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The Rope Swing: Stories by Jonathan Corcoran

Disclosure: this author, Jonathan Corcoran, is a repeating visiting faculty member at my MFA program, and one of my favorite people. I always aspire to tell you exactly what I think of a book, but I can’t claim objectivity here because I think Jon is wonderful.


That said, The Rope Swing is also a wonderful book. This is a collection of linked stories, sharing not characters, so much (although there are some glancing exceptions), but setting and theme. Most of the stories take place in a small town in West Virginia; the last two take place in New York City, where a native of the small town has resettled. Some of the stories are told in first person, some in third, and the first story, “Appalachian Swan Song,” is told in first-personal plural, using the ‘we’ pronoun. I appreciate this choice. This first story is really about setting the scene and the tone for the rest of the book: we are in a small town that is seeing a twilight of sorts, on the day the last passenger train leaves town. It is a mood of elegy, and with some conflicted feelings about the place. The use of a collective pronoun is perfect, because this story focuses on no person in particular, but on the town and its inhabitants collectively. In this story we see a few characters very briefly who will star in their own stories later; but this collection doesn’t follow anyone in particular. The title story, “The Rope Swing,” is referred to in a later story, but it’s a quick glance.

The theme-thread that unites these stories is the experience of LGBTQ characters in this particular setting. There are a few characters that the town acknowledges as a little different, like the florist, who was “funny, we knew, in a light green shirt and a darker green ties the color of a rose stem, but he was also harmless.” Others have a harder time, like the young man who leaves for New York City.

The strengths of the collection are as broad as these characters. Having heard Jon read a few times, I was not the least bit surprised to find lovely writing at the sentence level; he has clearly paid close attention to sound and rhythm and word choice. The small actions and attentions of his characters portray lots of personality economically. About a woman who has inherited the house of a close friend, who had in turn inherited it from his parents:

She had thrown everything out of the refrigerator. She didn’t care if the jam was good for another year; that jam didn’t belong to her. In this way, she had claimed dominion over an appliance.

The place as character is one of my favorite features of the book; I love a strong sense of place, as you know, but also it’s just so beautifully done here. The book opens, “We had forgotten how much we loved our mountains in the summertime.” Such a simple sentence, but it has a definite beat and lilt to it. And what follows is description; but description with momentum and pull, easy to read and easy to see and feel. Perhaps the key is that all the details–“young leaves of the maples and sycamores,” “rivers of meltwater sprint[ing] down the cliff faces”–are experienced by the ‘we,’ seen and heard and felt and thought and remembered, rather than just delivered to us as exposition.

This author knows how to use metaphor, as in this lovely image, when a grieving woman looks up at a tree:

But then, there was the thing she hadn’t noticed before: the end of that same branch had begun growing up again, at a right angle, the wood bending toward the sky.

But it’s not heavy-handed. My quick impression is that this is not a book that relies much on metaphor, but rather, it tells the world as seen and experienced, and leaves it to the reader to make meaning. That may be a deceptive impression. If I were to go back over these stories looking for literary devices or tricks like metaphor, I might find many. But their subtlety only speaks of their power.

I appreciate, too, how these stories are organized. As I work, this semester, to write a thesis in the form of an essay collection, I’m thinking a lot about organization. I have the impression that these stories come chronologically, although that feeling is somewhat loose, since we don’t follow a single character. The timeline feels organic, though. And most impressively (as I struggle through my own work!), there is a definite feeling of accretion: each story references oh-so-subtly what’s come before, builds on the details of the town or a single image from three stories ago, to increase its impact.

Clearly, a fine example of many skills: sentence-level writing, characterization, setting, subtlety in theme, organization and structure. I’m deeply impressed, and that’s not something I would say just because I like Jon. As a bonus, this is a region, and particularly a set of experiences within a region, that’s not been written about enough. Do check out The Rope Swing. It’s well worth your time.


Rating: 9 mottled leaves of the philodendron plant.

Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Since reading Yuri’s Signs Preceding the End of the World last summer, and then meeting the author and hearing him read, I’ve been looking forward to finding the time for more of this trilogy. As I left this summer’s residency, I should of course have been starting on the semester’s reading, but in transit I only had the books in my bag. Happily, this one.

Kingdom Cons was the first of the three books to be published in Spanish, and the third in English. These titles (second comes The Transmigration of Bodies, followed by Signs) form what Yuri Herrera calls a “loose” trilogy, so I’m not supposed to feel too bad about going out of order. They are so short, though, I’ll probably reread Signs in its proper position when the time comes.

Kingdom Cons is set in a similar world to that later novel, but without any overlapping characters, according to my memory. This one stars a man we first meet as Lobo (wolf), but who quickly takes on another name. The canine implication stays, though: he is repeatedly referred to as a stray. Lobo was a poor child whose parents (also strays) sent him out to earn a few coins as a street musician; he sings and plays the accordion, and most importantly, he writes lyrics. After his parents abandon him to this life, he develops his skills: music, writing, and the art of invisibility, of ingratiating himself to the right people. In the opening scene, Lobo performs in a bar while watching–admiring–a group of powerful men. It is clear to him who’s in charge.

He knew blood, and could see this man’s was different. Could see it in the way he filled the space, with no urgency and an all-knowing air, as though made of finer threads. Other blood.

…Then he saw the jewels that graced him and knew: he was a King.

Two observations from these first lines will be central: one, Lobo’s interest in and feeling for blood. And two, the epithets that identify all characters from here on out. The head man Lobo follows hereafter (a drug lord, a mobster, a leader) is the King. He employs men known as the Jeweler, the Journalist, the Heir, the Manager, the Traitor. Lobo will be known from here until nearly the end of the book by the title given to him by the King: the Artist. He moves into the King’s palatial compound, fulfilling a new role as court balladeer. He writes songs in praise of the King’s heroics. Completely uncynically, he feels lucky to be a part of something so good, and honestly worships the man in charge. But of course, the King’s rule will eventually be challenged.

The Artist did not do well in school, but his passion and gift for words in the form of song have served him well. At the King’s Court, the Journalist sees his need and gives him books to study. The Doctor gives him spectacles, so that he can see what he’s never seen before. He finds his first romantic and sexual experiences there, but the Girl did not choose this life for herself. In a way, the Court is a microcosm of the world; but in other ways, it is exactly what it seems on its face: a violent, greedy underworld in which girls are sold for a used car, and the King has no true friends really, except perhaps the Artist himself.

That makes it sound more heroic than it is. In the end, the Artists becomes just Lobo again, although he has learned to recognize his own blood.

I missed Lisa Dillman’s Translator’s Note in this book, but I remain pleased with her work; having read the Note in Signs I trust that the idiosyncrasies of her language here are faithful to Herrera’s. That is, the use of those epithets, the running pun of calling Lobo a stray, and the consistent spelling of ‘though’ as ‘tho.’ I marked many memorable lines. Lobo “thought that from now on there was a new reason why calendars were senseless: no date meant a thing besides this one.” Later, “endings and eccentricities were the most notable way to order time.” “People already knew the story, but no one had ever sung it.” “Maybe God put the needle on the record and then went off to nurse a hangover.”

Although more subtly than in Signs, I think one of the central themes in this book, again, is borders. Liminal spaces: not just the obvious border between the unstated country where this story is set and its neighbor to the norte, but the fragile transitional space Lobo hopes to cross between his street-hustling and the finer, deceptively safer, life in the Court; and the equally delicate lines walked by other characters in these spaces. Also like Signs, Kingdom Cons retains a slightly dreamy, mystic quality, as if this were a fable, or a myth to build a culture around. Again at less than 100 pages, what a world opens up. I can’t wait to get to The Transmigration of Bodies.


Rating: 8 sombreros.

The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg (Find Me) opens her second novel, The Third Hotel, in an atmospheric Havana. Clare has traveled from her home in upstate New York to attend the annual Festival of New Latin American Cinema. She is a sales rep in elevator technologies, but her husband was a film critic, specializing in horror. Clare has come alone on this trip intended for the two of them, and it is here, in this jumbled city of many faces, that she sees her husband again, navigating Havana with ease, “like he had not been struck by a car and killed in the United States of America some five weeks ago.”

The Third Hotel is part ghost story, part realistic portrayal of grief, part psychological thriller. What exactly Clare sees and experiences is up for debate. Her character appears on the outside to be ultra-normal: a boring salesperson with a suitcase packed neatly with toiletries for her work-related travels, and a content if distant marriage. But as the story develops, we see the fractures and skews in perspective. In the opening scene, Clare is removed from a conference reception for licking a mural. She shows a passion for both travel and silence, especially when they can be combined: “In a hotel room her favorite thing in all the world was to switch off every light and everything that made a sound–TV, phone, air conditioner, faucets–and sit naked on the polyester comforter and count the breaths as they left her body.”

This slightly tilted version of reality is told in perfectly realistic fashion, tempting the reader to simply accept each new development as it comes. While the novel’s action takes place in Cuba, flashbacks reveal details of Clare’s marriage and life in New York, her travels in the Midwest (she has a special love for Nebraska) and her upbringing in Florida: her parents were hotelkeepers, which puts her interest in travel into a new light. Further revelations hint at explanations for what is off-kilter in this story–chiefly, her husband’s impossible return from the dead–but in the end, The Third Hotel leaves much to the reader’s imagination or interpretation.

Van den Berg’s clean, descriptive prose brings full images and sensory detail to life without drawing attention to the writing. The shapeshifting city of Havana is a riveting character in itself, and contributes greatly to the atmosphere. The Third Hotel explores the oddities of travel and relationships; silence and noise; and the effects of past trauma. Like Clare, it is an engrossing, thought-provoking enigma.


This review originally ran in the July 9, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 breaths.

residency readings, part II


Note: I am just returning from residency this week and slowly reentering regular life (whatever that means). I’ll be back on regular comment response, etc., very soon. Thanks as always for your patience and for reading!


I see a pattern with Richard Schmitt, who tends to teach us about the mechanics of story: process, form, scene, plot, and now dialog. His reading packet was concise, comprising two short stories, by Katherine Mansfield and Sam Shepard respectively. They were excellent reading! I do recommend both: good examples of dialog, yes, but also just fast-paced good reading. I think these are exemplars of what dialog can do for story, and I’m looking forward to this seminar.

Surprise! The poetry segment went fine! Guest poetry faculty Remica Bingham-Risher assigned a packet of ten poems and a micro-essay, and they read easily–musically, of course, but also comprehensibly, which I found a rare treat. Her seminar is on “mining the spark,” or using research to “find inspiration but balance creativity with the facts.” I like this idea: inspiration in research, as well as groundedness and appropriate detail, but retaining the creative flair, too. Perhaps because these poems were so well grounded in reality (history, research, detail), they worked well for me, which you know is somewhat rare. I’m excited.

Nathan Poole (who wrote Father Brother Keeper – talk about making connections) assigned a nice variety of stories starring marginalized characters: Chekhov’s “Gooseberries,” Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” and Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” all worth reading and studying for their beauty and pain and detail and universality… but oh, the final story, “Kidding Season,” by Lydia Peele. I am nearly dead with heartbreak. I am upset with Peele, and upset with Poole for assigning this story. A fine piece of literature, I’m sure, but not for us tenderhearted people. I can’t take it. I’m devastated.

Nathan Poole, you have some talking to do at residency to make this up to me.

Doug Van Gundy assigned two chapters from Hugo’s The Triggering Town, which I rated highly but on this reading, I must say, I don’t remember there being so many pretty girls, emphasis on the prettiness (or not) of the girls, the importance of prettiness to girls and to men. Aside from that, I believe I can see where Doug is headed and I look forward to hearing more. His packet was completed by a perfectly lovely James Wright poem about places. (Doug’s seminar is “The Line in the Landscape”: right up my alley.)

And finally my dear friend Delaney McLemore, who is graduating at this residency and therefore teaching us a seminar on her way out, assigned a book AND a packet: always the overachiever! (I’m teasing. As she points out at the start of the readings, this book is under 100 pages, with pictures.) I dutifully reread Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, and I think I did get more out of it this time. I marked more lovely lines, like “…the yellow kitchens of our childhood, where Mama hung her flowered curtains every time we moved, as if they were not cotton but spirit.” I noted for the first time that this book began as a performance piece. I made some notes about the placement of pictures, in anticipation of Delaney’s seminar: she’s teaching on “art and artifacts,” and I know she has a special interest in photographs in particular. I didn’t really find that the photographs in this book did much more for me on this read than they did the first time, though: I think I’m liable to glance and skim past them. I’m interested in what she’ll teach us.

The essay she assigned, “Proof of Life: Memoir, Truth, and Documentary Evidence” by Carolyn Kraus, I found fascinating. Kraus writes of her work on a memoir of her father’s life, which was necessarily an act of speculation, because of how little she knew about her father. This gave her discomfort, and she searched first for the concrete, official, public sort of documentation that would both inform her work and give it legitimacy in the age of James Frey; but these documents were nearly nonexistent. She ended up with a collection of far more obfuscating private documents, which informed her work some, but better, gave her confidence. (And, of course, the story of seeking documentation, and the story of what she did and didn’t find and how it all happened, becomes part of the larger story, which is a feature in memoir I always appreciate.) It’s almost as if the mere existence of such documents, even if they don’t give much new information, adds something: look, here is his handwriting. He existed.

Finally, I did read the optional essay as well – “Telling Stories in Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure” – by Tim Dow Adams, and I’m glad I did. He had some thoughts in particular about the photographs that make me feel better prepared for this session.

I got to feeling that I was behind on my reading for this residency, but I wasn’t really – just behind my own usual schedule. By the time you’re reading this, residency has already concluded; but as I’m writing this, I’m really looking forward to it. I’m sure I’ll have a report for you soon, and I’m sure I’ll be enthused again about another semester – my last in this program. Thanks for following along.

residency readings, part I


Note: I am away for my residency period at school for two weeks or so. This is a previously scheduled post. I will respond to comments, but not as quickly as usual. Thanks for your patience, and thanks as always for stopping by.


As I’ve done before, I’m going to run through some of the reading I did to prepare for this summer’s residency. For more information, check out the schedule I’ll be keeping and the seminars I’ll be attending, including some information about assigned readings.

Going in order:

I tackled first Jon Corcoran‘s assigned packet of three stories by Alice Elliot Dark, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Flannery O’Connor. This was an easy, quick, and very enjoyable packet; all three stories were riveting. The O’Connor, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” was the only one I was familiar with, and my least favorite of the three, with its unpleasant characters and dark themes; I’m looking forward to having some guidance with this one. The stories by Dark and Le Guin were pure pleasure, even though they too involve some darkness. I loved the realism of “In the Gloaming” contrasted with the fancy of “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” with its twist at the end. The topic of Corcoran’s seminar is endings, and I struggle with this, myself, so I’m very much looking forward to it. (Although what I write are more essays than stories, less contained narrative – does this make my job harder? will his seminar offer me as much as it does the fiction writer?) Also, Jon Corcoran has been a visiting faculty member at our program before, and I liked him very much when we met last.

Next came Mesha Maren‘s packet for her seminar on language. I’m a fan of Mesha’s, too, and find her reading, speaking, and teaching very poised and impressive; I love language for its own sake, and I love a good neologism like ‘hishing’ (in her seminar’s title), so I came to this with anticipation. The packet opens with a 100-page book excerpt that nearly killed me, though. I think I took a week to read these 100 pages, which began so dry and (as far as I could tell) far from the content of this program that I thought maybe I was being pranked. It got better, but remained a challenge til the end. I am still trying to synthesize what I found in these pages from David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous.

This book strikes me as a sort of ecologic philosophy of language and especially of written language: what it means for humans to communicate as we do, in pre-historic/oral times and later, in what Abram calls alphabetic cultures. There are also different kinds of writing, from pictographic to rebuslike to the alphabet we know now, and the significant distinctions here are about how far away from sensorial the letters get: that is, from a pictograph that directly references a paw print or a cloud, to a letter like Q, referencing nothing (until you get into the history of the letter Q, that is). Abram is concerned with how far we get from nature and from a participatory, cooperative relationship with the more-than-human world. It gets to be interesting stuff, for sure, as arguments are presented for how oral versus written languages change how we think, as well as how we relate. In preparing for this seminar, I’ve made notes about the philosophies of Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Saussure, and Socrates, as Abram presents them. This excerpt was hard to get through because it’s rather academic in tone, and lacked context, starting in the middle as it did–except actually, it starts with chapter 2, on page 31. Maybe I needed whatever introduction Abram originally included. At any rate, I trust in Mesha to lead us through.

The rest of her packet looked up quite a bit. A lovely lyric piece by Susan Brind Morrow; a somewhat academic, impassioned piece on “The Language of African Literature” by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; some extraordinary stories by Ann Pancake, a West Virginia writer who I (shamefully) have still not read outside of assigned excerpts like this one. (From her astonishing “Wappatomaka” comes the title of Mesha’s seminar, “hishing in the riffle.”) Anne Carson’s essays and poetry weirded out on me a little. I think I can remember having trouble with her before. And finally, Raymond Queneau’s exercises in style, which were interesting and, mercifully at the end of this long packet, easy to take in. Wait no, one final piece by Georges Perec, but my brain was too tired for this absurdism. Again, I trust in Mesha, and look forward to her illumination of this wild collection.

Matt Randal O’Wain‘s radio essay assignments were a change. I listen to podcasts when I can (having put audiobooks on hold pretty much for the duration of this MFA program, as my brain can only hold so much), so this was friendly. I appreciated being able to “read” for school while I cleaned the house and cooked and stuff. And six of the seven assigned radio essays I found very enjoyable. In fact, I often forgot to look for craft, finding myself so involved in the stories presented by (for example) This American Life‘s “Unconditional Love,” or Howard Dully’s “My Lobotomy.” I’m really excited about what this seminar has to offer.

Next Jessie van Eerden‘s assigned readings in the epistolary form, which began gently with one I’ve read before, Jane McCafferty’s “Thank You for the Music,” which is lovely. Actually, every item in this packet was lovely, although naturally my comprehension broke down with the poetry midway through (sigh). I didn’t even break stride with the optional reading by Alice Munro, and I recommend that piece (“Carried Away”) as much as any in the packet. Thank you, Jessie, for such a transcendent, and easy to read, experience.

She also assigned some questions to consider while reading and a writing assignment too, though, and I found myself out of practice. But that was probably the point: good to stretch those muscles again, as I head off to school.

I’m going to break this terribly long post here, and continue next week with the rest of the assigned readings. By then I’ll be home from residency, but not yet recovered! so it’ll have to hold you over. Stay tuned for another wide-ranging collection of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, visual art, and sundry. Happy weekend, friends.

The Shades by Evgenia Citkowitz


Note: I am away for my residency period at school for two weeks or so. This is a previously scheduled post. I will respond to comments, but not as quickly as usual. Thanks for your patience, and thanks as always for stopping by.


In this atmospheric story, a grieving family splits, each suffering more or less alone, until a stranger comes to visit their mysterious old house and throws them off-balance even more.

Evgenia Citkowitz’s first novel (following a short story debut, Ether) is a captivating, mysterious story of family, love and grief. The Shades centers on Catherine and Michael, a year after their teenaged daughter, Rachel, died in a car wreck. Their son, Rowan, insisted on going away to boarding school immediately after losing his sister.

Catherine has withdrawn to the country, to the apartment in a subdivided manor where she and Michael had hoped to retire. She lets the mail pile up, doesn’t answer the phone and neglects her previously successful London art gallery. Meanwhile, Michael continues to work and live in the city, where he fails to find comfort in architecture–his passion–and tries to reconcile himself to his troubled marriage: “their lives ran parallel but never together or intersecting.”

The estate where Catherine has retreated is a focal point–this historic house whose design elements enchant her husband, but whose empty rooms, with both children gone, haunt her. When a young woman shows up at the door saying she used to live there, Catherine grasps at her like a drowning woman. In this potential for new friendship, she clearly sees a lifeline. But this visitor, whom Catherine calls simply “the girl,” may not be what she seems.

Catherine’s career as a tastemaker in the fine arts, and Michael’s in architecture and real estate, provide just a few of the many threads that combine for this story’s rich tapestry. The history of Catherine’s family (her father’s art, her mother’s instability); Rachel’s burgeoning romance, revealed only after her death; Michael’s courtship of the ever-aloof Catherine; Rowan’s attempts to carve out an identity for himself apart from his family: these are significant supports to Citkowitz’s plot. Strangely, that plot, involving the mystery girl and a flash-forward opening to the book that is not resolved until the final pages, is less sharply executed, less beguiling than the details that render this family so realistically. The meticulous portrayal of characters, the flaws and struggles in their relationships and a gloomy, atmospheric tone are the greatest accomplishments of The Shades.

A subtle plot element involves the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Orpheus tries to bring his beloved wife back across the River Styx following her death, but fails because he does not follow Hades’ instructions. Foreshadowed briefly by an opera at which Michael and Catherine’s romance began to bloom, this myth offers a lens for interpreting their grief, and the damage it will wreak on their family. Readers with a careful eye or a familiarity with mythology will recognize this thread; the rest will be none the poorer for having missed it in a novel rich with pathos and agony, but also simple humanity: love, loss, grief, hope and deceit.


This review originally ran in the June 8, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 lilting rhomboids.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, trans. by Ginny Tapley Takemori

A quirky novel about a convenience-store clerk who seems to be the ideal employee.

In the opening pages of Convenience Store Woman, Keiko Furukura is in her element, at work in the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart. She knows what the displays need, how properly to promote the day’s featured item, when the cold drinks need replenishing; she reads her customers expertly: “Instantly I deduce that he will use electronic money.” She is a valued employee and good at her job. The mingled beeps, dings, rustles and clacks of the convenience store form a “sound that ceaselessly caresses [her] eardrums.”

Few situations in Keiko’s life have been so easy. In primary school, she often responded to the world in ways others thought wrong: offering to cook and eat a dead bird on the playground, applying a shovel to the skull of a classmate in order to break up a fight. She wasn’t a violent child; these just seemed like practical strategies. She couldn’t understand why the teachers at school got upset. Life presented a series of puzzles she could not decipher, until the day she went to work at the Smile Mart. The convenience store offers Keiko a uniform, a series of set lines to be spoken to customers and a manual for staff behavior. She copies her coworkers’ choices in clothing and cosmetics, mimics their speech patterns and facial movements, and learns to play the part. She’s never felt so successful: no one notices that she’s different anymore. “Here in the convenience store we’re not men and women. We’re all store workers.” And so she has been a store worker for 18 years.

Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata’s English-language debut, is a compelling novel about conformity in society, and the baffling rules applied in work and life. Murata’s protagonist is likable, if a bit baffling herself. Ginny Tapley Takemori’s translation feels just right for the slightly off-kilter reality of this thought-provoking story: Keiko’s first-person narrative is earnest, if continually challenged, in attempting to decode the world around her.

Keiko is attuned to the ways people act, speak and move; she suspects they are all imitating each other, just as she is imitating them. She studies these behaviors to lower her own profile, but remains honestly unclear why careers, marriage and children are desirable goals. When a new employee comes along who also has trouble fitting in–but who hasn’t mastered the act as much as Keiko has–she is intrigued. Tired of everyone questioning her lack of a husband or a “real job,” Keiko takes a risk. But it may cost her the carefully constructed mask she’s learned to wear.

This brief, brisk novel is an engrossing adventure into an unusual mind. Is it a subversive, satiric criticism of societal norms? Is it a surrealist take on extreme workplace culture? Or simply the perspective of a woman wired a little bit differently? Murata holds the reader rapt, wondering what Keiko will do next. Convenience Store Woman is for all kinds of readers, for anyone who’s ever questioned the status quo.


This review originally ran in the May 21, 2018 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 rice balls.
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