Author Archives: Michael Hendrik Oliphant

“The Book of Beginnings and Endings” by Jenny Boully


This is one of many many hybrid texts that I’ve been reading this summer. Boully’s The Book of Beginnings and Endings is hybrid in the sense of being between genres and between subjects, not completely about orexisting as any one thing. I’ve loved this about a lot of the hybrid work I’ve read lately–the way it breathes new life into the experience of reading something.


In the interest of time I’ve lifted some description of Boully and her book from the publisher’s website. Of her book, they write that it is “A book with only beginnings and endings, all invented. Jenny Boully opens and closes more than fifty topics ranging from physics and astronomy to literary theory and love. A brilliant statement on interruption, impermanence, and imperfection.”

And as for Boully herself, they write, “Boully is the author of The Body: An Essay (Slope Editions, 2002) and [one love affair]* (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2006). Born in Thailand, she studied at Hollins University and the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD Candidate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She divides her time between Brooklyn and Texas.

Today, we’re looking at just the first 13 pages, which should be enough to give you the general effect that the book is meant to (hopefully) elicit. So, let’s begin there:

  1. What sort of feeling does this elicit from you? Not only are the entire middle contexts missing from these small samples so that all you’re left with is starts and ends, but the content is widely varying. Do you feel lost? And if so, how?
  2. When I first read this, I was constantly looking for tentpoles or anchoring around which to navigate this work. I would ask myself, Is this page a dictionary entry? An essay? The end to a novel? So, how did you keep yourself from completely getting lost.
  3. In what ways are you trying to draw connections between each page? Are you looking at the level of content and for any overlapping subjects? Or something else?
  4. Writers like Lyn Hejinian call texts like this “open,” because it’s very subject to interpretation, not close-ended the way a novel might be. What do you begin to take away from a project like this and how do you see your own role as reader?

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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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“With Killer Bees” by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee

Kelly Magee is the author of Your Sick and The Reckless Remainder, a collection of prose poems co-written with Carol Guess, as well as two new books to be released this year and in 2017. Carol Guess is a novelist and poet. Her books Homeschooling, Femme’s Dictionary, and Gaslight were nominated for Lambda Literary Awards. And they are both writers that I am fortunate enough to work with in the next two years!

Guess-and-Magee-cover_web-250x386Magee and Guess partner regularly to create bizarre and fantastic  collections of stories, one of which being With Animal. Our story today, “With Killer Bees,” emerges from this adventurous hodgepodge of women who find themselves pregnant with another species. Be it killer bees, a hippopotamus, a dragon, or even a nebula, the result is haunting, all-consuming, and eye-opening. It’s truly one of the most unique examinations of sexuality, family dynamics and identity that I’ve read in a while and I’m excited to share it with yinz!

Here are some questions for today:

  1. A perspective flip happens when the woman who gives birth tells her story, then it flips back to our original narrator again. They do a better of indicating this in the story, but I think it still begs the question: Is this flip jarring? Does it just serve the purpose of providing backstory or is there more to it?
  2. I’ve paid a lot of attention to sex and gender identity in these stories, because it plays a prominent role in Guess and Magee’s work as they explore diverse relationships. Do you believe at any point that you know the narrator’s gender or sex? Does it matter?
  3. I love the ending, solely for how damn poetic it is. However, I’m still trying to make sense of it. So, join me, won’t you? What do you make of the last few lines, these pleading questions without one, straightforward answer?

That is all for now! (P.S. Sorry for what we did to San Jose in the Stanley Cup. Though I guess I’m not that sorry…)



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“Orientation” by Daniel Orozco

Orozco_Jacket_ImageWhen I started my search for a published piece this week, I did the usual sifting through my bookshelf, which has recently become such a disorganized stacking of books that, even if I know what I want before I begin looking, it often takes a few attempts to locate anything. This explains why it’s taken me so long to share one of Daniel Orozco’s stories here. That, and the fact that my copy is  a simple, black hardback with nothing but the title, Orientation, across the front.

Daniel Orozco is a bit of an anomaly. When you go to research him, there isn’t a whole lot out there. He’s known for his short stories, but has been working for the past several years on a novel of extraordinary length, so he writes in the extremes. His writing has been published in The Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize Anthologies, and a few other magazines. His list might be short, but he is a writer who still impacts the way I look at my own short fiction.

Today we’re looking at the title story from his collection, “Orientation.”

  1. How does the narrator’s tone and perspective impact the story? As a result, is the reader more detached or drawn in?
  2. What does character development look like in this story and how does it serve the story’s purpose as a whole?
  3. Is there any conflict in this story? If so, what? If not, why and is that okay?

If you get a chance, I highly recommend picking up all of Orientation and reading it through. I promise it won’t take you more than an afternoon, because you’ll want to see where the hell Orozco takes you.



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3 Stories by Ben Loory

419q4U-0HpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ben Loory is an LA based writer. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Tin House, Wigleaf, on one of my favorite radio shows This American Life, and in so many other places. He has two books, one being a collection of short short fables called Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, from which we are talking about 3 pieces!

Loory’s work is marked by its brevity and impact. He can say more in a few hundred words than most can say in several thousands. That said, at times in Stories for Nighttime I found myself asking the question, ‘so what?’ I couldn’t always source any clear meaning or takeaway. But any project such as this is bound to have a few unclear answers that make the shining gems really stick out.

Today, we’re talking about three stories, “The Book,” “The End of It All”, and “The Walk that Replaced Understanding.” I’d like to consider them all together – not based on plot, but on technique and style, because I think they best represent what Loory is trying to do with short fiction and when it works:

  1. I’ve most often heard Loory’s stories referred as ‘tales and fables.’ Do you agree with this? If so, how do you see these stories as differing from fables of old? What sets these apart as fables in a modern world? How are they similar?
  2. What is Loory doing with characters in these stories? How do they function and how do they differ from your traditional character?
  3. One thing I love and HATE about these stories is how bald they are of detail. There’s almost no physical description to work with, just the bare bones. Do you think this works in favor of the stories? How so?
  4. Loory is also a screenwriter, and took time off to write this collection. How do you see this impacting his work and syle? How does it shape the stories he tells?

I’d seriously recommend picking up a copy of this at the library. If not because it is an insane journey in and of itself, do it because the stories are short enough to read during the commercials of whatever show you’re binging these days.


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“Monument” by Amelia Gray

Have you ever found a book by complete mistake that’s so perfectly tailored to your tastes and style that you can’t believe it? Is it a cosmic alignment? A chance bolt of lightning in an open field? An inevitable meeting destined by the gods? Or maybe just a stroke of luck on par with finding ten dollars?

Gutshot_Blog-Post_688-x-371pxWhatever the case, I happened upon Amelia Gray’s collection Gutshot in a bookstore in Santa Fe a few months back and have taken it slow, savoring every sentence. The stories are anywhere from 2 to 8 pages in length, but the depth and symbolism at play in each makes a whole narrative out of every line. Gray has written at least 3 other collections and is currently at work on a novel at her home in Los Angeles.

Author Gary Lutz put it best when he wrote of this particular collection, “Call them what you must–stories, fables, parables, nanonovels of melancholized hilarity–but Amelia Gray’s super-concentrated, hyper-velocitous prose marvelments do what so few fictions even attempt: leave you gasping from one unsettling sentence to the next.”

Today we are talking about “Monument”:

  1.  How would you classify this story? Nanofiction? Flash? Vignette? Or something else entirely?
  2. The message of this story is both clear and complex at the same time. What do you take away from it? Is it a catharsis or a collapse or both?
  3. What does Gray do with character creation in this story? (Or with her lack thereof.)
  4. How does the absence of dialogue impact the story as a whole?

If you get a chance, I’d highly recommend grabbing a copy of this collection from your library or online. I promise you won’t be bored.

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“The Orange” by Benjamin Rosenbaum

Benjamin Rosenbaum is an American writer of science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction as well as a computer programmer. While I’m not well versed in anything he’s been involved in, he’s apparently created some pretty cool video games, so suffice it to say that the writers of our published pieces this week are pretty multi-talented!

Benjamin’s flash fiction piece “The Orange” first found its way under my nose in a collection called Flash Fiction Forward, one which I’ve raved about in the past and continue to return to for inspiration. This short piece calls for some short questions, so let’s dig in:

  1. Without pointing the conversation in any one direction, I have to ask it: what is really being said about religion in this piece? Rosenbaum himself studied religion at Brown University, so I think that shows up in his work a fair amount.
  2. To build off the first question, while the focus ‘character’ here (the orange) is a heavy, direct metaphor for some sort of messiah, why does the piece still feel so light, like a breeze that flits through the house?
  3. The narrator doesn’t come in until the very end, a technique that is typically frowned upon, but I feel as if this serves a direct purpose here. Why do we come to this ‘I’ at the end? What is the narrator’s role in this story?

This piece makes me want to go out and write a similar story about a large, major concept in such a small, banal way. But, suffice it to say, easier said then done. So I’ve moved on to more important questions: What fruit would you choose for your messiah?

I am all for pomegranates.

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“In Persuasion Nation” by George Saunders

My favorite description of George Saunders thus far comes from Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times. In a review of his collection Civilwarland in Bad Decline, she writes, “The debut of an exciting new voice in fiction, Mr. Saunders writes like the illegitimate offspring of [Nathanael] West and Kurt Vonnegut.”In Persuasion Nation

Saunders short stories and novels are all marked by the same satirical voice that holds an unyielding mirror up to the reader, forcing them to ask questions of themselves at every turn. At times, I worry that he might be predicting the future.

The short story “In Persuasion Nation,” from a collection of the same name, is awash in satire and biting criticism. It explores– with endless curiosity–a bizarre, fantastical future that feels impossible and horrifying, yet at the same time so tangible and close. In this particular story, we are given a fantasy realm of our Commercialized Economy. We are alone in this world. No drop lines of familiarity or reality, just brand names whizzing by so fast it makes your head spin.

Some questions to think about:

  1. One of the greatest characteristics of satirical writing is that it can escalate almost endlessly. That said, sometimes something has to give, and the reader has to feel rooted in a place they can at least somewhat relate to. Does Saunders do a good job of not losing us in the absurd nature of this piece?
  2. What does structure do for this story? It’s broken down into sections that are numbered, punctuating the break between different vignettes. What other effects does this have?
  3. What do we make of this “false god?” What does representing a deity with nothing more than a scrap of garbage say about this world Saunders places before us? Is it a cop out? Or is it something more?
  4. Is there enough of a cohesive narrative in this story? Does pulling the reader’s attention between so many characters and settings lend itself to the story’s subject?

I don’t know if all of Saunders’ fears will one day be realized, but I do know that it’s been about two years since I’ve lived without cable, and now any time I watch TV anywhere, the amount of commercials drives me nuts.

But they’re everywhere. On our phones, in our music, everything catered to our tastes, to what a database knows about us.

If anything, this story does a great job of turning our society on its head, leaving us to watch as everything wobbles precariously back and forth.

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“The Blue Bouquet” by Octavio Paz

Octavio Paz was a renowned Mexican poet, diplomat, writer, and all around impressive guy. In 1990 he received the Nobel Prize for Literaturebluebouquet. His writing dealt a lot with political matters, but his poetry worked along tight, succinct lines and his imagery displayed a sustained and vastly growing imagination. His works always occupied the gray area between poetry, prose poem and short fiction.

This week we’re talking about one of his shortest pieces of fiction, “The Blue Bouquet.” Way ahead of his time, Paz shows how flash fiction works on the poetic form to really capture our attention. Some questions to consider when reading:

  • In this story, the speaker is very much the foreign outsider, or at least a “visitor” to this place. How does this add to the tone of the story? Does it make it more realistic? Or more surreal?
  • Smack in the middle of this piece the speaker has a long moment of existential consideration before he encounters the man with the machete. What does this moment do for the rest of the piece?
  • Since we’ve been working on writing horror flashes lately for the Apex Magazine: Steal the Spotlight Micro Fiction Contest, I thought this piece was oddly appropriate.
    • Do you consider this horror? If so, what horror elements are here? If not, what’s missing?

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“Human Moments In World War III” by Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo is the national book award-winning author of Underworld and Falling Man. He’s wricvr9781442346482_9781442346482tten over a dozen novels and even a few plays. Our published piece for this meeting is from his collection of nine short stories The Angel Esmeralda. The novel has received wide praise from The New York Times, Newsweek, and–yea, you guessed it–Oprah Magazine. The collection covers a wide landscape, from the Tomahawk II war ship to the empty halls of a college dorm room at Christmas to a white collar prison for men guilty of investment crimes. Our piece today is just a brief glimpse into this phenomenal journey. Some questions to consider while reading:

  • Throughout the story, the narrator picks out several ‘human moments.’ Vollmer’s jersey, his grandfather’s old war photo by the firing panel, Sundays. So by the end, it should be easier to identify what these are, right? Is this true? If so, what are ‘human moments?’
  • How do labels and titles function in this story? How does it play into the relationship between the narrator and Vollmer.
  • Radio transmissions, old talk shows and commercials from 60 years ago, are being picked up by the Tomahawk II. Does the narrator’s conversation with Colorado over this mark a shift in the story? When both men are listening to the old stations for entertainment, what is happening and what does it say about their current condition?
  • The laser sequence which Vollmer and the narrator must test is a huge moment in the story, it shapes a lot of the nature of this new war. What does the procedure for arming this weapon say about this fight so far? About the relationship between the two men?
  • The view of the earth represents a lot from beginning to end. Would you argue that the earth at a distance operates as a character in the story? How else does it function here?
  • Where is the climax in this story? Is there even one?

BONUS QUESTION: How does this compare/contrast to Becca’s published piece from last time, “That Tear Problem?”

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