Black Tickets by Jayne Anne Phillips

I read this book for its structure: a short story collection with some longer pieces, of as many as 20 pages, but a number of shorter ones, just a page or two. With my advisor this semester, Jessie van Eerden, I am considering a similar structure for my thesis: interstitial pieces in among long ones. (I also read Jessie’s own thesis from her MFA program, which was awfully wonderful and I wish I could review it here for you! Also with the interstitial pieces, and so lovely. But as it’s not published, I guess I’ll leave it at that.) I was also glad to read Jayne Anne Phillips because she is important to West Virginia’s literary legacy. And she is from Buckhannon, where my own West Virginia Wesleyan College is located.

This is a beautiful and impressive collection in its effect. I found myself lost and involved in each story, one of those reading experiences where you forget where you are, look up baffled by the everyday world around you, thinking you were really in a dark bar in El Paso or walking the streets of an unnamed town decades ago. This effect makes it hard for me to analyze the craft of the book itself, but it is certainly to be admired. While these stories are, I think, unconnected, they share themes: the types of characters and the types of settings are all rough-hewn and struggling. Dwight Garner’s review in The New York Times calls these “lush, violent, elegiac and sexually charged worlds,” and he writes that this book “would help light the landscape of the so-called dirty realists (Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Richard Ford, Phillips and others), though the adhesive has pretty much come off that label.” I am turning to Garner’s words in part because this book so challenged me, and in part because I love that idea, the adhesive coming off the label.

Here is menace, violence, and sex, a good amount of it menacing and violent sex. It’s about loneliness and despair and the odd, quiet contentment. I’m not sure what to think, actually. And as to my original reason for reading Black Tickets – to examine its structure – I’m a bit lost, too. I would say the shorter stories contributed to the overall themes, tone, impression that make this book so strong. So did the longer ones.

How different is a story collection from an essay collection? What explains my difficulty here? If I find out, I’ll let you know.


Rating: 7 Ripple bottles.

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.

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.

residency readings, part II

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


Continuing Wednesday‘s post…

I already reviewed Eric Waggoner’s assigned book, Line by Line. In a word, I didn’t find it a very interesting cover-to-cover read! More of a reference book.

Jeremy Jones‘s packet was, I felt, an ideal example of pre-residency reading. For one thing, I appreciate that it was brief! (I was asked to read some 400+ pages for this residency, including my peers’ work that required in-depth response, and watch three movies and view additional material online.) But also, I felt that the selection of works he assigned were an excellent overview to his topic, and read like an introduction to his seminar. This packet, for a seminar on “writing about other people,” includes essays on the topic from a more academic, instructive point of view as well as personal reports by writers with experience writing about close friends and family, and the fallout. The final piece is Jeremy’s own, and I am looking forward to his promise to “talk through changes [he] made and reactions the ‘subject’ had about drafts and the final product.”

I enjoyed that Richard Schmitt’s package was much like him: pithy and to the point. He assigned three enjoyable short stories by Alice Munro, Flannery O’Connor, and Ernest Hemingway, respectively. Richard’s seminar is about “the art of leverage,” or power shifts in narrative, and these three stories look like great examples of that. I can’t wait. Also, I love anyone who requires me to reread Hemingway.

Rebecca Gayle Howell is teaching a seminar on “the documentary imaginary,” and I have no idea at time of writing what that means. She assigned three movies, three websites, and several readings. (You’ve already seen the movies reviewed here.) As I moved from Deliverance to The True Meaning of Pictures, I noted my clear preference (not for the first time) for literal and explicated narratives. I’m thinking about the discomfort that poetry brings me, because I can’t understand exactly what the poet meant at all times; where I love a memoir or an essay in which the narrative voice tells me precisely what she’s up to. In the same way, I guess Deliverance as an assigned viewing offered lots of possibilities for what we’d be discussing in class. But The True Meaning said what it was about. It discussed what it wanted to discuss, right there on the page, if you will. I felt much more comfortable with that content. Sherman’s March was a different experience, as I’ve already said.

The readings that Howell assigned were intriguing. Let me repeat, at the time of writing these lines, I remain confused about the topic of her seminar. Some of this confusion has got to come from the fact that I am in the minority in this program (whose tagline is “write in the heart of Appalachia”) as an outsider to the Appalachian region. I read the first three chapters of a novel called Mothering on Perilous (what a title!!), and I enjoyed them enough to wish I had time to read the rest, although I knew no more than when I’d started about Howell’s seminar. And then I read an essay called “McElwee’s Confessions,” which I commented on briefly in the comments section of my review of Sherman’s March. This essay is an appreciation of McElwee’s work, and while it did not convince me, it does help me to acknowledge–somewhat grudgingly–that there is more to it than I found in the one film. The essay’s author is familiar with the whole body of McElwee’s work, which I’m sure helps. And not everything is for everybody.

Finally, Howell assigned three websites for viewing: an audio interview with James Dickey (poet and author of Deliverance the novel); a gallery of Doris Ulmann’s photography; and the project “Looking at Appalachia.” That last captivated me. I highly recommend taking a good chunk of time to look through these photographs. The concept is dear to my heart, something like what I was up to at Defining Place, which has gone dormant. “Looking at Appalachia” is my new favorite thing.

Finally, Vicki Phillips’ assignment of Jane McCafferty’s brief “Thank You for the Music” was a touching read. I’m still trying to decide which of the graduate seminars to attend in that final slot, and this lovely little story made it that much harder.


Obviously it was a full and enriching experience just preparing for all these classes. And nothing here reflects the fact that I also spent time preparing for workshop: I read about 20 pages each of four of my peers’ work, and submitted about 20 pages of my own, and during residency we’ll be doing in-depth small-group discussion of those pieces (and exchanging written responses and marginalia). It is an intense time, in every sense. Thank you for being patient with me. As of now, I’m back home and readjusting to home and work life, getting to know my little dogs again and doing laundry–and, of course, getting to work on assignments for the semester. I look forward to hearing from you and reengaging. Life is ever a whirlwind. Again, thanks for your patience.

residency readings, part I

Note: I’m out of pocket during my residency period at school. I love your comments! But it may take me several days or a week or more to respond. (As this post was written pre-residency, I’m using a future tense for seminars that have by now taken place.)


I posted last month about the readings (etc.) I’d be doing to prepare for this upcoming semester and residency. As I worked my way through the assignments, I wanted to share a few highlights and my general impressions. Again, you can take a look at the readings and seminar descriptions here.

In order of appearance, and therefore the order in which I read and viewed them:

Because of my longstanding problem with poetry, the packet assigned for Diane Gilliam’s seminar on “reading as a writer” was fairly mysterious to me, though not unenjoyable–I just didn’t know what I was supposed to get out of it. Maybe I’m too much a control freak for poetry. Because the contents of her packet weren’t spelled out at the link above, I’ll just list the poets here. It included works by Louise McNeill, T’ai Freedom Ford, Theodore Roethke, *William Stafford, *Ross Gay, Eavan Boland (author of “The Black Lace Fan” that I remember studying in high school), Li-Young Lee, *Lauren Rusk, W.S. Merwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, *Audre Lorde, Charles Simic, and *Eleanor Wilner. (My favorite poems were by the *asterisked names.)

Jessie‘s assigned readings for “writing in the gaps” included an excerpt from Housekeeping (so at least I was a little familiar, if also ambivalent); a craft essay I really enjoyed by Andrea Barrett that had plenty of personal essay to it as well; and, among other things, Albert Goldbarth’s essay “Fuller.” That last was a reread, and I got so much more out of it this time. Jessie is smart, and deep, and I have no illusions that I am grasping the point of her seminar yet.

Next was Katie Fallon’s packet, which I loved and swooned over, although it was indeed hard emotional stuff. It begins with Maggie Smith’s poem “Good Bones,” a poem I felt I got. Brian Doyle’s “Leap” was a reread but an always-welcome one. “NeVer ForgeT” by Matthew Vollmer resonated with me in many ways, especially when he meditated on the distances we feel from tragedies close to home, and the different ways we mourn. And though I loved everything in between, the final piece, Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” always stands out. I’ve read it a number of times now, though I haven’t written much about it. I had such a wild time with it again on this reading that I had to amend my “best of the year” post to put it at the very top. I felt close to Katie as I read this packet, too, knowing her as my first semester’s advisor, and knowing from reading her Cerulean Blues of her own experience with trauma. I am very interested in her seminar on “writing personal responses to public violence,” and I imagine that teaching it will cost her something, but I also know she has a lot to teach.

Jacinda Townsend’s packet of magical realism blew my mind. I guess I should be reading more of this stuff?! I loved Byatt’s “A Stone Woman,” and then the next and the next and the next. This was not the first enjoyable reading of the residency assignments, but it was the first time I lost myself. Go find these stories immediately! Wow. I’m really looking forward to this seminar.


That’s all for now–this began as a single really long post but I’ve taken pity on you. Come back on Friday to read about the rest of my assigned readings for this residency period. Thanks for sticking around!

The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke, trans. by Carlos Rojas

Two novellas translated from the Chinese offer plucky characters in terrible situations, simply but poetically portrayed.

The Years, Months, Days contains two novellas by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas. The title story, featuring just two characters, opens: “In the year of the great drought, time was baked to ash; and if you tried to grab the sun, it would stick to your palm like charcoal.” All the other residents of a tiny mountain village have fled, but an old man known only as the Elder does not think he’d survive the trip. He stays behind, with a blind dog for companion, to tend a single stalk of corn, in the hopes that when the villagers return, the kernels he nurtures will restart their community. In this stark tale, he speaks to the corn and the dog and his departed neighbors, alternately cursing and hopeful, and does battle with rats, wolves and the sun itself. As the food and water available to man and dog dwindle, every day becomes a fight for life.

The second novella, “Marrow,” is also about a grim struggle for existence. The father of four disabled children, out of guilt for his heredity, kills himself, leaving his wife to raise them alone. His ghost remains to accompany his wife and converse with her, in a twist that could be magical or merely her fantasy. When their children grow up, she works to find them marriages and homes of their own, despite their problems and the ill will of the villagers. Finally she discovers that there is a cure for their poor health and bad luck–but it involves the bones of direct relatives. When only her youngest is left at home, she devises a way to reinterpret his disturbing appetites for the better.

The common themes of these bleak stories are clear: hunger, solitude, the searing strain of existence. In a brief, insightful translator’s note, Rojas observes that Lianke’s work often transforms such abstract needs into literal ones. Indeed, the author’s descriptions are synesthetic: smells “roll noisily”; gazes produce a “crackling sound”; and a wolf’s roar is purplish-red. In a spare but artful style, Lianke presents the sun’s rays as physical realities, which have measurable mass and can be cut or shattered. His characters inhabit a bleak, harsh world. In bitterly hard circumstances, they show courage and ingenuity, defiance and grace. His renderings of real-world desolations are imaginative and wondrous; these austere fables are minimal, but beautifully composed. The Years, Months, Days is for readers who appreciate grim lessons, magical realism and lovely, lyric prose.


This review originally ran in the November 17, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 yelps like blades of green grass.
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