Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Jo Neace Krause's The Last Game We Played

I mentioned in a previous post that I greedily opened a package that arrived from Black Lawrence Press a few weeks ago. It contained Jo Neace Krause’s The Last Game We Played, which won Black Lawrence’s Hudson Prize in 2008.

The book is truly a spectacular read. Of course, it's easy for me to allow the English instructor to pop out of my back pocket and and edify everyone on the parallels between stories like Krause's “Nothing But Idolatry” and Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” or even O'Connor's covertly religious parable of “Parker’s Back.” Comparisons could also be made between William Faulkner’s Emily Grierson and Krause’s Miss Geneva Wellner in the story “Blindness.” But Krause's stories are all so vivid, so darkly humorous or piercingly sad—generally, so absorbing--that looking at potential influences misses the point. The 12 stories are all like “The Whole World Is Watching You,” which the former editor of In Posse Review Rachel Calahan proclaimed to be “a little classic.”

So many of the stories captivated me, but the wry resignation of Patsy Ramsey in “A Woman in the News” was the first to make me physically and mentally unable to put the book down. The story has an unconventional construction, but it’s fitting, too, a detail I’ll get back to in a moment. The narrative begins in a classroom, with the admonishments of a theater professor, who chooses an unnamed student to assume the identity of someone famous, eventually deciding on Patsy Ramsey, a former Miss West Virginia and mother of Jean Benet. The character is teased out, slowly by the student talking, taking on Patsy’s explanations and musings and by the professor asking questions. Insightful revelations follow. Take this, for instance:

“Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about. Maybe it dumbfounds you to be told what I know: that it is possible to construct yourself out of one grand bursting moment of admiration. But I believe that, just as I believe it is possible to become ugly if the world declares you ugly. Think of it this way: before I won the prize, I was just someone who was rather pretty, and I think that people were blind to me the way they are blind to most things about them that doesn’t get up in their faces…That’s what being beautiful is, getting up in the face with your act.”

This is the moment, the revelation that defines Ramsey for the rest of her life. It is what she misses as it fades, the affirmation she proclaims to want for her daughter. With this monologue, we seem to get the real story behind Patsy Ramsey; previously unknown truths are told. We learn her story is somehow melancholy and filled with a kind of vague loss even before the death of Jean Benet. The loss, the emotional vacancy that descends on Patsy as she ages, is what propels her into an illicit relationship with the man, who, it is implied, kills the daughter. It is a plot she is part of, it seems, but Krause allows us to feel compassion for Ramsey—deep compassion because she doesn’t seem to consciously recognize the man's intent. The volume of her alarm is stuck on low and does not penetrate the fog of her dreamy inattentiveness, her attempts to escape further disillusionment.

As the story enters a “Part II,” all traces of the student who has assumed Patsy’s identity and speaks in what she imagines is her voice, disappears. We see only Patsy now, and it can be assumed that either we are getting her genuine voice or the student has so fully transformed herself (as the professor intended) that we cannot distinguish between the real and the illusory—as I mentioned: this is a fitting construction. Krause’s Patsy was addicted to a kind of dangerous fantasizing, a fantasizing that kept her from recognizing the danger existing in reality. Also, Patsy was forced to act for police, to assume an impervious persona neither moved nor damaged by verbal attacks. In Part II, she is wearing her full body armor.

I could go on like this about each story (and may very well do this when I don’t have a stack of summer semester papers to read, all of which are staring at me accusingly and now on the verge of pointing). Each one is wonderfully detailed, and deeply psychological—like “Hans and The American Father Town,” which I suspect may be based in part on Weirton, WV (where I live…but maybe not?) or the more northerly New Cumberland, WV.

Buy the book here: http://blacklawrence.com/krause.html

AND In the meantime, read the wonderful story, “Blue in the Face” by Krause here: http://www.mid.muohio.edu/segue/8/8krause.pdf

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I've Seen This Painting Naked

Twelve years ago, I worked at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich. There, I catalogued incoming works and traced the provenance of paintings originally part of the royal Wittelsbacher collection. I also translated texts into English. At the time, the Alte Pinakothek was closed for renovations because the museum was getting an elevator to assist visitors who could not mount the 1,700 stairs that led to the second floor (the number of stairs is an exaggeration, but really, there were a lot of stairs.)

Later, I will tell you stories about how I used to climb out the window above my desk to get to the roof level of the Neue, where lavender grew lush and thick in sprawling planters.

Anyway, back to the painting I meant to write about here: the elevator shaft I mentioned previously bisected my curator’s exhibition area. This area consisted of intimate cubicle spaces, called ‘cabinets,’ that were filled with 17th century Flemish paintings—from comical genre scenes to opulent still lives. Around this time, the Doerner Institut was repairing--with beeswax and historically accurate, hand-mixed pigments--Albrecht Duerer’s “Paumgartner Altar” and “Mary as Grieving Mother,” which had been partially defaced by acid thrown on them by an angry visitor back in 1988.

I don’t remember what month it was…it was probably the middle of my tenure at the museum… but an X-Ray film reconstruction of Rubens' massive oil on panel “Massacre of the Innocents” was made on an equally huge lightbox built in one of the Neue's Doerner Institut rooms. It was amazing to see, everything in black and white and shades of gray. Thanks to the lead white Rubens used, which shows up very clearly in X-Rays, it was possible to see Rubens’ thought process, where he made changes, where he reconsidered compositional elements, painted over them, made them ostensibly disappear (but not to the all-seeing X-Ray). All his secrets and corset strings were revealed. Renger, the curator for whom I worked , said sagely in German as he pointed to the painting’s upper right hand corner: “ah...and here is a Friday to Monday job.”

I asked him what this meant, and he replied: he thought about it over night or maybe over a few days and decided to add a piece of wood here to change or otherwise enlarge the painting.

What Renger said was true. The dark portion of the painting, which looms behind the man holding the wailing baby aloft, has been added. The X-Ray made it clear that the wood was different, the seam between panels was evident. Perhaps something had been there before that Rubens disliked, an image he felt was somehow inferior and could not otherwise remove. Perhaps it was a pesky knot that showed even after layering it with paint. I had not noticed it until Renger pointed it out.

We could trace the movement of the figures, the forethought, the planning, but also the beauty of the mistakes. To have seen this is one of those rare things in my life that I will never forget; it's an experience I probably did not appreciate as much as I should have at the time. But I was young then. And now I know its value. In my mind, I often walk through that room, the hallways, and the storage areas of those buildings. I mentally gaze at everything I saw all those years ago and snapped with my mind’s eye like photographs.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

More on Asylums

First, the recommended soundtrack for this post? Max Richter's Waltz with Bashir. A beautiful, haunting business you can listen to selections of here. (Hint: start with "The Haunted Ocean" and let it play through to "Andante/Reflection")

And now the image: you're probably thinking, good grief, woman. Again with the asylums today? What could possibly be your obsession with them? Well, they are great reservoirs of unreliable and forcibly expelled memory, of human micro-histories, of family secrets condemned to die in seclusion. And, as I mentioned in yesterday's post, they are full of energy, energy often unwillingly reliquished and locked in space. Physics and chemistry have to be involved--there must be some unrecognized connection between human metaphysics and physical reality. We just haven't unlocked the nexus between these two worlds yet.

The stain on the concrete above was left by the body of a 54-year old woman named Margaret Schilling in an Ohio asylum called The Ridges, once known as the Athens Lunatic Asylum, which was notorious for its lobotomy procedures. Schilling went missing in December 1978 and was found six weeks later the following January. She was in an abandoned ward of the institution, locked in, nude on the concrete, her clothes neatly folded beside her. As the ward was unheated, her death was ruled to be caused by exposure. The stain on the concrete? Ineffaceable. They've tried to wash it away with mild acids and cleaning chemicals, but it returns. Ghostly? Perhaps. But I think it's more metaphorically ghostly than a clear manifestation of haunting: while the poor woman decomposed, her body experienced a chemical reaction with the concrete and etched the contact points of her shape in place.
A particularly interesting photo shows the wide cooridor of a sanitarium dating back to, would you say, the 19-teens? Perhaps the 1920s. It could be older, since I see fussy Victoriana in the furnishings and what look to be gas fixtures traveling towards the lights above. Patients sit in rockers, not wheelchairs, but they seem only vaguely human. Their caretakers appear with a kind of matter-of-fact confrontational stance. The man in the foreground almost appears to have a burlap sack over his head, even as he is turned away from the viewer. Is he wearing spats over his shoes? Such sartorial swankness. And the figures closest to the windows glow with a supernatural light, like they are dissolving into luminescent immateriality or at least move easily between recognized reality and the spirit world.
Interesting, interesting. For more fascinations, check out filmmaker Zoe Beloff's productions, which also deal with the paranormal, and are, in a word, fascinating.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Garden update and the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

It’s raining here in the panhandle. And it’s been raining. The mourning doves are cooing their sad song.

Shortly after we got the potatoes in the ground on Sunday evening, the sky let loose and it’s been coming down pitchforks and hammer handles ever since. While rain is certainly welcome, it doesn’t bode well for said potatoes. Their tuberific-ness may just mold in the ground with so much rain.
In front of the garden fence, we’ve got the holes dug and properly acidified for our blueberry and honeyberry plants. Michael also turned up a patch for thornless blackberry plants that have taken up temporary residence on our front porch. I’m very excited about having our own berries close at hand.

Recently, an aging cousin of my husband’s has come to live with his mother up in the farmhouse (yeah, um, it’s complicated) and has uprooted or otherwise relocated the black raspberry bushes that populate one side of the Guz land. To us, this is sad and unnecessary. Usually, around Fourth of July, Michael and I wade into Lick Run Creek and travel up the hillside to gather these black raspberries—plants which do have thorns--and more than once I’ve gone to teach my summer classes looking like I’ve narrowly missed a fatal attack by felines in estrus.
Anyway, it’s a nice annual ritual, wading in the creek, the cold water splashing over my boots, disturbing little pools of minnows that lay along the shallows. It’s cool there, a soft breeze usually blows its way through the gulf between the hillside and the bank that looks out onto Lick Run Road. This moves the foliage on either side, and it causes the leaves to make noise that sounds a little like whispering. You can hide down there in the creek, and no one on the bank would see you, it’s hewn a chasm so deep. Sometimes, when the water is lower, it moves across the rocks so loudly, Michael and I can’t hear each other over the noise. Once, we found that someone dumped fish they’d filleted along the creek side, and these dead things lay there, their glassy eyes staring upward as flies landed and took off from them. Their remaining flesh and bones were bursting with wriggling maggots. And the smell. Oh my gosh, the smell. A kind of horror all its own. Anyway, when it isn't defiled by people trashing poor gutted fish, there's a kind of magic in that creek, maybe from the soothing energy that comes from nature's slower, more natural pace. It's actually where my idea for The Memory River came from. (There's more about this Memory River in The Davidian Odyssey, which I'm revising...)

Our grapes, which looked deader than doornails after all the snow and the repeated frosts, appear to be coming back, which we’re grateful for. But since they appear to be progressing slowly, and some of them are shooting out from the plant base and not from established vines, I’m not sure we’ll have grapes this year either. We’ll see.

I submitted the story I mentioned before, “The Fascinator”, to Michael Knost and Eugene Johnson’s Appalachian Folklore anthology. Hopefully, it will find a home within the anthology's pages. Here’s a little excerpt:

The baby squirmed in the man’s arms, but not with any sense of distress. In fact, the boy settled down quite comfortably. The man seemed to know how to handle him, holding him close, bouncing him against his chest gently, while also swaying slowly to and fro. Lorraine sat down in the chair beside her mother, as if she had none of her own will. She, like her mother, gazed with a bemused expression at the stained luncheon cloth, repeatedly smoothing it with her hands like someone from the Weston State Hospital.

“Ain’t this weather we’re havin’ something?” asked Buella of no one in particular. She finally folded her hands. Neither she nor Lorraine was considering the baby any longer.

“I’ll say,” said Lorraine, not looking at her mother. “It’s never been this sunny so many days in a row in April.”

“Is it April?” asked Buella.

“Actually, ladies, it’s July,” said the man, still bouncing the baby soothingly and looking down into his tiny, pink face.

“Imagine that,” said Buella, spellbound, “July already.”

The calendar on the wall beside the screen door read May 1942.

Now, I include this because I found a very interesting state tidbit: the Weston State Hospital, a.k.a. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, which ceased operation in 1994. It’s an actual place, located in Weston, WV, built around the same time as the Moundsville State Penitentiary.

Now, I have a great fascination with the paranormal, and was intrigued with Floria Sigismondi’s disturbing location portraits (a book I have and still dig looking at), with the painting peeling from the sandstone walls in great sheets. (Also, because it's bizarre and beautiful, watch, watch, watch Sigismondi's video for Martina Topley Bird's song "Anything." So weirdly lovely and haunting. Flies, glitter, crows, twisted branches that recede in space like a cloud of pestulence, and a black formfitting body bag. One of my favorites.) Okay, yeah, maybe I need counseling, huh? Well, really, its beautiful.
Anyway, I’m not so much interested in the gothic aesthetic of haunted places, but rather, the vestiges of human life that people were forced to relinquish there. What causes people to leave a part of their psyches behind? Why do people get ‘stuck’ somewhere? Certainly, it has to do with trauma or obsession, but in terms of science, of actual physics, what locks the energy in place, so that it replays and replays and disturbs or stimulates the atomic structure of the living?
Maybe I’m thinking too hard about this—maybe it is more neurological or emotional than a physical phenomenon that can be measured or quantified. But if perception is reality, why do we perceive this sensory stimulation and can it be charted in space and time? Does it exist in a parallel or intersecting dimension? Things to ponder, things to ponder.

In the meantime, check out the photos here. Incredibly and beautifully creepy. There are many stories here. Michael says it's 3 hours away, but while I don't want to go to Moundsville prison--Michael already told me it's definitely haunted because he felt it, I somehow have a fascination with Weston. What delusions lived within these walls? What stories might come from them? I suspect they're even more vivid than anything a lucid human could tell.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

It's the End of the Semester, Folks

So, so, so....I am in the middle of review column writing for Library Journal and final paper grading. Reference books (mostly two volume sets this time) about national security and human rights are piled up around the sofa like the Great Wall of China, and I have to bust a move to get them all done by tomorrow afternoon, which is my deadline. This morning, I spent most of my time grading the final five-page papers turned in by my Tuesday night Comp I students. Just have Saturday's Comp II papers to take care of, and I'm all done with spring semester.

As a break from the routine yesterday afternoon, before I went down to Wheeling to collect final papers from my students, I started writing a story for a new Woodland Press anthology, which focuses on dark Appalachian tales...details to follow once I finally get it done and turn it in. In the meantime, here is a two-paragraph excerpt:

"When the man finally stood at the screen door, he surprised Buella with his pallor. His cheeks had a grayish concavity. He’d pushed his hat back on his forehead so that the wide, pale plane of his forehead was on display. His hair, which she could see beneath his hat, was jet colored and slicked back with something that gave it an oily shine. His beard and mustache were trimmed with the same care gardeners paid the ornamental boxwoods Buella had seen around fine houses in town. The man’s facial hair, too, was black as bitumen, making his pastiness appear all the more startling. He smiled at Buella, and she unconsciously took a step back from the screen door. Her eyes went to the latch and saw the hook was in the eye. The man followed her gaze.

'Afternoon, ma’am,' he said, removing his hat to expose his lacquer-black hair with its fierce comb marks. A piece fell like a wet pipe cleaner onto his damp forehead and stuck in place. He put down his heavy, rectangular satchel."

Okay, this little piggy needs to get back to work now. I will have a much more exciting post tomorrow, especially since I have so much to say about Jo Neace Krause's amazing book, The Last Game We Played, which just knocks me out with every new story I read.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Man in Picture and His Lasting Influence

Once or twice before, people have asked me who the man in my profile photo is. This is my grandfather, my father’s father. And it is in the shape of his forehead, in the shadow of his deep set eyes, and in the gesture of his frank-looking, upturned chin that I see my own father. What are not visible here are his hands. My father and I both have his hands, with their visible tendons and prominent bones, especially at each knuckle.

This image of my grandfather was taken in the summer of 1934, a year before he and my grandmother were married. At that time, my grandmother, who took this picture, was 15. My grandfather was 22. The photograph has gone a dreamy sepia with age, and I’ve digitized it because the original is faded, folded, and stained from having been carried for 75 years in my grandmother Edith’s wallet.

Where my grandfather is standing is a place called High Rock, which overlooks a region in south-central Pennsylvania called The Pigeon Hills, so named because at one time, carrier pigeons filled the sky with such concentration, it often grew dark even at mid-day. Whether this is true or merely a local myth, I do not know for certain. However, this is where my grandmother and grandfather were born, seven years apart (one year less than the age difference between my own husband and myself). And when my grandparents married in 1935, my oldest uncle, Larry, was well on the way. So it is possible, based on my grandmother’s reminiscence of this time period, Larry was likely conceived at High Rock, perhaps even on the very day this photo was taken.

Before my grandfather met my grandmother, and while they were dating, he was a motorcycle trick rider, who rode only Indians. While they are few, there is at least one photograph of my grandfather, in which he is standing on his cycle seat, hands far from the handlebars, as the bike moves. Often, he would compete in hill climbs, competitions requiring bikers to get both bike and body up long, steep inclines, often punctuated by “breakers”--jumps the motorcycle must also clear while continuing to ascend. The trick riding stopped when my grandfather became a father. Instead, he became a mechanic and later an engineer, while also bagging groceries in the evenings to make extra money. He had a mind for electronics, and later, given schematics for Italian and German machines my father bought at European tradeshows, he maintained them for my father, using these schematics alone, since the owner’s manuals were never in English. But of course, this was much later, ten or fifteen years after I was born, and he was well into retirement.

My grandfather’s mother was named Savannah, which is where my name comes from. My grandmother, on marrying my grandfather, went from her home of endless sisters (although my grandmother is the last of her sibling alive) to live near Savannah's big Pigeon Hill-stone house, where my grandfather was born. And according to family legend, the first small place in which they set up housekeeping was overrun by rats, and when grandma found one near my uncle’s head as he lay sleeping in his crib, the family moved immediately to a place that was also near my great grandmother. (Savannah, in her later years, was largely bed ridden by diabetes, and it was my grandmother who cared for her. When I was younger, she told me that she would go to bed so tired, she would cry herself to sleep. ) Eventually, my grandfather would build my grandmother a wonderful little block house that had the first television in the neighborhood (so they had many visitors), but no indoor plumbing until the late 1950s. (Yes, that means there was indeed an outhouse and an outdoor pump from which water was drawn every day.)

Three boys followed Larry. My father was the second to last, or the third child, born at home—not in a hospital-- in the early 1940s. He was a war baby, who entered the world around the time the German General Paulus and the Fourth Panzer Army advanced on the city of Stalingrad to secure the oilfields in the Caucuses.

So, you see, the reason I use the photo is that this man was a major influence in my life, although I would not recognize this fact until later, when he was already gone. He was a quiet man, but when he spoke, you listened because what he had to say was always worthwhile and well considered. His advice was never frivolously offered, and his concern was always genuine. He was an incredibly good man, who thought not of his own needs but always of others’. It was he who requested my grandmother pack me cookies and milk in a travel mug when they picked me up from school. It was he who warmed up the car well before I had to get in on frigid winter mornings when my parents were away and he was charged with taking me to school. These are things you do not realize require effort and selflessness until you are an adult and perform them out of love for others. I am genuinely sorry that I never actually thanked him for these kindnesses, although they are not forgotten.

In later years, my grandfather wore a handlebar mustache that he would occasionally curl with pomade, most frequently on Sundays or when he came to my parents’ house on Saturday afternoons. Having made trips out west with my grandmother, he gravitated towards turquoise belt buckles and Native American patterns. He always wore a kangol cap and had one to match every outfit, much like my father does. He enjoyed tinkering with cars, and frequently got grease on his Sunday clothes because he insisted on spending time out in his garage after church.
I suppose I add these details for a reason, although I didn’t consciously register them until now:
On my second date with my husband, we went to see The World’s Fastest Indian, a dramatization of New Zealander Burt Monroe’s record setting land speed run on Utah’s Salt Flats. When we met, my husband referred to himself as a “gearhead,” who was interested in all things automotive. Therefore, a movie about a figure he recognized, shown at a place that screened excellent, unconventional films sounded like a good idea. (Incidentally, we chose the film together by sending potential links back and forth until we happily decided on the one we sat in that night). And what drew me to that particular movie? Well, I imagined it had to be worthwhile, since it featured Anthony Hopkins and because…it involved Indian motorcycles, which I knew was the only thing my grandfather ever rode.

Now, later that night, I had an event to go to, an event I figured I could still get to before the night was over. I’d paid $85 for a ticket (as my husband recently found out and was shocked by because he found the old ticket in a pile of papers that came out of my truck). The event was a mix-and-mingle where younger New Yorker and Tin House editors would share drinks and conversation with those attending the now defunct 412 festival. It was, at the time, a significant event for me. But I remember sitting in the Harris Theater and having a strange and sudden feeling wash over me. I was surprised to find that I didn’t really care about the editorial mix so much anymore, whether I got there that night was immaterial. What did matter to me was what was happening at that moment. I remember thinking: Savannah, this man next to you, this is a good man. He’s a man like your dad, a man like your grandpa. This is more important.

So when Burt Monroe dropped two of his doctor-prescribed nitro tablets into the motorcycle’s gas tank and headed to the starting point on the land speed track, I forgot about that 412 party, and I grabbed this man’s hand. And when I unconsciously started squeezing it as the speed climbed and the skin on poor Burt’s face started rippling backward, this man squeezed back. This was a confirmation. We were married ten months later. So, was my grandfather in the seat to my left, offering me this sage advice, advice I certainly listened to? (Advice I am thankful for every day.)

I would say yes. Without hesitation, yes, I think it’s very possible.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Tribute to Mum, my own Literary Maven (originally appeared at The Debutante Ball)

I'm reprising this tribute to my Mom, Carol Schroll, in honor of Mother's Day. This post originally appeared at The Debutante Ball in 2009. See a picture of my Mom and me, taken on my wedding day, in my post at The Debutante Ball and just below! Here the original post:

A Tribute to Mum, my own Literary Maven by Guest Author Savannah Schroll Guz

It’s just after Mother’s Day, and once again, I wasn’t with my mother to observe it. However, this is not out of the ordinary.

For most of my adult life, I’ve often spent Mother’s Day with other people’s mothers. It is circumstance that keeps us apart, and we usually celebrate afterwards, or sometimes beforehand. Nonetheless, with the exception of my college graduation, which fell on Mother’s Day 1997, I’m usually gallivanting around another state or, as previously happened, another country. The pattern repeats annually, despite the fact that the occasion is intended to honor the woman who spent many pained hours laboring to bring me into the world and decades afterward “fetching me up” properly.

I owe my mother a great deal (my father, too). I’m the first to admit that raising me was a challenge. I was a chatterbox and a pistol. I fought boys in elementary school. My Dad’s affectionate nickname for me was “Rip-n-Tear”. Heaven knows Mom tried a variety of things to help develop my interests and encourage some level of personal grace in this previously uncompromising tomboy. (If the bit about fighting boys on the playground didn’t convince you, note that I played with Tonka trucks and once told my mother that, in my previous life, I had been a little boy.) So, Mom tried piano lessons, but I was fired—yes, fired!—by the piano teacher. There were also dance lessons. I can still conjure up the shrill voice of my Hungarian-born ballet mistress’ repeated (and thoroughly exasperated) chidings of, “Sa-bann-ah, Sa-bann-ah, Sa-bann-ah!” when she found me dallying in the rosin box rather than practicing plies at the balance bar. There were also acting lessons, and happily, I did not disgrace myself there.

But perhaps it was my mother’s first (and probably instinctive) act–reading to me–that has determined the rich texture of my life now. My mother had been an English major, and my father built bookshelves that stretched along one extended wall of our den. In some of my earliest memories, she and I are sitting on the den’s brown plaid couch, whose texture reminded me so much of polyester sweaters, and she would read to me from Michael Bond’s Paddington Bear series, from L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

I also recall, very fondly, a tape my mother bought that I played so often it finally refused to work. The tape was a compilation of poems and stories released by Cricket Magazine. I have many of the poems memorized, and occasionally, just to entertain my husband with my wackiness, I recite them for him. One of his favorites is Aileen Fisher’s “Cricket Jackets.” Another is John Ciardi’s “Why is the Sky Blue?”

As I got older and could read on my own, I remember that I was given an illustrated edition of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. There was also Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s Stories for Free Children. By the time I reached middle school, I had cracked into my Mom’s fiction stash: her textbooks and prize-winning story anthologies (which, in the late 1960s, cost just cents!). I remember being floored by W. F. Harvey’s “August Heat”, W. W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw”, and Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace”. Eventually, on my mother’s nightstand, I found a Joyce Carol Oates’ paperback, The Seduction and Other Stories. Seduction indeed. Oates was a revelation to me and remains a constant influence in her dialogue, in her characterizations, in her ominous reflections on the human character. I’m glad to have the opportunity to transmit this passion for Oates’ stories to other minds: I now teach “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?” in my own college composition classes.

In high school, my Mom brought home three books by G√ľnter Grass, The Flounder, Local Anesthetic, and Headbirths. To this day, I can count them as an influence on my own work. Grass weights his idiosyncratic characters with historical anchors, lending authenticity to their motivations and making their foibles inexorable. His microcosms reveal so much about the macrocosm they exist in.

By the age of nineteen, I was employed as a tutor at the college writing center. People brought their essays to me for help and revision assistance. Yet, it was my Mom who served as the sounding board for my own academic essays. And I’m sorry to confess that I was not the most gracious recipient of constructive criticism. Mom did not candy-coat her findings. She had been an English teacher. She could spot over-embellishments, leaps in logic, and sins of omission long before my verbiage wound its way to the figurative ‘bridge out’ sign. Was there offended skulking? Indeed. But do I appreciate it now? Absolutely.

So, on the eve of So New’s release of my second book of short stories, American Soma, I have a mountain of gratitude for all the things my Mum, Carol Ann Schroll (you can say hello to her on Facebook!), has done for my benefit. For all those fabulous meals, for all those years of washing my clothes, for your push to educate me, and for instilling in me a continued desire to learn and achieve (and for kicking ass and taking names when I really needed it), I am so very, very grateful, Mom. Thank You.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Seasonal Shorts: A Quarterly Reading Series

Last October, over lunch at Oakland's Red Oak Cafe, writer Karen Lillis asked if I might like to read with Ben Tanzer, who was coming to town the following month. I was eager to join forces with him, and Karen--who was finishing up coursework for her Master of Library Science degree--subsequently asked Duquesne Professor Craig Bernier to share some of his work. Karen suggested several names for the reading, one of which was "Winter Shorts." This immediately conjured an image of Santa in red flannel Daisy Dukes whose leg holes were trimmmed in white fur (yeah, I know....I wonder about my brain, too, on occasion.) Long story short, this is how the quarterly 'seasonal shorts' reading series was born. Ben, Craig, and I read to a really nice crowd at Te Cafe in early November, as rain slanted against the windows outside.

Spring has now burst forth in the Burgh, and we are beginning the series in earnest, with the next installment bringing several writers to the Burgh from far-away places, including Hawaii, the state author and fight journalist Marshal Carper currently calls home.

Check out the bill for May 14th:

SPRING SHORTS: Gaudry, Kavulic, Carper, Bowen & Guz

When? Friday, May 14, 2010, 7:30pm - 9:00pm
Where? Fast Forward Gallery, 3700 Penn Avenue, Pittsburgh
Cover? $4 (Liquid refreshment will be provided. Snack, too!)

Join us for a night of excellent readings by:

Molly Gaudry:
Molly is author of We Take Me Apart and Flora the Whore (a novel in tweets). She is also associate editor at Keyhole Magazine. Learn more about her at mollygaudry.blogspot.com/.

Adam Kavulic:
Adam is a writer, photographer, and New Yinzer contributor. See some of his work here: www.akphotographee.blogspot.com/

Chris Bowen:
Chris is a Cleveland-based writer and editor of Burning River Press www.burningriver.info/

Marshal Carper:
Marshal is Editor-in-Chief of Lockflow.com and author of The Cauliflower Chronicles. Check out more of his world here: www.marshaldcarper.com/

Savannah Schroll Guz:
Savannah is author of American Soma, editor of Consumed: Women on Excess, and New Yinzer's fiction editor. Keep up with her jonzes here: http://www.savannahschrollguz.com/.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Very Repressed Era

The 1950s, as Michael says, was a very repressed era, and here the torid stink is just leaking out like sewer gas. ("Watch them bubble!")

And witness the lip-pursing amazement on this wholesome young girl's face. Indeed, my dear. 'Tis a wonderous thing to behold. SKITTLE!

Some General Reflections on Good Stuff

Arriving in my mailbox yesterday was The Last Game We Played by Jo Neace Krause, who won Black Lawrence Press' Hudson Prize for the collection in 2008. I greedily unwrapped it, since I've been looking forward to its arrival, although it got here very quickly.

I saw that Joyce Carol Oates blurbed the book, calling the stories "strange and compelling." Since, as you may know, I am a fairly rabid Joyce Carol Oates fan, I was eager to see the work of an author whose writing Oates' endorses, especially since the words Oates uses to describe Krause's short stories are exactly those I would employ to characterize Oates'. After class last night, I was able to start one of the book's 12 stories. "Disgust," a title that intrigued me, has the delightfully salty flavor of Flannery O'Connor and certainly touches some of O'Connor's subject matter, since it involves a young Jesuit priest and his eternally sherry-dampened mother, a benefactress who takes in wayward girls so they might escape the detention center. And although there were clues at the outset that the rescued girl is not on the path to redemption, you want to believe she is good, that she is trying. You find fault with her employer, who is easily affronted, fond of her position, condescending to the last. And the girl, so very aware of this, is rotten to her very core. Still, this is not what inspires disgust...not at all....we shall discuss this all later, in another post. So good! I'm excited to get to the next one...

In the meantime, it's interesting to note that Krause is also a painter, whose work is featured in the Kentucky Folk Art Museum. The work at right, "The Death of Stonewall Jackson", previously appeared at storySouth . The cover of her collection, too, contains a nude she herself painted. If you will kindly permit me to get my art history geek on, I'll be happy to inform you that, in the painting above, I see echoes of Marc Chagall, Paul Gauguin, and Henri Rousseau. (You get a gold star, Savannah. )

Yes, that was nice, but I'll put my geek away now. Still, it might come out again. The velcro on my geek keeper is loose.

Speaking of the fallen young woman in Krause's story "Disgust", I'm also reading Nana and enjoying it much more than I did when I started it in grad school, a time during which I was oriented more towards the louder, fully mechanized Futurism of the 1920s, towards Weimar, towards Otto Dix's lecherous walking cadavers, and Max Beckman's sadistic , symbol-studded triptychs. The apparently innocent, dimpled flesh of Renoir's women or Manet's provocative, Salon-splitting nudes of Victorine Meurant seemed less enticing to me somehow, and so too the era's literature. But I'm getting older. I don't know what that means, really. But I fulminate less, and prefer my artwork to do the same. As an aside, I think the gentle graces of Renoir are more fitting for the young courtesans than any of the other Impressionists, whereas I associate the more hardened street strollers with Toulouse-Lautrec.

For example: below, T-L apparently captured this lovely lass just after a particularly difficult transaction...or maybe as she anticipates one.

Sure, she'll drink to that. You buying? If not, it's okay. She already has the bottle.

Of course, I always knew there was a hierarchy among the mid-19th century good-time girls, but I just didn't know the particulars, or I have simply forgotten them over time...although I have always known who could occasionally be welcomed (grudgingly, of course) into salon society and who would be eternally barred. That one's a no-brainer.

I use Thomas Hardy's "The Ruined Maid" in my literature classes, so I'll now be able to provide specific examples (Well, thanks, Mr. Zola) that demonstrate the difference between the 'kept' courtesan and the lowly street walker, whose dry spells left them dipping their fingers into sugar bowls for sustenance or eating the remnants of meals left by others...but this happened only if the owner kindly turned a blind eye.

Back to Hardy and 'Melia: her bleak reality is most evident in Nana. On her way to becoming a true courtesan, Nana, who apparently started on the street, must make home visits to interested parties, who make their inquiries through a kind of 'work broker' (in reality, she's a dowager doubling as a pimp). Passages from Nana will certainly help to illustrate how dim the future is for such women, who may never have the wit to climb to higher levels and place themselves in positions affording them self empowerment and long-term security. Without these, they eventually become social discards as soon as they burn through the single commodity they have: their youthful body.

I was struck, even as I continue to read, how many intersections there are between Nana's life and Anna Nicole's...a baby boy kept by family, an tendency towards extreme petulance, beauty (according to the standards of the day), and intermittantly brilliant flashes of luck....even the names, if the letters were rearranged, are eerily similar. Things to ponder....things to ponder....

Anyway...those, kids, are today's thoughts....more to come tomorrow, especially since I plan to get back to the fractured/micro fiction discussion! Lots of great conversation on HTML Giant last night.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

On Michelle Reale's wonderful chapbook Natural Habitat

Michelle Reale’s chapbook Natural Habitat is a contemplation of place and being, and underpinning these concepts, of identity and self-perception.

In her poignant opening essay, Michelle’s talks about how her childhood neighborhood—a complete miniature city unto itself--defined her world for sixteen years. Once she was separated from it, her relation to the world changed dramatically, and she found it more difficult to find genuine comfort or belonging in other places. With the sale of a childhood friend’s house, she experiences an even more painful loss. Memory exists now, not in fact or reality—not in the objects or mortar or clapboard that comprised another’s home (and where the metaphysical energy of Michelle and the woman’s daughters might still move and play)—it exists in the intangible. Childhood and home are now only an idea, a memory. There is, to a certain degree an echo of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Still, in Michelle’s book, there is less exploration of the “strange and bitter magic of life” as Wolfe called it, and more an examination on the colorful and affecting characters that comprised her world. Here, on each page, are the crystalline structures of Michelle’s memory.

Michelle’s stories are sharp and keen in their appraisal of human motivation and characters' often inexplicable actions. In “Small Things,” which originally appeared in JMWW , she writes of an elderly man, presented with a newborn: “Then he looked around like anything was more interesting than the new life right in front of him….she laughed but the anger, always lying just below the surface, shot through her like someone flipped a switch. The flick of his chin upward was her answer.”

I’ve said before that Michelle’s descriptions are incredibly real, almost hyper-real (even when I don’t actually know her characters, I recognize them in people I know), and that was a statement based on the characters' looks and actions alone. Here, on the characters' insides, this rage that lives so close to the surface, is a force with which many readers can easily identify. This is the same brand of rage that can shoot like lava to the surface of a consciousness with even the smallest slight. The narrator reads the man’s refusal as a personal rejection, like the one her mother offers with emotional coolness (delivered via telephone, no less) just after the main character gives birth. Instead, the old man’s is later understood not as a personal affront: it has nothing really to do with mother or baby. Perhaps, having been diagnosed with cancer, as is later revealed, he wishes not to metaphorically sully this new life. In any case, these two characters (or three, if we count the baby) are ships passing in the night. They miss understanding each other or meeting the other’s requirements again and again. It is likely a cycle they will remain stuck in, although we do not know that for certain. The new mother resolves to make amends, to try to brook the divide that exists between them.

Perhaps my favorite story of this beautiful collection (of 12 amazing stories) is “Sticky Sweet,” which originally appeared in Dogzplot. It is told from a third person-limited narrator’s vantage point and sticks closely to the child’s understanding of events. We are told what she feels and sees, and we are given only enough information so that we understand their import: here is a glimpse of a very complex life relationship between a father and daughter, who is still very young and impressionable. The father at the beginning of the story, rushes the daughter out of church following Holy Communion. He directs her to go out the side door before the sermon has even completed, which is usually when everyone is directed to 'go in peace.' This is fitting because, while there is stolen pleasure for both father and daughter, there is no genuine peace. Witness the father’s reason for rushing his daughter out: he wants to get to the bakery before the throngs leave church, so he can chat up the bakery clerk with the raven hair and pierced tongue.
The little girl, denied a “display of goodness” and the “priestly procession” related to her Sunday ritual, dives into her bag of donuts. She has to run to catch up with her father, whose smoking mouth reveals residual bits of communion wafer—a striking and metaphorical detail, under the circumstances, especially since we learn the man, who has been pointedly flirting with the young bakery clerk, is married.

So, really, while the girl has her donuts, which are a consoling pleasure to her, it wasn’t all because he father wanted to treat her to something nice. He, too, had his own reasons for getting there.

The daughter, who enjoys her donut and reaches into her own bag for another, is suddenly chastised for being sloppy, since she has gotten cinnamon sugar all over her good Sunday coat. Her pleasure is again thwarted, as it was in the church, because of her father’s sudden realization of how the mother will react when she sees the sticky mess.

Also, there is a tacit measuring—through the words Michelle carefully selects—between the growing girl and the young bakery clerk. The bakery clerk “folds her thick, dark hair behind her ears,” she “moistens her lips.” The father, in her presence, “laughs too loud” and generally ignores his daughter, who attempts to get his attention. Meanwhile, the little girl has “short, plump legs.” She gulps her donut down “in three bites.” Her father hisses that she is a “dirty girl” as he brushes the cinnamon sugar from her coat, an action that causes her developing chest no inconsiderable amount of pain. Instead of the cool, elliptical sensuality of the bakery clerk, the reader is made to understand the little girl’s sexuality is vulgar and an embarrassment, and that she is somehow less an object of interest to the father, even though she is his child. This is one memory slice that may define their future relationship, since it is sets in motion a sense of self hatred in the face of enjoyment and even physiological development. “Dirty girl” says a lot to a little mind, and none of it good.

It is these close and telling interactions, these penetrating insights that make Michelle’s stories so amazing. Pick up a copy from Burning River Press. She has so much to say, and you will not be disappointed!

Buy Michelle’s book from Burning River Press!

The future of literature...are the elements of fiction obsolete?

Let’s talk aesthetics, kids. Why are stories becoming so short and fractured? I know this answer, in part. Attention spans are shorter; digital media lend themselves better to shorter works. (And I would say, too, that it’s more expedient for writers, who want their work read and write a lot of small works to send out quickly, and to editors, who don’t necessarily want to slog through 4,000 words.)

Follow the HTMLGiant dialogue here!

But why, too, are stories so often about empty sex and blow jobs? Why are so many of them full of violence and figurative blind corners. And granted, there’s a lot of generalization in those statements. They are not all like this, but there is a trend I’ve been noticing. To what end? Is there some deeper meaning here? Is it truly intended as deeper commentary on our culture, or is it, particularly the sex part, intended as a narrative gimmick? And I suppose the next question would be, is that so bad? Not necessarily. But the tide seems to be moving, while not exclusively in this direction, then ever more strongly to a splintered or disjointed, micro narrative form that involves reference to sex. Fair estimation? Maybe not. Still, I welcome dissent and response. Why are we as writers writing, exactly? Why as editors, do we gravitate towards certain works over others? What informs our personal brand of subjectivity?

I recognize the tide is turning, just as it did for the Impressionists, Post Impressionists , the Cubists, and the Expressionists. Writers are dealing with narrative as Picasso and Braque fractured the picture plane. And so, I acknowledge that my storytelling approaches are probably outmoded and will possibly even be superseded by the new wave of short, experimental prose and segmented vignettes. (And this isn’t to say I won’t eventually find this a freeing mode of expression.) However, in the meantime, I’m going down with my long-narrative ship because the kind of literature that I enjoy reading (and writing, although I admit that my own work might never achieve the following...I don't intend this post to be a case for my own work, but as a consideration of what's happening now) is literature that is psychological and lush, that explores motivations and human nature in longer form. This is the kind of analytical power and descriptive opulence I both admire and aspire to.

And certainly, there is a multiplicity of approaches. There is still the conventional, linear narrative, but it is growing ever shorter and is not found as often in the burgeoning online literary communities. I was recently involved in such a discussion about the problem with posting longer works on Fictionaut. There, works with higher word counts don’t seem to get as many views or comments. Moreoever, online journals avoid anything over 3,000 words and tend to gravitate more towards 1,000, which hovers in the “flash fiction” range. Still other journals are moving towards a micro-mini flash, with a 200-250-word limit. With such restrictions, can a writer adequately foster sympathy for a character, understand their circumstances , or even establish enough rising action to understand the transformative power of the story’s climax, if there can be one? Is the traditional rising action, climax, falling action and denoument obsolete? Are they really needed for effective storytelling?

While low word counts can curb dawdling narratives, sharpen language and characterization, I still find that it prevents the building of complexity and the adequately developed contradictions that are part of life. Strict word limits feel like a narrowing of possibility. I acknowledge that this may be a similarly narrow view that is easily disproved, and I welcome a rich story, thick with atmosphere and capable of stirring empathy, created in a micro format. After all, Aesop’s Fables were short and sweet and didactic. Still, I remain skeptical.

Ultimately, I’m both hopeful about the course of literature and wonder what will emerge as the dominant theme in a decade or two. What will appear in textbooks? Maybe we are the decade of fractured, sexual narratives in the same way that we have, in many ways, become a fractured and highly sexualized culture. So, perhaps these brief splintered stories are a more authentic and interesting representation of our time than longer narratives, and can reach students much more powerfully and immediately than the longer narratives characteristic of decades and centuries before. Time will tell.

On Facebook, writer Karen Lillis commented on my link:

"Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Savannah. I heartily agree. Should we really be calling many micro-fics "fiction" when they are dipping so much into narrative poetry territory--that is, a precise elucidation of a moment or a feeling rather than an unfolding of character, setting, complex feelings over time? Given that we can live in a novel we're reading for days and weeks, can a flash fic ever pretend to take the place of novels?"

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Also, I've finally figured out where the heck to turn comments on, so please definitely add your thoughts to this discussion. We're in interesting times on so many levels, and we might as well have a healthy virtual chin wag about them.