Tag Archives: Writing

New Fiction Acceptance

Thanks to the small online literary mag THE COURTSHIP OF WINDS for accepting my short story, “Everyone Here Comes from Somewhere Else.” This is one of those stories that is kind of a hard sell, and I’m very grateful someone appreciates it. And thanks, as always, to God, Kalene, my kids, my friends, and my readers.

Dispatches from Minneapolis and other Points Abroad, #AWP15

NOTE: What follows is a hastily composed, mostly unedited account of this year’s AWP from my perspective. I don’t claim that it’s representative of anyone else’s experience.

Day 1

Ah, travel—asleep at 1 am Las Vegas time (PDT), then startled out of a now-forgotten dream at 4:30 am, an hour so ludicrous and detrimental to sanity that it should not even exist. Even milkmen and grumpy old cigar-smoking guys running newsstands would shake their heads and groan. My wife Kalene got up first and showered. I fell back asleep. Half an hour later, she woke me up to tell me that I could sleep another extra hour because we had gotten a text from Delta Airlines. Our flight was delayed an hour and a half. I had never been grateful for a late flight before, and for a moment, I flashed back to last year’s AWP trip, when my flight to Long Beach got delayed so long that I missed my connection and had to head for Seattle the next morning. But once I realized the implications of what Kalene was saying, though, I nestled deep into the covers and crashed until she dragged me out at 6 am.

The fingers of my right hand and the muscles in my forearm have ached all day because I spent over thirty minutes last night setting up our DVR for the next week. Our Cox remote only recognizes that you’ve pushed a button after you’ve done so four or five times, so multiply that by recording five to ten shows a night for the next week, and you can probably understand why I’m sore. (“Why doesn’t he just set up a series recording?” you might wonder. It’s because our multi-room DVRs sometimes just decide that they don’t feel like doing what you’ve told them to do, and often, having little time to watch TV on a given day, I only discover the problem when I’m trying to set up more recordings. The joys of cable! “Why doesn’t he get DirecTV or Dish or something?” you might be asking. It’s because we currently live in an apartment that we rented sight unseen upon accepting employment in Las Vegas. Ours is apparently the one apartment in the building that, for shadowy reasons I only partially understand, is not allowed to have any equipment mounted on the exterior walls. Whee!)

Out the door at 7 am, we dumped on bag of trash in the dumpsters and took Broadbent to Russell to the freeway to Flamingo, cursing every slow driver and flipping off every red light. We arrived at our parking facility, the Silver Se7ens Casino (their spelling; don’t get me started), though to tell you the truth, we picked another place on the Internet but somehow got booked at the one place we knew we wanted to avoid. The last time we parked there, the shuttle rules were so labyrinthine that we missed it and had to pay a cab to take us to the airport, even though we had already paid for parking and the shuttle. When we got back to Vegas, we went to the wrong level of McCarran Airport and missed the shuttle back, so we had to take another cab to Silver Se7ens, meaning we paid for two shuttle rides and never actually even saw the vehicle. Imagine our displeasure at clicking on the “book it” button for off-site parking at a different hotel and then finding that they had dumped us back in Silver Se7ens’ lap anyhow.

We were instructed to park, unload our luggage, go inside to let them know we had arrived, and then park the car. Knowing that we were only going to be there for a minute, we parked behind a shuttle van. My daughter Maya and I unloaded while Kalene ran inside. As soon as we shut the trunk, a burly security guard tooled up in his golf cart and said, “I’m gonna need you to move that car. This area is for shuttle parking.” When I told him that we were there for the shuttle and were simply waiting for our parking assignment, he said, “Oh, okay. So you’ll just be here a minute. That’s good, because the shuttle is gonna be back [looks at his watch, incredulous] any minute now.” Then he looked at me expectantly.

“I knew something like this would happen at this dump,” I said to Maya. I didn’t even bother to ask what the big white bus-looking thing that we had parked behind was, if not a shuttle. I simply loaded all our bags back in the trunk. As I finished, Kalene came out with our parking permit, and we drove around to the garage and up to the fourth level, where we left the car, lugged our bags to an elevator, zoomed down to the casino, fought our way through tourists, and finally arrived back outside, twenty feet from where we started.

The shuttle, whose imminent arrival had so concerned the guard, showed up thirty minutes later. It was a van, much smaller than the bus-like vehicle we had so foolishly thought it might be fine to park behind for five minutes. We piled inside and took the ten-minute trip to Departures, where, as I disembarked, I was promptly almost flattened by a bus being driven by, it seemed, Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves.

Inside the airport, there was virtually no line at the bag-check counter or security, and no one decided that today would be a good day to pull the Rileys out of line and wand them and pick at their laptops and stare suspiciously at their phone chargers. We made it to our gate in plenty of time.

For breakfast, a big slice of pizza from the airport’s Metro outpost. Though our flight was delayed, the gate personnel were on duty already, and they worked their magic so that we could all sit together. When we booked the flight, we had chosen seats next to each other, but of course that didn’t take, and they had spread us all over the plane, me in the fourteenth row and Kalene and Maya in different sections somewhere in the twenties. Now we all boarded together, sat together, and fell asleep together as soon as the plane cleared the runway.

Twenty minutes later, I woke up. My memories from Delta Flight 1851, with service from Las Vegas to Minneapolis:

  • When asked for my beverage choice, I picked coffee, which I never do on flights because it sometimes hits my bowels and bladder like a sledgehammer, sending me scurrying for the insidious inventions known as airplane lavatories, so small and cramped and loud that it simulates the effects of riding in a coffin to one’s own funeral via a major freeway. This cup was good to me, though. I got up only once afterward.
  • However, we were flying coach, and when the airline personnel moved our seats, they put Kalene and Maya in my row, near the front of the plane, so the coach lavatory was approximately a quarter-mile away from us, the way often impeded by the refreshment carts, which are engineered to fit (barely) in the tiny, cramped aisle in much the same way that a drawer fits into a cabinet. Of course, we could have just headed up to the much-closer business-class potty, but airplanes are such obvious symbols of the American class system that I’m always half afraid that some sonorous claxon is going to sound as soon as I pass the curtain, that some air marshal will tackle me and cuff me and then lecture the rest of the coach-riding riffraff on the perils of not knowing one’s place. So, yeah, I waited on the carts to move.
  • Speaking of class—for those who have never been on an airplane, you have more room in business class, and a flight attendant dedicated to serving the ten or twelve of you on that side of the curtain. When I have flown business class, I have known the exquisite sensation of stretching my legs all the way out without kicking anyone or banging my shin on the underside of a seat, taking off an inch of skin. I have had someone take my coat and hang it up for me. I have had attendants call me by name. I have been asked for my beverage preference and gotten whatever I wanted without extra cost. Contrast that with coach, where you are crammed in two or three to each side of the aisle in a configuration that a sardine would dismiss as too restrictive. You don’t get premium drinks unless you pay for them, credit cards only; you get a small plastic cup of juice or soda, perhaps a cup of coffee. Today, I watched business-class customers be served full breakfasts in real dishes and on actual platters. Then I watched those who had upgraded to a “comfort seat” be served from a fruit-and-muffin basket. Then it was our turn. I got a cup of coffee in a small Starbucks cup and two ginger snaps. Two. Ginger. Snaps. Don’t tell me there’s no American underclass.
  • Across from me, some guy spent the entire flight frantically rearranging everything on his computer. We weren’t close enough for me to see what he was doing, so I didn’t feel like I was snooping as I watched him open multiple windows and cut parts of a document out and paste that part into an email and send it and then go to other documents and cut out parts of them and paste them into different emails and send them and on and on, ceaselessly, for three hours. He looked like one of those computer experts you see in action films, the ones who create a sophisticated virus and hack a major secured network in thirty seconds with nary a typo. Maybe those people really do exist, though from the images I spotted, this guy appeared to work for an auto manufacturer.
  • On the way, I read the first chapter of a novel that won the Pulitzer for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Within a page and a half, I found what appeared to be two misplaced modifiers. Now let me assure you that the chapter was mostly excellent, in terms of grounding and characterization, deft use of exposition a bit at a time, and so forth. But those modifiers haunted me. I couldn’t help but wonder if they would have been enough to get most people rejected, regardless of their manuscript’s strengths, and that led me to a long, dark reflection on the entire publishing industry and how random things sometimes seem.
  • People sleep ugly on planes—necks cranked hard to one side, giving them the appearance of having been throttled to death; mouths open wide enough for you to throw things in there; strangers’ heads falling onto other people’s shoulders. It makes me wonder what I looked like during the first twenty minutes of the flight.

Arrival in Minnesota at approximately 3:20 CST—naturally, we deplaned at a gate so desolate that we needed to take a taxi just to reach the taxi stand. Without this option, we hoofed it for God only knows how long, barely making it to baggage claim before somebody hauled our luggage away.

Observation—on its outskirts, Minneapolis in April looks much like Mississippi in January. Downtown seems shiny and clean, even when it’s overrun by writers…and today, it wasn’t nearly as overrun as it’s going to get.

Our room in the Millennium Hotel is nice but small. The bathroom door is either so modern or so old school that it doesn’t have a lock; it slides shut, and then you have to trust your roomies not to burst in on you. It’s got two double beds, meaning that Maya gets one to herself, while Kalene and I have to adjust to not having our queen-sized mattress. I expect some elbowing to occur later. The hotel has no distilled water for my cPap machine, and there is apparently no pharmacy or grocery outlet within walking distance, so I am faced with the rather silly task of paying for a taxi in order to procure a gallon of water. That, or not, you know, breathe while I sleep.

The registration process was a breeze this year but for the walk. From the hotel to the convention center to the specific part where registration occurs is about as far as the hike from our airport gate to the taxies. I’ve gotten my exercise for today.

Dinner at the hotel bar—Scottish salmon with mixed veggies, fingerling potatoes, and arugula. It was an excellent dish. To wash it down, I tried a local brew called a Surly Furious. If there were ever a beer made to fit my personality, it’s that one. As I joked on Twitter, it even has the bitter aftertaste.

We retired to the room by 6:30 pm CST, where I have thrown this dispatch together through the fog of exhaustion that makes any grading or work on a manuscript unlikely. Perhaps tomorrow, after a few sessions but before Karen Russell’s keynote speech.

It seems to me that writers gather together like this, in spite of snafus and grumpy airport personnel and the bone-deep exhaustion that sets in before you even get your lanyard, because, in part, writing is a solitary, lonely activity that much of the world can’t wait to dismiss. From people who get up in the morning and make the effort to insult you on Twitter to the comments sections of website articles you’ve written to the odd guy who shows up at your signing with blood in his eye, the average artist in any medium must first struggle against his/her own sense of inadequacy and a lack of funding, against a government that devalues what keeps us human, against hatred and small-minded sniping and careless words. Here, at AWP and other events like it, we can come together, support each other, reach out and make contact.

Yet these places also exacerbate one’s sense of never having met one’s goals. There is a comparative element that is at times inescapable—“look how little I’ve done compared to so and so.” There is, if your specific friends don’t show up, the lack of the very community that you’ve come to seek.

In a few weeks’ time, we’ll be able to look back and measure the effects of this year’s conference on our self-images, our contacts, our careers, our art. Now, we’re busy living it. This was my first day.

Given world enough and time, more tomorrow.

Follow me on Twitter: @brettwrites.

Email me: brett@officialbrettriley.com

Visit my website: http://officialbrettriley.com/

Check out my Facebook author page: https://www.facebook.com/BrettRileyAuthor?ref=aymt_homepage_panel

Screenplay Annoucement

For those who haven’t heard, I adapted my short story “An Element of Blank” (first published in The Evansville Review) into a feature-length screenplay entitled Candy’s First Kiss. Last week, I received word that this manuscript won the horror/sci-fi grand prize at the New York Screenplay Contest.

You can find a list of all 2014 winners here.

Agents, studios, and others interested in optioning this screenplay can contact me at my email address, brett@officialbrettriley.com.

#MyWritingProcess #BlogTour

“My Writing Process” Blog Tour

My friend C.D. Mitchell tagged me as part of the Blog Tour. I always appreciate the opportunity to publicize my work and that of other writers, so for whatever it’s worth, this is my contribution.

What am I working on these days?

I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. Due to spending several years in graduate school without much time to submit my work, I’ve got a pretty good backlog of text that I’m shopping. My somewhat-experimental novel-in-stories The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light dropped about this time last year. You can find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine online retailers. I’m spreading the word about it as much as I can.

I’m currently submitting two works to independent publishers. One is Mulvaney House, another somewhat-experimental novel. It traces the (d)evolution of a single house in southeast Arkansas from the late 19th through the early 21st centuries. It is first inhabited by ill-fated Irish immigrants; later, its ownership passes to a disillusioned World War I veteran. Because that situation does not end well either, the house becomes the local “haunted,” “cursed” place that all the smart kids avoid and that all the cool kids want to explore. In the 1960s, it becomes the setting for a star-crossed interracial romance, and in the early 21st century, three teenagers spend the night there just to prove that they can. Serious carnage ensues.

I’m also submitting my second story collection, tentatively titled Bedtime Stories for Insomniacs. Most of the stories therein have been published. In terms of subject matter, it’s a pretty eclectic book. There’s a serial killer story, a couple of tales that make use of mythological creatures, some gritty realism, and some humor.

I’ve gotten some kind words about the projects, but whether they will ever see the light of day is anyone’s guess.

Oh, you thought I was through? Not yet—I’m also shopping The Dead House, a literary ghost story. It’s a novel-length work set in central Texas, though many of the characters are from south Louisiana. The book is a supernatural thriller detective fish-out-of-water story. I’ve gotten a few nibbles from literary agents; I’m hoping to land one soon.

In terms of new work, I’m currently drafting a post-apocalyptic novel set in the South. I’m also three stories into a new cycle that will, I hope, become a book one day.

I recently submitted a screenplay that I adapted from one of my published stories. As I have no contacts in Hollywood, I don’t expect it to go anywhere, but hey, they have to option somebody’s script, right?

How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

I’ve always thought that this kind of question is best answered by critics and scholars, not writers. I just tell stories. Some editors have compared various stories I’ve written to writers as diverse as Jack Kerouac, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Elmore Leonard, and Ernest Hemingway. (I’m not egotistical enough to say that I agree, but I really appreciated their saying it.) I think a couple of my stories read like they were written by the love child of Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy. What all this means, I think, is that you can get a pretty good read on my basic format and style, but the content and how I employ that style may vary widely from piece to piece. I try not to write the same thing twice, and if I do delve into an area that I’ve visited before, I try to change perspectives, or voices, or tones, or something that will make the work seem a little fresher.

I don’t know what my genre is, other than “literary,” so no matter what similarities and differences a given reader sees between my work and that of any other serious writer, they’re probably on the right track, even if what they say contradicts somebody else.

Why do I write what I do?

Why does anybody write what they do? I never know what to make of this question. I can only tell you this: I believe that real writers do what they do because they are compelled. You don’t do it for fame. Writing literary fiction for money is a mug’s game. You don’t do it for all the groupies because most of us don’t have any (well, maybe Chuck Palahniuk). You do it because you can’t imagine a life where you don’t do it.

When I don’t get my two daily writing sessions in, I feel incomplete and guilty. When I don’t get at least one session, I feel out of sorts, angry with myself, despairing about the time that has passed. When I don’t write at all, I want to punch somebody, often myself. I have stories and people and dramatic situations in my head. Some of them are funny or sad and sick or cool. Others will probably never really go anywhere. But I have to find out what might work, or I go a little nuts.

As for where I get my ideas, my standard answer is, “A warehouse in Poughkeepsie. Don’t tell anybody.”

Seriously, though, they come to me as I live—sometimes from a bit of conversation I overhear, sometimes from an image I see in life or a movie or a magazine, sometimes from that place deep within my imagination where everything begins with “What if…?”

I write down every idea that I can. I’ve got files of them, ideas for stories and novels and essays and screenplays and comic book series and TV shows. I add to the piles fairly regularly. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to all of them. Some of them probably suck. My job is to write as many of them as I can, and to write them to the best of my ability, and hope that some agent, editor, or publisher will believe in me, in my story. After that, you pray that the piece will find its audience, but you can’t really control that, or the publishing side. You can only write and submit and not give up.

How does my Writing Process work?

I look over my list of ideas and see which one speaks to me at that given moment. Sometimes I’ll outline how I imagine the story will go, but even when I do, I allow for organic and spontaneous growth, when the people in the story do something that I didn’t expect. Most of the time, I just write until I complete the narrative arc. I do a full draft without worrying too much about how well it all holds together.

With my book, I revised extensively, several times. With the novel I’m currently shopping, I revised ten times before I ever submitted it. I’ll tinker with any given story for a couple of drafts until it seems to chug along pretty well.

Then I submit.

In this business, you have to expect rejection unless you’re already a household name. To succeed at any level at all, you have to strike the right combination of talent, learned skill, perseverance, and luck—getting the right piece to the right gatekeeper at the right time. Unless you have personal contacts at an agency or publisher, that’s about all you can do.

I’ll generally send out a piece to a half-dozen places. If nobody takes it, I revise again and find other places to submit. I keep doing that until I find the right home for it or I decide that maybe it isn’t as good as I thought it was. I have yet to self-publish anything, but I’m not above it if the industry never accepts what I truly believe is a story worth telling.

Once someone accepts a piece, I am perfectly willing and able to tinker with it if an editor sees areas that need work. Sometimes I insist on leaving something as is if I feel changing it will fundamentally undercut my integrity as a writer and the story I want to tell, but I pick my battles carefully. I have yet to meet an editor with whom I could not work amicably and productively.

As for my day-to-day process, once I’ve chosen a project of any length or type, I try to write at least twice a day for an hour each time. It isn’t always possible, but I do my best. I tend to work on a couple of projects at once—a potential novel chapter and a story, a story and a screenplay, etc. In grad school, I was forced to multi-task, and I have yet to break the habit completely. Right now, for instance, I’m revising a text and working on a new story. I’ll revise for a session and write for a session. I’ve found that setting time limits, rather than specific word counts, works better for me because of my other time constraints.

I’d like to thank C.D. Mitchell for tagging me.In turn, I am tagging two of my writer friends who occasionally blog, Robin Becker and Sean Hoade.

Robin Becker is a graduate school buddy of mine. She has recently accepted a teaching position at Ole Miss. Her zombie novel, Brains, is available in bookstores and online.

Sean Hoade is a fellow Las Vegan. He has been a prolific self-publisher; his latest work, Deadtown Abbey, is hilarious and weird, and I mean that in the best possible sense. He has recently contracted to write a series of undead-themed books for a traditional publisher, so look for them in the near future., coming to bookstores near you.

#MyWritingProcessBlogTour–C.D. Mitchell

Much like “The Next Big Thing Self-Interview” series that went around on the Internet a while back, the “My Writing Process Blog Tour” asks a writer to answer a series of questions on his/her blog and then tag three other writers. C.D. Mitchell tagged me, so I am re-posting his blog response here. Next week, I’ll post my own. C.D. will publicize my post, and I will tag three other writers who blog. With any luck, they will all respond and publicize my blog entry in kind. I will, in turn, publicize their posts. All backs get scratched.

Without further ado, I give you C.D. Mitchell, author of the short story collections God’s Naked Will and Alligator Stew.

I became a part of this process when Tamara Linse tagged me to follow up on this blog tour. I generally do not participate in such things, but this seemed intriguing, so I tossed my hat in the ring and tagged two fellow writers I admire, Shonell Bacon and Brett Riley to follow me. So here goes!

What am I working on these days?

I am working on a yet untitled novel that will involve smuggling of guns, drugs, and illegals up the Mississippi River and its navigable waterways by riverboat barge. A chapter of the novel, one that deals primarily with President’s Island in Memphis, is scheduled to appear in Memphis Noir sometime this fall. The novel deals with river barge traffic, a largely unregulated means of travel during the early 1990’s. I envision a mix of Mark Twain, Robert Earl Keen and Cormack McCarthy in the final text. My main character has purchased an electric shock therapy machine at a flea market in Mississippi and will eventually use it to collect money on fronted drugs.

How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

A recent review of my story collection “Alligator Stew” called the writing “Dirty Realism.” Many of the reviews of my work posted on Goodreads andAmazon.com have observed that I write about situations others shun or ignore. I create real characters faced with desperate situations. I don’t spend six pages describing in flowery language how a dog crosses the road to take a shit in the ditch. That is not to say that sentence construction, word choice and rhythms are not important to me. They are, and they must be important to all writers. But my emphasis is story. Shit happens in the stories I write!

Why do I write what I do?

Because too many others lack the courage to face the reality of life. I write to expose the incredible hopelessness faced by the schizophrenic, by the impoverished, by those cursed with bad luck and misfortune. I write to expose the hypocrisy of the Bible-thumping zealots who would steal our freedoms away and impose by law their own brand of morality upon US citizens. I write because I have to. It has always been a hunger I must feed. I write because the best day of writing is always the best day of my life!

How does my Writing Process work?

I have always heard of binge eaters and binge drinkers; I am a binge writer. I develop an idea for a story or book. I note it in my journals and I write about the idea. I research and develop the characters. I read newspaper articles and interview people. At some point, the influx of information builds like water pressure behind a dam until I am forced to open the floodgates and release the weight of all that has accumulated. I have binges where I write every day, and during those times I commit to 500 words a day. Promising myself 500 words allows me to sit down when I have little time, and to get up when I simply must leave. But more often than not, 500 words become 1500 or even 2000. I endlessly revise, going back and rereading as often as I can. For instance, my current novel has had me researching Electric Shock Therapy Machines on the internet and trying to buy one on Amazon.com. I have interviewed a close friend of mine who ran river boats up and down the Mississippi and intra-coastal for thirty years. I am booking an evening ride on the Memphis Queen so I can approach President’s Island from the river, and I will also make a trip to the Island and hopefully spend some time exploring the Wildlife management Area that exists there within the city limits of Memphis. I have just begun the writing of the book, and the research will continue. 

C.D.’s original post can be found at http://cdmitchell1964.wordpress.com/2014/04/14/my-writing-process-blog-tour/.

His whole blog can be found at http://cdmitchell1964.wordpress.com/.

Please visit his website at https://www.cdmitchell.net/.

 

My Ideal Bookshelf Part 5

A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.

5.         Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

Back in graduate school, we thought about making “I Survived Gravity’s Rainbow” t-shirts, but we never did. Perhaps it’s because we knew that, in spite of the book’s labyrinthine plot and dozens of characters, the book is something to be savored, not survived.

World War II is on, and Tyrone Slothrop finds himself meandering through the European theater, seeking Rocket 00000, a particularly deadly weapon. To say much more about the plot would be futile and just plain mean, since half the fun (and frustration) of reading the book for the first time is trying to keep things straight—who’s who, what they’re doing, where they’re doing it, and why. Dead people don’t necessarily stay that way. Kinky sex is had. Double agents appear; limericks and bawdy songs supplement the traditional narrative; and eventually, our protagonist—what? Explodes? Disappears? Evaporates? Becomes irrelevant?

Gravity’s Rainbow is truly a tour de force. You may have to read it two or three times before you start to get a real handle on it, but it rewards repeated readings. Though it takes place in wartime Europe, it is one of the quintessential texts of Postmodernism, and a book that is somehow very much American.

Other texts that would work well: Mason and Dixon; The Crying of Lot 49; Inherent Vice.

4.         Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

A candidate on the list of books that might actually qualify as the mythical “great American novel,” Melville’s Moby-Dick is another book that rewards repeated readings. From what I have gathered from talking to different people, the usual experience goes something like this. First reading—you get lost in all the footnoted material (or, worse, you read an edition with no footnotes and stay lost half the time) and the minutia of cetology, and so you’re afraid you missed half the plot. Second reading—you retain more of the information; you notice material that you may have missed the first time; and you realize that, in terms of plot, not a lot actually happens. Third reading—you start to appreciate the genius.

About that plot: our narrator, Ishmael, arrives in Nantucket, determined to go to sea, basically because he is sick of people in general (a feeling with which I can relate). He meets Queequeg the harpooner in a hotel. Together, they sign on to the Pequod, a whaler.  The ship sails, and they meet the monomaniacal Ahab, who reveals his true agenda—to find and kill the creature that took his leg, a white whale named Moby-Dick. The Pequod sails about the world’s oceans, asking other ships if they’ve seen Moby-Dick, killing a couple of different kinds of whales, and philosophizing about the nature of whales, humanity, obsession, revenge, religion, history, and a dozen other subjects. Eventually they find Moby-Dick; things go badly.

That’s about it.

In between all that, we get some of the most eloquent first-person narration in world letters and from the American Romantic era in particular. The action sequences are detailed and thrilling. The philosophy is thought-provoking. The symbolism is deep.

As Ishmael says, “Surely these things are not without meaning.”

The result of all this is a book that is absolutely essential. I never get tired of it. If you have the wherewithal to stick by it, it will grow on you.

Other texts that would work well: Typee; Billy Budd; Redburn; White Jacket; The Confidence-Man; the collected short works, which would include one of my favorite stories in existence, “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

3.         The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.

War literature is often hard to take—for the former soldier, who might find him/herself forced to relive painful memories; for the civilian, who often has to wade through buckets of blood and gore, gallows humor, and the foulest of foul language; for the writer, who must give part of him/herself and live down in the trenches with the characters. Yet this kind of writing is crucial to the evolution of the world and the world spirit of which we are all a part. Art does not have to be pretty; in fact, it often needs to be ugly, horrendous, painful, so that it can drag kicking and screaming into the light things that we might otherwise gloss in order to avoid discomfort.

I’ve said this before. I say it again because Tim O’Brien’s—what? Linked story collection? Novel-in-stories?—The Things They Carried manages to be ugly and painful and unutterably beautiful, often all at the same time.

It’s an abstract examination of concepts like war and bravery at the same that it’s a concrete representation of how those concepts can manifest. It is a minute examination of how war affects the individual psyche even as it follows a group of men and the ways that they connect and disconnect, laugh and cry, live and perish, zapped while zipping.

From the opening story that scrutinizes all the different ideas that the words “things” and “carry” might mean, to the unravelling of the very concept of narrative in “How to Tell a True War Story”; from the coming-of-age-in-a-pressure-cooker tension of “On the Rainy River” to the gender-complicated heartbreak of “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”; from the personal recriminations of “In the Field” to the desperate search for closure in “Field Trip”; from the loss and disconnection of “Speaking of Courage” to the redemptive power of stories in “The Lives of the Dead,” every single line and word in this book is indispensable.

Along the way, O’Brien examines such American concepts as patriotism and courage, individualism and group membership, language and action, war and that elusive concept we call peace.

The Things They Carried is a staggering artistic achievement and a deeply personal experience. Buy it yesterday. Read it now. Remember it forever.

Other texts that would work well: Going After Cacciato; If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home; July, July.

2.         Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

I knew that McCarthy would make the list, and that, if it were truly an ordered list, he would be near the top. I was not sure which text I would go with. How do you choose between Blood Meridian and the shattering experience that is The Road? Or the Border Trilogy? Even the short and highly disturbing Child of God or the mediocre-according-to-critics No Country for Old Men? Suttree, Outer Dark, The Orchard Keeper…any of them are worthy of this list.

While I almost went with The Road, and might well do so if you asked me to remake this list tomorrow, I must, at least for today, choose Blood Meridian: or, the Evening Redness in the West as the McCarthy book I cannot do without.

The scene: the American southwest in the late 19th century. Dramatis Personae: The Kid, our protagonist, a teenaged survivor with a vicious streak a mile wide; The Judge, the towering, hairless, possibly supernatural philosopher who just might literally be a devil; Glanton, the leader of a gang of bloodthirsty thugs who scalps Native Americans for fun and profit; and Glanton’s gang, any one of whom might make the subject of a long case study in socio- and/or psychopathy.

Based on historical events, Blood Meridian chronicles the travels and acts of this gang as the drown the southwest in gore, not all of it from “Indians.” We are witness to literal massacres. Death is never further away than one careless word or unguarded facial expression. Through it all, McCarthy’s unforgettable characters ponder the nature of humanity, of war, of freedom, of God. The Judge’s speeches alone are endlessly quotable and chilling.

Some find the book hopelessly bleak, and it’s tough to argue against that characterization, except…

Well, near the end, the Kid shows us a couple of glimmers of a human soul. What happens to him as a result is wrenching and ambiguous.

Several years ago, I gave the book to a relative who wanted a good read. The next time I saw her, she said, “What the heck did you get me into?”

Pick up the book and find out for yourself.

Other texts that would work well: any of the above-named texts. Start with The Road, which won more awards than a Spielberg film, and go from there.

1.         Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner.

Among the world’s people of letters, Faulkner has perhaps been the biggest influence on my own work, though he might have to duke it out with anybody else on this list (and a few dozen others) for that honor on any given day. He’s also another writer whose works are almost impossible to choose from. Even his minor works (if you believe in the viability of such a term) are good, thought-provoking reads.

During the 1920s and 30s, Faulkner went on a roll that is among the most creatively satisfying in history. The works normally described as his masterpieces were written during that time—not just GD,M but also his most complex work, Absalom, Absalom! (which was originally in this spot); his master class in point of view and voice, The Sound and the Fury; his insightful examination of race and class, Light in August; his surprisingly pot-boiling novel, Sanctuary; his story collection/novel-in-stories The Unvanquished, which takes us through the Civil War and beyond; and his OTHER master study in point of view and voice, the darkly comic and deeply sad As I Lay Dying.

One of my graduate school professors, a national authority on Faulkner and southern literature, once called Go Down, Moses Faulkner’s greatest work about race. That is, of course, debatable. But there can be no debate that this book—another collection/novel-in-stories—is a masterpiece of creative energy and daring.

Focusing on the families of old Carothers McCaslin, an antebellum plantation patriarch, the book begins in pre-Civil War times with the hilarious, deadpan, at times slapstick yet still dramatic tale “Was.” We first learn that there are two sides to old Carothers’s family—the white side and the black side, the latter of which resulting from his forced miscegenation—i.e., rape—of his female slaves, thus the references to Tomey’s Turl as “that damn half-white McCaslin.” The characters we meet in “Was” are the ancestors of those we’ll meet in the other stories, notably McCaslin Edmonds, Ike McCaslin (who would inherit and, out of shame, repudiate the land of his fathers), Carothers Edmonds, and Lucas Beauchamp, the African-American descendent of Old Carothers by the male line.

What follows in these stories is often funny; see, for instance, the way that Lucas outsmarts all the educated white men in the area. It is often shocking and emotionally draining; see “Pantaloon in Black” for one example. It is often confusing; try reading the second half of “The Bear” just once and see if you can keep it all straight. But the book is always fascinating and powerful.

Here are only a few topics you will encounter: family connections; how race impacts family connections in the south; economic class, and how race impacts it in the south; gender roles and assumptions, and how race impacts them in the south; the disappearance of nature in the face of encroaching urbanization and development (look for the heartbreaking images in “The Bear,” a story that is mythic in its scope and aims); the responsibility of an individual for his sons—or his fathers; how we relate to our elders; and the illusory nature of what we often call progress.

Look for characters like those named above and Sam Fathers, who brings to the book his own convoluted history;  Boon Hoggenback, the backwoods anti-marksman who loves his dog more than his own life; and the Beauchamps, whose familial drama is as powerful in its own way as anything in literature.

You can’t go wrong with Faulkner. If you start with this book, look up a family tree so you can keep track of who’s who and how they are related. Then sit back and watch the master work.

Other texts that would work well: any of the above-named works; The Uncollected Stories; The Town; The Hamlet; Soldier’s Pay; The Wild Palms; Intruder in the Dust.

There you go—the top 25 books on my ideal bookshelf, at least for now. If you haven’t read them, get started. You’re never too young—or too old—to appreciate greatness.

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com.

 

 

Randoms: On David Foster Wallace and The Hush Puppy

We interrupt this series of “My Ideal Bookshelf” columns because, um, we want to.

I’ve been swamped with work lately and haven’t had a chance to finish up the “Ideal Bookshelf” series, but as I’ve been slogging through the various items in my inbox, I’ve come to realize that I need to get something off my chest.

I am angry and sad, and it’s all related to David Foster Wallace.

Those who know me should be unsurprised. I have long been a Wallace devotee. My book The Subtle Dance of Impulse and Light was partly inspired by his collection entitled Brief Interviews with Hideous Men[1]. His graduation speech “This Is Water” is on my list of Things to Make Everyone I Know Read before They Die.[2]

Lately, I’ve been reading his book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.  Its subtitle is “Essays and Arguments,” which is exactly what you’ll find inside the covers. And, as always, whether he is writing about tennis stars or David Lynch or the perils of taking luxury cruises with dickish crews and asshole rich people, his work is funny, insightful, and emotionally bare. In fact, his article on Lynch represents exactly what I want to do in my own popular culture criticism—marry high-level academic thinking with language and tone that anyone of reasonable intelligence or curious intellect can access. [3]

When I read Wallace’s work, it is as if he’s reaching across time and distance and tapping me on the shoulder. His erudite, self-deprecating, often-despair-driven nonfiction work often mirrors exactly how I feel about something, and I simultaneously admire him and hate him for saying it so well. Hell, he’s even fascinated with footnotes and asides. Read my doctoral dissertation and, on the page, it won’t look much different from the typical DFW essay.

I do my best, even in my bleakest moments, not to disparage or minimalize whatever talents God gave me; doing so, I believe, disrespects them, and Him, and myself. I never want to seem ungrateful for things I should never, ever take for granted.  Yet I think it’s only human to feel inadequate or fraudulent when you read the work of writers whose genius has already been established and your own talents are still mostly obscure.

And but so (see what I did there, DFW? I stole your weird transitional phrase!), when reading Wallace, I often feel like a second-string mid-major college quarterback must feel when they watch Peyton Manning or Drew Brees—the heady, almost orgasmic thrill that comes with experiencing a world-class practitioner at work in your field, doing the very thing that you aspire to do and at the level you aspire to achieve, plus the concurrent and soul-wrenching suspicion that you will never actually reach those heights. That you might not be as good as you hope you are, and that, even if you’re (thanks be to God) just as good as those guys who already have the job, you might not catch the same breaks, get the same opportunities, find the same kind of support system in the field that will believe in you and advocate for you and by God just help you do what you damn well fucking know you’re meant to do[4], for your sake and the sake of those who might find your work entertaining or a pleasant distraction from daily miseries or thought-provoking or inspirational or, we might as well say it because it’s what we all hope for in some part of ourselves, genius-level art.

DFW intrigues me, tickles me, entertains me. And yet I’m angry.

For those who don’t know—on September 12, 2008, after a life-long battle with depression and a concurrent quaffing of pills and electroconvulsive therapy and other typical stavings-off of the crushing despair of daily life and its equally unbearable beauty, David Foster Wallace waited until his wife left their home, wrote a farewell note, and hung himself on his own patio.[5]

On that day, a great light went out of the literary firmament. Those who knew him, and those of us who felt like we did, still find the world a dimmer, less interesting place than it was when he was in it.[6]

So I’m mad. I’m angry that a man who wrote so much about choosing to see the world in an empathetic way could not, in the end, keep choosing. I don’t know whom to blame for this. Many people see his suicide as a failure to live up to his own principles, but for God’s sake, as he himself points out in “This Is Water,” we have no idea what’s going on in anyone else’s head or what their life’s circumstances are like. I don’t know if his death speaks to a failure in his particular support system or to the great malaise in our country’s attitudes about/willingness to pay for preventative care of mental illness. I do know that five years later, I’m still grappling with my own complicated responses, and that sometimes those responses take the form of anger at DFW himself.

“What the hell, man?” I want to ask him.

The thing is, I know despair. I have lived in the deep black pit of it for years at a time. When I was younger, I suffered from the generalized and overly Romantic soul-sickness that is so common to young creative types. I spent most of my time absolutely certain that most people did not understand me and had no real desire to. (Even today, I’m not sure I was very far off with this belief.) In the years since, I have labored under the fears that I am a terrible father, an inadequate husband, an okay teacher at best, and a writer who may or may not ever achieve widespread publication or a broad audience. On some days, the blank page that I want to fill up or the half-full classroom full of people who actually expect me to know what I’m doing is so daunting that I can barely breathe.

I know what it means to hurt.

But what the hell, man? You took yourself away from us. You truncated a brilliant career. You left. You left.

I mean, listen to this shit for a minute:

“What he says aloud is understandable, but it’s not the marvelous part. The marvelous part is the way Joyce’s face looks when he talks about what tennis means to him. He loves it; you can see this in his face when he talks about it: his eyes normally have a kind of Asiatic cast because of the slight epicanthic fold common to ethnic Irishmen, but when he speaks of tennis and his career the eyes get round and the pupils dilate and the look in them is one of love. The love is not the love one feels for a job or a lover or any of the loci of intensity that most of us choose to say we love. It’s the sort of love you see in the eyes of really old people who’ve been happily married for an incredibly long time, or in religious people who are so religious that they’ve devoted their lives to religious stuff: it’s the sort of love whose measure is what it has cost, what one’s given up for it. Whether there’s ‘choice’ involved is, at a certain point, of no interest . . . since it’s the very surrender of choice and self that informs the love in the first place.”—From “Tennis Player Michael Joyce’s Professional Artistry as a Paradigm of Certain Stuff about Choice, Freedom, Limitation, Joy, Grotesquerie, and Human Completeness”

Can you dig what he just said about love? “The very surrender of choice and self that informs love in the first place.” What a great turn of phrase. And the son of a bitch wrote that when he was around 33, ten full years younger than I am now. (!!!!) What would he have been capable of at fifty? Sixty? Eighty?

This is the crux of my dilemma. I am reading the work of a writer whose mind and work I deeply respect. But every time I laugh or nod knowingly, I also want to scream. Because he’s gone.

What the hell am I supposed to do about that?

And now, on a different note…

I’ll tell you one thing I won’t do—go back to The Hush Puppy again.

For those who don’t live in Las Vegas, The Hush Puppy is a dinner-only restaurant on West Charleston Boulevard. It’s just a few minutes down the road from the College of Southern Nevada’s main campus. When I heard about the place, I was terribly interested. The owners were originally from Texarkana, Arkansas, not all that far from where I grew up. The restaurant serves a lot of good old southern dishes—barbecued ribs, sweet tea, fried catfish, fried shrimp, fried oysters (are you detecting a pattern?), and more, along with some south Louisiana favorites like gumbo and alligator. I had to go.

It started out well enough. We arrived just before the 5 pm opening and were allowed to come on in. They seated our party of three within a couple of minutes and took our drink orders in a timely manner. I ordered the sweet tea, and when they say “sweet,” they are not kidding. The Hush Puppy’s sweet tea is the kind where, after your first big swallow, you feel like going outside and dashing around the building eight or ten times. Seriously, diabetics should not drink this stuff. It was a little too sweet for my tastes, too, but mostly I dug it. In Las Vegas, pre-sweetened iced tea is about as common as slow nights on the Strip and blizzards.

Soon our waitress, expressionless but dutiful, brought out a basket of hushpuppies. They were plentiful and piping hot and tasted like the batter on corn dogs. Not the exact kind of puppies you might get at a southern fish fry, but good nonetheless. I put away six or seven of the suckers, with butter from three generous tubs spread on them. So far, we were all happy.

Kalene and Maya both ordered the 10 oz. top sirloin with baked potato and a corn cobette. Both meals came with a trip to the salad bar and, allegedly, garlic bread, though said bread never appeared, and no one ever mentioned it. Kalene ordered her steak medium well. Maya ordered it medium.

I ordered something called a Big Bayou Platter (“Sure to satisfy a healthy appetite”), which consisted of Louisiana Shrimp, alligator tail, “New Orleans” fried oysters, and farm-raised fried catfish. It also came with a salad bar trip. I ordered crawfish rice as my side. Sounds good, right?

Well….

The salad bar was small and crowded, but I had no real problems with it. I wasn’t expecting anything fancy. I got my iceberg, my carrots, what on further review appeared to be Bac-Os (which taste like vaguely bacon-flavored uncooked popcorn kernels), some shredded cheese, and a bit of ranch dressing. I saw some watery black olives, but other than the carrots, no other hearty veggies in evidence. No broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, red onion, bell pepper, and so forth. Perhaps I missed them in the crowd. In any case, I had a serviceable but unspectacular salad with enough room on the plate left over for a tablespoon or so of oily pasta salad. The ladies came back with small salads made of the same sorts of super-basic ingredients.

At this point, we were a bit underwhelmed but still happy enough.

Then the entrees arrived.

Let’s talk about mine first. The Big Bayou Platter—“sure to satisfy any appetite,” you’ll recall—looked like somebody’s first trip to an enormous buffet, the kind of plate where you can tell the bearer is pacing him- or herself for several more courses as the night wears on. Given that I had already eaten a salad (of sorts) and a fistful of hushpuppies, it did in fact satisfy my appetite. But if I had come in really hungry, or if I had been, say, a professional wrestler or a UNLV basketball player fresh from the after-practice shower, I might have considered a false advertising suit.

That farm-raised fried catfish fillet was far and away the best item I ate, and if I ever do consider going back, it will be because my desire for southern-tasting fried fish overwhelms my better judgment. The Big Bayou Platter comes with exactly one filet, a small enough portion to flabbergast any southern boy who has ever been to a backyard fish-fry. A truly big platter would have piled up three or four of those suckers at least. I know southern boys who could take one filet and stuff it into their cheeks like a chipmunk while they went somewhere else for a real meal.

But at least it was good. The six or eight Louisiana Shrimp, on the other hand, smacked less of Louisiana and more of the kind of low-sodium diet that a dangerously obese person with sky-high blood pressure might eat. They appeared to have been grilled or baked or something; they were on a skewer and cooked through. The problem is that they had about as much flavor as a Styrofoam to-go box. They weren’t bad per se; they were just bland. I can tell you with authority that New Orleans patrons might well riot if they knew their state foods were being so maligned.

The New Orleans fried oysters were fine enough for me. I am not a fried oyster connoisseur; in fact, I seldom eat them. To me, they taste like battered, burnt dirt. If I’m going to eat oysters, I normally want them on the half-shell, and I don’t even do that very often, because a raw oyster’s consistency is not unlike what I imagine a quarter-cup of boogery snot would feel like in your mouth. They can taste pretty good, especially with the right condiments, but still. Anyway, I can’t disparate the Hush Puppy’s fried oysters, except for the fact that this “big” platter held exactly three. If this platter is truly supposed to satisfy any appetite, one can only imagine that the Hush Puppy’s regular clientele must consist of super-models and recent stomach-band surgery patients.

The three medallions of alligator tail—somewhere between a quarter and a half-dollar in diameter and about as thick as one of those cotton pads women often use to remove their makeup—were fried to near-jerky consistency. It, too, was more bland than bad, but if I had wanted bland, I would have gone to Smith’s and bought a package of plain rice cakes.

I ate what I would estimate as a cup of crawfish rice, the most savory part of the meal and the closest to Louisiana cooking, though still not what I would call authentic. It sat on my plate in an almost perfectly circular ball, as if it had been dipped from a vat with an oversized ice cream scoop. My portion contained exactly two small crawfish.

So my meal was not exactly memorable, at least not for the right reasons. Still, at this point I was looking forward to coming back. I planned to order more tea and the all-you-can-eat fish to maximize my enjoyment of what the restaurant really does well.

What happened next lessened the odds of my ever returning by at least 80%.

Remember how Kalene ordered her steak cooked medium well? That is generally defined as a cut with some pink in the center, firm, warm throughout.

Kalene’s steak was gray-brown throughout, not the least glimmer of pink anywhere, and, in places, rather dry. The flavor was good, but it was not cooked to order.

Maya’s was worse. Again, the flavor was fine. But her “medium” steak—“pink and firm,” warm throughout (I understand the USDA recommends 160 degrees Fahrenheit for medium cooking)—was indeed medium, at least in the outer portions. The inner part of the steak, a good 2/3 of the cut—was red and bloody and spongy. It was medium rare at least, bordering on rare in places. Maya the carnivore would not eat it.

Our expressionless waitress came over at the end of the meal. Kalene wanted to let her know that our steaks were not cooked to order, not because we wanted any money back or anything comped (we had eaten most of the food, except for Maya’s still-mooing steak and part of Kalene’s) but because we thought they might want to inform the cooks that they needed to step up their games. Customer satisfaction and all that, right?

Our waitress looked at Maya’s steak, which sat bleeding on her plate as if someone at the next table had swallowed a grenade and spattered our table with chunks of their pancreas.

“That’s medium,” she said, still expressionless.

“No, it’s not,” Kalene said, looking incredulous.

“That’s supposed to be medium well,” I said, indicating the remains of Kalene’s grayish top sirloin. “That thing is [here pointing to Maya’s plate] is not one step down from medium.”

She looked at us for a moment, the air weighty with tension.

“You want to-go box?” she asked.

No, we had little desire to drive a chunk of rare meat all the way across town and actually cook it ourselves. We declined her robotic offer of a to-go box (we really would have needed a pet kennel anyhow, as I remain unconvinced that the steak was actually dead) and carried the check by hand to the front register, since she laid it on our table and walked away and did not return for several minutes.

At this point, I split off from our little group. When you’ve just imbibed enough sweet tea to float a respectably sized canoe and have to drive across town, you go to the bathroom before you leave whether you feel like you need to or not. On the way out, Kalene said that the manager took five bucks off our bill, but that she had reported the lousy cooking and contentious waitress, only to discover that she had to explain what “contentious” meant.

“Then he told me that if we wanted a better steak, we should get the New York Strip next time,” she said, shaking her head.

I was astounded. This guy a) pretty much just admitted that his sirloins suck and that if you want a decent steak, you have to upgrade to a more expensive cut, and b) completely glossed over the fact that we were dissatisfied with the cooking, not the cut of the meat or the flavor.

This is a manager?

And that, friends, is why we won’t be going back. The Hush Puppy had come recommended by one of our colleagues, another transplanted southerner. He has had better experiences there. And we can easily forgive it when a kitchen has an off night. That can happen at any place. It’s happened at some of our favorites.

But when your cooking was, at best, acceptable and often inedible; when your wait staff argues with dissatisfied customers and does so in ways that show they don’t understand how things are supposed to be cooked; when your manager does nothing about the lousy service and makes only the most perfunctory gesture to make up for the food; and when they demonstrate that they don’t care what kind of time you have as long as they can talk you into spending more money, I’m done.

Sorry, Hush Puppy on West Charleston. You and I are over. It’s not me. It’s you.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Find me on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/BrettRileyAuthor.


[1] I actually stopped reading BIwHM only two stories in because I had already started on the first tales in Subtle Dance and felt the anxiety of influence. I didn’t want my book to transmogrify from an original exploration of voice and theme into a DFW clone.

[2] This means you. If you don’t want to read it, you can listen to it on Youtube. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

 [3] These works being attempts to think about things in a deep and insightful way without succumbing too much to the thick jargon of pointy-headed academic blather more interested in peacocking its author’s ability to name-check Foucault and Levi-Strauss and Derrida and Hegel ad infinitum ad nauseum.

[4] Hello, agents! Hi, editors! Greetings, publishers! How ya doin’? Don’t you want to work with a writer who is not untalented, who works harder than anybody has any right to expect, who takes constructive criticism well without sacrificing his own artistic vision? Don’t you? Huh? Huh?

[5] A more apt and tragic example of the dire results of our country’s failures to account for the mental illnesses from which so many of us suffer would be hard to find outside of a mass shooting.

 [6] I cannot, and would not want to, imagine how DFW’s family felt in the moment of his body’s discovery, or how they feel now.

My Ideal Bookshelf Part 3

[NOTE: this is being posted only hours after the announcement that Elmore Leonard had died. It’s a dark day for writers everywhere. God bless him, his family, and his legions of fans.]

A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.

#15.     Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I have a confession to make: this is the only book on my list that I haven’t actually read. I’ve read the rest of them several times, but I have never even opened this one. So why is it here?

Put simply, I love David Foster Wallace’s work. When he killed himself a few years back, one of American literature’s lights went out. He had a real command of the language, a knack for making dull-on-the-surface subjects interesting, a vivid imagination. He was a writer’s writer.

Some people call Infinite Jest his masterpiece. Others call it a doorstop, inaccessible, too postmodern for its (or your) own good. Based on the rest of his work, I know I’ve got to read it someday, but things keep getting in the way—work, obligations, life in general, other works whose very page counts aren’t as daunting. Keeping it on my bookshelf, always and forever, is the only way I’ll have a chance.

If you have tackled Infinite Jest, please feel free to comment here.

Other texts that would work well: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again; Brief Interviews with Hideous Men; The Pale King; Consider the Lobster.

#14.     The Stand by Stephen King.

King is often dismissed as a hack who churns out genre dreck with the regularity of good bowel movements. I won’t argue that every book or story in his oeuvre meets the standards of great literature; a few are poor (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a fun story undone by a deus ex machina ending), some are too self-derivative (From a Buick 8, too close to the stronger Christine), and some are done well up to a certain point before going off the rails (Black House comes to mind).

But most of his works are, at worst, excellent page-turners, and many transcend the pop-culture, genre-fiction ghetto (not that I believe in those things anyway). There’s a reason some critics have crowned him the 20th century’s Edgar Allen Poe. The Stand, another doorstop tome, is his masterwork. It’s also one of the best apocalypse texts you’ll ever experience.

For those who don’t know the basics: thanks to a government experiment gone awry and lax security at a military base, the United States—and, soon enough, the world—is caught in the grip of a modern-day plague, a superflu colloquially known as Captain Trips. The disease is airborne and easily spread through contact with another infected person. Soon, almost everyone in the world is dead, and the global population’s suffering is shown in horrific detail through the eyes of characters who will survive. Once the dying stops, those who remain must determine how to live in a new, mostly empty world where, as one realizes, all the old toys (cars, camping gear, nuclear missiles) are lying around, just waiting to be picked up.

The survivors converge on two locations. Through visions of an old woman, the good, noble people seem drawn to Denver by way of Kansas. Those with a greater sense of self-interest and the plain old assholes gather in Las Vegas, where a supernatural being of increasing power plots the destruction of the Denver society.

Who goes where? How will the two factions re-create society? What happens when the two groups become aware of each other? And how will each individual choose to meet his or her fate?

A novel as grounded in human free will and individual strife as in cosmic questions of fate and good vs. evil, The Stand is King at his best. Above, I’ve linked to the “uncut” version, which should include all the sections that King originally had to cut due to his publisher’s financial concerns (when art finds itself at the mercy of the bean-counters, we’re all in trouble). Feel free to read the abridged version if you wish, but the longer one is richer, denser, more gripping.

Even if you’re a literary snob, make your own stand and buy this book.

Other texts that would work well: pretty much anything from the mid-1990s or earlier. The Shining comes to mind, as does Salem’s Lot, Pet Sematary, It, or the various short story collections, though if you like horror fiction, start with pretty much anything he’s done. For good latter-day works, Desperation comes to mind, but you should also read the Dark Tower series at some point. Under the Dome is worth your time, too.

#13.     The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens.

Of all the American Modernist poets, Stevens is the one I keep coming back to. His cool clinician’s voice often belies the passionate intensity of his imagery. The dense, fecund ideas in his work never cease to engage my intellect and my imagination.

Start with his oft-anthologized works—“Anecdote of the Jar”; “The Snow Man”; “Peter Quince at the Clavier”; “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and more. You’ll find rich ground for exploring and understanding how poetry works, what literary Modernism means, and how the two intersect with very human, often mundane concerns. In fact, his work often takes the mundane and makes it seem strange, as in “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock.”

Move on to his Modernist smackdowns of institutions like religion in “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman” and “Sunday Morning.” He delivers a pretty good manifesto in “Of Modern Poetry.” And he produces what I have often described as my favorite poem in the language, “The Idea of Order at Key West.”

I’ve touched only on some of his most famous works, but his collected poems will take you wider and deeper than this. If you’re looking for light verse or easily found meanings, stay the hell away from Stevens. If you’re in the mood to be challenged and intrigued, pick up his collected works today.

Other texts that would work well: rather than send you to Stevens’ individual books, I’d suggest you broaden your reading of the Modernist era. Pick up a collection or three from T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound if you’re in an elitist mood. Read William Carlos Williams or Robert Frost if you want seemingly simple but deceptively deep text. Try Marianne Moore if you are in a mood somewhere in between. You could also try H.D. if you’re of a mind.

#12.     The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie.

One of the best contemporary writers, Sherman Alexie is a treat for readers of all ages. His YA novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a hoot for adults, too. His novels and short story collections are consistently high-quality. He deals with very serious postcolonial issues, but don’t think his works are all doom and gloom. While some of his work is deadly serious, he often uses humor as a way of dealing with trauma—his people’s, his own, his characters’.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven follows that pattern. Some stories are bleak, even apocalyptic. Others are side-splittingly funny. Some of the best ones are a mixture of both, as in the hilarious and heart-breaking “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” The stories in this book are interlinked. You’ll meet characters who struggle with reservation life—their love of community, their hatred of the poverty and alcoholism, their struggle to reconcile their conflicting emotions. You’ll be thrust facedown into that poverty, into those shattered lives, into the Res itself, a kind of refuge from the white world that is also a very effective, soul-deadening prison. You’ll see yourself reflected in the characters, both Native and white Americans, and you’ll feel both empathy and shame.

If you are only open to very traditional forms of storytelling, writers like
Alexie might freak you out (as any postmodernist might, for that matter). But if you are interested in the strivings, the triumphs, and the failures of humanity and our nation, you need to seek this man out. Come with an open mind. Leave with a better soul.

Other texts that would work well: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; Reservation Blues; The Business of Fancy-Dancing; Ten Little Indians; and pretty much anything else he’s written, including the film Smoke Signals, the adaptation of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

#11.     Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich.

Another collection of linked stories (or a novel-in-stories) by another Native American author, Love Medicine is only one of several excellent works by Louise Erdrich. Less humorous than Alexie’s but just as insightful and devastating, this work follows the intersecting lives of two Native American families over the course of several decades. As the families fight, intermingle, intermarry, and fight some more, the reader is treated to the burgeoning of a great American voice.

Here, as in Alexie’s work, you will meet Native American characters at war with mainstream society, with their families, with themselves. You will find alcoholism, domestic abuse, jailbreaks, and one honest-to-God tribal battle in a factory that makes cheap plastic replicas of Native American artifacts like spears, bows and arrows, and headdresses. You will also find the sheer strength and beauty of the human spirit as it refuses to be shattered in the crucible of modernity.

What happens when you attempt an ancient love ritual but substitute mass-produced ingredients for the real thing? What happens to a love triangle when all three people are old? What happens when the love is so hot it burns down a house?

Husbands and wives struggle to understand their children, and vice versa. Old loves are rekindled in the unlikeliest of places. The white world constantly threatens to intrude, even though we seldom see it on the page. And always, always, always the families plod onward, eking out an existence on land they do not always even own. The shimmering power of their endurance is a joy to behold. Read this book today.

Other texts that would work well: A Plague of Doves; Tracks; The Round House; The Painted Dove; The Bingo Palace.

More soon….

 Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com.

 

My Ideal Bookshelf Part 2

A reminder of the rules: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit.

#20.     Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin.

One of the best works by a great 20th-century author, Going to Meet the Man is a collection of short stories that examine, among other issues, the ways that racism scars both the oppressed and the oppressors. Baldwin deals with issues that mainstream America has worked hard to sweep under the rug—not just racism, but also sexism, classism, and homophobia—and, like the best art, he drags those issues back into the light. Art can be pretty, but it doesn’t have to be, and it often needs to be something else. Baldwin is not afraid to take his work to those places.

From the opening familial drama “The Rockpile” to the religion-meets-secularism-meets-race-meets-sex story “The Outing,” from the oft-anthologized “Sonny’s Blues” to the absolutely devastating and horrifying title story (one that always freaks out my students), this collection is essential, not just to your bookshelf but to America.

Other texts that would work well: Go Tell It on the Mountain.

#19.     Birds of America by Lorrie Moore.

Lorrie Moore may be the best writer that most people don’t seem to have heard of, and Birds of America is one of the best short story collections most people don’t seem to own. Combining wit with a sharp eye for detail, Moore creates works of great beauty, hilarity, deep sadness. Plus, she’s got some of the most interesting titles out there.

In “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” she examines the everyday tragedy of the badly sick child with keen insight. “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens” looks at how important pets can be in our lives and the different ways that people grieve—even people who, ostensibly, should feel both happy and lucky. “Real Estate” takes the reader into a life that has gone horribly wrong in many ways. The stories are full of death, language so sharp it may cut you, pathos, emotional distance. If you have never experienced this collection, do yourself a favor and buy it today.

Other texts that would work well: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

18.       Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

Whenever I want to feel transcendental, I read either Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson. In my experience, Emerson is a bit too esoteric for modern readers outside academia; sometimes he’s too esoteric for me, and I read/write/teach literature for a living. Thoreau is more accessible and just as eloquent.

For those who don’t know the “plot” of this nonfiction work—back in the mid-19th century, Thoreau decided to put aside most material things and squat near Walden Pond, a body of water close by Lynn, Massachusetts. For a little over two years, Thoreau lived there in solitude, welcoming the occasional visitor and walking about the pond and township whenever the desire arose. He lived as simply as possible, relied mostly on himself, and pondered the nature of society even as he removed himself from it. In Thoreau’s own words:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”

What Thoreau discovered—about society, about humanity, about nature, about himself—is worth your time. Is progress really progress? Thoreau thinks not, and he articulates this idea in ways that would later find echoes in literary/popular cultural figures such as Fight Club’s Tyler Durden. “We do not ride upon the railroad,” he says. “It rides upon us.”

Structured through specific chapters that deal with the work’s major ideas, Walden is part early environmentalism, part spiritual journey, part philosophical treatise, part memoir, and fully worthy of its place on my ideal bookshelf.

Other texts that would work well: I’d seek out his various essays and poems—perhaps start with Collected Essays and Poems, which contains “Resistance to Civil Government” (sometimes called “Civil Disobedience”) and other important works like “Slavery in Massachusetts”—or, lacking that, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

17.       Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

I love poetry, but I’m only putting a few works on this list because I’m mainly a fiction guy. No ideal bookshelf of mine could ever be complete, though, without Walt Whitman’s masterpiece. Often credited, rightly or wrongly, with inventing what many call “free verse” (T.S. Eliot’s claim that it doesn’t exist notwithstanding), Whitman revised Leaves of Grass throughout his lifetime. He saw his work as being just as organic as the sprouts after which it was named, and he often let the poems grow, often trimmed them, let some of them die and planted seeds of others.

From the simple missions statement found in “One’s Self I Sing” to the complex, multifaceted “Song of Myself”; from the passionate, some say shocking, sensuality of “I Sing the Body Electric” to the melancholy of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”; from the national spirit of “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” to the deeply personal yet universal “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” Whitman’s work spans the universe, the body, the soul. It erases borders between traditional dichotomies. It feeds the soul in ways that resemble the effects of holy texts. Indeed, one of my old professors used to say that when she wanted to be uplifted, she read one of two texts: the Bible or Leaves of Grass.

If you have never read Whitman, it takes some getting used to—the long lines that often seem to (but don’t really) meander, the catalogues, the odd spellings, the repetition. But Whitman is worth the effort. Pick up the book today; he stops somewhere waiting for you.

Other texts that would work well: try one of the collected prose volumes. Concentrate on Specimen Days. If you’re not in the mood for prose, support the works of another great 19th-century poet—Emily Dickinson or the in-my-opinion-underrated-as-a-poet Stephen Crane.

16.       The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

Huck Finn is often wrongly dismissed as a children’s book. If you dismiss it as such, you’re making a mistake (and probably thinking of Tom Sawyer). Twain’s masterpiece is about a child, but the themes and ideas are very much adult-oriented.

Huck Finn is also often dismissed as a racist text. Critics who call it racist are right to a certain extent, though not because of the use of the “n-word.” That onerous word does appear far too much for comfort, but that’s part of Twain’s point. Twain was a Realist who, by definition, believed that literature ought to record life as it is, not as it should be. Southern white people used that word constantly. So do Twain’s characters. The novel’s (unintentional) racism lies in Twain’s failure to create realistic black characters rather than caricatures.

Still, when your young white protagonist chooses to go to hell rather than turn in his enslaved friend; when he makes the conscious decision to help Jim escape in spite of everything society has tried to make him believe; when he recognizes that those on top of the social ladder rest at the bottom of the moral hierarchy, we might recognize the book as a flawed but genuine attempt to critique racism, not perpetuate it.

“It’s enough to make a body ashamed of the human race,” Huck says in reference to how two white conmen trick rural rubes out of their cash. “He had a dream, and it shot him,” Huck says about Tom Sawyer’s misguided Romanticism. And when Huck decides to “light out for the Territories” rather than stay in a corrupt society, Twain reveals his own beliefs about what he once called the “damned human race.”

Huck Finn is often hilarious. It is often thought-provoking. It is often touching. But to the discerning reader, it is never anything but one of the finest pieces of literary art ever produced. If your school system bans the book, move, because you’re surrounded by idiots. Read this imperfect critique of American racism, this adventure story, this comedy, this living novel and join the conversation about a truly American text. Ernest Hemingway allegedly said that all 20th century literature comes from Huck Finn. I don’t know if that’s true, but it does cast one of the long shadows in which we writers labor and create.

Other texts that would work well: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; Life on the Mississippi.

Join us, won’t you?

More soon…

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com

 

My Ideal Bookshelf, Part 1

A few months back, Entertainment Weekly published a small article in which famous writers listed the contents of their “ideal bookshelves.” The concept intrigued me. What tomes would I buy over and over? What would I pack if I were exiled to a desert island? What books would I never want to live without?

For anyone who might care, I thought I’d answer those questions with a series of short columns. If nothing else, I hope that what follows might inspire you to think about the books that matter most to you.

Fair warning: like any other “best of” or “my favorite whatever” list, this one is subject to change every time I encounter a new text. Also, there is no specific order to this list, even though it’s numbered. #1 is not necessarily better or more important than #25. I only number them to give the columns a sense of structure. In terms of content, I have limited myself to one text per author, though on a few, I’ve cheated a bit. You’ll see what I mean.

Without further preamble, below you will find the first five texts on my ideal bookshelf. Comments, alternatives, compliments, and protests are welcome.

[Note: the Bible is not on this list because I didn’t want to suggest it might be “just” a creative work. But I’d take it with me.]

#25.     Sandman: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman (graphic novel).

For those not in the know, Sandman is simply the best comic-book series ever. If you only read comics for superheroes, don’t buy this series. But if you believe that the medium is supple enough to tell any kind of story—and it is—then give Neil Gaiman’s book about an uber-race of gods a try. Known as the Endless, these gods, unlike any other pantheon, do not depend on mortal worshippers to maintain their power. They transcend human will and belief. They rule the areas of life that all humans encounter, no matter the faith or dogma. Their names are Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Delight, Desire, and Despair.

Sandman focuses on Dream, also known by many other names, including Morpheus and Oneiros. A tall, pale stranger with eyes like stars and a cloak made of night, Dream walks the realms of our sleep, building his empire, shaping our nightmares.

I would love to put the entire Sandman series on this list. In fact, I’ll go ahead and tell you to buy it all, either one trade paperback at a time or in the doorstop hardcover editions I’ve been collecting over the last few years. But if you’re going to read one, and only one, I’d go with Season of Mists.

The plot: thousands of years ago, a less-mature, colder version of Dream imprisoned a woman in hell for the crime of rejecting his love. In the present day, Dream incurs the wrath of Lucifer, the fallen angel called the Morningstar. I won’t tell you why. For that, you’ll need to consult Sandman vol. 1. In that storyline, you’ll also see the events that cause Dream to reconsider his earlier behavior.

As Season of Mists opens, Dream finally decides to journey back to Hell and free his old lover. In spite of his fear of Lucifer, the second-most-powerful being in the universe, Dream enters the gates of Hell. Soon enough, he encounters Lucifer—but no one else. Having foreseen Dream’s coming, Lucifer has made a rather startling decision that has a triple purpose—to fulfill Lucifer’s own desires and to torment Dream. This decision will have far-reaching implications for Earth, for the metaphysical plane, for every pantheon of gods, and for Dream himself.

Exploring world religions and universe-shaking powers while concurrently delving into the recesses of individual motivations and emotions, Sandman: Season of Mists is exciting, thought-provoking, and, of course, well-written. Beautifully penciled primarily by Kelly Jones, with Mike Dringenberg and Matt Wagner filling in, this book is a gorgeous and eerie edition to anyone’s bookshelf. If I could pick only one Gaiman work to take with me, I’d pick this one.

Other texts that could work well: Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes; Sandman: The Doll’s House; Sandman: A Game of You; Sandman: The Kindly Ones; American Gods; Neverwhere.

24.       Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (graphic novel).

Probably the greatest limited series in comic-book history, Watchmen attempts to answer the question, “What if superheroes were real?” The result is not pretty, but it is absolutely fascinating.

Actually, only one of the heroes qualifies as super, and he’s not much of a hero. He’s aloof at best, viewing the world’s mad dash toward destruction with curiosity, when he thinks about it at all. The rest are middle-aged and struggling—undersexed, overweight, psychopathic, egotistical.

When the fate of the world really does depend on these all-too-human outlaws and their godlike acquaintance, they perform much better than you might expect. They reveal they have skills. They work together well in spite of their bickering. They solve a mystery that no one even knew existed. And yet….

It’s hard to save the world when you’re fighting yourself.

A series of deep and nuanced character studies, a labyrinthine mystery, an action-adventure, a romance, a science-fiction romp spanning the solar system—Watchmen is all that and more. It takes its subject matter completely seriously even as it deconstructs the usual tropes of the genre. It makes your average superhero comic seem naïve and quaint. I read it once every couple of years just to remind myself of the medium’s possibilities. You should, too. Skip the so-so film adaptation and go right to the source.

Other texts that could work well: any trade paperback of Moore’s run on Swamp Thing; The Killing Joke; V for Vendetta.

23.       Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories by Sandra Cisneros.

Whenever I teach a multicultural literature class, I try to include something by Sandra Cisneros, and the titular story in this collection almost always makes it into my World Literature II and American Literature II syllabi.

The stories in this book focus on women who live on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Sometimes those women cross the border, but no matter where they go, they are confronted with a sense of cultural dislocation, of Otherness, as they encounter patriarchal attitudes and outright abuse. Readers are immersed in a rich evocation of Hispanic cultures and the triumphs, failures, and contradictions of what those cultures mean.

Yet for all the high-minded darkness of that description, the book is also full of joy as women connect to each other, overcome their circumstances, reject the deadening influences of authority in their lives, find the joy in acts of rebellion great and small. Read this book and, like one of the women in the titular story, you might find yourself shouting with the pure joy of freedom and possibility, even if you’ve got tears in your eyes.

Other texts that could work well: The House on Mango Street.

22.       The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

You can’t have a list like this without Shakespeare. This is one of those “cheats” I was talking about, where I’m taking an anthology instead of a single work. Given that this anthology actually exists (there are several versions),  that it isn’t just a product of my wishful thinking, I’m including it.

If you’re older than, say, thirteen or fourteen, you don’t need me to tell you what’s so great about Shakespeare. From the great tragedies—Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, etc.—to the comedies—Much Ado about Nothing, The Taming of the Shrew, and so forth—to the histories like the King Henry plays, Shakespeare’s work is synonymous with theater and what we often call “literary” work.

One great thing about the Complete Works is that you also get the poetry, especially the sonnets. Shakespeare was good enough as a poet that it almost seems unfair; it would be like discovering that Alfred Hitchcock was also a piano prodigy.

I’m linking to the Bevington anthology because that was pretty much the standard back when I studied the works in graduate school. But feel free to pick your own. As for me, this is the one I’d take with me.

Other texts that could work well: if I couldn’t take Shakespeare, I’d take some other dramatist—Arthur Miller, Tony Kushner, George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams, etc.

21.       In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason.

In the mid-80s, seventeen-year-old Sam Hughes tries to come to terms with her father’s death in Vietnam and her uncle Emmett’s inability to get over the war. What could be a real downer of a novel (not that there’s anything wrong with that; some of my favorite texts are downers) evolves into much more through Mason’s deft handling of Sam’s teenage viewpoints and her dependence on popular culture to define her life (M.A.S.H. in particular).

Sam struggles to understand seemingly contradictory ideas that would confuse anyone who thinks about them for too long—a veteran’s erectile dysfunction with a friend’s pregnancy, the way the world changes around her so fast even as her father’s picture remains frozen in time, and more. Through her, we view the 80s as a confusing landscape that belies the homogenous nature of its politics and pop culture. Through the novel, we see Vietnam from an outsider’s point of view and reimagine it as the crux of understanding different lives, rather than just as a world event that kills.

Often dismissed as “only” a YA novel, In Country is that and much more. For whatever reason, it resonates with me. I think you’ll dig it, too.

Other texts that could work well: Shiloh and Other Stories.

So there you have the first five. More to come soon.

Email me at brett@officialbrettriley.com.

Follow me on Twitter @brettwrites.