Sunday, May 31, 2009

Book Review: Chinese Takeout, by Arthur Nersesian

The novel Chinese Takeout by New York-based poet, playwright, lit mag editor, and novelist Arthur Nersesian, concerns a lower Manhattan artist in his early thirties, Orloff Trenchant (great name). His friends call him Or. And sometimes either/or. Or had a level of success early in his career after he produced a series of paintings depicting his real-life experience of his getting pushed onto train tracks (what Or refers to as the subway accident). Eight years after his first solo gallery show, Or is living a squalid life, sometimes in run-down apartments, sometimes out of his van. He pays for his supplies by selling used books on the streets of Manhattan while struggling to complete his latest work—a series of paintings of swimmers navigating the East River.

As the novel unfolds we are introduced to Or’s various downtown artist friends, lovers, and critics. There is Bethsheba, an Australian artist with which Or pals around and occasionally sleeps with. Klein Ritter, “a shrunken, deviously mild-mannered man and the most venomous art critic on the scene.” Cali, a matronly gallery owner who got Or his first solo show. And June, Or’s artist girlfriend. By the end of Chapter 2, Or’s jealousy overtakes him when he finds some sketches June drew depicting sexual acts that Or is sure he was not a part of. In a fit, he destroys a couple of her finished works, ceremoniously breaking off their relationship.

In any other novel, this rash, extreme act would connote the beginning of a downward spiral. But Nersesian avoids cliché by having this be just another blip on Or’s radar of life. The chapters are fairly short, averaging ten pages, and the prose is brisk and the dialogue true, funny, and plentiful. Flashbacks are kept to a minimum, with the story told mostly in the present.

Or avoids living in his van by moving into an older artist’s loft space while the artist, Shade, is out of town. He meets Rita, a beautiful young punk who works for a needle exchange program, handing out new needles to street addicts with names like Meaningless Mike and Crackpipe Bob. He is instantly smitten, falling for this girl he knows almost nothing about, and turning her into his muse.

Nersesian adds discussions of real artists like de Kooning and Rothko, as well as art critic Robert Hughes, lending an authenticity to the story. He shows us how hard it is for Or to continue living in a city that has priced out poor artists and writers. The locations feel authentic to Or’s life: he meets up with fellow artists and writers at the KGB Bar. Shade’s loft space is in the Jarmulovsky Bank building, on the corner of Canal and Orchard Streets. Though published in 2003, Nersesian has set his story pre-9/11, specifically during the 2000 presidential election. This lends the novel a fabled feel of a time and place that was inexorably changed within the year.

Or is not just a character in a story who happens to be an artist. When he’s not buying and selling used books, he’s drawing, painting, or sculpting with palpable passion, frustration, failure, and success. Nersesian appears to know what he’s talking about, and highlights the day-to-day details of what it takes to be a working artist in New York. He describes artists' financial struggles, the types of art supplies needed for a certain project, and the thought processes that spin through the mind of a painter.

The Chinese takeout of the title is a sculpture job that Or is offered, to create a headstone in the shape of a Chinese food takeout carton. Or accepts the work because he needs the money. But he also wants to learn more about working with stone. Or is a specific type of artist, and there are probably many like him in the New York art scene—broke, struggling, but also trying to become better at his craft in hopes that one day recognition will come.

The tone of Chinese Takeout is handled deftly, with sly, comic touches, and dialogue that is generally honest and real. You learn a lot about Nersesian’s characters by the way they talk and interact. When Or falls hard for Rita, he learns that not only has she quit her job with the needle exchange, she’s an addict herself. The theme of addiction is marbled throughout Chinese Takeout: not only drug addiction, but also fame addition, poverty addiction, and love addiction. This is heavy stuff, but it never becomes overwhelming or suffocating. I felt more like I was being shown a new, unfamiliar world by an author who wanted me to understand it without judgment, while also warning me about its pitfalls.

In many ways Or is lucky, as a character and as an artist. But he is still a character in a novel, and as such experiences a story arc. And whether you buy the end of the novel depends on whether you can appreciate Or foremost as this specific character. I enjoyed reading about Or’s experiences and ultimately I found the ending of the novel and of Or’s story arc a satisfying conclusion.

I admit it took me a while to get into the writing. I was put off by the many adverbs in the character tags. Often Nersesian hits you over the head with them, using phrases like, “he replied nervously”, “I asked delicately”, “I replied earnestly”, and “he instantly retorted.” This is an important point, because as a writer I try to avoid redundancy or hyperbole. But a strange thing happened on my way to the finish line: I warmed up to this style and believe it added a level of warmth and sympathy to Or, and made his occasional rash, rude behavior come across more human than douche baggy.

If you want an adult read that will take you to a place and time in Manhattan you might not otherwise get to see (and if you do, take care out there), I recommend Chinese Takeout. If you read it, let me know what you think. And if you’ve read other books by Mr. Nersesian, tell me which of his books I should pick up next.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Books in My Lobby 6

There's been quite a bit of book activity in my lobby recently. I'll start with this classic nugget, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, about Packingtown, the center of Chicago's meatpacking industry in the early 20th century. We know the horrors of how meat gets processed in 2009--imagine what it was like a hundred years ago. Gag. The cover photo of this edition tells it all.

If you don't feel like reading the book (I mean, it's long, and old, and full of ideas--it's like having to watch Battleship Potemkin for school) then check out SparkNotes. It's like Cliffs Notes ("The fastest way to learn") for the Internet, with a chapter-by-chapter synopsis, a page of historical context, and a character breakdown. Brought to you by the people who already make most of America's book buying decisions: Barnes & Noble.

Don't forget your homework:

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Literary Magazine Interview

This month on The Review Review website, check out my interview with R. T. Smith, editor of the literary magazine Shenandoah. Mr. Smith (no relation) discusses what it’s like to edit a historically prestigious literary magazine, how the Internet has changed the way lit mags operate, and what it’s like to wear the duel hats of editor and writer.

Need another literary magazine fix? Read my review of Salt Hill #22.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Vacation Reading

While I pack to go on vacation this week, I’m deciding what books to take. Liz and I are visiting my parents and sister in Florida, and there should be plenty of quiet time to read. Currently, I’m reading Chinese Takeout, a novel by Arthur Nersesian. It’s about the adventures and loves of a struggling young artist in New York.

But, what if I finish Chinese Takeout and want to read something else? In that case I need to bring a backup. So, I’ve decided to bring along The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Lots of short sections, so I can read a page, put it down, then pick it up later without losing the thread. I know the subject matter isn’t light (post-apocalyptic America, and whatnot) but if I plan on seeing the movie based on the book this summer, then I need to finish the book first.

But why stop there? I’ll also bring some entertaining non-fiction, Sex, Stupidity, and Greed, by Ian Grey. It’s a scathing look at Hollywood. This came out in 1997, so references to Titanic (which hadn’t been released yet) and Waterworld mark this as out of date. But the stories this guy tells are great, and his interviews with screenwriters, directors, and various anonymous studio people are priceless.

I’m also bringing the latest Esquire. You might remember Megan Fox on the cover. This issue features articles about this summer’s movies, including The Road. If that’s still not enough, I can also sit for hours and scan my father’s New Yorkers. They come every week! Or browse through his hundreds of books. He’s a dealer of collectable books and ephemera, and whenever we visit there is always a great and curious selection. I’m not even taking into consideration books I might buy while I’m down there at tasty yard sales and thrift shops. Last year I accumulated so many during my stay that my father had to mail them north for me. Hopefully this year I won't leave Florida with more than I arrive with.

What books are you reading on vacation?

Saturday, May 16, 2009

At Least I Don’t Have a Book Deal…

This morning I attempted the fifth beginning of the total revision (new characters, new situations, twice the fun!) of my novel "American Standard" (I’m changing that title, so feel free to take it). Five times I’ve put my main character through different versions of similar actions and introductions. Tomorrow morning I plan on starting a sixth. It’s like creating six alternate realities for my character; each version would spin my character off in a new direction. Which bizarro world can I create today? It doesn’t matter if none of them is the right one.

What’s disturbing is that I’ve never had a problem starting a novel. It was always the other stuff that gave me trouble. It was the middle and end that slowed me down. Stopped me dead. Put me away for years of head scratching. But without a beginning, I don’t get the chance to revise an ending.

The stupid part is I know where the novel’s story really begins, when my main character meets the supporting character who will change his life forever. And I just can’t let myself jump ahead a few scenes and get down to it. I’m stuck introducing my main character over and over again, my own little Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, and it’s not working. I can hear you now: drop it like it’s hot, and just write the damn scene where these two characters meet.

I can’t. I mean, I can’t yet. I have yet to exhaust all my ideas at an opening. I’m linear, is my problem. I write front to back, beginning to end. It’s just the way I’m wired. And it makes thing woefully structured sometimes.

My sister, romantic suspense writer Cynthia Sherrick, told me once that she will skip ahead and write the end of the novel (or at least one of the final scenes) then go back and fill in the rest of the story, using that last scene as a guide. I like that idea. I’m not sure how my story will end, so I probably won’t go that far. But I should trust the story I want to tell, and allow myself to break this construct I’ve surrounded myself with and jump ahead a few scenes. Who knows, maybe this scene I have in mind is the real beginning of the novel and I won’t need to go in and back fill? Only one way to tell.

I know this is the beginning of at least a year’s worth of work, just to get another draft. If I can get the thing out of first gear, that is. There is another novel I’d like to write, and if I wait too long spinning around the track with "American Standard," that other story might take over. I want to finish one project before starting the next. So that’s why I say I’m glad I don’t have a book deal, where I’m supposed to get a book written by a certain date, with an agent, editor, and publisher breathing down my neck. That’s pressure I’m not sure I could stand. That’s my spin at not having an agent or a book deal right now. At least I have the luxury of time to write what I want to write.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

How’s your writing going? Tell me all. I want details. Are beginnings the most difficult part for you? Or do endings slow you down?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Megan Fox On Esquire Cover

Now that I have your attention…it has recently come to mine that Esquire has reinstated the practice of publishing fiction. At least online. The last time I bought a hard copy of Esquire was about two years ago, and it appeared they had given up fiction for good. They had always published great journalism and essays—but their fiction had become history.

A shame, because their literary heritage is long, having published works by Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Hammett, among many other greats. Who can forget this iconic cover from October 1973 showing all literary lions (along with a scant two lionesses) past and (circa-‘73) present?

Crack this decades old issue and you'll find 540 pages of great writing. What are the chances of this happening today? Slim. And if it did, it would be about how the authors looked, not about what they wrote. Nothing more than a fashion spread with token essays and one or two stories thrown in to make it look legit. Still, I'd probably buy it.

I also dusted off this paperback that I picked up at a book sale a couple years ago. Great Esquire fiction from the first fifty years. Will they even be able to fill a comparable-sized book for the second fifty?

If the current fiction page of their website is any indication, yes. Here I found stories by Don Delillo, Richard Russo, Chris Adrian, Jonathan Lethem, and David Foster Wallace. Good news all around. Well, for the most part. Esquire is still a magazine for men, so most of the stories are by male authors. And a cursory search of the site yields no address, email or otherwise, to send unsolicited manuscripts. That means an un-agented writer doesn't have a chance. Unless…

Fiction Contest

That's right, Esquire is running a fiction contest. The winner gets a cool $2500.00 and the winning story published in Esquire. But before you upload your latest short masterpiece to their site, check these posted rules:

"The first and most important rule — besides, of course, that the story has to be original — is that the story must be based on one of three titles that we have provided.

The titles are:

1. "Twenty-Ten"

2. "An Insurrection"

3. "Never, Ever Bring This Up Again"

A date, a thing, and a statement. No exceptions. Make of them what you will, do with them something great. But no taking an old story and slapping one of our new titles on it. We'll know, and we won't be happy.

Second rule: Your story cannot exceed 4,000 words. We are serious about that, too.

Other rules: You may submit only one story. The contest begins on May 1, 2009. All entries are due by midnight of August 1, 2009 and must be submitted electronically here at"

Hold up, there's more:

"Return to frequently for inspiration. Because we also have a second announcement:

Starting immediately, we will be publishing great new American fiction exclusively online, starting right here with "The Gray," a new story by Aaron Gwyn and the best bar-fight story we've ever read. It is just the first of many new stories that will find their first publication at the all-new Bookmark it. And get to typing."

I'm put off by prompts, but maybe I'll give the title suggestion thing a try. How about you? Thinking of entering? Which title would you use? I like 3. "Never, Ever Bring This Up Again."

I'm off to pick up the latest Esquire. Meanwhile, Megan decides what to read next:

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Books in My Lobby 5

It's been months since somebody left a book in my lobby. Finally, this morning on my way out I saw this gem sitting there as if no time had passed. David Baldacci's The Whole Truth. Something tells me this is a legal thriller. But what do I know? Maybe Mr. Baldacci's website can set me straight:

"In this terrifying global thriller, ...characters’ lives will collide head-on as a series of events is set in motion that could change the world as we know it. An utterly spellbinding story that feels all too real, The Whole Truth delivers all the twists and turns, emotional drama, unforgettable characters, and can’t-put-it-down pacing that readers expect from David Baldacci -- and still goes beyond anything he’s written before."

Sounds scary. Unfortunately, I'll never find out because the book was gone when I came home this afternoon. I guess I missed my chance. Damn you lobby, damn you to hell!!!

David speaks:

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Muse and the Marketplace 2009 -- Recap

Last weekend I attended Grub Street's 8th annual Muse and the Marketplace writer’s conference. This was my third Muse, and my best experience thus far. Which is saying a lot, since the others were wonderful.

For the first time the Muse was held at Boston’s Park Plaza Hotel, apparently the only facility in Boston big enough for this year’s conference, proving how unstoppable a force the Muse and Grub Street have become. Also, for the first time I did not participate in the Manuscript Mart part of the conference. This is where a literary agent or editor critiques 20 pages of your writing. It’s an intense experience, and it can feel like the conference becomes a framework on which to drape these agent/editor meetings. This year I wanted to simply go to the conference and not worry about a critique. Also as a first, I volunteered Sunday, coming away with a wholly unique vision of the conference; meeting fellow writers I would not have otherwise and getting new perspectives by sitting in on workshops outside of my interest.


Saturday started with a panel discussion called The State of the Industry. Participants included Hallie Ephron (writer), Jane Rosenman (editor, Algonquin Books), David Langevin (director of electronic markets at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and Joseph Olshan (writer), moderated by Sorche Fairbank (founder of Fairbank Literary Representation). Here we got the inside scoop on topics such as publishing in the digital age, the struggles a working author faces, and trends in fiction. I gleaned some interesting tidbits such as:

- Good writing is always in demand, whether published traditionally or digitally (online, ebooks, etc.).
- There are now fewer editors for agents to send material to.
- Good ideas to garner a bit more attention include: writing a novel in serial format, incorporating non-fiction hooks (social, historical, civil rights, etc.) in your fiction, and publishing online (agents do troll the Internet for talent).
- Alternatives to traditional publishing: ebooks, podcasts, cell phone novels (novels written on a cell phone—huge in Japan).
- Publish in magazines/lit mags to get agents/editors attention.
- Non-fiction sells better than fiction.
- It’s easier to get a published book reviewed than a self-published book.
- Self-publishing success can lead to a publisher.
- There is a genre called narrative. I hadn’t heard of this. It’s a cross between literary fiction and storytelling. Which I take to mean, plot-driven literary fiction (correct me if I’m off base here).

This was neither encouraging nor discouraging, but followed what I already believed about the current state of publishing. It’s always good to hear that good writing doesn't go out of style.

The panel ended with each panel member touting one or more contemporary books that they love (I may have missed one or two):
- The Outlander, Gil Adamson
- Beat the Reaper, Josh Bazell
- Dog on It: A Chet and Bernie Mystery, Spencer Quinn (I think I heard this right)
- Invisible Sisters, Jessica Handler
- Story of a Marriage, Andrew Sean Greer
- Mudbound, Hilary Jordan (more than one panelist mentioned this one)
- How Do We Decide, Jonah Lehrer (non-fiction)

Next I attended Lewis Robinson’s workshop, Eternal Rocks Beneath, the Relevance of Setting. Here Lewis handed out four excerpts, samples from novels and stories. We discussed the use of language to convey a sense of setting, and how we can learn about characters from their relation to and with the locations in which they pass. We learned about over-describing setting, where all objects carry the same weight. Or keeping it too generic, where location description is not from a particular character’s point of view.

Lewis equated writing about setting as describing to someone how to get someplace they are unfamiliar with. Imagine leading the way with a lantern that illuminates the reader’s path. By the end of the workshop I realized all the pieces we had discussed (from Revolutionary Road and Brokeback Mountain, to Louis’s own story, Puckheads) used settings not just as locations in which to place characters, but as if they were characters themselves, equally important to the story.

On to…Lunch! I sat at a table with Randy Susan Meyers, Ginny DeLuca, Tara Mantel, Stacey Shipman, and others. We were welcomed by Grub Street’s artistic director Chris Castellani, and development director Whitney Scharer. Then there were readings by Alan Cheuse and Dinty W. Moore. As you can see, every moment of the Muse is crammed with activity. You always get your money’s worth.

My afternoon workshop was Stephen McCauley’s Building Character. He discussed the best ways to introduce your characters, keeping in mind that first impressions stick with readers throughout a book, so you’ve got to write descriptions that count. Stephen read an excerpt from The Great Gatsby, when the character of Tom Buchanan is introduced. It’s a stunner, as Fitzgerald sweeps us across the front grounds of Buchanan’s sprawling house like a movie camera and right up to the man himself, standing with legs apart, surveying his domain. It was a great example of how to use action to help introduce a character.

Stephen then used Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls as an example of bad character description. Lots of vague language, like real and really, and describing a woman simply as beautiful without much elaboration. The woman’s eyes—they weren’t just blue. They were really blue. Sky blue, but glacial. Stephen admitted to loving Valley of the Dolls, even if the writing wasn’t always classic.

Toward the end of the day, it was time for the Hour of Power, five workshops that were open to all, and we were free to roam in and out at will. I wandered into a workshop about writing a non-fiction book proposal. Didn’t take long to figure out that it wasn’t for me, considering I’m all about the fiction. So I skeedaddled over to Hank Phillippi Ryan’s Open Mic. Here writers of every ilk read their pieces before a room of people and then Hank gave a spot critique, offering advice about how to choose a piece (read an excerpt that has a natural arc) and how to read with impact (when to hold a beat, when to raise your voice). These are details I hadn’t really considered. Good to know, as the few readings I’ve given could have used a little HPR guidance.

On to the cocktail hour. I’m not a big schmoozer, so I wasn’t prepared to bully some unsuspecting agent into representing me or an editor into a book contract. It was just relaxing to talk about the day with fellow writers and compare Muse stories. I also got the skinny on a few Manuscript Mart experiences while enjoying an exotic imported beer.


I had initially planned to attend only Saturday, so when I heard they were looking for volunteers, I threw my hat in the ring for Sunday. I arrived around 7:45 A.M., and was introduced to Kim. Kim showed me and another volunteer, Kathleen, around and told us how to manage the workshops to which we were assigned. Then I was stationed by the elevators to answer questions and guide participants to appropriate workshops or the Manuscript Mart.

By mid morning I had a few extra minutes so I sat in on Jenna Blum’s Extreme Research workshop. Jenna was a great speaker, as were many of the writers and instructors appearing at the Muse. She was generous and concise, quick on her feet, and funny as hell. When answering questions about how she approached interviewing Holocaust survivors, she explained how she put her subjects at ease and didn’t push too hard for details from those reticent to talk.

My first workshop as a volunteer was for Carlo Rotella’s Nonfiction Storytelling. Again, I’m a fiction writer. So I expected this session to be a little dry and off-topic. But Carlo is another great speaker, and he’s had so many interesting experiences as a journalist that he was a pleasure to listen to. And I found many of his comments about research (how to handle too much, how to get more), organizing, and editing really refreshing. He was happy to discuss his techniques and the problems he encountered whenever he wrote a magazine piece. How it’s easier for him to revise and finish an article than it is to start one.

Lunch time. Another great meal from the staff at the Park Plaza. Have I mentioned how this place ran like a precision watch, and the food and service were excellent? As a volunteer I wasn’t sure where to eat, and walked into the huge Georgian Ballroom looking for anyone with this year’s Muse t-shirt (the uniform for volunteers). Randy flagged me down and so I sat with her and other writers like Cecile Corona, Stephanie Ebbert, Christiane Alsop, and Jennifer McInerney. It’s great to talk to like-minded writers. Whether or not they’ve got an agent, a book deal, published stories, writers can always find common ground for discussion.

Anyway, it was time for keynote speaker Ann Patchett, (Bel Canto, Run). She bounded onstage and spoke for over an hour with fierce conviction and wry, candid observations. The first thing she said was, “The muse is bullshit,” and spent about 30 minutes explaining how creativity isn’t something you wait for, it’s something you earn by sitting your butt in the chair and writing. Then she said, “The marketplace is bullshit,” and spent 30 minutes explaining how mercurial the writing business can be. How you may have to throw away your first novel and set to work on the second if you ever want to get published. How you can’t get caught up worrying about trends and advances or you’ll never write a true word (I’m paraphrasing here, or maybe I’m writing my own keynote speech). She took a few questions from the avid audience, and then she left as quickly as she had come, back onto a plane and home to Nashville. She was a hell of an entertaining speaker and I didn’t want it to end.

My afternoon workshop was run by writer Richard Hoffman, called Starting From Solitude: Interiority and the First-Person Narrator. Again, I was able to apply a non-fiction perspective to my experience as a fiction writer. Much of the workshop consisted of Richard feeding his small audience (these rooms held no more than 50 people I’m guessing) writing prompts. I followed along with the exercise. He had everyone choose a particularly emotional time in their lives, reminding us that adolescence is usually a good place to start. And indeed, there I was scribbling away to prompts like, where are you? (Walking on the beach.) What have you just come from doing? (Going to church youth group.) Who are you with? (My dog). What advice do you have for this version of yourself. (Don't take everything so damn seriously, and to give himself a break.) Richard called on participants to read, and it was pretty amazing to hear these micro memoirs put together on the spot.

When Richard’s session ended, I went down to the registration desk. It was pretty quiet, so I spent some time looking over the selection of books brought by Porter Square Books. Many, if not all, of the authors who participated over the weekend were represented. I decided to take a chance on an author I’d never heard of, and found The Missing Person, a novel by Alix Ohlin, who was around Saturday giving a workshop on time travel in fiction. Then I talked to fellow volunteer Kathleen about writing and publishing. It was a great way to end the conference; just talking to another writer about writing.

If there’s a takeaway from the conference, it’s the knowledge that all writers, no matter their level of success, confidence, or technique, share a common task. Ann Patchett said, If you’re good, you’ll get published. The panel on the state of publishing echoed, If you’re good, you’ll get published. And the only way that’s going to happen is for any writer to take all this advice, go home, sit down, and get to it.