Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Engagement in a Time of Polarization / Thinking on Engagement

During our conversation in Engagement in a Time of Polarization, an open MOOC, we discussed a wide range of ideas in defining what engagement might be through this discourse. I think the hardest part of the discussion for me is who we are engaging - someone in a political discourse, someone in a classroom, someone in an electronic group? Engagement can be a complex, confusing issue because there is the user and how they engage and the group, class, or political group that measures the engagement. I see it like the reader to the writer -- or the reader to the text they are reading. Engagement is important to a book, but the book doesn’t measure its impact. However, the publisher measures its sales and promotion as to the success of the book.

When you consider the measurable ways to follow print readers, book people use the concept of "circulation" and "readership". It is suggested that readership is larger than circulation because of "pass-on" readers. But, we also know that print media and electronic media move differently. Page views don't mean readership, it just means page displayed on a screen. It isn't until you measure how long people were on the page that we can even define what they were doing there (and often that is not clear). 

Does engagement work that way? If we buy the book and don't read it, perhaps we are passive in the act of engagement. If we buy the book and are moved by the story (still passive?), then we've engaged the story and we have accumulated the reading experience (as interpreted through my own experience). Now, I am ready to go to a book club, teach the book, or quote that in my own writing experience. Now, I am potentially active until I unleash my ideas of the book on the book club, classroom, or article. Is there a basic threshold from passive to active engagement? 

During our discussion Elizabeth St. Clair in our discussion commented, “I think the work you put in, whether you do it with your hands, head, or heart is worthy of being considered participatory.” I think this is a really interesting place to start in terms of being engaged and what that means. And all of the book comparisons above serve in the realm of participatory - but move across a vision of passive and active engagement. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Book Review / Gods of Howl Mountain

Taylor Brown
St. Martin's Press
Pub Date: March 20, 2018
ISBN 978-1250111777

When it comes to protagonists, Taylor Brown has changed that paradigm in his novel Gods of Howl Mountain. Rory Docherty is a wounded Korean veteran, back home to bootleg liquor, clash with local factions, evade the law, and appease all his family. He is a gritty car guy who knows the long history of the mountain and the mill town at the bottom of the valley. While Rory is a cut-throat stock car racer and bootlegger, he also knows the mountain and people. A novel as much about place and time as it is story and conflict. 

Rory has returned with a missing leg. Living with his grandmother, in the mountains, they live among the herbal remedies and folklore that haunts the misty mountains. When Rory falls in love with the daughter of a snake-handling preacher, their world is pulled apart by violence, rivalries, love, and ghosts from the past.

Thinking that some evil has invaded Rory's heart, Granny May keeps her shotgun close and her distrust closer. She is mystical in her mountain herbal remedies and her shotgun judgments of the world. Her life as a matriarch and medicine woman draws people to her who want different cures for what ails their lives in town. She also is the link between Rory and the mother he never knew. 

Taylor Brown's prose is as mystical and lyrical as the ghosts high in the mountains. It is not always a beautiful place, but the mountain, the people, and the hard lives all resonant with a profound beauty that shifts from grace and wisdom to deceit and violence. Brown has masterfully crafted this world, grounding in the reader a sense of place and time in America, now long gone. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Book Review: Paris in the Present Tense

Mark Helprin
Overlook Press / 2017
  • ISBN: 978-1468314762
400 Pages

It has been awhile since a novel has changed the way I think about the novel. But Paris in the Present Tense is a lyrical novel that has empowered my faith in the contemporary novel. Let's face it, it has been awhile since A Winter's Tale, when we first fell into the world of Helprin's prose and imagination, and while this book isn't as mystical, it is formidable in his prose and his storytelling.

This novel follows the life an aged cello player named Jules Lacour a cellist and teacher who is facing the end of his days and his life in Paris. And while there is intrigue, mystery, and all the plot points that have grown tired in contemporary fiction, this novel rises above all those expectations. Part of it is the nature of this older, wise protagonist and his vision of the world. But it also sits in the root of Helprin's prose and his ability to position you in the most complex moments of life and find more than just plot point, but more.

Jules is an older protagonist who is eccentric in some ways and contemporary in others. He is suspiciously healthy and can still run, swim, and row. His routines are simple, but his life complex and fraught with pitfalls. He lives as a renter on an estate, and he has a life that has shaped his romantic and often practical vision of the world. His life proves that things like love can still fill our lives through intimacy, music, longing, and fate. It is modern in terms of the world that Jules lives in, but it is also worldly in the connections to the past - through music, personal history, and dynamics of all those relationships accumulated over the years. There were times when the use of more flashbacks may have focused a few more things, but that isn't the point of this book. What we missed is left for the reader to contemplate.

In terms of the prose writing, it is exceptional. Helprin's writing is vivid and so well balanced. As I mentioned, this book is about a lot of plot points that (if I wrote them here) sound trite and typical of a thriller novel. But this novel doesn't run on the answers to plotted questions. This novel is threaded with an emotional quality that comes from Helprin's prose.

And sometimes, the phrasing of his writing just stops you. He writes "That kept me alive. For you, they would say it was trauma, but I wouldn't. I'd say it was simpler, that like everyone else you have a paradise you long to restore, but your paradise is also hell. Although getting back is dark and dangerous, you won't be deterred. Love draws you back. You can't escape." The push and pull of ideas and words is a constant tension. Helprin is constantly playing with opposites - or in this book lyrical dynamics. Paradise is compared with hell. Trauma isn't real unless there is something to lose. And it becomes this kind of vision of pushing and pulling words apart that makes this book feel less a plotted thriller and more like an epic love story.

During a war flashback, Helprin used his descriptive art to describe the sounds of troops moving. This is relevant because music, sounds, and shaping music is thematic to the novel. "The sounds of arrival and departure were always the same: straps slapping against metal, engines starting, tripods folding, the slides and bolts of weapons exercised after oiling, commands shouted, and upon leaving, the blast of a whistle followed by the revving of engines as the vehicles rolled off." One of the hardest parts of writing about music is that the novel lacks the ability to hear music directly. And writers then have to spend time describing the nature of the music without hearing it. While this novel deals with the essence of music, it doesn't stumble with long expositions about music, in fact - like his description, he turns troop movements, thunderstorms, and cafes into music that inspires the sounds of the music.

This novel is based on the later years of an older man - a many with years of experience and vision. When his daughter thinks he is getting senile because he can't remember the name of a film, he argues, "You learn to see with your emotions and feel with your reason. If at its end the life you're living takes on the attributes of art, it doesn't matter if you've forgotten where you put your reading glasses."

This novel is a very human, a very stunning testament to the complexities of living a full and meaningful life. Even with the best intentions, the world has different plans. This novel is about hope, love, and value in our personal history. It is a rare idea so elegantly placed in a contemporary novel.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Among Those Things

In my previous post about creating Misfit Manifestos in class, it occurred to me that over the course of the semester I give a lot of writing assignments. Not all of them are a lengthy research paper, but they are intentionally designed for the continuous practice of writing. It is important in my class to understand that writing is a practiced skill and they should be writing often. And like someone learning a musical instrument, sometimes who are better off doing scales and sometimes you play the whole concerto. 

Yet, as I was writing about their experience with the Misfit Manifestos, it occurred to me that sometimes, students connect with assignments in a way that opens their ideas, and changes the way they see their own lives. The point being is that through a variety of writing opportunities, it is very hard to tell which assignments are going to connect with the students in the classroom. But what comes with experience: is knowing that something will connect with the students.  

It is clear that these writing assignment was a needed break away from writing about Virginia Woolf and modernism. And it was clear from their writing that they wanted to say something important about who they are. It reminds me of the letter writing assignment I work on with my creative writing students. They write letters to people that they can't send them too because of death, or distance, or something else. Every time I do that creative writing exercise, it is clear that they have something that need to say immediately. It is almost like writers are just waiting for the right idea, the right acceptance and permission to say those things that have been waiting their for the right moment. That is what it felt like with my students, particularly with a student who said, "This will be the easiest assignment so far, I've been screwed up my entire life." And that was the release he needed to explain it all to me. 

Are we looking for permission to write these stories about ourselves? Are these stories just waiting, just under the waves of our everyday life waiting for the right prompt or the right group to share it with? This type of writing is where your story can be a superpower. This is where you sit in class and awe at the struggles, the humanity that comes from writers, and you see something so brave in a writer - the act of writing down something that has always been kept from the world. And there it is on a desk, so common place, like a pen, a notebook. Among those things, you know what a privilege it is. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Lidia Yuknavitch and the The Misfit's Manifesto

I work with college students, more specifically, emerging college students, so they are constantly on the cusp of things that are coming to them. We develop skills, we tell them that they need to improve just to cut it in college. We also tell them about what it means to have a traditional college experience. In reality, a traditional college experience is a myth. We aren't going to live in some kind of strange 1950's vision of academics. 

Our emerging students are not traditional at all. They have had to fight, push, and work much harder than the people around them. In fact, in most cases the students are satisfied just blending in, just being around a higher education experience. They can be self-defeating, battered, wounded learners. 

I've read The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch and I admired her unabashed honesty and the focus of her writing. It was one of the first memoirs that changed the way I think about the form. More important, her writing has connections to failures and finding the most unlikely paths to success. Having followed Lidia Yuknavitch on Twitter, I received a message from her that we all should post our misfit manifesto out to the world and diminish the voice of abusive people. What a great idea. They need to do this. They need to tell me more than what could be gleaned in college writing. They need to write a Misfit Manifesto. They need to write about how improbable success is to them, and how terrifically they have failed. 

When I wrote the assignment sheet for the students, I felt like I had to give them some really good examples of this idea. I used samples from The Mistfit's Manifesto, and I also spoke about specific stories where people feel different and why they may feel this way. Not only was I asking them for specific misfit moments in their lives, I was also asking them to be introspective and thoughtful about their place in the world. 

It was really interesting to hear the reactions to this concept. Some students really didn't understand how this idea would fit into their lives. They had spent so much time assimilating that to think about those misfit moments or times was really part of their lives they didn't want to reveal. But my favorite response was, "Shit, this is going be the easiest assignment you've given us. I've been a screw up all my life." I couldn't wait for that essay. 

One thing I really wanted from them was a personal statement. Not a college application essay, but something unique to their own experience. I told them it is easy to find collective success, but mistakes and other missteps in life are uniquely their own. It reminded me of the Tolstoy quote at the beginning of Anna Karenina when he says, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." 

We also discussed what misfits look like in literature, what they felt like in words. We discussed movie characters, and experiences they saw in the world. We talked about Holden Caulfield, Of Mice and Men, and superheroes. We also discussed time and space for misfits. "Literature is the land o the misfitted." (The Misfit Manifesto).

Most of the essays were simple. They were small things that made them different. For some, it was a bully story or a changing school story. But the story I liked the most was the story from the student who said this is will be easy. And he wrote about being with a group of friends who all got along, and slowly they all turned on him. And for years he was picked on, beat up, and told that he was worthless. And through it all - he somehow, kept it together and waited out his time until he was able to prove himself to the world. That is what he is doing now. It was one of the deeper stories where something held him on a path that (amazingly) wasn't beaten out of him. He never turned. 

As we got through the assignment, I asked that he had a few minutes, I wanted to discuss his paper. He came to the office and was nervous. He asked if there was anything wrong. I showed him the grade. He smiled and said thank you. I told him earned it, from year and years of not giving in. He didn't say anything for a minute -- he flipped the paper over and said, "all that shit's behind me now." 

As I mentioned, some writers played it safe, some played it with some uncertainty, but they all considered their lives with a different slant. In one student paper, it was clear that it might've put to bed some ghosts. Yuknavitch says, "If you are one of those people who has the ability to make it down to the bottom of the ocean, the ability to swim the dark waters without fear, the astonishing ability to move through life's worst crucibles and not die, then you also have the ability to bring something back to the surface that helps others in a way that they cannot achieve themselves." This assignment is difficult because you are asking people to look at their darker side, their past, their missteps, and wrong fits. The other paper that I really admired was a letter that a student wrote to his future grandchildren - explaining how screwed up the world is and how - if they are reading this - they should be in a better place. And that he was a good person who cared and wanted to right the wrongs of the world. I thought that was a noble approach to his life. 

My students did a good job thinking about this idea. And when you read Lidia Yuknavitch explain her life in The Chronology of Water, you can get a sense of how we have all lived our own misfit lives and why they are so important. It reminds me that we need to be brave, creative, and take risks with our students. Some will feel challenged and frustrated but think of those who needed it most. They've been waiting for a long time to say these things. 

Try it in the class, try it in your writing groups, write your own manifesto. It will change the way you see the world. 

Note: Another writing prompt that taps into some significant reflections is Letter to Humanity or this project I worked on awhile back. It is a great tool for reflective nonfiction. Letters to Humanity

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Doubts in Magic: How Marquez Makes Realism and Magic Doubtful

Note: This post discusses a reading. It is linked here for reference. A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings: A Tale for Children by Gabriel Garcia Marquez 

There is a struggle to understand the concept of magical realism as a mode of literature. It is allusive and often very heard to define in terms of traditional literary terms. By reading a short story by one of the legends of magical realism, we can consider how useful this device, this troupe, this idea can be in saying something very important in terms of literature. 

A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings: A Tale for Children by Gabriel Marquez brings to light the duplicity that can drawn out in magical realism. It is skepticism, belief, vision, and doubt all constantly swirling about what seems like poetry, fiction, parable, and doubt wrapped into one short story. 

As for the reader, part of what Marquez does so well is adding the possible with the impossible and allow the readers to judge those things on their own merits. In the opening lines: 

"On the third day of rain they had killed so many crabs inside the house that Pelayo had to cross he drenched courtyard and throw them into the sea, because the newborn child had a temperature all night and they thought it was due to the stench." 

While this is a strange event, it is very possible to imagine this kind of event happening, particularly in a tropical climate. What is interesting in the idea that these are difficult times, rain, crabs, and fever all build significant tension. It is when the main character, Pelayo finds an old man with wings, face down in the yard that we begin to see how the magical and the realism meet each other, seeking nothing more than an active curiosity of the reader. Between the flood of crabs and the crashed old man in the yard, nothing is amazing, but nothing is normal either. In fact, the old man with wings is dressed "like a ragpicker. There were only a few faded hairs left on his bald skull and very few teeth in his mouth, and his pitiful condition of a drenched great-grandfather took away any sense of grandeur he might have had." The magical becomes normalized and accepted. Every possible insight into something extraordinary is then undercut with a healthy dose of reality. When they describe his being stuck in the chicken coup, he is seen "as if [he] weren't a supernatural creature but a circus animal."

And everyone who sees the old man with wings comes to the same conclusion, that while it is different, it can't be magical. The church arrives on the Father Gonzaga realizes that he isn't an angel when he doesn't speak the language of the church (Latin) and doesn't respond to him appropriately. And he notices, "that seen up close up he was much too human: he had an unbearable smell of the outdoors, the back side of his wings was strewn with parasites and his main feathers had been mistreated by terrestrial winds, and nothing about him measured up to the proud dignity of angels." 

This story gives us a constant measure of how we perceive things and how they hold up to the skeptic, to the church, to the reality of the world. If you think of this story as magical, then everyone is a skeptic and whatever magic is happening is merely incidental to the ways the people abuse, ignore and cast off the miraculous elements happening. If this is a story about realism, it is about finding a hoax, seeing something that is possible but likely impossible. And in the end, something that may have never happened. 

In terms of the reader, it is an opportunity. If you are a realist and skeptic, you might side with the villagers and see this convoluted creature as a mere oddity, sideshow, natural oddity. There is even skepticism in the title. It isn't "The Angel with Enormous Wings" it is titled A Very Wold Man with Enormous Wings. Yet, if you are a believer in magical possibilities, this is a better read. While you are considering the scoffers, you can consider that not all magical things are what we expect. In fact, if the angel is there to take the feverish child (in the beginning) to death, it failed. But if he has come to save the child, he has succeeded. Marquez is constantly slipping back and forth through the elements of possible and impossible, magical and realism to make each sentence a puzzle to decode. 

This is a great text to contemplate the alternative ideas that are created here. For every magical idea, there is room for doubt. And the same could be said for every moment of realism, there is hope that magical things can be slightly tarnished, dirty or just a little tawdry.  

Monday, October 2, 2017

Book Review: The Old Man and the Sand Eel by Will Millard

Will Millard 
Penguin Books / 2018
  • ASIN: B06Y62BYKZ
336 Pages

Fishing in simplest terms is an obsession. It is a complicated and often fluid set of skills that depend on season, weather, location, bait, technique and hundreds of other possibilities. Then there is the adrenaline rush of hooking into a fish and the battle that ensues. It is all here in Will Millard's The Old Man and the Sand Eel. Yet, this book is about something more complicated and visionary. It is about what drives and shapes this obsession to fish. And while his adventures hooking fish are exciting to follow, there is more to this book than a guided tour.
The beginning of the book opens with the author catching a record-breaking Sand Eel, one that would put him in the record books, one that would make his mark on fishing in the UK forever. And then it literally slips away. This sense of obsession and finding the next big fish had changed the way he was fishing, changed his mindset to be more than just being there and fishing, but being there only for a big prize, a record fish. After some thought and reflection, Millard moves back to his early roots in fishing and realizes that he shouldn't be looking for the record fish, but the essence of fishing. Using his grandfather's old fishing guide, and the ghosts of his past, he begins a different quest. He begins to search for the unforgotten species and getting back to the root of his passion for fishing.

There is a clear connection in this book between family and fishing. It is this connective linage that resonates through this quest. He connects to his grandfather’s fish encyclopedia and his wisdom to rediscover why fishing is important. He mentioned the influence of the tall tale in fishing and how it related back to his grandfather. He says, "I should clarify that Grandad was no liar; he had definitely caught a big perch, but we were both fishermen after all. Memories blur and sometimes the distance between our palms can widen with time. Grandma left behind an old plastic ice cream tub filled with pictures when she departed, and right there, somewhere in the middle, I found a picture of Grandad with his most magnificent perch." Not only does this connect with the myth and storytelling that comes with time and the “distance between our palms” but it also speaks to the fact that he was an accomplished fisherman. It also resonates with his father who brought home a lamprey and held it in a tank overnight to study it. This magical moment in time is important in the curiosity and development of an emerging angler. "I remember it like it was there for the entirety of my early childhood. For the under-fives, time lengthens and memories compress in unusual ways; that one-night stand with the lamprey made a massive impression." This alien creature sparked his imagination for years to come.

There is another message in this book based on the ecology of a country that has seemingly filled most of its wild spaces. With the permits and processes to fish certain locks and waterways in the United Kingdom, it is clear that some of these locations where Millard finds fish are just beyond the glimpse of the majority of the people. These forgotten waterways and locks, home to a variety of ecosystems and connections are often overgrown, filled with debris, and beyond the idyllic fishing spot that one imagines on a perfect day of fishing. These lost places are fascinating, unexplored areas that seem just as exotic and interesting as the fish that might be under the surface.

Along with some of these lost locations comes the fascinating connections that are made when he comes across homeless people, people in business suits, criminals, and the law. These interactions are a fascinating part of fishing - with the age-old question, “any luck?” always part of the conversation. One striking moment that captured the elegance of this book is when he is fishing in an urban waterway and he pulls up a beautiful fish on the shore. “A man with a suit walks right past me without even acknowledging our presence. Even with the fish out of water the canal’s secrets remain invisible to those incapable of belief.” The suggestion that modern man is so self-absorbed that we can’t imagine this natural beauty or even see it anymore is sad and poignant in the changing world of technology and twenty-four-hour news cycles.

This book is more about family, ecology, and life in relationship to nature than it is a field guide to fishing. Yet, as we read about the hunt for the right conditions, the first cast, and thrill of the hook, it will get you thinking about grabbing your pole and heading out to your favorite spot. This is a well-written, good read for fisherman, naturalists, and anyone who has ever cast their lineout awaiting the first strike.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Book Review / The Mezzogiorno Social Club

Ercole Gaudioso
Guernica Editions / 2017
ISBN 978-1-77183-165-9 
Paperback/ 290 Pages

It should be said, right off the bat that this is a story of cops and mobsters. Crafted with characters that wear the dust and the crime on their clothes, The Mezzogiorno Social Club is a sweeping novel that carries the weight of tradition, generations, and a code of living divided by a thin line between crime and the cops who keep the peace. 

This novel moves across a hundred years, woven through the years with a variety of thugs, bosses, scams, hits, and money all coursing through the veins of "the neighborhood." This is Ercole Gaudioso's world. While this book spans a hundred years in Little Italy, filled with mob hits, complicated crime syndicates, and the life of cops working the streets. Over the course of the novel, not only do we meet the characters and their motives in Little Italy, we also understand the culture that is "the neighborhood." And while it begins in a rustic, horsedrawn world of shops, carriage houses, and small dim bars, the emerging world is not only their place in the world, but it is well worth protecting and holding for the future. 

Beyond the legacy of the neighborhood, Gaudioso gives us a dynamic cast of criminals, cops, politicians, and their families. Detective Joe Petrosino is one of the most intriguing characters. A hard-boiled detective who knows everyone in the neighborhood knows how to apply pressure with a beating or some jail time, he is constantly working a lead, getting information, trying to figure out what it means to settle down and get married. Rosina and Lucia, sisters from Italy manage to find their way in the neighborhood when they are alone (Rosina a widow) begin running a dress shop that rises with the crime rate and the influence of the men who adore them. These families move through the early years in a feel that reminds the reader of Gang's of New York and Boardwalk Empire, we are hurled through the Great Depression and into the World War. As the book picks up speed, the neighborhood shifts into a new generation of bosses and organization. The more families, thugs, and bosses try to hold onto the neighborhood - the cops and history push back. 

His adroit and often matter-of-fact descriptions are very satisfying in describing some of his characters. "The Digger was Marcello Ulina, a loose limbed man with a long face that grinned on its own. Doctors had told him that the nerves and muscles, not the devil, made his face happy. A priest agreed and splashed him with holy water." In these finely tuned descriptions, we not only understand the vision of the character, but we also understand how they relate to the neighborhood. In describing Philomena Matruzzo, not only do we understand where she has been, but where she might be going when he says, "When Philomena Matruzzo, the strong, contented woman whom Lucia Burgundi envied and respected, got off the boat in 1903, she had no baby and one husband. A year later she had one baby and no husband." These characters carry the weight of the neighborhood struggles, crime, and the life in this evolving world. 

The threads of plot and connections in the story are innovative and connective. Amazingly, this novel arcs across time, there are connections and story elements that connect one generation to another. This is more than just a mob book, this is a sweeping vision of family, connection, crime, and people who made their lives around generations of tradition, crime, and money. Gaudioso knows a thing or two about mob families and history, serving as a New York law enforcement officer, he spent five years in the investigation resulting in the arrest of forty Gambino Family members. This is a brilliant, poignant, and well-crafted debut novel. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Book Review: Chasing Coyotes: Accounts of Urban Crises

Chasing Coyotes: Accounts of Urban Crises
Debora Martin 
Atlas Publishing / 2017
ISBN / Kindle Verison / 190 Pages

Chasing Coyotes is based on Debora Martin interaction with coyotes over the course of the last ten years. Her experience interacting with this canine is relevant as urban edges have encroached into more and more habitat. 

Coyotes move into communities for a variety of reasons. In some cases, they are moved or relocated due to development or habitat change. As a result, these adaptable relatives of the wolves can start off as a curiosity and end up being a significant menace. Martin uses her personal stories to share how these hunters move into communities and begin to pray on house pets and other neighborhood animals. Eventually, it is their habits and their adaptability that makes them so hard to manage in an urban setting. As the coyotes become more and more brazen, they also become more protective of their territory, their dens, and eventually their litters. 

The personal narratives in this book are interesting and helpful in fighting off a coyote issue in a community. And while most of her experience is on the West Coast, it still seems very helpful and useful regardless of where you live. Where the book becomes helpful is when she taps into studies and researchers to help expand the scope of urban incursion.  

There is some misinformation out there and this guide helps to inform myths and erroneous information. Beyond that, this book does provide some behavioral tips for hazing coyotes and making them feel unwanted. This book speaks to the displacement of habitat and the way we proactively and reactively face shifting animal populations. There are times when this book really informs about the behavior and the ideology that goes into these interactions and cohabitation. While the personal narrative is sometimes long, it helps to inform readers about the complicated nature of hearing complaints and attacks, attempts to trap, laws, meetings, state and federal response, and how it can all make someone feel like no one is really listening at all.  Martin is the Director of Coyotes in Orange County, Califonia and works in the insurance industry. 

Parting Words: This easy to read guide is a good resource for unwanted coyotes and wildlife interaction. Written to be understood with some practical and clear guidelines to help.

Endnote: I selected this book because we are facing a similar coyote outbreak in our small Connecticut community. The review was not solicited by the author or publisher. 

Ron Samul is a writer and college educator. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Book Review: ActivAmerica by Meagan Cass

Meagan Cass
University of North Texas Press / 2017
Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction
ISBN 978-1574416947 / Paper / 192 Pages

ActivAmerica is a collection of short stories drawn from America's obsession with fitness, sports, and how we re-envision ourselves through sports. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, you are probably wrong. This book is a dynamic, funny, ironic, brilliant, and often biting commentary on how we live our lives through the perception of sports. This collection tackles more than just the concept of sports but reframes the American dream in tangents and connections that often feels at once hilarious and so ironic 

This selection of short stories meditates on the ideas around sports. And one thing that Cass does so well is that she is able to bring out the absurdity and the complexity of these ideas and bring that forward into a complex and often poignant vision of America in the face of changing times. Stories range from traditional sports and teams to a more visionary look at how people embrace things like Soloflex, ping-pong, and infatuations with famous athletes.

The story based on the collection title, ActivAmerica is a hilarious story based on securing a new health plan that requires the participants to run a mile every day. In some cases, the sport is a mere reflection of who we once were or who we never tried to become. Cass captures the absurdity of a moment and then turns it into a poignant and emotional connection to how we live our lives. Every line in her stories hold value, depth, and often humor. Nothing feels wasted in the prose. 

In the story Hawthorne Dynasty it reveals life in a typical girls’ soccer league, with a sassy coach and her all-star daughter Alana. The girls admire Alma and watch her become something beyond them. “When the starting whistle blew, she snapped her fingers, rocked onto the balls of her feet and didn’t stop moving until it was over…. She wore blonde hair loose, and on breakaways it would stream back behind her, catching the afternoon sun so it looked like her whole head was on fire.” It isn’t until later that we see Alana in a different life, away from her coach (her mother) and away from the life of suburbia. When we see her again later in life, Alana is a shadow of the woman who played soccer – free from clutches of her mother but haunted by the past. In Night Games, a group of late night, high school ruffians draw out a figure skater to join them in their secret hockey matches in the middle of the night. “Afterwards we sit and drink and the stink of our gear and our sweat rises around us. I breathe it in. It feels good to be a woman with a smell.” And the longing that these games, reminiscent and tribal would be lost in the next cycle of the season, it draws out change, doubt, and loss.

Some of the stories shift a bit from a traditional sports theme into ideas of what it means to be an American on the go. The Body in Space is a visionary story about a science teacher that is selected to go into the space program and the repercussions it has on his family. Ping-Pong, 12 Loring Place also intersects with competitive siblings staying clear of their fight parents. As they kids master the nuances of ping-pong “top spin and back spin, experimented with the flick, the block. … Our rallies grew longer, more heated, our bodies slamming into the gray walls as we struggled to return the push, the loop, the lob, the chop shot.” Through the winter, brother and sister continue the competitive ritual of playing in the basement. Finally, with the death of a marriage, and the coming of spring, the two must leave their bunker. “I was going to college and she was selling the house, buying a smaller one without a basement, without room for a ping-pong table. By then our paddles were barely functional, the stippled rubber worn away from the faces, the red and gold paint dulled. Before we left, Ari put them in one of our grandfather’s old cigar boxes, buried them in the backyard. A time capsule, we called it, as if some distant, future family would know to dig it up, would decipher the hieroglyphics off our nicknames, blurred with sweat. As if nothing was passing away.” In the end, it is more than the sports and activities that draw significance to these stories, it is a sense of measuring the world as it was and how it may become – and the forecast is often fraught with a myriad of emotions that Cass masterfully controls like musical notes on a staff.

Some of these stories reach into the absurd, but it isn’t without value. Cass has the ability to bring stories into focus using humor and satire to make even strange stories build with meaning and emotion. These stories were made for workshop dissection and discussions. Evocative and meaningful, Cass continues to innovate her own voice and style with every new idea and concept in this collection. These stories are not only entertaining and deeply poignant, but she innovates the push and pull that haunts what it means to be an American. Every story is layered in a complex tumult of emotions, action, and vision. Her voice, character, and mastery of the form creates brilliant opportunities to examine more than just themes on sports, but delves deeper into compelling elements of the American dream; to be competitive, physical, aggressive, and beautiful at the cost of our hopes, guilt, longing, and loss. This collection won the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction. 

Ron Samul is a writer and college educator. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Atmosphere and Ecological Constructs / Part One

There has been a lot of conversations lately about crafting ecologies or places where our characters exist. And while this may sound like a familiar conversation, it is also no surprise because of the massive push to discuss "world building" as a means to write epic fantasy or sci-fi stories. But it feels like the concept of atmosphere and ecological emersion is less about world-building and more about finding a tool that is useful in creative writing, pushing setting from a static archetype to something more meaningful and tangible. In a world of virtual immersions and screen time, it is relevant to talk about stories that emphasize place and atmosphere. As we disconnect through technology, writers seem to be finding ways to reconnect in fiction. 

This concept also comes from significant and overwhelmingly profile landscapes from Tolkien, Herbert, and Martin. These epic sagas have created more than just setting to cast characters, but the setting themselves (Game of Thrones and Dune) become active and significant protagonists in terms of the stories and the development. Other worlds come from Star Wars, Star Trek, and other expandable settings that are being developed. What has also given rise to this kind of world building is the rise of the expanded TV series created and shaped by on-demand television binge watching. It has allowed cinema to move into a greater arc of storytelling and allow for expandable ideas through character and platform.  

Having said all that it is this sense of ecology and atmosphere that I've been hearing about more than "world building." To me, world building is based on the construction of things that aren't relatable at all to a common narrative. In fact, it is the burden of the world builder to create a bridge between the possible and the impossible. But to connect atmosphere and ecology to the concept of setting and atmosphere is less grandiose and more about pushing on a literary element that enhances the experience. It is writers like Jon Krakauer and Into Thin Air that connects the complete epic moment of gaining the summit of Everest and being so close to death, that it really doesn't matter. The balance between the world that is vastly different and the characters in it comes with vivid and compelling stories. In fact, I haven't written a fictional scuba diving piece because I struggle to connect the story with this uniquely remote and often isolating place. Nonfiction seems to show better in terms of writing about underwater, but without dialog, without grounding, this is a hard place to write for me. 

It is classic writing like Jack London, Melville, and Steinbeck that I think of these elements as being an important narrative quality. Cannery Row is not a whole new world, but there are moments that are stunning and vivid and so close to my own that it makes me awe. When Doc finds the dead girl in the rocks, it is a stunning literary element of the shore and what it can reveal. 

When and how do atmosphere and ecology evolve into a type of antagonist? In simple terms, does a war, or the sea (Moby Dick), or the jungle (Heart of Darkness) become an extension of the antagonist? Or can it be the antagonist alone? Or perhaps it was always the antagonist by design. How do these concepts arrive in stories and how does nature, while always described as an archetype, become more than a theme and plot construct and move into something more dominant in a novel, or in a selection of stories. 

"Setting" can be a backdrop, but with the discussions and workshop topics that cover world-building and ecology, it makes sense that perhaps "setting" is evolving from the backdrop of the production to a more significant and complicated element in creative writing. And in an emerging generation of writers and thinkers who have embraced "An Inconvenient Truth", recycling, and ecological preservation of the planet, it makes sense that atmosphere and environment would also mean more than fancy background curtains, but something that is coming, shaping their stories, and even acting out against their characters as a harbinger of change, conflict, and resolution of their dying world.  

Over a series of articles, I want to work out some of the setting-to-antagonist ideas that are out there and map them. It will be interesting to see where they go and why we should consider putting more value into them.

If you have any suggestions or connections and want to share, please feel free to post in the comment section. Feedback is always welcome.  

Bachelard, Gaston. The poetics of space. Vol. 330. Beacon Press, 1994.