- Art of the Sentence
- Book Clubbing
- Book Tour Confidential
- Carte du Jour
- Correspondent's Course
- Das Kolumne
- Flash Fridays
- Free Verse
- From The Vault
- I'm a Fan
- Literary B-Sides
- Lost & Found
- Tin House Books
- Tin House Reels
- Writer's Workshop
Tweets by @Tin_House
Sign Up for News, Sales
News & Events
Carve out space on your nightstand—Tin House Books has some great reading coming up in 2014!
“Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
― Martin Luther King Jr.
Rebekah Bergman (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): Reading Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing felt very familiar. Will, the novel’s protagonist, is a charismatic and passionate high school literature teacher whom the students adore. In the opening chapters, Will begins an affair with a student. I thought I knew where this was going. I was wrong. Maksik brings this premise to new territory and the surprises in the plot are a true delight. The novel, set in France in 2002, becomes almost a modern retelling of Camus’ The Stranger, a work Will’s students read for his class. Shifting between three narrators, the reader must consider different perspectives and accounts without the satisfaction of any one definitive answer. Impressively, Maksik makes this moral quandary incredibly relevant and real. He never loses sight of his characters, who are compelling and realistically flawed. As I questioned the morality of their choices I also cared about their fates and was truly sad to leave them at the close of the book.
Allyson Paty (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): Lawrence Weschler’s biography of artist Robert Irwin, Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees follows Irwin’s artistic practice and interests over the course of his entire career. Irwin states that he “one day got hooked on [his] own curiosity and decided to live it,” and the book tracks the trajectory of Irwin’s thinking about formal elements art—beginning with questions of the canvas, figuration, and line, and gradually giving way to essential questions of light, space, and presence—which in turn informs the trajectory of his life. Originally published in 1982 and updated in 2009, the book grew out of a series of conversations between Weschler and Irwin, which gives the text a grounded, spoken feel. To see a life propelled by a continuing line of artistic inquiry is, I think, hugely seductive for a creative person working in any medium.
Lauren Perez (Publicity Intern): For me, the first weeks of the new year are dedicated to furiously reading all the books I didn’t get to in the year prior, a fug of guilt reading. And I’m glad I do this, because otherwise I might have missed Yanagihara’s debut novel, The People in the Trees, eclipsed by my excitement for the new Lorrie Moore. Yanagihara’s novel is loosely based on the life of Nobel prize winner Dr. D. Carleton Gajdusek, a brilliant scientist and convicted child molester, who adopted 56 children from the South Pacific and went to prison for raping one of his sons. Yanagihara’s Dr. Norton Perina, while hewing fairly close to those basic biographical facts, is far more than the sum of his parts. Styled as a memoir-confession written by Perina in prison as a series of letters to his mentee and sycophant Dr. Ronald Kubodera, the voice she creates is captivating and obliviously cruel. He narrates the discovery and inevitable exploitation of the fictional Micronesian nation of U’ivu (probably an even greater creation than the character of Norton himself; Yanagihara has an amazing imagination and sense of detail) and the discovery of the Selene disease, spread by eating a specific endangered turtle, that can prolong human life for centuries—at the cost of the mind. Everything that happens in the book blends the inevitable with surprise, like a line of falling dominoes: colonialism, exploitation, moral relativism, glory, and the cost of discovery.
Brandi Dawn Henderson (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): Somehow, I made it to my thirties, and completed a master’s degree in writing, without ever reading Raymond Carver. “Ah, yes, very Carver-esque,” I would agree with my colleagues, “Definitely super Carver-like.” But, it was only when I discovered the masterful short stories of Charles Baxter last summer that my fiancé addressed his bookshelves and selected for me a simple blue and white book with a crazy-intense author photo on the front. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver contains stories from my childhood. They aren’t about my aunt’s toothless friend, Paul, who worked at a grocery store and brought us more charred soda cans than we knew what to do with after a fire burned milk and lettuce and the video rental section to the ground, and they aren’t about Paul’s girlfriend, Margie, who, after winning the “Ugliest Swimsuit” award at a water park a hundred miles from our house, also earned the whispered “Ugliest Woman” contest, according to my brother. But they are the stories of ordinary people living the kind of lives most people live, feeling the kinds of not-that-significant-in-the-grand-scheme but completely-valid-in-the-moment things people feel; they are glimpses into the lives of my neighbors, of your neighbors, of life within map dots all over the place. With simple, compelling narratives, Raymond Carver introduces us to ourselves, and that, my friends, is totally Carver-esque.
Molly Dickinson (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I’ve recently been re-reading Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. I know most people instantly think: snoozefest! But judge away, internet people; I maintain that this medieval mystic’s literature is still fascinating and relevant stuff. Julian (we’re on a first name basis) is an adept and exquisite word smith. And her philosophical and theological struggles with her medieval world are strikingly similar to the ones I witness people working through on a day to day basis. Revelations offers everything, really: you can approach it as a source for quiet introspection or a thrilling exploration of one badass lady’s non-conforming ideology.
Alyssa Persons (Editorial Intern, Tin House Books): Somewhere between high school required reading lists and a major in English Lit, I failed to read a word of James Joyce. Instead, I was left with a poorly-formed (and probably misguided) impression of the author and his work and was too intimidated to take a stab at reading anything by him. These days, I’m eating my words because I’m halfway through A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and I’m thoroughly embarrassed it took me this long to pick it up. For the remaining few who haven’t read it either, it’s a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that lays the groundwork for the technique and style Joyce continued to develop in his later work. So far, I’ve been completely engrossed, when I’m not feeling entirely confused and/or frustrated. This is what reading Joyce is supposed to feel like, right?
Alison Pezanoski-Browne (Editorial Intern, The Open Bar): In Are You My Mother?, a follow-up to her acclaimed graphic novel Fun Home, Alison Bechdel turns her thoughtful, complex lens from her relationship with father to her relationship with her mother. Through prose and images, she weaves together storylines of her mother as a creative woman stifled by the weight her husband’s closeted sexuality, the work and life of groundbreaking twentieth-century child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, and Bechdel’s own history with psychoanalysis in order to cope with her life-long obsessive compulsive disorder. The result is an evocative depiction of how identity is formed by interlocking strands of thought, experience, relationships, and knowledge.
Victoria Savanh (Editorial Intern, Tin House Magazine): I fell hard and fast for Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document, a novel filled with radicalism, counterculture, pop music, identity, and self-invention, spanning the 1970s through late 90s. With its energetic execution, passages seem to vibrate, beautifully written yet precise. All the theoretical ideas aside, the characters are real. There’s this mess of lives intertwined, consequences, loss. The narrators alternate, but the most satisfying storylines are Mary’s, an ex-radical with a fake identity, and her teenage son Jason’s, whose journal entries include analyzing pop music and bootleg recordings. “I wondered if my life was just going to be one immersion after another . . . unpopular popular culture infatuations that don’t really last and don’t really mean anything. Sometimes I even think maybe my deepest obsessions are just random manifestations of my loneliness or isolation . . . —no, it is beautiful to be enraptured. To be enthralled by something, anything. And it isn’t random. It speaks to you for a reason.” I have a feeling I’ll be quoting Eat the Document endlessly.
Dad came upstairs to ask me and Pete if we wanted to build him an airplane. It wasn’t a question. Dad never asked questions, he just made people think that he had. “Which one of you’s gonna clean out the garage?” Pete and me both ran downstairs.
Took us two days to empty the garage. Mom was away that weekend, so Dad had us trash a bunch of her stuff, records mostly, some dresses, photo albums he made us stop looking through. We trashed old toys and board games we didn’t know we had. It was sad seeing them go. We trashed the old push-mower, a couple shovels, a mildewed tent that Pete and me never camped in. When Mom saw the empty garage she threatened to leave. Just a threat.
On Monday we started construction. Tail got built first, with scrapped aluminum and rusty bolts. Then the fuselage, to the cabin, the wings and so on. Dad kept his head in the manual. Shouting instructions while Pete and me did the little we could to help out.
Dad grew old fast that year. His hairline retreated back over his head and the hair he had left turned gray in odd places, over his ears, his eyebrows. He started shaking when he wasn’t drinking. He quit brushing his teeth. Quit holding in farts and quit shaving. There were more important things to do than shave. Like building an airplane. Pete and me didn’t know why the plane was important, just that it was. We imagined Dad flying us to Disney World, or Pete and me parachuting into our soccer games, yanking off the harnesses and scoring a goal. We started skipping school to fix up the plane while Dad was at work. On the days we didn’t play hooky we sprinted home right after the bell. There was a bus, but we got home faster sprinting.
Pete sawed off a chunk of his pinky one day cutting through piping. He was crying and bleeding and yelling when he showed Dad the finger. Dad squeezed the bottom knuckle and led Pete to the kitchen. “Life’s not all about eating flapjacks,” he said, and cauterized the wound on the stove’s front burner. Later, I attached the propeller.
Once we built the whole plane we christened it Pepper, after Dad’s favorite spice. A couple days later a chubby bald man came to inspect it. He knocked on the fuselage with a clipboard. He wrote something down. He spun Pepper’s propeller. Pete and me had greased it something awful and the speed of its spinning could’ve took the man’s hand. He walked to the tail. “This a broomstick?” he asked, examining the speed rudders we’d made. “That’s temporary,” Dad told him. “I got a paycheck coming Thursday.” Pepper failed inspection.
Dad didn’t care. Two weeks later he drove us and the plane to a clearing north of town. A messy gravel path split the clearing. Dad asked who wanted to earn five dollars. Pete and me weeded the path, stomped on the rocks, trying to make it as flat as we could. When Dad said the runway was good we stopped. We lifted him into the cockpit. Once seated, he held out his hand and dropped a ten dollar bill. Pete caught it. Dad put on a pair of aviator sunglasses. “Remember boys,” he said, looking down at us so Pete and me showed in the dark lenses, “a man can learn a lot from the sun.” We smiled, thinking he meant to say, “his sons.” He checked the manual and flipped some switches. The propeller whizzered to life. Pepper lumbered over the gravel until it lifted itself into the air. We jumped up and cheered as we watched it fly higher.
The plane skimmed a stand of pines at the far edge of the clearing. It wobbled, but Dad righted himself and flew on, gaining more height and distance until the plane shrunk to a pinprick. It disappeared. Pete and me sat down next to the truck and waited. Pete touched the nub of his pinky. Then I touched it.
Originally from New Jersey, Alex McElroy currently lives in Arizona, where he serves as International Editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review. His work appears or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Booth, Pinball, and elsewhere.
This week’s installment of Tin House Reels takes you back to a time of imaginary friends and their place at the family dinner table.
The Imaginary Friend Project: Polish Kershaw, created by Alix Lambert & Jennifer R. Morris, arose out of a seminar Jennifer taught at Emerson College with her theatre company, The Civilians. “I helped them create an interview based theatre piece around the topic of home, “Jennifer told me, “and one of the questions the students came up with was, ‘Did you have an imaginary friend?’ I found their answers to be funny and strangely poignant. I wanted to create a series dedicated to preserving the memory of people’s real life imaginary friends.”
Jennifer then enlisted her fellow Civilian, Alix Lambert, to direct and co-create this series, which began by interviewing numerous subjects on the topic of long lost friends who just happened to be invisible to everyone else.
The first person featured in their series is Samuel Roukin.
“I was his bride’s Maid of Honor,”Jennifer explained. “At the rehearsal dinner, his brother’s toast was a letter from Sam’s long lost imaginary friend, Polish Kershaw. Apparently, Polish didn’t actually die when Sam shot her through the eye. She recovered and currently lives outside London. We had just started this project so, naturally, we cornered Sam for an interview.”
The unique look of the film, which reminds one of going through an old shoebox and pulling out faded postcards and images cut out from children’s periodicals, was created by animator Joe Alterio.
About his technical process, Joe says: “I took images: some were Creative Commons images I found online, others were images I made myself, and, if necessary, “aged” them and added things like halftone patterns. The series is really about memories, both real and invented, and using the physical evidence of decaying nostalgia was important to the look. I then animated them all in AfterEffects.”
The result is a film that not only allows you to bask in the memory of a stranger, but brings to the surface your own friends that you might have tucked under the bed or sent off on an adventure so many years ago.
Alix Lambert’s feature length documentary The Mark of Cain was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, received an honorable mention from the French Association of Journalism, and aired on Nightline. She went on to produce additional segments of Nightline as well as 7 segments for the PBS series LIFE 360. She has directed two other feature length documentaries: Bayou Blue (with David McMahon) and Mentor.She has directed numerous shorts and music videos including “You As You Were” for the band Shearwater (Sub Pop) and “Tiffany” (POV). Lambert wrote Episode 6, season 3 of Deadwood, “A Rich Find” (for which she won a WGA award) and was a staff writer and associate producer on John From Cinicinnati. She is currently in residence at The McColl Center For The Arts in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Jennifer R. Morris is a writer/producer/actor. She just finished a run of Mr. Burns at Playwrights Horizons, which was named one of the “10 best shows of 2014″ by the New York Times. Jennifer is a founding member of the OBIE award-winning theatre company, The Civilians. Her most recent piece with The Civilians (of which she wrote and conceived), YOU BETTER SIT DOWN: tales from my parents’ divorce, is an interactive theatre piece that had digital partnerships with WNYC and the Huffington Post. Jennifer wrote and hosted shows on TV Food Network and WE and has created digital projects for ABC/Disney, Fremantle Media, and FMX. The short she produced, “Tiffany,” directed by Alix Lambert, aired on PBS. Most recently she co-produced the feature length documentary, Mentor, also directed by Ms. Lambert. She received her MFA from UCSD.
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 email@example.com. You may also send us a file directly.
“These were the strokes we praised, weren’t they,/ the butterfly and the crawl, the lullabies/ we crooned on the first warm day of summer/ in honor of the non-swimmers Crane and Berryman,/ in honor of Orpheus, whose butchered head/ is forever singing above the choppy waves.” —Edward Hirsch, “The Swimmers” (Special Orders, 2008)
A poem praising suicide may not seem to make for a very good love letter. But my favorite one does. The closing lines of Edward Hirsch’s poem “The Swimmers”—an ode to his self-destructive predecessors, romantics all in their way—make use of intoxicating meter and language to remind us how to live. In describing an early-summer afternoon spent throat-deep in a river, discussing the great poets, “The Swimmers” celebrates the sensuality of water, verse, and life in a way that I find powerfully seductive, especially as it crescendos in these final lines. That’s why it works as a billet-doux. Consider it an invitation to go skinny-dipping.
Hirsch’s poem seduced me on a dark winter night. I was a college student, working late as a writing tutor in a nineteenth-century academic building known to be haunted (just google “Payne Hall AND ghost”). The English students’ lounge had a useless, dusty desktop computer and a bookshelf stacked with random old issues of literary journals. Nobody came in for essay triage, so I leafed through Poetry and found “The Swimmers.” I tore it out (sorry!). It’s the first poem I’ve ever memorized with no conscious effort—a testament to its lyricism. I tacked it up in the sad gray cubicle of my first job; I e-mailed it to my first serious post-college boyfriend. It still has a rhapsodic effect on me.
The thing that makes this sentence so powerful and so memorable is its shift in meter—that is, it has a definite meter. The beginning of the poem, like many others by Hirsch and his fellow contemporary poets, is written in unrhymed free verse. But this final sentence starkly changes the tone by employing a clear, if not strict, syllabic pattern. The concept of metered poetry might bring Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter to mind, along with vague recollections of vocab words like anapest, but Hirsch’s use of meter here is subtle and modern. And, more importantly, he’s using it for a good and practical reason.
The meter of this closing sentence brings to life the scene Hirsch has set. Its rhythm mimics that of the arm-over-arm strokes alluded to earlier in the poem; we’re enveloped by the sound and sensation of swimming. In effect, we’ve been dunked into the bathwater-warm river with Hirsch and his companion. To achieve this marvel of acoustics on the page, Hirsch relies on heavily accented verse, especially the foot of meter called a dactyl, consisting of one accented syllable followed by two slack syllables, with which he introduces the shift: “THESE were the” (DUM da da). The rest of that line consists of accented syllables followed by slack ones: “THESE were the STROKES we PRAISED, weren’t they….” Read the rest of the sentence aloud and you’ll hear the degree to which Hirsch leans on accented beats to create the effect of stroke after stroke, arm over arm, slicing the water. To compound that effect and give it extra weight, he repeats similar sounds on the accented beats. The rhyming pair of “butterfly” and “lullaby” sets off a chain of explosive hard-cr sounds—“crawl,” “crooned,” “Crane”—as well as the echoing hard-ch of “butchered” and “choppy” in the final two lines. The strong sense of repetition, both from meter and its not-quite-rhyming internal scheme, builds satisfying momentum.
Beyond meter and sound, there’s the fact that Hirsch is posing a question. He seems to be remembering a long-ago event in a new light and asking his friend for affirmation. (Hirsch dedicated this poem to a fellow poet, Gerald Stern, which seems to hammer home the similarities between the work of swimming and the work of composing poetry.) “These were the strokes we praised, weren’t they”? In other words: That’s what we were really doing, isn’t it? It’s actually quite a simple sentence: “These,” subject; “were,” linking verb; “strokes,” predicate nominative, renaming “these.” The rest of the sentence takes off, modifying and clarifying “strokes” in apposition. Which strokes? With that word, Hirsch encapsulates river-swimming, the pen strokes that translate words onto paper, and the death strokes that tolled the ends of these great poets’ lives. On one hand, the strokes are literally “the butterfly and the crawl”; on a lyrical, metaphorical level, they are “lullabies,” songs sung to soothe the weary. Looking back, Hirsch sees their swimming as an homage, their “butterfly” and “crawl” as “lullabies” “crooned” in remembrance of the great poets who gave up on buoyancy.
The next phrase tells us when: on this “first warm day of summer,” Hirsch and his companion are as alive as can be, talking brashly of suicide in the lukewarm embrace of a force that could easily drown them. The possibility that they might one day feel suicidal hasn’t yet occurred to them. All they can see is beauty—of their idols’ verses, of the silt-green river, and of their own freedom in it.
Punctuation altercation illustrates concern for clear communication.
Religion. Politics. The Oxford comma. These things should not be discussed in polite company, particularly by people who have strong feelings about them — raising the topic before the eyes of the readers of Tin House is the action of a madwoman.
“There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t,” wrote Lynne Truss in her humorous punctuation book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, adding “and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”
The Oxford comma, the snappier moniker for the serial comma, looks just like any other comma. It falls before the final item in a list of at least three items. It is the most contentious of the commas.
“Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” sings indie pop band Vampire Weekend in their hit single, “Oxford Comma.”
I give a fuck about an Oxford comma, Vampire Weekend. And so do a lot of people, discovered Jason Boog, editor of GalleyCat, a blog that focuses on the book-publishing industry, in the waning days of June 2011.
“I’m watching Twitter every day,” Boog said, “looking to see what our readers are talking about, what they’re arguing about.” One of the people Boog follows, an anonymous editor tweeting under the handle @rantyeditor, wrote, “Oxford Style Guide ditches the Oxford comma. I have strong feelings about this, none of them good.”
“I actually have strong feelings about it, too,” said Boog, who prefers to write without the Oxford comma. The tweet’s attached link took him to the style guide for the University of Oxford Public Affairs Directorate.
The online style guide the anonymous editor and Boog were pursuing, an official-looking Oxford page, advised its writers to leave off the penultimate comma unless it was necessary for clarity. Neither of the two editors realized that this style guide was not the revered Oxford Style Guide maintained by the prestigious Oxford University Press (OUP), but rather the style guide for the Public Affairs Directorate — a PR department.
“I thought it was funny,” Boog said. “I thought it would be this funny little blurb to throw up in the summer.” He shot out the word “funny” in seeming self-disgust, as though a person with the temerity to be flippant about punctuation must be evil to his core. His funny little blurb blasted across the Internet in minutes; echoes from its blast sound years later in online conversations about the serial comma, linked by people who apparently fail to notice either the publication date or the update at the end of the post.
“For different reasons, the two of us believed that style was indispensable for living with a little hope, and either you lived with hope or in despair. There was no middle way.” – John Berger, Here Is Where We Meet
Is it true, do we style ourselves for a chance at something, in anticipation, with courage, or not at all?
Joan Didion—who most definitely had her uniform on lockdown with her simple bob and those frames elegantly yawning over half her face—understood the significance we put into our wardrobes at times when we seek renewal of the self. Times when, say, you are moving to a new city, a big city, a glamorous city, and your body is still an undressed mannequin in a sea of Looks all spelling out a different girl, a different profession, a different future, perhaps even a different past. When you put the cart before the horse, belt a new dress and step off the train to find your dress’s shade of green is just of few shades shy of success, its fabric a few counts away from catching the eye of those you want to impress. And it’s those times that serve you well, forcing your personality to come up through the cracks in the fabric to compensate as you learn—fast—what suits you and what you suit.
To take us through the annals of a closet’s hopeful transformation—and our varied shades of optimism along with it—is Claire Cottrell.
Claire lends her light-saturated touch to all genres of things—lives, homes, clothes, words, dance—both as an editor for Berlin-based Freunde von Freunden, an international interview magazine and publishing house, and as a photographer, filmmaker and creator of Book Stand, and is herself a frequent subject of interviews about personal style.
In a season of reflections and resolutions, Claire invites us into closets where a long-forgotten sheepskin coat marks time and a pair of winter boots is replaced by the appropriate sandal, where clothing serves as a memory marker, a means of becoming and a layer of protection.
“When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew …” – Joan Didion, “Goodbye To All That” from Slouching towards Bethlehem
A lesser known line from one of Didion’s most notable essays comments on a dress she bought in Sacramento for her first trip to New York City. She doesn’t tell us the color or the style. Or, who the designer was. And it doesn’t matter. In this rambling sentence she tells us that she bought a dress to go to a new place. We know that she felt good about the dress at home, and not so good about the dress in the new place. We infer that she felt less sure of herself. Less confident. Uncomfortable. Out of place. Disconnected. Maybe even lost.
Our clothes are our armor and, here, Joan Didion explained why.
We were in the woods and we were high the first time we heard the wolves. Before the wolves, we were in my living room, drinking Mexican Cokes with the windows open. It was the first warm day of spring, the pavement wet from all it was losing, and the curtains blew wild above the empty hardwood, simple white cotton with pink polka dots. I imagined them unfurling and piling up, small moments made large upon accumulation, the way a whole life can be lived, the way millions of people will live them. They reminded me of the flowers found on license plates—the ones with the Eastern Goldfinch—and that’s when Jason said it. He said, “It’s like you were made to live in this state.”
I think he meant because of the landscape—that must’ve been what it was. The pastoral scenes evoking significance, and how I’d embodied them even in my home décor. Everything I owned exerted a Terrence Malick-like ambience: photographs of trees with despondent branches, birds diving shallow and swooping smooth, the lavender linen shower curtain that steam enveloped every evening I bathed. Still, it made me think about “The Bigger Picture”—if maybe things were happening in one particular way and not another for a certain reason. And then, naturally, came this: What is meant to happen next?
We’d met a few months earlier, Jason and I, on the outdoor patio of a landmark bar. He was sipping a tallboy of domestic beer, his hair still wet and dark from a day spent by the pool, reading novels and watching women as they lowered themselves into tepid water. I liked him for no good reason, and liked him even more when I figured this out—liked how I could be in control of so many things, but not my feelings, not the person who stirred them. I wanted to do all of the dumbest of things: smoke beside him on bridges, watch the floodwaters rise. My allegiance, it seemed to me, was going to lie wherever it wanted to lie, and this, too, was sort of attractive. I was a person in control of so many things.
Still, it took us weeks to determine that we shared both a common origin and this particular narrative moment, both of us loading our Pennsylvanian lives into a vehicle and driving a thousand miles west because we were twenty-two and lonely, in need of something new. And a landscape was like a wardrobe: you adjusted as you moved.
That first night, he propped his elbows on the grated table until it left an imprint across his skin. “It’s like we’re living the same story,” he said. “Quick, what’s the place you most want to go?”
“Austin,” I said.
“Dallas,” he said.
“Close enough,” I said.
In some way, I think I needed it to be true: that in some small way, I was meant to be in that moment, proof that I could be significant to somebody who was not me.
In the woods, there was no wind. Everything was still. The grass was wet marsh, the weeds growing horizontal from months packed under Midwestern snow. Jason stood beside me, our shared friend just beside him, and while I could feel their static presence, hear their shallow breathing and mud-stuck boots, I had this idea, in the back of my mind, that I was the only one left alive. Like I was the last woman to inhabit the Earth.
“It looks like footage from a movie,” I said, implying the power lines and woods, inviting like in a poem.
“Like a drama,” Jason agreed. “Predictable characters,” then, “predictable plots.”
“Predictable romances,” I said. “Predictable endings. Scenes above love filmed dizzily across a beach.”
The mutual friend was of shared interest: her purple pants and big, empty house. She reminded us of a librarian and she spoke like a dictionary, like a foreign language translation site, coupling the things I knew so well in patterns I had to think about to understand. Her house was a series of rooms with yellow shag, planters drooping low from vintage barstools, their leaves so big and flat the cat would chew on them until he hacked. I liked her for her strangeness, her unpainted nails and simple hair, and when I was high or was not high, I wanted to know if I could be like her.
I’d met an edge of adoration, and wanted to see how far it stretched beyond.
From time to time, she spoke to us about existence as one of many simulations, our world a blinking cosmic hard drive, and I liked most to consider that concept. It made me terrifyingly ecstatic, how bad it could get if the plug got pulled.
But in the woods, I thought of my jeans—how they were wet and full of gravel, and what was the purpose of such a small detail if indeed we were living within a simulation? It demanded an unnatural level of attentiveness, and it was this more than anything that made me uncomfortable in the woods, in the world.
Dusk was fast approaching. The weed had been strong and hallucinatory, but there was no mistaking them once I heard them. “Those are wolves,” I said, “we’re hearing.”
I scanned the slim horizon, its gnarled forest, the trees twisting upwards towards the sky. Individually, I could trace their paths, but in their plentitude I got confused. Beneath our feet, I knew, their roots knotted deep into complex networks, and exactly like the wolves, just because we could not see them didn’t mean they weren’t there.
Our friend pulled a cattail from the soil, held it up, lithe, to the scarred blue sky. “They’re dogs,” she said, “just dogs.”
“I don’t think they’re wolves,” Jason said, but his subtle movements suggested otherwise. They were little things I was noticing: his backwards lean, his hesitation to turn. His boot—brown, well worn-in leather—sinking slow into the mud.
He was realizing for the first time, I think, that we were in no position to fight—wolves or dogs or otherwise, we were not invincible, or enough alone, and there would later be many things, including wolves, that would prove bigger than ourselves.
Whether or not it was wolves seems to me now arbitrary. Years passed, and of course we lived, but that’s not what really matters. What matters, I think, is this: it was fear I felt in those woods in the same way it would be fear for years to come. I’d been warned of this before I left, reminded that halfway across the country might as well be halfway across the world for all it mattered. When you’re alone, you are alone, and no amount of self-assurance or delusional thinking about parallelism is going to make the facts of your life all line up.
Simulation or no simulation, you are alone in your moment of terror.
“I’ll find someone,” I’d said, but in truth, I had no intention. The scaring was part of it, no, the scaring was all of it. If a plug was going to be pulled, I wanted to be in control of the movement that pulled it.
Months later, away from those woods, I read of a local woman who disappeared after setting out by herself. Her neighbors heard a chorus of distant, frenzied barking, later found her jacket, torn up, in the snow. So what does it matter, the choices we make? The lives we may or may not be living?
Regardless of whether our acts are or are not of our volition, let me be in love and in love with losing. Let me see how small I feel.
Amy Butcher is an essayist and short fiction writer whose work appears in The Paris Review, Salon, The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, The North American Review, The Indiana Review, Fourth Genre, Vela and Brevity, among others. She earned her MFA from the University of Iowa and is the recipient of scholarships and awards from the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, the University of Iowa, Word Riot Inc., the Stanley Foundation for International Research, the Academy of American Poets, and Colgate University’s 2012-2013 Olive B. O’Connor Creative Writing Fellowship. More at amyebutcher.com.
Copyright © 2014 by Amy Butcher.
Just in time for lettuce leaves and diets, January is high season in France for enjoying a slice or three of la galette des rois, or King’s Cake, made with flaky puff pastry and a rich filling of frangipane (with some variations on the recipe). Although the cake is officially for the celebration of Epiphany on January 6th, it unofficially gives everybody a good excuse to continue nibbling through the first weeks of the New Year. Bonus: each cake has a ceramic or plastic figurine baked into it and is sold with a paper crown. Tradition has it that whomever finds the fève, figurine, in their slice of cake is king or queen for the day. (Specific guidelines for or desires of monarchs may vary.)
Writer and eighteenth-century Enlightenment epicurean Brillat-Savarin’s observation that, “Dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye,” could extend this month to include a big slice of King’s Cake. And if you’re worried about what will happen when February comes, the French have it covered with Candlemas: February 2nd is la Chandeleur, when everyone eats crêpes as part of the celebration of this Catholic feast day.
Not limited by just desserts or the Age of Enlightenment, writers in this month’s Apéritif share their favorite cheeses and sweets and entrées that they have savored, dreamed about or cooked up. Grab your paper crown, some cutlery and a scepter—the party is starting over at the dinner table.
Michelle Wildgen (Bread and Butter):
I have never done much writing about eating in Paris because others do it better and more exhaustively, but I certainly do dream of eating there more. Actually, one of my favorites is a cheat; it was in Mougins about 15 years ago, not Paris. I can’t recall the main course, but the first course was a salad with wild mushrooms–and it arrived with an unheralded half-disc of foie gras terrine perched along the side. Only in France would they decide the foie gras need not be mentioned. Otherwise, when I think of Paris I think of rabbit, which not enough people serve here; pastry, obviously, though I have no particular affiliation with any one choice; but most of all, cheese: raw milk, redolent, funky cheese, cheese with those little crystallizations that arise with age, cheese with odoriferous, slightly sticky apricot-colored washed rinds, cheese with soft mushroomy bloomy ivory rinds, cheese with soft, chalky, goaty centers, cheese rolled in herbs and cheese veined with green, cheese the very variety and beauty of which is the best argument I’ve come across for not writing off the human race all together.
Jillian Lauren (Some Girl):
Two of the world’s most exquisite pleasures are eating with friends in Paris and eating alone in Paris. I did a lot of both when I was there last. I enjoy the adventure of grappling with menu French alone, even if it does result in debacles like believing I ordered a steak for lunch and choking down tartare instead (which was, confusingly, not called tartare). While at home I’m often guilty of scarfing lunch in the car; in Paris I ate a simple jambon beurre in the Place des Vosges. Or a fois gras and fig tartine, served with fresh grapefruit juice, in the sandwich shop next to the Poilane bakery, which has divine bread. And when I got tired of the contents of my own brain, I landed at Le Felteu in the Marais, where I gabbed with an expat friend over a hearty lamb plat du jour, soaking up the sauce with chunks of baguette, ordering a second carafe of wine. All this was served to us by a rakish chef, who stopped to chat and show me his Tweety Bird tattoos. Paris both sharpens my senses and slows me down, which is surely the best way to approach a meal- with sensual awareness and time to spare. And everything, everything tastes better there.
Michele Filgate (The Paris Review):
I’ve eaten the best meals of my life in Paris, but nothing comes close to one rainy August day when I decided to have an indoor picnic while I was staying at Shakespeare & Company. I wandered down to a bakery and bought a baguette that was still warm from the oven. It smelled so good that I ate some of it while standing under the awning of the shop. I picked out some juicy tomatoes and ripe avocados at the market. I went to the local cheese shop and bought duck pate, prosciutto, and two types of cheeses—one gooey and pungent, one firm. I paired it with a couple of glasses of Côtes du Rhône. It was quite the decadent meal, and I enjoyed every bit of it while looking out the rain-streaked window at Notre-Dame. It’s raining in Brooklyn as I write this. Gloomy days will always remind me of that sublime afternoon.
“As if you could pick in love, as if it were not a lightning bolt that splits your bones and leaves you staked out in the middle of the courtyard. (…) You don’t pick out the rain that soaks you to the skin when you come out of a concert.” ― Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch
Jakob Vala (Graphic Designer): Over the holidays I reread Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood so that I could read their sequel, MaddAddam, for the first time. It’s brilliant, of course, and darkly funny, too. In MaddAddam, Atwood provides a satisfying end to her dystopian trilogy. I didn’t love it quite as much as the previous novels—due, I think to the choice in narrator. But Atwood’s wondrous genetically-modified creatures, along with the mythology of Zeb and the Crakers more than make up for that. MaddAddam was worth the wait and I’ll long for a sequel (even if it never comes).
Michelle Wildgen (Executive Editor, Tin House Magazine): I read a bunch over the break and I almost remember some of it! Tin House contributor Diana Abu-Jaber has a memoir from a few years back, called The Language of Baklava, which was a particularly enjoyable read. It’s a food-heavy memoir about the author’s family, especially her Jordanian father. I think the common immigration narrative is usually all about the parent who arrives in a new country and devotes himself to assimilation, but her father kept a strong tie to Jordan, including moving his American wife and children there for a couple of years, and it’s that tie that provides some of the best moments in the book: when Abu-Jaber’s father and his brothers try to recreate their childhood slaughter of a lamb and the subsequent feast, only to realize that they are too far from it now as adults living in the US, and a truly wonderful section in which, as a child, Diana Abu-Jaber slips so easily into life in Jordan. The food described in the book is tantalizing and evocative, and I had no choice but to go on a Middle Eastern cooking binge immediately upon finishing it.
Matthew Dickman (Poetry Editor): If you’re looking for a strange and beautiful collection of poetry that might be outside of what you are usually reading, I want to suggest John Wieners’ A Book of Prophecies (Bootstrap Productions, 2007). A book of lyric poems, lists that become poems, and the sweet and tender (and wild!) mind of Wieners, A Book of Prophecies will get you through the first days of the New Year with new ideas and a feeling that the world is big enough for all of us.
Lance Cleland (Workshop Director): The Dinner by Herman Koch. How fun to kick the New Year off with this nasty little treat. The literary equivalent of an (early era) Michael Haneke film, Koch’s brisk novel is the perfect palate cleanser to get rid of the stale taste still lingering from the great literary debate of 2013: Do American readers need likeable characters in order to really enjoy a novel? Paul Lohman, the book’s unhinged and wonderfully acerbic narrator, is an asshole. The degree in which his contemptible behavior verges into that of a sociopath is what gives the book much of its electric charge. The novel’s premise is that two couples (a set of brothers and their wives) gather over a fancy dinner to discuss an incident involving their respective sons. We have to get through a few courses before the event is revealed, but the build up, which includes a lot of riffs on the food and the manner in which it is being presented, establishes an air of narcissism that makes the final act all the more chilling. Koch doesn’t necessarily stick the landing; there is a bit too much slapstick that arises out of all the horrific revelations, but even in this, there is a glint of genius. This is a book that constantly has you saying, “There is no way these characters would behave like this.” Then, “There are people who would behave exactly like this.” The balance Koch achieves between those two trains of thought is what makes The Dinner such a compulsive and rewarding read.
Cheston Knapp (Managing Editor, Tin House Magazine): Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle is like the best LiveJournal I’ve ever read. I’m hooked. Lively and rawly and palpably and irritatingly human, oh so human, full of flights of lyricism as well as flights of blah, blah, blah. For a review full of smart thoughts, please see Zadie Smith’s here.
Tony Perez (Editor, Tin House Books): Yup.
Thomas Ross (Editorial Assistant): This winter I bought an armload of books at the Humane Society thrift store in Bend, OR. The smallish fiction section was implausibly well-curated, considering the enormous store seemed to be staffed by one teenaged kid, presumably a volunteer. Regardless, I spent nine bucks on five books and one of them was Cees Nooteboom’s In the Dutch Mountains. It’s my introduction to the Dutch novelist, but I’m an immediate believer. Nooteboom’s narrator is Alfonso Tiburón, a Spanish road planner who takes a month each summer to write a small book in an empty schoolroom. As Tiburón writes his “fairy tale” about two Dutch circus performers, he regularly interrupts with asides and anecdotes from his own life. Toward the last of the novel, in the middle of a paragraph otherwise dedicated to the events of the fairy tale, a single sentence interjects: “This book is about reading.” I don’t know if that’s actually more true of this book than any other—like all good books, it’s about a lot of things. Like all great books, it carves out a space bigger than itself and encourages you to fill it.
After you summon all your strength to pull yourself toward that small hole of light, then up out of that crib, after you refuse to succumb to the sickness, the cruelty, the absolute melancholy of the playground, after that snot Sarah Frytag trips you and blackens your front tooth, after that tooth falls out and grows back in white as birch bark, after the chicken pox and the cafeterias and the exams, after your beloved grandfather dies suddenly, after the hangovers, after the first, then second, then third and fourth bad boss, after the panic that you may have your mother’s legitimate, diagnosable mental illness passes, after you heal from the debilitating sunburn you got from falling asleep on a park bench, after the anger at the strangers who hadn’t bothered to wake you dissipates, and your skin flakes off in continent-sized patches returning you to your pale, dull, painless self, after you undress to the bone to show yourself as vulnerable, after the only true love of your life breaks up with you saying, “get some therapy,” after you meet the actual, real, true love of your life and she leaves you for cheating on her, after you stop removing the eviction notices from your door, move back in with your parents, after you’ve ceased praying to the patron saint of alcoholics, after your first and only marriage ends, after you’ve quit calling those 900 numbers, after you lie to your mother about selling your grandfather’s antique mandolin for cash, after you get rid of the bed bugs and get rid of the bed bugs and get rid of the bed bugs again, after you’ve worn through your stories and your jokes and your clever observations and opt for earnestness instead, after the fireflies are no longer magical, after you put down your favorite dog because of a bad hip, after you’ve stopped believing in the president and his ability to change anything, after the cicada plague, after your fierce mother surrenders to cancer, after you discover, late in life, a love of reading, after the ache begins in your joints, after the cataracts, after you started to forget why you’d come to the store in the first place, after friends your own age begin to die, after you decide to face the forever-empty inside you and you open the door to find yourself staring at it dead on, those cold, blind eyes, that voice that says, you can’t outrun it, son, and you slam that door and you reach for something, anything to keep you from thinking about the ending, after it’s way too late to realize that orgasms and whiskey and babies and yoga and TV only work to hold back the tide of unhappiness for a little while, after that, after the nurse is pulling that sheet up over your face, that’s when you’ll be free of it.
Theresa Coulter works as a freelance writer and illustrator in New York City. She has been a Ledig House International Fellow and a resident at Hedgebrook, MacDowell, UCROSS, VCCA, Millay and the Atlantic Center for the Arts. She is currently at work on a novel.
Tin House Reels is pleased to screen Afroditi Bitzouni’s animated interpretation of the Greek poet Tasos Livaditis’s “Night.”
Bitzouni conceived her video “when my laptop was broken.” “At that time,” she explains, “there was nothing better to do other than flipping the pages of my fairytales and reading my favorite poems. I was reading [the poem ‘Night,’] every night for months. The illustrations [in my video] were based on a drawing I had done on the bottom of the poem in the book.”
An animator who lives in Athens, Greece, Bitzouni makes literary videos as “my passion…a way to develop my narrative abilities…combining live action…with different forms of art such as music, poetry, choreography.” For “Night,” she drew images in Adobe Illustrator and textured them in Photoshop, using a scanned image of the book of poems itself as texturing in order to create an illusion of collage and to clearly relate the video to the poem in the book.
A translation of the poem “Night” follows, translated by Manolis Aligizakis.
- Night -
There is a door in the night that only the blind see,
darkness makes the animals hear better,
and him, staggered, not from being drunk,
but from his futile effort to climb
up to the tower, we once lost.
Afroditi Bitzouni is a member of IndyvisuaIs Design Collective . She studied Product and Systems Design Engineering at The University of the Aegean, as well as Animation at The Glasgow School of Art. Her work has appeared in the Athens Video Art Festival, LPM (Live Performers Meeting), the Athens and Epidaurus Festival, and other venues.
The sound was produced by DJ Enthro of Psyclinic Tactix.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also send us a file directly.
Davy Rothbart is a true multimedia man. The creator of Found magazine, which displays items like lists, letters, drawings, and other ephemera sent in by readers who have found these lost items all over the world, Rothbart has also published a collection of essays (My Heart Is an Idiot), a book of short stories (The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas), and is a regular contributor to This American Life.
Rothbart’s latest project is the documentary film, Medora, which follows the Medora Hornets varsity basketball team over the course of the 2010 – 2011 season. The film focuses in on the economic struggles of the small Indiana town that gives the film its title, and how that narrative transfers over to the brutal losing streak the team is riding as the story begins.
I spoke with him as he drove across Missouri, and Davy shared his thoughts on narrative storytelling and how he came to see Medora as a project that would build upon his existing body of work, which, as a whole, draws readers in with simultaneous tenderness and grit, scrappiness and hope.
Brandi Dawn Henderson: As someone who has used a variety of mediums to tell stories, I am curious to know how Medora came to be full-feature documentary as opposed to an essay or audio story for This American Life?
Davy Rothbart: I’m a passionate documentary film junkie, as is Andrew Cohn, my co-director, and we’re basketball nuts. We learned about the town of Medora through the New York Times article by John Branch and we drove down there the next day just to check it out. Immediately, my thoughts were on a documentary film; I’ve made a couple short documentaries about the band Rise Against, but I hadn’t made a full-length feature documentary yet. I think maybe it’s because basketball is a visual kind of setting, and also maybe because of what I took in just walking around this small town; the landscapes there are just these kind of once glorious, small American towns that are faded now – in many ways, those landscapes are so lyrical.
Even so, a lot of my favorite pieces on This American Life have definitely taken the audio from great documentaries in order to create amazing radio pieces. For example, there’s a documentary called Hands on a Hard Body; it’s probably one of my favorite documentaries of all time. It’s about a small town in Texas and a truck dealership that has a contest every year where twenty people stand around a truck and whoever can keep their hand on the truck the longest wins the truck. It’s an incredible film and was the first kind of seminal competition documentary. All of reality television, for better or worse, was born from this one documentary, and This American Life, years ago, took the audio from the film along with some of the additional interviews that the director Rob Bindler did with some of the main subjects, and created this really crazy-brilliant radio piece. So, just because you go make a film doesn’t mean there are not other ways you could treat the material you’ve collected, but I felt that the film was the first step when it came to Medora.
DR: Well, taking these courageous, resilient kids who have faced some really difficult challenges in their home lives and on the basketball court, playing against some much bigger schools, just seemed like the ultimate underdog story. Also, the people had a warmth, a willingness to open up to us; we could kind of gauge that in the beginning. And, I related to these stories because I grew up on a dirt road in Michigan; I’m from a college town in Ann Arbor, but you can drive twenty minutes in any direction to see these Medora-like towns, and they’re not just in the mid-west, they’re all over the country. You look at a Found note and it is magical, but it just gives you the tip of the iceberg. It sparks your imagination, but it’s up to you to piece together the rest of it. Being able to go to Medora with Andrew Cohn and to spend eight months or a year in this town felt like we’d get to see the whole iceberg and get to know the town in this intimate way. We were thrilled when we got permission from the school board and the town to come in and start filming.
BDH: That makes sense to me, as the most common element in all your projects seems to be an interest in highlighting the beauty of flawed and hopeful, and sometimes marginalized individuals or communities. Why do you think you are drawn to showcasing this particular demographic
DR: I don’t know, I’m always drawn to people’s stories, the human element of sadness, darkness, or desperation. Maybe it’s because I’ve been through a few things in my own life and I can relate to those stories in a way that has more texture, is more real, more raw, more rugged. Also, I think these are stories that aren’t being told as widely; there are a lot of indie films about twenty-somethings going through romantic rom-com type stuff (and I love some of those movies; I think some of them are super on-point, brilliant, even) but I don’t see a lot of films about towns like Medora. And the ones you do see sometimes have a little bit of a sensational vibe where they include only poverty, they’re only showing the ruin and the plight and not really taking a full deeper look at what a community like Medora is experiencing. Sometimes you don’t always have an inspirational triumph at the end, but in Medora, for example, I feel like there’s an extremely uplifting conclusion in a lot of the boys’ stories by the time it wrapped up. A lot of the kids were in pretty desperate circumstances when we first met them and what they managed to overcome was astounding. A couple of the kids who graduated from Medora managed to get jobs in neighboring towns, and it might not be anything glamorous, but it’s a win just for them to have full-time employment. Not everybody gets that, but these are kids that could have gone down another path, a darker path, who found a way to put it together.
David Shields: All of your work seems to me mature, complex, layered, bittersweet, but this book feels almost unspeakably sad. How do you write or read about such sadness without succumbing? This is a bit of a rhetorical question on my part. I can’t read work that isn’t unspeakably sad, but I want to hear your answer, Peter.
Peter Mountford: All my favorite pieces of writing break my heart, badly. I’ve actually assembled in a manila folder a dozen or so short stories that bring me to tears every time I read them. And I sometimes reread one just to experience that little rush of heartbreak. It blows open the doors within me. What I’ve noticed with those stories is that there’s usually a lot of humor along the way to coax the reader onward, and to sharpen the contrast. That’s important, I think, and this book has a certain comedic atmosphere, even if it’s not at all a comedy. Toni Morrison once said something like, “My goal is to break my reader’s heart, I want to make them cry, and if I’m going to do that, I can’t cry.” I’m paraphrasing, but it’s true. As a writer you can’t force the emotion onto readers.
The emotion has to be a natural byproduct of what’s happening, and it has to be earned, too, so it often takes a while. People have to be made to care, over time. The crushing end of A Farewell to Arms—without the preceding 200-something pages, without the aching beauty of their stolen romance, without that it wouldn’t eviscerate you.
DS: When I write about politics, it comes out as “Impeach George Bush.” How do you manage to write so well about politics?
PM: Thank you for saying that, but I think the answer is implied by your question. Certainty is dead in the water. That’s true of a lot of things, not just politics. Take some character who’s just an awful person, cruel and selfish and so on. Fine. But until you see his thwarted ambitions, his private misery, his bafflement at the questions facing him in life, he’s just not alive. Even then, until he sort of violates the boundaries that you—as the author—have assigned to him, until then he’s not quite alive. We’re dualities, pluralities.
In economics, there’s almost never an obviously right policy decision. People have opinions. But it’s always a question of weighing relative costs and benefits. And that seems like everything in life, to me. You should choose this college over that college, someone might say, and you can tally up the pros and cons, but, end of the day, you’re basically flipping a coin.
Carolyn Forché said that good “political” poetry will obliterate the line between personal and social inquiry, and that seems true with fiction, too. Essays, also. If it’s not about a personal problem, a human being facing a problem, then it’s more abstraction. I want to be lost in the problem, I want to feel like I’m about to answer the question, and then encounter a harder question. Ultimately, I want my characters to find themselves facing impossible questions—you must ruin this beautiful thing, or you must ruin that beautiful thing.
DS: I love how much “dismal science”—economics—is in The Dismal Science. How can economics become the basis of a novel?
We have opened the gates & are now accepting applications for the 2014 Summer Workshop.
Come for the amazing lectures and wildly talented instructors.
Stay for the drinks and dessert bar.
“Antisthenes says that in a certain faraway land the cold is so intense that words freeze as soon as they are uttered, and after some time then thaw and become audible, so that words spoken in winter go unheard until the next summer.“— Plutarch, Moralia
I did not know it was you at first. You tricked me in your feathered form, a fine white tuxedo and black tie, your dark shoes polished to shine on Mars. You were a god to me but I didn’t recognize you at the lake. You floated out of the dark, frothing virility. You flew up choking and battering my neck and face with your rough dirtied wingspan.
You had been someone else at the party. A god, yes, but a god who came down to earth. Your teeth had yellowed; maybe it was the dim lighting. Outside twilight was bleeding into night. Your shadow on the shore of the lake was misshapen and molting. When you approached I saw your shadow first. Earlier, you had glided from room to room, your proud serpentine neck held high, your only disguise a black and orange mask painted directly on your chiseled face.
But now my nose is forever canted to one side and I can never return to the lake. I miss the lake. I miss me.
The water was an extraordinary blue-green, a shimmery vision of blossoming trees and swaths of bright sky. When I dove into the water, I felt like I was diving into a liquid forest, full of sweet life. I used to swim there naked. Of course, that was my mistake. I should have known better at fourteen but I still viewed these budding breasts as appendages that didn’t belong to me. And they didn’t. They belonged to you, you hissed; your mouth once so harmless was now a beak full of sharp and infinite teeth.
Andrea DeAngelis is at times a poet, writer, shutterbug, and musician living in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Sententia, The Shout, 2AM Project, and elsewhere. She has just completed her first novel, Pushed. She also sings and plays guitar in the band MAKAR, who are recording their third album, Fancy Hercules.
In honor of a New Year, here are some great first pages from the 2013 authors of Tin House Books. It’s hard to read just one page!
Read more of American Dream Machine.
Read more of Cities of Refuge.
Read more of Heart of Darkness.
Read more Low Down.
Start your New Year off right with Ann Hood’s ”Beginnings,” which appears in The Writer’s Notebook II.
Beginning with dialogue is one of the most difficult ways to open a story successfully. The dialogue must be compelling enough to draw the reader in before he or she knows anything about the character(s) speaking or the context in which the dialogue is taking place. There exists the danger that the dialogue will feel disembodied or separate from what follows.
Difficult, but not impossible, as Salman Rushdie demonstrates in The Satanic Verses, which opens with this line of dialogue: “’To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.’” And Katherine Dunn in Geek Love: “’When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”
Why do these openings work? First the speakers—Gibreel Farishta and Papa—are identified by name. In this way, the reader is introduced to the character who is speaking, which prevents that disembodied feeling. But perhaps even more importantly, what they are saying and how they say it draws the reader in immediately. With The Satanic Verses, we wonder if the speaker is dead. And we are given the wonderful added detail that Gibreel is tumbling from heaven. Papa’s dialogue is strange and charming at the same time. Mama was a geek? The nipping off of noggins? Hens yearned toward her? Both of these beginnings make the reader want to find out what will happen next.
Ann Hood is the author of the novels The Red Thread, and, The Knitting Circle, as well as the memoir, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice and chosen as one of the top ten non-fiction books of 2008 by Entertainment Weekly. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, The Paris Review, Glimmer Train and many other publications.
Ann will be teaching at this year’s Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop.
“Winter then in its early and clear stages, was a purifying engine that ran unhindered over city and country, alerting the stars to sparkle violently and shower their silver light into the arms of bare upreaching trees. It was a mad and beautiful thing that scoured raw the souls of animals and man, driving them before it until they loved to run. And what it did to Northern forests can hardly be described, considering that it iced the branches of the sycamores on Chrystie Street and swept them back and forth until they rang like ranks of bells.” ― Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale
We will be back January 1st with exciting new content, blistering exposés, and thinly veiled self-advertisements.
Until then, from all of us here at The Open Bar, a very merry holiday to you and yours.
When the whole family gathered—when the dogs of cousins vaguely remembered one another and settled in friendly heaps under the long table around which young parents affectionately bemoaned the little ones upstairs rumbling with the horsepower of imagined engines, and the very old ladies downstairs, passing peacefully away in corners, growing young again, strapping on work boots and headlamps, shaving with straight razors and parceling among themselves chewing tobacco and hunks of cheese, setting forth to explore the cavities of the lost colossus, who looking up from her dragon eggs saw the dragon herself had come in with a bandage around one wing, the good woman unpeeling it delicately, wincing in sympathy, discovering the pornographic tattoo, when her aquamarine broach came unfastened and slid down her jacket, like a glittering tsunami, on which you and I surfed, giggling, over seas and lands of tweed, like the pioneers of the Old West, across boundless, curving wastes and corpse-strewn steppes of buffalo who buffaloed Buffalo buffalo, when all we ate for three days was buffalo and all we drank for three nights was buffalo nog, under the colossal mistletoe, the immemorial greenwad of our first nights together, in that colossus’s bedroom, that mistletoe which hung over the widowed bed, as though to conjure from the lost night a gentle, sharp-smelling male colossus in the flannel pajamas she once cut out of a catalogue at a colossal sleepover party, imagining husbands, or as though to torment herself with the solitude of the last great woman gazing in her yellowed dress up at that massive mistletoe whose very scent molecules were festive involuted wreaths, one of which I put around your neck as I kissed your eight knuckles and the ghosts of your two former knuckles, and you put twenty around my neck, so they piled over my head, encasing me in a cylinder of merriment, until you spun the wreathes, chafing my neck like the moon had once chafed the world turned inside out where the night sky was a black marble over everyone’s head on all continents at once, and the claustrophobic moon careened in its centrifugal inner orbit over the great concavity of that evaginated land, crushing the makeshift housing communities of the poor, shunning the palaces of the rich where the nog flowed in cataracts down the breasts of ice-sculpted swans and out the ice urethras of transparent youths, years before I met you to dance in scented wreaths upon the sleeping giant widow’s chin, before we were inevitably inhaled on the gust of a sudden snort, and made our first home together in that hallowed nasal cavity, where after weeks of darkness the old former grandmothers came upon us and offered us chewing tobacco and hunks of cheese, and ever so gently led us squinting back through the woods, over the river, to the house on the quiet lane, where around the long table the parents took another sip of the honest nog, before gathering the children, the dogs, and kissing one another goodbye for the year, and perhaps forever, pulled on their new knit scarves and gloves and overcoats spun of the warmest, simplest tweed.
The Trout Family Almanac, a story project of Brooklyn’s Trout collective with David Greenwood is forthcoming from Papercut Press in 2014. Other stories of his can be found in Dislocate, Hot Metal Bridge, The Brooklyn Review, Fiction Fix, and elsewhere. He’s working on a novel.