Monday, September 28, 2009

Book Review: Best New American Voices 2006

Fresh is Right: The Unique Stories in Best New American Voices 2006
Edited by Jane Smiley
Series Editors: John Kulka and Natalie Danford

This is the first book I've read in the Best New American Voices series, which I didn't know existed until I was at Borders with my mom in Pennsylvania in June and I saw it on the dollar clearance rack. This series accepts entries from top writing programs and workshops around the country, and chooses the best--in this book there are 15 stories--to publish. I started reading this book on July 25, 2009. A week later, during a camping trip at Vallecito Lake, Colorado, I finished it. Having been a big fan of the Best American Short Stories series for a long time, I was a little skeptical about the Best New American Voices series, thinking, "these writers were just in graduate school when they wrote these stories, how can they be as good as the stories from long-established writers?"

Boy, was I wrong. Granted, some of the stories show signs of amateurism; but then I wondered, "would I even think that if they weren't in this book?" I don't know. Other stories to me seemed to come from tried and true "professional" writers (whatever that means), and I was surprised to know that the authors were just emerging.

Overall, I like this book even better than some of the Best American series I've read, and almost every story grabbed my attention from beginning to end. Sometimes I feel jaded about the Best American stories, which the series editor supposedly picks without knowing the author's name but which happen to feature particular authors over and over again. Sometimes, especially--it seems--depending on the series editor, I think, "what in the world is this story doing in here? It's not even good." But the stories in Best New American Voices were obviously chosen without regard for who the author was, as long as she or he was in a writing program or workshop.

I think my favorite story in this collection is "Alice's House", by Jamie Keene from the University of Oregon. It's about a man who has recently divorced his wife and is getting ready to sell their house and move in with his girlfriend, when his ex wife comes to his house for an unannounced midnight visit. I also liked "Lyndon", by Amber Dermont from the University of Houston, about a young woman whose father recently died. The narrator continues her and her father's tradition of visiting the birth places of U.S. presidents with her mother, with whom she has a strained relationship.

Some of the stories feature quite unique formats, such as "The Jupiter's In", by Sarah Blackman from the University of Alabama, in which each scene starts and ends with missing words or letters, much like the sign on the run-down inn. This story features colorful, unique characters and has a distinctly southern feel. "Begin With an Outline" by Kaui Hart Hemmings from Stanford University is about a narrator attempting to tell an emotional story in a forced outline format. The setting for that story, or at least its background, is Hawaii, and the imagery is very vivid and gripping. "Useless Beauty, or, Notes on Esquire's 'Things a Man Should Never Do After the Age of 30'" by Albert E. Martinez from New Mexico State University (of particular note to me, since I live in New Mexico) is a story told interspersed with excerpts from the article, such as "own a futon," "live with someone you don't sleep with," and "use the word 'party' as a verb." The story itself involves a guy who just turned 30 and who is still hung up on his ex girlfriend. It is set in San Fransisco and, to me anyway, is a commentary on the late 20's/early 30's urbanites who live there.

There are many stories in this collection told from the point of view of a child or young adult, such as Michelle Regalado Deatrick's "Backfire" and Matt Freidson's "Liberty." There are also many stories about the death of a parent, such as Jennifer Shaff's "Leave of Absence", Amber Dermott's "Lyndon", and Sian M. Jones' "Pilot". Story notes from each story follow below, but because they may contain mild spoilers, I've saved them for the very bottom of the page.

All the stories in this series fit the title, being fresh and invigorating reads. I hope to find and read more books in this series and would recommend it to anyone who likes short stories and anyone who wants to read the newest works coming out of America's writing programs.

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Story Notes:

1. Leave of Absence, by Jennifer Shaff -- Emerson College
Spock comes to visit a young woman whose parents died in a car crash, while she is on leave from her teaching job due to grief, slowly turning into madness.
Setting: Evanston, Wisconsin.
Character's profession: Teacher.
Jewish characters.
Themes: Sibling bond (brother/ sister), Death of parent (both), Sports - Packers football.
Very far-fetched yet unique.
7/10 - I liked it. Very unique.

2. Lyndon, by Amber Dermott -- University of Houston.
Girl's father dies and she thinks her mother is pregnant with another man's baby. Mother and daughter continue the former father/daughter tradition of visiting birthplaces of presidents.
Setting: New Jersey and Johnson City, Texas
Character's career: Investment baker
Working moms
Themes: Death of parent (father), father/ daughter relationship, mother/ daughter relationship
Anxiety/ night terrors/ nightmares
8/10 - I really liked it.

3. A New Kind of Gravity by Andrew Foster Altschul -- Stanford University
Guard in women's domestic abuse shelter befriends the young daughter of a resident.
Character's profession -- guard
Domestic violence. Children.
9/10 -- I loved it.

4. The Rust Preventer by Jessica Anthony - George Mason University
Man is stuck in the jungle after war is over, forgotten.
Animals - monkey
Wars - World War II
Setting: Malay Archipelago
Death - main character's
8/10 -- I liked it. Very unique.

5. Trampoline by Vanya Rainova - University of San Francisco
Family living in post-communist Bulgaria has trampoline business at beach. Son falls in love with woman who has cancer and a young daughter.
Setting: Bulgaria - Slancher Briag
Love Family
9/10 - I loved it. Unique.

6. Watermark By Melanie Westerberg - California College of the Arts
Girls whose twin sister disappeared visits the shark room of the aquarium where she works, in the middle of the night.
Animals - Octopus, shark
Bad dreams
Sports - swimming, diving
Character's professions - Aquarium worker
5/10 - I didn't really like it.

7. Useless Beauty, or Notes on Esquire's Things a Man Should Never Do After the Age of 30
By Albert Martinez - New Mexico State University
Man who just turned 30 lives rather cliched social urbanite existence, trying to get over a recent break-up.
Setting - San Fransisco
Breaking up
8/10 - I really liked it. Pretty unique.

8. The Jupiter's In by Sarah Blackman - University of Alabama
A playful experiment with style, where the first words or so keep dropping more and more off the beginning of each sentence of every section, mimicking the letters fading from the sign on the inn owned by Miss Flora Jean. Her son is lazy and is purposefully gaining weight, with the goal of becoming the fattest astronaut in space. His girlfriend is pregnant. A tragedy occurs with a guest at the inn.
Setting -- South (never says where, but it's obviously in the South)
Characters' occupation - Innkeeper
Relationship with parent - mother/ son
8/10 - I really liked it. Very unique.

9. Alice's House by Jamie Keene - University of Oregon
Breaking up
10/10 - I loved it.

10. Liberty by Matt Freidson - Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing
Teenage boy in delinquent youth's prison in Vietnam falls in love.
Setting: Vietnam - Hanoi
Friendship - men
8/10 - I really liked it.

11. Twinless by Gregory Plemmons - Sewanee Writers' Conference
Sister locks twin brother in cellar before going to their father's wedding after their mother's death, so he can't ruin the wedding. Then he disappears.
Siblings - twins, brother/ sister
Death of parent - mother
Wedding - of parent
7/10 - I liked it okay.

12. Backfire by Michelle Regalado Deatrick - University of Michigan
Young boy's friend sets fire to his own house, killing the boy's sister, and the boy is blamed for it, although it was not his fault.
Siblings - brother/ sister
Death - of sibling
Character's profession: Insurance industry
Setting - Sacramento, California
8/10 - I liked it.

13. Begin With an Outline by Kaui Hart Hemmings - Stanford University
A young woman is questioned during the investigation of her father for selling/ growing pot. She tries to establish a relationship with him but can't.
Father/ daughter relationship
Setting - Hawaii
Character's occupation - college student
8/10 - I really liked it.

14. Going After Lovely by Sean Ennis - University of Mississippi
A young boy's sister runs away. He stays with his dysfunctional family, featuring a well-meaning but over-reaching and hapless father, and crazy mother.
Family - dysfunctional
Mental health
Siblings - sister/ brother
Father/ son relationship
Unhappy marriage - parents'
9/10 - I loved it.

15. Pilot by Sian M. Jones - Mills College
A young woman thinks she hears her mother talking to her after her mother had a stroke.
Death of parent - mother
Siblings - sister/ brother
Religion - atheism
7/10 - I liked it.

(Book was read in July 2009 - camping at Lake Vallecito, on bus on way home from work, etc.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

The first of the "Daddy Issues" pieces - submitted!

I went through a period, last winter and spring, where it seems that all I could write were essays about my father! Even when I tried to write about a totally different topic, such as moving to Albuquerque or my brother's engagement, or a totally different person, such as my mother, there was my dad, popping his head into my piece! So I decided to just go with it and perhaps I can eventually compile all of these stories into a book called "Daddy Issues," or something!

The short memoir pieces featuring my father seem to flow easily, and everyone in my writer's group always likes them. So I just revised one of the pieces, called "Coach K," which deals with my relationship with both my father and running, and decided to send it off for publication. It's nearly 5,000 words long and includes a lot of personal snippets. I've been toying with taking out a lot of the personal stuff and focusing on the running aspect of it--how I was pushed into running by my father at a young age, and always hated it, but now as an adult, I love it--and sending it to Runner's World, one of my favorite commercial magazines, or some other magazines for runners or women, that might pay pretty well. But, as the hostess of my writer's group bluntly pointed out (she's pretty blunt, that's what we love about her!), it's not like I'm a starving writer who needs to live off my writing, so why not send it like it is to literary journals that don't pay much? In its present state, that's where it would best fit, because it's more of a memoir, and more about me, than it is a piece about running, for any other runner out there.

I was reading a blog yesterday that said something like, you should always send out your piece to at least 5 markets at once. So, I chose five literary journals from Writer's Market--mostly alphabetically, narrowed downs to the ones that accepted creative non-fiction--and off I sent my first piece about my dad that I'm trying to get published. I'm crossing my fingers!! And working on the next piece.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Kathryn Ma -- Attorney Turned Author

I have just discovered a delightful blog called 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started. And I could really relate to one of the posts, which featured an interview with Kathryn Ma, a former lawyer who left the law firm she worked at to open up a "writing office" and concentrate on her writing. Now she is the winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award for her book of short stories, All That Work and Still No Boys. The way she described practicing the law and then leaving it for writing sent shivers up my spine, because I could relate to it so much, and it's what I want to be able to say myself one day: "I liked being a lawyer, or parts of the job, anyway, like the teamwork and the libraries and the paycheck, and had worked hard at it until I couldn’t stand not writing anymore, and so I packed up my Bekins boxes and set up a little office a half-mile from my house where the siren call of the laundry basket wouldn’t lure me to my doom."

Ms. Ma is my new idol! I have loved to write ever since I can first remember. I always wanted to be a writer - just a writer. But I also needed to make a living. I'll be honest: I wanted a comfortable, secure living, and I wanted to be self-sufficient and independent, relying only on myself and not my parents or a signficant other. These goals obviously competed with my desire to be "just" a writer! So I explored other career options and decided to enter the law because it does involve a lot of reading, writing and thinking, all things that I enjoy, as well as a steady paycheck. I told myself early on that I would work hard, save up a lot of money, and retire early, so that I could just write and travel, like I've always wanted to do (and did in college).

Somewhere along the way, I lost writing for a little while, or maybe I just lost myself. I hated the first year of law school -- I had moved half way across the country, to a state I had never even been to before (to attend the University of New Mexico School of Law) and knew nobody and couldn't figure out what was expected of me or how to get the good grades I had always been used to in high school and college. I finally figured all of that out and came to love New Mexico(but never law school!) and did quite well in law school, when all was said and done. But I just totally stopped reading for fun, and pretty much stopped writing. I had no time for it after all the legal work. I rarely felt creative or drive, and instead just felt like I was trying to keep my head above water and master the legal stuff.

Towards the end of law school I moved in with my boyfriend and let my life totally revolve around his. I was into all of these new things like watching football and playing poker. We skiied/snowboarded together, which I'd always liked, and went on road trips together, and had a grand old time, but I had lost myself. I had given away most of my precious book collection before I moved in with him, without really thinking twice. I never wrote. I did pass the Bar and get a job at a big firm.

A couple years later, I woke up and thought "who am I?" I did the best thing ever then -- I joined a local writer's group and made myself start writing again. I switched firms and was working for an even bigger one, and it was very demanding and stressful and I was miserable. I had enjoyed practicing law at my first firm and I knew I was good at it, but all of my former energy and passion for certain areas of the law was being sucked right out of me, and I was questioning my entire profession and decision to practice law. I thought many times of just quitting and trying to be a freelance writer, or working at a bookshop or as a waitress so I could spend the rest of my time writing.

I suddenly realized that if I wanted to be a writer, I had to really be one. I couldn't waste my days hating my day job and wishing I had time to write, without actually writing much at all. I still entertained the thought of becoming a full-time or at least part-time writer, but I decided that first I would have to make the time to write, in the here and now. I tried to write every day, and I found that I did have the time when I made it, even while I was still working at the big firm. It also made my job there a little easier, because at least I had something going for me in another area of my life.

Probably the best thing that could have happened to me, which felt like the worst thing at the time, happened: I got laid off from the big firm, during the height of the recession. It sucked but it forced me to make a change I knew I had to make, eventually, anyway. And it forced me to make a decision: did I want to continue in the law, or did I want to be a writer? Well, I wanted both. And I did not think (and still don't think, at this point) that being only a writer was a viable option. I do not have the financial wherewithal right now (even with my severance package!) to depend on writing. And I also enjoy practicing law. I knew I would enjoy practicing it even better now that I was forced out of the firm I hated anyway. But I wanted to be a writer too, and I wanted to have enough time to devote to that. No more ridiculous billable hours and crazy pressure.

I was very lucky to find a job at a firm that does "big firm" work but is very small, and very laid-back compared to my former firm. It is the perfect balance, in terms of pay, challenging work, the partners that I work with, hours, etc., between my first firm and my second firm. And most of all, I can much more easily make time to write (I'm still not saying it's easy -- there never seem to be enough hours in the day!), because the hours and the workload aren't so demanding.

I still have moments where I would love to do what Kathryn Ma says she did -- leave my law firm (as much as I enjoy this one) to be a full-time writer. I know I will do it one day, and sometimes I get frustrated wondering if that day will ever come. Law is a demanding profession, and also a trap in a way, because the further I progress in it, the more money I get paid, the higher up on the "partnership" ladder I move, the more connections I make, the more it feels like I should stay in it. (Moving anywhere else to practice law, for example, even at this juncture, would be hard because I have slowly built up a name in this city, and would be nobody in a new city.) But at least I have found a balance, where I can be myself and be a writer *and* an attorney (and I still enjoy watching football with my boyfriend, and our regular ski trips, etc. ;)).

I will just write (and read, which really helps my writing) as much as I can while I practice law, until I am in the financial and emotional position to just focus on writing. Kathryn Ma says it took her ten years to write the stories in her first book. (I don't know if that includes the time period when she was still practicing law or not). I have definitely learned that nothing good comes easily and everything requires hard work and I cannot count on some pie in the sky dream of waking up one day and being a published writer. It seems to me from reading the interview that Ms. Ma had definitely saved up money and had independent resources before she made the decision to leave the law for writing. So it is nice to read about someone actually doing what has been my goal, and being successful at it.

I plan to buy and read Kathryn Ma's book All That Work and Still No Boys and will review it here after I do! But in the meantime, I will keep reading and writing, and being inspired by lawyers-turned-writers, because I eventually plan to be one myself!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Index of Book Reviews -- By Title

(Last updated on January 28, 2011 with the addition of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity by Kerry Cohen)

1. Best American Short Stories, 1991 Edited by Alice Adams and Katrina Kenison

2. Best New American Voices, 2006 Edited by Jane Smiley, John Kulka and Natalie Danford

3. Career and Corporate Cool: How to Look, Dress and Act the Part-- at Every Stage of Your Career by Rachel C. Weingarten

4. Double Billing: A Young Lawyer's Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies, and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair by Cameron Stracher

5. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

6. Flappers and Philosophers: 8 Short Stories By F. Scott Fitzgerald

7. Glimmer Train Stories: Issue # 48, Fall 2003

8. Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity by Kerry Cohen

9. Lucky, a Memoir by Alice Sebold

10. The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

11. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

12. My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

13. Mourning Ruby by Helen Dunmore

14. The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton

15. The Wife, and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov

16. The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

17. Women Like Us By Erica Abeel

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

LitSpot - Book Store Review: Ocean City, Maryland

Bookshelf Etc. -- Ocean City, Maryland

I just returned from a vacation in Ocean City, MD with my family over Labor Day weekend. We have been going there since I was a kid. My mom doesn't like the beach, but like me she likes to read, so I looked up some bookstores for us to go to. The list was longer than I would have thought. We only went to one, a charming little used bookstore called "Bookshelf, Etc." on the Coastal Highway. Earlier in the day, my dad and I had ran along the Coastal Highway and I saw its cute little storefront and checked to see if it was open because it was a Sunday -- and it was.

It is a small bookstore, which looks like it's in a renovated little house, but perfect for the vacationer who wants to explore the literary world while at the beach. It sells mainly popular fiction titles (the woman behind the counter, who was very nice, told us that they can't get in enough Jodi Picoult to satisfy all the customer requests) and some classics and poetry, also some non-fiction such as cooking, history and weight loss books, and some children's books. All of the books are used and most of them are half off the cover price, unless specially marked. Like most things at the beach, the book prices were higher than I would have expected at a used store, but they were still better than at Border's or some other regular bookstore.

The store also sells old collectibles like post cards, magazines, covers of Rolling Stone and other pop culture magazines, posters, art, and old playing cards and the like. I guess that's where how the "Etc." entered into its name.

I highly recommend Bookshelf Etc. for the literary traveler. Its address is 8006 Coastal Hwy, Ocean City, MD 21842 and its phone number is 410-524-2949.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Blog Index / Site Map

* Book Reviews
- By Author
- By Title
- By Genre / Category

* Literary Lawyers
For lawyers who like to read and write: posts about books, characters, and writers who were lawyers, or books with a law-related theme.
- Author/ Attorney Louis Auchincloss Dies
- Kathryn Ma: Attorney-Turned-Author
- Book Review of Double Billing: A Memoir by Cameron Stracher
- The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton
- Lawyer-Turned-Writer Realizes Dream Despite Disease: Neil Selinger

* Quotes
- Law-Related
- On Reading and Literature
- On Writing

* Reading

- LitSpot (Literary Places)
--Ocean City, MD: Bookstore Review of Bookshelf Etc.
--Pittsburgh in Words: Essays in Celebration of the City's 250th Anniversary

- Virtual LitSpot (Website Reviews)
--Literary Rejections on Display (See famous authors' early rejections!) (Swap books for free!)
--Duotrope's Digest - Where Writers Can Find and Track Markets for Submissions

- Misc.
--Volunteering to read to kids at Read To Me Corner of State Fair (10/2/09)
--Hills Like Black Elephants There's no wrong way to read Hemingway (or anyone!)

* Writing
-Publication attempts: Success and Rejection
--First of the "Daddy Issues" Pieces Submitted for publication (11/21/09)
--Wake-up Call: First Rejection Letter for "Coach K" Arrives (10/17/09)
--Back on the Submission Circuit
--Persistance Pays Off: One Story Sent to Twenty-Five Markets!
- Author Profiles and Interviews
--Attorney-Turned-Author Kathryn Ma
--Author/ Attorney Louis Auchincloss Dies
--Carol Roh-Spaulding on submitting her first story to twenty-five different journals

-Books with writing as a theme or writers as characters:
--The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton
--Mourning Ruby by Helen Dunmore
--The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
--Women Like Us by Erica Abeel
--Lucky, a Memoir by Alice Sebold

Index of Book Reviews - By Author

(Last updated on January 28, 2011 with addition of Kerry Cohen's Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity)

* Abeel, Erica
- Women Like Us

* Chekhov, Anton
- The Wife, and Other Stories

* Clayton, Meg Waite
- The Wednesday Sisters

* Cohen, Kerry
- Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity

* Dostoevsky, Fyodor
- Notes from Underground

* Dunmore, Helen
- Mourning Ruby

* Fitzgerald, F. Scott
- Flappers and Philosophers: Eight Short Stories

* McCullers, Carson
- The Member of the Wedding

* Picoult, Jodi
- My Sister's Keeper

* Sebold, Alice
- Lucky, A Memoir

- * Stracher, Cameron
Double Billing: A Yong Lawyer's Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies, and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair

* Weingarten, Rachel C.
- Career and Corporate Cool: How to Look, Dress and Act the Part- at Every Stage of Your Career

* Wharton, Edith
- Ethan Frome

* Wolitzer, Meg
- The Wife

Various Authors -- Listed by Editor or Journal

* Adams, Alice and Kenison, Katrina
- Best American Short Stories: 1991

* Glimmer Train Stories
- Issue # 48, Fall 2003

* Smiley, Jane; Kulka, John and Danford, Natalie
- Best New American Voices: 2006

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