“The Witches of Detroit” by Maureen Aitken

BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. In her story “The Witches of Detroit” Maureen Aitken examines family tragedy and its aftermath from the perspective of two middle-school girls who form an unexpected bond.

 

The Witches of Detroit

by Maureen Aitken

 

When my mother ran out of excuses to keep me home from school—a cold, pneumonia, the flu—the principal told her I had to return or repeat the sixth grade. By then, two weeks of mourning had turned to three. By then, fall had slipped away, and the year’s first snowfall had grayed in the streets and formed an ice shell over the lawns.

“Fine,” my mother told the principal. “But if my daughter dies of respiratory failure, I’ll blame you.”

That first morning at school, when the bell rang for classes, the tan-tiled halls closed in so small, and the floor tilted so slightly. People I knew, Janice and Matt, talked to other people with dampened voices, as if their fists were cupped together around their mouths.

I sat in the same wood chair as before, saw Mr. Armstrong with his pocket protector, then walked the same Santa Maria Street toward home. One family didn’t shovel their sidewalks, so the snow turned to ice. I slipped, landing on my leg, then my hand, until all of me fell.

Above me, these huge tree limbs arced, bare, with fine younger limbs hanging in clusters. I’d never noticed how the branches reached above the sidewalk and over the street. A cardinal on a far limb flew away. The cold on my back, the sky above, and something about the utter collapse relaxed me. Someone walked around me.

The ice numbed the back of my head. I took a deep breath in, sensing where the cold met my lungs, where the chill seized my throat. When the beep of hospital monitors erupted in my brain, it froze instantly, hung there, arrested. My mother crying, my father’s face, my sadness. The memories barely whispered before they iced in mid-movement, filling me with such space, such release. I couldn’t think.

More people passed. Someone asked, “Walk much?” A boy chuckled at a high pitch, like a creaky seesaw. The numbness came as a relief. Mother Nature would ease my pain. I was about to close my eyes. More than that. Since he’d left, I saw this hole ripped in the day. Maybe it had been there all along. It could take anything. People. Cars. Mom. Me. It scared me, to feel what was there one day, gone the next. But lying on the ground, for the first time, I thought, I give up being scared of you.

Then from above, hair and a face started to arc over my sky like a moon. It took me a second to realize it was Lauren, a girl in the grade above me, who said, “I heard your dad died.”

“Yeah,” I said.

She nodded. “I lost mine, too.”

Lauren reached her hand out. I hesitated. Lauren was a year ahead of me, but she seemed twenty years older. She stood tall with big boobs and a little pudge, and she passed the halls without talking to anyone in particular, so people thought she was either cool or crazy. The school was a mix of races, with a few Filipino and Latina students. But Lauren? They couldn’t figure her out. When someone asked, she’d tell them to fuck off. People steered clear of her, and the way she leaned over me, she could have thought like a kid, and easily spit on me. But she didn’t. So I grabbed on.

We walked past the alley, the house with the red fence and the dog that long ago pushed his head through a screen, which flapped in the wind as we passed. The dog inside stared at us like we were steak on stilts, his nostrils smearing the window, his barks muffled by the glass.

People waved to Lauren as she talked about biology class and how we learned everything from the wolves. When they were sick, they went alone to die, she said, because they didn’t want to infect anyone or slow the pack down.

The rip in the sky, still there, felt less scary. “I like the writing classes, and literature. I just read A Catcher in the Rye.”

“Well, I’ve read stuff too,” Lauren said.

“Like what?”

“Horror,” Lauren said. “I’m a big fan of guts.”

A paper turkey hung from a window of Jill Robinson’s old house. Jill and her family had moved away, like so many, in the summer, when few noticed. It was the time of Jimmy Carter, white flight, and stagnation, at least here. Every summer people moved away, with their absence not felt until fall. Jill Robinson’s old house now had another family there. The people next door had moved to California.

The trees breathed. It was weird, to feel their inhales for the first time. “All of the trees,” I said. “They sense us.”

“Maybe you hit your head,” Lauren said. “I heard if you fall asleep, you might die.”

“Thanks.”

The street I’d known my entire life stretched out before us, the brick houses, slumping from neglect, some windows covered with sheets, the early Christmas lights, the Thanksgiving paper turkeys of brown, yellow, and orange.

At my house, with the missing bricks, we stood. I want to say I was sorry for her loss. Lauren had just started at the school, so I hadn’t known she’d lost her father.

But Lauren interrupted me. “If you trip again, don’t stay down.”

“It felt good,” I said. Mr. Johnson drove by with his shepherd running behind the car, in his version of walking his dog.

Lauren folded her arms and shook her head. “You have to be strong. Otherwise, life’ll crush you.”

Mr. Johnson turned left. “It already has.”

Lauren’s breath plumed out in fogs into the cold and then gone. “Cool.” She turned and walked toward home without a goodbye and without looking back.

***

On Friday, I was walking with my friend Janice when Lauren stopped me in the hall and passed me a book. “Okay, read this. You’ll see.”

After Lauren walked away, Janice said, “She’s so cool.”

The book was Helter Skelter, about the Manson murders. At home, I made Mom a chicken sandwich and did my homework at the dining room table so she wouldn’t feel alone. For two hours, she sat on that couch under the living room window, gazing into some unknown land. It was her version of being in the cold, so I got it. I made her coffee. When I brought it to her and she took a sip, she choked.

“Well, that should wake me up,” she said. She took another sip. I watched her from the dining room table, and when my homework was done, I snuggled up next to her and thought of Lauren and her guts obsession and fell asleep.

I finished Helter Skelter by Sunday morning. I wanted to know if Lauren read books like this because of her father. Maybe he’d died in some brutal way. Or was it a way of fighting off the pain? Mom hadn’t gone to church since the funeral. I thought to walk the book over to Lauren’s house, even though I wasn’t completely sure where she lived.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

“Where’re you going?” Mom asked. She reached her hand out to me.

“Just down the street to return this book,” I said. “I don’t have to go.”

“You go,” she said. “I’ll make lunch. We’ll eat in an hour.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”

Four blocks over, past the barking Rottweilers, an abandoned house, and the one of stone and brick with the oboe player inside—I searched out the block where I’d seen Lauren raking leaves.  The cold breeze and the snow felt crisp. A passing car with two parents and two kids in back made my heart hurt. I had to stop. I saw, then, a small rock above the snow, as if it were trying to run away. I put it in my pocket and walked slowly, searching for signs.

I heard yelling at one house and then the word “Lauren.” I stood in front of the house, trying to tell if the yelling had laughter in it or anger. Someone moved upstairs, and I thought to keep walking when Lauren opened the front door and said, “You finish it?”

She waved for me to come in, even though a woman’s yelling had grown stronger.

Lauren walked straight upstairs, and I followed. In the hallway was a picture of Mrs. Delaney, Lauren as a baby, and, apparently, Mr. Delaney. Mrs. Delaney was black. Mr. Delaney was white. But the weird thing was their faces. They didn’t match. Mrs. Delaney had saucer eyes, like Gladys Knight. Kind eyes. Mr. Delaney’s whole face was pinched, with little eyes and a mouth without lips, like a rat.

The yelling got louder. A slam of the phone.

“Is everything, like, okay?”

“Oh, that’s my Aunt Gloria with my mom.”

We were upstairs and in her room before she said, “Aunt Gloria’s a lawyer. She represents my mom.”

“For what?” I said. “Never mind. That was dumb.”

“Ask all you want,” Lauren said and sat down in the window box. “My stupid father cheated on my mom. Now they’re divorcing or trying to. Aunt Gloria said Mom will take him for everything.”

I froze. “What? I thought your father was dead.”

Lauren sprayed some Love’s Baby Soft on and sniffed her wrist. “Dead to me.”

She straightened her back. “Aunt Gloria found out the truth. He had an affair with someone five years older than me. Got her pregnant, too. That’s grounds.”

My brain tried to fix Lauren’s story, got stuck.

“He’s dead to me, too, and I haven’t even met him.”

I thought changing the conversation might help, so I said Helter Skelter was so scary, especially the parts about how crazy Charlie Manson controlled women.

“Yeah, and then they tried to take the baby out of Tate’s body.”

I put my hands over my ears. “Stop. Gross.”

Lauren nodded. “I told you I like guts. How sick or high do you have to be to do that? I’m supposed to be a doctor. So I should know. There goes Aunt Gloria.”

A woman in a blue dress walked out to her car. A quiet came over the house, and soon a gentle knock at the door.

“Lauren? Aunt Gloria said goodbye.”

Lauren’s mom opened the door slowly and then snuck into the room. She was tall, elegant, and thin in her crocheted short dress of bright colors, her hair pulled back in a bun.

“Mom this is Mary,” Lauren said. “Her dad just died.”

Mrs. Delaney sat up. “Oh, I am so sorry, Sweetie. I am so, so sorry.”

I had to think fast not to burst out into tears. “Lauren was just saying she’s going to be a doctor.”

Mrs. Delaney smiled. “Yes, like her grandfather. What in God’s name are you reading?”

“Reading about the Tate murders,” Lauren said. “It has anatomy in it.”

Mrs. Delaney shook her head slowly, turned, and walked out without saying a word. Lauren smiled. “What’s—” I started to say but Lauren put her finger to her lips. She leaned forward, waiting for something.

Mrs. Delaney came back with five dollars. “Go buy some smart books. And I want to see what you buy. No horror or astrology, you hear me?”

We both said, “Yes. Ma’am” together. She restrained a smile and went to make more phone calls. Lauren and I walked to my house. When I unlocked the door, Mom was happy to see me, but then her face fell a little to see Lauren. I knew that face, the one where it was just us, and now others would arrive back into our lives.

“Mom, this is Lauren, from school.”

“Oh, hello,” she said, brightening again. We split my sandwich and convinced my mom to drive us up to the Library Bookstore, with used, cheaper books we could afford. A droop in her face, one of such sadness, came over her. “I guess it’s time to move on, right?”

It didn’t dawn on me that this was the first time she’d left the house in three weeks. She moved as though ghosts surrounded her. Lauren sensed this, I think, because when Mom stopped to let us out, Lauren said, “We all need to find something good.”

The small bookstore had a cooking section, and my mom stayed there, looking at the jackets with faint interest. I went over to the literature section and found a cheap Pride and Prejudice. I’d heard of it but didn’t understand the fuss over the first pages.

“What’s some dead British woman going to show us?” Lauren said.

I put it back.

We found two books that Lauren’s mother would like: me The Grapes of Wrath and Lauren found The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

We wandered around until we found a display table called “Witches and Warlocks,” with two shelves underneath. “The Book of Spells,” Lauren read. “Sweet.” We studied the back jackets as if they mattered.

We found Witchcraft. We did the math and bought three more books, but we were still twenty cents short.

“I’ll give it to you,” the owner said. “Good to see girls reading something valuable.”

“Yeah, I hear Steinbeck is great.”

The bookstore owner was framed by First Editions, the valuable stuff, on display at the center, and stacks running two feet over her head.

“No, dear. The witchcraft books. Changed. My. Life. But don’t tell people.”

“Why not?” I asked.

She looked at me like I was some kind of new dumbass.

“People fear witches. Besides, we just find each other.”

“Cool,” I said.

 

Mom came back from the cookbook section with one slim book on soups and studied our selections. “This is a bizarre fixation.” She pointed to our books. As we walked out into the cold air she said, “You girls happy?”

“Yes,” we said in unison. “Thank you.” She didn’t talk about the books again. We walked over to the cake shop, and Mom bought four items to go, chocolate cupcakes for us, a dark chocolate one for Mom, and a carrot-cake muffin. It was Dad’s favorite. I held my breath when I saw it.

In the middle of the bakery, she looked down at her selections and froze, knew just then that there was no husband at home waiting for this. Not only did she have to see her home again without him; she would have to see his absence anew at every errand and event until, years later, he would be rooted out of her life.

I grabbed the food. “Good idea,” I said. “We’ll set it at his place at the table for Dad and eat it in his honor.”

My mother nodded. “Yes,  we’ll do that.”

Lauren and I ate the cupcakes in the back seat, stamping the pages of our books with icing fingerprints, our teeth stained with clumps of chocolate.

The next day Lauren rifled through the book of spells and found four incantations. I wanted to talk to my dead father, and Lauren wanted her father to move away; Lauren wanted a protection spell for her mother; then I wanted one for my mother. We wrote them down on the back of a receipt.

“But first we need to start with a test spell, something small,” Lauren said.

“A dollar.”

“That’ll work.”

We sat facing the windows and said, “Great Mother, we offer these spells, in your honor.”

We read the spells several times, with the list of all four wishes and the dollar test.

“Now let’s burn the list,” Lauren said. She went to grab it.

“No way. We’re experimenting. We need to test the outcomes.”

We didn’t wait. My mom found us lifting up the couch cushions, pulling out lint balls, a tie, and change. She gave us a bag. “Put the lint in here.”

We found $1.23 in change in the couch and stared at each other, wide-eyed. “It works,” Lauren said.

Christmas was in a week. For Christmas we bought each other rabbits’ feet, mine in blue and Lauren picked green.

Christmas arrived. Mom and I had gone to buy a tree, but that had been Dad’s job, so we bought one too late, and too small. We had four gifts, which we’d wrapped together, so the surprise was gone. Some aunts and a few cousins would come over today at three. But I made a fire and we sat there, Mom and me, in the early morning, listening to the fire crackle, watching the wood burn hard and full.

“Thank you,” I said. “For the gifts.”

Mom nudged me. “This is just one of those holidays we get through.”

I hugged her tight then, as if she might fall through the floor. I felt something on my cheek. It was a tear that had dropped from her face. Then we both cried, for a long time, just like that.

Lauren and I talked on the phone that day, and I told her I’d like us to create a potion or a spell that could take away so much death, that could pull out the grief.

She stopped by, and we walked to a nearby park, swiped the snow off the swing seats, revealing the wood with chipped green paint, with names and words scored with knives. We sat down, and she understood my sadness.

Lauren said we would remember these days when we were in high school together.

“These are the days where everything starts.”

“My dad’s dying wish was that I would go to this dumb school, out in the burbs.”

“We’ll see,” she said. “Let’s make a spell for it.”

I pushed back a little on the seat, and then forward. “A spell to be friends forever.”

She said, without even asking, “Eternal Mother, we vow to be friends forever, to right the wrongs. Send us the signs we need to know.”

Curtains moved at the house next to the park. It must have been Crazy Ethel, watching us.

“We don’t want signs,” I said. “Take that back.”

“Why?’

“Signs are dangerous. Great Mother, heal my mother of her grief. We vow to be friends forever, but forget what Lauren just said about signs.”

“You can’t take back a spell,” Lauren said.

“I just did.”

“It’s in all the books.”

“Still did it,” I said.

***

I thought of Lauren’s spell two days later, as Mom and I watched the news in the den. A picture of Jill Robinson’s face came up, the girl from grade school who’d moved away. The picture was the one taken at our school. We had a black-and-white television, so it was all hard to see.

“Mom,” I said. “I knew her.”

“That girl?”

“Yeah, she moved last summer.”

The reporter said Jill had been shot in the face. Her body had been dumped on the side of the freeway.

The reporter stood on the side of I-75, the part in the good, rich suburb, and said, “They dumped her body here.”

“That’s horrible,” Mom said.

I saw a spot in the snow. It was gray. I couldn’t imagine Jill going with any guy. She was too shy. She’d have run. Did the man cast a spell on her? It wasn’t fair. She was the nicest person I knew.

I leaned in, trying to make out the stain.

“That’s awful,” Mom said. “But they’ll find who did it.”

“Is that blood?” I asked. Mom leaned forward, too.

“No, that’s just dirt. It’s the freeway.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Whoever did this moved her,” she said. “We’ll pray for Jill. Jill Robinson.”

“I’ll pray that whoever killed her rots in hell,” I said. I had done, I thought then, all the wrong spells. I’d cast a spell for a dollar when I should have cast one to protect Jill’s life.

Mom turned to me, as if shaken from a trance. “You and Lauren need to be more careful.”

“Don’t worry, Mom,” I said. “We have special powers.”

“Somebody should.”

“Yes,” I said.

Mom stared at the television, even the corny car ads. I wanted to grab her hand, go get ice cream. She was in a daze, but I couldn’t let her go, not to my father, and not to the rip in the sky that made us all so vulnerable, that could swallow us whole.

“Maybe all the energies of this world protect you,” I said. I held her hand.

She couldn’t take her eyes away from the television. I didn’t blame her. I, too, longed for the numbness, for the cold, for grief to freeze midair. But if we went, all that would be left were the child killers, the doctors who didn’t cure cancer, the husbands who cheated on their wives. The Charles Mansons of the world would take over.

I went into the kitchen and took my father’s carrot-cake muffin, cut it in half, and brought it back to the couch. I picked up my half, “Here’s to the ones who protect us from the other side. Who show us the way to happier days.”

“Amen to that,” she said, and picked up her half. She bit into the cream-cheese frosting, the orange carrot center. It tasted so good, as if these bites conjured autumn in the rain, sweet roots fresh from the soil, as if right then the seasons promised to encircle us with wonder after wonder, in the days of our lament.

***

 

Maureen Aitken’s short-story collection, The Patron Saint of Lost Girls, won the Nilsen Prize, the Foreword Review INDIE Prize (Top Prize for General Fiction), and was listed as one of the Kirkus Best Indie Books of the Year. The collection also received a Kirkus Star and a Foreword Star. Her stories have been widely published and twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She grew up in Detroit and teaches writing at the University of Minnesota.

 

 

The Literary Word

By Marek Makowski

Each year, this university’s English department awards several scholarships. Most of them require typical martial facts (name, numbers) and writing samples, while one includes a prompt. This year’s prompt: “If you could select one literary text that every English major should read, what would you select and why?”

The question seems simple—all one has to do is reach over to the bookshelf and pick a favorite at random—but the modifier of literary, seemingly slipped in so frivolously, skews the earth’s axis and hurls the cosmos into the ocean. What exactly does it mean to be literary? How can we define or, even, show it?

I think the answer can be found in the texts themselves. I’ve been reading submissions at TMR for a year now. Most of the job is analyzing stories and trying to put into words why they do or don’t function well. Sometimes it’s fairly easy: there is no characterization, or the style relies on clichés. Other times a story is perfect mechanically, but it lacks the indescribable quality of great writing, a unified force of magic that, I suppose, we describe as “literary,” the popularly pithy label like the hundreds of others we invent to try to express the matter that lies in the area between life and literature.

I’ve read in many places and heard from many people that “literary” is only a term used to market books. That’s a fair argument, though I think it’s too easy of an escape to the question of what makes something literary, and I don’t want to fall into the whirlpool of genre fiction debates and how some works are misunderstood, etc. etc. This adjective also isn’t just limited to books, as by now it’s accepted that genres like film and music and television can be well written, that they can transcend from the “ordinary” into the “literary.” But the adjective does come from the word literature, and it’s the genre whose works have longest lingered on our tongues and minds.

It’s easy to say that the components of literature must be present and masterfully executed to make something literary: vivid writing, developed characters, a complex plot. But what does that make of descriptive poetry, or a play?

A few months ago I read Clare Cavanagh’s translation of Nonrequired Reading by Wislawa Szymborska. It’s a collection of newspaper columns in which Szymborska reviews various books that don’t usually get critiques (self-help books, an annual calendar) and uses them to muse on life. The micro-essays are terse and vivid, and they generate the cumulative feeling of having flipped through a poet’s notebook. But does that mean they’re not literary because they were published in newspapers, or because there are no sustained characters or plot, because the pieces don’t have many unifying qualities besides a premise and an inquisitive tone? Of course not.

So the aforementioned components can be present—they usually are—but they aren’t required. The effect, of magic and discovery, is required. For something to be literary, it must a regenerative force, a carefully constructed mirror, without a smudge or any the maker’s fingerprints. Every time somebody returns to a literary text, they see something different in it, an effect reliant on the present condition of the reader and the depth of the text. And every time somebody else goes to the text, they see similarities, but they detect different components. Both people see the eyes, but one sees the hair and the other sees the chin. Only the mirror-maker has the complete image, for their completion contains an intricate depth, as well as a mystery of having explored and created it.

Some of our great mirror-makers are those deigned as literary authors. Shakespeare, of course, so skillfully implemented wordplay and interesting interactions and opposing ideas that his plays and sonnets continue to engage readers and scholars today, more than four hundred years since he wrote them. Flannery O’Connor merged concurrent literal, symbolic, and religious narratives in each of her Complete Stories. The writings of Willa Cather and Robert Frost, to take two other genres, can easily be read on literal terms, while masterful craft—ambiguity!—lurks behind their printed letters.

It should be noted that in the end the artist does not have full control over how they will be branded, whether their work earns them immortality, or even what readers understand of their writing. Of course, authors labor to limit confusion and misunderstanding, and to open certain parts of their writing to questions, whether to reflect life’s qualities, or to the imagination, or to complicate narrative, or to do whatever they want their art to do. But that’s not to be confused with confusion because of poorly-drawn scenes and characters. The mastery, of course, must be there.

The starchy observer might, again, argue that I’m being some sort of elitist by using these terms—literary, art, poetic—but it’s not mere labeling, or oppression. I doubt that the writers I mentioned earlier sat, with pen in hand, to develop an inspiration, thinking, I’m going to make this one literary, really literary—so it sticks for a long time. Greek bards didn’t recite hexameters to fossilize their echoes on eternity’s bookshelves. If one’s goal is to craft an emotional mimesis, to make their work like life, which has no certainty and definitely no neat resolution, then they will do so, and the label will come afterwards if they are successful. But it’s simply a label, and it’s the effects and qualities of that label that we’re after. Only time, like with all things, controls the rest.

When Henry trudges into the rain at the end of A Farewell to Arms, there is no full resolution to his story, or his life. He has enough momentum to walk off the page and join us, for some time, strolling in our minds and our world. When Riggan leaps out of his hospital room window at the end of Birdman and his daughter comes in moments later, looking through it first at the ground and then to the sky, we have an ambiguous, open ending. The magic prevails. The suspension of disbelief continues to mesmerize us. The story lingers in our consciousness for much longer, and it becomes something more than a 300-page novel or a two-hour film. It becomes something magical, something so intricately constructed that it has a reality of its own. That, I suppose, is when we know that something is literary, that it, like the great mysteries of life, has the substance to survive the unyielding passage of time.

Photo courtesy of Martin Cathrae

The R&B Genuwine Book Club for Frequent Flyers: A True Hollywood Story

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The 2002 Western Conference Finals. The meaning will become clear. Probably.

By Bradley Babendir

I never expected Mr. & Mrs. Smith to feel like an apt metaphor for my relationship with my significant other, Rachel Rowsey. I didn’t expect to wake up on the morning of April 22, 2015 to read an assassination on my character penned by someone I trusted so much. But Mr. Smith didn’t expect Mrs. Smith to try to kill him, either. So I thank Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie for their hard work and help getting through this tough time.

Unfortunately, I’m not a trained assassin. Actually, that’s probably a good thing. Being a trained assassin seems like a miserable existence. I’ve watched enough Scandal to know that for sure. Fortunately, Rachel isn’t a trained assassin either, so nobody is going to die as a result of this feud.

Regardless, I cannot stand by while I am accused of things that are simply not true. I was a journalism major for approximately one-quarter of my time as an undergraduate at the University of Missouri, which means I have an obligation to the truth. In Rachel’s column, she says that the “Books Received and Read” score in our relationship puts her up five to nothing.

This, readers and ravenous pursuers of all that is factual, is false. A slander. A lie. In June of 2013, Rachel gave me The Fault in our Stars, a book that I read in its entirety in a timely fashion. In the words of much-maligned Chicago White Sox announcer Hawk Harrelson, “you can put it on the board, yes!” That’s one for Bradley. At worst, 5 to 1.

But wait, there’s more! The fifth book to which she refers is The Confessions of Noa Weber, a book which she has not yet finished. I have also not yet finished The Pillars of the Earth. This means the score is either 5 to 2, or 4 to 1. Either way, that’s some big progress for Team Brad. Movin’ on up.

The controversy does not stop there, either. It never does. As Ms. Rowsey mentioned in her column, I also read two of the books for which she is giving herself credit. Technically, I gave them to myself in order to read them alongside her (as was the basis of her column), so they cannot be counted for my score. However, reading those books did cut into my free reading time, which made it harder to finish the books that I was given. I’m not saying the game was rigged, but I’m not not saying it, either. It’s the book club equivalent of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals.

Furthermore, I have to call into question the entire system of scoring itself. A book is not a standard unit of measurement. What really matters, when it all comes down to it, is page count. Tiny babies read tons of books. Because the books they read are tiny. Do those tiny babies deserve credit for reading all those books? No, they don’t. Babies can’t do anything. Rachel, who is not a tiny baby (95% confidence in that statement), has read 1600 pages. I, on the other hand, have read 1348. Yes, I’m still losing. But I’m a lot closer.

But, am I still losing? No. Enter the last truth bomb:

Pure volume statistics never give a fair picture. Efficiency is important. In this case, the number of books read should be considered in the context of the number of books gifted in the first place. And here is where Ms. Rowsey greatly falters. By my count, Rachel has given me three books. I’ve finished (or nearly finished) two. That’s a .667 batting average. Those are all-time great numbers. Triple crown numbers. All-Star. Hall of fame. Meanwhile, I have given Ms. Rowsey 11 books, of which she has finished six. That’s a .545 batting average. Great, elite, Hall of Fame, too. As good as .667? I don’t think so.

 

Why You Should Read a Book and Stop Skimming Wikipedia

Two pupils leaning on a pile of books while reading on touchpad

By Lance Nichols

At the beginning of next semester it will be two years since my hometown high school went completely digital. All students received a school-issued Mac, virtually all textbooks shelved for inexpensive, downloadable files, and paper homework is nearly nonexistent. Every student would be apart of the network and use web apps to complete assignments, much like Blackboard in college. When I was told this educational “evolution” was going to take place the year following my graduation, I, with the rest of my graduating class, felt slighted. We had to hand-write most of our work and lug around old, outdated textbooks. Who doesn’t want a “free” Mac-book to listen to music, play MMORPGs (massively-multiplayer, online role-playing games), and sometimes do homework?

I feel quite differently now.

On this, The Missouri Review’s slick, sleek website, it is fairly easy to find and accomplish any task a reasonable Internet surfer might imagine they need to perform, whether or not they are familiar with the literary magazine. That is good. I’d like to think the straightforward nature of our website might lead to an increase of submissions from authors that otherwise wouldn’t think to submit—authors who, for whatever reason, have no familiarity with literary magazines, entirely. It is always my goal to listen for voices that might otherwise go unheard, and what better way to do that than with the exposure and access the Internet gives to residents and users? It’s the democratization of the voice, itself, right?

This hopeful, progressive sentiment is doubtful. Visitors to our site are likely to be subscribers or prior submitters—a smaller, insular group with specific, literary interest. Though it is disheartening to see that population continue to shrink, it doesn’t make literature and the literary world any less valuable.

Quite true, inversely, just because something is popular doesn’t make it good. Unfortunately, that is the mechanic of the Internet. In fact, the route through which I’m sure many of you came to this post, Google, has a business model that runs as cool as a perpetual-motion machine thanks to its ingenious algorithms and marketing scheme. Roughly, AdWords presents sites with high-traffic and high ad-space bids. But content filtered by traffic is not truly representative. The obvious implication is that, first, our choice of search engine will have at least some effect on our results, but also it will be those on the Internet the most who will determine what the rest of us see. Don’t believe me? Just open up a new tab to Youtube, pick a video about or involving a woman (but really, this would work with truly any video), and scroll down to the comments. Notice that they shrilly screech with a distinctly masculine tone. There are those or any of the other organized, anti-feminist outbursts that erupt with seeming regularity. Beyond that, as stated before, those sites that are going to get the most traffic not only must be seen, they must be quick and easy to use—they must be “intuitive.”

Such is TMR’s great website: economic use of space, cohesive design, blocks of text only where completely necessary, such as submission instructions and blog posts. Even with the latter, brevity is key. Reading on the Internet is characterized by text that can be skimmed, and, Wikipedia-like, peppered with hyperlinks that lead off and away down an information rabbit-hole. Telling is the fact that on any of Wikipedia’s millions of pages, clicking on the first link in the text and then repeating the process for subsequent articles will inevitably lead you to the page for “philosophy.” I’m definitely not the first to illustrate how antithetical such superficial reading practices are to understanding any philosophy; as any meme will tell you, the Internet loves irony.

So how does this relate to the digital curriculum my younger brother uses as a high school sophomore and my youngest brother will use as a sixth grader? If the type of interface that makes our experiences on the Internet good requires reading to be skimmed and skipped through, if intuitive technology relies on our inability to sustain an interest in one piece of reading, then maybe good technology doesn’t make for good reading and education? Additionally, maybe the simple nature of Internet use engenders antisocial behavior and gives a louder mic to those who would give in to the messages of terror, exploitation, and hatred?

We should definitely take these arguments into consideration as we continue to move quickly into the future. There is no use in attempting to revert back to what we had before; the Internet has been fully uploaded into our lives. I will choose to echo such writers as Nicholas Carr when I advocate the pursuit of moderation. While computers are great for making tasks easier, such as facilitating submissions, we should always remember that some things are difficult for a reason.

How Assumedly White Characters are a Disservice to, well, Everyone

photo via natello-universe.tumblr.com

By Hannah Cuthbertson

I’ve convinced myself that if Buzzfeed was a real, living person, that person would be me.  Their posts are funny, they put these sticker like things on their best articles that just say “YASS”, and there’s a plethora of cat memes.  I am Buzzfeed.  Buzzfeed is me.

But, all humor aside, I came across a post a few weeks ago called, “What a ‘racebent’ Hermione Granger Really Represents”.  Quick disclaimer: I’ve never actually read the series (I know I know, shame on me.  I’m getting around to it, don’t worry).  But I am a fan of the movies, and of writing in general, and of Buzzfeed.  In the article, biracial Buzzfeed community member Alanna Bennet pulls from Tumblr artistry in an effort to imagine Hermione as African American, and even goes on to say: “As I grew up I stopped comparing myself as much to Hollywood actors and tried to train myself out of seeing white as the default for fictional characters.”

At the time, I thought it was just an interesting take on a topic I hadn’t known much about.  This was, afterall, my first exposure to “racebent” characterization, and it led me down a winding internet path of all sorts of things- Disney princesses as races other than what had been originally depicted, book characters, movie characters.  It was fascinating, interesting, and just kind of neat to think about because, to be honest, I hadn’t thought of it at all before.

It should be known that I spent my childhood in a southern Alaskan suburb where racism and discrimination seemed virtually nonexistent.  I was lucky enough to be raised in a safety net of equality, and those values will be with me for the entirety of my life.  Of course, I noticed that the African American girl that lived across the street from me, whom I rode bikes with frequently, looked different than me.  But do you know who else looked different than me?  My tall friend.  And my blonde friend.  And my friend with blue eyes and my friend with brown eyes and basically every other friend that I’ve ever had because (shocker!) I don’t have a twin.  My neighbors’ skin color, while yes, different than mine, was not a trait that differentiated them from me any more than any other physical trait, be it eye color or hair color, would differentiate me from anybody else.  People are people.  It really is that simple.

So imagine my surprise when we moved to a small(ish) town in Virginia which might as well have been the state’s very own Mason-Dixon line.  Go to ten minutes south of my old house and there are cowboy hats and confederate flags.  Go ten minutes north and everyone has an Obama-Biden bumper sticker on their car.   Calling my experience in the lower-forty-eight a culture shock would be quite the understatement.

Then, at the ripe age of eighteen, I packed my bags and came out to Missouri.  For the most part, I went my entire freshman year without discrimination ever really coming up.  I was (falsely) under the impression that my generation was smarter, better, and kinder than that of our grandparents and great-grandparents; that the confederate flags waving from the truck beds of high-schoolers in my county had been an abnormality.  The rest of the world couldn’t really be that bad, right?

Then, Ferguson happened.  And, more recently, the infamous SAE video hit the internet.  As a human being, I was appalled.  As a member of the Greek community, I was ashamed.

Not long after, two officers were shot in Ferguson.  Then, an African American student was arrested and beat outside a bar near UVA.

Suddenly, the Buzzfeed post about a “racebent” Hermione seemed less like a fun display of Tumblr art and more like a call to action.  I re-read it again, and, as someone who wants to be a writer, I was empowered.

In her Buzzfeed post, Bennet, multiple times, includes quotes from Dominican American writer Junot Diaz.  The most powerful, taken from a lengthy passage in her post, is this: “You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves.”

So I did some digging, and I found out just how much that reflection is denied thanks to a phenomenon called whitewashing.  Turns out, there are a plethora of Caucasian models on the covers of books that actually have racially ambiguous characters.  Now, maybe there is a theoretical advantage to writing racially ambiguous characters- if the author never identifies a race, then, in theory, everyone should be able to see themselves as that character, right?  But thanks to the cover art, media, film adaptations, and unfortunately, society, racially ambiguous characters are often assumedly white.  Which is a problem for so many reasons.

More disturbingly, much of this whitewashing occurs in children’s and young-adult literature.  Just last year, The New York Times published an article about this very issue, and cited research done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center that found only 93 children’s books to be about African American characters out of the 3,200 children’s books published in 2013.

This got me thinking about my own characters.  More often than not, the characters I write about are young and female.  Is it because I am young and female?  Probably.  But I am also white.  And while I can’t think of an instance where I’ve explicitly stated the race of one of my characters, it’s fair to say than anyone reading my work could make the assumption that they are Caucasian as well.

So then I asked myself- why don’t I state the race of my characters?  And am I doing something wrong by not explicitly including a diverse cast of characters?  Could I be doing something better?

The short answer is yes.

The longer answer is this: African Americans, along with every other race and demographic, shouldn’t have to turn to the internet to find “racebent” characters in order to identify with literature.  The creators of such literature should be creating characters that are vivid not only in their emotional grit but in their representation of the world and of people.  People, who are vivid and beautiful and inspiring no matter the color of the skin or their cultural identity.

So, moving forward, I am making it my mission to diversify my writing.  I am saying goodbye to assumedly white and racially ambiguous characters.  There will be characters who are vivid and real and who have stories that are vivid and real.  Because I do want to be published.  I do want to be an author, and it pains me to picture a little girl like Bennet once was, reading my book and not being able to see herself in a character that I created.

And, I hope, I’m not the only one.

Alanna Bennet’s original post can be found here and the New York Times article here.

The Best I Read This Year

By Sarah Mosier

December brings many things you can’t escape from: snow, family gatherings, dry skin, the sun setting at 3 P.M. But perhaps the most unavoidable of all? Year-end lists. The minute the calendar strikes twelve, social media feeds are inundated with expansive lists outlining the “best of” in the preceding months. In the bigger picture sense, I think that these lists can be helpful. They refresh us on what was great about the last year or remind us of what we might have missed. But let’s be honest: these lists can also be incredibly overwhelming.

It’s always the year-end book lists that get to me. Mostly because I can’t remember the last time I read a book the actual year it came out. I don’t mean this in a cool, hipster way; I am not above getting excited every year when the New York Times publishes their “100 Most Notable Books” because, gee, those sure do look like great books that I hope to read someday. For now, I’m just a 21-year-old making my way through all the literature that was published before 2014. Bet y’all knew this already, but there’s a lot. There are so many books in this world.

In the spirit of being late to the party, here’s my personal list of the best books that I read this year, in no particular order:

1.) Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (1985)
In all honesty, I’m not sure I would have picked up this book had it not been required reading for a class, which might be upsetting for those who have a portrait of Harold Bloom hanging above their fireplace. But it’s one of those few novels of my college career that I’m glad I had to read. McCarthy’s stark descriptions of the Glanton gang roaming across the borderlands were honest in a way not many authors can be about ruthless and absolute violence. Also, in all seriousness, were dead baby jokes born of Blood Meridian?

2.) Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon (2009)
Full disclosure: I only read this book because Paul Thomas Anderson directed the movie adaptation that is coming out later this week. It was also the first Pynchon I read, much to the chagrin of English professors everywhere. Though a complete mess-up of a human, I found Doc to be a completely endearing character and I’m curious to see how this’ll all shake out on screen.

3.) Class Matters, The New York Times (2005)
This book is actually the culmination of a 10 part series published in the New York Times in 2005 that looks at a combination of factors to determine what class is, how it exists in America, and how it affects the outcomes of the lives of everyone interviewed. Of all the books I read this year, this one had the biggest impact. There’s an incredible amount of information covered and even if the statistics mentioned might be outdated by now, it challenges the reader to face the fact that not all opportunities in America are made equal.

4.) The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides (2011)
I have been an unapologetic fan of Eugenides ever since I read Middlesex late in my sophomore year of college and I feel like this novel is even that much better. Not to say that it doesn’t have its flaws- a story that focuses on three white kids and their Ivy League education can only go so far- but I believe I liked this book so much because while I was reading it, I identified with Madeline Hanna, a young English major about to step into the real world with a whole lot of uncertainty surrounding her future as well as her interpersonal relationships.

5.) Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (1400’s)
Wow, have you guys read this? So good, right? I’m positive it’s going to be an important piece of literature someday.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmosier

 

Writing in the Digital Age

By Cole Kennedy

A typewriter

Just about everyone in the literary community has joined in the conversation about how technology is changing literature. From the effect of reading on screens, to dwindling revenue for publishers as Amazon takes a bigger and bigger share of the pie, technology is shaking up the entire industry, top to bottom. A lot of the discussion has been full of doomsday predictions, concerns about the death of high lit, and authors pandering for mass appeal with skin-deep e-books that’ll help pay the bills, even if they don’t particularly satisfy the highest aspirations of prose. But there are also ways that technology is changing the writer’s world for the better, with better tools to services that expand their audience.

Longform journalism and creative nonfiction are nothing new to the literary scene, but they’re gaining traction with the public at large, and that’s due in part to some new services that promote the style. Longreads began as a a hashtag to help track quality stories with a 1,500 word count minimum. Now, the small group of people behind it have built a platform for promoting these longform pieces, both fiction and nonfiction, from many different sources. They’ve built an app, and their Twitter account has close to 150,000 followers – all subscribing to a feed full of links to the best pieces of writing the internet has to offer. With the help of WordPress, the small company has launched an app to further promote their content, and are expanding their budget to finance their own original work. Of course, this writing already existed. Magazines have been doing “longform journalism” since their inception. But by wrapping it all up under a neat hashtag, and building an enthusiastic community around these pieces, Longreads has both capitalized on a market and helped change the landscape to open opportunities for longer, deeper pieces of prose. Even websites like BuzzFeed, known for listicles and cat .gifs, have dedicated longform sections to satisfy the demand and promote the form.

Mark Armstrong, who began the Longreads hashtag, intended it to organize the never-ending stream of content for users of Instapaper, a well-regarded read-it-later app. These services popped up around Twitter, when developers realized it was hard to interrupt the constant stream of Tweets to read articles that were being shared. Now, there are multiple options: Instapaper is seen as the premium choice, while Pocket is popular because of it’s platform agnosticism, and even Apple has built their Reading List feature into their Safari browser on both mobile and desktop. Readers formerly inundated by the barrage of information on the internet finally have a method to cull the field and read the stories they want, when they want. That’s a boon for the readers, of course, but also the writers whose work might have been cast aside if the audience didn’t have time.

The writers also have access to new tools. Writing has sustained all sorts of disruptions throughout history. Most recently, the word processor changed the workflow of writers everywhere. Sure, a pen and a notebook is great, but the final manuscript is always going to need to be typed and digitized (how else will it get to the Kindle Store?). But as Microsoft Word starts to show its age, there are new options, ones that aren’t strictly about typing and editing. My favorite new writing and reading venue is Medium, the sort of undefined blog-platform-thing developed by Twitter and Blogger co-founder Evan Williams. Medium has two sides: the reading front-end, and the writing back-end, and they’re very similar. The service uses a WYSIWYG editor, or: what you see is what you get. There’s no gap between the writing and editing, and the page design. It’s a more intuitive way to write than putting together a text document and then uploading it to a blog. The other element of Medium is the reading presence. I’m inclined to liken it to a social network for writers. There’s paid content on there, and professional writers, but the bulk of the stories are done by amateurs with something to say. Medium does an excellent job of connecting writers to readers and vice-versa, and instead of having to rely on literary journals to publish their work, writers have a reputable, free service where they can self-publish, and promote their work themselves. By building a community of writers and readers, and a platform to host a wide variety of prose, Medium is drawing attention to writing in a novel way, and that’s a very good thing for people who care about the written word.

So, technology changes everything. Sometimes for the worse, sometimes for the better, and in a lot of cases, the consequences are uncertain. Kindle and iBooks (and nascent companies like Oyster) have the potential to pump up the volume of readers, but maybe the slashed prices will cause writers to seek alternative careers. That wouldn’t be good. But there’s also benevolent services like Longreads, Pocket, and Medium, that are actively promoting good writing and doing everything in their power to connect readers to good work. The future shows promise, and I’m able to stave off some cynicism with hope that these tools and services will propel writers into a new golden age of prose.

How understanding an author changes your reading experience

image

By Michael Nye

Over the summer, I made a trip with my family to Hannibal, Missouri to see and experience Mark Twain’s hometown. We became tourists for the day by purchasing the relatively overpriced, all-inclusive tickets that would allow us to take a tour of not only the Interpretive Center, but also Mark Twain’s Boyhood Home, the Huckleberry Finn House, the Becky Thatcher House, the J.M. Clemens Justice of the Peace Office, the Museum Gallery, Grant’s Drug Store and the Tom and Huck statue. We even ended the day deep inside the damp and slippery Mark Twain Cave where the character Tom Sawyer had one of his many adventures.

Even though it’s a tourist trap, I couldn’t stop my nerdy, book-loving heart from filling with joy as I stood and ‘painted’ the famous white fence from one of the opening scenes in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” I stood inside Mark Twain’s home, and I felt strongly connected to the infamous author. I was in the one-roomed home that inspired one of the most controversial yet important books in the history of literature, and it was wonderful.

That day trip really did have an effect on the way I understood “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” I finally had a visual component that I didn’t have before that made the scenes actually come alive in my mind, I understood the characters on a deeper level and I even had a better sense of the man who wrote them.

After that visit, I wondered if that could be the case with every author and book I’ve read. Could I find a deeper connection to any book if I just took the time to learn about the author? Would going to Walden Pond in Massachusetts help me get inside Thoreau’s head? Would staring into the pond for hours help me better reflect on my life? Aside from the fact that Thoreau would be thoroughly upset that I was walking the same path as he had, instead of creating my own path, I do think that extra bit of understanding would create a more powerful reading experience for me.

It’s even more interesting to look at how we can come to understand our contemporary authors and their books through the many resources available on the Internet. Whether one sees social media as an inventive tool or the end to face-to-face communication as we know it, it has offered the opportunity to connect more with authors, if we choose to do so.

Take John Green for example. He has an active online presence. After I finished reading his book “The Fault in Our Stars,” and after I put down the tissues and collected myself enough to resemble a human being again, I went online to find out more information about the author of the terribly depressing yet touching story. I discovered his Twitter and his personal webpage, and two hours later, I had a deeper understanding of the book and its characters. On his webpage, John Green describes the symbolism in the recurring images of water to show water’s power to both create and destroy life. The main character, Hazel, has thyroid cancer, so the fluids that fill her lungs threaten her life at a young age. On the other hand, water is a necessary means of survival. John Green also reveals his inspiration for the book and he admits why he chose to end it the way he did, just to name a few.

It wasn’t a critic or conversations with friends that gave me the answers I craved. It was the actual author of the book who made himself available to his fans to help increase their reading experience. By reaching out to his audience himself, he allowed the world he created to live on past the last page.

Now, do I have the time to always be looking into an author’s background? Nope. Do I have the money to travel all around the world to recreate scenes from my favorite books? Definitely not. But I sincerely believe that spending that time or that money, when it is available, does enrich one’s reading experience. It bridges that gap between the seemingly unreachable author and the reader. I know it has also personally inspired me on my path toward a literary career. Who knows, maybe the people I have met so far in my relatively short life will become characters in one of my future short stories or books.

What I do know with certainty is that every experience of mine has helped me grow intellectually, and those experiences are what I use on a daily basis to fuel my creativity. Have I experienced it all? No, and I’m far from it. But every single person, place, success and failure that I have encountered has had an effect on the person and the writer I am today.

With that in mind, seeing for myself the ways some of my favorite authors have integrated their lives into their books has created a more meaningful reading experience for me. Unlike the books I fail to invest extra time in and choose to just put away and casually forget about, the ones where I seek out information on the author’s life give me more. By that I mean the more you put in a book, the more it will give back, and I think that all begins by taking a look at the person who created it in the first place.

The Ten: The Books That Stay With Me (Or You)

By Michael Nye

In the three weeks or so, there has been one of those tagging games on Facebook that have been ubiquitous since, oh, probably as soon as the site launched. Though one of my aunts used to send me emails that were very similar way back when all we had were AOL.com email addresses, so these “tagging” games have probably been around since humans learned to write. Anyway, the current one is to list the ten books that have “stayed with you” in your life. I was tagged by my friend Laura Relyea.

There are many tagging posts on Facebook, and probably, if you haven’t already written yours about books, you’ve at least seen them in your feed. I generally ignore these tagging games (and Candy Crush invitations) but I didn’t have an idea for a Monday post and it’s relevant to books and all that, so I thought, yeah, this will work.

However, with one or two exceptions, most of these lists that I’ve seen on Facebook lack context. Why did these books stay with you? What does “stay with you” mean? Why are you imploring me to read them? Or, perhaps, you aren’t imploring me to read them, you’re just sharing (or something). Or, it’s all humblebrag, as this correspondent from Huffington Post thinks, with the requisite amount of snark. But, I’ve generally found that I see people’s list and I wish that me and that person could talk about it. Just seeing a friend’s book list doesn’t feel like it even touches on why the book matters, to my friend or me, especially if the list is diverse. It only leads to more questions. So, here’s my list with, I hope, a sufficient enough explanation of why it’s on the list. These aren’t necessarily my favorite books: trying to do something a wee bit different here. And if it isn’t sufficient, hey, just ask me. I like getting emails.

Onward!

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. I’m sure there were other books in my childhood that were big, important, impressive, amazing books. But this is the one that I really remember. This book is about Milo, a boy who is bored and unhappy with everything, and he comes home from school one day to find a cardboard box in his room. He opens it up, and finds that there is a toolbooth and a mechanical car big enough for him to sit in. He figures, why not? And, next thing he knows, he’s no longer in his bedroom but in some new amazing magical land. There are watchdogs named Tick and Tock, there is an island called Conclusions that you “jump to” (get it?), and about a hundred other delightful word games mixed in with what is a very cool story. This is the book that I felt was written just for me. And, there are thousands of readers of Juster’s novel who feel the exact same way.

Kindred by Octavia Butler. Of all the books I read in high school, this is the one that stands out. I read this junior year. When, on page sixty or something, it’s revealed that the main character—a black woman from San Francisco that keeps inexplicably getting sent back and forth in time to a 19th century plantation—is married to a white man. Why didn’t Butler tell us that sooner, I asked my teacher. I felt like I had discovered something that no one else had ever noticed! Oh, and, of course, Butler’s novel is a brilliant science-fiction, historical, romance thriller that deftly blends time and space and characterization better than most. An absolute gem.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. I’m pretty sure I read this in graduate school. I used to go to the nearest coffee shop, which was a Barnes and Noble, to read and write. Back then, BN didn’t offer free WiFi, which is a really good way to get your writing done. Anyway, I remember reading large chunks of this novel, and was amazed and delighted by the narrative, the way Mitchell shifted voice for his various stories, and how entertaining the novel was to read. Since I’m now struggling to feel much for his new novel, I sorta wonder how much I would like Cloud Atlas if I read it again today (something I’ve wondered about all the books on this list).

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. When was the first time you read this book? Along with To Kill a Mockingbird, it’s the only book that my students are guaranteed to have read. I’ve probably read it at every level of my education, and once a year since. Fitzgerald was the first writer I tried to emulate: I would retype his stories, practice his rhythms and sentences, try to understand how he made Carraway so elusive and Gatsby so magnetic. Many years ago on the Ploughshares blog (I believe Elisa Gabbert was curating it then), interviews always ended with the question “Hemingway or Fitzgerald?” and I was always a bit pleased at how many people said Hemingway, as if Scott and I were friends with the world’s best secret.

Old School by Tobias Wolff. I hated this book. This is not a joke. I thought this was one of the worst novels I’ve ever read.

A quick digression: I’m well aware that Toby Wolff is one of the finest American short story writers of the late 20th century, and by all accounts he is a terrific teacher and all around good guy, and this probably means I’ll never ever set foot on Stanford’s campus, and I do sorta feel bad about saying this about his novel; further, I think of all the nasty things said about books, about negative reviews, literary citizenship, community, etc. and I not only wonder about adding to the noise, but, and I would guess most people who teeter on this fence feel the same way, I worry about how this will shape my life: what if Toby Wolff knows my chancellor and gets me fired; or his friends write me and tell me I’m stupid; or I get this massive backlash from readers; and is all of that really worth it just to write two or three paragraphs about why I don’t like the book, and really, is there any harm in not liking book; no, probably not, but, actually, having all these thoughts running through my head actually kinda make me angry because then we really aren’t a community where “all voices are heard” and we sorta live with fear of offending people in case we need a favor in the future, and, really, to hell with that.

So.

Old School is a terrible book. It’s a novel written by a guy who, it seemed, didn’t really want to write a novel. There are guest appearances by Robert Frost and Ayn Rand, who are portrayed exactly as you think they would be, wrapped up pretentious teenage boys saying pretentious things about literature, and then Ernest Hemingway is supposed to show up only – surprise! – he kills himself RIGHT BEFORE HIS VISIT (oh, how convenient!) so the book is one big boring narrative leading to absolutely nothing and then, sorta, the book decides to actual begin with a longish short story about theft, and you realize that 150 pages were tacked on to the front of the real story. Why? I don’t know. Lots of critics loved this book. They were wrong. They were very wrong.

I was puzzled. Why did all the critics think this book was good? Why did people rave about it? This was the first time I vividly remember going completely against the grain, against popular opinion, and doing so with absolute certainty. This wasn’t just a matter of taste. This was bad, and people were telling me it was good. My first lesson is being willing to refuse, to be my own critic, about contemporary books.

(rant over!)

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Yes, I liked this book that much. Yes, I understand the criticism of it. Yes, Tartt writes some very bad run-on sentences with some clunky metaphors. Maybe because it has all these flaws and it doesn’t matter at all is why I love it. Maybe because I lent my copy of it out twice. Maybe because discussing the book with some of my favorite people over the past year is part of the reason it’s on the list.

Selected Stories by Andre Dubus. I think the first Andre Dubus story I ever read was “The Fat Girl” but I’m not a hundred percent positive. I also wouldn’t choose that one as one of my favorites of Dubus. I don’t remember when I first bought his books—I own them all—or when, exactly, Selected Stories became the book that I reread once a year, or pick up when I’m sad, or pick up when I’m working on a story and feeling stumped with characterization. Selected Stories might be the book that I’ve read the most.

But there’s another reason this book is on my list.

Andre Dubus is how Laura Relyea and I became friends. Andre Dubus is how Andrew Scott and I became friends. There are examples of authors considered a “writer’s writer”—John Williams and William Maxwell spring to mind—but then there are the “writer’s writer” who are deeply personal to you: how you write, how you feel, how you think. And when you meet people who are moved by someone’s work in the same way you are, you’ve found something rare.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith. Oddly, twice in the past two weeks or so, friends have told me they didn’t like this book. WHAT?! I had so much fun reading this book, and re-reading it, and the depth and humor and insight that Smith brings to her characters. Many current readers probably know Smith best for her essays—which are excellent—but I always return to the energy and wit of her first novel.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen. Say what you will about Franzen, and many have, but when I first read this novel as an undergraduate, I was blown away. This was the kind of large canvas, the type of complexity and anger, that I responded to, the type of book that I wanted to write. It actually made me a little sad that someone else wrote the book that I wanted to write (if I knew how to write a novel, which I still don’t, or had even begun writing a novel then, which I hadn’t). I’ve read all his novels—and like them quite a bit—and the one I’ve reread is Strong Motion. But this was the novel that had the most impact on me, that made me think about aiming bigger with my own writing.

A Separate Peace by John Knowles. I wrote about re-reading this novel a few years ago, and how it was a bit stunning that such a dark, grim novel is so often taught in junior high. This is a masterpiece of language and character, every paragraph excellent, the horror of war lingering over the boys’ existence, and a tale of jealousy and friendship wrapped into one slim, elegant narrative. I’ve often thought about how such a story can exist beneath a story of prep school tragedy, how there are so many layers to this book, and how Knowles’ novel has remained on my mind with everything I’ve written the last three years.

Honorable Mention: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates; The Privileges by Jonathan Dee; Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; Columbine by Dave Cullen; Loose Balls by Terry Pluto; Rookie of the Year by John R. Tunis; Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker; Frankenstein by Mary Shelley; The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach; The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens; Chronicles of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez; So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell; Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison; England, England by Julian Barnes; A Civil Action by Jonathan Harr; The Millionaires by Inman Majors.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

What Literary Magazines Land in My Mailbox?

By Michael Nye

I’ve thought about writing this piece for a long time.

One of the things I’ve long argued that literary journals need to embrace is transparency. Too often, writers believe that magazines simply publish their friends, and editors believe that writers only want to publish in our pages and won’t read the issue. Both stances are a bit extreme, but broadly, these are fair assessments of an environment that is too frequently opaque and combative.

I had decided that writing about which literary magazines I subscribe to would be a neat post to do, and yet, I often backtrack from it. Will I offend anyone by acknowledging I don’t subscribe to his/her magazine? Are their magazines I should be subscribing to that I’m not? How many magazines is enough? Who benefits from this? Does it just become gossip? There are many additional rhetorical questions I could ask about it, but in the end, I’ve sorta answered this in a public format already and walking through it might be compelling to our readership.

So here’s some caveats.

All literary magazines do “exchanges” with other literary magazines. On our complimentary list, we send copies of TMR to roughly forty other literary magazines, and vice versa. So, we receive copies of (off the top of my head) Antioch Review, Georgia Review, Meridian, Poetry Ireland Review, and many others, in our office. I could very easily not subscribe to any literary magazines and all and just read the ones we receive “free” in our office. This influences which journals I buy. Also, I’ve been involved with literary journals for about a decade, so I have a good sense of what I like. What I try to do is a keep a core that I regularly subscribe to, and then try new ones here and there.

Also, this is my taste; my subscription list does not speak for anyone else on TMR’s senior staff. Because I have a full-time job, I’m able to subscribe to this many magazines. Most people cannot do this, and this is not intended to be a “shame the readership” exercise. Of course, I hope if you can only subscribe to one literary magazine, you subscribe to the Missouri Review. That’s probably an obvious statement, but worth saying anyway.

The writer Cathy Day has written about “literary citizenship” and while I believe literary magazines are a foundation of that citizenship (new and emerging writers published first; innovative design and marketing; etc.) plenty of people focus their dollars on books rather than magazines. I try to do both, but that’s another post for another time.

Without further ado, here are the magazines I currently subscribe to:

American Reader. I’ve followed them on Twitter for a while, and then met the staff at AWP this past March. I like to add one magazine whose editors I’ve met at the conference, and since they were two booths down from us and I like the content they’ve been sharing, I wanted to give them a spin.

Boulevard. This is a St. Louis based journal that I’ve been familiar with for over a decade. Their Symposium feature is terrific, and they have a nice balance of regular contributors and names I’ve never heard of in every issue.

Cincinnati Review. Long a favorite of mine, the work they publish tends to be more … surreal? unusual? … than my own writing, but there is something hauntingly familiar about the world their writers dramatize. It’s also visually one of the best, both in layout and design; I love the fonts, art features, and, of course, the content.

Hobart. They’ve put a ton of material online in the last year or two, with less emphasis on the print journal: their web feature “Great Moments in Cinematic Drinking” and their annual baseball issue (every April) are two of my favorites. And when the print edition comes out, it’s always terrific. The content tends to be playfully serious.

Kenyon Review. Maybe because we both use the word “Review” or something dumb like that, but KR strikes me as the sister/brother publication of TMR. This probably makes no sense whatsoever, but they have a similar, though somehow different, aesthetic from ours, and the size and publication period and all that creates a natural kinship for me. Their poetry scholarship is always wonderful.

Natural Bridge. The very first journal I’ve ever worked on, NB is a publication from my graduate program. They do a regular feature of Author-Editor-Reader about a piece in their pages, giving all three stages of a story a chance to discuss the Why and How and Whoa! of something they publish.

The Normal School. Looks like a “regular” magazine only in size; everything else about what’s in their pages is strange and memorable. Sophia Beck steers the ship, and her sensibility can be felt in all the work selected. Shane Seely’s poem about being at a reading where a heckler attacked the poet at the podium (not Seely) about Hart Crane is a recent favorite.

One Story: The concept is so obvious and so brilliant, I wonder why no one created One Story before One Story. It fits in the back pocket of your jeans. It’s one story, every three weeks, and there’s nothing flashy about the design of the magazine or of the site: all energy is focused on the story. I’ve been a subscriber for a very long time.

Poetry. I’ll admit it: I read less poetry than I should. Poetry is digestible in size, stylish in format, and the quality is always high. Seemed like a good place for me to get my fix of verse and essays about poetry.

River Styx. I worked at RS for five years as the managing editor, so I have a fondness for them. The poetry tends to be formal in style and humorous in content. If you like sonnets, villanelles, ghazals, and pitch perfect rhythms, this is the journal for you. RS also publishes fiction and essays, too, so it’s a true miscellany.

Tin House. This is actually a fairly expensive journal to subscribe to, but it’s well worth it, and there is always one absolutely amazing story in every issue. TH has a cornucopia of extras in every issue: cocktail or pie recipes, Lost & Found essays on forgotten classics, very short essays by Big Name Authors, all wrapped up in a layout design that is elegant and sleek.

I think that’s all of them?

Here’s another question that came from Twitter: do I actually read all these magazines? Absolutely. Do I read them cover to cover? Of course not. I won’t pretend that I read every single piece. I gravitate toward fiction first, then usually the … “oddities” isn’t the right word, but Cincinnati Review has three writers review one book, Tin House has its literary artifacts, you know, stuff like that. I read as much of the journals as I can, and (try) not to beat myself up because I haven’t read every single word of every single magazine.

There are far too many books and magazines published every year to read all of them. There is a logic to how I divide up what I subscribe to, what I borrow, what I ignore, and, as with all things, sometimes those plans go sideways. I could probably subscribe to more magazines and read more work. I could also probably subscribe to fewer and read less. This is what works for me. Whatever works for you, I hope TMR remains in your plans.

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye