I stumbled upon this week’s published piece curled up in bed on Sunday morning flipping through The New Yorker. The image caught me — mountains in flames and glasses forgotten on a white counter-top. Living in Santa Barbara, we’ve recently gone through the biggest wildfire in California history. In the middle of December. It’s been said over and over that there is no longer a fire season. Every season is fire season with our changing climate and drought-stricken landscape. Mass evacuations, apocalyptic skies, smoke masks, and emergency supplies: how do we adapt to this new world?
Of course, I dove right into the story — “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas. The story centers upon an ophthalmologist who gets burglarized and searches the flea market called the Thieves’ Market to try to regain her lost goods. Throughout the story, Bordas explores the themes of loneliness, self-reliance and survival in interesting ways. Here are some questions to ponder while reading “The State of Nature”:
- How do material belongings play into the notion of connection and loneliness?
- Is it better, or even possible, to survive (the impending apocalypse) in isolation?
- How does the author play with sight in this story, and being able “see” one another (especially between “state-of-nature guy” and the narrator)?
- How does the author subtly build up to the reveal about the mother’s secret?
Read up! https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/04/09/the-state-of-nature
Camille Bordas has published two novels in French. Her ﬁrst English-language novel, “How to Behave in a Crowd,” came out last year.
Photo-Illustration by Hannah Whitaker from The New Yorker
My turn to choose a published piece arrived and I hadn’t read any short stories I especially liked lately, so I turned to my go-to–The New Yorker–wondering if I’d find something I hadn’t read yet by one of my favorite short story authors, Yiyun Li. Ta da! This week we are reading “On the Street Where You Live,” in which Li explores themes of motherhood and loneliness through a protagonist musing about her autistic son.
YiYun Li is a Chinese American author whose novels and short story collections have garnered numerous awards and been published in more than twenty languages. She is currently a contributing editor to A Public Space.
Questions to consider while reading:
- How does Li explore “ordinary” versus “unusual” in this story? Does Becky indeed know what “normal” is?
- Becky says, “You can’t share with others who your child truly is.” To what extent do you think Becky knows who Jude truly is? What techniques does Li employ to illuminate this?
- Consider the way Li moves from scene to scene, and the way she has framed Becky’s internal monologue with people, places, and events/actions. How does she accomplish fluidity? What effects do these things have on your overall experience of the story?
- Li’s commentary on race is subtle but present. How does it complement Becky’s predicament?
- When Becky hears William singing, she “felt furious […] at herself too, for being there, a witness to a crime, an accomplice, really.” Later in the story, she is victim to a different–“normal”–type of crime. What is Becky’s crime? How does Li use the moments to underscore the meaning of the story?
- Becky says, “The only option was to blunder on through hoping.” Would you consider this story to be hopeful? Why or why not?
H.L. Fullerton is a short story writer from New York that has been published in perhaps a dozen online markets, including this one from Daily Science Fiction. Information on Fullerton is rather sparse; Twitter is about the only on-line presence I could find. I have made the assumption that Fullerton is a woman, both from this story and from her by-line; beyond that I’m afraid I can’t tell you much, except that he/she/? has only a few more publications to their name than we do.
So, on to the questions!
- There is a continuing trend in speculative fiction, especially in the volatile short story markets, to include modern social movements within the narrative. Sometimes these are subtle, other times not so much. How do you think Fullerton incorporates her social viewpoints into this story?
- The story itself dances around people asking silly questions at a party, until there’s a sudden reveal that each thing that has been discussed relates quite directly with a traumatic incident in the narrator’s past. A moment later it seems as though that incident is about to repeat itself. How did you like the plot and character development?
- At the end, the story turns the characters around by putting the narrator in the position of being helped by her friend Gertie, who seems to think that she’s the caretaker of the duo–quite the opposite attitude of the narrator. Did you find the ending a satisfying wrap-up to the story?
Hope you enjoyed the story!
Illustration by Kristian Hammerstad from The New Yorker
A prolific American author, T.C. Boyle has published 26 books of fiction (two more since the last time we read a story of his for our published piece) 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.
This week we’re reading “Are We Not Men?” and here are some questions for discussion:
- What techniques does Boyle employ to make the world he’s created believable? To what extent do you find this story a warning?
- What do you make of the way Boyle uses the “cheating” trope? Would you agree or disagree that he turns it on its head?
- In what ways is the protagonist relatable? How do you feel about the girl, and the natural baby versus the one picked from a menu?
- How does Boyle explore economic status in this story?
- What do you make of the various creatures in the story, from the Cherry Pit to the dogcat to the micropig to the crowparrots? Discuss the animals’ relationships to each other and to the protagonist. What does each animal symbolize? What do you make of the ending?
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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
Caroline Ratajski is a software engineer living in Silicon Valley, as well as a writer who has also been published as Morgan Dempsey. Her fiction is available in Broken Time Blues and Danse Macabre, as well as at Redstone Science Fiction. She is represented by Barry Goldblatt of Barry Goldblatt Literary, LLC.
She is also a writing buddy of Andy Romine’s. After he posted a link to this story I thought it was just too good to not be shared as a published piece.
- At first this is an exploration of a “lost girl” narrative; the effect on her family, neighbors, (ex-?)boyfriend. By the end, though, it’s turned into a revenge story that had me, quite frankly, frothing at the bit to see the resolution of. How does the author illustrate the various ways that the characters cope with trauma and loss, and how well does she engage the reader to identify with each character’s coping mechanisms?
- I found this a fascinating way to engage the Persephone myth, wherein a beautiful young woman becomes the Queen of the Underworld–but only for half the year. Did you recognize that story (assuming you’re familiar with it) in this one, and do you think it was an effective retelling?
- The protagonist is, like Persephone, sent to the underworld without her consent; and like Persephone, finds a way back to the world, though with different motivations and by a different method. At its heart this is a morality story, a commentary on modern society and its casual disregard for women’s lives. How do you think a story like this can affect modern mores?
Hope you enjoyed it! See you Wednesday!
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?
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.
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?
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.
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:
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
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!
- How does Rich keep the love triangle trope while also subverting it?
- Does the language bother you, or does it better transport you into the caveman point of view?
- How does Rich make a caveman story so relatable?
- Was the ending satisfying? Unexpected?