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Best of the Web: “A Film that Will Make the Audience Feel Pure Joy”

11 Apr

In a recent edition of “Where I Write” on The Rumpus, Skiles Hornig analyzes her attachment to a desk given to her by an ex-boyfriend despite the fact that she’s happily married. In her struggle to explain this sentimentality she writes, “When a relationship ends, we don’t just lose that person, we lose the person we were in that relationship. We lose that particular set of freedoms and frustrations. And we’ll never have it again.” If what we mourn at the end of a relationship is the other person and the self, it can be said that when a relationship begins, part of who we are inevitably alters as well.

Some people are adept at negotiating and balancing these changes, while others have the propensity to lose themselves completely. Silvia, one of the main characters in this week’s “Best of the Web” selection, “A Film That Will Make the Audience Feel Pure Joy,” by Jacob Wren and published in Fence, vanishes into her relationship. Silvia follows her lover, Filmmaker A, a renowned avant-garde director, to conferences and galas around the world. If Duchamp can introduce a urinal as art, Filmmaker A argues, then perhaps the new medium of filmmaking is a rejection of traditional and cultural standards. Her new philosophy argues that film is not scripted or acted, but is instead one’s real-life cinematic engagement with the world. Silvia’s travels for Filmmaker A become her life and cause her to abandon her own ambitions and identity, an epiphany she comes to at the apex of a drug-induced trip at a warehouse party in Vienna.

A Film That Will Make the Audience Feel Pure Joy” challenges our ideas about art, relationships, ambition, perception and identity. It’s an intellectually engaging love story and an emotionally engaging intellectual story. The questions it poses are thoughtful, ambitious, compelling, somber, and at times even joyous.

Best of the Web: “Notes on the Notebook of a Five-Year-Old Neurotic”

23 Feb

Since February is the shortest month of the year, it seems fitting that it be declared “Shorter Fiction Month.” It also seems fitting because ASF just launched our Short(er) Fiction Prize. If you want to submit to this contest or learn more about it go here.

With this in mind, the selection for this week’s “Best of the Web” is Joseph Cassara’s shorter story, “Notes on the Notebook of a Five-Year-Old Neurotic,” published in PANK. Cassara’s piece is a nonlinear, fragmented, shapeshifter of a story. It’s a series of lists, proclamations, denouncements, definitions, catalogues, timelines, Q&As and narrative memories. The premise: A character chronicles his childhood obsession with sinking ships, the Titanic in particular, and how he channeled the voice of Ernest Hemingway. It’s a story about storytelling, about construction and deconstruction, about the way the mind works. The prose is funny and smart and self-aware. It’s a serious piece of writing that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Think pop culture meets literature. Power Rangers meets Treasure Island. James Cameron meets Ernest Hemingway. Obsession meets neurosis.

American Short Fiction, meet Joseph Cassara and “Notes on the Notebook of a Five-Year-Old Neurotic.” Jump on board this playful, funny little ship, find a deck chair, and sink right into it.

Best of the Web: “The Telephone of the Dead”

21 Jan

Have you ever forced yourself to fall in love? Is it even possible? Scientists, who once considered love the playground of poets, have, in recent years, recognized it as a legitimate subject of scientific study. This hesitation is understandable. After all, what do we talk about when we talk about love? How can it be measured? Its symptoms can be mistaken for anything from an upset stomach to a manic attack.

Marnie Gottfried, the main character in this week’s “Best of the Web,” Goldie Goldbloom’s “The Telephone of the Dead” published by Prairie Schooner, is a malcontent in life and love. Marnie’s dissatisfaction is manifested in her relationship with her husband, Steve, whose curious death serves as the catalyst for the story. Marnie never adored her husband. She found him adequate and, at times, revolting, despite her feeble attempts to force herself to love him. I hesitate in calling Marnie a protagonist because she is the embodiment of much that is maddening in this world. She’s a killjoy, a cynic, a complainer, a narcissist, a nag. But Goldbloom crafts her characters with grace and precision. In other hands, Marnie may have easily been discarded as an irritating housewife. But Goldbloom’s Marnie is sympathetic and speaks to a larger emptiness, a culture of negativity and discontent that implicates us all.

The story opens with a phone call from beyond the grave. Steve, who has been dead for two weeks, phones Marnie on a Friday afternoon shortly before sunset. Marnie has just returned from Israel where Steve, in the three days between being struck by lightning and dying of a heart attack, decided he wanted to be buried. After Steve’s first phone call, Marnie visits a psychiatrist because she worries she may be going crazy. But the calls continue, even after a prescription of antihallucinogens, and what starts as a small comfort, an emptiness refilled, soon becomes hazardous.

Goldbloom’s story speaks not only to the themes of love and dissatisfaction, but it illustrates a Jewish perspective about the soul’s life after death. When Marnie asks Steve what death is like, he says, “The worms and the beetles and the ants, they’re important; they nibble through what connects the soul to the body. Like being tickled. Like picking off a scab. It feels good.” There are many startlingly beautiful descriptions like this throughout the story. And, for as tragic as the story is, the characters are funny and the prose is vibrant and innovative. In Goldbloom’s world, a mother can be a “fluorescent midnight medusa,” a forgetful mind is “cotton candy, fairy floss,” and “[Marnie’s] tail, if she had one, would have been a liatris.”

Go read “The Telephone of the Dead.” Do it soon. You will be surprised and delighted. You won’t be dissatisfied.

Best of the Web: “Yegus Y Caballos”

7 Jan

For three years during my childhood, my parents drove from Maryland to the edge of the Appalachian Mountains in upstate New York to drop me off at summer camp. These were the summers I ran around tirelessly, swinging from ropes and turning over logs in search of salamanders. But the truth is, for the three years I spent there, my memories of it are vague. There are no narrative threads that tie together, just flashes of images, disappearing before I have the chance to make sense of them. I see myself playing Newcomb on the volleyball court, hitting tennis balls over the fence and then running to get them. A few melodies from our Color War songs still linger faintly in my mind. Mostly, I remember how the air felt in the morning, dewy on my face as we gathered around the flagpole in sweatshirts, the lake we swam in with little silver fish and the mountains that stacked up behind it. The last summer I went to this camp was the summer after sixth grade. At the end of the month my parents, unable to make the entire trek, sent me on the bus to Long Island with all the other campers. I must have had a feeling that it would be my last summer there because as the bus wove through country roads, I remember committing to memory a picture of the bales of hay dotting the fields. I remember promising myself I would never forget that image. And I haven’t. For some reason, that picture stuck. It seems that even then I understood the limits of my memory, that a narrative would get lost, that images were all I would be able to muster.

I find myself forgetting things with more alacrity every day. And even though I’m unable to consciously retain all my experiences, I also know that each one shapes me. The slippery nature of memory is a theme of this week’s “Best of the Web” selection, Travis Klunick’s story, “Yegus Y Caballos,” published by the Greensboro Review. The plot of Klunick’s story is a quiet one—a woman leaves her family, and her ranch-hand husband, Larry, is left with the task of raising their two daughters in the West Texas desert. Before his wife leaves, Larry tells her that he will always love her and she responds, saying, “No, you’ll forget. Soon enough.” Larry insists that he won’t, but as the story continues, the reader comes to understand that these memories, like the “mesquite wood around his heart,” will, likely, smolder and fade. Klunick’s story focuses on the days after the wife’s departure, when the family’s wounds are still hot and fresh and it’s impossible to say how the event will brand itself in Larry or his children’s minds. But the question of memory lingers throughout the story as Larry navigates his new role raising adolescent girls and revives a friendship with an almost-forgotten lover.

Let’s not lie: I like the idea of starting 2011 with a Texas story. When they say everything is bigger in Texas, they mean it. For me, this truth lies mostly in the landscape. Drive west on Interstate 10 and you’ll pass marshes, prairies, pine forests, canyons, deserts and mountains. Then there are the big skies, the twisters, the hurricanes, the desert lightning storms. Klunick’s story captures the haunting spirit of the West Texas landscape, the vast emptiness, the quiet and the power of nature. In the beginning, a storm looms on the horizon, “The great cumulonimbus flare out over the planes, anviling tall into the night. The thunder came rolling over the creosote, as though somewhere out in the darkness a colossus stood billowing canvas out from him far into the heavy storm air.” Some of my resolutions for this year are to explore more of the Texas landscape, to go camping more often, and to be a witness to a fierce desert storm. We at ASF hope you enjoy “Yegus Y Caballos” and wish you an adventurous and memorable 2011.

Best of the Web: “The Harbinger”

10 Dec

One of the only friends I have that ever went to war went crazy, went AWOL, and went to Morocco. My father, like many pacifists of his generation, tried to avoid Vietnam at all costs. He faked a hearing exam. He complained of flat feet. He deferred three times for school and work. When they wouldn’t issue him any more deferments, he and a friend almost started a Yeshiva because students of the clergy were exempt from service. It was either that or fleeing to Canada or Israel. Luckily, he never had to make that decision. The draft ended a few weeks before the date on his induction notice.

Many of us in the United States are able to physically avoid the throes of war. We hear about it only on the television—wars in countries with dust and elusive enemies and temperatures that could slow-roast a turkey. We rarely see attacks on our home turf. Since Vietnam, it has been possible to live in this country and avoid war entirely. And while many men and women serve in the armed forces, there are many more, like myself, who follow the news, but who have little, if any, ties to military combat. There are many who do not have a loved one in the service, who do not fear that every time the phone rings, a parent or sibling or child has died.

The characters in this week’s “Best of the Web” selection, “The Harbinger,” by Toni Kan and published by AGNI, don’t have the luxury of avoiding war. The story centers around Imoh, a teenager transitioning into adulthood as his elder father departs for a war that has ravaged many men in his small Nigerian village. There are no bombs exploding on the page, but the fear and loneliness the men leave in their wake is palpable. Immediately after Imoh’s father’s departure, Imoh’s mother begins to mourn the death of her husband, and how can one blame her? A shadowy man, known only as the Harbinger, wanders the village daily delivering news of war casualties. He’s the one trained to provide comfort and support for grieving families. He’s the one that women and children pray will not stop in front of their house. He’s the one who, with a few surprising turns, becomes the catalyst that catapults this story in a new and haunting direction.

Kan’s story is a devastating exploration of honor, love, and the desperation of a family during a time of war. It’s told lyrically, in dreamlike sentences that pull you in from the first line. There are stories we like, stories we love, and stories that change us. Go read “The Harbinger.” You’ll feel different after doing so. Something in your heart or consciousness or stomach will, like it or not, change.

Best of the Web: “Road Hunting”

2 Dec

Have you ever hit an animal while you were driving? I don’t believe I ever have. I think I’d do almost anything to avoid this type of collision, and in doing so, I’d probably end up hitting something worse or flying off a bridge. Is it better to charge forward towards whatever comes in your path or is it better to swerve away? Is this purely a question of safety or is this indicative of a life philosophy?

The characters in this week’s “Best of the Web” selection, “Road Hunting,” written by Lindsay Purves and published by Anderbo, spend nights driving the country roads of southeast Texas, trying to hit whatever animals may be strolling or nesting along the margins of the highway. One gets the feeling that this game of road hunting is a right of passage for teenagers growing up in the small town of Beaumont. The rules are as follows: “Deer and domestic animals are off-limits. Hitting a possum is one point, a raccoon two, armadillo is five, wild pigs and crocodiles make you the Winner for Life.” It’s the summer after their first year of college and these characters are back home, being reckless, trying to figure out where they belong in the world outside of their hometown and whether they ever belonged inside their hometown at all.

Purves’s piece is as much a story of knee-deep love as it is a study on home. The two characters—Juliana, back for the summer from a private college in San Antonio, and Daniel, a likely Beaumont lifer from the clapboard houses on the wrong side of town— navigate the end of their adolescence and prepare for their futures. Daniel wants to follow in his brother’s footsteps and become a Marine. Juliana doesn’t know what she wants to do, but because of her family’s money, preparing for a job doesn’t have the same exigency. Her family’s wealth isolates her from much of Beaumont, and her relationship with Daniel is the one tenuous connection that ties her to her home.

As winter begins and the hard freezes kill your tomato plants, go read “Road Hunting” and join us ASFers in our nostalgia for summer, that first summer we returned home after moving away, those months when we realized we weren’t quite sure where we belonged.

Best of the Web: “The Gnat Line”

18 Nov

This week’s “Best of the Web” selection is John McManus’s “The Gnat Line” from the Fall 2010 issue of StorySouth. On a hilltop in the country outside of Atlanta, eight convicted sex offenders prohibited from residing near schools and churches pitch tents and create a haphazard home for themselves. They hang water jugs from trees for showering, and build a campfire where they cook dinner and drink booze. Every evening they read books, tell stories, and talk sports. Every morning they drive into the city for their jobs as bus drivers, video editors, lawyers, and salesmen.

McManus’s story is as much a chronicle of these convicts’ past as it is an exploration of their current existence. While they are all convicted sex offenders, the crimes they are charged with are not equal. Some of the crimes described are horrifying, but in other cases the line of guilt is blurred. One character in particular seems to have been framed. During a discussion of Michael Vick’s animal abuse, the framed character thinks,”Vick, once he’d served time, could live where he pleased.  No law would keep him away from pet stores or vet clinics.” McManus goes on, without judging or making excuses for his characters, to paint a picture of everyday people caught up in a bizarre and morally ambiguous purgatory of their own design. “[He] lay back and watched the embers rise into the starless sky. Snow was in the forecast, and he hoped it wouldn’t begin until he’d driven to work. . . He watched his neighbors’ frosty breath mingle with smoke and knew he was forever the same as them in the law’s eyes.”

We admire this story for the risks it takes in subject matter and in style. The characters, too, are vicious and tender and terribly funny. They make us question our humanity. They make us reassess our presumptions. They make us uncomfortable and in doing so they delight us. We hope you find this story as engaging as we did!

Best of the Web

12 Nov

Welcome to the first installment of ASF’s “Best of the Web” series. Every week we’ll read a few dozen stories that were published online and then share the best of what we’ve found. After this week, these will appear on Thursdays.

At our last ASF meeting we were looking for a story for our December web exclusive and a discussion ensued about the difference (if there was one) between online and print publications. We seemed to reach an agreement that there was a difference, and that it was not one of quality, but one of consumption. When we read online, we tend to have a shorter attention span. We have multiple windows open: we are responding to emails, posting comments on Facebook, browsing the latest literary news,  researching the destination for our next vacation if we could only save enough money. Online publications are often read in small doses and are given to publishing shorter stories, maybe segmented, with strong voices and a plot that does not relent or start slow.

With that in mind we’ve chosen Katie Cortese’s segmented piece “International Cooking for Beginners” published in the Fall 2010 issue of Willow Springs as our first “Best of the Web” story. Narrated by the instructor of a weekly cooking class, the story explores her deteriorating relationship with her husband and her affinity for one of her students, a criminal just released from Sing Sing after having served a fifteen-year sentence for an unknown crime. Cortese’s story is an honest exploration of frustrated expectations in familial relationships and of the hunger for a freedom that always seems unattainable. It’s written in six sections, one for each recipe learned over the six-week course. It’s delicious. We hope you enjoy it too.

http://willowsprings.ewu.edu/archives/issue66-cortese.pdf

Adopt Us?

9 Jul

ASF joins the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses (CLMP) in an innovative program: Lit Mag Adoption Program for Creative Writing Courses. This program offers half-price literary magazine subscriptions to writing classes adopting them for course use (with free desk-copy subscriptions to the professors).

Classes that adopt ASF—in addition to receiving affordable subscriptions—will also receive a meeting with editorial staff.  (This is where we’ll spill all the good stuff.) The goal of the program is to expose students to the variety of magazines and promote an active, engaged reading culture among a new generation of writers.

We’re thrilled to be a part of this.

For more info about the program, visit the CLMP Lit Mag Adoption website.

Support a Bookstore and an Indie Publisher

7 Jul

Those clever people in Tin Houses.

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According to GalleyCat, between August 1 and November 30, 2010, Tin House Books will accept unsolicited manuscripts if the submission includes a receipt that proves the author has purchased a book at a bookstore.

The same rule applies for unsolicited work submitted to its magazine between September 1 and December 30, 2010.

Remember: Tin House Books does not permit electronic submissions. Tin House magazine does. Read the rules.

A fun final note, as reported by GalleyCat: “Writers who cannot afford to buy a book or cannot get to an actual bookstore are encouraged to explain why in haiku or one sentence (100 words or fewer).”

Responses to this new submission policy here and here.