“Death Defiant Bomba or What to Wear When Your Boo Gets Cancer” by Lilliam Rivera

This week, I’m thrilled to talk about “Death Defiant Bomba or What to Wear When Your Boo Gets Cancer” by Lilliam Rivera. I met Lilliam at an awe-inspiring AROHO Writing Retreat at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico a few years back, where we climbed red rocks and talked like sisters. Since then, she’s recently published her book, The Education of Margot Sanchez (go read it!), a contemporary young adult novel from Simon & Schuster. The story we’re reading this week was originally published in Bellevue Literary Review and was a Pushcart Prize winner. I’m not going to even mention all her other stories and awards, but let’s just say this girl’s been busy (and you can read more about her here).

A few questions to get us talking about this death-defiant story:

  • Would this piece work as wonderfully if it wasn’t told in second-person?
  • Why the red dress?
  • Bomba is a traditional Puerto Rican music and dance performance, and Lilliam uses the structure of the song and dance to frame the story. What effect does this have? Can you think of any other stories or books that use a similar method?

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“Nine Inherited Disorders” by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

I discovered this story in an issue of n+1, and my first reaction was, What was that? I have to share this with MUG! Turns out, this “story” is a selection of vignettes from Sachs’s book, Inherited Disorders. Adam Ehrlich Sachs writes from Pittsburgh, and his fiction has also appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s, among others.

Discussion Questions:
1. The author explores the father-son dynamic in a variety of ways. What is the he saying about legacy? In what ways is the legacy passed down by one’s parents inescapable? To what extent can we surpass the legacies of our parents, or can we?
2. In several of these pieces, Sachs has created characters who write/say/do one thing but mean something else. Or they insist that their work/actions should not be taken at face value and instead mean something unapparent to their audiences. How does the author explore perspective versus intentions? How does he use this juxtaposition to enhance the story?
3. Why these nine?
4. To what extent do these pieces stand alone? What effect do they have together?
5. How does this story explore the extent to which a thing or person can simply be, versus how things/people are defined by others?

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“Please Do Not Yell at the Sea Cucumbers” by Amy Leach

I’m not one for much Creative NonFiction, but lately, after seeing all the cool stuff that people are doing in this genre these days, I’ve been coming around to it.Image result for things that are amy leach

Arguably one of my favorite new examples of CNF done very well is the collection of short, nonfiction essays by Amy Leach titled Things That Are from Milkweed Editions (one of my favorite publishers). Leach graduated with an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and now teaches at the University of St. Francis. This book is a string of fascinating meditations on the natural world and characterizes the creatures on this planet in captivating and vivid ways.

Today, we’re discussing one essay in particular, “Please Do Not Yell at the Sea Cucumbers.”

Some questions to consider:

  1. One thing that stuck out to me right away is Leach’s dense and very ornate prose. Sometimes it takes me several tries to read a sentence and often I have to slow down to understand her meaning better. How does her language, then, work for or against the content about which she is writing?
  2. In all of these essays, Leach flits around several different creatures/animals and uses them to collectively explore an idea. How does her movement from one creature to the next take you along as the reader?
  3. In what ways does Leach’s work serve as a meditation on the human condition? What does she ask us about ourselves even as she refuses to write about us directly?
  4. What do you believe does or does not allow Leach to achieve a balance between her obvious wealth of research and her lyrical reflections of them?

 

 

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“I Love Girl” by Simon Rich

This week we’re reading a funny caveman story from the New Yorker titled “I Love Girl” by Simon Rich. According to the New Yorker, “Simon Rich tells the tale of a lovesick caveman, Oog, whose nemesis, Boog, has captured the attention of Oog’s beloved Girl with his abstract cave paintings and blustery self-confidence.”

Simon Rich has written several works of fiction, including “Spoiled Brats,” a collection of stories. He is also the creator and showrunner of “Man Seeking Woman,” on FXX.

The story starts:

I am Oog. I love Girl. Girl loves Boog.

It is bad situation.

It’s basically every love triangle ever written, but somehow Rich injects such humor and humanity into his caveman story. I hope you enjoy it!

Questions:

  1. How does Rich keep the love triangle trope while also subverting it?
  2. Does the language bother you, or does it better transport you into the caveman point of view?
  3. How does Rich make a caveman story so relatable?
  4. Was the ending satisfying? Unexpected?

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The Black Company, Chap. 1, by Glen Cook

“The Black Company” is the first in a series of dark fantasy novels by Glen Cook. Cook is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, and spent his career working for General Motors in an automobile manufacturing plant while simultaneously writing as many as three novels a year. Now retired, Cook jokes that he got more writing done when he was working a full time job.

The Black Company series comprises ten novels and as many short stories, following the adventures of a mercenary company over several decades of their existence. Its tone is gritty and realistic, and rather than glorify war or follow more typical fantasy tropes, it simply presents its characters and situations in a realistic tone, portraying the characters as simple soldiers just trying to survive in some rather dark circumstances.

  1. Cook does several things in this rather extended first chapter. He not only sets up most of the main characters and their relationships to one another, he also illustrates the timbre of their morality, gives you their inciting incident and hints at the conflict to come, does an enormous amount of world building, and throws in a fair bit of excitement and action to boot. All this takes some time; do you think it works as is? Would you have split the chapter up?
  2. The story is written in first person, from the point of view of the Company doctor and historian, a man called Croaker. How do you think the point of view contributes to the narrative tone? What about to the world and character building?
  3. The main characters, even Croaker, are not what you would normally associate with the word ‘hero’. In fact they’re a vicious, bloody bunch of cutthroats who betray the political leader that hired him and murder several thousand soldiers in their sleep. Croaker shows a bit of hesitation at the betrayal, and that might be the only ‘save the cat’ moment in the story. Nevertheless, there’s something compelling about the characters. Did you find yourself identifying and/or sympathizing with them? Are you interested in reading more about them?

Hope you enjoyed this first chapter!

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“The Ultra Thin Man” by Patrick Swenson

theultrathinman

“The Ultra Thin Man” is a noir detective novel set in a future world; political intrigue, murder, aliens and some really captivating characters make this a page turner.

Patrick Swenson is a teacher, writer, editor, and publisher of the Fairwood Press, a small press publishing house, which he founded in 2000. The Ultra Thin Man is his first published novel. He has been published in short form in the Like Water for Quarks, and magazines such as MZB’s Fantasy Magazine, Figment, and others.

I know Patrick as the organizer of the Rainforest Writer’s Retreat, which I have attended each of the last few years.

  1. First chapters, and especially first lines, are the hook that gets an agent or editor going. We’ve heard about the importance of them over and over. How does Patrick’s first line hook you? His first chapter? Did you read what you could of the second chapter?
  2. In genre fiction, the world is often as important a character as the actual people in the story. What do you think of the world-building that happens in this chapter as Patrick sets the scene? How would you have done it differently?
  3. No matter how catchy a first line is, or how quickly an author gets your interest and pulls you into the next chapters, if the characters are not appealing the reader will quickly lose interest. Two of the characters in this chapter are seen only in hologram video playback; of the other two, one is mostly a technique to play the video, and the other is the narrator. What can you tell from this first person POV chapter about the character? Do you have enough information to become interested in him as a character?

Hope you enjoyed the chapter. Comments/Questions/Editorials are, as always, welcome.

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“This Savage Song” by Victoria “V.E.” Schwab

this_savage_song_cover

This week we’re diving into the first chapter of the YA fantasy novel This Savage Song by Victoria “V.E.” Schwab. It’s an opening chapter that snatched me up like the dark monsters that lurk in this deliciously savage story. Here’s a little more about the book:

“Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives. In This Savage Song, Victoria Schwab creates a gritty, seething metropolis, one worthy of being compared to Gotham and to the four versions of London in her critically acclaimed fantasy for adults, A Darker Shade of Magic. Her heroes will face monsters intent on destroying them from every side—including the monsters within.”

A few questions to consider as you read the first chapter:

1) How does Schwab balance world-building and backstory while still writing a captivating scene?
2) Throughout the book, Schwab blurs the lines between human and monster. How does she show this even from the start?
3) There’s a lot of pressure for the first chapter to basically accomplish everything. How do you feel about Kate Harker, and what threads has Schwab sewn into the first chapter to hint at where the character arc and conflict are heading?

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The Godfather

untitled  We’ve all seen the movies (Or if you haven’t at least seen the first movie then there is really no hope for you on this earth…), but I’m here to discuss the literary classic that has inspired so many stories, books, movies, characters, clichés, and punchlines in the decades following it’s publication (1969). I first read The Godfather over 10 years ago, and in re-reading it recently, I was struck by how smoothly/effortlessly Mario Puzo sets up the characters and story in the early going, so I was inspired to post this.

puzo

I have included a pdf of an excerpt of this novel (attached in the meeting email) for discussion. It begins around pg. 8, just as guests are arriving for Connie Corleone’s wedding, and runs about 20 pages.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Puzo is very impressive in his management of a large ensemble cast. How do you think he accomplishes this?
  2. The prose seems to flow quite fluidly in how the perspective changes from character to character, and how the “camera” moves through the wedding and the house, focusing on different characters and their distinct motivations. What are some of the ways in which this works? (Or doesn’t).
  3. Note how much is accomplished in these 20 pages; the unique and differentiated characterization, effective storytelling, grounding the reader, the setup for the rest of the novel. What tools and tricks does Puzo utilize to make this happen?
  4. Things that you didn’t like? Things to note? Additional thoughts?   godfather wedding

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“The Relive Box” by T.C. Boyle

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 8.12.58 PM
A prolific American author, T.C. Boyle has published 24 books of fiction and his short stories have appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and McSweeney’s. He received both his MFA and PhD from the University of Iowa, and he is a creative writing professor at USC. His work has been translated into more than two dozen foreign languages, and he’s won numerous awards.

I first discovered this story in The New Yorker, and I later had the pleasure of hearing T.C. Boyle himself read it aloud at the LA Times Festival of Books.

Questions:

1. Consider the line, “deep in this moment which would give rise to all the rest.” What do you think of the protagonist’s idea that by pinpointing one moment in his life, he can understand everything that came after? How does this story explore the way(s) in which past and present are linked?

2. What techniques does Boyle use to cultivate the tone, both of the story as a whole and of the protagonist’s particular voice? How do these interact?

3. What did you think of Boyle’s use of the second person (“But let me explain the technology here a moment, for those of you who don’t already know”) and the way the author acknowledges the reader. Does this work/not work and in what ways?

4. This story is, in many ways, an exploration of grief, loss, and healing. With a device like this, which allows you to spend time with a (dead) person, would you ever really able to let go?

5. How does Boyle use the relive box to illuminate and explore the father-daughter relationship in this story?

6. What is the significance of Queenie?

7. What do you make of the conclusion? How does it further illuminate the story, and what do you see happening in the future for Wes (and Katie)?

This story will appear in Boyle’s upcoming collection, The Relive Box and Other Stories, which he’s currently working on. In a post dated July 11, 2016 he said he was revising one called “Are We Not Men?'” and that it “is not far off the mark with regard to the reality of what we are unleashing on the world with CRISPR/Cas-9 technology.” Can’t wait to read that one! In the meantime, enjoy “The Relive Box”–looking forward to discussing it!

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“I Can See Right Through You” by Kelly Link

Kelly Link Get in Trouble

Take a wild clip-cut cinematographic ride into this week’s story “I Can See Right Through You” by Kelly Link. It was originally published in McSweeney’s Quarterly and was included in her short story collection Get in Trouble, a 2016 Pulitzer Prize Finalist. According to Kirkus Reviews: “In stories as haunting as anything the Grimm brothers could have come up with, Link (Magic for Beginners, 2005, etc.) gooses the mundane with meaning and enchantment borrowed from myth, urban legend and genre fiction. ….  In “I Can See Right Through You,” an actor past his prime, famous for his role as a vampire, yearns for the leading lady who has replaced him with a parade of eternally younger versions of what he once was—but who is the real demon lover?”

Kelly Link is the author of the collections Stranger Things Happen, Magic for Beginners, Pretty Monsters, and Get in Trouble. Her short stories have been published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, The Best American Short Stories, and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, etc.

Questions

  1. Near the beginning of the story, she writes, “Film can be put together in any order. Scenes shot in any sequence. Take as many as you like. Continuity is independent of linear time. Sometimes you aren’t even in the scene together. Meggie says her lines to your stand-in. They’ll splice you together later on.” The story jumps through time and throws us little snippets and “stand-ins” (both literally and figuratively) for Meggie and the demon lover. What does Link accomplish with this style, and what makes it successful?
  2. What do you think happened in the end? How does it tie back to the Ouija board from the beginning of the story?
  3. Why does Link call the narrator “demon lover” for most of the story until very late in the narrative when he’s named “Will Gald”? Why wait until he’s on camera?
  4. How does the setting contribute to the mood of the story?

Happy reading and fantasizing about your very first “demon lover”   😉

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