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Your Weekly Forecast: Blaise Pascal

“The weather and my mood have little connection. I have my foggy and my fine days within me; my prosperity or misfortune has little to do with the matter.”- Blaise Pascal

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Just the Facts

Wandering the aisles of your local bookstore (or the AWP Book Fair in Seattle), marveling at the number of books in the world and the amount of knowledge that fills them? So are we. So is Aaron Labaree, who wrestles with the implications of non-fiction in this essay.

When it comes to books and book-buying, I’m an optimist. I aim high and fall hard. Once, in the gift shop of the Peabody Museum in Boston, I bought a book called A Field Guide to Weather. It’s an actual field guide, with a waterproof cover. Anybody could have told me that I would never read this book, and in fact my friend did tell me exactly this, but I was in that natural-history-museum-induced state of childlike wonderment and wouldn’t listen to reason. I thought it would be fun to know the difference between a cumulus and a cumulonimbus cloud and fantasized a future in which I was a cloud expert and could impress new acquaintances with my casual but comprehensive knowledge of the billowy heavens. It was only when I’d gotten home and reopened the book that I realized my mistake. I just liked the word “cumulonimbus”; the cloud itself couldn’t have interested me less. This was equally true of “stratocumulus,” “cirrocumulus,” “cirrostratus,” and the dozens of other classifications of cloud. Jesus Christ, I thought, they’re clouds. Can’t you people just enjoy them? I quit on page 30, halfway through an essay on moisture.

I have a lot of books, and many of them I haven’t finished. Most of these unfinished ones are, like that cloud atlas, nonfiction. They sit on my shelves with bookmarks still sticking up where I left them, like gravestones for my attention span. Here’s Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, a beautifully written book with very small print. There’s Mapping the Deep, a treatise on the strange and wonderful creatures that dwell in the deep sea. Apparently we know less about the ocean floor than we do about the surface of the moon—I certainly do, since I only made it to page 81. Here we have 1491, a survey of Native American civilization before Columbus—a very good book, a book I have recommended to others, even though I do not remember a single fact contained in any of the 179 pages I read, including the parts about human sacrifice.   

There are many more. I used to be ashamed of this large and growing collection. I used to put all the unfinished books on their own shelf (soon, shelves) and vow to get through them one by one. I used to set aside time, along with a dedicated chair and lamp, for uninterrupted reading. I’m done with that now. No more guilt. Because I’ve finally realized what must have been obvious to others for a long time, which is that almost no one reads books like these all the way through. “Are you kidding me?” a journalist friend said, when I confessed to not finishing Tristes Tropiques. “Nobody finishes that. You just dip into it when you want some inspiration.” Other bookish friends admitted to lengthy reading backlogs, although they were less complacent about their own. “Over spring break, I’m going to finish The Power Broker,” one of them told me.

I doubt it. Now that the scales have fallen from my own eyes, I see these books in a sad new light. Browsing the nonfiction table at the bookstore recently, looking wistfully at the titles—about the art of perfume-making, the neuroscience of gossip, the history of Afghanistan—I thought of an old Onion headline: “85 Percent of US Cole Slaw Remains Uneaten.” I’m afraid that nonfiction books—some of them wonderful, some of them by people I know!—may be the cole slaw of the American literary diet.

• • •

Now, if this is true, why do people buy these books in the first place? Before I get to that I should say that my definition of nonfiction is a fairly restrictive one. It excludes memoirs, political screeds, and works of scholarship or criticism, among others. The books I’m talking about are nonfiction books for the general reader, that upper-middlebrow category that’s sometimes called literary reportage or narrative nonfiction. These books cover every subject, from the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar to the geological history of the planet. They are sometimes written by experts but go out of their way to banish any whiff of scholarly dust. They have attractive covers and splashy titles and subtitles (Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West), and when you open the book, quite often you will find the author introducing the subject by way of his own experience (“In 1978 all the fish I cared about died,” begins Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food). What these books offer isn’t grist for the scholarly mill but, in the words of some of their cover blurbs, “A blood-stirring experience,” “A grand thought experiment,” “a thrilling ride through a lovely landscape.”

There’s the problem. There’s nothing wrong with the books, just the expectations they raise. By promising such thrills, these books are trying to fill the tallest of orders: a book that’s as delicious as it is nutritious; an educational experience that’s as entertaining as a novel. But they’re never going to be as entertaining as a novel because they have to carry around a huge burden of facts, and facts are boring. That’s why we have novels. In the back of my head, I know this, but every time a book promises me such a thrilling adventure, I manage to forget it. What’s more, beyond this explicit promise of facts and fun, I always sense an implicit promise of something even better and even harder to deliver. What I’m really hoping for from a nonfiction book isn’t just the experience of a good novel but a great novel: not just entertainment, but beauty, enchantment, wonder. Wonder is the secret lure of all nonfiction. It’s what drives me to buy books about Neolithic man, the origins of the universe, or the taxonomy of clouds. It’s as though I’m trying to get beauty in its raw form, without the intervention of some bossy author. But it turns out that authorial intervention is hard to dispense with. Knowledge in its raw state is like old-growth forest: vast and mysterious from a distance, but up close, just trees, trees, and more trees.

I haven’t stopped reading nonfiction, but I have accepted (most of the time) that I can’t just buy 300 pages of fascination and delight. I have to get it in small doses. Lately I’ve been finding these doses in nonfiction books I actually read all the way through, which coincidentally or not happen to be conventionally structured works of scholarship or reportage. Max Hasting’s World War Two history, Inferno, for example, includes one surreal anecdote from the 1944 battle for Budapest. After the city zoo was damaged by bombs, “For weeks, a lion roamed the underground rail tunnels until it was captured by a Soviet task force dispatched for the purpose.”

And Lawrence Wright’s investigative report on Scientology, Going Clear, contains some superb dark comedy in the form of L. Ron Hubbard’s notes to self. These include “You are a magnificent writer who has thrilled millions,” “You do not masturbate,” and “There are no snakes at the bottom of your bed.” (Poetry, this last one, since it reminds you that there are definitely snakes at the bottom of the bed.)

Mirny diamond mine, image credit ATLAS OBSCURA

Surprisingly, I think the internet does wonder and amazement about right. One five-minute video of Philippine prisoners dancing to “Thriller” is probably going to be better than a book on dance in Philippine prisons. One of the best things I’ve ever seen online is an aerial photo of an abandoned diamond mine just outside the Siberian city of Mirny. It shows a medium-sized industrial city, at the edge of which—just where the line of houses ends—lies a giant, spiral-shaped mine almost half as big as the town itself and shockingly perfect-looking, as though it had been made with a few twists of a Satanic drill. It’s such a dreamlike (or nightmarish) image that I still find myself pulling it up and gazing at it if I’m bored or lacking inspiration. I tried this a few weeks ago, and after the weird thrill of vertigo wore off, it occurred to me that someone should write a book about the monumental ruins left by Soviet extractive industry east of the Urals and the (largely slave-powered) operation that created it. I imagined wolves trotting across the floor of an abandoned factory. . . a descent into the spiral of the enormous mine. . . Someone probably has written exactly this book. I’m not going to look for it on Amazon, but if find it on the shelf, I doubt I’ll leave it there.

 Aaron Labaree lives in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Guernica, The Millions, and Narratively.

Posted in Essays, General

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Flash Fridays

We are thirty-four years old and talking about the time we had sex, the first time for us both, bare feet against a window in his white station wagon pulled off Route 13. We fight about the year, but seventeen is what we were. He says we waited ‘til eighteen because he could vote, he says. Because I thought a lot about Nixon that night, he says, as you crossed your legs in the back seat and learned how to smoke. Out through the nostrils is how you know you’re doing it right. The spins buzzing up through your spine. I guess I do remember that part, I say. I guess I do.

I ask him why my body made him think of Nixon and he says I don’t know, but the association is still there. I’m sharp for these things, he says. Memories and all. What was I wearing? I ask. Denim, he says, but he is wrong.

We are older now and he is married. Eight years he’s been with Janet, an ex-beauty queen who now owns a gardening hut by the shore. One time I walked in and asked about vines. What about them? she said. What can you tell me? I said. Well there’s a lot to know, she said, and I was sure she knew it all. Vines—I always liked them, the way they cover up and crawl. I bought a few seeds and watched Janet’s hands as she wrapped the rattling envelopes in twine, careful that the bow was even, the two loops pulled tight enough to make her fingers go bloodless. Don’t let them drown, she said. We smiled flatly and that was that.

We are thirty-four years old and he has just finished fucking me in the Bearskin Lodge Motel. I am not married. I usually take it on all fours. Maybe you should tell Janet, I say, and I have been saying this same sentence for seven years. Maybe not, he says, and we both continue smoking on the pale pink bed. I ash on the floor. I used to use a cup, but it’s like this by now. I don’t think we were on Route 13, he says. I think we were parked outside my house by that point.

Wrong. That night: Seventeen years old. Your parents fought all day. Four spent bottles rolling under the couch and your mother’s hair in curlers through the window. You, in faded jeans and a white shirt. Your father beat your head into the staircase banister before weeping into a fist. As we drove you spoke of forgiveness. The Lord. Your fear of becoming average. Your old man and his left-handedness, the way tomorrow would turn his insides into love.

Maybe you’re right, I say. The house, was it green or blue?


T Kira Madden is a writer, photographer, and amateur magician living in New York City. Her work has appeared and disappeared in top hats around the world.

Posted in Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Joseph Cornelison

This week’s featured film Manto, by Joseph Cornelison, is a departure from our recent  run of animated shorts at Tin House Reels; this is a largely live-action film that marries the history to the American south to the Greek myth of Manto, the daughter of Tiresias, who was said to see the future with more clarity than her father.

“I wanted to do a film that combined the idea of…power [with] ideas of freedom, [and] I had…wanted to make a film about the mythological seer Manto for some time,” Cornelison said. “Manto interests me because she was [a greater seer] than her father, but still spent a large part of her life as a slave. I realized that Manto had probably been resurrected in America at some point, and I wondered what she was up to. Manto is a story about…rebellion in the American south, told through three different generations.

“The film was shot in Milledgeville, Ga in the spring of 2013. I didn’t have a crew of any kind but my cast was extremely supportive and patient. Milledgeville served as a great inspiration while shooting the film – much of the town’s architecture was used as a framing device for conveying the film’s ideas.

“The film covers three time periods (30′s, late 60′s and present day) but the film is ultimately one narrative. It was important to me that the mythological elements in the film interwove seamlessly with the historical artifacts (photographs, radio broadcasts), which is the primary reason for the film’s lyrical structure. Much of radio excerpts were taken from depression era town hall recordings. I originally intended to script these speeches, but my research led me to these recordings. The depression era photographs are from my extended family (I’m from a long line of Southern farmers).

Manto is a collage film. It has a central narrative, but it is communicated through a variety of media – video, photographs, audio, and paintings, among others. The paintings in the film are used to give the narrative a greater context. Courbet, Bruegel, and others are referenced to illuminate the trials of the protagonists and visually communicate their interior lives. Ultimately, it is up to the viewer to organize all the seemingly disparate elements to find the core narrative and its central ideas.”

Manto by Joseph Cornelison from Tin House on Vimeo.

Joseph Cornelison is a filmmaker living in the south east. He is a recent graduate of Georgia College, where he studied art history. He is a great admirer of pine trees. He is currently making a film about a band of Mesopotamian slaves who became the world’s first astronauts.

Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.

We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to tinhousereels@gmail.com. You may also send us a file directly.

Posted in General, Tin House Reels, Videos

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Heart-aimed Arrows: On Christiane Ritter’s A Woman in the Polar Night

As winter presses on, we offer a literary journey to the northern fjords of Spitsbergen, in hopes that you will feel warmer upon your return. This piece, written by Stacy Carlson, first appeared in Issue 49, The Ecstatic

I never doubted my vocation as a writer until I set foot in the Far North. I stepped from the Beaver bush plane that had carried me to the northern slopes of Alaska’s Brooks Range and turned in a slow circle with my hand shading my eyes. Right away, I felt my years spent ruminating on nature in the Lower 48—folding its patterns and complexities into my writing, an entire paradigm topped by an MFA in fiction and a half-finished novel, all of that–whirling away into the weird light of a summer night in the Arctic. I beheld this wild and intricate landscape and thought, Oh my God, I’ll never write again. 

For two weeks during the summer solstice, I traveled by foot and raft down the Canning River. The journey was a sustained experience of what the filmmaker Werner Herzog calls “ecstatic truth,” a kind of sublime gestalt for which words fall very short. Perpetual daylight upset my diurnal rhythm and cracked apart my normal way of being in the world. Awakened by sunlight, I would crawl from my tent at 2:00 AM to watch Arctic foxes hunting in the tundra. One night I saw a wolf cross the Arctic plain. Sprawling before me was a true wilderness. To describe what I saw and felt using words struck me as pathetic and even disrespectful to the land itself.

For six months after I returned from Alaska, I didn’t write anything. The novel languished, existential worries flared, and my fascination with the Farn North grew. What was the literature of the Arctic? I hunted for the poetics of the pole, hoping to find voices that addressed what I had experienced. At first I couldn’t find anything but exploration literature, and although I’m as perversely fascinated as the next person by the obsessions and generally horrendous luck of nineteenth-century polar explorers (picture them now, trudging south on an ice floe that is moving north), this genre never slaked my thirst. I read indigenous literature, which illuminated the polar cosmos. These legends and transcribed oral histories of eerie spirits inhabiting the northern lights, sun maidens, and scuffles between tricksters and heroes fed my imagination, but it was Christiane Ritter’s  A Woman in the Polar Night that finally released me from my writerly angst.

Ritter is an unlikely heroine. An Austrian painter and self-professed housewife with no outdoors experience, her matter-of-fact voice at first seems more suited to explaining how to darn a sock rather than describing a polar winter. During 1933-34, Ritter traveled to the northern fjords of Spitsbergen to spend a winter in a small hut with her scientist husband.

Even today, Spitsbergen is one of the most remote islands on earth, and its northern coast is notoriously wild. But up Ritter goes, defying the conventions of the day. Her voice is frank, her humor wry. Upon first glimpsing the northern ice from the steamship, she is underwhelmed: “Hm. So that’s pack ice. A few timid, dirty-yellow ice floes are lying idly between mist and water. Only the ladies in their elegant fur coats, feeling themselves observed, are in an elevated mood.” Ritter tackles the sublime landscape with grounded language and playful dexterity. Later, as the vicissitudes of the Arctic world get under her skin, her ruminations shift: “Bewildering beyond anything is the wild howling of the wind against the unmoving cleaning face of the frozen earth, and the musically gentle dance of the northern lights. I think the contrasts in perception make the same impact as would the playing of a noisy Berlioz symphony in a theatre where the stage is set in a scene of classic calm. Or as if we saw a serenely smiling man commit murder.”

Gradually, Ritter loses her visitor’s perspective, and the most moving aspect of the book is her steady integration of a new polar psyche. As the winter darkness settles in, she is moonstruck at first—disoriented and preoccupied by the perpetual starlight and dark vistas. But as time takes her deeper into this strange season, she begins to relish her stripped-down existence, and soon her observations reveal not only a visceral love for the place but also a new calibration of her life in relation to society and the mechanisms of nature. She is scheduled to leave Spitsbergen in April, but when the time comes, she can not go. She must witness the full return of the light. Her decision raises eyebrows back home—she has a small daughter in Austria who has been parentless for eight months—but it’s not surprising. She has been entwined with the stark land. She has become a hunter (of seals, ptarmigan, foxes, and bears), and she has made a home. The passages that follow are dizzyingly satisfying: the sun returns, wildflowers bloom, and eider ducks make nests on the rocky shore. Ritter opens like a sponge and absorbs the light so fully she shines.

A Woman in the Polar Night is a small, glimmering gem in polar literature, and by reading it I realized that I had encountered the Arctic at exactly the right moment in my life. Like Ritter, I was ready to leave the realm of the familiar (Although I, too, was unprepared for the consequences). I was ready to stop describing nature rhapsodically and as something separate from myself. I could absorb the profound wildness of the north, and then be patient through my own dark night until a new form emerged.

Stacy Carlson is the author of Among the Wonderful, a novel chronicling the rise and fall of PT Barnum’s first enterprise, the American Museum. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Post Road, Inkwell, and In Pieces: An Anthology of Fragmentary Writing, and she was awarded a 2010 residency at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. She lives in Oakland, California. www.amongthewonderful.com 

Posted in From The Vault

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Hey, Look, An AWP Party!

Posted in Events, Tin House Books

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Issue #59: Memory

Aeschylus posited, “Memory is the mother of all wisdom.” While true, memory also can be a trickster, and cruel. And why are some of our most emotionally laden memories incomplete, a scent or color or image triggering a flood of half-remembered events accompanied by an overwhelming sense of joy or dread? In this issue we wrestle with this imperfect and changeable source of all writing.

Stephen King, Kevin Barry, Cheryl Strayed, Colum McCann, and Jodi Angel offer short takes on their strongest memories evoked by a piece of clothing or jewelry. Dana Spiotta and Rachel Kushner, two of America’s sharpest cultural observers, talk about collective memory and the creative process of weaving the personal with the political. Dale Peck, in “Parable of the Man Lost in the Snow,” creates a story out of a Zen exercise while simultaneously exploring the history of consciousness. In “Moving On,” Diane Cook imagines a future in which our former spouses are counseled out of our memories. Tiffany Briere, who holds a PhD in genetics, looks at the collision of hard science and mysticism in her Jamaican and Guyanese family history. In an excerpt from The Other Side, Lacy M. Johnson confronts a horrific memory with incredible force and grace. The incomparable Joy Williams, in her story “The Country,” asks, “Why are we here?”

The poets, naturally, bat the memory prompt around like a beach ball, seemingly having much more fun than anyone else at the party. C. K. Williams offers a “Little Hymn to Time,” Charlie Smith asks “Why Harp on It?,” and Troy Jollimore plumbs the “Past Imperfect.” Walt Whitman is here as well, with an excerpt from Allen Crawford’s illustrated Song of Myself. The opening: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” pretty much sums up what we’re after with this issue. I hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane.

Posted in General

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How Not to Hate Your Friends

AWP can be decadent fun, but its sideshow of agenda-pushing and humblebragging can lead you to feel hungover in more ways than one. If you’re dreading seeing some of your online acquaintances in real life, Courtney Maum (once again) has some tips on how to go from feeling like a “have not” to a “have.”

When you’re a writer, there are friends and there are friends. You’ve got the people you’re still in touch with from high school, with whom—generation dependent— you shared your first Zima, swapped mix tapes, upchucked after too much Zima in your neighbors’ grass. You’ve got friends from college, and, if you’re lucky enough to be employed right now, you have friends from work. But at some point in your trajectory as a writer, you start to make writer friends. Curiously, this particular development can coincide with an upsurge in self-hatred, pettiness, jealousy, and years of shitty work.

Don’t get me wrong—when you’re a writer, it’s important to have writing friends. Whether you’re struggling through an MFA together or comparing how long you’ve been waiting to hear back from McSweeney’s, contrary to non-writers’ opinions, the writing life is rarely glamorous and almost always lonely. You need to suit up with friends.

But as Oscar Wilde so wisely stated, “Anybody can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathize with a friend’s success.” The game changes when your friends start getting published in magazines, getting agents, and landing book deals while you’re gamely posting #amwriting updates to cloak the fact that you’ve just wasted an hour scrutinizing your successful friend’s Facebook walls.

In 2005, I moved to Brooklyn for the first time. Everything was looking bright for me: I had an agent for a novel I was proud of and an interested editor at Doubleday. I pictured myself skipping through the tree-lined streets in artfully disheveled clothing to grab a mid-morning cappuccino from a barista I’d know by name, to whom I’d exhale exaggeratingly when asked me how the writing was going, because in my imaginary second floor, high-ceilinged apartment, obviously, the writing would be going very well.

Fast forward three months later to me getting an email from the editor I’d spent all summer revising the book for saying she was sorry, but she was quitting her job, and three more submission rounds that resulted in no one else wanting my precious manuscript. Rotten with disappointment, I became viscerally envious of friends who were having professional triumphs that I felt should be mine.

I don’t write well when I’m angry, or feel slighted, or when I’m holding a grudge, and grudge-holding was pretty much my modus operandi for much of the mid-aughts. It took me three years and two bad novels to cleanse myself of the jealousy and resentment that turned my heart against my successful writing friends, but it eventually became clear that I wasn’t going to get good work done until I felt unadulterated goodwill towards my colleagues—especially the hot shots. It was a tough thing to accomplish, so I’ve compiled some tips about how I managed to do this in hopes that other struggling writers might find them helpful, too.

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Posted in Essays, Writer's Workshop

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Your Weekly Forecast: Kevin Sampsell

We were in my car in a giant parking lot by the shopping mall. The windshield wipers on my car weren’t working, so we sat there and waited for the rain to ease up. But it just got stormier, and the rain got heavier and pounded on top of the car like someone playing a drum solo. Sometimes other cars would drive by and their headlights would scan over your smiling face. The rain was pouring down the car windows like we were under a waterfall, and these lights reflected that water over your face like it was melting and melting and melting, but your smile got bigger, like your face was saying, I’m so glad we’re trapped here!Kevin Sampsell, This Is Between Us
Posted in General, Tin House Books

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What We’re Reading

Brandi Dawn Henderson (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): I sat in on our Winter Workshop in Newport recently, during which time Jon Raymond read aloud from George Saunders’ story, “Home,” from Tenth of December. He was speaking about how our social and political interests can inspire our writing, and, as I listened, I became mesmerized with the cadence of Saunders’ dialogue. I scribbled a reminder to myself to scour the bookshelves at Powell’s for a copy, and have been blown away by the stylistic range present in this collection. Each story takes on a totally different technique, so much so that it sometimes takes some orienting in the beginning to make the switch, but I was ultimately on board, by the end of each story, with the way in which he successfully pulled off so many different narrative styles. “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” made the reader in me cringe with its truncated diction but, as a writer, I couldn’t help but admire Saunders’ impressive adherence to character. The best part of the book, for me, was re-discovering “Tenth of December,” which was a story I first read in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. I often found myself thinking of the coatless man near the lake, but could not recall his greater narrative nor where I’d learned of him. It was a delight to revisit his journey so unexpectedly, and to delve more deeply into the greater works of such a masterful storyteller.

Liz Lampman (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): Up until now, I shunned Stephen King novels in the same way I shunned The Goosebumps series as a kid. I can’t say why. . . maybe I thought it would be too gruesome, too “male” for my taste? Whatever the case may be, I’m glad someone talked me out of my stubborn, cold-shouldered resolve. I’m reading The Gunslinger, the first book of the Dark Tower series, and I’ve been hooked since the first sentence, “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” I’ve escaped into a dry and deadly world, with Roland the gunslinger as my guide. The plot is tantalizing, the characters whole, the images palpable. . . I’m afraid I have no choice. The next six books I read have been chosen for me—The Dark Tower series.

Rebekah Bergman (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I recently read the three stories contained in Simone de Beauvoir’s Woman Destroyed. Each piece follows a female protagonist coming to grips with new aspects of her reality—aging, motherhood, infidelity. Having read only de Beauvoir’s nonfiction, I expected something much more didactic and heavy-handed here. I was amazed to find instead rich and accessible portrayals of inner turmoil. While de Beauvoir takes a very subtle approach to her typical themes, this was not exactly a fun read. I didn’t particularly like any of these women but I still sympathized with their situations. The second story, “The Monologue,” is written in the form of hurried run-on sentences as a passionate tirade on all the many people the narrator feels have wronged her. This was my favorite of the three pieces. The rant reads quickly and is a telling illustration of its epigraph: “The monologue is her form of revenge” (Flaubert)

Lauren Perez (Publicity Intern, Tin House Books): This week’s raddest read was a translation of Margarita Karapanou’s Rien Ne Va Plus; it’s the story of a marriage and its dissolution, told twice: once with the husband as betrayer, once with the wife. The husband is a veterinarian named Alkiviadis, who is either a narcissist who makes his wife witness his multiple affairs with other men and then kills himself, or he’s an adoring, compassionate husband who desperately wants a family with his wife. Louisa is a writer who either is tortured by her controlling husband who she loves too much and eventually has to divorce him and get away, or she’s a manipulative, self destructive woman who is repulsed by, and punishes, her husband’s adoration. It both celebrates and satirizes the genres of romance and psychological horror, blurring the line between the two. As Louisa says of her own writing: “Every time I want to write, I want to write a love story. But as soon as I pick up the pen I’m overcome by horror.”

Molly Dickinson (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): Imagine waking up in a room that might be a hotel room and might be a prison cell. There’s an impenetrable metal door, and a computer built into the wall that allows the only form of communication with the other inhabitants/prisoners: a chat room forum. Oh, and you have no memory of how you got there. Disoriented yet? That’s how we meet the characters of Victor Pelevin’s The Helmet of Horror, a stunning re-imagining of the classic myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Pelevin invites us into this surreal chat room forum, where the odd array of characters try to make sense of their foreign circumstances and engage in a dialogue about the cosmos, the divine, and the absolute weirdness of their situation. This is an absolute must read: it is fascinatingly formatted, filled with diverse and comical characters, and a genius re-crafting of a familiar myth.

Miles Jochem (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I keep coming back to Louise Glück’s book The Wild Iris. Simple and unassuming upon first glance, this cycle of poems contains a multitude of voices and meanings. The verses are told largely from the perspective of contemplative flowers addressing their fellow plants, the changing seasons, and the people who shape their stationary lives. Glück uses the language of botany and the tropes of vegetation to craft a series of mournful observations about love, death, and nature. Her work draws inspiration from both the ancient tradition of pastoral poetry and the splintered viewpoints of postmodern narration. The poems are like a carefully tended garden: lovely and organic, but bearing the mark of an overseer who knows precisely which parts to prune away and which to coax into maturity. Who knew plants could experience such sadness, longing, contempt, or sense of camaraderie? I will never look at a flower in the same way again.

Alison Pezanoskey-Browne (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch revolves around young protagonist Theo who visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother to view the Fabritius painting of the title, but instead becomes one of the victims in a terrorist bombing of the museum. In the aftermath of the attack, the painting comes into Theo’s possession, and the novel follows him, and the painting, into his adulthood. From New York to Las Vegas, back to New York and then to Amsterdam, each step on Theo’s journey introduces the remarkably fascinating characters he encounters. In Manhattan we meet the upper crust and dysfunctional family, the Barbours, who first take Theo in, then the eccentric recluse/furniture-restorer Hobie and his daughter-figure Pippa, who become Theo’s most stable family. In the suburbs of Las Vegas, we’re immersed in the world of Theo’s gambling crook of a father and Boris, a resourceful and darkly funny juvenile delinquent, who becomes Theo’s best friend. Unsurprisingly, Dickens, Melville, James, Conrad, Stevenson, and Dostoyevsky are Tartt’s favorite novelists, and The Goldfinch feels accordingly epic.

At its core, The Goldfinch ponders fate versus chance, moral ambiguity in the choices of truthfully rendered characters, and the ability of art to elevate humanity above the murk. Lacking a blindly optimistic conclusion, but by no means without hope, in the end in this world, no one is irredeemable. I’m only slightly embarrassed to confess that I cried while reading its final pages because it felt so true; this was the rare novel that I purposely postponed finishing because I wanted to linger in its world for a little longer.

Posted in Desiderata

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A Good Body

Flash Fridays

A rusted mess of barbed wire nearly stripped Debbie of her torso in her first and only car accident. On that afternoon, she waited for a storm to pass before kissing her husband goodbye and leaving to meet friends for dinner. Outside, the sky was silvery and rippled like the scales of outstretched fish. Rain pooled in the old road’s sunken pavement. Two miles from her house, Debbie’s car jerked and sailed into a fence.

For three months after the accident, her husband reached for the lamp on his nightstand whenever Debbie began to change for bed. She heard its metal chain clink against the stem as she brushed petroleum jelly over the scars—heard his breath slow as she pushed her head through a pajama top.

“Come here,” she finally whispered across the bed. “You never touch me anymore.”

Only then did he run his fingers along her skin, seeking the landmarks he had known for a decade. He felt the slight hollow above the cleft in her ass, the prominent left rib, the pale rivulets of stretch marks running down her hips. She led his hand to the purple, ridged scars that crisscrossed her chest, and they followed the trails.


Virgie Townsend’s writing has been featured or is forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly: The Best of the First 10 Years, Best of Pif Magazine, Volume One, and Bartleby Snopes, among other publications. Her work can be found online at www.virgietownsend.com.

Posted in Flash Fridays

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Rosa Luxemburg’s Letters from Prison

When considering Rosa Luxemburg’s Letters from Prison, William Stafford’s words ring in my head: “Ask me if whether/ what I have done is my life.” His words imply that if one must ask that question, a life cannot be entirely defined by narrative action. In remembering the life of a political activist like Rosa Luxemburg, these words redefine what we mean by life. Often the narrative of activists is steered toward historical accomplishments, major political writings, and especially in the case of Luxemburg, untimely death. Her life ended abruptly 95 years ago, and since then she has been sequestered to the reading lists of political science classes and subversive economics, Occupy Wall Street flyers, and the internet-immortality of the meme. This collection of her letters stretches the definition of her life; it shows her confined and censored, yet part of her identity expands to take the place of the words she was forbidden to speak.

What I knew of Luxemburg was originally the exclamation mark-ridden quotes and her red-martyr status. That is, until I found a tattered, hand bound copy of Letters from Prison in the University of Montana library where I worked in the stacks. I still remember where the copy stood at the top of a shelf with a binding so slim that there was no writing on its jacket at all. I had to take the book off the shelf and finger its first pages to know what it was. I don’t know why I did not just pass right by the book. I was at risk of censure or even losing my job if I was caught reading again. But perhaps it was the anonymity of its cover that drew me to open the book’s pages.

Letters from Prison is a short volume of Rosa Luxemburg’s letters to Sophie Liebknecht. Sophie Liebknecht was the wife of Luxemburg’s comrade and friend Karl Liebknecht. While reading, we are keenly aware that Sophie is the wife of the man with whom Rosa Luxemburg would be murdered on the night of January 15th, 1919. But these pages begin four years before their deaths while Luxemburg was imprisoned initially for a speech against World War I military abuses. The following two years she was imprisoned on the basis of “preventative detention.”

However, injustice, politics and bitterness are absent from these pages. Perhaps because of the censors the letters had to pass through and for the addressee’s protection or interest, these writings contain no biographical action or ideological sound bites. What Luxemburg writes of is birdsong, identifying tree species, the change of seasons, loving concern for Sophie Liebknecht, dying insects, her hunger for poetry, and the small garden at the prison, which sounds like it may have just been a pathway. She writes of the “…narrow, paved path along the wall, where I have paced to and fro for nearly nine months now, so that I know every stone and all the weeds that grow in the crevices of the paving. I like the motley colouring of these stones, reddish and bluish, gray and green.” This passage shows her will to attend to even the smallest weed, to the stirring of nature as it changes forms, and to know even the most limited of places. Luxemburg’s confinement sharpened her microscope-eyes. And what can be understood of her in these pages is how bravely and closely Rosa Luxemburg observed the small space of her prison. Like Dickinson’s reclusion, Luxemburg’s letters show confinement as an opening up of the world. Because she could not look outside the walls, she found a world within.

What I’ve found in Rosa Luxemburg and Letters from Prison, I had not found before in any kind of revolutionary discourse. I can only speak from my own experience of working in social justice and climate justice: I knew we needed to change the world, and I knew what was wrong with the world, but I did not know the world itself. Perhaps it was the rigidity of ideology in the groups I worked in, but I felt such a riptide for the cause that paying careful attention fell away. Then I read Luxemburg’s plea to Sophie, “Do go to the Botanical Gardens, Sonichka, towards noon when the sun is shining brightly, and let me know all you can hear. Over and above the issue of the battle of Cambrai, this really seems to me the most important thing in the world.” To hear this activist martyr give precedence to a garden over a pressing political event shocked my understanding of what it meant to engage. As a strong opponent of the war, she does not undermine this battle’s importance. She simply magnifies the significance of one garden’s passage into spring.  Luxemburg demonstrated in these letters that you need to really see the world before you demand that it change.

Letters from Prison was written without Luxemburg’s knowledge that the letters would be published. In fact, it is barely published now in English. The University of California Libraries printed a limited edition ridden with errors. Yet the collection reveals an aspect of activism that I had always longed for. When asking for change, it is somehow difficult to be present in the “now.” What Luxemburg writes of in this collection is how much she loves the world, and how closely she is willing to look at it. She achieved presence in these pages, enough to smear herself upon them outside of her political self. In response to the return of the blue tit, a bird she had missed over winter, she writes, “for the bird shrilled thrice in brief succession ‘zeezeebey, zeezeebey, zeezeebey,’ and then all was still. It went out of my heart, for there was so much conveyed by this hasty call from the distance—a whole history of bird life.” Though we may never get the whole history of a life, this collection of letters gives us more to search from. It is a hasty call from the distance, reminding us of presence, even with the dead, even with the world as it is.


Laura Christina Dunn is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Montana, and her her work has appeared in journals such as At Length, Fugue, The Bear Deluxe, Zocalo Public Square and Alligator Juniper, among others.  Her poetry manuscript was a finalist in AROHO’s To the Lighthouse First Book Contest. She has been a composer, writer and collaborator on folk operas produced by RadyBloom and ArtParty Theater company in New York City, including Live! Mermaids! Live!The Orange Person, and The Snow Queen. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon where she teaches at Pioneer Pacific College.

Posted in Literary B-Sides

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The Cardinal Club

Beyond a bookstore it’s a café or quiet bar where readers find themselves, a kind of “office of the mind” away from the house, the apartment, a place where you can hole up as one does in a library but with an Americano or a pint of beer or an martini. Here in Portland, I have found a few great places to read over the years, some of which have sadly fallen into a television-sports-news-frat-dark hole from which I doubt they will return. Luckily, a few others still hold, offering, on some afternoon or evening, a quiet yet public space big enough for a person, a cocktail, and a book. Recently, I have found a new home at which to sip a beer over some poems or a short story, and that place is The Cardinal Club. Open from 5pm till past 1AM, it’s a perfect place for readers and writers, with two amazingly kind owners who know their way around a highball glass and shaker.

Recently, I spent the early evening there drinking a Black IPA, eating some amazing food, and reading Rachel Jamison Webster’s new collection “September” (Tri-quarterly Books, 2013). Of Webster’s poems, Li-Young Lee writes that she “speaks breathlessly in praise, in awe, in pain, and in wonder at the manifold nature of being alive” and that “Here is the voice of our inner friend.” Which, after reading Webster’s poems, I couldn’t agree with more.This book of lyric narratives is aptly titled, for what is September if not the beginning of a season where things die, the air gets chillier, and we naturally think of the past. This is a book of elegy as much as it is a song for life. Elegy for a great love and husband who has died as well as for all of us who are still walking around on earth trying to figure out what love is.

These are poems of the body, poems that come from the body and the wild wind that breaks the body, the soul howling all night in our head and hearts. In the first poem of the book Webster writes:

“Since you went the light is so clear

it has become everything.

Faces peel from the bricks.

And outside the impoverished city hospital

someone has planted an Easter lily.

Its trumpet erupts from green tongues.

White throat that is your life.”

And so we begin a beautiful and energetic book anchored in elegy with the throat of life and all the music that can come from that throat, all the beauty. “September” is an exciting first book that takes the insane and nonsensical experience of grief and gives it a celebratory language that is a joy to read. Buy a copy and head over to The Cardinal Club. There’s a drink, some good food, and a quiet corner for you and Webster’s incredible first book.

Matthew Dickman is the poetry editor of Tin House and the author of All-American Poem (American Poetry Review/ Copper Canyon Press, 2008) and Mayakovsky’s Revolver (Norton, 2012). He lives and works in Portland, Oregon.

Posted in Free Verse

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Culture and Imperialism in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

In his 1941 essay “Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel,” the Russian literary critic and philosopher M.M. Bakhtin cited three elements that distinguish the epic from other forms of storytelling. These distinctions came to mind last week when a mysterious and elaborate—and, it would turn out, aesthetically beautiful—package arrived at my door. The jet-black envelope read, “Commission for the Preservation of the New Order.”

Inside, I found the following announcement:

“It is by Imperial Decree that you are requested to proudly display these posters on behalf of your Empire. As loyal residents of one of the Empire’s most vital stations on the Outer Rim, your compliance is appreciated. Imperial Service is a noble endeavor which paves the way for your freedom and security.”


“Remember, it is the will of Emperor Palpatine to ensure the future of a stable and prosperous galaxy.”

I was one of 2,500 people to receive this package—and apparently to get conscripted into the evil Galactic Empire from Star Wars.


The mailing is intended to publicize the new animated series “Star Wars Rebels,” set to launch in the fall. It came with six stunning postcard-sized images reminiscent of WWII-era propaganda. One features an image of silhouetted star destroyers and TIE fighters and reads, EXPLORE THE GALAXY…JOIN THE IMPERIAL NAVY. Another says, LEAD THE WAY JOIN TODAY with a picture of a new villain, the Inquisitor. “Rebels” will be set between Episodes III and IV, presumably during the construction of the Death Star , and will represent the Walt Disney Co.’s first Star Wars production.

You may recall that, in 2012, on the day before Halloween, the Walt Disney Co. spent $4.05 billion to purchase an entity known as Lucasfilm, the production company responsible for making such films such as Labyrinth, Willow, and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters and for launching successful subsidiaries such as Industrial Light and Magic and Pixar Animation Studios. Most notably, of course, Lucasfilm is the brainchild of director/prophet George Lucas, creator of the Star Wars franchise. This is how media empires rise and fall: via the exchange of staggering sums of cash. Sic semper tyrannis.

For those of us of a certain age, the two words “Star” and “Wars” when placed side by side in that order will always refer to the movie Star Wars released in 1977 and later rechristened Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. That movie had a profound effect on my entire childhood—I was six when I first saw it—and it continues to inspire my entire creative life to this day. I’ve written elsewhere about my love for Star Wars toys and right now Admiral Ackbar is hanging out on my writing desk. It’s a trap! For the sake of clarity, however, by “Star Wars” I am here referring not just to that first movie, but to the entire Lucasfilm/Disney Empire of films, toys, video games, TV shows, sleeping bags, books, &c. The Imperial Forces wallpaper made by the San Francisco-based design company Super7 is particularly glorious. I’m currently installing three rolls in my downstairs powder room.

In purchasing Lucasfilm, the Disney Co. has acquired one of the defining creative enterprises of our time. On the New York Stock Exchange, the Walt Disney Co. trades under the abbreviation DIS. Shares are currently going for around seventy-five dollars. Dis, it should be noted, is also the name of the city—guarded by furies and fallen angels—at the burning heart of the inferno in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The coincidence is ponderous. Yes, the Walt Disney Co. has earned its share of criticism over the years, rightly so, but it remains capable of some truly visionary projects and I look forward to seeing what it does with Stars Wars. I contend that the $4.05 billion price tag will prove to be a bargain and, furthermore, that the real rewards will end up being not only financial, but also artistic.

Bakhtin has written, “The epic as a genre in its own right may, for our purposes, be characterized by three constitutive features: (1) a national epic past—in Goethe’s and Schiller’s terminology the ‘absolute past’—serves as the subject for the epic; (2) national tradition (not personal experience and the free thought that grows out of it) serves as the source for the epic; (3) an absolute epic distance separates the epic world from contemporary reality, that is, from the time in which the singer (the author and his audience) lives.”

Reading this, I can’t help but think of the world-building that has gone into that galaxy far, far away. That the Star Wars universe continues to expand is only good. (Mind you, there’s a schism brewing between the Expanded Universe and the official Star Wars canon, but that’s a topic for another day.) I can’t think of an ongoing creative enterprise that better fulfills Bakhtin’s definition of the epic. Until the new films hit the theaters in late 2015, I’ll have the ongoing series of Stars Wars books and, soon, “Rebels” to tie me over. Based on these early Imperial illustrations, it’s going to be epic.

Andrew Ervin is the author of a collection of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions. His debut novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House is forthcoming from Soho Press. He lives in Philadelphia.

Posted in Essays

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Your Weekly Forecast: Chuck Palahniuk

“Just for the record, the weather today is calm and sunny, but the air is full of bullshit.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Diary

Posted in General

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We’ve All Done It

I’m trying to remember the first time I made a mix tape for someone. It may have been for my friend Scott in 8th grade. It probably featured songs I recorded off the radio, complete with little bits of the DJ’s banter. I made the tape on my very first boombox (a beautiful invention). Later on I realized I could use this crazy radio/cassette/speaker/sound machine to make jammin’ compilations that would hopefully impress the people I wanted to impress. People like Tracey, a girl who was in most of my high school sophomore classes and who loved Duran Duran and drove a pink Karmann Ghia. My tastes, however, leaned heavily toward R&B. I had it in my pubescent mind that if I was ever going to romance a girl it would be with Smokey Robinson, James Ingram, or Luther Vandross serenading in the background. I remember thinking this syrupy song by Stacy Lattislaw and Johnny Gill was the sweetest song ever. But now I listen to it and I am so glad I didn’t put it on any mix tapes. But hey, we’ve all done it–we’ve overextended, overshared, overgushed, whatever you want to call it, all in the name of a passionate mix tape! I made them so often in my twenties, I could have started a side business–maybe I could have called it Mixed Emotions.
Now, many years later, I’m asked to make a love-themed playlist (which is like a mix tape for people who are confused by cassettes). Well, okay. After all, I’ve been telling people that my novel, This Is Between Us, is heavily inspired by pop songs, poetry, and love. These are songs that show us what love looks like post-boombox, post-high school, post-first broken heart. There’s some romance, some heartbreak, some yearning, and just a little bit of irresistible cuteness in these eleven love songs.
1. Rocky Votolato: White Daisy Passing (I listened to a lot of Rocky’s music while writing this book and I can’t help but sing along to this one every time I hear it.)
2. Camera Obscura: The Sweetest Thing (An exuberant warm rush of a tune with impeccable violins.)
3. Avett Brothers: If It’s the Beaches (I guess this song was on an episode of Friday Night Lights, a show that constantly stirred my heart. The first time I heard this, during the first verse, I knew I was already choking up.)
4. Dolorean: If I Find Love (One of my favorite songs by an amazing Portland band. Al James is such a good songwriter.)
5. ABBA: S.O.S. (I’m a sucker for the powerful chorus! A classic song about the saving power of love, or maybe it’s about co-dependency.)
6. Galaxie 500: When Will You Come Home (Galaxie 500′s music is especially beautiful and haunting on gray winter days.)
7. Julie Doiron: Nice To Come Home (a good follower to the Galaxie 500 song. I like the personal feel of the song, like she just wrote it on the spot for her long distance lover. I like how she says the word guitar.)
8. The Mynabirds: Numbers Don’t Lie (I just love Laura Burhenn’s voice and the old Motown style of this song. And one golden rule of love: “Two wrongs will not make it right.”)
9. Lionel Richie & Diana Ross: Endless Love (I think I once said in an interview that this was the best love song ever, and it it probably is. I have unending love for Lionel Richie. There, I said it.)
10. Scout Niblett (Featuring Will Oldham): Kiss (Parts of this video were done in Portland. And the video is just as amazing as the song.)
11. Noah and the Whale: Five Years Time (I like how this song talks about five years, which is the same time frame in This Is Between Us. It’s cool how it talks about how love can still be great as time goes by and I also love that it’s upbeat and sweet and ends with the words: There’ll be love.)

Kevin Sampsell is the author of the memoir A Common Pornography (2010 Harper Perennial) and the short story collection Creamy Bullets (Chiasmus) and the editor of the anthology Portland Noir (Akashic).Sampsell is the publisher of the micropress Future Tense Books, which he started in 1990. He has worked at Powell’s Books as an events coordinator and the head of the small press section for fifteen years. His essays have appeared recently in Salon, the Faster Times, Jewcy, and the Good Men Project. His fiction has been published in McSweeney’s,Nerve, Hobart, and in several anthologies. He lives in Portland, OR, with his wife and son.

Posted in Tin House Books

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You’re Mine: A Valentine from Bianca Stone

In the 1990′s, it seems I was only laboring over which Valentine to give Peter MacIntyre. It was a delicate matter, as subtleties are not lost on 3rd graders.

Should I choose something terrifying, like the one that said (simply) “I Love You” inside a Ninja Turtle heart? Certainly not “Cowabunga, You’re Neat,” which would go to someone unimportant. “You Have a Pizza My Heart,” would probably be less frightening to Peter and would get the point across. And, of course, there was always the hyperbole of romance to the point of hostility, summed up in “YOU’RE MINE,”  which never failed to hit home.

Though love was unrequited (I got the equivalent of “You’re Neat”), it never diminished my rawness on Valentines day.

In honor of my new book, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, (which still feels like it was made by cutting out lopsided hearts on construction paper) here is my Valentine mailbox covered in doilies for you.

Bianca Stone’s Someone Else’s Wedding Vows will be published by Tin House Books and Octopus Books in March 2014.

Musical Credit: Miles Davis.

Posted in Poetry, Tin House Books, Videos

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After, in bed, she asked him a question about his language.

She asked him, “Does English have a term for a doomed love affair?”

He wasn’t sure, he told her, but a word like that did probably exist. Or it used to, and it had fallen out of use over time. He’d Google it for her later, he promised. She took his hand, pinched his wedding ring between her fingers, and spun it.

He asked her what Spanish people called a doomed love affair. When he did, her very brown eyes narrowed on his, searching. The hotel room was dead quiet.

“Oh, of course,” she said. “The term for this in Spanish is ‘desengaño.’ It’s a perfect term. You have the ‘des’ which means ‘unravel,’ and then ‘engano’ which means ‘lie.’ Beautiful.”


She sat up suddenly on the bed, knelt facing him, and hugged a hotel pillow to cover her nakedness.

“Do you not agree?” She asked.

“Agree about what?”

“That the term is beautiful.”

He grinned slyly and grabbed for the pillow, to snatch it, but she held on.

With his hand gripping the pillow, he said, “I don’t think it reflects my experience with doomed love affairs. The unraveling and lying, that is.”

“You have a lot of experience with doomed love affairs, then?”

He grinned again, same grin.

She laughed and said, “So a term must reflect your experience to be beautiful, yes?”

“Things are usually more beautiful then, yeah. And stop calling words ‘terms.’ Call them what people call them. Words.”

She lay down, spooning the pillow like a lover. He gripped the case tighter.

“You’re making me jealous,” he said.

“Ah,” she said. “That you have a ‘word’ for. Jealousy. At least English acknowledges that that exists.”

“You know, things that haven’t been named yet still exist. We’re just in the development phase of the word for doomed love affair. Plus, I’m pretty sure some philosopher said to name something is to destroy it.”

“I love how intellectual you are.”

“Gracias,” he said. “Now show your intellectual what that pillow is hiding.”

“No,” she said. “I want to be covered up right now. Give me something to put on.”

Not taking his eyes from her, he wiggled the wedding ring off his finger, and held it out.

He said, “This is as much coverage as I’ll allow. Ever worn one before?”

She let him slide the ring onto her middle finger and said, “No. I have not.”

Outside, in the hallway, a woman screamed something he couldn’t make out, and he heard her slam whatever doorway she was screaming from. Just from hearing her yell, he could tell she was pretty. For some reason, this unnerved him.

Then the woman wearing his wedding ring held up her middle finger, only her middle finger, and asked him, “How’s it look?”

So he said, “Better,” as he pulled the pillow out from between them, and threw it onto the floor.


Carmen Petaccio received his MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. He is from New Jersey.

Posted in Flash Fridays

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Tin House Reels: Dustin Grella

This week, Tin House Reels presents three shorts from Dustin Grella’s  Animation Hotline, a series that artfully expands and exposes the private moments people whisper into telephones.

As a type of performance art at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Grella, teaming up with sponsor HP, planted various phones around the festival grounds. Those in attendance were encouraged to pick up the cartoonish blue phones and record passing memories from the day—an experience at a café, waiting in line for a film, staying at a hotel. Grella would then sift through the messages, choosing one a day to animate in a publicly accessible, temporary studio on Main Street.

For years now, Grella has chosen phone-whispered privacies as the engine of his stories. Two years ago, he created Animation Hotline, inviting strangers and friends to call into a phone line and leave short messages. He converted those private tales into animations daily, compiling hundreds online.

Grella makes his films by recording pastel drawings and erasures on a sometimes-wet, sometimes-chalky slate. His animations are the lively associations he makes to spoken conversation.  He calls making those connections a dangerous game of visual problem solving punctuated by the fear “is someone going to get mad as I do this?”  But his intimate call-and-response likely leaves his speakers feeling heard.

Dustin Grella graduated from the School of Visual Arts with an MFA in Computer Art in 2009. His film, Prayers for Peace, screened at almost two hundred festivals worldwide and won over forty awards. He is the Director of Animation at Dusty Studio in New York City.

You can watch an interview about Grella’s Sundance project here.

Tin House Reels is a weekly feature on The Open Bar dedicated to the craft of short filmmaking. Curated by Ilana Simons, the series features videos by artists who are forming interesting new relationships between images and words.

We are now accepting submissions for Tin House Reels. Please upload your videos of 15 minutes or less to Youtube or Vimeo and send a link of your work to tinhousereels@gmail.com. You may also send us a file directly.

Posted in Tin House Books, Tin House Reels

Comments: 1

Winter Reading: Elisa Albert

You can now read Elisa Albert’s contribution to our Winter issue online. We spoke with the author about the claustrophobic world that is “I am Happy For You That You Are So Happy.”

Tin House: What was the biggest obstacle in writing “I am Happy For You That You Are So Happy”?

Elisa Albert: It’s excerpted from the first part of a novel, so piecing it together as a stand-alone was interesting. A first for me. There’s so much fat in a novel. I like fat, but lean is very cool.

TH: When you read this story in the future, what do you think you’ll associate with the period of writing it?

EA: It was winter. I was living in Holland with my husband and baby son, biking through rainy flower fields to and from the writing office we shared in an old stone house. We could not believe our good fortune. But I was having a miserable time transitioning to marriage and motherhood. I missed my friends. I didn’t want to get out of bed. Birth was like a collision with a brick wall. What do you do with that tangle? I began to write a novel.

TH: Do you any have any writing rituals?

EA: All writing rituals are a variation on the same writing ritual: putting ass in chair. Bribe, cajole, wheedle, demand, threaten, depends on the day. Internet blockage is my friend. Music helps immensely. Walks. Bikes. Stretching. Breathing. Various granola esoterica. Favorite books, which keep good company and remind me to press on in the right spirit. Art by friends, the general effect of which is inspirational and protective. Also pink string lights, which gladden me.

TH: The last sentence you underlined in a book?

EA: From Jeanette Winterson’s Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, which is no shit. It’s a whole passage. There are scribble-joy marks in the margin. “Naked I came into the world, but brush strokes cover me, language raises me, music rhymes me. Art is my rod and staff, my resting place and shield, and not mine only, for art leaves nobody out. Even those from whom art has been stolen away by tyranny, by poverty, begin to make it again. If the arts did not exist, at every moment, someone would begin to create them, in song, out of dust and mud, and although the artifacts might be destroyed, the energy that creates them is not destroyed.”

TH: What is the next short story I should read?

EA: I don’t know! Who are you? What are you in need of? The magic is in sniffing out your own idiosyncratic trail. Whatever turns you on, go there, it’ll take you to the next place.

The Edith Pearlman stories are great.

Elisa Albert is the author of The Book of Dahlia and How This Night Is Different: Stories. After Birth will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in the fall of 2014. 

Posted in Fiction, Interviews

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Happy Pub Date, Peter Mountford!

 Maybe you were one of the lucky folks whose local bookstore has been stocking The Dismal Science for weeks, but today–officially–the book exists in the world. Publishing this one is an honor, and feels like a real coup for us.

If you haven’t already, we’d encourage you to read a sampling of it here, along with this conversation between Mountford and David Shields. Still not convinced? (What’s wrong with you?) We’ll gladly coerce you in person (here, or here, or here, or here, for instance). Until then: congrats, Peter!

Posted in Fiction, General, Tin House Books

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The Red Pen: Thoughts On Editing and Being Edited

When I was in college, I sat down for an informational interview with an editor who mentioned an old saying that one can write or one can edit, but one can’t do both. Maybe people really do go around saying this, but I never did hear anyone else suggest it, and in fact I don’t find it to be true. In the lit-mag world in particular I have the definite impression that more people, maybe most, do both. I love the combination of writing and editing, but the interplay between the two parts of my brain and life can be a little tricky. When it finally comes time to be edited by another editor, it’s handy to remember a few things I’ve learned over the years and books.

When I’m in the early writing stages, I try to erect a mental Chinese wall between writing and editing: Editors and publishers don’t exist, my shaky little faun of a story will never ever have to pick its way into the clearing for a merciless evaluation. It doesn’t help to think that far ahead, or else you end up too paralyzed to move forward.

But then comes the time when your editor has read your book, when you’ve gotten all your notes from her, and you know which storylines she thinks are flaccid and which characters are redundant and what cuts she wants to make and what things she wants you to develop. That’s when I try to remember being an editor as well as a writer.

While I was working on my new book, Bread and Butter, I did some pretty big revisions, perhaps more than I’ve done at this stage for any other book. But the process never felt onerous or opaque, and I think many years of editing are part of the reason this has gotten easier for me over the years. Revision felt more like putting a puzzle together and getting closer to the end with every big edit, even when the edit was: “Have you noticed that you don’t need that whole storyline about Jason the sous chef, and that his point of view can be cut from the novel entirely?”

Of course my first thought was that I’d done all that charcuterie research for Jason’s storyline, and one hates to squander knowledge about humidity and bacteria. But to be honest, the more I thought about it, the more I knew that in some ways I just loved some little bits and pieces of his storyline—turns of phrases, details, moments that I’d thought would be more crucial than they turned out to be—and “I like that line on page 201” doesn’t justify the other 67 pages. So out he went.

Which brings me to one of the big ways in which editing has influenced my writing, or more precisely, my revising: I have become someone who loves to cut. Loves it. What is more satisfying than lopping off that weight you just realized was dead? Is there an easier way to gain tension and urgency for a storyline that just had too many swirling thoughts and contemplative moments? I’ve taken to trimming manuscripts with such zeal that I once was on a panel with a writer whose work I’d edited for Tin House, and after I blithely announced we’d hardly done anything at all to his story, he murmured, “Well, you cut the first five pages off.”

He’s right. I totally did.

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Posted in Essays, Writer's Workshop

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The Parallel Apartments, An Excerpt

Justine sat down on the linoleum outside of Bass Lecture Hall and listened to the rumble of obsequious group chuckles that slipped under the door. Watchless as she was, Justine had no good guess as to the time, and even less of an idea how much longer Professor Quentinforce “Q” Johnsonson, PhD’s lecture on semiotics in Dr. Who fan fiction was scheduled to last. At least she’d brought a bag of Andy Capp’s Hot Fries to cure the munchies and pass the time.

She crunched. She wiped her orange fingers on her sweatpants. Her right leg was still sore and gimpy from her drive, but Justine felt strong, fearless. Even though the decal on her shirt was wearing away (the warrior’s codpiece and one of the vixen’s bare feet had disappeared), the indomitability it represented was still powerfully comforting.

“Screw him,” said Justine to the unpeopled hallway. She stuck a Hot Fry between her lips and took a long, cigarette-style drag, and was about to exhale like Katharine Hepburn when her upper respiratory tract decided instead to reject the suspiration and cough dramatically.

The doors flew open and students spewed into the corridor as though Bass Hall had been under several atmospheres of pressure. After the room and hallway finally achieved equilibrium and the last of the students floated away, Justine held her breath to stifle the coda of her orange coughing opus, and peeked inside the deep, steep lecture hall.

A man whom Justine presumed to be Professor Johnsonson sat erect on a tall chair of the sort usually seen clustered around tiny circular tables in sports bars. Next to him was an identical chair, occupied by an old and worn Bit-O-Honey-colored leather satchel.

The professor descended from the chair like an eight-year-old climbing down from a jungle gym. When he alighted on the proscenium, he took his satchel, adjusted a pair of nearly invisible glasses, and then paused, motion- less, between the two chairs, which he matched in height.

Justine could no longer hold it; she became a blare of coughs.

“Euk,” said the professor, jumping back like a challenged hamster.

“Sorry,” Justine managed to say after a moment. “Professor Quentinforce Johnsonson? Hak.”

“I am. And you are?”

“Justine Moppett. Husk.”

“Hm,” he said, producing a black comb that he used to expertly restore perfection to a shiny, three-inch pompadour that had become briefly mussed in the excitement. “Moppett.”

“Yeah. I’m…”

“You and I are not acquainted,” he said, holding his glasses a foot in front of his face and pinkering through them.

“Well, yes, we are,” said Justine, all at once frightened and uncertain; lighter by the weight of why confronting this terrifying fifty-six-inch over- degreed Wayne Newton was so urgent. Now she thought her shirt-warrior’s lacunae were flags of her own weakness. She grew nauseated, aquiver with vertigo.


“You mean…,” said Justine, sitting down quickly.



“An alumna come to exact some form of vengeance.”


“A fanatic, with Uniball and my novel The Ant Mill, suggestively spread open to its title, begging for my valuable inscription.”

“No, a…”

“An abductee who has succeeded with the aid of an emery board in severing her bonds and escaping her captor, the dean of engineering, in room 217.”


“A stalker, convinced of our mated souls, with an invitation to a candlelit double suicide.”

“That’s not…”

“An heretofore vagrant pupil, here to gruntle.”

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Posted in Fiction

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Your Weekly Forecast: Edward Gorey

“A small and sinister snow seems to be coming down relentlessly at present. The radio says it is eventually going to be sleet and rain, but I don’t think so; I think it is just going to go on and on, coming down, until the whole world…etc. It has that look.” ― Edward Gorey, Floating Worlds: The Letters of Edward Gorey and Peter F. Neumeyer

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What We’re Reading

Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume 1: The Path to Power. I’ve finally begun listening to the audiobook of Robert Caro’s epic multi-volume Lyndon Johnson biography. Caro’s a master, Johnson’s a scoundrel, and I’m delighted to have so much rolling tape in front of me. Avoid this space in the coming months if you’re decidedly uninterested in what LBJ ate for breakfast in college.

Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): I’m a little late to the game, but I just got around to reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. I should have read it sooner, but I’m glad I waited. It was the perfect companion on a gloomy evening.

Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): I’m finding it a little difficult to read without a deadline currently, so I’ve imposed a loose one for now: I’m going to finish Inherent Vice before the Paul Thomas Anderson movie comes out in August. I can’t wait to see Joaquin Phoenix as the delirious hippie private investigator Doc Sportello, Josh Brolin as fameball cop Bigfoot Bjornsen, or any of the other cast members (Benicio del Toro! Reese Witherspoon! um… Martin Short!) as hilariously-named Pynchon characters. It’s easily the most “adaptable” Pynchon novel, and I’m counting on Anderson to deliver something that will live in the drug-addled adventure canon with Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing and the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski.

Lance Cleland (Workshop Director): Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal. An unexpected snow day here in Portland found me sitting in the kitchen at 3pm, beer in hand, dog at my feet, Jutta Hipp on the stereo, fiancé finishing a novel in the seat next to mine. I wanted something familiar to read, something that would let me drift in and out of the story the way the headlights of the cars outside appeared to be drifting in and out of the snowflakes. Greedily, I wanted two narratives at once. I had recently given someone Hrabal’s perfect novella as part of a book exchange and in handing it over I had the ping of wanting to experience it again. I first encountered the book on a similar type day, next to a similar type window, for reading the first few pages not only brought me back into the world of young Milos Hrma, Hrabal’s protagonist, but also back ten years, to when I was living in the small Czech town of Olomouc and had the luxury of entire weeks reading novellas through afternoon snowstorms. I realize I am saying nothing of what the book is about, but yesterday was probably my sixth or seventh time reading Closely Observed Trains (not to mention watching the excellent film adaptation three or four times) and the story feels more like an old postcard to me, sent by a friend with whom you once traveled but have lost touch with over the years. The thing is, I suspect you might feel that way about it after one read. And that is a hell of an achievement for any book.

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