and new. I’ve made a sizable dent in the stack of second-hand novels I brought home from Texas this summer, but I have also committed myself to reading those books that have suffered on my shelves for years. Some of them I always intended to read but just never got around to, others I had completely abandoned, forgetting why I wanted to read them in the first place. The great Anne Tyler and her inimitable body of work most certainly occupy the former category. She’s an author that I was very much predisposed to liking; whose work I seemed to know without having ever read. I knew I’d like her but I never got around to sitting down and losing myself in Tyler’s Baltimore.

I discovered Anne Tyler in the fall semester of 2013, during a meeting with my creative writing professor regarding my dissertation. I couldn’t decide what story I wanted to write for my “extended creative project” or “ECP” as it was known. At the time I was struggling with this idea I had about a high school basketball star in Western Wisconsin, and taking my influences from a variety of American male authors such as John Updike and Raymond Carver. I was interested in the mundane- American suburbia- but also drawn every now and then to the sensational, to plots involving earth-shattering revelations and high emotions. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to write, and only followed a vague idea of where I wanted to go, trying to advance a plot that wasn’t quite moving all on its own. I had a meeting with a professor who was acting as the supervisor for my dissertation and tried to convey some of the difficulties I was having. It was then that he gave me a list of books I ought to read. The first items on the list were Breathing Lessons and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, both by Anne Tyler. I was intrigued by the titles alone.

My professor said that it sounded like I was trying to emulate these writers, and that if I read from them myself, I might get the help I needed to write the kinds of stories I wanted to write. I never did read them; I was far too wayward, too impatient, too anxious to simply settle down on anything- but I remembered Anne Tyler especially. I ended up buying her magnum opus- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant– for my mother. I knew she would like it even though I hadn’t read a single sentence of her work before. My mom and I share a lot of books and have a lot of the same tastes. She loves American fiction and always has. This book was supposedly the kind that I wanted to write. So I bought it for my mom and Anne Tyler became her favorite author of all time. No one else comes close, except maybe Steinbeck. Over the years she’s collected every single Anne Tyler novel and read them all. It seemed these books had the same life expectancy around my mom as Double-Stuf Oreos do around me. She tore through them, and it’s hard to discuss it and not come up with metaphors relating to thirst and hunger. I was going to say she just as quickly consumed and disposed of them as a relapsed alcoholic does the contents of a hotel minibar. I always intended to join her, but I never got around to it. However, after months of intensifying nagging on her part, I finally decided that the time was right and picked up this book whose title I had for so long been entranced by.

Like most of her novels, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is set in Tyler’s native Baltimore. In fact, I’d argue that she stands as the greatest and most iconic author of the city and perhaps the state of Maryland as a whole. Yes, I know that the Baltimore Ravens are named after that one Edgar Allen Poe poem, but honestly you’d be hard pressed to find a fitting name for a football team in an Anne Tyler book. The Baltimore Single Mothers? The fact that Tyler is so strongly associated with the city of Baltimore was a real draw for me. Maryland has always seemed like such a strange place. It’s too southern to be considered a part of the North, and yet too north to be considered truly Southern. It occupies this narrow stretch of no-man’s land between two vastly different cultural and geographic regions, and it has the strangest shape of any country subdivision you’ve ever seen. However there’s little physical description of all this in the novel. What lines are devoted to the setting are sparse and fleeting. Tyler’s Baltimore is a world of sun-splashed sidewalks and brick row houses, streets either full of children at play or no one at all, strip malls, street cats and an endless maze of roads full of parked cars, with only occasional references to the smog of the more industrial parts of town. It’s thoroughly urban, and in some ways that atmosphere comes across in the sheer lack of description of the setting. Tyler is more interested in people and their relationships. Very careful and deep attention is given to the minutiae of domestic life. Tyler’s philosophy is that through the examination of small, mundane things, larger truths are revealed.

In some ways, her obsession with the small aspects of family life reminds me of Raymond Carver, but in truth she reads a lot more like John Updike or William Maxwell. Her vibrant characterizations are much like that of Liane Moriarty, though the pace and themes of her work could not be more different. To my mind, the crowning achievement of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant– and the main aspect that I take away from the novel- is how rich and interesting the characters are. They are all so kooky and eccentric, and represent universal truths of the psychology of family life- such as sibling rivalries, the passing down of traits to descendants, and the nature of pride. The novel is about three siblings: Cody, Ezra and Jenny, and details their life after their father abandons their mother Pearl, leaving her to raise them herself. Each of the siblings fail to detach themselves from the event of their father’s leaving, allowing it to determine the rest of their lives. As the novel spans many years, we see how each of them are shaped by this one event, and how none of them- including Pearl- fully get over it.

I was especially drawn to the oldest child Cody, because in some ways he reminded me of myself during my childhood. During my school days I often caused a lot of trouble and mayhem. I was guilty of not only being a hyperactive little shit, but also being mean to other kids on a few occasions. I remember teasing a girl when I was nine years old, and the class teacher assistant came over and said icily “He doesn’t care about people’s feelings. He just doesn’t care”. I felt a little sympathy for the character of Cody, who everyone assumes is just cold-hearted and without empathy, because it reminded me of those days. I felt like I could relate on some level to his desire to cause more trouble, to accept his “devil” status to spite those that had given it to him.

To conclude, this is a wonderful book, and my reading of it was long overdue. Perhaps the most fascinating element of Tyler’s characterization is the way each sibling remembers the same childhood events differently, and how these competing memories clash throughout the book in a series of poetic repetitions of family dinners always going unfinished. I urge you all to give Anne Tyler a read. She’s one of America’s most perceptive and intelligent writers. And there’s no better place to start than the novel she herself considers her best: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant!

10 Reasons Why I Love “Birches” By Robert Frost

I love “Birches”: 10 Reasons Why. This is starting to sound like a Netlfix Original Series, and it’s one typo away from sounding like a rap song. I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while. Robert Frost is one of my favorite poets, and I usually give “Birches” as my favorite poem. What I want is to outline for you why I love this poem and why it’s special to me. I want this post to be a celebration of the joy of poetry, so I’m going to avoid getting too much into the analytics. I’ll leave the sober essays on the poem’s themes to the good folks at Sparknotes. Today I want to leave the world of academics behind and just write from the heart. So here it is, 10 Reasons Why I Love “Birches” by Robert Frost.

  1. I first discovered Robert Frost when I was studying as an exchange student at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire in 2012. I was taking a class in American Literature and we had a selection of his poems to study for Finals. By that point the campus was covered in snow and ice and I remember walking very carefully to Hibbard- the building where I had my English classes- because it felt that at any moment I might fall. I distinctly remember not even being able to see the big, red-brick building because the snow was so thick. I can still feel the weight of flaky white clumps on my eyelashes and how I had to blink and rub my eyes constantly just to see where I was going. Of all the poems we read of Frost, “Birches” was the one that stuck with me. It’s the link between the present and the time I spent studying American Literature in December of 2012, with the wintry images of the poem bearing a striking resemblance to the campus at the time of my reading it.
  2. I feel like I can relate to the narrator of the poem. At one time or another we have all looked at birches bent over in the wind and imagined that some boy had been swinging them. I am drawn to the idea that he “likes” to see them that way, and that even though he realizes that it’s all because of the ice storm, he later goes on to say he still “prefers” to think of them as being swung by children. I often find myself in a similar mindset, and I think that’s why this poem struck such a cord with me at the time. My reading of the poem was that the speaker is not so interested in truth in the empirical, literal sense of the word, but in the truths we create for ourselves by attaching significance to things. It pleases the speaker to think of the birches as bent by children at play because it takes him back to his youth, to a time of innocence. The narrator seems weary and weighed down by the adult world and the hard, sad truths of life. He longs for the blissful way a child perceives the world, but he wants to return just long enough to escape the complexity of the real world for a moment. I’m often thinking about how I like to see the world in a lyrical or poetic way, imagining things to have a greater significance than they do.
  3. The poem for me also exists as a kind of textual painting of the New England rural idyll. It makes me think of the paintings of Winslow Homer, and the winter scenes of Currier & Ives. Like a painting, it has the power to encapsulate a time, a place, and a way of life with a single image- the swinging of birches. This was a popular game for children in rural parts of New England, and something that both Frost and his children were fond of doing.
  4. Of course, one of the big draws of this poem is the wintry imagery. I’ve never been to New England, so the only picture I have to accompany this post is a photo my roommate took of a birch tree in the Wisconsin northwoods in the summer. As my professor read this poem to us I found myself hanging on his every word. Everyone in the room was silent and I could imagine that each of us had a clear image- not dissimilar to that of a painting- of the birches bent over in the shrill winds of winter. I love the way he describes them as “trailing their leaves on the ground/Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair/Before them over their heads to dry in the sun”.
  5. The images were so powerful to me that they influenced my own writing of poetry. A year later, in the fall of 2013, I began writing poems again for a class I was taking in Winchester, England. My style had changed. I was reinventing myself as a nature poet. I was obsessed with images and I wrote a whole bunch of vivid poems about the Wisconsin landscape. In “Birches” the freezing rain causes the branches to become coated in glaze ice, which then cracks in the sunny morning and falls to the snow below. It’s funny, because during the fall of 2013, I called Aaron and asked how things were back in Wisco. He told me about going on dates with Anne-Marie and explained to me the concept of freezing rain- which they were suffering that week. I took the two pieces of information and wrote a poem about a young Wisconsinite couple trying to find each other in freezing rain. I was inspired by how the weather was at once beautiful and terrible.
  6. “Birches” is written in blank verse; that is so say, poems written in unrhymed metrical lines. I’ve always preferred poems that don’t rhyme, because I love the way the sentences just seem to hang in the air and stay in the thoughts of the reader.
  7. What’s so great about this poem is the beauty of its language. It makes your ears happy. Frost uses sibilance to create a visceral, onomatopoeic effect in the lines “Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells/Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust”. I remember hearing the admiration in my professor’s voice as he read it. He had clearly read this poem countless times, but it still took his breath away.
  8. “Birches” was the gateway drug that got me hooked on the skag of poems like “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”. It established Frost as one of my go-to poets, alongside Wallace Stevens, Robert Lowell and James Dickey.
  9. Although I discovered Frost in 2012, I would not return to him until 2014. “Birches” remained in my subconscious but it wouldn’t be forgotten for long. It all came flooding back to me when Anne-Marie told me that Robert Frost was her favorite poet and “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” and “The Road Not Taken” were her favorite poems. She had studied them in high school and fallen in love with them. There’s a special joy I take in sharing the passion of words with my friends. One time I even caught her reciting the lines “and miles to go before I sleep…” as she drove us across Wisconsin in the night. When I got back to the U.K in the fall, I then picked up a book of his complete works, which I always keep within reaching distance of my writing desk.
  10. The last reason why I love “Birches” so much is in many ways a culmination of reasons 1-9; it’s a great poem to be read aloud. Despite my phobia of public speaking I do enjoy reading poems aloud when I can. It’s a fear I dream of overcoming. And I’d love to read Frost’s poems to people with the same passion that my Literature professor had back in Eau Claire. It’s a timeless, enduring body of work that I’d take a great pleasure in sharing with others. Reading “Birches”- or any great poem- is really only half the fun. Share it with those you love and those you want to inspire.

You can read the poem here: Birches

Bouncing Back

Today I let my legs do my thinking for me. I had a lot to work out on this morning’s walk and I wondered if my route was going to be long enough. Walking helps to clear my head but it’s only really the beginning of the day’s therapy; at some point you have to come back hit the day’s targets. This morning, tropical winds brought the dust and debris from the Iberian forest fires and obfuscated the sun’s wavelength of blue light. This caused the sun to rise a deep red, before going a sharp, neon orange- a perfect circle, and ultimately settling into an indistinct, shapeless and colorless blast. It’s beautiful, even though it comes from a place of suffering. The universe is a wholly ambivalent thing, but there is so much poetry in violent skies.

I tried not to look at the sun and pressed ahead. My legs felt weak and starved of proper use. They were reminding me that I hadn’t used them all weekend. I thought about how often I’ve been here- trying to restart my rhythm. Recently I’ve been waking up depressed, and when I have a bad start to the day it’s hard to turn it into something. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but for weeks now I’ve sensed the coiling tentacles of anxiety tighten their grip. I’ve felt immobilized. It’s been a while since I’ve had a panic attack, and 2017 has largely been a year of recovery. Hell, this blog wouldn’t even be possible if it weren’t.

What’s been so frustrating recently is that this latest dark cloud has been so hard to shake off. I’ve come to terms with the fact that there will be good weeks and bad ones, but this most recent episode has proven a resilient obstacle to my progress. Life just seems so heavy. I’m cursed with regular headaches and I’m not advancing on any of my projects. It’s not the problem I had in 2015 and 2016, where I simply didn’t want to even attempt to help myself and struggled to find the most simple reason to get out of bed and try something. Now I have ambitions. I actually want to live. The problem I have right now is enacting those ambitions.

It’s been a bit of a turbulent month as far as my work goes. I’ve been unsatisfied with the pace of my progress, and I’ve tried a few times to shake things up. I know I’m not happy with the way things are. I’m angry at myself for my lack of willpower and my failure to really get going on these projects. However, as I reached the final third of my walk this morning, a thought occurred to me. My legs were indeed telling me something. My sense of physical weakness reflected what was going on inside. My legs taught me that the most important part of a vigorous, productive lifestyle is bouncing back. The quicker the better. I’m tired of building momentum from scratch. If I’m exercising every day, then my body adapts to the routine. A single activity- be it a morning’s walk or anything else- becomes easier when it’s in the context of an ongoing routine. And it’s the same with writing or anything else you’re trying to do. Whenever you are designing a productive schedule, be sure to include a failsafe. Going forward I’m going to try and do a better job of bouncing back. Life will inevitably get in the way and sometimes you’ll just run out of steam. The important thing- the most important thing in my opinion- is the swiftness of your response.

Thematically you can consider this post a kind of sequel to my essay Notes on Productivity & Procrastination, in which I list a few tricks to help get yourself out of a rut and start being creative and productive. But in all honestly, this is more a spiritual successor to my post on The Love of Friendship. I like to think of it as a journal entry that I share with you; something unplanned and unstructured- a “thought of the day”. I intend to release more of these whenever the mood strikes me; they’re going to be short, spontaneous posts that detail my journey.

Thanks for reading!

The Books Of My Childhood

At the moment I’m in the middle of reorganizing my bookshelves. I’ve got too many books and too little space, as evidenced by the tall stacks that have formed across my bedroom floor. My main bookshelf is two rows deep, and for the first time in a decade I’ve been able to get my hands on the books at the back. This provided an ample opportunity for me to do a little post about the books of my childhood- or more specifically, those books that established me as an independent reader. I always enjoyed English at school and my parents read to me before bed from an early age, but I would say I discovered my love for reading around the age of 10 and 11. That’s when reading became a habit, something I would do on my own time for my own enjoyment.

It all started about a month before my eleventh birthday. I was in my last year of primary school here in the U.K and our teacher that year was a Utah native by way of Canada. She introduced to us this series of American children’s books called A Series of Unfortunate Events, and as a class we read the first of those books- The Bad Beginning. I enjoyed it so much that I asked my mom to get it for me so I could read the novel myself, in its entirety, at my leisure. I got hooked on them and ended up reading the first ten books in the series in the space of a month. That really signaled the start of my independent reading. From thereafter it became not only a hobby, but a lifestyle, and one that was undertaken with the utmost seriousness.

Looking at these old books now, I can trace my evolution as both a reader and a writer to three pillars of reading. Of course, the first pillar was…


A Series of Unfortunate Events

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Author: Lemony Snicket

Publication Dates: September 30th 1999-October 14th 2006

Opening Sentence: “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book”.

Trivia: These books served as the foundation for almost everything for me. As the years passed however, I began to forget where it all started- my love of literature and my love of writing. It wasn’t until the Fall of 2013 that I thought about them again. I was out grocery shopping in Winchester with my housemates when I saw a jar of Puttanesca sauce. It triggered such a strong sense of déjà vu that I had to buy it. I still had no idea why it was so affecting, so I called my brother and asked him if we ever had Puttanesca as kids, or some memory associated with it. I wanted to know why it was so damn important. He had no idea, so I called my mom. She somehow remembered that I had read The Bad Beginning as a kid and had mentioned to her that the Baudelaire orphans make Puttanesca for Count Olaf.

 


Harry Potter

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Author: J.K Rowling

Publication Dates: June 26th 1997-July 21st 2007

Opening Sentence: “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much”.

Trivia: I would say the audio books narrated by Stephen Fry were as significant to my development as the books themselves. We used to listen to them on cassette tapes on long car journeys. They were a real life-saver because I was the kind of kid that’d be saying “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” every five miles. I’d say these books were the basis for a lot of my early writing techniques. I remember emulating Rowling a lot in stories I wrote for English class in school, imitating the tone of her prose, the kinds of phrases she used, the way she described characters. My favorite of the series is The Chamber of Secrets, closely followed by The Prisoner of Azkaban. I don’t really like them after The Goblet of Fire, and I stopped after I read The Half-Blood Prince. However I know how it ends because my American roommates and I did a marathon of all the movies!

 


The Star Wars Expanded Universe Books

 

 

Author: Various. I always liked Kevin J. Anderson the best; his style made a particular impression on my writing.

Publication Dates: November 12th 1976-x

Opening sentence (The Unifying Force): “Selvaris, faintly green against a sweep of white-hot stars, and with only a tiny moon for companionship, looked like the loneliest of planets”.

Trivia: Once I had gotten into the habit of reading, it wasn’t long before I started to think about what books I really wanted to discover. And there was nothing more dear to my heart during my childhood than Star Wars. It was in late 2004, after my 12th birthday, that my love of Star Wars reached an absolute fever pitch and I started picking up the books. These novels will always be special to me, because I have such fond memories of reading them. The first one I got was Dark Apprentice by Kevin J. Anderson. I adored it. I began to write self-insert fan fiction, depicting myself as the heroic Jedi Padawan on an epic journey. It was a fun time, and for a couple years I had no ambition beyond reading Star Wars and writing Star Wars. I later read The Unifying Force by James Luceno, and it stands as a significant book in my reading history. It was the first time I felt proud of having read a book, and it was also the first long book that I had ever read. I got it because I was intrigued by the cover, even though I had never read the others in the series. After starting the book two times and giving up after each attempt, I figured I would never read it and it just couldn’t be done. But I gave it a third shot and surprised myself by sticking with it. It might not seem like a great achievement compared to reading The Sound and the Fury, but I actually consider The Unifying Force the bigger hurdle in my reading history.

 


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