Thursday, January 28, 2010

Inaugural Post on Beyond the Margins

Today my first post is up on the group blog Beyond the Margins. It's called Outlines: Structure Vs. Stricture. Outlines have been both helpful and hurtful to my writing, and I tackle that thorny dichotomy in today's post. I've discussed the topic in past Unreliable Narrator posts, here and here.

Beyond the Margins has been live for almost two weeks, and we're getting great feedback. Some of the recent posts include Henriette Lazaridis Power's take on reading your writing aloud, in preparation of an audience or as way revising. E.B. Moore's lyrical cautionary tale about Internet addition. Necee Regis' insight into being a travel writer. Stay tuned tomorrow for Becky Tuch's post.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

An Evening with Randy Susan Meyers

An excellent time was had by all who gathered this past Thursday at Bella Luna restaurant in Jamaica Plain to see Randy Susan Meyers read from and sign her brand-spanking new hardcover The Murderer’s Daughters.

The back room of Bella Luna (the Milky Way) was packed with well wishers, friends, family, and fellow writers. Jenna Blum was on hand to introduce Randy to the crowd. Randy read a riveting section of her book, which is about two girls, Lulu and Merry, who witness the murder of their mother at the hands of their father.

After the reading, Randy signed copies of her book available for sale on-site courtesy of Newtonville Books. Not only that, all proceeds of the evening's book sales were donated to The Home for Little Wanderers' Harrington House.

A collection of some of the foreign covers for The Murderer's Daughters:

Proud book owner:

Many writers were spotted throughout the night, including Chris Abouzeid, Christiane Alsop, Nichole Bernier, Cecile Corona, Kathy Crowley, Ginny DeLuca, Stephanie Ebbert, Chuck Garabedian, Andrew Goldstein, Iris Gomez, Leslie Greffenius, Eric Grunwald, Javed Jahangir, EB Moore, Henriette Lazaridis Power, and Becky Tuch.

Here I am, chatting up a few lovely ladies of lit, including Stephanie Ebbert, Agent Stéphanie Abou, Jenna Blum, and Henriette Lazaridis Power:

It was a successful evening, and a great kick-off for Randy and The Murderer's Daughters.

Special thanks to Liz for being my personal photographer for the evening.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


Through an unusual but not unwelcome series of events, there's plenty to talk about today. So let's get down to it, Boppers!

New Blog!
I've been two-timing on the Unreliable Narrator with my new bloggy mistress, Beyond the Margins. Beyond the Margins is a group blog featuring the diverse experiences of twelve Boston-area writers from different backgrounds and disciplines. We'll be offering interviews, publishing tips, book reviews, and other articles on writing.

If you're a writer or a reader or just a curious web surfer, you'll find many topics of interest. We'll be posting each weekday and I'll be adding my perspective once every couple of weeks (don't worry, the Unreliable Narrator will continue as always).

Currently we have three posts up:

- Nichole Bernier interviews Newbery Awards judge Diane Bailey Foote who gives us the inside scoop on what makes for an award winning children's story.

- Kathy Crowley talks about her decision to write a novel from the perspective of multiple characters and the five lessons she's learned from the process.

- Randy Susan Meyers, always entertaining and enlightening, delivers the ten commandments for book launch day. Which is a perfect segue for...

The Murderer's Daughters, by Randy Susan Meyers

Today Randy’s book came out, following a wave of advance praise. Congratulations Randy! I was lucky enough to read some of her manuscript in a Grub Street class (and give her an exhaustive critique, from which I'm sure she cribbed many brilliant passages--anything I can do to help) and look forward to receiving my pre-ordered copy in the mail. Thursday I'll be covering The Murderer's Daughters book launch party. So stay tuned for full coverage of the event. I'm bringing my camera! Read my interview with Randy here.

First Guest Post Ever
I've been working on a guest blog post for fellow Beyond the Margins writer Henriette Lazaridis Power, and her blog The View Finder. The post is about revenge violence in the movies of Quentin Tarantino and Sam Peckinpah. Check out part 1. Part two will be posted Thursday. While you're there, be sure to browse through Henriette's other posts. She's a wonderful fiction writer and The View Finder is full of well-informed, thoughtful pieces on contemporary cinema, books, and language.

Monday, January 18, 2010

2009: The Year in Stuff, Part 2


It was hard to resist the one-two comedic punch of I Love You, Man and The Hangover. Both had irresistible stories. The Hangover especially had a narrative thrust that could not be denied: three groomsmen wake up the night after a bachelor party with the groom missing. The three can’t remember a thing, and spend the rest of the movie retracing their steps to discover the case of the missing groom. It deflates a bit when all the pieces start to come together, but for a time it’s the perfect movie, with delicious interplay between perfectly mismatched leads Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis. Flick’s wholly redeemed at the end when we’re finally shown photographic evidence of the missing night with a series of rivetingly filthy and hilarious snap shots.

I Love You, Man was aimed directly at guys aged 30-45. Paul Rudd plays Peter Klaven, an average guy in L.A. who, after he proposes to his girlfriend, realizes he has no male friends to be his best man. He begins a painful exercise in man-dating before he meets Jason Segel’s Sydney Fife, a relaxed, single uber-dude who shows Peter the ways of chilling, jamming, and all things Rush. It’s a hilarious love story of a dude and his new best friend.

When the credits rolled for Up in the Air, Liz turned to me and said, “Finally, a movie for adults.” Up in the Air was tailored for the past year of company layoffs, shutdowns, and pay and hiring freezes. George Clooney plays layoff consultant Ryan Bingham. Ryan flies the country firing employees with efficient, practiced lines. His world is shaken twice. First he falls for a fellow corporate jet setter. She’s a reflection of him, so naturally he’s attracted to her. Then at work he’s paired with a young woman who travels with him to learn why he’s so good at his job. Meanwhile his company initiates a new high-tech way of firing people. The film catches spot-on today’s corporate language and the effects company’s blind decisions have on employees. There are no explosions or anthropomorphized animals. The fun is generated from watching a well written character study about a man whose relationships with people and his job are forced to change.

Another movie for adults is A Serious Man, which falls within the Coen Brother’s domain of simultaneous comedy and drama. A Serious Man concerns Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish mid-America college professor in 1967 who finds his life upset by a series of significant events, including his wife leaving, his brother in legal trouble, and a bribe attempt by a student for a better grade. Larry struggles to impress reasoning onto his life while struggling to determine how his faith can help. There are some very funny moments, as in all Coen Brother’s films. It’s an interesting milieu and the movie is never boring. But the ending is indelibly marred by being ambiguous and truncated, while introducing an unforeseen act of nature (or is that God?) just before the credits. This may well hint that Larry’s trials will never end, but this moviegoer was hoping for more resolution.

Cringe when you see another star of the Twilight series on the cover of Entertainment Weekly? Yawn when HBO’s True Blood comes on? Park Chan-Wook's Thirst pumps new blood into that tired trope, the vampire movie. The setup is silly and circuitous—priest turns into a reluctant blood sucker after volunteering for an odd-ball church-run experiment. His new vampire lifestyle puts a real crimp in his old priest lifestyle. He hooks up with the repressed wife of a childhood friend. She’s nuts, he’s smitten; can you say eternal love? There are moments of levity, but also a few of unadulterated terror. Especially the scene when the couple’s friends, over for another game night, find themselves unwitting blood donors. From there things really get nihilistic.

Which movies tickled your toes and flipped your cookies last year?

Originally meant as a two-parter, I'm going for three parts. So, tune in next time when I take a look back at last year's music.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

2009: The Year in Stuff, Part 1

This end-of-year post isn't late, just well thought-out. What follows are synopses of books and graphic novels read and TV shows discovered in 2009. (Stay tuned for part 2: music and movies, and stuff that made me go Meh.)


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Many of the comic and gaming culture references leaped over my head, but Junot Diaz' story of a depressed, bull-headed, outcast who finds love with the very woman he should run from, is a sumptuous, heady look at one of the most unusual but vivid characters introduced in the aughts.

Mohawk. Richard Russo's tender, tough, surprising first novel vivisects the underpinnings and undoings of a small upper New York town at the end of its industrial era. A fading town, seething secrets, longing, and lust. Half-way through Russo tosses his characters in a cup, shakes them up, then jumps them a couple years ahead. I never knew what was coming, and that's all you can ask of a good read. The prose sometimes smacks of mid-80s work shopping, but is never dull.

Lost City Radio. A thinly-veiled look at contemporary Peru filtered through the story of an unnamed South American city. Daniel Alarcon's odyssey follows Norma, host of a radio program called Lost City Radio, who helps citizens find their relatives lost to jungle wars and political unrest. When her own husband goes missing, boy comes into her life who she thinks can help her uncover the truth. Harrowing, tender, and unforgettable.

2666. The paperback came out in 2009, although I already had the boxed set from 2008. I’m only partially through book four of six, the part about the crimes, but already 2666 is the opus that everyone claims. Richer and looser than The Savage Detectives, Bolano, in his final written work, leads the reader through hundreds of vignettes to shape a tapestry of yearning, forward motion, and loss.

The bravado of the prose is so grounded it keeps you reading even through descriptions of dozens of murders of women in the fictional northern Mexican city of Santa Teresa. And who is this mysterious writer named Archimboldi that a passel of critics are trying to track down? And why does his trail lead them to Santa Teresa?

Revolutionary Road. Stark, honest, naked, vicious. With this portrait of a young couple in the New York suburbs, Richard Yates rewrote the rules for how married characters think and act in literature. A glorious achievement that I will probably reread every few years to remind myself what writers are capable of. A template for how to construct a novel, and how to reveal layers.

Last Night at the Lobster. Stewart O'Nan's portrait of a snow-bound Red Lobster franchise during its last shift before shutting down. The day evolves in crisp detail through the point of view of Manny, the 35 year old restaurant manager. It's a novella, so there's no time for back story or flashbacks. This book doesn't need them. O'Nan clearly presents Manny's longing for a coworker while he simultaneously struggles to buy the perfect Christmas gift for his girlfriend. Quietly hopeful, and full of longing, small betrayals, and loves, this little Lobster delivers big (pull-quote of the year folks! I got a million of 'em).

Graphic Novels
Noir. An anthology of illustrated crime stories in stark but effective black and white, Noir brings together many wonderful contemporary storytellers working different angles of noir. Contributors include Ed Brubaker, Kano, David Lapham, Ken Lizzi, and novelist Chris Offutt. Here we have straight up crime stories of hitmen, kidnappings, robberies, and other shady dealings. Entertaining and thrilling, Noir packs small, lethal punches.

Filthy Rich. Set in 1960s New Jersey and Manhattan, Filthy Rich is a story of how an ex high school football star nicknamed Junk becomes the bodyguard/chaperone to the daughter of a powerful Jersey used car dealer. An assignment for which nothing good can come. Written by Brian Azzarello (also a contributor to Noir) with art by Victor Santos, Filthy Rich is a frenetic, sometimes elliptical tale supported by stylized black and white illustrations of tough brutes with square jaws, hot dames with soft lines, hard hearts, and big boobs. Nice retro feel to the dialogue and characterizations. One hitch to full enjoyment is how Santos' busy frames and fussy lines make many of the male characters look confusingly similar, and the smaller trade paperback-sized format hinders a full appreciation of each panel.

I finally allowed myself to get sucked into the wonderful world of Mad Men, that retro look at the workplace of mid-town Manhattan in the early 60s. Where men were encouraged to smoke, drink, and treat women like objects. And women were only beginning to find ways out of this trap. Mad Men avoids repetition with strong characterization, writing, and stories that never stray far from the strong atmosphere of an advertising company.

Something happened on Wednesday nights that I can’t quite explain: I became a fan of Cougar Town starring Courtney Cox as randy, goofy, selfish, charming real estate agent Jules. It’s a breezy show; each week the story lines concern nothing more than Jules worrying about crow's feet, looking younger, and hanging with her neighbors in a cozy Florida cul-de-sac where everybody has a swimming pool and it’s always sunny! Always! Courtney is gloriously game, and her comic timing, honed from years on Friends, runs circles around the rest of the very funny and believable cast.

What are some of the books you discovered last year? What TV shows can't you live without?

Stay tuned for Part 2!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

MIA: New Yorker's Winter Fiction Issue

I'm always interested in the fiction published in The New Yorker. Although I generally don't buy the New Yorker. It's a weekly! I can't be expected to keep up that kind of reading pace. But, there are historically two New Yorker issues that I'll buy without provocation: the summer and winter fiction issues. Two over-sized issues devoted to fiction. Ahhhh.

So imagine me standing around the Barnes & Noble stacks last month in a fugue of holiday shopping overstimulation, staring at the spine of the late December New Yorker that reads World Changers. I didn't even thumb through it. I barely touched it. There must be some mistake. What happened to the winter fiction issue? Turns out it's economics: The summer fiction issue will remain, but the winter issue has been downsized. All is explained here and here.

Goodbye winter fiction issue. You were my winter friend, my electric blanket of contemporary prose under which I warmed my chilly muse (you can Tweet that!). Reading you was like driving my rusted-out 79' Prelude through the nice part of literary town. Sure, I'll buy the summer fiction issue, but I'll have to pace myself, keeping some stories for the long haul through the coming winter.

Note to the New Yorker: Why not continue the winter fiction issue online? This gives you virtually unlimited space to publish as many stories, articles, and cartoons on writing as you can find. Just a thought.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

New Story in J Journal

To help me ring in the new year, on New Year's Eve two copies of the fall issue of J Journal arrived via the USPS. In it is my story, Younger Things. Arriving a couples weeks prior was an email from the editors of J Journal alerting me that they had nominated my story for a Pushcart Prize. Amazing. It's well into the first week of 2010 and I'm still pleasantly shocked that they chose Younger Things to help represent the journal for the Pushcart.

Each year editors of small presses can nominate up to six pieces of writing from their year's publications. Winners are published in the The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, which features fiction, poetry, memoirs, and essays selected from hundreds of little magazines and small book publishers. I think this is one time when saying it's an honor just to be nominated is spot on. I know I'm in great company no matter what happens.

Younger Things is the story whose editing process I discussed on this blog late last summer (Publishing 101) when the J Journal editors made revision suggestions during the story's acceptance process. The experience of making these kinds of edits was a new one, but was well worth it, helping the story transform for the better and see publication.

Based out of CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, J Journal is a specific breed of lit mag that offers new writing on justice, and "examines its subject through creative work, directly and tangentially." I'm not sure how my story, about a young man in love with a wild, at times dangerous older cancer patient, fits into this description. I'm just happy the editors found a place for my story in their journal. A special shout-out to my writing group from last year under whose eagle eye Younger Things first passed, and whose comments and suggestions helped shape the manuscript before I sent it out for publication.